This week, for the second time in little more than two months, I stood anxiously waiting in Terminal 4 of John F. Kennedy International Airport for a daughter to arrive on Emirates Airlines’s morning flight from Dubai. Dubai! I don’t think I even heard of Dubai until I was 40, and now my kids are intimately acquainted with its airport. How did this happen?
The short answer is that one daughter spent spring semester studying public health in Kenya, another daughter spent two months of summer break studying Arabic in Jordan, and Emirates has the cheapest flights from Nairobi and Amman (above).
The longer answer is that, although I’m sure my children are not wholly typical, they do represent a new kind of young Jewish woman: One who is unafraid of confronting the world as she is. What I find fascinating about my daughters — and their older sister, who made her college passion learning Italian, as foreign to our family as Swahili — and their cohort is that they are flinging themselves into cultures where it’s difficult to be a Jew, without hiding or minimizing their identity or, in some cases, their religious practices.
I’d like to believe that this is due, in part, to how they were raised. Although my husband and I did not grow up in such an advantaged (or globalized) world, we always valued learning about foreign cultures and people. We have traveled with all the girls to Europe, Israel, and Africa. I was one of the very first mothers to be a foreign correspondent, and while only my oldest daughter was alive at the time, the experience entered our family’s DNA, a template for what could be.
The other reason may sound counterintuitive, but I’m more and more convinced it’s true: They were all educated, from gan to 12th grade, in Jewish day schools. The rap on sending your kids to school with only other Jews is that they’ll become ghettoized, uninterested or incapable of dealing with the broader world, captured in a Jewish bubble that constricts their future.
Just the opposite. By giving them a firm foundation in history, culture, text, and language, they are less afraid of asserting themselves than if their identity was wobbly or based on very thin ground, as unfortunately is the case with too many American Jews. So one daughter could read a prayer book when she went to synagogue in Italy. Another could explain the tenets of our religion to Africans who had never heard of Jews. And another could stand her ground in open dialogue with Jordanians who questioned the history of Jewish sovereignty in what is now Israel.
Sure, they test the boundaries of Jewish thought and practice when they’re overseas, eating non-kosher food, ignoring our family’s Shabbat traditions, dating non-Jews (and I’m sure I don’t know the half of that…) That’s what young adulthood is for. As I vicariously live through each of their experiences, I grow more comfortable in knowing that they know who they are, and can represent their Jewishness to others with the specificity and confidence that can only come from a solid background and education.
My dearest friend at home, the child of Holocaust survivors, also sent her children to the same schools as mine attended. (We became close by carpooling, naturally.) Her oldest daughter has lived in Beijing for the last three years, and last fall had the confidence — the chutzpah? — to build a sukkah in a city not exactly known for its Jewish population or for random acts of individual innovation. I just love that image, of a young woman constructing a physical representation of who she is, in the most foreign of environments. If these are the Jews of the future, then maybe it’s okay for them to leave their anxious parents for far-flung adventures.
As long as they come home.