To protect has always seemed to me to be the first duty of the parent. Living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, with my husband and three young children, I knew what it was I wanted to shield my children from: violence, fear, social disorder so profound that it would unsettle their very sense of safety in the world.
Last year, when I began to volunteer in an inner-city school in Detroit, my challenge was not to explain to my own children the violence the Detroit kids faced on a daily basis — that did not even occur to me to discuss; it was way too scary. Instead, I had to confront the unbearable injustice of limited opportunity, as well as the effects of an inheritance of racism. It was painful to me to talk with my eight-year-old daughter about the fact that the Civil Rights movement, which she had studied, had left some problems unsolved. “Til today?,” she asked, in disbelief.
In late August, my husband, Ori, and I took our children to Israel, where we planned to spend a sabbatical year. Both of us had lived there previously, Ori for eight years, serving a full-term in the army in the early 1990s, and myself for two years in the same era, with many summers spent in Israel since. I was also born in Israel to American parents who lived here at the time, and my grandparents and paternal aunt and her family all made their lives here. My children have all visited before, too. They speak and understand Hebrew to varying degrees, and when we were still living in Ann Arbor, they attended schools that were replete with Israel-activities and study.
My son, Shai, was born on January 21, 2007 and two days later, in time for our arrival home from the hospital, a heavy cardboard box arrived in the mail. University of Nebraska Press had sent me 20 copies of my first book, “Houses Of Study: A Jewish Woman Among Books,” which I had been writing for much of my adult life. Here it was, in hardcover. My first thought was to give one as a gift to our friend Alicia, who had served as our doula at our daughter’s birth in 2004, and had attended Shai’s birth as well.
How connected the book was to birth — its last section seemed unwritable until I had given birth to my first child, Priya, and had learned to be a mother to her. Getting married to Ori helped the book along, but having a child seemed like the natural conclusion to years of mulling, living and writing. We write books to those living next to us, breathing our air with us, but we write and we read, also, to imagine that messages travel down through the generations.
Here was my book, which had been waiting for a baby to be born to be ended and, apparently, had been waiting for another baby to arrive to begin circulating.
And yet: A book is so different than a child.