I believe that what we fear makes us stronger, not by vanquishing fear in dramatic moments of conflict, but by living day to day despite the fears that haunt us.
On Friday night, I sat in synagogue with my family enjoying a beautiful musical service optimistically named “Rock Shabbat.” (Presumably the appeal of the more accurate “Folk Shabbat” would never spread beyond the aging-hippie demographic.) Even I, with my agnostic-leaning beliefs and cynical detachment, found myself swept up in the sense of communal joy and celebration.
At one of the more solemn points in the service, when the music slipped into a quieter, sadder mode, my nine-year-old daughter suddenly turned and buried her face in my jacket, her arms clasping me tightly.
“Mommy,” she said, her voice muffled by wool, “I just thought of the Nazis and I’m scared.”
I have no idea what brought that on at that particular moment. It’s not something she’s ever said before, even during occasional dinner-table discussions of the Holocaust and World War II. But at that moment, I had no doubt that my daughter was sincerely terrified, her innocent soul gripped with a fear the cause of which she couldn’t possibly fully grasp.
In an instant, my blissful bubble of well-being popped as I put my arms around my little girl and held her as tightly as decorum would allow. There were tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat, because at that moment, I, too, thought of the Nazis – and I was scared.
The fear washed over me in waves of image and sound: My father’s tale of watching Berlin citizens pay two pfennigs to walk on the Torah scroll rolled out on the sidewalk in front of a burning synagogue on Kristallnacht; heaps of emaciated corpses seared into my childhood memory by repeated viewings of Night and Fog on Holocaust Remembrance Day at school; the story of my two great aunts who died on a train en route to the concentration camps; the stench of death that lingered in the crematorium of Auschwitz when I visited the death camp more than three decades after the last body was incinerated there.
I hugged my daughter tightly as I blinked back the tears. I am her mother, her protector. If my love has any power at all, such horrors will never touch her. “You’re safe,” I whispered, trying not to think about all the parents in Europe and throughout the world who have whispered those words to a frightened child, willing the words to be true, infusing them with love and courage regardless of the circumstances.
The moment passed, and my daughter and I allowed a new, more cheerful melody to restore our good spirits.
And so we go on, believing in the power of love and the goodness of the universe despite our fears. Some part of me knows I am a fool for promising what is not in my power to guarantee. But another part of me wouldn’t have it any other way.
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