I came home from a short book tour this summer to find that my daughter’s two bookcases had both been emptied of anything having to do with Judaism or Hebrew. I looked around and found the titles on the top shelf, far out of our toddler’s reach, their spines turned in so that the books were unidentifiable.
"Dear," I said to Mohamed, my husband, "The bookcase has been ethnically cleansed."
Mohamed didn’t find my joke amusing. He narrowed his green eyes and shot me a look.
I apologized. I’d been loose with my words. In our Jewish-Muslim, politically correct home - a mini one-state solution, if you will - we’re careful with language. Mohamed doesn’t talk about "al yahud" because he wants it to be clear - he doesn’t have a problem with Jews or Judaism. He takes issue with Zionism.
Likewise, I don’t say things like "terrorist" or "terror attack." I try to use the more neutral "militant." Still, I can’t bring myself to use the clinical-sounding "operation" for acts of violence. It was especially difficult for me to find words for things during the so-called "Knife Intifada," when the "operations" were little more than desperate cries for help, carried out by youth very much like the freshmen I’d taught at a Palestinian university.
Now I found myself again without a perfect phrase for the situation at hand. Ethnic cleansing was a poor choice of words. But facts were facts: Tiras Ham (“Hot Sweetcorn”) and all the other Hebrew books I’d bought for our daughter when I was in Tel Aviv, waddling around with my pregnant belly, were all gone, as were the stories about the Jewish holidays.
They’d been singled out, purged from the shelves, one by one, to be cordoned off, isolated. Only her Arabic and English collections remained - bright, colorful board books that feature animals and rhymes.
"Nu," I gestured to the bookcase. "What happened?"
Mohamed confessed that he’d put the books away. "It’s too much. Jewish school in the morning, these at home," he pointed to the top shelf. "She’ll be confused about who she is."
Who is she anyways? Our daughter was born in America, on neutral ground. Though she holds a U.S. passport, when we last visited Palestine, Israel -whatever you want to call the place - Mohamed registered her as a West Banker. When the time comes, she’ll get a green ID card, and not the blue card Israeli citizens carry.
But, at the end of the day, she’s my daughter. And when I look at her, I can’t help but see a Jewish girl. Why, I wondered aloud, can’t she be both - Jewish and Palestinian? Wasn’t this exactly what we both believed in?
Mohamed, who considers himself secular, shook his head. “All this religion. I don’t want her to have anything pushed on her.” He’d never have dreamed of sending her to a Muslim school. Now he feels like he needs to provide our daughter with an Islamic education, just to counteract all the exposure to Judaism.
I wondered if that’s what one state would look like—rather than the blending of two peoples that we’d imagined, would the two sides only antagonize each other, leading to more radicalization as they wrestled for the nation’s identity?
"Since when are you so religious anyways?" he asked.
"It’s not religion. It’s culture," I argued, adding, "Since when are you such a militant?"
I reminded Mohamed of our courtship, when we used to celebrate the chagim together. He’d read up on the holidays and would arrive at my place in Bethlehem armed with research. Though he often mixed them together - "This is the one where you light all the candles, right?" he’d asked on Rosh Hashanah, confusing it with Hanukah - I loved that he was curious and made an effort. Similarly, I read the Quran cover to cover not once but twice—which is two times more than my husband.
We used to talk, excitedly, of the parallels between Judaism and Islam. We used to teach each other Hebrew and Arabic, never missing a chance to make connections between the two languages.
"That was before we had children," Mohamed countered.
Fine. I could see his point that Jewish school in the morning and Jewish books in the afternoon was a little too much Judaism. But what about Hebrew? "What’s wrong with Tiras Ham?" I asked.
"I can’t have my daughter coming up to me saying 'Shalom, Baba.'"
I didn’t ask why because I already knew. As much as I argued that Hebrew was something separate from Zionism, no matter how many times I told Mohamed about my great grandmother - an immigrant from Poland who’d lived on New York’s Lower East Side and a fervent anti-Zionist who refused to let my grandfather go fight in the 1948 War - had recorded our family’s births and deaths in her neat Hebrew script. As much as Mohamed listened to me with an open heart and tried to detach the language from the political situation, he couldn’t.
He couldn’t forget the moment during the Second Intifada when a soldier put the barrel of a gun between his eyes and, in Hebrew, threatened to put a bullet in his head. He couldn’t forget the Hebrew he’d heard at checkpoints, he couldn’t ignore the Hebrew on his green ID, the Israeli-issued document that restricts his freedom of movement, making a normal life next to impossible.
And it was Hebrew speakers who had detained, interrogated, and tortured Mohamed’s father, a member of the PLO, in the 1970s; it was those same Hebrew speakers who subsequently expelled Mohamed’s father from the West Bank, separating him from the land on which he’d been born.
There was also the truth that neither of us wanted to face, the thing neither of us could bring ourselves to admit aloud: that as long as there is a conflict, it could be dangerous for our daughter to speak the "wrong" language in the wrong place. That was a constant pressure I’d endured when I’d lived in Bethlehem.
In the end, we came to a compromise - an agreement that neither of us is fully comfortable with, a sign of a good deal, indeed. As long as our daughter is attending a Jewish school, I would keep the books tucked away. In the future, when she attends secular schools, we can do Judaism at home.
Hebrew is another story.
Because I intended to honor my side of our agreement, the books stayed on the top shelf, their spines turned in so as to render them unrecognizable. But I couldn’t bring myself to cancel the subscription that had sent the Jewish titles to our home in the first place. The books are free, after all, and who can pass up a free book?
When another arrived in the mail last week, I stood by the mailbox - our daughter seated in her stroller before me, our newborn son strapped to my chest - eagerly ripping the blue and white envelope open. The paper gave way to reveal a story about Sukkot, my favorite holiday. I flipped through the book, sad that I couldn’t share it with my little girl, and then tucked it away in the stroller’s undercarriage. We continued on to the park across the street.
I did my best to keep up with my daughter as she climbed ladders and glided down slides. She found it hilarious that I was doing all of this with the baby’s head peeking out of a wrap. But eventually she bored and sauntered about the park, examining acorns, ants, and grains of sand. Stopping alongside her stroller, she noticed the new title in the undercarriage, pointed, and gave an excited shout, "Book!"
Our daughter loves reading. How could I explain to her that this book was off limits? I tried to draw her attention back towards the slides. But she was done with them.
"Book!" she insisted.
Guiltily, I pulled it out from the stroller. I sat on the aluminum bench and she climbed up onto the seat next to me. I read the book to her. When I finished, she tapped the cover and said "This?" her way of asking me to do something again. So I we read it again.
"This?" she said.
I ached as I read the book to her a third time, the words on the pages leading me through the holiday - building the sukkah, decorating it, enjoying meals under the thatched roof.
"This?" she asked. I hesitated. It was time to go home. I needed to cook dinner. My son was less than two weeks old; I was still recovering from the delivery.
But we stayed on that bench anyway. As long as we were out here, I reasoned, this was okay. I could read the book to her. Once we went home, I promised myself, I’d put it away, standing it next to the others, turning its spine in.
Mya Guarnieri Jaradat is a journalist, writer, and the author of The Unchosen: The Lives of Israel’s New Others. She is currently working on a memoir about her time in Bethlehem. Twitter: @myaguarnieri
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