It was bound to happen.
“Give it back!” my son angrily yells, as his kippah flies from one hand to the next.
“Give. It. Back!” he says again, helpless, as the boys, bigger and meaner, laugh louder.
“Give it back!” a new voice interjects, and a long brown arm snatches Judah’s kippah from the reach of a bully. He hands it to Judah, glaring at the boys. “Here.”
“Thanks,” Judah replies, slapping his kippah back on his head crookedly as the two head towards the blacktop.
“They’re jerks,” Melek* offers in consolation, and Judah nods in reply.
Of course I wasn’t there, so I can only imagine how the story went. I heard it secondhand when I picked him up from school.
“Do you think Melek can come to the amusement park with us?”
“Do you think his parents will care I’m Jewish?”
“Maybe I shouldn’t tell.”
“Judah…your name has the word ‘Jew’ in it. If they cared, I think you’d know.”
He thinks about it. “Oh,” he says sheepishly. “Right.”
On the other side of the world, Israel is raining bombs on Gaza. Here in Denver, an eight year old Arab is sheltering a Jew.
Bless this child’s mother, whoever she is. It’s not the first time Melek has come to Judah’s rescue. My son, once popular at Jewish day school, is now miserably lonely in fourth grade. Melek is the only one who sits with him at lunch, plays with him at recess, talks to him at gym class. The boys bonded over Pokemon. It really was that simple.
I speak to his mother the next day. Does Melek want to spend the night? Does he have any allergies?
“We, um, he don’t eat the pork…but we know your food is okay.”
“We eat Kosher-style, but I don’t always buy certified Kosher. I can get it, though.”
“Just no pork products.”
There’s an awkward silence. “We know you’re Jewish,” she finally says. We don’t mind.”
I feel relieved and uncomfortable at the same time. “Me, either. I was hoping that wouldn’t be an issue. Melek has made a new school tolerable for Judah, and I think it’s good for him to have friends from…different backgrounds.”
“Yes, we think so, too. The other Jewish boys, they don’t play with Melek.”
“They don’t talk to Judah, either. He likes Pokemon and Mario Brothers and they play Call of Duty and have iPhones.”
“I know. All the kids at school! Melek tells me Judah is a good boy, and I think he’s a good boy, too.”
“He’s definitely a good boy.”
“I hope, I hope the boys can be friends. I tell Melek, Jews and Arabs can be friends. He says to me, ‘Why on the TV, it’s always, Yisrael, Yisrael?’
And I tell him, not all Jews are bad.”
I wince slightly, but I suppose I’ve said the same thing to Judah. Not all Arabs are bad.
Melek’s mother is from Iraq, and she brings with her the Middle Eastern hospitality I like to be spoiled with. She hands me a large picnic bag, filled with juices, fruit, sandwiches, and bags chips. “If you call me before you leave the park, I’ll make you a pizza.” I try to resist, but she’s not hearing it. I’m trying to remember if my Israeli friends give me this much food, and I decide not. Is this an Iraqi thing or is this woman just amazing?
Melek is a little nervous. It’s a rollercoaster, and it’s big. He’s never been on one before, and he’s biting his lip.
“Do you want me to go on it with you? Judah has ridden this a dozen times. He’ll sit alone.”
“I can ride with Judah,” he says. “Well, okay. Maybe I can ride with you.”
“Sure thing. I’ll tell you every part of the roller coaster in advance, so it’s not so scary. And if you change your mind, just let me know. We don’t have to do this one.”
“I got it.”
As the car inches up, up, up, towards the top of the first major drop, he ducks his head into my arm. “I can’t look,” he moans.
“It’s okay,” I reassure him. “This is the worst part. But sit straight, because this thing goes really fast and you’ll bonk your head!”
Judah tries to turn around. “This is awesome!” he shrieks.
“Face forward!” I bark. Inwardly, I groan. Normally I hang on to Judah, as if I could actually save him if something came unhinged. You can’t stop a person from flying off a rollercoaster, but you can try.
I hate these things.
The coaster reaches the top, turns, and starts to plummet.
“AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!” Melek screams. I grip on to him, just in case he falls out.
Three months into the school year, and the boys are still best friends. Melek’s mother watches Judah on their days off so I can get to my busy job in the Tech Center. Bless this woman, with her sweet sons that have the same values we do, the ones that Judah can play with at school without having to worry about catching a left hook or worse.
We’re friends, too. She’s the best cook I know. You can actually taste the vegetables in her falafel. I offered to help her handle the marketing for her new food truck operation, since she won’t let me pay her for babysitting. Like two preteen girls, we even have matching bracelets. Each one has an evil eye in the center.
Lately, I’ve decided it’s easier to have Arab friends – real ones – when you live in America.
I tell Judah about the Har Nof massacre.
His eyes are huge. “I shouldn’t tell Melek.”
“When I told him about the man that stabbed the woman, he rolled his eyes.”
Not all Arabs are bad.
I sigh. “It’s probably not a good idea to talk about politics with Melek.”
Judah shifts his feet uncomfortably. “Is there going to be another war, like in Gaza?”
“I don’t know. When I was your age –there was an intifada in Israel. I watched it on TV. It made me dislike Arabs, to be honest.”
“What’s an in-in-tifid—fadidah?”
“An intifada is an uprising. It’s like a revolution. In this context, it means when Palestinians committed terror acts against Israelis. There was also a second Palestinian intifada, and it was happening when you were born.”
I remember that year very well. I attended my first AIPAC conference on campus. The Arabs don’t want peace. They teach their children to hate us. At AIPAC, there is little distinction between Arab and Palestinian, terrorist or farmer.
“The one with the bombs in malls and stuff?”
His face drains of color. “I don’t want to go to Israel next year!” he bursts out.
“Don’t worry. I’m not taking you if it gets bad.”
He pauses. “But Jerusalem is in Israel.”
“The West Bank is not Israel, right?” In our synagogue, the West Bank is distinguishable from Gaza and Israel proper. At his old school, they were one in the same.
“Not really, but parts of Jerusalem used to be part of the West Bank, before Israel won it back in a war.” I think of Shuafat, in East Jerusalem, beyond the checkpoint. It probably stings of tear gas right now.
He looks sad. “I think you’re right. We shouldn’t talk about what’s happening in Israel.” He thinks about it for a moment. “Mom?”
“What were they “uprising” against?”
“The Israeli occupation,” I say quietly.
Not all Jews are bad.
“If the Palestinians get a state, will this stop?”
“I don’t know.”
He throws up his hands. “I’m glad we live in America.”
“The geography is a definitely easier.”
The luxury of liberalism.
*Name has been changed.