Imagining A Conversation With the Son I Don’t Have

“Mom, I’m leaving”, he says. His breath smells slightly of cigarettes. I caught them in his backpack last week, when I was sorting through his underwear to do his laundry. But I didn’t say anything. I made a mental note to tell his father to bring the topic of lung cancer into our Shabbat lunch conversation and make it look like an accident.

It’s been hard, these past few years. Going to the base and cheering him on at these kumtah ceremonies with all the other parents. They’re all so proud. But no matter how hard I smile, my boy knows that in the back of my mind there’s a part of me that’s reeling against this militaristic culture. He knows it because he’s heard it from me again and again, from my critiques of his gan homework (“Find a hero for Yom Hazikaron”. What? Why is my four year old learning to idolize soldiers?) to the way I pursed my lips when he told me he wanted to be kravi. “Lochem lochem” I said, trying to cover my frown with a  smile. But he saw it. My baby saw my disappointment in him – as if it was his fault, when I made the choice to raise him in a country with mandatory military conscription.

For a while now, I’ve been waiting for him to tell me that he’s taking off his kippah. “These just aren’t the values you raised me with, Ima. Respect for human beings, a love for all of God’s creatures – if the religious world represented that, I’d still be wearing it.”

No, I haven’t been waiting: I’ve been hoping. Because as long as he does that, I’ll know that, in some way, I’ve succeeded, that a small part of what I raised him with is still there, even when he carries a gun. Instead, every weekend, he becomes a little bit more withdrawn; his answers to my questions grow shorter and shorter, from fully-formed sentences, to one-word mumbles, to inaudible grumbles whose meanings I can’t make out.

But instead, he says:

“Mom, when this is done: I’m leaving Israel.”

I nod. I knew this was coming. I knew because of the answer I was going to say if he told me he decided to take off his kippah:

“But it’s not like secular society represents those values either! Israeli secular society is just as racist as its religious society, just in different ways.”

Of course, America’s criminal justice system was designed with the goal of incarcerating and disenfranchising African-Americans, and the country was founded by slave-owners, with land expansion made possible by the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans. But it’s easier to forgive the sins of others, and for my son, Americans are the others.

I try to think of something to say, and become aware -and slightly embarrassed-by the tears that are rolling down my cheeks.

“You don’t have to cry, Ima.”

“What can I say: You know your mother’s a drama queen. It’s the Brazilian in me – I like to feel like I’m in a telenovela.”

He rolls his eyes, and picks up his phone. We’re back to the territory of gentle teasing while I slice him fruits and complain about the piles of laundry that grace the kitchen floor. The Shabbat food is simmering on the stove. Soon, we will light the candles, and sing the songs to welcome the angels. His father and I will put our hands on his head, and bless him, “May God bring peace upon you”, and I will turn my head so he doesn’t see when I cry.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.