Conquering Masada with My Seven-Year-Old
According to the historian Josephus, a group of 960 Jews chose to murder one another on a bleak mountaintop in the Judean Desert in Israel in the year 73 of the Common Era. In an unprecedented act of Jewish mass suicide, this last remnant of Sicarii zealots chose death rather than a life of oppression by the conquering Romans. The historical accuracy of the actions of the extremist sect of Jews remains shrouded in mystery since suicide and murder are forbidden by Jewish law. Archaeological evidence does not necessarily support all of the claims made by Josephus, who was a Jew who had joined ranks with the Romans and may have had his own motives for sharing this tragic story.
In spite of the haze surrounding what happened on that craggy fortress almost two thousand years ago, our family visited Masada as part of a two-week tour of Israel. Upon learning that there were no more French fries available in the air-conditioned visitor cafeteria, my then seven-year-old son promptly started crying and screaming. Jet-lagged, overheated, out of sorts, sleeping in a different bed every night or two, not eating his requisite amount of Goldfish crackers and pizza from his favorite restaurant, my son fell apart on this nearly hundred degree rock in the middle of the desert.
“This is not the worst thing that has ever happened on top of this mountain,” I tried to reason with him, but ended up sounding like a scold.
“Pull yourself together. You’ll get French fries when we get off of this God-forsaken cliff. No wonder they killed themselves,” I wasn’t helping the situation with sarcasm.
“Would you like a cold drink?” I tried a different approach. “You can have soda,” I bribed.
By now a large group of French teenagers were in the cafeteria line, laughing, tossing off a few “voilas,” and looking at this spoiled American child and his ineffectual mother. I was sure they were all judging me and thinking that this is not how intelligent mothers raise a civilized “bebe” in Paris. Of course they didn’t realize that my son was crying over French fries. The irony.
While this temper tantrum was burning itself out, my nine and thirteen-year-olds were sitting dutifully eating their cafeteria food. When my husband scooped our child off of the floor and pulled him to the side, I sat down next to my unobtrusive children and other participants in our tour. A member of our group who happened to be a psychiatrist smiled at me gently and spoke up, “You know, sometimes when people are anxious, they lose their ability to function very well. Maybe your son is nervous and apprehensive today?”
“He still has to learn how to function even when his surroundings are unfamiliar,” I responded to the doctor.
“It takes some of us a bit longer to do that,” he chuckled.
Our family learned a great deal on the trip to Israel. The kids realized that footprints of Jews, Arabs, Babylonians, Persians, Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Crusaders, and so many others had made impressions in the dusty soil where they walked. Like the flight path of the migratory birds traveling from Europe to Asia and back, Israel was a travel route crisscrossed by a variety of cultures for centuries. We drove in a jeep near the Syrian border, rode snorting camels, took nature hikes, erratically navigated a kayak in the Jordan River, visited with a Druze family in a village outside of Haifa, prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and visited Israeli cousins for an outdoor Bar Mitzvah celebration on a hibiscus scented night. My children gazed at me in wonder when I spoke in Hebrew, and they could order ice cream and pizza in the language of the Bible by the end of our trip.
The trip was memorable for so many reasons, but I never forgot the wise words of our traveling companion. Whenever someone in the family is having an episode of emotional turbulence, instead of jumping to resistance and embarrassment (my first impulse), I try to figure out what the deeper source of the anxiety might be. Sometimes “I must have French fries” needs to be translated as “I just want to be in a familiar surrounding with the foods and habits that make me feel safe.” Masada is an emotional place that brings up feelings of isolation, desperation, and attack. Maybe my child absorbed some of those sentiments from our tour guide or took cues from our sad reactions. Or maybe my son really just had his heart set on eating those fries.
It’s been four years since our family took our ambitious trip. The memories linger in our scrapbooks and our minds. No matter how packed our touring schedule might be, when our family takes trips now, I make sure to bring a few familiar items from home. We also are religious about setting aside some quiet time for everyone to enjoy some salty French fries, too. Even when the language, food, and surroundings are completely unfamiliar, if our children feel at home in their own skin, they will embrace adventure and not shrink from scaling even the most imposing fortresses.
Raised in Norfolk, Virginia, Sharon Forman is a reform rabbi and has worked for twenty-three years in the field of Jewish education. She is the author of Honest Answers to Your Child’s Jewish Questions (URJ, 2006), a chapter in Lisa Grushcow’s The Sacred Encounter (CCAR Press, 2014), and most recently The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings (2015). Her writing has also been featured in Mamalode, Literary Mama, Kveller, urj.org, The Bitter Southerner, Parent.co, and in Mothers Always Write. For the past eleven years, she has lived with her husband and three children in Westchester, New York where she teaches Bar and Bat Mitzvah students.