Upon finishing her graduate degree in education, Caroline Drew, a Methodist from Alabama, was happy to have been offered a job teaching English at an Orthodox girls’ school in New York City. Recounting a variety of cultural adjustments—ranging from wondering whether she, too, should wear a wig, to daily prayers, to the befuddling Jewish calendar, to learning the phrase barukh hashem (“Thank God!”)—she reflects on the experience with sensitivity and humor. She describes chaperoning a class trip to Washington, DC thus:
Our final excursion on the trip is to visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Ladies,” [the other teacher] says before we get off the bus, “it will be obvious to everyone else there who we are.” She is saying that [the students’ visible] Jewishness will act as a spotlight. However they behave, people will look and think, “That must be how Jews feels about this history.” I try to imagine the weight of this expectation. I try to remember the aching almost-ness of seventeen. These girls (these almost-women) understand the tragedy of the Holocaust, but these girls (these almost-children) might have a moment, just a moment, when they slip into immaturity. One moment and strangers’ eyes will not likely see a seventeen-year-old girl. They will see a Jew disrespecting the massacre of her people.
I wish I could take this weight from them. But it’s not mine to take. I’ve been to the Holocaust museum in Washington before. While living in the Czech Republic, I visited the Theresienstadt concentration camp and countless other Holocaust memorials around Central Europe. Like others brought up in the American public-school system, I was taught Holocaust novels from third grade on. But none of this prepared me for the museum that day.
My girls—the laughing, singing, picture-snapping, coffee-chugging girls—are silent. Some walk through the exhibits with a friend or two, some alone. They read the plaques. They watch the videos. They listen to the interviews. Nothing is rushed. The longer we are there, the more I find myself watching them. I don’t want to look away. It’s as if, in my mind, their aliveness will counterattack the history behind the glass cases. . . . When I start to cry, I brush the tears away. Whatever I’m feeling, this is not my weight. It is theirs and they bear it with grace.