Stories were the building blocks of my childhood. Night after night I would fall asleep on my Mum or Dad’s lap as they would narrate Grimm’s fairy tales to me in a thousand different voices. The stories of knights saving princesses, elves spinning gold, and talking mirrors lined my dreams with mysticism. However, the stories which hit the hardest and stung the deepest were not those written about magical creatures but instead about the danger, fear, and acts of escape that our Jewish ancestors experienced only three generations back. Familial stories shared over the Friday night dinner table taught us about how our own knights in shining armor are those who hid Anne Frank during the Holocaust, those who smuggled us through various borders, and those who lied for us when the truth was in their favor.
Our folktales were not, in fact, just about princesses trapped in castles and escaping in a horse and carriage. Instead, they focused on how my Nana was trapped in a concentration camp, escaping off the back of other people’s kindness with the Kindertransport as her “magical” chariot. We don’t need fables with tortoises and hares to understand morals because we can learn the most fundamental virtue from our own stories: how our own heroes are just normal people who risk everything when they still have everything. With the words of Leviticus “love your neighbor as yourself” echoing in the background of every tale of danger and escape.
The reason that stories are so entwined with our religion is because they are unerasable. When we lived in fear, we wrote down our truths on paper behind a bookshelf hiding from our oppressors. When we didn’t have the paper, we still had our words. When we didn’t have our words, we still had our whispers. When we didn’t have the freedom for our whispers to be heard, we relied on the goodness of the actions of others to listen closely. Now we are able to scream these stories out loud with pride as we commend our own fairy tale heroes. However, with this privilege we now not only have the desire but the duty to let other people’s struggles be heard and understood.
Unlike most traditional fairy tales, the message of our stories doesn’t focus on the Prince Charming or the magical fairy godmother. Instead they are focused on the absence of the stability of a magical Prince Charming. Yes, our families may have escaped from Egypt or Russia or Morocco or Poland, but that doesn’t mean the magical element of our stability is bound to continue. In the blink of any eye any princess can suddenly be portrayed as a monster. Any rich, politically successful woman can be enslaved due to her “feminine mystique.” Any free man a prisoner. Any proud “Jew” a shameful “yid.”
Judaism has therefore taught me that life is not linear, and happiness and freedom are never guaranteed. Once you have the freedom to be happy, you must open the castle gates to let the outsiders in.
We are not children anymore, we cannot swallow our happy endings with a spoonful of sugar because it comes with the bitter aftertaste of complacency. Thousands of refugees, who just like us, are currently being forced out of their own countries and cannot express themselves in our obscure culture or choppy language. Our language is as foreign to them as English was to many of our ancestors in the mid 20th century.
With every privilege comes a responsibility to care and respect the values of other communities and help them. Not because we are saviors, but because we are people who have the ability to understand how quickly your magical fairy tale town can become one of backstabbing. How your wings of freedom can be so easily cut off by your neighbors forcing you to drown in a shallow pond of visceral hatred, xenophobia, and racism.
Thus, whilst most fairy tales read to me by a sleepy parent ended with “happily ever after,” it is in fact the stories of my religion that taught me the danger of believing that every story has a magical ending. We must be the best we can be, help those in need, and befriend those different from us.
The moral of the story is not “and so the Sheldons lived happily ever after in a free and progressive world”; the moral is instead, in the present tense: “whilst communities around the world are living in fear and exile: the Sheldon family lives happily ever after…for now.”
This piece was originally submitted to the 2020 Hadassah Teen Essay Contest.
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