I LOOK AT the tiny fingers of a newborn baby and try to understand how they could possibly grow into the fingers of a killer. The dead boy is named Jamal Jones. In the newspaper photo, his eyes are as dark as velvet. My boy is named Adam Shuster. His eyes are the color of the sea in Tel Aviv. They say he killed Jamal. But that’s not true.
MY NAME IS not Leela. It’s hard for Americans to pronounce Lilach, so everyone here calls me Leela. But my name is not Leela.
With Mikhael, it’s easy. They just call him Michael. He never corrects them. It’s not polite. Unlike me—I always say “Lilach” the first time and then let my new acquaintance turn me into Leela without making an issue of it but without cooperating either—Mikhael started saying “Michael” a long time ago. He claims that with his name, it doesn’t matter, it’s almost the same thing. But four and a half months after Jamal died, when they hooked Mikhael up to the polygraph and asked him what his name was and he said Michael, I know that the needle jumped.
When we make love, I call him Mikhael. I called him Michael once, and it felt as if I were having sex with someone else.
When our son was born, we gave him a neutral name—Adam—that would work in both Hebrew and English. A name that would slide down the throats of the Americans like good California wine and not stick in the esophagus like Lilach and Mikhael, names that give us away the minute they read them on our passports: Not from here. We raised a child in America. We stored our Israeli-ness in the closet, along with the soccer trophies Mikhael had been saving since high school—for the memories, not because they were of any use. We raised an American child who went to high school with American children, and now they say he killed another American child.
JAMAL JONES. YOUR face is kind, but your size is intimidating. Your shoulders are broad, so broad that they seem to surprise even you. Perhaps it happened all at once, that growth spurt during one summer when, without warning, you changed from a short, skinny kid into a giant of a teenager. But your face didn’t keep up with your limbs. Your body stretched and swelled, but your eyes remained the eyes of a child, and your lips, without the shadow of a mustache, retained the sweet pout of a child.
On the street at night, I would be afraid of you. I wouldn’t linger to look into your eyes, which seem kind and pleasant in the newspaper photo. I would probably walk faster, put a hand in my pocket to be sure my phone was there in case I needed it. I would cross over to the illuminated side of the road and wait for your silhouette—that of a broad-shouldered Black man—to walk past me and disappear around the next curve.
If Adam was with me, I would be twice as stressed. Not only a woman on the street with a Black man behind her, but a woman with a small child she has to protect. And it wouldn’t matter that you’re the same age. You’re a man, Jamal, and Adam is a child, short and skinny, his shoulders slightly stooped, like a chick that hasn’t yet managed to raise its wings. That’s why I can’t understand. Your picture in the paper. The kind eyes. The broad shoulders. To think that, while all this time I was afraid of you, maybe it was you who should have been afraid of me, of what I was capable of giving birth to.
Now I’m afraid all the time, Jamal. Afraid of everything. But then, I wasn’t so afraid yet, only rarely. I remember: Every night, all three of us took off our slippers and put them on the hardwood floor before going to sleep. In my double bed, I would read the news from Israel on my phone until Mikhael said, “It’s late,” and closed the blinds with the press of a button. Beyond the blinds was the yard, and beyond the yard was a green, quiet street that led to a green, quiet avenue in one of the greenest, quietest, safest cities in America.
ON THE FIRST night of Rosh Hashanah, a man with a machete walked into a Reform synagogue in one of those greenest, quietest, safest cities in America. There were two hundred twenty worshippers and fifteen catering-company employees inside the synagogue. In the large hall, usually used for bar mitzvahs, tables were being set for the Rosh Hashanah dinner. Propped up against the wall were high chairs for babies and young children because, even though most of the regular worshippers were senior citizens, young families came for the High Holidays, so they were joined by grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The prayers on the top floor had just ended, and people were beginning to trickle down the steps. In the hall on the first floor, workers were spreading white cloths on the tables and placing plates of sliced apples and jars of honey from Israel on them.
Later, on the news, they said they had been lucky; the man who attacked the synagogue in Pittsburgh was armed with a semiautomatic rifle and had managed to wound several people and kill eleven congregants before he was stopped, but here in Silicon Valley, just four were injured and only one person, a young woman, was killed. I understand what they meant on the news. But I knew that as far as Leah Weinstein’s parents were concerned, that was definitely not luck. Their daughter had been standing right next to the door when the man ran inside with his machete.
In the photo on the news, she looked younger than nineteen, perhaps because of the makeup. She had a round face and soft brown eyes, and the makeup, instead of making her look older, actually emphasized her youth. In pictures taken a short time before the attack, you see her at the door of the synagogue in her white holiday dress. Her arms hug her body in the gesture of someone who doesn’t really like to be photographed but knows she must be because the family insists. A well-brought-up girl. But when that man ran into the synagogue with his machete, Leah Weinstein did not act like a girl. She pushed her grand- mother back and faced him, and that was the last thing she ever did.
I saw the video several times in the days that followed the attack. The plump young girl in the white dress stands in the lobby beside her grandparents. In the background, you can hear the voices of the synagogue choir singing a medley of holiday songs. It’s difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when the joyous hubbub of song and speech turns into screams of terror. At first, you hear some sounds from outside, but you really can’t know for sure yet because those are the shrieks of young girls, and sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between screams of laughter and screams of panic. Then all at once, there’s no mistaking it anymore: Smiles vanish, people scramble for shelter. The man in the hoodie bursts inside, and they trample one another in their mad dash to get away from him, all but Leah Weinstein. Instead of fleeing, she pushes her grandmother back, and perhaps because that movement is different from all the others, it catches the man’s eye, leading him to her. In the video, he bends over her for a moment, only a moment, then brandishes his machete and continues running. The person who videoed all that, one of the worshippers on the upper floor, kept the camera on the attacker as he moved forward. That’s why you can’t see exactly what happened to Leah in the minutes that followed, although the screams of her grandparents are clearly audible, as are the screams of the young boy standing next to them, who hadn’t known Leah before then but saw the girl in white suddenly collapse, covered in blood. By the time she was loaded into the ambulance, Leah had already lost so much blood that nothing could be done for her.
We were at home when they reported the attack. I remember
exactly where each of us was standing: Mikhael was at the barbecue grill outside, along with his brother, Assi, who had arrived that day from Israel with Yeela and their twin boys, Tamir and Aviv, for a visit. Adam was in the pool behind them with his cousins. Yeela and I were in the kitchen, trying to salvage a honey cake that hadn’t risen. Mikhael suddenly burst in with his phone in his hand and said, “There was a terrorist attack,” and when Yeela asked with concern where in Israel the attack had taken place, he shook his head and said, “Not in Israel. Here.”
We listened to the news all through dinner. After dessert, the kids went upstairs to watch something on the computer and we sat in the living room and watched the TV reports. Late that night, when we were already in bed, someone sent a WhatsApp video of what had happened in the synagogue. I didn’t know if we should watch it. I told Mikhael that maybe it was disrespectful to the people who had been there. After all, it wasn’t an action movie. Those were real people, and that was the moment when their lives were destroyed. But Mikhael insisted we watch it, said it was important.
“We’re not watching it to be entertained,” he said, “we’re watching it to try and understand what happened there and to think about what to do if it happens again.” We viewed the video once. And then again. When Mikhael started to play it a third time, I said, “Enough.”
Later that night, my mother called from Israel, wanting to hear more details. The text I’d sent her right after we found out about the attack wasn’t enough for her. I assured her again that we were all fine and told her what they knew here.
“They said on the news that he was Black,” she said. “Since when do Blacks attack Jews? That’s always been white people’s job. An attack on Erev Rosh Hashanah,” she went on. “That means he planned it ahead of time.” She added that she’d sent a holiday gift for Adam — he should get it in a couple of days.
“Did you see the video from the synagogue?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “it’s horrible.”
My mother sighed on the phone. “Just don’t tell me later that it’s saner to raise children there.”
Afterward, I had nightmares that I couldn’t remember when I woke up, but I knew that the girl from the synagogue was in them. In the morning, I asked Adam not to watch the video if someone happened to send it to him. He asked whether Mikhael and I had seen it. I said no.
On the morning of the funeral, Mikhael and I dropped Adam off at school. We didn’t know the family and weren’t members of the Reform synagogue, but we wanted to show solidarity. When we arrived, we saw other Israelis who had come to offer support.
Someone told us that Leah Weinstein had graduated from Adam’s high school two years earlier and was going to college in Boston. Her parents had bought her a plane ticket to come home for the High Holidays. Israelis stood together in the cemetery parking lot and spoke Hebrew, and not far from them, American Jews were speaking quietly in English, and in both groups, the same thing was being said: How could this happen here in Silicon Valley? Then we entered the cemetery. Leah Weinstein’s parents wept bitterly. She was their only child.
That evening, we picked up Adam from school and drove to the synagogue to light a candle and leave a flower on the sidewalk. The street outside the synagogue was crowded with people, along with a few news crews. A TV reporter with a blond bob spoke to the camera, her expression grim. We all listened to her as if that outsider had been given the authority to tell us who we were, what had happened to us.
“Paul Reed was born and raised on the east side of town. When the neighborhood was flooded by high-tech people who had come to work in the Valley, the rents also climbed in the poorer neighborhoods, and the Reed family had to move to Oakland. An hour before he left home with a machete in his bag and took a bus to the synagogue, Reed posted an antisemitic rant on Facebook. His parents say that, over the past few weeks, his mental state had deteriorated. He had been hospitalized twice in psychiatric institutions.”
“He’s not mentally ill,” Assi muttered. “He’s an antisemitic shit and a terrorist. They better not turn him into a lunatic who’s not responsible for his actions and then release him.”
“Nobody will release him,” Mikhael said, “but we have to consider that the guy was institutionalized twice. He could just as easily have attacked a mosque or a bank, which means that what he did in the synagogue was not really an antisemitic act.”
Assi waved his hand dismissively. “If your lunatics here in America can attack anywhere, why do they somehow always end up in a synagogue?”
The reporter looked away and listened to something said to her through her earpiece, then she put her grim expression back on and turned to the camera. “Eyewitnesses claim that they saw two suspicious people near the synagogue before the attack. The area is being searched. The FBI has yet to determine whether Reed acted alone or was part of a hate group liable to strike again.”
That last sentence caused a stir in the crowd. Yeela and Assi exchanged glances. Adam said, “Mom, if it’s a hate group, then it makes sense that they’ll come back to strike again, because right now, there are a lot of Jews on the street.”
Mikhael put a hand on his shoulder. “That reporter is causing hysteria for no reason. I’m telling you, ninety-nine percent of analysts say that these attacks are carried out by mentally ill people acting alone.”
“We can’t know for sure,” I said and saw the same doubt in the eyes of the people around me. The row of lit candles cut us off from the street. Police barriers fenced us off from the other side of the lawn. Tensing at every sound, nervously looking around, we huddled together on the grass like sheep at night, searching for the wolf.
THE ANXIETY THAT began that night intensified in the days that followed. Even after the FBI determined that Paul Reed had acted alone, the Jewish community refused to calm down. Perhaps because this was a case of not only panic, but also humiliation: The outdoor security-camera video showed Reed charging into the synagogue observed by at least ten men who did nothing, too paralyzed to act. The video from the indoor security cameras showed the kippah-wearing worshippers fleeing to the side as Reed, screaming, races straight ahead, a lone, single-minded man doing the thing he’d set his mind on.
Perhaps that’s why, when one of the Israeli parents suggested that we start a self-defense class for the young people, people eagerly agreed. Einat Greenbaum told me about it when we came to pick up our kids from school three days after the attack. “It’s the father of a boy in the middle school,” she said. “He has experience in Krav Maga and volunteered to teach the kids.”
When Adam got into the car, I told him enthusiastically about the class. He said right away that he wasn’t the slightest bit interested. I wasn’t surprised. He never liked things like that. A mother once told me that the world is divided into two kinds of children: Those who choose to learn karate and those who choose to learn chess. Adam went for chess, and I’d actually been happy about that. But after Rosh Hashanah, after the video of Leah Weinstein, I suddenly regretted that he had never formally learned how to fight.
“There are only three sessions,” I told him, “and you’ll learn things that will serve you for the rest of your life.”
Adam stubbornly refused all the way home and asked me not to nag him about it. I knew there was no point in insisting. The best way to make a kid hate a class is to force him to attend. But the images from the synagogue — the possibility that it could have been Adam — haunted me. I knew Mikhael was right, it was only mass hysteria, but I still wanted Adam to go to that class, just as I’d wanted him to get a hepatitis vaccination — not because the disease was an immediate threat but to be on the safe side.
“Do it for me,” I said as we turned onto our street, “so I won’t have to worry so much.”
“You’re really forcing me,” he said. “It’s not fair.”
“At least think about it,” I pleaded, hating him in my heart for making me beg.
“Okay,” he said as I parked in front of the house. “I’ll think about it.”
That night, all the adults sat in front of the TV again, something we didn’t usually do, and Adam joined us. CNN showed the synagogue security-camera videos. Assi watched and muttered, “Why didn’t anyone stop him?”
“It’s not so easy to stop someone like that,” I said as I put a plate of the sunflower seeds they’d brought from Israel on the table. On every visit, Assi would schlep three kilos of sunflower seeds with him and present them to us with the pride of a doctor introducing antibiotics to a remote tribe.
Adam sat on the couch next to me, shifting his gaze back and forth between me and his uncle. The guest-room door up- stairs opened, and Tamir and Aviv ran out. I heard their strong, confident steps on the stairs, and I knew that Adam would never have run down the hallway of someone else’s house with such freedom. They came into the living room, sat down beside Adam, and buried their heads in their cell phones. I thought they weren’t listening, but a few moments later, Tamir looked up and pointed to the TV. “That would never happen in Israel.”
“But there are terrorist attacks in Israel,” Adam said.
“Sure,” Tamir replied. “But there’s no way a terrorist walks into a place and no one tries to stop him.”
I wanted to say something about the class but stopped myself. I ordered Indian takeout. I thought we’d stay up late, but by nine o’clock, our guests were already beat from the jet lag and said they were going to sleep.
“The kids get up early,” Assi said proudly.
Tamir and Aviv were training to join an elite combat unit.
Every day they were with us, they went running in the morning an hour before we all got up. When Adam woke up and went downstairs, he would find them making protein shakes in the kitchen, sweaty and panting after a long workout. There were athletes at his school too, boys who charged each other on the football field, but he had nothing to do with them. For him, they were distant creatures, like grizzly bears. Tamir and Aviv were his cousins. Every morning, he encountered a reflection of the life that could have been his. Their damp, post-workout smell lingered in the kitchen after they’d gone. During our meals together, they asked Mikhael about the elite combat unit he’d served in. His discreet answers only excited them more. After a few days, Adam began asking as well. He had never shown an interest in it before.
On the following days, the presence of the twins, strong and
tan, loud and brash, filled the house. My son trailed after them like a dog hoping to be adopted, and though they let him follow them around, they never invited him along on their own initiative. He admired them, eagerly drank in every word they said in their up-to-date Hebrew, which he didn’t always under- stand. They liked him, I think. From the minute they arrived, they treated him like an old pal. Instead of Adam, they called him Edamame. That made us all laugh.
Before they came, I was afraid Adam would be an outsider, just as he had been during their last visit two years ago. The twins had been immersed in their own private world then, always laughing and whispering in the latest slang, which Adam wasn’t familiar with because, even though we spoke only Hebrew at home, our usage had grown old-fashioned without our noticing it. Tamir and Aviv spoke like sixteen-year-old Israeli kids, and my son spoke like his forty-year-old parents, so that’s why—but not the only reason why—during their entire stay with us, Adam walked around like a stranger in his own living room. This year, I tried to prepare myself: Another family is coming to live in our house for two weeks. They’ll see what we have in our fridge, go into our bathroom after us, wash their hair with our shampoo until we all smell the same. They’ll notice the minor tensions in our household, and we’ll see the cracks in theirs. Arguments between couples will be hushed. Arguments between parents and children will be loud. Other arguments will not take place.
That’s how I prepared myself for every eventuality, except the most unforeseen one—an attack that would unite us, because even though nothing happened to any one of us individually, something had happened to all of us together.
“I think we can talk to him about the class again,” Mikhael said to me a few days later, after Adam had spent a couple of evenings with Tamir and Aviv. I wanted Adam to learn self-defense, but I think my reasons were different from Mikhael’s. When we got into bed, he said, “Maybe now he’ll finally agree to do something athletic. It could be healthy for him, physically and socially.”
My stomach clenched. It was the first time Mikhael had spoken about Adam that way, as if there were something wrong with him that had to be fixed. I knew it was because of Tamir and Aviv. It wasn’t the way they carried themselves, because they slouched, almost deliberately, and dragged their feet. No, it was the way their bodies gloried in a comfortable slackness that amplified their strength. Mikhael noticed this about Assi’s kids — it was impossible not to. Thirty years ago, he and Assi used to pee together on the kibbutz fields in a never-ending competition: who peed farther, who peed longer, who could hit the bushes. They compared their children now the way they had compared their pricks then. And Mikhael, the strong, smart, levelheaded one, was losing.
Discover the Book
Lilach has it all: a beautiful home in the heart of Silicon Valley, a successful husband and stable marriage, and a teenage son, Adam, with whom she has always felt a particular closeness. Israeli immigrants, the family has now lived in the U.S. long enough that they consider it home. But after a brutal attack on a local synagogue shakes their sense of safety, Adam enrolls in a self-defense class taught by a former Israeli Special Forces officer. There, for the first time, he finds a sense of confidence and belonging.
Then, tragedy strikes again when an African American boy dies at a house party, apparently from a drug overdose. Though he was a high school classmate, Adam claims not to know him. Yet rumors begin to circulate that the death was not accidental, and that Adam and his new friends had a history with Jamal. As more details surface and racial tensions in the community are ignited, Lilach begins to question everything she thought she knew about her son. Could her worst fears be possible? Could her quiet, reclusive child have had something to do with Jamal’s death?
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