Pho­to by Redd F on Unsplash

Giv­en the sub­ject mat­ter of Adam’s book, the recent events in the world and a few things going on at my school, my prin­ci­pal thinks it’s best to cancel.”

I received this email a cou­ple of months ago, regard­ing a vis­it that I had planned to an ele­men­tary school. 

I was stunned. I am still stunned. 

The sub­ject mat­ter of my newest book, Max in the House of Spies, is not cur­rent events, scary fairy tales (a spe­cial­ty of mine), or any­thing I expect­ed to be con­tro­ver­sial. It’s about the Kinder­trans­port, the effort to get Jew­ish chil­dren out of Nazi Ger­many in 1938 and 1939.

The school that can­celed my vis­it is not locat­ed in a state known for book ban­ning nor in a coun­ty known for anti­semitism. Rather, it is locat­ed in the city with three times as many Jew­ish peo­ple as any oth­er city in the world, on the Upper East Side of Man­hat­tan, blocks from many major syn­a­gogues and Jew­ish organizations. 

The recent events in the world were not spec­i­fied, but this past Decem­ber all any­one could talk about was Tay­lor Swift and Travis Kelce, so I can only assume that’s what the school was con­cerned about. Which is why I’m so stunned. What does Swelce…

Oh. Ohh­hh. THOSE world events. 

Well now I’m even MORE stunned. 

I nev­er got more of an expla­na­tion. I don’t know what the few things going on” at the school were. But I’m sure you’re all guess­ing right now. 

It seems to me — and you now have as much infor­ma­tion as I do, so your guess may be bet­ter than mine — that the war in Gaza was caus­ing heat­ed con­ver­sa­tions in this school, espe­cial­ly among the par­ent body, and my vis­it was seen as a poten­tial exac­er­ba­tion of those things going on.” 

Because I was going to talk about a spy nov­el? That begins with the Kinder­trans­port, the effort to get Jew­ish chil­dren out of Nazi Germany? 

The con­ver­sa­tion around the war in Gaza had become so tox­ic that a Jew­ish author who has expressed next to noth­ing pub­licly about Gaza and Israel – except the most vague and hap­less social media post about the chil­dren of Israel and Gaza liv­ing in peace and safe­ty – couldn’t be trust­ed to talk about Jew­ish chil­dren flee­ing to safe­ty eighty-five years ago? 

This is the sad state of affairs we live in today. Where every­one is so angry, so hurt, so afraid that some­one else will say some­thing that will make them angry or hurt, that all we seem to do is shout our own opin­ion or tell oth­er peo­ple to shut up about theirs. Even peo­ple who had nev­er had any inten­tion of express­ing an opinion. 

But we are not unique. Not so long ago, I vis­it­ed a school in a place where ten­sions run even high­er, and the enmi­ty between the sides is even more barbed. 

In May of 2023, I was blessed to vis­it the Jerusalem cam­pus of Hand in Hand. Hand in Hand runs a net­work in Israel of inte­grat­ed schools, where Jew­ish and Arab chil­dren study togeth­er. This is not the norm in Israel — there are actu­al­ly dif­fer­ent tracks in pub­lic schools: Arab; Jew­ish ultra-Ortho­dox; reli­gious; and secular. 

I know very lit­tle about the Israeli edu­ca­tion sys­tem, and I can’t say whether these tracks are all equal­ly good. What I do know is that it isn’t easy to run an inte­grat­ed school in West Jerusalem. Fund­ing is low and enroll­ment is some­times a chal­lenge. In 2014, van­dals broke into the library and trashed it, scrawl­ing hate­ful slurs about Arabs on the walls. 

And yet, the children’s projects we saw hang­ing in the hall­ways were a gor­geous por­trait of peo­ple liv­ing togeth­er and striv­ing to under­stand each oth­er. A cen­tral con­cept at the school is resilient lis­ten­ing.” Which means sit­ting in a group and hear­ing things that may be very hurt­ful to you — not inten­tion­al­ly, but because they are some­one else’s truth — and real­ly hear­ing it, resilient­ly, even though it may hurt. So when an Arab child refers to the found­ing of Israel as the Nak­ba, the cat­a­stro­phe, and says her grand­par­ents lost their home and now she can’t see her cousins — a Jew­ish child lis­tens and hears that. And when a Jew­ish child says that after the Oslo accords could have brought peace but instead brought the intifa­da and their uncle was blown up on a bus — an Arab child lis­tens and hears that, too.

I came back from Hand in Hand think­ing a lot about resilient lis­ten­ing. Then Octo­ber 7th hap­pened, and three weeks lat­er Israeli forces entered Gaza. Sud­den­ly I start­ed think­ing about resilient lis­ten­ing a lot more. 

Most schools have much more resilience than that one on the Upper East Side. I’ve vis­it­ed near­ly two dozen schools in the last five weeks to pro­mote Max in the House of Spies and no one else has can­celed. Nor has Israel or Gaza come up. 

Actu­al­ly, they did — once. 

I was at a school in Wash­ing­ton DC that has a Jew­ish affin­i­ty group for stu­dents, and they were invit­ed to meet with me after my pre­sen­ta­tion to the entire mid­dle school. This is stan­dard prac­tice at this school — after a vis­it­ing speaker’s talk, the affin­i­ty group or groups they iden­ti­fy with are invit­ed to meet with them if the speak­er is will­ing. I was. 

The Jew­ish group that assem­bled before me was large — thir­ty or forty kids, I’d esti­mate — and eager. I opened by say­ing that this was a tough time for Jew­ish peo­ple. There was Octo­ber 7th, and then the inva­sion of Gaza, and it seems like every­one is mad at every­one and almost every­one is mad at Jews. Even Jews who have noth­ing to do with the con­flict. I just want­ed to say that aloud for the kids, but then I said that I was hap­py to talk about any­thing — how my Jew­ish edu­ca­tion affect­ed me, more about the Kinder­trans­port, my books. Didn’t have to be about Jew­ish stuff. 

A sev­enth grade girl raised her hand instant­ly. I called on her. She said, My moth­er worked in Gaza for a few years… Can you explain what’s hap­pen­ing there?” 

I’ll be hon­est, I was just as stunned as I’d been when I got the email from the school on the Upper East Side. I thought she had told me about her mother’s work in Gaza to estab­lish her bona fides, before launch­ing into an opin­ion. No, she was just telling me. And despite her mother’s rel­a­tive exper­tise on the sub­ject (rel­a­tive at least to mine, which is none), this girl just want­ed me to explain what’s hap­pen­ing there.” 

The earnest­ness of her desire for basic facts makes me want to cry as I write this. Why did she feel the need to ask me? I wrote a book about Jew­ish chil­dren eighty-five years ago. Why me?

I’ll tell you why. Because I had pre­sent­ed myself that day as an adult who cared about these kids, and who had let them have a free­wheel­ing dis­cus­sion of jus­tice and love (dur­ing my full group pre­sen­ta­tion), and because as they had that dis­cus­sion I lis­tened. So I tried to explain the con­flict as fair­ly and clear­ly as I could, with a max­i­mum amount of empathy. 

And then a boy raised his hand and said, Can you explain what’s going on on col­lege cam­pus­es right now?”

I mean, come on peo­ple. Our chil­dren just des­per­ate­ly want to know what’s hap­pen­ing in this farkak­te world. In a clear and fair and empath­ic way. 

They’re lis­ten­ing to us. Or they want to. Not to us shout­ing, but to us calm­ly try­ing to explain what’s hap­pen­ing, show­ing empa­thy for all inno­cent peo­ple, and most impor­tant­ly empa­thy for the kids — the kids over there and the kids who are here, lis­ten­ing. Resilient­ly. Wait­ing for us grown ups to stop shout­ing and telling each oth­er to shut up. 

Maybe, hope­ful­ly soon, we’ll start lis­ten­ing to the kids.

Adam Gid­witz is the author of the crit­i­cal­ly acclaimed New York Times best­selling Grimm Tril­o­gy. He spent six years research­ing and writ­ing The Inquisitor’s Tale, includ­ing a year liv­ing in Europe. Adam lives with his fam­i­ly in Brook­lyn NY.