The Genesis:3 Project
And he proceeded by stages from the Negev as far as Bethel, to the place where his tent had been formerly, between Bethel and Ai. Genesis 13:3
My family came from a number of different places in Ukraine. Their cities and villages of origin are now almost completely without Jews; some of them migrated to the United States and elsewhere, some of them were murdered by the Nazis; some of them were assimilated or dispersed by the Soviets; some of them made their way to Israel.
My Judaism came from those places as well. That may seem self-evident, but it is important to mention separately. While the broad strokes of Jewish life are common to all expressions of the tradition, the local customs that influenced families and communities are as different as the recipes that reached the dinner table in Lvov, Budapest, Zagreb and Frankfort (never mind Turin, Baghdad, Marrakesh and Aden).
When my grandparents were born, most of them here in the United States, their parents were attached to the synagogues that tried to preserve that old-country Judaism. The rabbis were European-trained and sent to the wilds of America. Some of those synagogues are still around, even if the membership no longer traces itself back to the homeland. (One such synagogue in Chicago originally served the people – “anshe” -- of the town of Motele, pronounced “mo-teh-leh.” My brother called it the “Anshe Motel.”)
My grandparents were entirely Americanized by the time I knew them. My father’s father died long before I was born, but he was already a Yankee, without accent or old-country affectations. My other three grandparents were as committed to the stuff of Jewish America -- bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, the Democratic Party -- as they were to the newer versions of Jewish life.
But their rabbis were still tied in many ways to the European orthodoxy in which they were trained. The rabbis themselves were Americanized, but they brought with them the sensibilities inculcated by their teachers. That life was rooted in a place that existed only as memory for their communities. Within a generation or so, memory was all that was left for anyone.
I am not denigrating the preservation of tradition and custom. On the contrary, I have long believed that you can’t know where you are going unless you know where you have been. But I do know that the Ukrainian town of Mozir is no more my home town than Guadalajara.
Some of my fellow Jews have attempted to transplant the old country to the new land as a way to honor their rabbinic forebears. They have adopted the clothing styles of a time past and even reconstructed buildings no longer standing in the original location. I remember sharing a meal with a new recruit to one such community; before he ritually washed his hands, he let the water run long until it was a cold as could be because “that’s how it was done originally.” I reminded him that we no longer draw water from deep wells and that they did not have the luxury of hot water on demand. No matter.
The verse above describes Abram’s return to the homestead he created for his clan. He had been wandering after a sojourn to Egypt and eventually made his way back “to the place where his tent had been formerly.” Abram had lived a long life in Ur and Haran (his “old country”), but they were not where home was.
Namira Islam is an activist to bring an end to racism, especially as it is expressed in her Muslim tradition. I first met her when she was named recipient of a peace award from the El-Hibri Foundation. In her acceptance speech, she emphasized the gifts that an American consciousness has given to Muslims in this country. Speaking to the questions I address in this column, she quoted her imam as saying “Home is not where your grandparents are buried. Home is where your grandchildren will be raised.”
I think that message is exceptionally important to people whose time in a new place – maybe the United States – is shorter than longer-term residents. But it is just as true for those people who are heirs to the legacies of people who came before. Abram figured it out, and so should we.
Outside of the American context of my writing, I acknowledge that this is a strongly Zionist message for many Jews. Many see the place their grandchildren will be raised as the Jewish national homeland. It is a powerful and authentic draw for me and so many others.
But for now and for the generation ahead, my American home is where I live and where I expect my grandchildren will be raised. It is incumbent on me to make the United States feel like home to everyone who has invested their future here, traveling in stages to the place where, like my ancestors, they have pitched their tents.