A Real Home

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30 Aug 2007

“I always wanted a real home
with flowers on the windowsill.”
— Carol King, popular song from the 1970s
Within hours of first breathing the cattle car’s nauseating air, we began to feel at home. “Home” was the edge of the wooden plank I sat on.

— Elie Wiesel, Memoirs


In the Jerusalem living-room of an elderly, Yiddish-speaking widow hangs an elaborately framed, three-dimensional rendition of a window. The carefully constructed diorama – the window is set in the yellow exterior wall of an old-fashioned, early-American-style house — is presented for your visual delectation in exquisite, lifelike detail.

There’s a real little flower box on the window sill, full to overflowing with tiny violet-colored nasturtiums; and dark-green wooden shutters (they’d come in handy against prying eyes such as yours) folding back onto the pale yellow wall. Your friend, the widow, is talking about the upcoming marriage of her great- granddaughter but you’re foolishly distracted, from across the living room, by a silly desire to look in through those little windowpanes, and are finding the desire thwarted (luckily for the secretive little people having supper inside) by a long draped curtain – an actual little swath of red velvet with ivory-colored lace trimming, drawn back primly with a neat little bow.

The only peek you’re granted of anything inside that house is of an antique oil-lamp half-hidden behind the drapes, spilling its soft glow.

The pretty picture is charming, and heartwarming. Too charming, and too heartwarming, like candy for the eyes. In its skillfully created illusory depths we get a tantalizing hint of a small world unto itself, a distant, magical realm at once frustratingly unattainable and intimately familiar.

If you like thinking of yourself as someone who’s immune to blatant sentimentality such as this, you might try resisting its magnetic sweetness. You might tell yourself the picture is corny, and commercial; that it crassly concretizes something better left unsaid…something intangible and imaginary that should rightly elude our grasp, an ideal we sense instinctively, too true to be cheapened. You resent the artist for dipping our ideal into a tub of sugar before offering it for our consumption, but the picture catches your eye, and draws you in.

You’d like to gain entry, but that hidden home belongs to somebody else, some happy cozy somebody with a mother, and father, and grandparents, and brothers and sisters.

“I can’t stop looking at that picture,” I remark to the widow.

“Ah, yes.” She looks over at it fondly. “I know. My daughter she gave it for my birthday.”

We fall silent a few moments, as we’re both transported separately from her sofa to wherever the picture takes us.

I say, “I guess that’s what home is supposed to look like.” She tips her head thoughtfully to the side, and I ask, “Is that what it was like in Hungary?”

“Well….you know, I was only two when I left. In 1929. Because when my father died, she came here to Eretz Israel, my mother.”

“So you don’t remember anything?”

“Well…I remember sitting in…like a hatzer, and my mother was there and somebody was cutting my hair. And then, in 1997, I went with my cousin.”

“Oh. You did go back?”

“Yes, we was looking for the house of my mother. We was walking all around there, around the streets, trying to find her house, and asking the people but nobody knows, then comes this very old goya (non Jew), and I ask if maybe she knows where is the street. She looks at me, and she looks at my cousin, and she says, I knew your mother. At first I don’t know if to believe her. You know, this is after seventy years. Seventy-five years. So I says to her, Oh yes? You remember her name? And she looks at me and she says, Hurevitz.”

“Was that it?”

“Yes. This was my mother’s name. She says, I remember Hurevitz-nini! That means, Hurevitz very nice lady. She sees we look like my mother, you know. She keeps saying Hurevitz-nini! Hurevitz-nini! She says, your mother every Friday was giving me a loaf of bread.”

“So when you saw the house, did you remember it?

“Ah, no. Because my cousin — she was eighty-one, or eighty-two — she didn’t want so much to see it and she wasn’t feeling so good so in the end we didn’t go with the goya. You know my mother she was killed, soon after my wedding. She came to me for Lilah Seder and then in the night she –”

“In the Holocaust?” As soon as I say this, I realize my mistake — she’d just said they were here in Israel.

“No, no. Here! A few minutes’ walk! After the Seder she walked back alone to Mea Shearim– she lived in Batei Ungarin — and in the morning people come to tell me, your mother she’s died. The Arabs killed her. Yes. That’s why I was going back. I wanted so much to see my mother’s house.”

* * *
Out the train windows this past summer, on the way to see my sister, suddenly all the signs said “Stamford.” A surge of adrenaline jolted me to attention.

Stamford! Stamford, Connecticut! There was never any particular bond between me and it, but it’s next door to my hometown, and that is its splendor.

The book I was reading fell shut in my lap as my eyes devoured the non-descript station, which was already gliding backwards as we sped on in a flash towards Massachusetts. With its broadened, reconstructed concrete platform and standardized red-and-white signs, it had apparently undergone a major modernization and clean-up job since the days when my parents, having missed the 7:05 in Norwalk, used to screech into the old parking lot and my father, holding on to his hat, would leap out of the car in his overcoat, briefcase flying, to catch the 7:19, then stand there, dumbfounded, as it pulled out of the station. “Come on, let’s go!” my mother would cry. “We’ll get it at Greenwich!” and off she would race, invariably swerving into the Greenwich station as the conductor shouted, “All aboard!” then catching sight of its tail at Scarsdale before chasing the train all the way into Manhattan. As my father, right on time, would be sitting down at his desk at 9:00 sharp, my mother (pausing only for the Highway Patrolman to write out her speeding ticket) would be racing back home on the Merritt Parkway to get the children off to school.

I went back to The Jewish Star by S. B. Unsdorfer, keeping my eyes peeled for the New Canaan Safeway, historic site of my mother’s weekly shopping trips some forty years before. Yet the next stop was Darien. What in the world…? How could this have happened? How in the world had I missed my hometown?

Darien earned its reputation for anti-Jewish discrimination in a famous 1940s novel, but it could never compete with friendly New Canaan’s sleeker, subtler brand of anti-Semitism. With bafflement and longing there I sat, staring out at the lushly tree-shaded streets with their shuttered old early-American houses appearing and vanishing as we flew on by. Unlike Israel, which must accommodate the global ingathering of the exiles, the land of my birth — thanks to strict residential zoning laws – must be one of the only inhabited spots on earth that gets prettier with time.

If anyone in my compartment (a few of them looked suspiciously like wrinkled, much-expanded versions of my classmates from elementary school) noticed the middle-aged passenger with forehead pressed to the glass, hoping in vain for a familiar landmark, surely they would never have surmised — from her poignant pantomime of devotion – how much she still hated that place. For in my own hometown, I was always a stranger in a strange land.

But how can you not retain a deep love for the magical world of your hometown – no matter how much it marginalized you – in which the ordinary was always extraordinary, because all your senses as a child were undefended and wholly alive?

* * *
Rav Unsdorfer writes:

There was a considerable waiting period at the station, Because of the poor light provided by the old-fashioned gas lamps, the SS men were particularly strict and vigilant…

It was not the first time I left Stupava in a packed train. At one time, Stupava was a popular picnic spot, whose beautiful woods and romantic canoe lake attracted many a youngster out for a Sunday excursion….[The] fuller the train, the merrier our home-going. But those days were gone forever, when the Jew enjoyed the same rights and privileges, the same natural delights as his gentile neighbor. How everything had changed!

Somberly we crouched in silence, not even daring to think. Father sat at the window, mother on the seat opposite, and I on the floor between them. What a pitiful sight….When we were just about to go over the “Red Bridge,” Father gave Mother a reassuring nod.

Who among us did not know the Red Bridge? It was at this spot where passengers would normally rise from their seats, pull their luggage from the racks, and get ready to step out happily at Bratislava. To us the Red Bridge was part of what we affectionately called home…

Mother looked down into the peaceful river…. Father, as if reading her thoughts, interrupted her. “Mammele,” he said tenderly. “Shall we go in by tramcar or shall I hire a taxi?”

That is the question he would normally have asked….It was meant as a joke to cheer her up but…she looked straight into my father’s face, sighed deeply,[and] no sound came from her trembling lips…When the train roared past her birthplace, her tears rolled down fast. It was goodbye Bratislava….Goodbye to the house and home forever.

Late in the evening our train stopped at Leopoldov….The SS quickly surrounded the two coaches… “Anyone attempting to get up will be shot immediately!” they yelled.

* * *
When I got married in Jerusalem, one of my cousins – who had never been here before – was unsettled by a persistent sense of being at home in the city. That in itself wasn’t unusual: millions of Jews down through the centuries, including me, have felt the same way. In my case, the feeling hade come over me inexplicably not long after I arrived for a summer visit in 1976, and it has kept me there through thick and thin – through all kinds of perils I would have never encountered in my hometown. How far-fetched it would have sounded – given my agnostic upbringing in a non-Jewish Connecticut suburb—if anyone had ever said, back then, that one day I’d live in Israel, and that that’s where I’d marry and bring up children.

But when it came to this cousin, it was especially odd. “I feel so at home here,” she kept saying as the wedding day approached. “I don’t really want to leave,” she repeated, boarding the plane back to California. Yet this was a young woman who had married a non-Jew precisely, she had told us at the time, because she wanted out from her Jewish-ness. Being Jewish, she said, had always been one big mystery, anyway.

* * *
A single friend of mine in Brooklyn was given three months’ notice; the landlord’s son had gotten engaged and wanted her rent-controlled apartment. When the deadline neared and she still hadn’t found a place, she moved into a cheap hotel.

At first the hotel seemed ok, even sort of quaint, but it didn’t take long for her to notice its grungy state of disrepair, and that it was never really cleaned, and that her fellow lodgers were the sort of lost and lonely people with whom she’d never before been associated. In the course of apartment-hunting, it became apparent, as well, that while the decent one-room rentals were way beyond her budget, all the affordable ones were dumps. At some point she decided to share. But after a few weeks of searching for roommates, it began to seem that finding the right roommate was not unlike finding a husband, and would take no less miraculous a splitting of the sea.

She still liked her job as a yeshiva’s public relations director, and sometimes, busy at work, she’d forget where she’d be going home to at the end of the day. On her way back to the hotel, she’d check the real estate listings and the classified ads, pick up some groceries, then pass through the dimly lit lobby with its weird cast of characters before taking the elevator up to the 3rd floor. She’d unlock the door, turn around, and face the dingy, small room, with its view of somebody’s shut window in the building next door.

She shared one wall with someone who always had a television on.

Months passed. She said that without a place of her own, a safe refuge where she could retreat and touch base, she was developing an insecurity at the core that she’d never before experienced. “I think my personality’s disintegrating,” she said with a laugh during one of our occasional long-distance calls. “I’m not sure who I am anymore. And I’m not even an adolescent.”

We fell out of touch. Then my grandson turned three and a present arrived from America. It was a game of cards.

Half the deck consisted of pictures of animals: grizzly bear, polar bear, lion, giraffe. Hippo, bird, frog, snake. A worm and a dog, a bumblebee and a cat. A whale, a horse-fly and a gorilla. A spider. A butterfly. A goldfish. A turtle.

The point was to match up each of these with a card from the other half of the deck. There was a picture of a dark cave, and another of a sunlit jungle. A nest holding three speckled blue eggs. A swamp and a spider-web. A fish-bowl filled with water. A hole in the sand, a honeycomb. A flower in bloom, a doghouse, an ocean. An ice floe, a pink pillow. A horse’s tail. A turtle.

I called my friend in New York. “That’s pretty eloquent.” I said. “I get the message.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Isn’t that why you sent that game? Because every creature comes with a home?”

“Oh, wow, I didn’t even think of it. Isn’t that funny, I guess it’s on my mind. Yeah. We all want to go home. It’s designed right into our genes.”

* * *
I’m writing this while on a visit to family in America. One day last week, a few of us rented a car and took a drive out to Connecticut to see the house I grew up in.

The house I grew up in was surrounded by acres and acres of woods, meadow and wild field. As I turned now into our rocky old driveway, I realized with a start that it wasn’t rocky anymore, and — to my horror – that a totally unfamiliar house was standing imperiously right there where trees should have been, at the entrance to the driveway. Most disorienting of all, this tidy, black-topped driveway didn’t continue on through the woods towards our ivy-covered house, but simply came to a stop a few yards from the street. Where in the world was our driveway? My daughter asked if maybe I’d made a mistake.

“Of course not!” I snapped. I backed out, drove up and down the hilly old road a few times to see if some other entryway had somehow come into being, then pulled back in to the now-truncated driveway. “Wait here,” I said, getting out of the car and slamming the door.

“Mommy, wait!”

Into the woods I ran, determined. “Don’t worry! I’ll be right back!”

I have no idea how long the following episode took; my sense of time dissolved as I set foot into those woods. The world I knew so well, the world I knew like the back of my hand, had vanished! I was instantly enclosed in the dappled sunlight and silence of woods both familiar and unfamiliar. Vegetation had grown up over and obliterated the driveway that once was. I saw all around me the poison-ivy leaves that had been the main danger of my childhood, but I didn’t care, I just kept plunging on desperately through the underbrush. Was there nothing left at all of the kingdom in my mind?

All at once there was a clearing, then another unfamiliar house, which I couldn’t bear to look at. I was standing on the curb of a street, a new street altogether! I was in the middle of a housing development! A house here, a house there! I kept going forward in the direction I knew I had to go…something familiar was drawing me…when something told me to look straight up and all of a sudden, framed on one side by the long branch of an oak tree and on the other side by a towering pine, there was a piece of sky I knew so well, and the very same clouds – my clouds! — floating overhead! I was standing under the tall old oak tree where I used to swing.

In a few weeks, to a large extent, we’ll be moving for seven days out of our Jerusalem apartment and into the small succa that my husband and son will build on our porch. What would it have been like when I was growing up if once a year, we had shifted our lives’ focus in this fashion from the big, stone, ivy-covered house to a small, very Jewish succa out on the front lawn? What message would have come through to me – from its walls made for dismantling, and roof not meant for protection from rain, or sun, or the passage of time?

For the bear and the turtle, the bumblebee and the worm, the instinctive desire to go home is fully satisfied by a safe physical shelter perfectly consistent with that creature’s unique personality. For a Jew, it’s precisely because the succa in all its bright loveliness is temporary, flimsy, insubstantial, vulnerable, that he finds himself most profoundly at home when he finds himself within its walls.

* * *
My friend never did find an apartment in New York, or a roommate (or a husband) but as a consequence, she did make aliyah.

It was erev Yom Kippur when we ran into each other in Geulah. She was shopping for succah decorations. “Hey!” I exclaimed happily. “You found an apartment!”

“No,” she said, “not quite. I’m getting this stuff for the family I’m going to.” She explained that nothing had come through in time for the chagim, but she was hopeful. There were some good prospects. I must have made a sympathetic face because she cut me off sharply. “Oh, I’m just fine, don’t worry. I think I’m better prepared for this chag than anyone else around. You know you can have a house, and a husband, and children, but what are we supposed to realize right now? That there’s no such thing as home in olam ha ze (this world).” She grinned. “Right? Well, in Jerusalem I can sit in somebody else’s succa with somebody else’s family, but if I have Hashem in mind, I’m like a turtle with its house on its back. I’ll look up through the schach, and see the stars, and say Hashem, in this moment I’m at home forever.”

Sarah Shapiro’s most recent books are “Wish I Were Here” [Artscroll], and “The Mother in Our Lives”[Targum/Feldheim]. This article is a chapter from “Wish I Were Here”, reprinted with the author’s permission. Sarah Shapiro teaches writing in Israel and the United States.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.