We don’t belong to a synagogue. My husband and I have defended this in various ways over the years. We wouldn’t go enough. It costs a lot. We’ll join when our daughter is old enough to go to Hebrew School. But beneath all these justifications – at least for me – there’s a less practical, more spiritual concern: the synagogues we visit don’t feel like home.
I grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts, part of a small, tightly-knit community of Jews, all of whom went to the only synagogue in town. The synagogue had originally been a church, but to me, as a child, it was perfect. I knew the smell of the wooden pews, the sound of the rabbi singing (there was no cantor), the feel of my tights on the basement rec hall tiles. My mother had been taking me since I was six months old and more than anything else, I felt known and loved there, especially by the older people who ruffled my hair and kissed my cheeks.
There was one man I loved more than all the rest: Maurice, a Sephardic Jew from Egypt who sat with me at services every Saturday morning in the two years leading up to my bat mitzvah. I loved Maurice’s soft voice, his accent, his kind eyes winking at me as we turned the pages of the prayer book together, and the beautiful Sephardic tunes he sang.
A few years ago, the Gloucester synagogue burned to the ground. I felt devastated yet distant – we were living in Brooklyn at the time – and didn’t dare go visit the spot until the rebuilding of a new temple had begun. Finally, this past summer, the new synagogue was completed. It’s about as different as it could be from the old one: modern lines, a soaring roof line, sand-colored bricks that evoke Israel.
The room in which we performed – with high ceilings and white walls – felt somewhat sterile at first. There was a different feel to the place, a different smell, a different quality of light without the old stained glass windows. And then, as people began to arrive, there were different faces. Many of them I knew, but many I didn’t, and more importantly, many people whose faces I longed to see were gone, including Maurice.
These absences hit me hard as I got up to introduce our performance. I tried to say something – “I’m thinking of the people who aren’t here tonight, too” – but I choked up. In the audience, people nodded – many eyes filled with tears. It seemed nothing more needed saying. Clare and I began to play and the room filled with a kind of electricity, coming not only from us but from the audience, too. People held hands, and swayed, and listened with such an intensity they seemed to make their own music.
By the end of the night, I felt comfortable in this new place. But it wasn’t mine anymore. It wasn’t home. And somehow knowing this made me feel free. A couple weeks ago, I took my daughter to a synagogue near where we live now, in Providence, Rhode Island, and the unfamiliar faces, the strangeness, didn’t make me want to run away. I liked the service. I liked the people. I could see how, with a little time, it might become a place where we belong.
I still don’t know how the subject of Israel came up. I was at a party, in line at the bar, when the man in front of me turned and said, “You know, I have a solution to that whole problem in the Middle East.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard him correctly, nor did I know which problem he was referring to, until he gave me a wary look and said, “Are you Jewish?”
“I am,” I said. Clearly this man doesn’t know Jews, I thought.
“I am, too,” said the bartender, “so be careful what you say.”
The man appeared a little abashed, a little excited. Two Jews!
“Well,” he said, “I’ve been listening to all the news about the violence and bombings and everything, and I was hearing something on the radio about how in the Great Plains they’re losing population every day, all the young people are leaving, and I thought: why don’t they just move Israel to the Dakotas?”
The bartender smiled. I smiled. I was in shock. Not just because the proposal was so offensive, or because this man had the gall to share it with us, but because something similar to it had been proposed 130 years ago, by Jews in Odessa. As pogroms intensified, many Eastern European Jews were heading east, to Palestine. But this Odessa group – Am Olam, they called themselves, meaning Eternal People – decided that Jews should head to America’s West, and become farmers. From 1880 to 1920, Jewish agricultural colonies were founded across this country, in Oregon, Louisiana, Colorado and New Jersey – and, yes, in North and South Dakota.
And, I’d written a novel about it.
I mentioned this last part nonchalantly. I didn’t get into politics or history or point out to him his obvious ignorance about “the situation” in Israel. I just took my beer and walked away. But I have to admit: this man got me thinking. What if the Am Olam farmers in America had succeeded? (Most wound up back in cities and towns.) What if there was a veritable Jewish state smack in the middle of our country and Jews there played every role, as we do in Israel? Farmer, mechanic, electrician, plumber, cook, rancher. Imagine. I was reminded of The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, by Michael Chabon – a similarly wild vision, of Jews taking refuge in Alaska. What if such a thing had come to pass in the lower 48? It’s not a proposal, but a re-envisioning, an expansion of my sometimes narrow assumptions about what Jews can be and do and mean in America today. This expansion has led me to question, and search. And guess what I found? There are Jewish kids learning to farm right now, in 2011, at the Jewish Farm School in upstate New York.
I’ve been thinking about my grandmother recently. This is my paternal grandmother, the longest-lived of my four grandparents and the only one I came to know well. Her name was Rose – like so many women of her generation – and the name suited her personality: under her smooth exterior (held in place by corset and garters) there were thorns.
People use a lot of words to describe women like Rose. Hard. Cold. Judgmental. Even unloving. But – and it’s a big but – Rose was a mother, to four children. She has nine grandchildren now, most of us with advanced degrees, thriving in every corner of this country. How do we reconcile what we knew of her with what she gave us?
A couple weeks ago I visited a book group that had read my first novel, The Little Bride. The women were discussing my protagonist, Minna Losk, a Jewish orphan who travels to America in the 1880s as a mail-order bride. They were talking about how complicated she is – how along with being strong and compassionate she can also be stubborn and selfish. One woman said she forgave Minna all of it, because of what she’d been through. “She’s a survivor,” she said, and the other women nodded. “She reminds me of my grandmother,” the woman went on. “And my grandmother was not a nice woman.”
Immediately, others began to speak.
“My grandmother wasn’t nice, either.”
“Mine was very cold.”
“I never saw my grandmother smile.”
The table erupted in laughter. Then the women began talking about their grandmothers, and why they thought they’d been the way they were. They wondered about stories they’d heard – of immigration, or abuse, or miscarriages. And they wondered about stories that might have been kept a secret.
As they talked, I started wondering about Rose. Most of her stories had been about my grandfather’s history, or about her children. She hadn’t often talked about herself. What was her story, not the public version but the private one? What were her secrets? How had she become the woman I knew?
That conversation opened up a new door for me in my relationship with my grandmother. Fiction can do this, I think – it can lead us, however circuitously, to new compassion: for difficult characters, yes, but also for the people in our own lives. I feel closer, suddenly, to my Grandma Rose. I can hear her scolding me – “But I’m not even alive.” But I don’t think that matters one bit.