On Monday my parents got into their car and left New York for good.
It was a move they have been planning of late. My mother retired from teaching a few years ago, and my father was winding down his career as an attorney. Full retirement was on the horizon. My sister and I were no longer local. And while some of their friends were still nearby, others had moved away.
They sold their house—the house in which I grew up—a year ago and moved into an apartment temporarily. And when my
father’s retirement became official last week, they moved down to the Washington, DC area to be near my sister and brother-in-law and their two (soon, three) young children.
And with that, my parents, who lived in New York all of their lives—born, raised, college and graduate school, marriage and children—became Marylanders.
I left New York a long time ago. At 18 I set off for college, and after a year in Texas I did return to New York to live as an adult for a few years for work and graduate school (I was in school in New York but lived in New Jersey). But then seminary pulled me away to Philadelphia, and then the west coast beckoned, and I have happily made my home here in the other Washington. Over the years I still enjoyed visiting, though it was clear my home and the roots I was creating lay elsewhere.
Now, though, I can’t help feeling sad that a link to my past has been severed. Much moreso than when they sold the house, the fact that now should rabbinic work take me to New York they won’t be there, or when I go to visit them I will be going somewhere different, feels like a major shift.
We are a mobile society. And perhaps we always were. Especially as Jews. Save for a few founding members, members of the Olympia Jewish community are from somewhere else. And even for those long-standing members, you only need to go back a generation to see movement and wandering. My grandparents left New York for the Eden of Florida, my sister and I decamped to other locations. I just watched Fiddler on the Roof again, and it ends with a fuzzy, nostalgic (forced by pogroms!) exile from Russia to other parts. “Maybe, that’s why we always wear our hats,” quips one villager.
As a rabbi, I have witnessed the dynamic of parents moving to be closer to their children (or children moving their parents to be closer to them). As my parents follow the same path, I realize it is a dynamic as old as the Torah itself. This week’s Torah portion, Vayehi, is the end of the Joseph story, in which Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers, becomes a high-ranking official in the Egyptian government. When he is reunited with this remorseful brothers, the family, including his father Jacob (his mother had died), move from Canaan to Egypt to be close to Joseph. Jacob moves his family and all his holdings to a new place to be closer to Joseph.
And this move sets the stage for the next chapter of Israelite history: the challenging but necessary story of enslavement and liberation, Exodus and wanderings. More mobility.
And indeed, today is the 10th of Tevet, a minor fast day in the Jewish calendar. It commemorates the besiegement of the walls of Jerusalem at the hands of King Nebuchadezzer and the Babylonians in 588 BCE, an act which ultimately lead to the walls’ breach, the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the community from Judea to Babylonia. The themes of exile and return also inform our Jewish consciousness. Again, more mobility.
It is mobility that defines us. We are dynamic, not static.
[As a side note: it is interesting to see how this mobile nature of Jewish community is impacting the conversations we have around cremation. This has become more of an active issue in Jewish communal life as more and more people are choosing to be cremated upon death. While this is not in keeping with Jewish tradition, which mandates in-ground burial, it is a reality. And part of the reason given is because of this mobility—with families stretched out in different directions, who will be present and available to visit a grave regularly? One of the last acts my parents did in New York was visit the gravesite of my paternal grandparents. And this tension between death and “place” is present in the Torah reading this week as Jacob dies in Egypt, but insists on being buried in Canaan.]
So the new year brings a new reality for my family, and a new stage of life for my parents. I’m excited for them and their new adventures. And while we will still be far away, I have the feeling that we will see them more often. We maintain the roots to the past, but also welcome the future. And when we go visit, we will simply take in the Smithsonian, rather than the Met.