What Makes a Home?
I’ve never visited my parents’ hometown. Though they met in New York, my mother and father lived a mere fifteen minutes away from each other in Minsk, Belarus. I often wonder about the hundreds of ways their paths could have crossed. Were they ever in the same bakery at the same time? Did they study at the same library, learn to drive on the same streets?
But this is a place I can only imagine, though I’ve seen images on computer screens and in grainy black-and-white photographs. My parents have never taken my brother and me there. I’ve never even been to Europe. “There’s nothing left for us,” my mother would say whenever I asked her about potentially visiting Minsk. “Why?” was my father’s common refrain. As a little girl, this refusal bugged me, mainly because I was insatiably curious and wanted to see as much of this vast world as I could. But as I grew up, and as my family turned towards Orthodox Judaism, I found it easy to understand their refusal and difficult to accept it.
I know that the place I romanticized as a young girl was not an idyll for my parents. I know that the fields they played in as children have been stained with Jewish blood, that high school was one interminable boxing match for my father, that my mother’s coming of age was tainted by the very accident of her ethnicity. I know that Judaism was a hazy, indefinite idea for their assimilated generation, and that America and Israel — lands of freedom — were two impossible dreams thought of in those precious seconds before sleep. But I also know that my great-grandmother spoke in hushed whispers on the phone with her friends, penciling the dates for the High Holidays into her notebook. I know that my mother and father associated springtime with the strange cracker hidden in a pillowcase in the kitchen ceiling, only to be eaten in the dead of night. I know that despite all of this, Torah and Judaism eventually became a reality for my family, and our return would not have been possible if not for the homeland they left behind.
As part of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, I am privileged to be in a reading group titled “The Writings of Menachem Begin,” led by Ms. Sarah Wapner. I came in rather unfamiliar with Begin’s written works, and I did not expect the lyricism and content of his prose to resonate so personally with me. I also did not expect to find something that I had been unwittingly looking for. When asked if he would ever return to his birthplace of Brisk, Begin answered: “No. No. I will not allow myself to go back to Brisk. Yet Brisk will always follow me and be with me.” In his 1972 speech, “We Were All Born in Jerusalem,” delivered in Israel at a ceremony for the martyred Jews of Brisk, Begin evokes powerful memories of the Belarusian city that shaped him. He remembers the voice of the butcher’s son as he sang the special Rosh Hashanah prayer, writing, “Until today I hear his voice in this prayer, or the prayer in his voice.”
This is one small line in what is a larger and profoundly incredible speech, but it is this line which strikes me. Contained in this one sentence is, in my opinion, the relationship between memory and spirituality, between the upbringing of one’s past and the religious experience of their present. For example, my family looks at Judaism differently because of the glasses we wear: my father’s weekly walks to Shabbat services bear a greater significance than those of someone raised in a country with religious freedom; my mother’s headscarf is a symbol of privilege as well as duty; my Jewish education is a miracle that would have been unfathomable to my great-grandparents. Our histories reveal themselves as our futures unfold. Until today I hear his voice in this prayer, or the prayer in his voice.
Begin’s words have shown me that a homeland is a foundation. It is a place from which people emerge, and regardless of whether they return, the homeland has served its purpose. Maybe my parents will never go back to Belarus. Or, maybe, in a safer time, we will all go there together. Either way, in the words of Menachem Begin, Belarus will always follow us and be with us.
Photo Caption: Forest in Minsk, Belarus
Photo Credit: Viktoriya Venk / Unsplash