Visiting the USA after 28 years in Israel

    November 2011          
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Opinion & Society


The Energy of a Mezuzah

By Miriam Kates Lock

I have been living in Israel for 28 years and until this summer, had never gone back to the States once. What were the reasons I never went back? Nothing very profound, mostly mundane reasons like not enough money and no real push to go back. When I made aliyah in 1983 with my husband and toddler daughter, I was lucky to have a lot of family here. My parents made aliyah soon after us; my two sisters had been in Israel for years, my brother followed a few years later. My husband's family had a similar story. Our financial situation did not really allow for overseas airline tickets, but much more than that, we had no strong pull to visit. Our home was here, we took our 3 day vacations here.

We are, I know, quite different than so many of the American olim living in Israel today, who travel frequently. Many go back every summer; some even fly every few weeks because they still work in the "old country". The truth is never going back made us much more Israeli and of that I am proud. I never made a conscious decision not to go back nor do I have any religious objection to physically leaving Israel (although I know there are people who do). I just never really had a strong desire to go.

So many years have passed, our children are grown, and both my parents have passed away, my mom a little over a year ago. A few months after my mom died I received a gift from her, an inheritance. After using part of it for my daughter's wedding and for home improvements, I made a decision. I would put away a small amount for traveling. Maybe I really did want to see the world.. at least some of it (I haven't been to Europe all these years either). My first trip would be after the year of mourning for my mother was over. Destination: my home town, Chicago.

I invited my married daughter, Tamar, to join me, just the two of us, a mother-daughter "roots trip". As the trip was a gift from my mother, zichrona l'vracha, it was especially poignant that I was taking my own daughter with me. Tamar had been born in the States, in New Jersey, and had never been back either. And she was the perfect traveling companion.

Chicago. We arrived after midnight on a hot July night. Finally, finally, after so many years of dreaming about the streets of Chicago, I was really there. After finding our way through O'Hare airport and getting our luggage, we went out to where my cousin Joel had told us he would pull up in his car. We didn't have to wait long; Joel, who I hadn't seen since before Tamar was born (she will be 30 in October) looked pretty much the same (in his words - he just added on 30 years, 30 pounds, and lost 30% of his hair). Just in case we wouldn't recognize him, he aptly wore a T-shirt that said "Tel Aviv". He helped us with our suitcases and we were off, on our way to my old friend Sandy's house where we would be staying.

We spent 8 days in Chicago, during which we spent time with my dear aunt (Joel's mom) and his brother and met all sorts of old friends who had stayed in Chicago throughout the years. We went downtown to see the sites, where I was wowed in a new way by Chicago's amazing skyscrapers and beautiful lake shore. We ate at kosher restaurants and we shopped. One of the most unbelievable experiences of the trip was the day after we arrived when we visited the house I grew up in.

The house I grew up in is no regular house (after all, it was mine); it is filled with the spirit of my childhood, my family, my beginnings. All these years and I still dream of running down the nearby streets on my way home, walking through the front door and finding my parents inside. The house had become a myth to me and that day, just a few weeks ago, I found myself about to remake the myth back into an adult reality.

My friend Sandy drove up to the house with Tamar and me. She slowed the car as we neared the house.and suddenly, there it was; the reddish-brown brick house of my dreams, a symbol of my childhood. I had imagined this moment many times, always wondering if I would cry. I didn't, I laughed with an unexpected delight. I just could not believe it. And the most amazing thing was.that although it was really the house where I had lived and grown from infancy to adulthood, the physical building where so many of my childhood memories took place, it was not in any way my home. I know where my home is.

Tamar snapped a picture of me in front of the house. In the picture you see that I am laughing from a unique kind of glee. Tamar and Sandy came to the door with me and I knocked. A pleasant looking man answered and I said, "My name is Mimi and I used to live in this house." He immediately said, "Are you Katz?" My maiden name is Kates (close enough) and in utter shock I said "Yes!" And then he said, "We still get mail for your parents!" My parents sold the house 28 years ago, when my father retired and they moved to Israel, only a few months after we made our own aliyah. I was incredulous.

As we talked to the present owner of the house I looked at the upper right side of the doorway and then I saw it, the mezuzah - the very same mezuzah that my father had put up so many years before, the symbol of a Jewish home. I pointed to it. "Do you know what this is?" I asked him. "It's called a mezuzah." He didn't skip a beat. "I know what that is," he responded. "I wouldn't take it down. I need all the help I can get." We shared a smile. "G-d takes care of everyone, no matter what religion we are," I told him, and continued, "This mezuzah has special energy because my parents put it up."

It is true. The mezuzah, which has been on the door frame of the reddish-brown brick house I grew up in for so many years, still has the energy of everything we were, a family of mother, father and four children, each one of us unique and different, yet together a unit, a Jewish family with a Jewish home, where we celebrated Shabbat, holidays and traditions, a family which played and fought and laughed and cried together. Each one of us, the children, grew up and left Chicago, made our way to Israel, where we made our home in the Jewish homeland.

Our parents, too, who are no longer in this world, came to Israel in their 60's where they could be close to us, watch their grandchildren grow up, and experience a whole new kind of life in their later years. The mezuzah which remains on the door-frame is witness to the past of the house, and I am greatly moved to know that the present owners of the house believe it is important enough to leave it there and respect it. In some way, even though we have just met, we have a bond - the Catholic family living in what was once my home - and I. After all, they are watching over my childhood home.

I loved Chicago and I loved that house. It is a part of me that will always be there.

And now I am home, in Israel, where I belong and where my life continues to unfold. I, too, am watching over the childhood home of people I never met. Not a physical building in this case but the very land itself.


from the November 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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