Wednesday, August 12, 2015

800 Words: Sense of Place

Biddeford, Maine: I have just gone on the first solo road trip of my life - up the East Coast, the one part of the world, save Israel which is really a small sliver of a part of the world, that I know with anything more than passing familiarity. After days spent on the couches and spare rooms of different friends and their spouses, I arrived yesterday morning at the house of my college best friend, whom after three years in Baltimore may still be my closest friend.

Even now, one-third of the way through my thirties, my mind still sees the years 21 and 22 as a very brief golden era. I was probably as miserable (or at least barely less) than I ever was. But there was something about the group in which I felt at home - a shared ethos, common values, a weirdly earnest cynicism, and a determination to have funny things to say about serious matters and serious things to say about funny ones. I probably didn't even know many of the friends I associate with those two years yet particularly well, and yet those two years set the stage for any consolation that came in later years that offset the misery that returned nearly unabated until I came to Baltimore. Inevitably, such groups can't last long, and much to my dismay, everybody dispersed to where life had to carry them. The loss was inevitable, it was also painful for a guy who direly needed a better period.

I love, truly love, my good friends in Baltimore. But I do not share many of their values, and I disapprove as strenuously of their values as I don't doubt they do of mine. I've written so many times about the differences that they require no revaluation here, but for the record, the values of Smalltimore are every bit as rotten and corrupt as the places from which we all had to so direly wish to escape in order to find ourselves amongst each other.

Even so, I worry that if my life yet again takes a sharp downward turn, I may yet view these first few years in Baltimore with the exact same halo, and I want it on the record here that if I start viewing those first few years in Baltimore surrounded by a gold plate, it wasn't at all like that, just as the last two years at AU weren't at all like that. A set of circumstances conspired to make those years only slightly less miserable than the years surrounding them. The anxiety attacks with their hand tremors and hyperventilation, the omnipresent facial tics, the helpless addiction to food, the physical pains and ailments, the compulsive going through money like water, the total inability to create the person you wanted to be, was exactly the same as it ever was. It only seemed, for a brief moment, like the fog was lifting, and you were finally, if ever so briefly, on the path to being that delusional image of a person you wanted to be.

In retrospect, there was one thing which all the people from those AU days shared: a shared devotion to, or at least an inability to escape, a certain place - a place different for each of us, but startlingly similar in particulars as all places are to the people who grew up in them. We all loved those places, even as we often hated everything about them. The roots haunted us all, the places from which we hailed gave us the wings they chose for us even as they tore asunder any wings we might have wanted to obtain on our own.

Over the years, I've traveled plenty of times to my friends' towns of origin. I've travelled so often to Biddeford Maine, or Toms River New Jersey, or St. Mary's Pennsylvania, that hometown friends of my friends have become friends of mine. I'll probably never have opportunity to visit other such hometowns of old friends like Watertown, New York or Homestead, Florida. But what I inevitably return to is that each these places are true places, with genuine senses of place within them, whereas my hometown is just a makeshift place that Jews settled because they were not from anywhere else.

When you go to Biddeford, Maine, you see a place worth preserving exactly as it is. You see the still waters of the coastline running against rocky cliffs of every color, both of which rub up against beaches that seem to stretch into infinity. Turn your head slightly away from the shores and you see land too pristinely green for a kid who grew up going the Delaware beaches to believe could exist within the same sightline. Life is calm and peaceful, surrounded by natural beauty at every turn, and every day as relaxing as a vacation. Everything about this place seems as quiet and untroubled as the landscape. A Jewish kid from Northwest Baltimore can't help wonder how a person could ever be so lucky to grow up in a place so beautiful.

When you go to Toms River, New Jersey, you see a similarly seaside town - far more ethnically diverse than Biddeford, but not nearly so attractive aesthetically. And yet the diversity gives every possible amenity, and makes life into a never-ending soiree. If you want to go to a beach, everybody seems to know someone who has their own piece of private beach where you can lie and swim, practically undisturbed. If you want a good meal, you visit the restaurant of your friend who became a chef. If you want entertainment or culture, you take a simple drive to Philadelphia or New York. If you want to hang out, you call the friends you've grown up and gone to the same gatherings with since you were in high school.

Provincial though these places may seem to people who've never been there, being born to places like them is better than living any big city, and worth the lifelong fight it takes to preserve everything that's worthwhile about them. Hopefully, your children can soon enjoy all the things that enliven your time upon this Earth just as you do now.

But for a Jew who wants to truly be a Jew, there is no such truly defined place from which to hail. For all Pikesville's Jewish concentration (and it's the largest concentration outside of Israel), it's just a makeshift Jewish community that people come to because Jews live there, and leave without a second thought when better opportunities arise. It's not particularly attractive, nor is it a place where people are particularly nice to each other, it's simply a place where some Jews feel free to be Jewish without judgement. Such a place is the long-cherished dream of those who might fancy themselves "Jewish separatists", and for those who dreamed of it, it is very much a place worth defending. But for those of us who look at the fanaticism which such a dream engenders, for those of us who disapprove of the right-wing paranoia and religious fanaticism such a place can't help but breed, it is a place we can't help longing to escape, even as we feel gratitude for everything with which it provided us.

Being a Jew, by definition, means that there is no place where you should feel truly at home. There is no place on this planet where a true Jew feels accepted, and I doubt there ever will be. Many Jews thought that America, not Israel, is the true Promised Land where we can be integrated among the American population, but for many Jews integration turned out to be the same as assimilation - once you're fully American, you're no longer fully Jewish. And for all New York's Jewish heritage, it will always be a scattered, multicultural place. According to Lenny Bruce, if you live in New York, you're automatically Jewish. But if your primary attachment is to New York, then your religion is New York and there's no room for a second primary affiliation. If you live in Israel, your right to existence is questioned on a daily basis by the world, and living among other Israelis, your existence is a life permanently in conflict. Even if Israelis weren't known for being of an extremely abrasive and confrontational temperament, the challenge of creating and sustaining a productive, dynamic country in the desert, among people who wish us dead and a world that expects us to accept that wish without objection, would make any Jew who lives in Israel feel extreme rancor.

There is nothing comfortable or harmonious about a Jewish existence. I don't know the origin of the term 'People of the Book', but being a Jew is the definition of being at home nowhere but in your own thoughts, and a properly applied mind is an extremely turbulent place to live. Whether among themselves or among non-Jews, Jews thrive best in an atmosphere of conflict, defiance, opposition. Wherever we're from, our sense of place will always be filled with tension, and tension is the lifelong burden which every Jew takes on himself. There is no inner harmony to Judaism, and no sense that life should be fun. There is only constant debate and argument. The hightened state in which argument exists produces many crucial things that improve the quality of life, but it is not a life to be enjoyed.

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