So, I might have mentioned that one of the joys of being home again is catching up with, and spending time with, friends from whom distance has kept me more or less apart. There is nobody more special in this regard than Childhood Friend (he of the impulsive ferry ride). How many people can you count (other than relatives) with whom you have been close for 52 years? Right. Not many. (Bruce, who is also special and of the same vintage, and I have had major gaps, so the same time, but not the same continuity.)
In any event, CF was down from Boston and in the area again, this time in our home town in the northwest suburbs of New York. (No, not Jersey. And I wish people would stop saying that when I tell them where I was raised. OK, it’s near Jersey. But it is definitely not Jersey. Seriously.) Actually, it wasn’t really even our home town. I know nobody among my contemporaries who actually was born there. Some, like Bruce and I, are Brooklyn-born (I, proudly 4th generation Brooklyn). Others came from the Bronx, some from Queens. I knew nobody born in Manhattan. Our town wasn’t that fancy.
But there CF was, checking in with his dad (whom I adore) and planning to attend a reunion for the high school created when our class was divided in two and they built it (the new one) when we were in ninth grade. (We stayed in the old one but CF had some grade school friends in the new one and he is endlessly curious which is why he was going to the reunion.) And I, not having seen my own parents in too long, and attempting to forestall any assays in Jewish guilt, went up last evening and stayed over to spend time with CF today. (Now that I am a fancy Manhattan-type faynshmecker I don’t own a car but I’m not like a Goldman guy so don’t have a black car at my disposal and I didn’t feel like dragging my dad back here late at night to drive me (upon which he would have insisted) or shlepping on the bus to the Port Authority (on which I would have insisted)). So I stayed. And dad cooked the best meal I’ve had since moving home. But I digress.
There was a reason other than my perfectly understandable distaste for the hideous fluorescence and urinary perfume of night-time Port Authority for me to stay. CF and I were going to morning Shabbos services at our home town’s Chabad (which most assuredly did not exist when we were growing up and the Catholic kids got dismissed early on Wednesday and bussed in public school busses (which I now know to be a definite violation of the First Amendment — at least until Scalia is the lone justice — to their “release time” at St. Augustine’s when we had to wait until the end of the school day and then be shlepped by carpool to Beth Shalom for Hebrew School where I fell irretrievably and to this day still in love with the beautiful, raven-haired, and charming Mrs. Horowitz (whom I continue to visualize leaning over my desk) after whom I named my pet rabbit (who got offed by a neighbor’s dog while I was in summer camp and about which my parents informed me on visiting day rather matter-of-factly which — I hereby inform them — was not — I repeat — not — mitigated at all by the care package they brought)), in part because, well, both of us gravitated to more hard-core versions of Judaism as we aged (far different from the gentrified Reform Judaisim of our youth during which we both were conspicuously in trouble (conspicuous because at different times each of our fathers respectively presided over the shul and maybe because we were just a little loud) for too much humor and conversation during our Yom Kippur services at Ripples of Rockland (because the shul was too small) which, by the way, is where I had my bar mitzvah which was nothing like a Yom Kippur service — even a Reform one — replete with a Viennese Table and my grandmother frustratedly attempting to teach me to dance, and, where, when the morning service ended, I distinctly remember CF’s dad saying (when we were about 13) that it was time to go home for lunch which, to adolescent Jewish boys just obligated to fast, was nothing short of hilarious.) Among the things I love about Chabad is that you simply can’t get into trouble for too much conversation and humor (except perhaps if you disrupt the Torah service, which by me is perfectly legit).
And we were going because, well, it sucks, but CF’s mom (to whom we all referred as my second mom, as my mom is to him, and whom I also adored), left us last November, and CF needed to say Kaddish, and we weren’t sure there would be a minyan, and it was good for me to go anyway, so we went.
We needn’t have worried about a Minyan. Chabad of New City is a fairly big operation as it turns out. As it also turns out, there was an oyfruf that morning and both the bride’s and groom’s family and friends (although not of course the bride whom it is torn for the groom to see) were there which gave us the opportunity to engage in the charming custom of pelting the groom-to-be with candy after his aliyah as he attempted to use his tallis as a shield. (Surprisingly, it’s evidently halachically OK if candy gets thrown (unintentionally) at the Torah. (I guess that’s simchas Torah.)) It also meant a really good kiddish. With lox.
[For my gentile friends: An oyfruf is a custom in Ashkenazic Jewry (I don’t know if the Sephardim do it) during which, on the Shabbos before the wedding, the groom is called to the Torah. And pelted with candy.]
Anyway, the service was lovely, although as usual I was left behind in the davening dust, having come relatively late to my observance with relatively halting Hebrew, which might have been less halting had I paid more attention to the Hebrew and less to Mrs. Horowitz (but there’s no way I’m gonna regret that). When it was over, and we had enjoyed the kiddish, off we went for a bit of a ride (and to visit CF’s dad).
Now, here’s the thing. My parents left hometown for the river when I was in law school where they have lived ever since. By law school, most or all of my friends from high school had dispersed. As a consequence, I had not set foot in hometown in literally 35 years. CF, who had been there with some frequency, warned me that it had gotten smaller (a charming reference, of course, to the fact that we had gotten bigger, and thus our perspective on the monumentality of our town would be different). That, I anticipated. What I hadn’t anticipated was something else.
I barely recognized a thing. Really. Nada. Nothing. Bupkus. Seriously. As we exited the parkway I had exited countless times in my youth and headed down the hilly boulevard that bisects our town, I was confused. I had never before seen this place. As we approached the perpendicular hill on which Old Friend (with whom I had a drink this past week for the first time in 40 years and who, despite his charms, had become distressingly Republican) lived, I had a vague recollection of the topography. I recognized the sign for our synagogue, but not the shul itself (even though I have memories of my dad on the roof hammering asphalt as it was being built). And, as we approached what we in our youth referred to as “town,” I recognized not one building. Not one. Well, I did recognize the strip mall in which existed the Carvel that employed my brother at the bottom of the hill and supplied us with ice cream cakes on our birthdays, but that was it.
And on it went. It’s not because our town had changed. Although CF had warned me that it had, the age of the buildings and a slow but gradual recognition of some of them led me to think it hadn’t changed much. And the ages of the houses were a dead giveaway that it wasn’t them, it was me. I just didn’t remember. A place or two, perhaps. But this was a town I had traversed constantly on foot, in which I had delivered newspapers on bicycle (and that for much of the town — CF and I used to help each other out on our respective paper routes which were, respectively, on either side of the great divide).
Now, to be a little fair to me, our town is rather anodyne. There is nothing especially charming about it. It lacks any form of monumentality or architectural distinction. It was perfectly purely engagingly bland suburbia. Not even the glitzy suburbia of John Cheever’s imagination, the suburbia of restrictive covenants (places like Bronxville and Tuxedo Park that wouldn’t have had us even if we could have afforded it, or the fancy suburbs that would take a Jew or two which I assumed was for kids born in Manhattan, like Scarsdale and Chappaqua), not the suburbia of martinis and illicit affairs about which everybody knew. Nope. Bland, developer-model house suburbia. With streets named after the builders’ wives and kids (which was really weird when we moved to the fancy part of town and the builder and his wife and kids lived across the street from us).
That said, you would think. Wouldn’t you?
And, just as an aside, there is absolutely nothing wrong with my memory (or so I thought). Nor my ability to visualize. (Just ask the artist, Native Companion, about my visual sense.) Nor my sense of landmark and direction. Seriously, I can (and have) gone to cities around the world in which I’ve never ever been and find my way all around them on foot. But something was amiss. I think I had a happy childhood, so traumatic repression can’t explain it.
There you have it. I write this (at risk of personal embarrassment) not so much to explicate (for what have I to explicate?) but to posit and explore. Has anything like this happened to any of you?
Please don’t tell me that it hasn’t.