Children in Orbit

“My neighbor said to me, ‘Our children move nearby.  Yours don’t.”

Reuven’s blue eyes frowned above his bushy gray beard.  He was wearing the regulation black hat of the yeshivish crowd at this very yeshivish wedding in darkest Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

“I live in Boro Park.” Said Reuven.  “Maybe you’ve heard of it?”  Now his eyes twinkled.

I told him I had indeed heard of Boro Park.   “Where do your kids live?” I asked.

“We have eight married children,” said Reuven.   “One lives in Eretz Yisroel and one in Monsey.  The others all live in Lakewood.”  He was referring to the huge yeshiva community in central New Jersey.  My son, who knows such things, tells me that every six months enough children are born in Lakewood to fill two brand-new schools.

“My neighbor is Hasidic,” said Reuven, “Belzer.  Their kids stay in Boro Park.  Ours move away.”  Reuven’s name used to be Rory, back when he went to college, something it’s safe to say his male children did not.

“Why do they move to Lakewood?” I asked him.

“Better yeshivos,” he said.  “The yeshivos in Boro Park aren’t tops anymore.  A friend of mine took a job teaching at a local yeshiva. ‘Don’t do it,’ I told him.  ‘You’ll just be a shiur machine.  The boys won’t look to you for spiritual guidance.’  ‘That’s fine,’ he said.  ‘I just want to give my shiur, go home, and write my seforim.’”

“And the Hasidim?”

“They stay here, to be near the rebbe.”

“So the boys in your community look for spiritual inspiration from their roshei yeshiva, which the Hasidic kids get from the rebbe.”

“That’s right,” Reuven said.  He told me that he and his wife have been living in a two-family house with his in-laws for thirty years.  “We go to Lakewood for shabbos when we can,” he said.  “Sometimes they come to us.  It can take an hour and a half, an hour and three quarters, depending on traffic.

“The last non-Jew in the neighborhood just passed away,” said Reuven.  “There are still a couple of non-religious Jews.  They have small dining rooms.”

“What do you mean?”

“Their kids visit once, maybe twice a year,” he said.  “Having a big dining room is not a priority for them the way it is for us.”

“Do you ever think of moving to Lakewood?” I asked.

“Reuven arched his eyebrows.  “And leave my in-laws?” he asked.  “They’re getting old and sick, and they need us.  They were there for us when we were young.  We can’t leave them now.”

What do grown children owe parents?  For the young to strain against the gravitational pull of the old–the tension between duty and autonomy–is hardly unique to Reuven and his circle.   Wherever children are raised, some kids end up in tight orbits and come by all the time.  Others circle far away and flit past now and then.

Reuven has a harder problem with this than other parents might, because his community defines itself as living an unbroken tradition, doing exactly what they used to do in the Old Country, or at least what they would like to think they used to do.  Maybe several generations once lived in the same house or next door because they couldn’t afford to move away or had nowhere to go.

For Reuven it’s vital that families stay close.  Small dining rooms are for goyim and non-frum Jews.  His kind of families are supposed to eat together on shabbosim and yomtovim.  And now look—his kids moved away for no better reason than that they wanted to, and they picked a trendy community where roshei yeshiva, not parents, are the role models.  Lakewood is all about learning Torah at the highest level.  How can a yeshivish parent argue with that?  And yet it’s the Hasidim, less concerned with elite learning, who’ve figured out how to keep their kids nearby.  This is tough for Reuven to take.

It must seem unfair to him too.  When they were young, Reuven and his wife did what kids are supposed to do—they moved in with her parents.  In the back of their minds was the unspoken hope that every parent the world over must have at some point: “When our kids grow up, it will be our turn.”  Well, maybe yes and maybe no.  Certainly for Reuven it’s not working out quite that way.  His kids are in an unexpectedly remote orbit, from a yeshivish perspective.  An hour and three quarters across the Verrazano Bridge and Outerbridge Crossing on a short winter Friday is a long way off.  It’s likely that their kids and the grandchildren will be on their own for many such shabbosim, eating with their own friends who left parents back in Brooklyn, or wherever they came from.  This leaves Reuven’s big dining room in Boro Park empty, at least of the people who were meant to fill it.

Kids.  You aim them, you launch them, but you never know how far away they’ll end up spinning around.

Considering the site where this blog appears, chances are that some of you reading it emigrated from English-speaking countries where your parents still live.

So you know exactly what I mean, don’t you?

About the Author
Avi Rockoff lives in Newton, Massachusetts