Elul ushers in a season of reflection. It is a time when we stop and think about who we are, where we come from and where we are headed. We look back at where we have been, take note of where we are and do what we can to move forward to where we want to go.
In that context, this Elul has been particularly poignant, as I have been reflecting on my childhood home, the memories and warm feelings that are wrapped up with it and what it has meant to my life.
Stability, security, serenity.
My parents moved to their house in Great Neck, NY in 1979, when I was a few months old. Over forty years later, they are preparing to walk out their front door for the last time next week, when they will head to the airport to board their aliya flight to Israel.
It is hard to let go. There are so many nostalgic elements.
The purple carpet in my sisters’ room that for years hosted our Friday night sleepovers; the basement where my grandfather taught me to play “hit the penny”; the back room where we would dump and then carefully divide the mishlo’ach manot candy; the dining room table that we ran around singing zemirot; the stairs we dangerously slid down in sleeping bags while my parents slept on Shabbos afternoons; the couches we would sit on schmoozing with friends; and the triangle window that was great for inconspicuously spying on each other’s dates coming and going through that same door that will soon have new locks.
But a home is more than just the actual house.
There is the front lawn, the deck, the sukkah, the backyard, the flowers and bushes, and the pebbles in the driveway. Down the block is the corner where we waited as little girls for the bus while playing soccer with a special little rock that my father used to save and hide so we could reuse it each day.
And then there is the big rock next to the tree on the other side of the sidewalk, which we would sit on and talk or sometimes just step on as we left the house. That rock was always there. It has forever been part of the landscape that defined our home.
The tree that was next to the rock fell over in a hurricane a few weeks ago and uprooted the whole area. The adjacent patch of grass was destroyed, and the tree and the rock are now gone. The front of the house looks different.
It feels symbolic. The landscape we have known so well is changing.
Some things about Great Neck, though, have stayed the same.
The beauty of Steppingstone Park, the ice-skaters on Sundays, the Old Village crafts fair in the spring, the quaint shops of Middle Neck Road, the bustling of Everfresh Supermarket on a Friday afternoon, the LIRR express trains to the city, the smell of the bagel store in the morning. These are the sights, sounds and aromas that I can see, hear and smell when I long for Great Neck.
But what truly makes a place home are the people who live there, who love you and know you and accept you and remind you of where you came from.
Today, all those people who have made Great Neck home to my family and me over my father’s four-and-a-half decade career as a rabbi took the time to drive by my parents’ physical home and say goodbye.
Though I was watching over Zoom from Israel and couldn’t see their faces, I could imagine who they were.
My friends’ parents, whose Shabbos tables I know well, who fed me and entertained me and helped raise me. And my parents’ friends, who were there for us and by our sides rejoicing and crying in the best and worst of times.
The many congregants of the Young Israel of Great Neck who were part of the fabric of our lives, whom we davened with and went to tashlich with. The ones who gave us candy on Simchas Torah and looked the other way while we had some fun tying their talleisim. The Kohanim who blessed us on chagim, singing their beautiful niggun, the powerful shofar blowers on Rosh Hashana, the emotional megillah readers, the brilliant shiur givers and the joyful kiddush goers.
The doctors and dentists who cared for us, the shop owners who greeted us, the friends who have moved back in, the neighbors we ran into all around town, those whose extended families are well known to us and those newcomers whom we were only beginning to know. The old-timers who were there when I was born, celebrated my bat mitzvah with me and danced at my wedding; and those whom I only met when I was all grown up with children of my own.
As the High Holidays approach, we often find ourselves feeling vulnerable. The prayers we will soon say focus much on this frailty:
“A man’s origin is from dust, and his destiny is back to dust. At risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.”
We search and yearn for those things in life that give us grounding, that keep us tethered, that hold us firm and keep us going strong. Even in uncertain and challenging times, when the wind is blowing and the dust is flying all around us.
Soon my childhood house will no longer be mine.
The tree and rock that were always outside are already gone.
The landscape has changed.
But Great Neck will always be at the core of who I am.
It is part of the very bedrock and foundation of my being.
And that can never be uprooted.