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Jul 11 2011

Planting Roots, Leaving L.A. Behind

By at 9:38 am

Sarah's plants. Some of them will even be planted in the earth.

I’ve heard the stories at least a hundred times: My Great Grandma Tsiryl dry-heaving over the side of a steamer ship as they rolled up into Baltimore Harbor in 1904. A pregnant Great Grandma Esther stoically clutching the belly that held the baby that would one day be my grandfather while ocean waves battered the hull of the last ship out of Europe before World War I.

Two different women from two different places, and yet they shared such a similar experience with each other and with the thousands upon thousands of other Jewish immigrants who left Eastern Europe for American shores. They crammed their lives into small suitcases – sometimes with incredible forethought, other times in great haste, they kissed their families goodbye, and on trains or buggies or by foot they traveled over hostile terrain toward distant harbors, and ultimately onto ships that would take them excruciatingly slowly, slowly, slowly away from the achingly familiar.

(Cue Itzhak Perlman playing something in a minor key.)

And like so many others who left the cities and shtetls of Eastern Europe during those fragile years at the turn of the 20th century, my Great Grandmothers made it work.  They gave birth to American babies. They raised their children in broken English. They played Mah Jong and drank coffee with other landsman in cramped apartments in big cities far away from their childhood friends. They waited for letters from their families. They dreaded the inevitable telegram. They celebrated mitzvahs and simchas at the synagogue. They sat shiva. They buried their own on foreign soil. Read the rest of this entry →

Mar 1 2011

Little Apartment, Big City

By at 12:14 pm

We’ve been sleep-training our baby, which means moving the big boy temporarily into our room so he and the baby don’t disturb each other with their midnight mayhem.  I’m antsy to reclaim my space, and after one recent failed attempt to bring them back together I railed at my husband: that’s it! We need a house! We need more rooms!

Ever the Vulcan, he calmly explained to me that by the time we find a house, bid on it, get financing, close and move in, presumably the sleep issues will have already worked themselves out. Spoken like a man who grew up in a little apartment in a big city.

I, on the other hand, grew up in a big house with more rooms than we really needed. And as our family grows, sometimes our two bedroom apartment in Washington DC feels like it’s bursting at the seams. We’ve started to understand why almost all of our friends dutifully left downtown for the suburbs when baby number two came along. And yet we stay…happily, most of the time.

Raising children in a big city is a mixed bag. For instance: We live in the nation’s capitol. This is awesome, and means that my older son gets to see the White House, the Capitol Building, the Smithsonian museums, and the memorials as a matter of course, and has an amazing array of international friends. It also means that the Vice President’s motorcade zooms past our apartment—noisily—at all hours of the day and night. And I suspect that suburban moms don’t have to stand over their children’s cribs loudly shushing to drown out the sound of the Free Tibet protest down the street.

Then there are the people. Cities seem to economically favor the young and unencumbered and the older and established. What this means, practically, is that in addition to a few 4-year-old playmates at shul, my big boy has befriended the 86-year-old retiree who studies Talmud with my husband and a gaggle of doting young professionals. I love that his world is full of these positive and sometimes unusual things—older Jews continuing to be active and razor sharp, younger Jews voluntarily engaged with Jewish life.  I also kind of wish, though, that our community was filled with more families that looked like ours.

In my imaginary suburban life, I send my kids into the backyard to frolic with the (as yet imaginary) dog on our beautifully manicured lawn. But here in real life, I guess I’ll content myself to grab the kids and head to one of the seven beautiful playgrounds walking distance from our cramped city apartment. While we’re there we’ll probably hear at least four different foreign languages and meet a bunch of new people. Maybe the suburbs can wait.

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