You Can't Go Home Again

I may tout myself as this hardcore New Yorker (11 years in this city gives me the street cred), but I was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. So my 11 years here doesn't quite eclipse my 18 spent there. There are things I do that will always anchor my Michigan roots. Sometimes I nasal my As when speaking (even if I don't want to admit it). I secretly still call it pop and not soda (though New York has trained me to say the latter). I'm an excellent driver (I learned to drive in snow). 

I love the Red Wings and Michigan football. And cherries. And Vernors--the gingeriest pop in the whole wide world, putting all other ginger ales to shame. When I listen to Motown, I get to own a piece of it because my dad also grew up in the suburbs of Detroit when that music played on the radio for the first time. 

But I left Detroit for college and never went home again. I visit, mostly for holidays. But not even a single summer was spent back in my hometown. I was almost eager to shed that skin and never return. So I didn't. 

It's true what they say--you can never go home again. Maybe New York does that to a person. I know other friends who took to this great city like I did and just couldn't go back to their hometowns. I walk around here and think to myself daily, "How does anyone live anywhere else?" New York changes you--but I still didn't grow up here.

So of course, I got chills watching the Chrysler ad during the Super Bowl. Those amazing shots of my first city. I recognized everything. The statues, the artwork, the rubble. It's the city where my dad took me to Tigers baseball games, driving down Woodward Avenue to the real Tigers Stadium. And countless trips to the Fox Theater for concerts and movies on a BIG screen (Spartacus! Ben Hur!)--for me, the most notable was getting to see Frank Sinatra when I was 8. It was the city that's fallen apart over the years, failing to really rebuild, or innovate industrially. It tugged my heartstrings.

I may never leave Brooklyn, but I still have a Michigan drivers license. It's been impossible for me to give it up. (Not just because they make it so damn easy to renew in the state of car culture.) But because once that goes, I've made the final split. Intellectually, I'm ready. But I'm a creature of nostalgia and sentiment--soon enough I'll just bite the bullet. I pay taxes here. I should probably get around to voting here too. But getting to say I'm from Detroit gives those of us lucky to say so a sense of pride--it's gritty and tough. I'm not some California lightweight. It's hard to let go.

The transition is tough, maybe because my family is also abandoning Detroit one by one. It's not just me who has gotten up and left (though I was first)--it's everyone. My parents won't be too far behind, that is as soon as one of us gets around to giving them a grandkid. And when that era ends, I'll consider it one of life's semicolons, like my dad says.

Someday I want to take my children to Up North Michigan to have summers on the Great Lakes looking for Petoskey stones and walking around Mackinac Island, riding bikes and eating fudge. I want my kids to love hockey (only the Red Wings, of course) and call it pop not soda. I want them to drive cars in ways that would make their Michigan family proud. And maybe they'll get to lay a little claim on Detroit too, because it'll always be home to me, even if I can't go back. 

God in the Hallways

I don't know why, but I don't expect God to show up so much in Hebrew School. Even though it's my job, and I spend 6 hours a week with young Jewish minds, I sometimes think we've only come to consider this type of education to be supplementary and perfunctory. Not inspiring or life-changing or even effective. This really doesn't do the kids any real service. But I still hope they'll take something away from our classes, and by some miracle, I happened to have a really big God week with several of my students in different classes.

First, was just the standard Torah study variety. It's hard not to study that book without having certain issues with the character of God in the text. In fact, my students are pretty well convinced that the God of the Torah is a real jerk. To the point where one student said, "Isn't it kind of douchey of God to put the Jews in slavery just so they can thank Him when He takes them back out again?" Marah 1, God 0.

Then, sometime during that same class did another student wisely compare God to a baker of pies. You have to experiment with the pie to get it right, and sometimes throw it all out, and even then not everyone is going to be happy with it, because not everyone likes blueberry pie in the first place.

But the big event was with my high schoolers. I think it is what you'd call a real teaching moment. I've been doing a mini course on Jewish fiction and creative writing. I just pick an excerpt from something Jewish, read it, and have the kids do a writing exercise on that topic. This last class we did Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret.

It wasn't that serious a selection, but what I wanted to know was how the kids were taught to believe in God. Most of them reported that they hadn't been, but were still expected to. And one kid said, "I'm an atheist because my friend died last year and I can't believe in God after that."

I can relate to that. Who can't? Also, if they've only been taught that God rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior, it's really hard to rationalize why bad thngs happen to good people. I'd stop believing in God too if that's how I thought divinity worked. And it's not like I haven't had my ups and downs with this relationship over the years.

But we went on to talk about the other options and images in Judaism about God. That God is a judge, king, shepherd. We ask to be protected in the shelter of God's wings. God is a potter (which always sung to me) and sculptor in one of the more beautiful Yom Kippur prayers. The options are endless.

I also talked to them about how the word Israel literally means, "struggles with God." We're supposed to struggle. It's right there in the very name we identify ourselves by. God isn't easy. The relationship isn't supposed to be. Only the difficult things are really worth it. Isn't that always true?

Then I had the kids write their own Dear God letters. And at the end of everyone's writing and sharing (if they wanted to), the young atheist asked if he could say something. And when I said of course, he said, "I'm really glad I took this class. You've made me start to believe in God again."

I am still weepy just thinking about it. For more than one reason.