It’s been nearly a year since unexpected events resulted in my move from Crown Heights where I had lived for 40 years. We had moved there in 1977 shortly after we had returned to the States from the U.K., where my husband had served as an Air Force chaplain. Having lived in a cocoon-like existence on a military base, we had a lot of adjustments to make upon returning home.
My husband is a city boy, having grown up in the Bronx, while I grew up in Bayonne, NJ, which provided a more relaxed quality of life where even strangers greet one another. I therefore had no experience to prepare me for living in Brooklyn, where one constantly looks over one’s shoulder as a form of proactive self-protection. Perhaps that explains why, when I would greet a stranger with my customary friendly hello, often I would receive a look of surprise but no return greeting.
In 1977 I was shocked to find that the demographics of Crown Heights had changed considerably from the mid-1960s when I used to visit with my parents, of blessed memory. Then the neighborhood was teeming with a huge Jewish population comprised of Lubavitchers, Litvish, as well as Modern Orthodox and Conservative Jews. On a Shabbos or Yom Tov, one would be hard-pressed to find a spare seat on the benches dotting Eastern Parkway.
When we made the decision to move there, I expected to find the same sort of environment. There was absolutely no way to prepare me for what I did find: deserted streets. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt”l, had implored his Chassidim not to abandon their community, so the Lubavitch community remained intact, joined by only one remaining Litvish minyan.
In neighborhood homes, as well as on apartment windows, gates were affixed to windows. Several locks were installed on most front doors. My reception to the neighborhood was a brick thrown through my front window which narrowly missed my baby’s head.
An outsider might expect that we would have moved out long ago, but we had put down roots there. We were educating our children there and it was where we intended to remain.
Once my children were all in school, I took part-time positions in order to supplement my husband’s income. The jobs ranged from education to public service positions. I tried my best to bring a measure of positivity to all my encounters. A friendly smile goes a long way and brings immeasurable rewards.
The race riots which drove out a huge portion of the Jewish population in the mid-60s did not quell the unrest in the area that continued until the eruption of the 1991 race riot which took place on our street. My husband returned home from work at risk of his life—walking right behind the perpetrators. Friends who lived in the safer part of town, or out-of-town, insisted on rescuing us, but my husband refused: No one was going to drive us from our home.
The chanting: “Get the Jews!” continued. We were running out of food, but obviously we would not venture out to procure any. An African-American neighbor, with whom I had cordial relations, took her life in her hands to go out to get food for our family.
As my children grew up and moved away, indeed there were times when we did look into possible jobs in other locations, but nothing materialized. Yet the demographics were soon to make our decision to remain moot. With the influx of white, middle-class individuals (a.k.a. “Yuppies”), rents rose through the roof (pardon the pun!) and we could no longer remain in the neighborhood.
It has not been easy to uproot myself. I raised my children in Crown Heights. I hosted legions of folks in my home over the years. I worked in several positions in the neighborhood. Baruch Hashem, I made several family simchas during the 40 years that we lived there. Conversely, I sat shiva for my parents there as well.
In most cases, seniors such as myself downsize at this life stage, rather than upsize, if you will. The change is overwhelming. It’s tiring and very unexpected.
Nearly a year later, I am still in shock that a city girl like myself now resides in the oh-so-quiet country where flying turkeys, families of deer, and field mice are my new neighbors. During a typical day, the eerie quiet is punctuated by the isolated sound of a car door slamming or an unexpected knock on my front door which results in a flight-or-fright response.
Yet I appreciate, at this stage more than ever, any opportunity to connect with others in a meaningful way. So after 40 years, I am assiduously working on accepting that I am where Hashem wants me to be, and with the Rebbe’s teaching in mind to make a Mikdash Me’at wherever one finds oneself, I pray that I will be successful.