“What would not I give to wander, where my old companions dwell? Absence makes the heart grow fonder; Isle of Beauty, fare thee well!” – Thomas Haynes Bayly
Does absence really make the heart grow fonder? I suppose it depends for whom or for what. It was a good excuse to present to my high school principal when cutting class, and when I played hooky indefinitely. It was surely true when separated from my fiancé through our long engagement. But did years of absence from Williamsburg, from the buildings where I was born and raised, absence from old companions, make my heart grow fonder?
After nearly four years of absence from the States, a short, early summer visit proved to be nostalgic. The purpose was primarily to visit my eldest sister whom I had not seen for a number of years. She has retired from long distance travel, and certainly from overseas travel, and I have been on leave of absence as an air passenger. Getting together again was recognition that neither of us availed ourselves of the legendary “fountain of youth” that the Spanish explorer Poncé de Leon supposedly discovered in 1513.
A son and grandson, my travel partners, granted me the opportunity to reflect, and to deliver short historic commentary on family, friends, and sites as we drove from one Jewish community to the next.
Arrival time at Newark Airport forced us to exit speedily so that my son could find a minyan for Maariv. Thanks to Waze, the brilliant Israeli invention, we were guided directly to the door of the Jewish Educational Center (JEC) in Elizabeth, N.J. where a minyan was about to begin. I remained in the car contemplating the sign on the building dedicated to Rabbi Teitz zt”l. My children had never heard of the Teitz family or Rabbi Teitz, and they had no idea of his accomplishments as the European-born rav and Torah scholar educator in Elizabeth N.J. for sixty years. I suppose it can be likened to my first experience in Israel sixty years ago when I observed a sign on a yeshiva, “Merkaz Harav Kook.” I was ignorant of the great Rav Kook zt”l, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandatory Palestine. Years later, I learned that my uncle, Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt”l, who planted the seeds to spread Torah throughout the United States, was niftar on the third of Elul, the same day as Rav Kook zt”l. “Mr. Mendlowitz,” as he insisted that he be addressed, was an enthusiastic admirer of the great tzadik, author, and former Chief Rabbi Kook.
Baltimore, Lakewood, Monsey, Boro Park – better known as the “heavyweight” sections of the Torah-observant world of America – is where we spent most of our week away from Yerushalayim; away from home.
I was overcome with a wave of nostalgia as we drove into Williamsburg on Sunday, the 17th of Tammuz. My last good-bye to the street where I lived was some 20-25 years ago. At the time, the street had the appearance of a bombed-out Berlin after World War II. Our house at 167 South 9th Street at the corner of Driggs Avenue was in shambles, glass windows shattered, druggies holed up in the empty shell.
What a surprise to see our house replaced with a new building. Large brick apartment houses lining the opposite side of the street have been renovated, the facades restored to their original stately appearance.
The previous Novominsker Rebbe’s brownstone and shtiebel, a few houses away from ours, has also disappeared, but a new building, a nursing home, has taken a prominent place on the street. The Rebbe would be pleased to know that below the nursing home is a kollel and Beis Medrash.
I have fond memories of the Rebbe and the shtiebel where my grandmother davened when she could no longer walk to the Mesivta on South 3rd Street. As a child, I was sure the Rebbe was Moshiach, or at least that was how I imagined Moshiach would look when he would appear to whisk us away to Eretz Yisroel. A white fur shtreimel adorned the Rebbe’s head on Yom Tov, and his white satin robe enhanced the halo that illuminated his long, yellowing white beard.
Although the street is populated largely by Chassidim, the imposing medieval looking church in the middle of the street is still functioning, and serving the non-Jewish residents of the area.
We drove and then walked around the neighborhood so I could photograph the renovated apartment building at 908 Driggs Avenue where I was born. The building still has an iron ladder hanging down from what appears to be a balcony, but was once our “fire escape.”
The awning over the entrance adds a gentrified look to the once simple, run-down apartment building that we moved from in 1947. “The Travel Store” at the entrance, was once my parents Mom and Pop Grocery, the store they opened in 1936. They eventually moved the store up the block to the corner house where I was raised, until I married and left in 1960.
The candy store on the corner of South 9th and Driggs,s where I drank chocolate ice-cream sodas and shared countless frappes with friends, isn’t there anymore, but next door, a tarnished sign reading “Dry Cleaners” is still visible above a shuttered shop that once was Mr. Fuch’s dry cleaning store. The Roebling Street Deli, to my delight, is still operating as a deli, apparently under different management. Of course, I would have liked to buy a pastrami on rye, and some kosher American hot-dogs, but we were fasting in commemoration of the tragedy that happened to Am Yisrael in Yerushalayim over 2,000 years ago.
I rang the bell and knocked on the impressive front door of the new building on the property that once belonged to my parents. The new residents were not at home. Sifrei kodesh rested on the windowsill near the entrance, signaling the property remained in Jewish hands.
The streets of my childhood seemed so much shorter than I remembered, the roads not as wide, yet my grandson’s reaction to America was, “Everything is so big!”
I WhatsApp’ed pictures to my family with daily updates of our whereabouts. The sculpted gardens of my brother’s mansion in Monsey were in full bloom. Reactions to my updates were, “Wow! You sound like you’re having a grand time. Do you plan to stay?”
I reassured them with a message: “Kan noladati, kan gadalti, kan chunachti, aval zeh lo beiti” – I was born here, and raised here, and educated here, but this is not my home.
This last good-bye was not like any previous good-byes, when my heart and my head were not always in sync, and the lump in my throat turned to tears as the plane took off. Dry-eyed and satisfied that I had accomplished my mission, I watched the city grow smaller as the plane gained altitude and headed for home.
I had “wandered where my companions dwelled,” yet I was left with a sense of sincere concern for those who do not recognize, or are unable to realize where the “Isle of Beauty” is to be found. It is not Williamsburg or Baltimore, not Lakewood or Monsey. The Talmud teaches, “Ten measures of beauty descended to the world; nine were taken by Jerusalem.” Could it be that absence from Yerushalayim, absence from partaking of G-d’s gift to His chosen people, makes the heart grow fonder?
As America celebrated her 242nd birthday, ElAl’s new Dreamliner lifted smoothly off the ground and soared into the air for our return flight home. I was disappointed that my granddaughter was not the pilot; instead she had arranged an invitation for us to meet the Captain in the cockpit.
When the shofar of Moshiach resounds, my granddaughter will hopefully succeed where I have been ineffective. She will merit to fly the overbooked, standing-room-only flight; the long-awaited flight home to “Eretz Chemda” – to the desired land – the Land of Israel.