Most adults in the United States remember a close relative who was not born here.
My family emigrated from the region alternately claimed by Ukraine, Poland and Russia. Yours may have come from Italy, Morocco, Guatemala, Ghana.
Namira Islam Anani’s family came from Bangladesh. They brought with them more or less of their material wealth (I’m guessing less), but a heart filled with memories.
Mostly, those relatives were grateful to be here. Even if they did not arrive while fleeing persecution, they came expecting opportunity. Other than those whose immigration was involuntary, most did not regret that decision.
But the “Old Country” is hard to let go of. Everything there is familiar, even the pain. So, it is not unusual for new arrivals to America to hold fast to what they left behind, even as they find their way into the new normal.
For my Ashkenazic Jewish ancestors (according to 23-and-Me that’s 100% of me), that included Yiddish and synagogues that followed European customs and “benevolent associations” (in Yiddish “landsmannshaften”) that existed for mutual support and social opportunities.
But where was home?
The answer to that question is not as easy as deciding where you would prefer to live. Lots of speculation peppers culture on the subject.
Some would claim home is where the heart is (Pliny the Elder). Some would declare that any place I hang my hat is home (Arlen and Mercer). Some would insist that home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in (Frost).
When I am asked about my hometown, I don’t answer “Alexandria,” where I have lived for more than half my life, nor even “Wilmette,” my address through most of my childhood. The answer is “Sweet Home Chicago” (Johnson, then Les Freres Bleus).
I think that people associate home with authenticity. That doesn’t necessarily mean the place of personal origin, but it does mean the ethos in which a person feels most real.
Especially here in America, my home sweet home (Berlin), where the government of the people, by the people and for the people (oh, you know that one) does not have deep roots, we have recreated the gardens in which our roots are deep.
Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago is almost as Polish as Warsaw. San Francisco is first among cities in which Mandarin is spoken among neighborhood businesses.
The Portuguese population of Danbury, Connecticut, was eventually supplanted by the Hmong community. And if there is a less likely place to find a fully formed Somali culture than Minneapolis, I’d be hard-pressed to name it.
There comes a time when a home like that is only a memory.
The Chicago of my first grade does not exist anymore, even less so the Horochow or Mozir of grandparents and their grandparents long since dead.
And even if there is still a town called Berdichev, or a city named Lviv, the stories handed down of when those places were actually, really home can no sooner be replicated than Mr. Simon, the old greengrocer on Devon Avenue, can reach into a tall glass jar and hand me a foot-long pretzel stick.
So, I know why Namira Anani found special resonance in the teaching of her imam, “Home is not where your grandparents are buried. Home is where your grandchildren will be raised.”
Expressing a longing for the best of what used to be is natural, but the context has evaporated.
The decision to leave behind that which used-to-be home – one that many make geographically, and all make temporally – creates a void that needs to be filled. Even if you go back, you have to start again.
Namira Islam Anani is contending with a situation every American has faced, save those who are native to this land. Blessed though we are, eyes look with longing and expectancy to the place we believe is authentic, the place we call home.
The immigrant community into which she was born as a United States citizen is grateful to be here, but it is hard for them to let go of the Old Country. The advice she heard her imam offer his Bangladeshi community is just as true for the contemporary descendants of the passengers on the Mayflower.
One more observation, perhaps not so small. The pleasures of home are not outside the trials and tribulations that push us all into our new worlds.
Sometimes, when we can’t find familiar pleasure, we look for familiar pain. That’s a memory for a different day.
President of Interfaith Alliance and a Conservative rabbi. He is currently serving on Good Faith Media’s strategic advisory board.