This past weekend, The New York Times Magazine ran a feature in which New Yorkers described some of their most memorable walks and the stories behind the routes. What emerged was an animated portrait of the nooks and crannies of this city. The streets are the pathways through which life moves; they are the veins of NYC. A walk can be about so many things: routine, comfort, peace, discovery, observation and even memory. Sometimes, a walk can feel like going through a time machine and emerging in an alternate universe–you return to a place you thought you knew but now no longer recognize.
Here’s my story:
My parents were in town on vacation about two years ago, and we’d decided to take a walk through our old neighborhoods in Brooklyn –we’d lived in Midwood and Bensonhurst in the late 80s and early 90s. It was a lovely, breezy late-May day. The sun was shining when we arrived at that first house–an aging Victorian standing defiantly on a nondescript corner of Elmwood Avenue. The top floor had been ours for a few months in the fall and winter of 1989. My parents hadn’t seen the home in years, and I could tell they were experiencing a complex cocktail of emotions as we stood in its shadow. That apartment was dingy and rodent-filled, but it was our first place in the U.S. Months of immigration limbo, of statelessness, of uncertainty, had led to that point. They engaged a man who was standing by the gate near the sidewalk–what of the old couple who had lived here, they asked. The woman was still alive, the man replied, but she doesn’t live here anymore.
We walked across Ocean Parkway to our second apartment, a large studio with a foyer and a window that faced a brick wall. It was where our family of four really acclimated to American life. I became obsessed with Disney movies–The Little Mermaid, specifically. My brother got really into LEGOs. We ate birthday pizzas that would be coveted by anyone outside the tri-state area. Life was starting to make sense. Outside the apartment building was an entrance I knew nearly by heart. Here, my brother and would play tag with friends and hang out on the metal railing (since removed).
We kept walking east, toward Coney Island Avenue. We turned onto the street and walked south. We stopped into various Jewish-owned shops, flipping through Hebrew language children’s books and ogling the hamsa necklaces. As the day wound down we found ourselves across the street from the hasid-run yeshiva for Russian-Jewish immigrants my brother and I attended when we first arrived. My parents insisted we go inside. It was now a bookstore and my parents started a conversation with the man who was manning the one-room library of books. He told us the Russian-born rabbi who had run the yeshiva 25 years back had died. My parents were saddened by the news. He had been so kind. They mentioned I had been a student at the yeshiva. The man then asked me whether I knew the main tenants of being a Jewish woman. I didn’t. Well, not exactly in those term. What did he mean? He asked whether I went to a mikvah. No, never. He’s rolling over in his grave, the man said, referring to the rabbi. We looked at one another knowingly and excused ourselves. This place was no longer ours; our memories of it existed in a parallel realm now, separate from the modern reality of what it had become.
The three of us understood that the man was wrong. We knew the rabbi’s intention–to open the eyes of ignorant immigrants to the concept of Jewish tradition. He had succeeded, and we, with our Passover seders and synagogue outings–even if only for the high holidays, were a testament to that.
We walked on, toward the subway, toward another home that was now a distant memory.