Tomorrow is the first night of Pesach and I’m thinking today about people who fled a dangerous homeland to find a better life in a foreign country. My Grandpa Sidney left Poland at the age of 17 and never saw his parents or most of his family again. He traveled to New York on a ship with his older brother. It is a typical Jewish story; a typical American story. My Jewish people have millions of them. My American people have millions of them. And some of those stories (now lost) are those of the people of Exodus who walked out of Egypt into the desert in ancient times. Not all of those people, by-the-way, were Jewish. There were many non-Jews who fled Egypt when Pharaoh gave permission to leave. And once they left, the lives of those who joined the Exodus were not daisies and happy endings. Sure, they were freed from slavery, but they wandered in the desert for 40 years before settling in the land that would later become Israel.
My husband Ron left his home on the Southside of Chicago at the age of 17 to escape the gang culture that permeated his community. He fled, certain that had he stayed he would have been killed by gang members because he refused to join a gang. He enlisted in the Navy. It was his ticket to a new life, filled with different challenges. He never lived in Chicago again. Sometimes it has been especially hard for him to be far from his family, like when his mother passed away and it took us a couple of days to get there. But contemporary telecommunications make it easier now since he is able to stay in touch with loved ones daily.
There is a story in the old testament about God coming to Abraham and telling him to pack up and go to a new land unknown to him that God would show him. The portion of the bible with this story is called in Hebrew “Lech Lecha” and the Jewish musician Debbie Friedman wrote a song about it that was one of my mother’s favorite songs. The words go “Lech lecha to a land that I will show you; l’chee lach to a place you do not know” – God’s words to Abraham instructing him to go forth on faith. How many have fled oppression, an impossible life, and struck out into the unknown on faith?
How painful for those forced to leave behind family, friends, community, and a beloved geography, a land of heart-connection. I think of the families of Fukushima in Japan, whose home is now deadlanded because of the radiation spill. Fukushima means Good Fortune Island in Japanese. Someone must have felt lucky to live in that beautiful place by the ocean to give it that name. No longer a place of beauty or good fortune. I think of the Native people made to walk for miles along a Trail of Tears away from the land their people had lived on for thousands of years. I think of the multitudes of exiles who fled horror and certain death in their home countries, who traveled to America not just for a better life but to survive.
Once I had a conversation with Sudi when he was a teenager, not much younger than my grandfather was when he came to this country, about leaving home and going into exile to survive. He said he would not have been able to flee Eastern Europe to escape the rise of Nazism because he would miss me and Ron too much. He would not have been able to leave his parents behind, like so many people did in that time. Imagine facing that decision. The anguish of those good-byes. I think of refugees from around the world who have torn themselves up at the roots and started over in an alien place. My parents once befriended a Russian physicist who works as a waiter. A few weeks ago I met a Mexican doctor who works cleaning houses while taking night classes in English with the dream that she will eventually practice medicine again.
It would break my heart to leave Mendocino County. I come from a wandering tribe and I have found a home here. Finding a home is one of the themes of my life because for so long I felt uprooted, restless, exiled. I am a Jew in diaspora, but I am one of the lucky ones because I found a place that speaks to my spirit; not just a home, but a place where I dwell; a slice of paradise that is not far from the ocean that I love. Fortunately, I did not have to leave everyone behind in the process. I still communicate with those I love across the distance. I feel grateful to have found Mendocino, and especially so right now in the spring when the flowers are dancing in the streets, the exquisite dogwoods in bloom, the wild iris beginning to appear, all the bulb plants running riot. Well, to be honest, also especially so in the fragrant winter rain and the blistering heat of summer when the garden is bursting with vegetables and in the autumn when the grapevines are lit up in orange, gold, and red. This beautiful landscape holds me in embrace. And yet if I had not stepped out on faith, believing that something miraculous and beautiful awaited me, I would never have traveled here and found my true heartland. Exodus.