This week, after 14 years living in Israel, where I never intended to leave, I’m moving back to my ancestral homeland of the South Side of Chicago, where, among other things, I’m excited to be spearheading the “Back to Basics” intro. to Judaism class for the Mishkan community. When I made the decision, in late November, I sent a detailed explanation to my friends; some of the issues covered there may be of general interest, regarding the history of Jewish, urban life, white flight, and cultural identity, as well as the prospects for a progressive Israel, so I am sharing an edited version of what I originally wrote, here with the Jewschool community.
1) I’m from there
I think I’m a rarity among American Jews in that I feel like I’m from somewhere. On my Grandpa Norman’s side, my family has been on the South Side of Chicago uninterrupted since 1888. I’m from somewhere with a story. The ~4-square mile area of the Southeast Side had 13 synagogues in 1962. By 1972, it had one. So abrupt and devastating was the scourge of White Flight. The one that remained, by the way, was the first one, old Bikur Cholim, which my great-great grandfather helped build in the late 1880s in working class South Chicago, and which was already “on its last legs” by the 1940s and sputtered along until the 1980s.
White Flight didn’t just “happen”. I grew up with stories from my late Grandpa, Sam Lesner, about how night after night in the late 1960s, he was harassed by phone calls at 2am, 3am, from blockbusting real estate agents — many of them Jewish — trying to get him to panic-sell: “Lesner, I’m ready to give you a price right now. If you don’t sell now, you might lose everything. Another one moved onto your block.” My mild-mannered grandfather would slam the phone down: “Leave me alone, you sonofabitch! We’re staying!” I spent much glorious time at my grandparents’ house right up until his death in late 1990, in a beautiful, friendly, all-Black Pill Hill.
My parents settled in Hyde Park, the one South Side neighborhood that remained integrated and still had a functioning (though smaller) Jewish community. A snapshot from my youth: We’re at some Jewish event in the northern suburbs. My parents run into someone they used to know. Chit-chat, chit-chat, “YOU STILL LIVE ON THE SOUTH SIDE?!” Looks of shock and horror. Sometimes followed up with, “But no one lives there anymore!” I never knew what to be more offended by: the blatantly racist erasure of Black people’s existence as relevant, or the ignorance. They meant that no Jews lived there, even though there were 3 synagogues, a JCC, a Jewish elementary school, and a campus Hillel in Hyde Park. I went to shul every Shabbat with 100 people and participated in the daily minyan.
To this day, very little rattles me more than north shore Jews who make smug, dismissive, (racist) joking remarks about the South Side, or expressing shock that I come from there. Usually, as we mature into adults, our adolescent anger calms down as we learn and gain perspective. As I’ve dug more into this story as an adult, interviewing people and reading scholarship, my anger has deepened, even as its targets have shifted to the officials in the banking, government, and real estate sectors who made segregation and White Flight a policy, one by which a small number of white people could get rich despoiling Black wealth by stoking fear in moderates, especially Jews. Through all this, I feel more and more that my people are on the South Side, and in Hyde Park in particular. I’ve even been writing poetry about the South Side. I’ve been living in the Promised Land, but the South Side is the Ancestral Homeland.
2) Fascinating things are happening in Chicago
I’ve also found myself taking keen interest in the fascinating developments in Jewish, urban Chicago in general and Hyde Park in particular over the past few years and observed myself brainstorming with various Torah-teaching friends in the city as though I live there, and noticed the animated and perceptive nature of my engagement. My sense is that the pendulum for Jewish community is shifting back urban from the suburbs and that there are many interested Jews with a shortage of infrastructure serving them. My independently-minded, Torah-teaching friends agree that this moment seems to be “עת רצון” — a time of favor — and that if I’m there, I’ll figure out ways to be useful, which is so much of all that I seek in life, anyway.
There are personal, family considerations as well; suffice it to say that my parents still live on the South Side and living far away looks different at different times of life.
This Move is Not about Leaving Israel; that’s an Unfortunate Consequence
I want to be explicit about this. It’s an amazing privilege to live in the Land of Israel and participate in the audacious and historically unlikely enterprise of trying to cultivate a responsible and safe Jewish society in this most special and most Jewish place. I’m already mourning about leaving — my friends and community and living life in Hebrew, as well as the more grandiose ideal.
On top of that, the hour is urgent. Every time someone who cares about human rights leaves Israel, I grieve: We need help! I feel that the State of Israel is destroying its own soul, and its body can’t, then, be too far behind. The occupation is the greatest stain on the Jewish people today, an urgent crisis mostly of our own making. The Torah tells us that inheriting the land is not due to our merits (Deut. 9), that we are to see ourselves in it as resident aliens (Lev. 25:23), and that if we don’t act properly in the land, we will be exiled, destroyed, spit out by the land. I’m not a Biblical literalist, but so far in history, these warnings have always been fulfilled. I fear that the next exile is coming, and once again, we will say, “Because of our sins, we were exiled from the land/מפני חטאינו גלינו מארצנו” (Festival Musaf Amida).
Some friends think that the Rubicon has been crossed, that Israel has corrupted itself beyond repair, and they may interpret my move in that light. That is not how I see things. I believe that the gates of repentance are still open and that we must reform and establish liberty throughout the land, unto all its inhabitants. I regret that I won’t be doing my full part. Still, every day for the past 10 years, I have thought about R. Yochanan ben Zakai, the father of Rabbinic Judaism as we know it, who, the Talmud tells, escaped from Jerusalem during the siege, opting to start over in exile with some students to save Torah, recognizing that his own people’s politics were irredeemably captive by hooligans who were going to bring the whole thing down (Gittin 56). Every day I ask myself what those hooligans, the biryonei, sound like. Have Eli Yishai, Miri Regev, and Danny Danon won? Is it over? I don’t think so, but…what if….
This is a conversation of the privileged; let’s use our privilege responsibly.