November 15, 2019

Thoughts On Diaspora

What does it mean to be home, and not home, at the same time?

I’ve been thinking about the idea of diaspora ever since I left the East Coast and moved to my husband’s adopted hometown of Portland, Ore., five years ago.

Let me pause for a moment to say: In an age of refugees and epidemic homelessness, having a safe and stable place to live is a privilege — although it should be a right. I know I am lucky to live here, to raise my children here.

But that’s the thing about diaspora: When one’s physical needs are met, the heart turns to the emotional ones.

I love many things about this town, and I’m certainly not here against my will, but every day I feel the distance from my family and old friends. Alongside the joy of new friends and the privilege of an actual backyard, there is a drumbeat of sadness. Two flights and nine hours of travel lie between me and my Baltimore-based parents. And so my kids see their grandparents only a few times a year. Being together on birthdays and holidays is a rare exception, and most of my oldest friends have never met my son.

The children of immigrants grow up as Americans who have never known another life, just as my children think of Portland as their only home.

I truly am grateful to make my home here. It’s just … really far from home.

I know I am not alone in this. If you merge your life with a person from another place, especially with kids in the mix, it’s fairly inevitable. Economics, love and school districts combine into a stark truth: someone’s going to be far from home.

And so here I am in the diaspora of the Diaspora. And in the way Jewish prayers long for Jerusalem, I find myself longing for New York, where I lived for 14 years. (Not that I necessarily want to move back there — just as many Jews pray to return to Jerusalem three times a day for decades, although they could just buy a plane ticket.)

Still, when I go back to visit, just walking down the street in certain neighborhoods is like watching a slide show of my life. It’s as if the city holds keys to my past: There’s the block where my grandmother grew up; there are the red brick buildings of my college; there’s the office building where I worked; and the cafes and bars where I talked for hours with friends, when we were young together. I see layers of places I loved; ghosts of lovers and teachers; doorways and corners and elevators and apartments where I became who I am now.

And yet, again, even in this nostalgia, I am fortunate. New York may be gentrified almost beyond recognition, but it is there. How many refugees think of the shops, streets, chimneys of their former homes, knowing they no longer exist at all?

There is another side to the story of this place where I now live, too. Two hundred years ago, this land was inhabited by Native Americans of the Multnomah tribe. They were almost entirely wiped out by disease in 1830, the remainder forced by the white settlers to live on a reservation two hours away.

And now, as rents continue to skyrocket, people who have lived in Portland for generations — primarily families of color —  are being displaced from the city center, fracturing their communities. I am part of this story, too.

I don’t know how to solve these complex equations of diaspora. All I can do is to try to be mindful of them as I make my way in this new home.

Meanwhile, time passes, and we grow into the places where we live. The children of immigrants grow up as Americans who have never known another life, just as my children think of Portland as their only home. And I, too, feel this place becoming part of me. Here my second child came into the world; here I make seder each spring and celebrate Rosh Hashanah each fall; here I teach Torah and plant my gardens and wake up each day a little more at home.

I think of the Jewish tradition of leaving part of a house unpainted in memory of the destruction of the ancient Temple, and the exile that followed. Perhaps this tradition is also a symbol of a larger truth.

Displacement, migration, diaspora: These are part of the human experience. We’re just lucky if we get some choice in the matter. A little heartbreak threads through every place we call home.

Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.