Trip to Jewish homeland reawakens writer’s senses

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I just flew in from the Jewish homeland — and boy are my arms tired! I’m sorry; I couldn’t resist. I promise to repent for that one come Yom Kippur.

As always, I found the homeland to be an incredibly tense place. Drivers leaned on their horns and cursed, impatient commuters elbowed each other on public transportation, and violent and otherwise depressing stories filled the news.

Yet there was the wonderful experience of walking down the street amid a sea of kippot, the feeling of being among my own. There was the invigorating bustle, the historic sights, and, of course, the delicious falafel and kosher Chinese food.

I heart New York!

I took my first pilgrimage there to look at graduate schools in my mid-20s, but I fell in love with the place long before. It must have started with Sydney Taylor’s “All of a Kind Family,” a series of stories about a group of poor young immigrant sisters who grew up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side on the eve of World War I.

Raised in a small suburb in Northern California with relatives scattered throughout the South, I knew a world very different from that of Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie. Growing up, I was always one of only a handful of kids taking off school for the Jewish holidays, a fact that made me feel somewhat alien. The sisters’ Jewish world, on the other hand, was so insular their non-Jewish librarian seemed exotic.

Long before I could articulate what it meant to me to be Jewish, I felt some kind of visceral attraction to the world of petticoats and peddlers the “All of a Kind Family” sisters inhabited. It was unfamiliar, but it seemed strangely like home.

Woody Allen came into the picture as I got older, refining my vision of the faraway state. In the New York he helped me imagine, neurotic, overly analytical Jews like me tried to make sense of life and love in a world of enchanting autumn leaves. Their repartee was always brilliant and witty, and took place, of course, to the strains of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”

New York was the Promised Land, and I had to get there.

Finally, during grad school, I got to live in the city of my dreams. And while I never stopped seeing it through the prism of “Annie Hall,” (boiled!) bagels and heaping pastrami sandwiches, I quickly became conscious of the New York beyond Lincoln Center and Carnegie Deli.

My first week there, I was mugged at gunpoint. Working for a student newspaper that covered the South Bronx, I reported on a poverty unlike anything I’d ever conceived. The city of Mott Haven, in the early ’90s at least, looked like Lebanon at its most pockmarked and bombed out. No Gershwin there.

Like most who live in New York, I became accustomed to crowds and hassles and the smell of urine in summer subway stations. All of the city’s unique sights, smells and sounds became a part of its sensory stew — and probably nothing more so than the ubiquitous payot, long black coats and signs in Hebrew and Yiddish.

Having come from a place where I had to actively seek cultural signposts, New York’s overt Jewishness was one of the things I valued most about it. I still do.

During this month’s visit, at a kosher restaurant in midtown, diners on one side of my friend and me engaged in a lengthy discussion on the Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law. Neighbors to our other side talked about their chazzan or cantor. I can’t remember the last time that happened to me in a restaurant in the Mission!

That’s not to say I want to be a New Yorker. After living there briefly, I came back because my roots are here, and so is my heart. There may not be kosher bakeries and Jewish gift shops on every corner, but the Bay Area has a Jewish community rich in spirit, innovation and diversity.

I’ll probably never make aliyah, but I’ll always treasure visits back to my Jewish homeland.

It may not be the Holy Land exactly, but in my book, it comes deliciously close.