Two months ago, during the week of Parshas Lech Lcha, I returned to my apartment to scrounge through my belongings for a few things before Shabbos, before we camped out a friend’s place. What I saw frightened me and left me reeling. I left the apartment knowing in my gut that there was no way I would be able to return to the place that was our home for the last three years. Our first NY apartment, the only home my little Naomi had ever known. It was a love/hate relationship, and it was over.
I lay in bed that night, mind turning over the events that were sending us Avraham Aveinu style out. Out to where? Was this our chance? Our chance to “escape”? Our message to leave this rat-ridden, snobbery-encrusted, piles of granite and mortar “Best City in The World?” And where to next?
My husband and I discussed it. Our concerns. Our concerns of this strange town and strange city. Our belief that while it’s been a fun, artistic ride if you will, our children would not be able to grow up in this place psychologically healthy. Impossible, right? So why not leave now? Why wait another couple of years? By the end of the night, I was convinced. New York, Brooklyn, we are OVER. DONE. Good riddance! Yes, of course, I thought with bittersweet emotions, I would miss things. I would miss people. I would miss energy. I would miss opportunities and the holiness that does actually live here, if you’re wide-eyed and intelligent enough to see it. If you work hard enough to see beauty and light, it can be found, in abundance. I would miss that. But life moves on. There’s lot of light elsewhere.
So, where to? California seemed top on the list, with my husband’s work there, Jewish communities there. Or Pittsburgh, for its apparently very special Jewish community that everyone raves about. We started talking to people, but there seemed no clear indication of our next step. I mean, yeah, everything sounded great, but how would we know? How would we know where we were needed? That was what it was all about, wasn’t it? I looked to the sky, a human sacrifice. “Hashem”, I thought. “ You kicked us out. Now show us the next path.”
But Gd wasn’t talking. Loudly, anyway. And I needed clarity and I needed it fast. So I did what any rational human being would do. I wrote a letter to the Rebbe.
I now have heard that some people find writing letters to a deceased Rebbe to be objectionable, and can indicate certain things about my philosophy about whether the Rebbe is or isn’t the Messiah, etc etc. I don’t delve into these discussions. I just write letters to the Rebbe, because you know what? It works. I get answers. So whatever.
Like when we were trying to decide whether or not to stay in Israel or go back to America, and I opened up a book to a letter where the Rebbe was telling someone davka “ someone of your caliber.. who leaves the US or England to settle in the Holy Land… becomes more suppressed. ( paraphrased) “ Telling this person to go back to where he came. Okay, sounds good. Got it.
So now, I found myself once again flipping through a book, sticking in a letter and asking the Rebbe about where would be the healthiest place for my family. This is the letter I received:
“Our ancestors in Egypt were a small minority, and lived in the most difficult circumstances. Yet, as our Sages relate they preserved their identity and, with pride and integrity, tenaciously clung to their way of life, traditions, and distinct uniqueness, precisely in this way was their existence assured, and also their true deliverance from slavery, physical and spiritual.”
Okay, so even in a hostile place like Crown Heights we could succeed, our children could grow up psychologically healthy in a crazy place, but should we stay here? Must we stay here ( dear Gd, no! No? Or, Do I want it ? )
Two weeks later, as we continued to flounder living in someone else’s home, I wrote again. And I got this response.
“ Your recent letter describes your unhappy lifetime experiences, your wanderings, and your troubles, and your frustrations and your disillusionments. You are concerned about these things and seek an explanation which will help you understand the suffering and misfortune which has beset you and your family. Some serious reflection will suggest that you shouldn’t be overly concerned with explanations. A person only sees a limited part of the big picture..”
That was the gist of the letter. No “answer”. I wrote again.
I need it spelled out, I wrote to the Rebbe, I need you to tell me exactly. I need it crystal clear.
And I got this response.
“ At all times, and moreso nowadays, everything should be done to spare one’s child any crisis in his life, for there are enough crises in life beyond our control. Inasmuch as your son has become so attached to the Yeshivah education.. there can be no doubt that to take him away from it and placing him in another environment.. is bound to create a crises.. which may have lasting effects, Gd forbid.”
The letter ended:
“ Go into exile to a place of Torah”.. I am certain that when parents concede to the above saying of our Sages despite their personal sacrifice, it is amply rewarded with the joy and happiness of their children… I cannot overemphasize the importance of return to New York before Rosh Hoshana…”
Okay. I hear. I got it. We’re needed here.
We decided to stay. But no one was accepting us! All of the apartments were turning us down. Finally, the week came when we could TAKE IT NO LONGER.
“This is the last week,” I said definitively to my husband. “ I can’t search anymore. I can’t have my life be so unpredictable, running here, running there…”
On the last day of our search ( the Thursday of the week), two places came up. Both seemed pretty great. One in a nonJewish part of town, a very, very large first floor of a house. The other, a very great, more expensive, first floor of a house with Jewish landlords. Which to choose? My husband told me it was my choice, but that I had to choose that night.
I was stuck. I didn’t know. I. Didn’t. Know. I mean, the cheaper place was cheaper, and it seemed really good, but it was older, and didn’t we just have problems with Naomi because of the lead in her blood? And nonJewish neighbors, with no Jews close by, in Crown Heights, where a little store was vandalized and people shouted “ Heil Hitler”? But… but.
I wrote a letter.
I got this response.
“ When a person who has been ill… obviously if there is something wrong, say with the blood of of the patient”
“..our Sages said to keep away from a bad neighbor and a bad friend ( as we also learn in Pirkei Avos). Here too one may ask what is wrong if I live in a house where there is a bad neighbor. But the reason is the same as above.”
We didn’t know the species, the varmin, the hidden damages of that older home. We didn’t
know if my daughter’s blood would be affected again. And we didn’t know the neighbors.
The more expensive place I decided. I told my husband. You sure? He questioned.
I was. Deep down, I was. The letter told me ,too. And yet I floundered.
“I don’t know.. maybe we should see that cheaper house again….”
It seeeemed okay. Yet there was something within me that felt uncomfortable. Still, here we were, telling the broker that we were going to sign for it that night.
As we left the house, the woman on the second floor called out to us: “ You guys taking this place? “
She shook her head seriously, and put her index finger across her throat, as if slicing it, shaking her head. My husband looked at each other in bafflement. What?! “Go ask her,” my husband nudged.
I stole up the stairs to the second floor, as the lady sent from heaven stood, in the shortest skirt I have ever seen ( I think it was a shirt) on a cold winter day and whispered to me this: The whole place is filled with asbestos. We’re getting out. Don’t do it. “
I saw the broker coming up the stairs, wordlessly watching as his deal fell through in front of his eyes. I ran away, shaken by how close we were to putting our family into danger. Shaken that we were saved.
It wasn’t over, of course.
There was one place left. The more expensive apartment. And the owner wanted to meet with us, and see if we could convince him. Truthfully, there were other apartments available, but I shook my head to Hashem, “ I won’t do it, “ I told Him. “ I can’t do this squishing into a NYC apartment thing anymore. If this is it, if the owner won’t accept us, we’re out of here.”
As my husband likes to say, I called His bluff.
The owner, glory to the heavens, liked us, and decided to take a chance. With a few special arrangements, we were in. It was two days before Rosh Hosanna ( the Rosh Hoshana of Chassidus that is ; ) ).
And here we are. In a beautiful, wonderful apartment that I am privileged to call home.
“Hashem, “ I say to Him sometimes, now. “Next time you want to improve our life, you can just do it the old fashioned way. Give my husband a raise and we’ll move. You don’t need to kick us out of our old place and have us wandering in someone else’s home with 10 % of our belongings for two months, overflowing with confusion and exasperation. “
But Gd, as we know, has His own, very unique sense of humor. He knows how to sharpen our muscles in the strangest, most effective ways.
We moved in in Parshas Vayesheiv, where Yosef rises to success in the midst of exile. The words of the Rebbe’s first letter in this debacle ringing in my ears : “Our ancestors in Egypt were a small minority, and lived in the most difficult circumstances. Yet, as our Sages relate they preserved their identity and, with pride and integrity, tenaciously clung to their way of life, traditions, and distinct uniqueness, precisely in this way was their existence assured, and also their true deliverance from slavery, physical and spiritual.”
Who knew. New York.
Gd did. Transmitting the signals through letters from the Rebbe, guidance from a tzaddik.
So here we are.
Hello, again, City of Ours. This blasted, beautiful city.
Now we meet again, on equal footing. Beshert.