Steven Sher is the author of 14 books including, most recently, two new poetry collections: Grazing on Stars: Selected Poems (Presa Press, 2012) and The House of Washing Hands (Pecan Grove Press, 2013). A native of NYC, he currently lives in Jerusalem. Find out more about his work at stevensher.net.
Giving Up Trees
“It appears you’re ready to give up trees.”
I was in New York for my father’s unveiling, another emotional visit “home.” His death the year before is one of those turning points by which I measure my life, a yardstick of almost indefinable inner searching and change. During this visit, I was moved to call on the rabbi who had married my wife and me fourteen years before. I now told him about our considering a move back East, perhaps returning to Brooklyn, where we had lived as newlyweds. The idea had burned in us for as long as my father’s battle with cancer, as if in rekindling that connection to the East we might provide an antidote to physical distance and to illness.
My wife and I were feeling a genuine dissatisfaction with our separation from family, and had become exasperated during my father’s year-long illness and his passing, not unexpectedly, during Pesach (Passover), a time of year I had always associated with family gatherings of a more joyous sort. At the heart of our discontent was our search for a more observant Jewish community.
Yet give up trees?
“If you’re ready to come back, I’ll be glad to help,” offered Rabbi Fund. “There are trees in Brooklyn, too.”
When I think of giving up trees – giant redwoods, spruce and Douglas fir – I admit they are not the lure that they once were, some quarter-century ago, though the Northwest’s rugged beauty is still just as appealing and I will always feel its pull. It says in Pirkei Avot: “Know from where you come and where you go.” Already my soul is scouting out the step ahead, preparing for the journey.
Growing up in Brooklyn, I was a product of change, born of rabbis and garment makers on my mother’s side, socialists and musicians on my father’s: two families that had crossed an ocean in search of something new. Raised in a largely Jewish community in East Flatbush, I later embraced the ‘60s counterculture, turning my world on its head, seeking spiritual and communal answers. And not necessarily from Judaism.
It was then that I saw the Northwest for the first time, traveling with three college buddies – all of us with long hair and guitars. At once, I knew I would head West some day to live. The space and pace appealed to me. Friends had spoken of buying land, communal life. For me, the dream wouldn’t easily subside.
Oregon seemed at first an ideal place to settle, and to return, as far as I wanted and on my own terms, to a meaningful Jewish life. I found a context that was informal and empowering, yet foreign from anything I’d known in New York. It was like receiving manna in the wilderness, enough to sustain my spiritual hunger.
Yet over time I felt displaced among the trees, too much the outsider – Easterner, big city kid, missing familiar culture and tradition – too much connected to my past to keep resisting an inevitable return. You climb this far out on a limb and you will land where you began the slow ascent.
Those “old world” notions I had put aside when my generation pursued its radical course had thankfully remained intact for when I’d need them again, for when I’d have a family of my own and want to draw upon my past to face, and thereby shape, the future more ably.
If I can live anywhere, why the West? When I consider that I spend most of each week’s precious hours at home – enjoying family time or at the computer creating verse or in the kitchen cooking vegan fare or in study or in prayer – it’s apparent to me that I’ve chosen to live within narrow parameters, in direct contrast to this vast land, this open space where the continent comes to an end. I have built a necessary fence around my life, at first to light a holy spark and protect it from the steady secular wind, and now to contain renewed observance as it glows, the spirit growing in intensity. Again I’m living in the holy Brooklyn of my youth, though far removed from Brooklyn. Surely, if I pursue this path, as I go deeper, I will be back where I began. But physically this is not an easy transition.
Several times my wife and I have left the Northwest, for good we thought, only to return, still not having our fill of giant trees and precipitous ocean views and snow-capped peaks, a landscape that surprises and inspires. First, Kentucky and back. Then North Carolina. Back again. Only now, after moving across the country several times, can I finally understand what is at stake, just where we stand. We don’t simply live in the here and now, but in our memories and traditions, and in the hopes of previous generations, a family’s dreams. Susceptible to constant winds, I bend like a tree testing each direction till I find the one for me.
How fragile, how rare, is Jewish life out in this vast, indifferent land, this wilderness beyond the American pale, out where the trees and peaks compete with God for our attention. And the soul, though we know enough to nourish it, is fed no more than what we see and what we feel, the most easily attained exhilaration. What I want is so much more, and harder to achieve.
There are images from my childhood that call to me, reminders of a lifetime searching, images as foreign to the Western mind as New York’s skyline is to the small town. Poet and Jew, I dare to see the world from the perspective of the spirit, through the language of the soul. But to risk thus is to live. New York taught me this. Somehow I learned to carry a portable homeland, portable dreams. And though I seem to welcome impermanence, nothing is as solid, or as real, to me.
So, give up trees?
I’m revived, as if from a whiff of my father’s smelling salts on Yom Kippur, when I consider the trees of my childhood. In Borough Park, large maples stretched over the second story porches of the brick row homes where my grandparents lived, where I sat and watched how people went out in the world through the sun-dappled patterns of shade and light. There is comfort in this memory, these trees that stand untouched in my mind, guarding the block where I first lived, like golden cherubs guarding the Ark. Again, I’m standing in shul with my grandfather, surrounded by davening men as if lost in a forest, every tree swaying in unison, the wind of devotion driving them toward the East – this wind has been blowing in my soul, providing comfort, for as long as I remember. The haunting songs echo in me still.
Lucky to be touched by such grace and awe at so young an age, I consider my children – worry about the images that shape their lives, about the kind of world that will be left to them. I worry about their growing up in Oregon, despite how beautiful and livable it is, so far from the heart of our people.
My daughter, our eldest, speaks wistfully of visits to New York, of spellbound walks through the old neighborhoods, past countless shops with Hebrew lettering, exotic promises and crowded aisles, more children like herself. I’m reassured that she hasn’t forgotten the family gatherings of the times we traveled East, the many smiling, doting relatives, the holiday foods and festival observances.
If we intend to give up trees, then we must be sure we plant something in their place.