On Home: Letter to Alexis, a German friend, June 2020

Dear Alexis,

Well, as it turned out, I owed you a letter about home anyway! So let us talk home and house and heimat und die unheimlich. 

When I was a boy I read a wonderful children’s book called the Big Orange Splot, by Daniel Pinkwater, in which Mr. Plumbean lives in a beautiful house next to several other, uniform beautiful houses. They all look alike. Everyone praises this “neat street”. But one day, a mysterious pelican carrying a can of paint drops said can on Mr. Plumbean’s house, leaving a wild orange splot. Instead of submitting to his neighbor’s demands to restore the house to its suburban conformity, Plumbean paints his house additional wild colors to match and accentuate the splot. Then, when his neighbors come one by one to remonstrate, he convinces them all to make their houses look like “where they like to be, and make it look like all their dreams.” So the street grows heterogeneous and not neat. Lovely little moral about resisting conformity, no?

I am at home in the Northeastern United States, specifically in what we call the Midatlantic states and their coastal cities. New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania. This part of the world is known by its people, its original people, as “Lenapehoking” or “Lenapehawken”, the Place of the Lenni-Lenape, the Real People, also known as the Delaware tribe. I have read that other Algonquian-speaking peoples sometimes referred to the Lenape as the Grandfather people, some idea of them as progenitors of the other indigenous peoples of the Northeast. I’m not too well informed on that. Unfortunately, the life and history of the Lenape is not integrated into the curriculum of local studies that I was subject to in my youth on their land. They themselves are mostly distantly displaced, largely on reservations in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario.

My house is situated on a sedate semi-affluent street in a sedate semi-afflutent part of northwest Philadelphia called Mt. Airy, one neighborhood south of the truly wealthy and White neighborhood Chestnut Hill, and one north of the more impoverished and working class and Black neighborhood of Germantown. We chose the area for its unique history of housing integration, and the role the Jewish community we joined played in that history. The Germantown Jewish Centre was a leading voice in the neighborhood’s efforts to resist blockbusting and redlining and all that racist real estate garbage that is one of the more recent chapters in this nation’s shameful history of discrimination and cruelty. The synagogue is often proud of that history, and sometimes I worry it rests too much on its laurels. Then again, my inbox is full of calls to actions for Black Lives Matter from the indefatigable community listserv, so maybe the kids are all right after all.

What seems to impress most of our visitors are the colors we chose for the house. A lovely sunset orange for the dining room. Bubblegum pink for the stairwell bannister and our bedroom. Purple for the office. It was important to me that the house be colorful, almost garish. I took inspiration from our time in Atenea’s Mexico, which I think flattered and satisfied Atenea. I have lived so much in institutionally grey spaces, spaces where I was not encouraged to think of the walls as my own, spaces where the walls did not cheer me. Now my walls encourage and gladden me, they do not just constrain me, and I am grateful to them.

This house is a product of my father’s wealth, which is, of course, a product of his father’s. The United States was unique in its early permissiveness towards Jews gathering familial wealth. My father is a doctor. His father was an engineer, and claimed once he could have made a fortune if he had invested, as he was invited to, in prefab housing. Are you familiar with the concept? Basically mass produced houses, produced in slabs and easily transported by truck or train to their location, where they could be simply assembled. This sort of housing became hugely popular in the fifties and sixties, leading to a millions of “neat streets” where the houses all looked the same, and a massive housing boom which the population could keep up with but the market couldn’t. But I digress. In any case, I never met a Jew of my grandfather’s generation who didn’t miss out on a fortune if they’d only invested quickly enough, and they all seemed to turn out fine, and their sons turned out fine, and their grandsons turned out like me. 

I think I am beginning to write to you of Heimat, that mysterious notion that could, if possible, answer the question “Where are you from?” Do you see where I’m from? Lenapehoking, where the houses all look the same for the last 70 years. All neat in a row, we go about our lives, which are deeply divided and different from each other. We are suburbs grown wild, a massive pastoral fantasy inflicted on the City. My homeland is this sprawl and contraction, sprawl and contraction. Tsim tsum we call it in kabbalistic Hebrew. The contraction of God to make space for what? For all. For home.

What I like most about the wikipedia article on Heimat was the observation that Martin Luther used the word in his translation of Bereishis 24:7, that is, of the words מֵאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתִּי, “from the land of my nativity” which goes to show how little Luther knew, both of Torah, and of what the word Heimat would come to mean a mere handful of centuries later. History and Judaism have made a fool of Luther and a mockery of his translation. Why would Avraham avinu, our father Abraham, refer to his birth place as his “homeland”? He does not long for it in a romantic sense, he does not construct it as any more of a pastoral fantasy than his current lived reality, the nomadic life in Canaan. If Avraham has a homeland, he is in it as he speaks, in Canaan which will be called Israel, the land he was promised by the God he believes in unerringly. Stupid Luther. 

So tell me Alexis, what does Heimat mean to you, as a German? To me, German Heimat will always be shadowed by the death of the 6 million Unheimlich, my beloved fellow Jews, who are stubbornly not part of the concept, just as they inhabit it fully and beautifully. I’d say forgive the invocation of the Kollectivschuld, but like, we both know that that’s not how this works. This works where I get to talk about losing a world, and you sit there and wonder how to prevent the nation you were born in (your heimat?) from sinking back into that kind of cruelty, which robs people of a world. You are a person of good conscience, and I believe in your ability to make the world a better place.

Together, me with my unheimlich lost world, and you with your collective guilt in heimat, we’ll find a way forward. 
Love, Mordecai

Published by Mordecai Martin

A luftmensch, a Jew, a way with words, all in one.

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