I am running out of my weird Ukrainian deodorant from Israel. The sunscreen tube is almost empty. My last squeezes of pastes and lotions from the year. A halfway house of life that has abated the culture shock I’ve hoped to avoid thus far out of fear of finding home foreign.
My toothpaste boasts the smooth English words and graphics known to American brands. It’s replaced by Turkish or Polish or Romanian depending on what the discount shop had in stock. The bristles of my brush are beginning to bend after their use before returning to the United States. And my vials of essential oils marked אץ התה have dried up.
I have little proof other than photographs and funny stories of my day-to-day life in Jerusalem. It is not my grand experiences or tourist accomplishments of which I am the most proud, but rather the times I successfully battled with customer service in Hebrew to get my way. The screaming match with my landlord. How nonchalantly I could visit the post office by the time my year came to an end.
When I visit Israel next will I feel as though I ever lived there? My feelings on this matter have less to do with the romanticized idea of Israel and more to do with the peculiarities of uprooting your life after you’ve worked so hard to establish a home somewhere. Alex and I did that. We had a life full of routines and idiosyncrasies; regularities and particularities. As these begin to emerge for us in Brooklyn, I wonder how soon it will be until I forget what the walk home from the grocery store looked like or just how beautiful the beach was in Tel Aviv. I fear that perhaps these memories will sprout new qualities as time goes on and maybe I will misremember the good and exaggerate the bad. Or vice-versa.
Our apartment in Brooklyn is on a noisy Avenue just south of Gowanus and Park Slope. The neighborhoods have ridiculous names from characters that perhaps New Yorkers recognize, but to me they are mysteries that I have to uncover like I did in Jerusalem. I find myself already relishing the banality in my walk to the subway and I’m comforted by how quickly I have grown used to this new place. I pat myself on the back for this survival skill. While I may recover slowly from the pain of uprooting, I can quickly establish new roots when the environment is right.
Everything about life in Brooklyn is turned on its head by life in Schenectady. In Brooklyn I hear cars speeding past on the highway all night long. Their headlights hurl wicked shadows onto the exposed brick fireplace at the foot of our bed. I hear emergency vehicles and horns honking. I hear people shout in the street until midnight and have to use a white noise machine to equalize the noise pollution if I want to sleep. The apartment is warm and muggy. Without A/C we have to choose between the noise of the street for a decent breeze or the stickiness of stagnant air to muffle the commotion outside. We open and close the windows as the day goes on. The light comes in and moves across the apartment as the afternoon grows old. My husband walks through the door with a look of relief and exhaustion. It is perfect in every single way because it is home.
In Schenectady I turn on the A/C (even though I am not warm) for noise. I am frightened by the total silence and darkness I had in San Antonio. My childhood windows face a city park with no lights or traffic. In Schenectady, even the nearby neighbors’ lights are off and the entire house is a shadow. It is so serene with its lush woods and incredibly tall trees. I wonder if I can handle this peaceful place and I laugh at myself for such a preposterous thought—here I can actually sleep, and as soon as my head hits the pillow the sun greets me. Here too, with its idyllic Mayberry solitude, is another perfect home.
Why am I so quick to find home? Something inside me seeks to normalize the fear of not belonging. I believe growing up as a child with a secret—my queer identity—encouraged me to make the unfamiliar as familiar as possible. The ultimate exercise in survival, I force myself to empathize with my surroundings, to make them known to me. If the world is uncertain and I cannot know how it will treat me, I must at least know where I stand.
The entirety of my year in Israel and move to New York has illuminated a text I have seen inscribed upon mantles and pasted across t-shirts. “Know before whom you stand.” In the Jewish world, and especially in the liberal Jewish world, this statement is a tired cliche. Its wisdom is eternal, though its constant usage had rendered it nothing more than another slogan to me. For better or for worse, I always find out before whom, with whom, and in spite of whom I stand.
There is a reason I need a room with windows and why I pray outdoors and why I insist on traveling by foot in a new place. I must know before whom I stand. From when I was a little boy with a secret until now I have always tried to pinpoint my place in the universe. I am grateful for this need I have to search. The search has brought me home. Again and again and again.