I feel like I am betraying them, the millions of Jews that travelled, what little they owned literally strapped to their backs, from the hostile countryside across a desolate ocean, to the promise of an unknown city.
Beckoned by a brother or an uncle who had journeyed before them, the Jews moved into the smallest, most cramped and least wanted areas of the city, toiling in the windowless basements of the shmatte district, or on the bloody floors of the kosher butcher or by the sweltering ovens of the bakers.
They swept the floors of the dry goods stores, telling the shopkeeper their name was Saul, but answering only to the whispers of Shmulie from their wives once they finally crawled into bed at night.
They worked tirelessly, the women too, at home with children or in the backs of shops, or dressmakers’ basements, never speaking to customers but to the other women in their common language. Yiddish and laughter and shared secrets the goyim didn’t understand were merely the survival tips of the displaced hopeful.
They left the old country one step ahead of force or confinement, or maybe two steps behind, entire families or the tattered remains of families that once were, flocking to new cities in new countries, entering gates with entirely new lives or the tattered remains of lives that once were.
The parents worked in the laundrymats and the children went to high school. Then the children bought the laundrymats and the grandchildren went to university. Then the grandchildren became lawyers or doctors and pointed to the condos that used to be the laundrymats they practically grew up in. Every corner in the city holds a piece of a Jewish child’s history.
I have pointed to my own historic corners to my own husband; the synagogue in Kensington Market that my great-grandparents attended. The stretch of College Street that the bakery was on. The store on Parliament that my Zidy worked in. The house on Major Street that is practically mythologized in my family’s history.
And the city holds a triptych to my own more recent history as well; the houses I lived in with roommates; the apartments I shared with the boy that would become the man I would marry. The places I have worked; the places I have played; the places I have cried.
All those places, almost a century’s worth of my family’s places, and I have walked away from them.
The Jews, my people, came to the city where being a Jew was not always easy, but it was better. Where community would always exist, where shared understanding, shared tolerance and shared history were at least present, regardless of what else was also present.
And I have left it, in a fit of idealism and practicality and what I sometimes consider spiritual evolution and I sometimes consider treachery.
And I hope only that my children are happy here, that the choice I made to bring them here will prove to be the right one. And that if I had the chance to talk to my great-grandparents about it, to my grandfather or even my dad, that they would tell me that the sad miles they crossed to bring us to the city were for this very thing; for the ability, almost 100 years later, to head out of the city, freely and happily, in whatever direction each of us chooses.