2,337 miles: Parshat Vayishlach
My mother’s food is crunchy.
It’s all barley and mushrooms and lentils.
I recently found out she’d been hiding nutritional yeast in our food as kids, to add more vitamins.
My mother’s food is all day trips to Essene on South Street and the bulk section of the grocery store and vegetables from her organic garden that is almost as old as I am.
My mother’s food is of every place, and no place.
Her food is also cabbages and potatoes and beets slurped from the jar.
My mother’s food is sometimes pierogis and prakas (that’s Philly for stuffed cabbage) and kasha + bowties.
Altered to be vegetarian, heaped onto navy blue ceramic plates in the winter.
My mother’s food is sometimes of Poland, of her own creation, and of no place at all.
My mother’s mother’s family came from Poland, depending on how you crack the borders.
When he was a young man, my great-great zeide tried to leave Poland.
The first time, fleeing the “draft” from the Cossacks that was anything but voluntary, he took a boat to Palestine.
But his paper’s weren’t in order, and they turned him back.
The second time, he didn’t have enough money for the boat to Palestine.
So he walked.
Herschel is reported to have said that he liked walking through Turkey the best, as it was the shortest country.
He worked in the port of Haifa for some years, until he came to the United States.
Owned a grocery store in Powelton Village, lived above it with my great-great bubbie, Pessie,
Who he only met in Philly, but who was born the shtetl over back in Poland.
Herschel of Ostropol serving canned food that they couldn’t sell in the store--that were dented or lost a label,
Pessie of Ostropol, making milkshakes for her granddaughter, my mother, on Shabbes, when her husband was at shul.
If I am from any place, maybe it’s Poland.
If I am from any place, probably it’s Philly.
If it’s Poland, we were never Polish, and we were never safe.
If it’s Philly, I’m living in neighborhoods that once were a refuge to my grandparents,
Where now I live and displace the people who lived here in the generations between Herschel and I.
I wonder if Herschel was terrified when he walked the 2,337 miles, passing through countries whose borders have long changed, moving through climates and languages and cultures.
I wonder if Herschel felt fear when he made it into the Aretz. I wonder if he ever felt fear’s twin, awe. I wonder if he prayed, what he prayed.
I wonder if Herschel ever felt like he was from a place. Ostropol, Haifa, Philadelphia? Was Herschel from the Journey, was his origin and his becoming and his destination the Midbar, the wilderness, the path?
This week, Jacob anticipates confrontation with his brother Esau. Knowing that he had to pass through Edom to get back to the Aretz, he knows they’ll run into one another.
We know that Jacob felt fear as he traveled from Haran to the Aretz, and he, “in his anxiety, divided the people with him...thinking “If Esau comes to the one camp and attacks it, the other camp may yet escape” (34:8-9). Jacob knows he is guilty of great betrayal, such that he must pray to God for safety, saying “deliver me, I pray, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau; else, I fear, he may come and strike me down, mothers and children alike” (34:12).
All that has ever happened to my ancestors has been “on the way.” In the Midbar, the wilderness. Revelation, despair, hunger, desperation, it has all be in the journeying that the verbs happen. Because before this climactic encounter, between the writing of his living will and the seeing of his enemy nee brother, Jacob meets a stranger, on the way.
Jacob was alone in the midbar, by the banks of the Yabok river, the text reminds us, having sent his family away in a panic. Suddenly we cut to a man, who appears and “wrestles with him till dawn” (32:24). In that wrestling, in the Midbar, on the way, Jacob becomes. He wrestles with someone strange to him, maybe himself, maybe an angel of God, maybe a looter, or a lover. In this struggling on the way, Jacob becomes.
Jacob is re-named because of his stubbornness. His refusal to quit. “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed” (32:33) It is in the journeying that Jewish people become. It is in the Midbar that we struggle, that we receive new names and Torah alike. It is in the walking from Ostropol to the Aretz that we find ourselves walking the footsteps from Mitzrayim to the Aretz, each an Exodus. Each journey is the same as the journey before it. We are of every place, and no place.
What is a strange break in the narration of the text, a footnote turned holy, is the verse that follows Jacob’s renaming. This mystical encounter with God then becomes an object lesson. The Torah reads: “That is why the children of Israel to this day do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the socket of the hip, since Jacob’s hip socket was wrenched at the thigh muscle” (32:33).
And so we do not, as a people, eat the sciatic nerve. We alter the food because we are different then when we first entered the land. My mothers prakas are stuffed with mushrooms and barley, not fleish, stewed in mushrooms grown from the earth just nearby. She plants the seeds into the earth we are not from, tends to them, plucks from the earth the food we need to live.
And so when dawn broke, Jacob passed by the place he had wrestled, limping on his hip, journeying on, transformed by his temporary dwelling.
When I eat her prakas, I am sustained by food that traveled from Poland to Haifa to Powelton Village to the Northeast and into her hands. It is transformed by the journey. It is not of any one place.
In the journey, may we learn to put down the baggage too heavy for us to keep carrying. May we be good guests, may we be treated kindly. May we continue to be from every place, from no place.
When we surrender our heart and belongings at the bank of the Yabok out of a desire to make it to the Aretz, we might lose all we accrued in the journey.
When we surrender our lives to get to a physical place, our becoming in the Midbar is for naught.
But when we carry the places we’ve been, when we carry our homes on our back, we are always home.