Memory is a funny thing: Recollections of yesteryear can keep you tethered firmly in the past, but in an odd way they can propel you into the future, too. They can also get you and your loved ones lost.
Take the case of my dear grandparents who, for more than five decades, knew their adopted home of Havertown — as well as the stretch of West Chester Pike from the Blue Route to Ridley Creek State Park, Baltimore Pike all the way to Longwood Gardens and all the side roads in between — like the backs of their hands.
She’s been gone for four years now and he’s since moved to Florida, but I still remember how they used to give directions to me by reference to landmarks that no longer existed. Maybe that’s why I was such a good navigator as a pilot — early on, I needed to be adept at reading maps just to make it from Point A to Point B in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
But at the risk of sounding older than I am, I found myself making my way through Jerusalem last week by reference to stores, intersections — even parks — that no longer exist.
Enjoying a breather and a brew at Beer Bazaar — the veritable headquarters of Israel’s incredibly young craft beer movement that is owned and operated from the Mahane Yehuda market by an American oleh — I emailed my father-in-law about the oasis of shade and colorful plants that used to exist in his corner of the neighborhood known as Nachlaot but that is today a square of pristine stone devoid of both flower and leaf.
“What happened to the community garden outside your place?!” I asked him.
Typically never at a loss for words, he replied with a simple smiley face.
I followed up the exchange by engaging the cook behind the counter — who looked awfully familiar to me — in conversation. As it turns out, he’s from the same part of Ramat Bet Shemesh that my wife, our three kids and I first called home when we made aliyah in 2006. I asked him about the ancient well in the valley outside the Chabad synagogue that I sometimes used as a mikvah.
No longer there, he said. The valley has been paved over. (Queue Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” and its chorus: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”)
I let the news sink in for just a few minutes before the universal truth hit me like a ton of bricks: Change is part of the natural order of things.
No one knows what the future holds, but I can guarantee that whatever it is, it will certainly be a lot different from what today looks like.
There is a certain segment of society that looks backward, that sees the best times in the rearview mirror, that feels that it’s all downhill from here. But there’s another segment of society that can’t be bothered to appreciate the past, that careens full throttle into the great unknown without any sense of continuity or place.
I like to believe that I am neither of these types.
I believe in a world where human “progress,” for all of its faults, brings us ever closer to a more-perfect world. Such a view doesn’t negate the incredible tragedies that the forward march of time has burdened our people with, but it doesn’t romanticize the past either.
In synagogues around the world, we are all reading Moses’ last will and testament in the Book of Deuteronomy, a rehashing of the good, the bad and the ugly of the Jewish people’s wandering in the desert — all meant to fortify and propel them across the Jordan River into the Promised Land. But we can — indeed, we must — take these thousands-years- old words and apply them to our own lives, our own families and our own communities.
It’s been seven years since I called Israel home, and already there are parts of the main route between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv that sprung up seemingly out of nowhere. And yet, it’s the same traffic-prone Schuylkill Expressway that traps me in traffic day in and day out.
The fact is, whatever change I appreciated in Israel on a small scale, the “start-up nation” has been experiencing a vastly larger one ever since its birth in 1948. It’s understandable that such a reality gives someone like me pause, but the appreciation of what our people have wrought out of the political, spiritual and literal wilderness should inspire us all to bring needed change in the pockets of America that we call home.
Building a nation is a calling that never stops.
Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected].