The duplex was a cookie-cutter match for the dozens of other houses in the neighborhood. My parents were the first owners of the house, built in 1963. My sister was nearly two and I was four when we moved out to what was then the edge of civilization. Cheap housing sprung up in a cornfield near a brand-new mall just beyond the commuter suburbs ringing Chicago, and my parents inked a mortgage on their slice of the American Dream.
We lived on one of the three triplet cul-de- sacs directly off of Home Avenue, named Home Circle, Home Court, and Home Terrace. (The subdivision’s developers appeared to be a little short on creativity when it came to street names, understandable considering the speed at which they were building houses in this neighborhood crawling with young Boomers.) Every house two parents in it; dads drove to the city to work, moms manned the home fires, and free-range kids roamed from yard to yard in a pack.
We lived an apple-pie existence. One of the perks of living on a cul-de- sac was the endless baseball game that went on all summer long. During the school year, we walked to Mark Twain Elementary, then home at lunch for the standard meal of PBJs on Wonder Bread, a side of Fritos and a Flinstones-imprinted glass of orange Hi-C. At first glance, our neighborhood could have passed for almost anywhere else in the fast-growing white suburbs of the era.
Every family on Home Circle – and all the other streets in the neighborhood – was Jewish except for one exotic (to us kids) Italian family on the corner. The parents in the neighborhood were assimilated into American culture. The bubbes and zaydes, the parents of our parents, our grandmas and grandpas, were the ones with roots in Eastern Europe. Many had come to the U.S. as a result of the persecuting pogroms in Russia at the turn of the century or later, as survivors of the Holocaust. The diaspora experience was the unspoken guest in every home in the neighborhood, though we rarely spoke of it. America, the land of the free and home of the brave, the place where our oppressed forebears came because they heard the streets were paved with gold. Could we trust this place to be home?
Scientists have found that trauma embeds itself in our DNA. The Jewish people, who’ve lived two thousand years of trauma, have never been fully at home anywhere they’ve lived. Though generations of my own forebears lived in Poland, Latvia, and the Pale of Settlement in Imperial Russia, they were always aware that at any moment they might be uprooted or killed by their Gentile neighbors. Those impoverished, ghetto’d towns and villages were home to my ancestors, but there was the undercurrent that home was an abstract ideal, never something they’d ever be able to experience in its fullest sense. No matter where they lived, the compass needle always pointed somewhere else.
My family moved from Home Circle into a large single-family home in a Gentile neighborhood as I entered 8 th grade. My parents were welcomed to the neighborhood with a string of overtly anti-Semitic insults made by a hostile neighbor.
Much to my parents’ sorrow, I came to faith in Jesus during high school in that Gentile environment. Likely they regretted the move to that neighborhood that seemed to “steal” their oldest child from them. My parents stayed put in the house until my sister and I were launched into adulthood, but relocated and lived the rest of their days in a heavily-Jewish neighborhood in south Florida.
I’ve spent most of my life among Gentiles, but have struggled at times to find a home in my new community, the Church. Thoughtless theology and not-so- subtle habits of anti-Semitism have been a fairly regular reminder to me that I am still far from home.
One Christmas, a ministry with which my husband and I were connected sent their supporters a card with a hand-drawn outline of Mary holding her beloved child and the words “Jesus was born homeless”. That card held a place of honor on our fridge for years. Jesus my Jewish Messiah was born into the diaspora experience of his people, and spent his early years as a refugee in Egypt before he and his earthly parents finally made their way back to Nazareth. He lived his ministry years a wanderer, warning off a would-be follower with the words, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:38).
Those words haven’t been a warning to me, but a comfort when I’ve ached to fully sink deep my roots into both people and place. It is a longing intertwined with the trauma of generations of homelessness, wound as a prayer around my own DNA. Following him, I trust I will find my way home at last.
Michelle Van Loon is a regular contributor to Christianity Today’s popular Her.meneutics blog for women. She maintains her own blog, Pilgrim’s Road Trip, at the Patheos.com Evangelical channel. She is the author of four books, including her most recent NavPress title, Moments & Days: How Our Holy Celebrations Shape Our Faith. This book explores the Jewish feasts, the Christian calendar, and how each informs our everyday discipleship. You can learn more about Michelle by visiting her website, michellevanloon.com.