Reflections on going home


As a Jew, going home may carry special meanings. On my first visit to Israel, in 1978, I quite easily remember my guide’s first words when I arrived at Ben Gurion Airport. “Welcome home!” he declared, but I had never even considered this possibility.

I can’t imagine hearing such words when returning to my family’s more recent ancestral homelands. I’ve traveled to Germany twice, primarily to see its great art museums and to pay my respects at Jewish memorials, but I have no intention of visiting Russia or Romania.  When my paternal grandfather, Isadore, returned to the Black Sea port of Costanza, in 1967, he couldn’t recognize anything from his childhood. His children had warned him, but he insisted on seeing with his own eyes.

I consider at least three congregations my spiritual homes.  The most obvious is Temple Beth-El, where Betsey and I have belonged for more than 30 years. But I also still feel deeply attached to Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the Los Angeles congregation where I grew up and where my sister, Betty, and her family still belong. Indeed, I was grateful that my daughter, Molly, and her fiancé, Adam, could be blessed on that temple’s bimah, in my mother’s presence, a few months before their wedding at Beth-El. 

Before Betsey and I moved to Providence in 1987, we lived for a few years in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Molly was born.  Twenty years later, because she and her younger brother, Michael, were curious, we took them to Minnesota for a visit.  In addition to showing them the apartment where we had lived, Betsey and I took them to Mt. Zion Temple, where Molly had been named.

Temple Emanuel, in Andover, Massachusetts, where Betsey’s family has belonged for nearly 60 years, also feels like our spiritual home. This is where we were married and where we have celebrated numerous life-cycle events. We also know its cemetery well. It raises the question of where our final home will be.

In Rhode Island I have somewhat contradictory feelings about two more synagogues.  For more than 20 years I have occasionally helped form a minyan at Hope Street’s Chabad House, but I have never for a moment considered myself an Orthodox Jew. Yet, it was Touro Synagogue that first brought Betsey and me to Little Rhody.  And though I’ve never attended a service at North America’s oldest extant synagogue, it still perfectly exemplifies Judaism’s grandeur and modesty for me.

Perhaps I’m more nostalgic than many of my friends and acquaintances, for I have also taken Betsey and sometimes our kids to see dormitories and fraternity houses where I have sojourned. Indeed, I’ve shown Betsey one campus where two of my dorms once stood. 

My best educational homecoming probably occurred two years ago, when I brought Betsey to Florence. During my junior year of college, in 1969, I spent some of the happiest months of my life on both banks of the Arno. We discovered that the modest pensione where I had resided is now a rather fancy hotel. Fortunately, the views of Brunelleschi’s cathedral remain glorious, and the synagogue, visible in the distance from the Piazzale Michelangelo, still beckons congregants and visitors.

When visiting Los Angeles, Betsey and I have also returned to the apartments where we lived. I’m particularly nostalgic about her seaside home in Marina del Rey when we began dating. Every visit felt like a vacation!

Of course I’m still drawn to the Los Angeles home, near UCLA, which my parents built in 1950. This ranch-style residence, designed by one of my Dad’s college buddies, is where my siblings and I grew up.  Mom and Dad remained there for more than a half-century before moving to a condo, which had belonged to my maternal grandfather, George.  My sister, Betty, had also lived in this condo for a few years, but after her marriage, she and Keith moved to our childhood home, which they renovated. Then our parents moved to the condo. Both Dad and Mom died there, as had our grandfather, so it no longer belongs to our family. Yet, when visiting Los Angeles, I’m happy to drive by it to bid one more adieu.

Are there drawbacks to visiting childhood homes? Unfortunately, yes. In 1988, Dad wanted to glimpse the seaside cottage in Branford, Connecticut, where his family had summered during the late 1920s before moving to Los Angeles.  So we drove to his old neighborhood, but he wasn’t quite sure if he had found that house! Either the structure on that site had been extensively remodeled, replaced or the street numbers had changed. Of course there weren’t any of his childhood neighbors to ask!   

But there was a sadder story involving my mother’s childhood home, in Cincinnati, where I savored my first encounters with squirrels and fireflies. This large and imposing residence had in fact been built in 1895 by my maternal great-grandfather, Henry Rosenthal, a son of a German émigré who had fought for the Union during the Civil War. Coincidentally, my grandfather, George, who had spent much of his youth there, on Marion Avenue, married a young lady named Marion. I was named after both grandparents when they were still alive! 

In 1986, when many Rosenthal relatives returned to Cincinnati for a bar mitzvah, Dad cautioned Mom against visiting her childhood home, which her parents had sold more than 15 years earlier.  But Mom was persistent, so the four of us drove to Avondale, which had suffered an extensive Jewish exodus, especially after Rockdale Temple had been ransacked in 1968. When Mom said that she wanted to try to see her home’s interior, Dad expressed alarm.  He sensed that she would only be disappointed. But after we rang the doorbell, the owner, a physician, greeted us and offered to show us around. Dad was right: most reminders of and mementos from bygone times had been swept away. But then we noticed several old photos displayed beneath a coffee table’s glass surface. These portrayed generations of Rosenthals, but Mom did not have copies. So she kindly asked our host if he would give them to her. “No,” he replied. “I found them in the attic, so they came with the house.”

Betsey and I have lived in our East Side home, a notable example of the Arts & Crafts style built in 1920, for 22 years. We are only the third family to lovingly occupy and maintain it.  Perhaps more important, this is where Molly and Michael spent most of their childhoods, where they often return, and where they still store many treasures.  I anticipate that, long after Betsey and I have moved away, we will still consider it our favorite home. 

In July it occurred to me that we Goodwins have enjoyed still another abode. This is the resort in Maine where, for at least a few days together, we have relaxed over 25 summers. Beyond my meager attempts at gardening, it has probably represented my deepest embrace of nature. 

I can think of still another category of homes. Among the countless art museums I have been privileged to visit throughout America and other parts of the world are several in Los Angeles, New York, Boston and Providence that I have explored at least a hundred times.  I never tire of their masterpieces or surprising juxtapositions.

So do I feel Jewish because I’m forever wandering from home to home? Far from it! I feel that I have been loved, sought love and returned love in so many wonderful structures and settings.  Yes, I may feel exceptionally nostalgic as I approach my 70th birthday, but this may be a convenient way of saying that, in most places and eras, I have felt sheltered and blessed.

GEORGE M. GOODWIN, who writes for numerous historical journals, has edited Rhode Island Jewish Historical Notes for 15 years. He has been a trustee of the Rhode Island Historical Society for nine years and has taken perhaps 100,000 photos.