Oh, if I could count the many discussions my husband and I have had on this topic — multiple times a day on some days. Pros, cons; the list begins.
Our house fit us well enough and served its purpose well enough when we bought it 12 years ago. It was our first home in a very reasonably priced neighborhood near Cleveland. I was teaching high school in a nearby community, and my husband was traveling often, furthering his sales career. The location was convenient and the plan was to stay five, maybe six years.
When you’re young and newly married, future life decisions sometimes don’t seem important or relevant. When we moved in, it didn’t really concern us that the area had few Jewish families because, well, that wasn’t a significant focus of our identity. At that point in our lives, practicing Judaism meant attending services a few times a year at a synagogue 25 minutes away, or having a somewhat watered-down Passover seder with family.
It wasn’t that being Jewish wasn’t important to us, or that we ever imagined raising our hypothetical children without a Jewish identity. We just didn’t fully understand how complicated that job might become when not surrounded by a solid presence of other Jews.
“We’ll just be here for a few years,” we had said at the time. “Eventually we’ll earn more money and move to a community where there are more families like us.”
But life happened — and an unexpected job loss happened, quickly shifting our financial reserves that had been set aside for a future move.
And amid these changes, kids happened. Two beautiful children, who are spirited, curious and ready to take on the world now sleep above me in bedrooms in the home we never imagined we’d still be living in. The space is growing tighter as the kids, now 5 and 8, are growing bigger.
Our house it not a terribly exciting one by any standards, and if you look closely there are signs of late-‘80s seafoam green still peeking from underneath the bedroom windowsill. But now this house has stories and so much of our lives intertwined in its walls. It’s been with us through some of life’s toughest times.
So the unsettled worries creep in: Do we stay? Do we leave?
Our children are the only Jewish kids in the neighborhood and the only Jewish kids at their school. So it’s just assumed that our family is Christian, too. Which doesn’t bother me, until it does. Like the day the school called me needing more clarification regarding my daughter’s absence on Rosh Hashanah. Or when the swastikas were dug deeply into the mulch at the local playground and the police chief discouraged me from making it into a bigger deal, citing the guilty suspects as teens who meant no harm.
My husband and I are open-minded — we consider ourselves to be more spiritual than religious. This sounds easy to live by in theory; explaining such ideas to young children is difficult. We make a strong effort to take part in events geared toward Jewish families, but all of those experiences take place in neighboring cities. I volunteer every year to be the “Hanukkah mom” at school, bringing in a sack of dreidels, taking questions from the teachers and students. It helps to demystify our family’s culture and religion, and the teachers are appreciative. But I drive away with an overwhelming sadness because I know something is missing. Something just doesn’t feel quite right.
“So why even bother staying?” my childhood friend asks.
Well, there are lots of reasons. We have nice neighbors. The schools are good. The price of a home is much less here compared to surrounding areas. It’s safe. The cashier at the local store knows us so well that we’ve memorized her schedule and visit regularly to chat. People here are welcoming and grounded and good. Overall it’s a really fine place to raise a family.
Unless you’re Jewish, that is. As long as we remain here, my kids will never have a classmate who has the same religious beliefs or shares an unspoken connection. There will always be the inevitable awkwardness when we gently try to explain that, no, we don’t have a Christmas tree and, yes, choosing our daughter to play Mary in the Christmas play — though incredibly entertaining and story-worthy — probably isn’t the best option.
As a parent, an unresolved conflict settles in my heart. We actively watch the listings of homes for sale in a predominately Jewish suburb of Cleveland, crunching numbers while trying to assess the pull on our budget. We know the schools are excellent, and the town draws in families of all religions and ethnicites.
But is it worth it? What if we’re setting our expectations too high? What if our main reason for going, to be among more Jewish families, proves to be a poor choice? And isn’t there something to be said about blooming where you’ve been planted? Could I be overlooking a great lesson in all of this?
These kids of mine — who are now bubbling with excitement at the new school year — are young enough and strong enough to be resilient to any change we may make. But they’re also now old enough to have sweet memories of this home, their friends and the pretty climbing tree in the front yard.
So what do we do? Do we stay? Do we leave? What would you do?
(Alyssa Blitzer is a writer, a listener and an avid people-watcher.)