Faigie Heiman
Faigie Heiman Courtesy

Jerusalem Pine. Her long, prickly, green branches brush my window. If I open the window, I can finger her wispy greens. When the window is closed, her long branches caress my memory.

Over the centuries, family trees, buds, and branches have taken root in many places, eventually reaching American shores after World War I. America – the goldene medina – was the land of freedom and liberty, the land of hope, where my grandfathers immigrated temporarily. Jerusalem was always their ultimate goal.

I was born in 1941 in a common tenement building on Driggs Avenue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, but I was raised half a block up the street, in my parents’ dream home that finally came to fruition after years of hardship and struggle. The two-family corner house was home to my father’s grocery store on the ground level, plus a tailor, a butcher, and a shoemaker, and our large apartment that was one story above the shops.

An immigrant Yerushalmi family, followed by a Chassidic family, rented the apartment on the second floor above us. The house was considered a good investment, yielding respectable income for my parents from the shops and apartment rental, and it moved our family from poor to middle class American status.

Our front door was always open to visitors: to family, friends, strangers, and refugees, guests from all echelons of post-World War Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish circles. My parents, European immigrants without academic educations, who dreamed and worked to educate their children, were two full-time, hardworking people, with Shabbat and Jewish holidays their only days off.

The fridge was always full of food and drinks, and the table laid with lots of kosher nosh that came from the grocery store below for guests to enjoy when dropping in for chats and advice from my parents or any of my four siblings. Two large, colorful Persian carpets covered the polished parquet floors in the living and dining rooms, where our zmirot could be heard in the street below when the windows were open, and interesting conversation at our Shabbat table enhanced the room furnished in classic old Edwardian Oak, with one of the first crystal chandeliers to light up neighborhood homes in the late 1940s.

My father’s role was that of disciplinarian, and in those days, discipline partnered with strong religious belief and a value system that we were taught. We knew the rules, and learned what was most important and what was expected of us after my 13 year-old brother returned home holding onto his basketball, his tfillin gone! Those beautiful tfillin that took so much effort and funding to have them prepared and shipped from Jerusalem, that were seized by the destructive hands of anti-Semitic hoodlums who attacked him on his way home from yeshiva.

There weren’t any balconies or gardens or greenery in front, or in back, or on the street where we lived, except for the Ailanthus that grew below, in a dark spot where our next-door neighbors sometimes hung laundry in a small patch between the two buildings. The Ailanthus was known to grow in tenement districts, without water, or light; even without soil. It symbolized perseverance and hope amidst hardship. It was celebrated as “the tree of heaven” in the 1943 novel and 1945 movie entitled, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” a story that grew out of the Williamsburg neighborhood where our family tree was nurtured. An American story; the America that we identified with so patriotically.

I was the first branch on our family tree to put down roots in Israel. A newlywed in 1960, I was followed by the trunk of our tree that split: first my grandfather in 1961; then my parents in 1964; and my sister and her family, who made aliyah in the early 1970s. Many extended branches followed.

My beloved childhood home, and the adjacent buildings on South 9th Street, have been demolished and rebuilt with new dwellings, and not a single branch of our large family remained in Williamsburg. Many branches are still blowing in the wind in other states and cities in America and Canada, rooted in place, unable to find their way home to Israel, where Tu B’Shvat is celebrated as a special holiday.

It was the elders of Tzfat, Jews who were expelled from Spain in the 16th century and replanted in Tzfat, who presented the joy and blessings of the fruits of trees in the Holy Land, introducing the custom known today as Seder Tu B’Shvat, a table set with a display of varied local fruits and nuts, with blessings designated for each type. “Ki ha’adam eitz hasadeh – for man is like the tree in the field.” (Devorim 20:19), and Tu B’Shevat is the New Year for trees, the time of year when trees, their new blossoms and their fruits, await blessed judgment.

Seated at my sunny Jerusalem window, plants and flowers in abundance, and a fragrant fruit tree blooming in my garden, I imagine the joy and magnificent table spread, the banquets and celebrations that will be held, when all our distant family branches shake loose from the lawns and gardens where they are rooted, blow past hills and dales, blow across oceans, through forests and fields, to join us in this Land, our Land, the Holy Land that is meant for you and me!

Faigie Heiman won first prize in the Israel Education Ministry Jewish Culture short story competition. A popular author of short stories and essays, and a memoir, Girl For Sale, Faigie Heiman is celebrating her 60th year of Aliya in Jerusalem.

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