In a high-lonesome twang right out of the piney woods of the Ozarks, rock and roll Americanist Levon Helm sings of “a sorrow in the wind / blowin’ down the road I’ve been / I can hear it cry while shadows steal the sun.” Helm was the soulful, Arkansas-raised drummer in the pioneering ‘60s roots rock group The Band, and the song is an old gospel tune “Wide River to Cross” on his new CD, “Dirt Farmer.” It’s a prayer, really, a poignant hymn to loss but also a declaration that life rambles on, that “I’m only halfway home,
Battery Park City is a neighborhood made from scratch. Its 92 acres sit on landfill, soil excavated during the construction of the World Trade Center in the 1960s. Atop what used to be dilapidated piers, a village of high-rise and low-rise housing, plazas, playgrounds and pocket parks has arisen, with a population of about 10,000 people.
It was a small kipa, satin white and sky blue, and it was supposed to make a statement about my Jewish identity. I bought it at a Judaica shop in Jerusalem on my first visit to Israel, a 10-day trip for American journalists in late autumn of 1975. Not religiously observant then, I was 25 and not a kipa-wearer outside of synagogue. I decided to wear the yarmulke as a sign of pride, as a statement of Jewish identity, during the time I was in Israel. I clipped it to my head then forgot about it.
In Israel, no one notices someone wearing a kipa. On Shabbat, someone noticed.
The most beautiful sunset I have seen in my life was above the rolling hills of Majdanek, a Nazi concentration camp in Poland. Orange grabbed peach, peach wrapped its legs around crimson, until all was gold, gold hovering over our weeping circle of Jews, gathered there to witness the worst of humanity. I was 18, out of America for the first time and thoroughly captivated by Poland, by its dark history but also by its Jewish renaissance, embodied that day in the radiant sunset.
Waking up as the tour bus crawled to a stop on the shoulder of an otherwise empty Israeli highway, I opened my eyes to see eight strangers piling their luggage into the bottom of our bus and climbing up the steps. Clad in identical olive-shade uniforms differentiated only by their multi-colored berets, they walked down the aisles among the 40 wide-eyed Americans, taking the empty seats we had left for them.
Born Uriah Rapoport in Minsk, my grandfather changed his last name to Harris when he immigrated to the United States in the late 1870s at the age of 9. I was told he stayed with the Harris family only for one night, but kept their name for the rest of his life.
I have nothing against the name Harris, but “Rapoport” connects me to a past before my grandfather. I looked up the name. There were many distinguished Ashkenazi rabbis named “Rapoport” in Eastern Europe, even in Minsk. My great-grandfather was not one of them: he was in the lumber business.
The hairpin turns along the Blue Ridge Parkway reveal astonishing vistas, with deepening shades of blue and green, mountains and their shadows, around each bend. So too, a last-minute vacation to visit friends in Greensboro, N.C., attend a bluegrass festival, and travel in the Blue Ridge Mountains, turned into a detour into Southern Jewish history. We bumped into family stories in unexpected places, and later picked up subsequent chapters.