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Where Is Home?

I have been in Buenos Aires this week visiting my father. Though we FaceTime every day, it is a special joy to hug him, to spend these days together, to accompany him on his errands, to share our meals.

Even so, I find it almost impossible to be here in the present. I have lived in New York for 42 years now, twice as long as I lived in Buenos Aires, but when I come to visit, the past takes over my consciousness. The particular blue of the sky; the quality of the light; the sounds and smells; the streets and the cafes; the language as spoken here; the lingering presence of a multitude of loved ones who are no more; the reappearing memories of my childhood and adolescence—they all emerge from my past, and they all whisper “home!” Even the frightening memories of my early 20s—imprinted during the nefarious years of the military junta—pull me back and say “home” in a dreadful tone.

And so, when I am here I get absorbed in the question: Where is home? Is home here, or is it there? Can I claim more than one home? And what about Jerusalem, which pulls me within my heart?

The author André Aciman—who was born in Egypt to Sephardic Turkish parents and who lived in Rome, Paris and New York—writes: “the very nature of finding a home becomes an illusion: a home cannot be a home when it competes with other homes—when, that is, the old refuses to disappear and is continuously thrust upon the new.”

For me, Buenos Aires refuses to disappear—it will forever thrust itself upon my New York.

When I arrived on Monday, my father showed me some old prayer books he recently found in a box in the attic. Among them a set of Sephardic mahzorim for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, printed in Vienna in 1889. In them, my paternal grandfather (after whom I am named) inscribed his name (my name) on September 22, 1920. My father wants me to have them, so I am bringing them back with me to New York.

My grandfather, Joseph Matalon, was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1889, and arrived in Argentina in the nineteen-teens. In 1919 he married my grandmother, who was also born in Aleppo, and, for the following 15 years until he died in 1934, his business took their expanding family to Manchester and Paris, and back to Buenos Aires.

As I was growing up, our big family gathered every week for Shabbat lunch at my grandmother’s home. At the table, the conversation moved seamlessly between Spanish and French, peppered with Arabic and English, and sometimes it traveled back, nostalgically, to all those places in the family’s nomadic past.

These places and languages, too, I seem to carry with me, going all the way back to Spain before the Expulsion.

So where, then, is my home? I inhabit a big and beautiful home of many rooms, among them the memories of my past, my languages, the places where I’ve lived, my family and friends, my grandfather’s prayer book, Shabbat and its table, my community, my books and my music, and the fantasy of my family’s unfolding future.

And where is yours?

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Roly Matalon