Rabbi Yonatan Dahlen: When Your City Speaks

I’ll be the first to admit it. I’ve had a complicated relationship with Detroit. Perhaps five years in New York has turned me into an urban elitist, a city snob. When Meredith and I head into Detroit for brunch or a show, I often catch myself starting sentences with the words, “You know, in New York…” (which she, shockingly, does not find all that endearing).

I’ve had a hard time adjusting to the “Detroit vs. Everybody” mentality, and I usually draw a blank when I’m asked what my “hustles” are (evidently in Detroit, one is expected to have at least two). And despite my best efforts, I cannot get myself to refer to this towering city of American success, failure, and perseverance as “The D.”

I am (and I’m not trying to be dramatic or garner sympathy here) an outsider. I didn’t grow up eating at Leo’s. There has never been any Vernors or Faygo in my fridge. My roots don’t spread under the streets of Lafayette or Bagley, and they don’t pull their nourishment from the Rouge. Almost one year since arriving, and I still don’t feel like a Detroiter.

But this past Monday, I spent all day in the city that has yet to accept me, and we had a very serious talk. We were both reluctant for the first few hours, but when my friend Larry stepped in to mediate, the conversation took a difficult but important turn.

Larry Oleinick is the founder and president of Heart 2 Hart Detroit (please click the link for information about this amazing project), and on Monday he took me along with him on his downtown route, allowing me to hand out hot food, hand warmers, and socks to Detroit’s homeless men and women who live, work, and survive in the city’s streets, alleys, and abandoned buildings.

It was during these few hours, as the violent wind threw snow into our eyes and the well-below-freezing temperatures bit at any exposed skin, that Detroit told me her story.

She told me about when she was a struggling rap artist who fell in love with gangster culture until it ruined all the beauty in her life. She told me about her days in Vietnam, and how she was never the same after the war ended. She told me about her addiction, about how she can’t help but spend her money on dope, because being sick is hell. She told me that she is black, brown, white, and any other color under the sun, and that the only real code is that you look out for your brothers and your sisters.

And she told me that she had never met me before. That while I was complaining about her not noticing me, not letting me be a part of her life, she had other things on her plate, things that I wouldn’t be able to understand.

And then I apologized. Because I had made her into something she wasn’t. And I had come to her without any humility, without any compassion, without any understanding.

I told her, that like the Israelites who chose to build their golden calf and dream of Egypt rather than put their full trust into their newly formed covenant, I had romanticized my past and in doing so, blurred my present.

And she told me that it was okay, that she forgave me, because a covenant isn’t easy. It takes time.

So we sat there, Detroit and I. The snow continued to fall and the wind whipped around us. And we looked at one another with a new sense of truth and with a tinge of embarrassment at how raw and vulnerable our conversation had been.

I said goodbye to Larry and the crew. I got in my car, and headed back to the suburbs, and when I got back to my house that night, I watched the first half of the Pistons / Knicks game being replayed on Fox Sports. And as my old city took on my new city, I cheered for Detroit, not because she’s been through a lot, not because she’s strong and resilient, not because her future is limitless. I cheered for her because she’s my home.

On this Shabbat Parah (the Shabbat of both the red heifer and the golden calf), Meredith and I wish you a Shabbat of peace, of introspection, and of joy. May your tables be filled with song, laughter, and blessings, and may you feel truly and fully at home.

Rabbi Dahlen

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