LOS ANGELES — When I told my parents I’d be unable to come home for Rosh Hashana this year, they were devastated. Maybe they feared some type of colossal infrastructural meltdown of our holiday celebrations, provoking mass family-wide panic that would ultimately lead to the collapse of our family’s most trusted religious traditions: Shabbat dinner.
Or maybe they just wanted to see their baby boy.
Either way, in the weeks leading up to the New Year, I began to sense certain desperation in their tone. Our phone conversations were straight out of an “all I want for Christmas is you” type-movie. I tried to explain that for Jewish journalists, the holidays are like tax season and it’d be really difficult to take off a few extra days to make the cross-country journey from L.A. to Pittsburgh. But like any loving Jewish parents, they pressed with the guilt and in the age of e-mails, cell phones and the ability to work from home, I ultimately caved.
But not without a fight.
I decided to surprise them, which I soon realized was the worst of both worlds because amidst the continuous guilt, was the heavy probing with questions like “Do you have a place to go?” “Where are you eating on yom tov?” “Who’s the rabbi?”
I was forced to tell them that I’d be “going to that new progressive shul; having cholent at my friend’s house; and the rabbi, oh he’s an all-star rabbi.”
The lies paid off.
When I showed up at my parents’ house, my father found my arrival quite mensch-like and my mother was ecstatic, though she said she “knew it all along.” My homecoming was the ultimate “shuva,” in the most literal sense of the word.
However, behind the wise decision to come home, the joy of seeing my family, and the excitement of the amazing meals I had undoubtedly earned, I couldn’t help but sympathize with the many former Pittsburghers who don’t make it home for the holidays.
A friend of mine, and much more experienced expatriate Pittsburgher, Elliot Steingart hasn’t celebrated a High Holiday in Pittsburgh since he was 16.
Though we spent some time together in high school and Hebrew school, Elliot and I really didn’t connect until we met out in Los Angeles. Whereas I am a newly minted West Coaster, Elliot, now 23-years-old, left Pittsburgh with his family when he was 17, dividing his junior year of high school between Pittsburgh and San Diego.
“Whenever you go out and move out on your own, it forces you to figure who you are as a person,” he explained, as we chatted over a few beers.
The Pittsburgh Elliot was an outgoing, class-clownish, Emma Kaufmann camp regular and member of the local BBYO chapter. The San Diego Elliot, however, struggled at first to find his comfort zone before shipping off to college at University of California at Santa Cruz. Majoring in creative writing, Elliot was committed to developing his skills as a stand-up comedian.
Since graduating, he’s moved to L.A. and by day, works as a Community Outreach Specialist for Jewish Big Brothers Big Sisters of L.A. By night, however, this budding comedian produces and hosts a regular stand-up comedy show and performs at clubs throughout the city, in hopes of ushering in a new wave of Jewish comedy.
Though his family currently lives in San Diego, Elliot will confess that he’s still a Pittsburgher at heart, especially around the holidays.
A former member of Rodef Shalom Congregation, Elliot jokingly remembers “taking days off from the Pittsburgh Public Schools” system and sneaking out to “get hammered on Manischewitz.”
Since leaving Pittsburgh, he admits to feeling a void around the High Holiday season. “The matzo ball soup just tastes different,” he said.
And while his family is in San Diego, his life in Los Angeles, Elliot says he still considers his home to be Pittsburgh, explaining that this time of year always invokes fond memories, especially when the Steelers play on Erev Rosh Hashana.
Elliot’s story has helped put my story in perspective. We both value our roots and are proud to admit that we’re life-long Pittsburghers. But watching the Steelers squeak out that first victory of the New Year just isn’t the same without your family, regardless of their current residence.
For Elliot, family means the West Coast. For me, it’s thankfully still
(Jay Firestone, a Pittsburgh native and staff writer for The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, writes about Pittsburghers who now live somewhere else. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)