I was born in Mt. Vernon, New York, a small bedroom community bordering the Bronx and only 25 minutes by train to Grand Central Station. To me Mt. Vernon was home. My family lived there as did many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins.
The next major move in my life came when I was married. My wife and I moved to New York City where we lived in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan near Yeshiva University. New York City was now my home. A number of years later we moved to Atlanta where I had accepted a job as a synagogue rabbi and later as a school principal. I stayed there for 27 years and felt that Atlanta was now my home.
How does one define a home? Is it simply a specific location or is home a place where your loved ones are? Brooklyn, the emotional odyssey of Ellis Lacey, a young woman who travels to America from Ireland in the 1950s to chart a new direction in her life, considers this question.
The film opens as Ellis prepares for her journey. The family is on the brink of poverty and Rose, Ellis’s sister, has contacted a priest in the United States who will sponsor Ellis as a new immigrant. As she leaves on a ship, her sister and mother tearfully bid her farewell.
On arriving to America after an arduous sea voyage, she takes up residence in a girls’ boarding house in Brooklyn and finds a job in a department store. These early days of her American experience are filled with homesickness and anxiety, but she eventually finds her stride and even enrolls in a bookkeeping class in night school at Brooklyn College.
At a dance in the neighborhood, Ellis meets Tony, an Italian-American, who is infatuated with Irish girls. Their relationship blossoms over time as they share their dreams with one another. She wants to become a bookkeeper and eventually an accountant; he is a plumber who wants to develop a thriving business.
Tony asks Ellis to marry him. Then tragedy strikes when she receives the news that her sister Rose has died, leaving no one to care for their mother. Ellis feels she must go home to be with her mother even for a short time. It is here that a dilemma develops. Does Ellis remain in Ireland, her family home, and build a life there or does she return to America and forge her destiny there with Tony?
Real estate agents utter the mantra of “location, location, location.” They refer to being in the right neighborhood, but in a metaphysical sense the phrase resonates in Judaism. The Ethics of the Fathers states that a person should live in place that is a place of Torah, a place where a person can grow spiritually. That is the key determinant of where one should live. If being in one’s parental hometown does not allow one to grow spiritually, then one should relocate. A home is not just where you live; it is a place where you grow.
Judaism has many recommendations about where to live and all of them relate to intellectual and spiritual growth, not to material surroundings or comfort alone. It is important to live with good neighbors in a moral environment, to place a mezuzah on the door to protect those who live there, to bring books of Jewish learning into the home, and to place a charity box in a prominent location in the home. All the above testifies to living in a home where one can grow emotionally, spiritually, and intellectually.
In Brooklyn Ellis is compelled to decide whether a familiar, comforting environment trumps the new opportunity for love, connection, and growth. Her decision makes us evaluate our own ideal of what home should be.