How I Found Love, Family and Jewish Wisdom in Highland Park
July 8, 2022
My in-laws moved to Highland Park, Illinois, in the late 1960s. They found a nice house, good public schools, a Lake Michigan breeze and an easy train commute downtown. But it wasn’t the amenities that inspired my mother-in-law to choose Highland Park. It was the Jews.
My mother-in-law grew up in a Jewish family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. The daughter of orphans, she lived in a building owned by the man who raised her father, who also took in Jewish refugees fleeing the Holocaust. She wasn’t a religious woman, but she exuded a profound sense of welcome I felt from the moment I met her. That ethos was part of what inspired me — a Presbyterian girl who fell in love with her son — to convert to Judaism. I wanted my children to grow up with the warmth I felt at her Highland Park kitchen table.
When my in-laws got to Chicago in the late ‘60s, their toddler son in tow, a real estate agent showed them around. They saw an apartment in Marina City, the new corn cob-shaped twin towers on the river downtown, and toured a few suburbs.
When they got to Highland Park, my mother-in-law knew she was home. The synagogues sealed the deal, she said. She didn’t care to spend much time in any of them; the Jewish community just made her feel safe.
Contrary to what some might assume, it wasn’t the city she was afraid of, it was the corn. To a young Jewish woman from the big city, backroads 1969 America was a place to fear, open acreage where the KKK rampaged against Blacks and Jews. A few years before their move to Illinois, my father-in-law’s Queens College classmates — civil rights workers Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, both young Jewish men — were murdered with a young Black man, fellow activist James Chaney, while driving through rural Mississippi. Just two weeks before my mother-in-law gave birth to her son — the person who later became my husband — 19 men were indicted for the crime.
My mother-in-law didn’t live to see the horror that rained down upon Highland Park this week. Had she, I have no doubt she would have been sitting in a folding chair on the curb alongside her sister and nieces and all the grandmas and grandpas, aunts, uncles, and parents, waving at the kids and the floats going by. My 80-year-old father-in-law, now remarried, was there with his wife, and together they ran for their lives along sidewalks he’d traveled with his own children and grandchildren — my kids — thousands of times. They opened their apartment to families who huddled in their basement, terrified, for hours while police tracked down the shooter. They were among scores of good Samaritans — “guardian angels,” one of their guests called them — who let strangers in that day. A paper store manager, a woman of Indigenous background, reflected to a reporter that the Cheyenne name her grandmother gave her means “one who opens doors.”
I don’t have anything profound to say about this horror. When I see the images on the news, my mind gets stuck in memories. I find myself thinking, there’s the bench by Dairy Queen where my son first tasted chocolate; there’s where we all go for pancakes; there’s my cousin’s office; there’s the alley by my in-laws’ house. The blood stains by the benches, the tipped-over strollers, the empty camp chairs — none of it makes sense. Neither, as my father-in-law pointed out, does the fact that one town’s tragedy makes the national news while Chicago’s gun violence victims — and the good Samaritans who help them — rarely do.
I work for an organization called Interfaith America, one dedicated to the idea that religious diversity is one of our nation’s strengths. My wise, lovely colleagues work every day to build the kind of interfaith America we want to live in.
But like the blood on the Highland Park sidewalk, I find it impossible to reconcile this epidemic of public slayings with the heart-warming good work I see every day. How do we hear the optimists when the blood of Buffalo, Uvalde, Highland Park, Chicago and so many other places cries out to us from the ground?
My mother-in-law was not right about everything. There are Jews who live on farms and countless loving hearts out in those cornfields. But her desire for safety is something we can all relate to. It’s also something we all deserve.
A song has been echoing in my head all week. We sing it in the synagogue sometimes, and it’s based on a famous saying by the 18th-century Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav. “The entire world is a narrow bridge,” the rabbi said. “The essential thing is not to fear at all.”
It’s worth noting that Nachman had a lot to fear; there were great tensions within his Jewish community and enemies beyond. People don’t usually coin lasting maxims unless they’ve got a relevant point. When I think of Highland Park this week, with Nachman’s words in my head, I try to think of all those opening doors — and remember the people I love there who opened a door to me.
The fear is real. The bridge is very, very narrow. The only way across is together.
Monique Parsons is managing editor of Interfaith America Magazine.