Editor’s Note: As New York City begins the first phase of reopening this week, The Jewish Week inaugurates a series on what a post-Covid Jewish community might look like.
In addition to the modern plague of the pandemic itself, there has been another comeback of biblical proportions — namely that of the “Beit Av,” “house of the father,” or an extended family home. In biblical times, everyone lived in the ancestral home. When a daughter married, for example, she would move to the Beit Av of her husband’s family.
In “Dangerous Sisters of the Hebrew Bible,” Professor Amy Kalmanofsky explains that the Beit Av “was the essential social unit of ancient Israel.” The second census of Bnai Yisrael, for example, is organized by tribe and subcategories including “l’veit avotam,” “according to their ancestral homes” [Numbers 1:2]. Families living clustered together in the Beit Av was a central part of the tribal system of ancient Israel.
For the members of the millennial generation, like myself, the pandemic forced a sudden move back to the Beit Av — namely the suburban homes of our parents. During these past few months, parents have “bailed-out” many generations, not only millennials. But for millennials, especially those with young children, the resurgence of the Beit Av has been an interesting social experiment.
Millennials have been notoriously hesitant to commit to forms of civic engagement previous generations took for granted, including affiliation with synagogues and other formal Jewish institutions. And in true millennial fashion, our generation has excelled at delaying a move to the suburbs — that is until now.
For my own young family, the move to the Beit Av was quite sudden. With parks closed, elevators feeling risky and not enough noise machines to silence our children in our small apartment, favorite toys in-hand, we left Manhattan to head to my parents’ house on Long Island. We were greeted by excited grandparents, eager to help make our short stay comfortable for us and for our children.
These past few months, we have greatly benefited from living in the Beit Av. From home-cooked meals, large laundry machines, endless storage space, the bonus of a backyard and help with childcare, there have been many short-term rewards of our stay.
There are also the priceless everyday moments — moments that at times feel like they are right out of our childhood sitcom “Full House.” Each morning our children, ages 2 and 4, wake up and eagerly head to Grandma and Saba’s room, where they snuggle in bed and watch “Sesame Street” together. My kids also love davening with my father, who is a rabbi. As he leads a virtual minyan every morning, they try to put on their own tefillin — the straps are longer than they are! They also enjoy doing arts and crafts with my mother, who is an art therapist. Some mornings I come downstairs to find them fully immersed in a painting activity — all before breakfast.
These interactions have been wonderful for my empty-nester parents as well. After officiating at yet another virtual funeral on Zoom for a victim of Covid-19, being asked to join in Peppa Pig’s tea party — complete with tea and crumpets — is certainly a welcome change.
As New York City begins to slowly reopen, I wonder what this quick move to our ancestral home will mean for my family and for others like us. This pandemic likely expedited our permanent exodus from Manhattan. My husband and I jokingly question why we would ever venture out to buy our own home and live in “isolation” when we can have helpful and loving grandparents — and aunts and uncles and cousins — under one roof.
As I think about the next steps for our family, I wonder what our biblical patriarchs and matriarchs would think of this arrangement. I doubt our ancestors could ever have imagined there could be a household with six working adults who never have to set foot outside to do their jobs — so long as they have sufficient wireless bandwidth!
While it is unclear how much longer this relic of biblical times will shelter the millennial generation, I am grateful to have had this meaningful experience with my family. We left our blissful New York City existence for life in the Beit Av. And who knew that we might actually want to stay.
Yael Buechler is rabbi of the lower school at the Leffell School in Hartsdale, N.Y., and founder of MidrashManicures.com.