Most people have no interest in living near train tracks — wrong side, right side, any side. But I live one block away from the train tracks located between Windsor Road and Palisades Avenue in Teaneck — and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Day time, evening time, middle of the night time, I smile at the rhythm of those freight trains rumbling, chugging, even sometimes screeching when coming to a grinding stop. Please do not ask for a logical explanation, but that sound is an odd but satisfying music, my personal Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” (Forgive me, Mr. Beethoven, if I offend you!), my assurance of continuity and strong clarity in a world that often brings little clarity or reflects any continuity at all.
When all else is up in the air, those trains are a constant. And they are a part of life on my beloved Magnolia Road.
When we moved to Teaneck’s Magnolia Road so many years ago, I had no clear reason why this street — so close to the railroad tracks — was where I was meant to be. Visually, there is nothing unusual about Magnolia Road: it’s just one block long, 23 mostly similar-looking houses framed by majestic old trees. Many long-time township residents have no idea where the street is. Even Pershing Circle, a roundabout one block away, sometimes confuses the most experienced Teaneck driver. But the soul of the street — now that’s what makes it unusual and unique.
I have lived here 46 years. I remember how my son and daughters played with the other young children on the block, and now, I finally get it. What was the soul of the street back then? Everyone played together in the street with joy, with laughter, without ever thinking about skin color, what synagogue or temple or church a family belonged to, what school someone attended, what kind of clothes they were wearing, what kind of bike they were riding, or their parents’ professions, political leanings, or physical looks. They were a community of playmates. That was all that mattered.
The trains, of course, kept rolling all those years. I didn’t know what they were carrying or where they were going. But I always loved the sounds that confirmed both the journey and the continuity, and those sounds became part of the background music of life on my street.
During the past three months of covid, so much time has been spent in our homes, so little time spent in the outside world. Innumerable elements of community as we know them have been absent. And yet, here on Magnolia Road, we have stayed connected — a one-block community. I must confess that without Magnolia Road as our common denominator, it is unlikely that many of us would have been friends at all. And yet here we are, like those children long ago, always demonstrating, particularly through this pandemic, that we are a community of friends, and how much we care about each other.
In September 2016, my next-door neighbor organized the street friendships by creating a WhatsApp group that he quite appropriately named Moshav Magnolia. Why refer to us as a moshav? The original Israeli moshav began as a settlement — a village, a kind of community — specifically cooperative, agricultural communities of individual farmers that were formed during the second wave of aliyah to Palestine from 1904 to 1914. We definitely are not farmers and we definitely are not escaping persecution. But we are a unique community, living in one small area together. Our Moshav Magnolia consists of 28 people — often with both the husband and wife on the group chat. We don’t care at all about our differences; our differences make us interesting and our connectedness makes us a community. Clearly we are a diverse group: rabbis (two of whom are a husband/wife team), educators, nurses (also a husband/wife team), IT and software experts, musicians (two of them under one roof), lawyers, singers, therapists, administrators.
Many of the Moshav Magnolia postings often end up with many back and forth responses, which most likely reflect chats that occur between neighbors on many blocks. Need a specific spice while in the middle of cooking? Have two extra onions? Can anyone recommend a good electrician? We are looking to get rid of small bookshelves; any takers? Any good shows on Netflix? Is this week recycling? Did you lose electricity?
But the closeness of our group goes way beyond the written word. A few years ago, eight families got together and bought a powerful $800 snow blower that we happily share and store in one family’s garage. And of course you remember Hurricane Sandy. Moshav Magnolia celebrated the return of electricity after 10 very long days with a Shabbat Kiddush in one of our homes. And you cannot imagine the back-and-forth posts and texts to the township when we were united in getting the town to remove a dead deer off of one front lawn in the heat of the summer.
What is a moshav without music, aside from what I hear when the trains go by? In addition to our musical couple, who each teach and also perform in orchestras and bands, we boast about our marvelous singer, who also teaches guitar. When she and her band were performing at the Bitter End in Greenwich Village, some of us went to hear her. All my years in New York and finally I made it to that famous place! And when her band performed again in Teaneck, a group of us enjoyed a second round.
Adding to our diversity is one motorcycle rider amongst us. When he rode cross country all the way to San Diego, Moshav Magnolia followed him on his adventure as he shared almost daily videos of his travels through the GoPro camera mounted on his helmet.
But I believe the defining moment of Moshav Magnolia was how we connected when a young son on our block fell seriously ill. He was a 12-year-old boy whose passion was learning all about the U.S. presidents. While his illness progressed, his appreciation for the presidents remained strong. During many warm early summer Shabbat afternoons, many of us sat on his family’s front lawn with our young presidential expert and his family, shielded from the sun by a canopy tent, while an actor in full dress regalia assumed the role of one of our earliest presidents. Each actor must have prepared meticulously, for as he spoke about “his” presidency and even responded to many questions, we listened as though this man had actually traveled to us from the 18th century to tell his story.
Our 12-year-old historian rested on his reclining lounge chair and spoke little or not at all. But we were together, and his pleasure was ours as well. Some weeks later, through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Secret Service men stood guard on our block while former President Bill Clinton came to pay the boy a visit. And when his personal battle with ALS was lost, Moshav Magnolia mourned. His sixth yahrzeit just passed; the wonder of his life and his parents’ relentless devotion and strength will be a part of our Moshav Magnolia community always.
So now you know a bit more about my special block. I’ve actually lived in two houses on the street, one directly across from the other, and my son and his family live four houses away. That, too, tells you how much I love Magnolia Road. Almost 50 years have passed since I first moved here; so many families have come and gone, so much has changed just in my own family alone. I guess you could say that I am the one constant through all these years. Well, the trains and me. Perhaps that’s why I love their sounds so much.
I am a widow living alone now, but I am never alone. My family and my Moshav Magnolia community surround me; and day or night, the trains keep playing my song.