Paul Greenberg

SHREVEPORT, La. -- "Goin' Home." It keeps going around and around in my head as we drive around my old home town -- the slow, sweet musical theme Dvorak used for the largo in his New World symphony. By writing lyrics for it, a gifted pupil of his turned it into a kind of modern Negro spiritual, putting into words the plaintive, elegiac spirit of the music -- and the longing felt by anyone homesick for an irretrievable past:

Goin' home, goin' home, I'm a-goin' home;

Quiet-like, some still day, I'm jes' goin' home.

It's not far, jes' close by,

Through an open door;

Work all done, care laid by,

Goin' to fear no more.

Mother's there 'spectin' me,

Father's waitin', too.

Lots of folks gather'd there.

All the friends I knew.

Home, I'm goin' home!

We go to Sabbath services Friday night at my old synagogue, Agudath Achim, but it has downsized and moved into a new building plunked down in a new part of town, a carbon copy of little Agudath Achim synagogue in Little Rock. Everything's franchised these days.

I keep looking for my old rabbi, who taught me how to sound out the jots and tittles of the alef-bes, the Hebrew alphabet, and the meaning of the ancient words that contained worlds. It wouldn't be till much later that I realized Rabbi had a full name -- Rabbi Leo Brener -- for he was just Rabbi to us little kids. But he's long gone and nowhere to be seen tonight, though his presence is felt. In every word and sigh.

Not till we read the Kaddish, the prayer recited on the anniversary of a death, and hear the list of names do I fully realize how many figures of my childhood are no more. Their faces flash before me one by one, even more vivid than they were in life. Even stranger are the faces of the old- timers who are still here tonight, present and accounted for, their walkers at the ready. Which reminds me: I left my cane in the car. I would have fit right in.

We're staying in one of those indistinguishable motels on an indistinguishable freeway lined with indistinguishable franchise operations. It's kind of restful, being in a place that's no place. A man could live quietly, anonymously, comfortably there, with every need in walking distance if anybody ever walked any more: franchise food, multiplex theaters, antiseptic quarters with no distinguishing marks. Even the people seem franchised. It's the perfect no-place to disappear into. I daydream about being in a witness protection program in this neighborhood, work all done, care laid by, covered by layers of protective non-coloration, just blending into the gray.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.