How Detroit Shaped Author, Prof. Rachel Havrelock

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Rachel Havrelock, 38, remembers before Tally Hall went in at Orchard Lake Road off 14 Mile. “It really was orchard once upon a time,” she recalls. She remembers the driving range before the Whole Foods strip mall, and the “pseudo-Chinese” roof on the Chinese place that also once called the intersection home.

A Hillel Day School and later Detroit Country Day student, she comes from a family of Detroiters. She learned to swim at the JCC, worked there as a lifeguard from the time she was 13 until she moved away, and was also on the swim team. “That was always like a second home,” she said.

The Farmington Hills native left Detroit in 1990 to forge her own path; where her mother, aunts, and cousins went to University of Michigan, she followed her calling west to Santa Cruz. She sold her car and rode a bicycle everywhere, taking on an entirely different mode of living and devoting herself to “radical individuality.” She even married a San Francisco guy.

She’s pretty sure it was the perception of communal conformity that made her rebel. “Its just such a big part of your life being a Jew from Detroit, the community is such a big part of your life,” she said. “Everyone does the same thing, we’re all wearing this and eating here and we all go to summer camp here and we all go on vacation here.”

Later on she came to realize that such activities have other functions, she said, and contributed in ways she didn’t understand at the time to the strong sense of Detroit community she feels. “I think its another way that people stay together and maintain tradition and identity.”

And as it turned out, she couldn’t stay away from this part of the country. She finished a PhD in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at University of California Berkeley and then moved to Chicago in 2002 to take a position as a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago. “It’s fate,” she says of her return, and the fact that her first big job brought her right back to the Midwest.

She credits her teachers at Hillel and Shaarey Zedek, where she attended Hebrew High School until graduation, with inspiring her to continue her studies of Judaism. She also recently finished a book, “River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line” which she hopes to bring home next fall.

Growing up in the Detroit area taught her to celebrate her Judaism, she said. Having lived in multiple cities and in the US and Israel, she said she has found Detroit Jews are very comfortable with and excited about their Jewish identities. “You meet people from Detroit and we’re into it,” she said.

She wants her daughter, three-year-old Delilah, to feel the same. In addition to teaching her Hebrew early on, she said she wants to make sure her daughter grows up close to her grandparents as she did. She also works to create a community for her daughter, to make sure that in the same way she has lifelong friendships, such as a friend she went to Hillel with who she has known since she was three, Delilah grows up with solid ties she can count on. “It makes your world bigger, to have people that know you and you can rely on in life.”

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