My Journey to the New Jerusalem
Forty percent of Jewish millennials are unaffiliated. That doesn't mean they're not creating a new kind of Jewish world.
Every year, just before Rosh Hashanah, my Crown Heights apartment becomes a war zone.
I don’t mean that a few tears are shed during a volley of invective over dinner. When the Sholklappers fight, we go to the mattresses. Heads roll.
It’s the lamb’s head or yours.
My husband’s maternal family is Persian, and just as I’ve learned to crunch chelo and spice gondi, I now painstakingly prepare the massive Mizrahi Seder for Rosh Hashanah, severed heads and all. Like almost everything in Judaism, the lamb’s head—a graduation from the whole fish head I’ve used for the past two years—is a symbol. Of something. I’m 90 percent sure.
The lamb’s head says our faith is not fucking around. This is some Old World Benya Krik shit here, some Kabbalistic kung fu. I am a spiritual gangster, and this head on the table is my message job.
It’s a ripoff, says Tal. No lamb’s head. End of.
It’s been like this since he and I got married three and a half years ago. Most couples we know fight about sex or money or how to keep house—look, all right, it’s not like we’ve never argued over who should bleach the toilet, but those are street skirmishes compared to the wars we wage over God. Each year, we prepare for the High Holidays with military exercises and a test missile launch. We’ve yet to use lethal force, but the leaflets have been dropped.
It starts with the guest list, how we are absolutely not having 30 people again this year. (Undoubtedly this year we’ll have more.) Soon we are arguing about how late we can reasonably turn up to shul, whether he really has to make all those blessings, and if we’ll serve the non-kosher wine half our guests bring or regift it later. As the date draws near, we fight over which ceremonial foods might be omitted and how we can possibly cook them all, how many of the round challahs to roll with raisins, how many to leave plain, whether the pumpkin can be curried or the rubia canned, and if the dutch oven should stay parve. As soon as I say the soup bowls can be paper he insists we need plastic; the debate about how far to push back the bed becomes a diatribe over having no space to stash the rugs and why after three years in the same place we still don’t own real chairs.
For 363 days of the year, we could both give a fuck about plastic furniture. But we’re not really fighting about the chairs, or the wine or the dutch oven or any of the other things we’ve already forgotten by Simchas Torah. Because it’s not about divine law. This is who we are in the world.
Which is odd, actually, because if there’s one thing we definitely are, it’s Jewish. Small with black hair and big noses, we are Jews on first sight, and often before: It’s a rare day indeed when Dr. & Mrs. Sholklapper of Eastern Parkway are mistaken for anything but tribal.
This is as it should be. We married each other (far younger than our generation’s national average, and almost shockingly so for two highly educated New Yorkers) in large part because we’re both serious Jews. We keep a kosher home, belong to a local shul, and host holiday meals that leave both our friends and our one-bedroom apartment stuffed to the gills. Though he runs a tech startup and I’m a news reporter, we spend the 25 hours of Shabbat off the clock.
And yet, Tal and I number among the worrying subset of American Jewry—about 40 percent of Jewish millennials, according to last year’s apoplexy-inducing Pew Study—who have no apparent place in the wider Jewish world. We are the infuriatingly unaffiliated, not by choice but because institutional Judaism has no place for us.
In our case, we both attend and are technically members of our local shul, while at the same time not identifying with its denomination (Modern Orthodox) or with any denomination, for that matter. The fact that we are members and pay dues in spite of our feeling that the label doesn’t fit us to me belies everything the detractors are saying. We want to belong, to the point of schizophrenia, but as soon as we try to stake a piece of ground it shifts from under our feet.
Meanwhile, the study and its arbiters tend to suggest that it’s not institutions but Jews like us who are disconnected, unconcerned with the fate of our faith, or our culture, or is it our ethnicity? We’re too distracted, they insist, too demanding, too ADHD. We’re too unsettled for membership and too selfish for dues ... in a word, we’re not serious enough for American Judaism.
Let’s suppose for a moment that’s true. Where, then, does it leave us, the ungrateful, anti-establishment 40-percenters?
There’s a new popular moniker, the cultural Jew. But how can we be culturally Jewish when our Judaism is not one culture but many, both secular and religious, Sephardic and Ashkenazi, Israeli and American, and all the other things our tribe of friends and family also are: Polish-Persian, Yekke-Jamaican, Yemenite-Moroccan, Russian-Cambodian, Uzbek, Ethiopian, Argentine, South African, French and Brazilian, gay and straight, atheist and believer, ex-Hasidic and baal teshuva? Oh, and the 10 percent of us whose Judaism was stripped away by the Soviet Union?
Let them eat bagels.
Let’s say we repent, rejoin, to do teshuva. What then awaits us inside those air-conditioned halls?
What divine mysteries can Reform Judaism reveal to an 8-year-old girl in the throes of a deathbed religious epiphany? What does Conservative’s showy Yom Ha’Shoah memorials and AIPAC boosterism have to say to a bar mitzvah boy whose grandparents survived Auschwitz to see their only son sent to the front during the Yom Kippur War? How can the unhappy product of either take sides in an Orthodox debate over intricacies of halachah they neither care for nor comprehend? What, precisely, do you expect us to cleave to?
The truth is, being asked to choose between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox is like being asked whether you want Pepsi, Coke, or black coffee from the 40-cup urn.
What we want are cold brew and single origin pour-over—better yet, a chemistry set and a Soda Stream, the ingredients to concoct something new, something ours, something real.
Real is a niggun that draws up from a single voice in the congregation and spins like wool into yarn, knitting 70 people into a single, spontaneous melody as the Torah is replaced in the ark. Real is dropping everything to toast a l’chaim at a friend’s engagement, or show up for a stranger’s funeral. It’s Havdalah on YouTube and Purim on Instagram, tehillim for iPhone, Mikvah.org. Real means there’s Crown Royal in the instant coffee Shabbat morning, and hair in the matzoh-ball soup.
By the time we moved to Crown Heights just after our wedding in 2011, both Tal and I wanted desperately to get real. We’d been close with our local Chabad in California but felt like they were holding their breath until we became baale teshuva. The Conservative and Modern Orthodox synagogues we’d tried felt old, like so old, and the youthful alternative minyan was overrun with what my husband refers to disdainfully as “camp people.” (The sort who, while my ex-Hasid friend is having a deep moment with the scroll she was never allowed to hold as a girl, shoves past drunkenly shrieking, “I totally love the Torah!”)
It was here in New York that we stumbled into Jews like us, and not only hipsters and young professionals who’d been raised in the liberal denominations but Orthodox and Hasidic Jews who appeared, on the surface at least, to be chasing the same phantom.
Forty percent cannot be an outlier. Forty percent means something is lost, something is missing, and nearly half of us are searching for it.
A few months ago, I confessed to a fellow seeker I thought we might actually have kind of found something here, that if one friend’s sale went through and another met the right man, our tribe might actually have somewhere to belong.
Our landsmen called it The New Jerusalem.
Like many non-native New Yorkers, my first glimpse of home was through the window of an airplane. Not that you can actually see my apartment, but it’s not hard to approximate its position based on more visible landmarks: To the west is the dark splotch of Prospect Park, bounded on either side by the gold-bright arteries of Flatbush and Ocean avenues. Eastern Parkway extends laterally through the center of the borough from the park’s east edge. Hugging tight to either side of it is our neighborhood, Crown Heights. It’s not very large, one mile by two. If you came to stand on its exact geographic center, Tal and I would be there to greet you.
Because, like so many, I am not actually from the Brooklyn I so proudly inhabit, my first exposure to Crown Heights was Hebrew school. Specifically, a VHS tape of a documentary about the 1991 Crown Heights riots. Watching this as a secular 7-year-old in California, I found it hard to grasp who was more different from us, the Caribbeans or the Jews.
Of course, that was then. The Crown Heights of my ‘90s childhood imagining bears as little resemblance to the neighborhood today as it did to the early-20th-century Jewish enclave that was already in the process of uprooting for the suburbs when the Rebbe assumed leadership here in 1951. From that time until his death in 1994, the neighborhood became a magnet for spiritual seekers, part baale teshuva training camp, part devotional proving ground—but mostly your standard black-hat Brooklyn shtetl.
Once established, shtetls are slow to move. New York real estate is precious, particularly among those for whom geographic proximity is a function less of affinity than of religious law that dictates the devout must hoof it between almost every place they might reasonably want to go, at least on Shabbos. When the Rebbe died, the Jews stayed put. Two decades on, something else has taken root in their midst, something new. Or rather, a multitude of somethings.
If these somethings have one thing in common, it’s discord. Like Jerusalem, Crown Heights is contested land: Exactly what may be considered part of it and to whom it belongs remain bitterly divisive questions, no less so since people like us started showing up here half a decade ago. Our common ground is only what’s beneath our feet, this same stretch of pavement where seekers like us have been searching for meaning since the end of the Second World War. Only now, a lot of us aren’t quite sure what we’re looking for. The Rebbe has left the building. Crown Heights is a little like Neverland—to reach it you only have to believe, because whatever you believe is what you find here.
In many ways, creative chaos is the thing we came looking for. Our friends began moving to Crown Heights in 2009 because it was cheap; when we moved in 2011, it was because we wanted a wide swath of Jewish experience within walking distance—but also a wide variety of bars. Hipsters and Jews live cheek-by-jowl in Williamsburg, but not together. Here it’s different. Here we have Franklin Park.
Franklin Park, the neighborhood’s best-known bar, was very famously the place where our normally separate cultures—African American, Caribbean, Hasidic, and hipster—would mingle when it opened five years ago. But five years on, the bar is no longer singular. Crow Hill Crossfit has a special class for Orthodox women, and my favorite yoga teacher on Franklin Avenue also subs at the kosher studio on President Street.
Where other Brooklyn shtetls have revolted against the invasion, a small but significant number of Crown Heights Hasidim have embraced their new neighbors. The Hasidic hipster is now his own subset of the Brooklyn population: Yuda calls his artisanal kosher sandwich shop Hassid+Hipster, and Ben rolls under the Instagram handle @thehipsterrebbe; Mimi’s 5-year-old shoots her picture posing in front of graffiti murals in her and her sister-in-law Mushky’s designer “skirt leggings,” the ones that caused a minor social media war when @hipsterhijabis posed in them during Ramadan; and Chezzie ... well, you’d hardly find a better word for Rabbi Chezzie if you scoured the OED.
It’s not kumbaya, exactly, but it’s more than comingling. Where once there were rebels, now there are rabbis. It’s they who’ve opened this to us.
If you really want to understand what is happening here, the best place to start is on Instagram. It’s where I start when I want to explain how I picked my shul and my community, what it means to me to be here, why I feel I belong here, or at the very least that I could belong somewhere at all.
This is us, I tell everybody. This is the Judaism you don’t see, the Orthodoxy you fail to recognize under all those black hats. The hashtags may be different, but Jewishly speaking all selfies are the same.
Jewishly is an adverb that people between Conservative and Modern Orthodox sometimes use to describe situations in which the world (not Jewish) collides with one’s personal life (ostensibly Jewish) and/or when something more ostensibly Jewish is available and the speaker chooses not to do it.
Jewishly, we don’t feel two dishwashers are necessary, but we do video demonstrations in our home kitchen so we installed them for appearances.
Uniqulo HeatTech shirts may be polyester bullshit, but Jewishly they’re very useful because they make anything appropriately modest.
Jewishly, I am constantly having to explain myself. Constantly, and from both sides. No matter the question, the line of inquiry is always the same: But why? If you don’t have to, why be?
Jewishly is never a word that born black-hat people use, because nothing in their world is really not Jewish, and anything not-Jewish they might interact with deserves no explanation from them. Chabadniks, who deal professionally and all the time with non-Jews and non-Haredim, tend to use the carefully non-offensive construction “in Chabad we” or “our custom is” or “the Rebbe taught” or even “the Torah teaches,” but nothing so overt as “Jewishly.”
On the other hand, Reform Jews, cultural Jews, and whomever else we lump in that category never use “Jewishly” because Judaism has only form and no manner in that world, no degrees. It either is or it isn’t. (See Yom Kippur vs. Tisha B’Av, etal.) My husband is still embarrassed he had to bury the dairy spoon he accidentally dipped in his mother’s chicken soup; I wouldn’t have known a dairy spoon if my mother gagged me with it. When I realized meat and dairy were meant to be separate, I simply stopped eating the former, because the alternative was more complex by an order of magnitude than the religion I knew.
Since “becoming religious”—a laughable term for how Tal and I live, but a terrifying specter in the lives of my parents and our friends and brand new strangers I meet who are endlessly fascinated by the idea that someone seemingly normal would be involved in such bizarre shit—I’ve found it is they who are most keenly interested.
What pathology is this? How did it happen? Who infected you?
The answer is that this observance of ours is not what you’re thinking. It’s so different you can’t even imagine it. There is no way for me to answer the question and not be engaged in kiruv, the internal proselytizing for which Chabad is so famous, because to me the only real answer is: You have to come here and see.
My friend from California had a bachelorette party a few weeks ago; I abandoned the revelry Friday evening before Shabbos and rejoined after havdalah on Saturday night. This aroused the intense curiosity of another partygoer, an emphatically well-traveled marketing rep for an important social-media company who grew up in Westchester and had a Bat Mitzvah “because I wanted a big party” (she informed me, unprompted, as though this recognition of her [entitled and] precocious irony inoculated her from any spiritual disquiet) and had since invested in several wrist tattoos, I’m not even joking. Her reaction to my departure and post-Shabbos return transcended disbelief. She asked me like eight questions beginning with why. It’s girls like these who just cannot believe we would ever leave San Francisco, bastion of all that is exultant and liberal and clean-aired and just, that there could ever be anything better or more meaningful than really good Thai food and Blue Bottle coffee, who, later than same evening, when she is drunk asks if I’ve ever slept with a black man and what was that like?
What should I say? That I object to the question on its merits or that the answer is immaterial because it won’t change what she thinks? When the line of questioning turns to my faith, it’s often a similarly absurd and grotesque supposition. I don’t know what it is or it isn’t, if it’s true or false or whether we’re even speaking about the same thing. What I do know is that millions of people who look broadly alike are unlikely to be so under any kind of scrutiny.
I cannot tell you what Jews are like, any more than I can tell you about black men. What I can tell you is what I’ve observed—as a reporter, as a Jew, as a person—about how some people live while I’ve lived my life among them.
I can tell you about a 21-month-old toddler’s funeral my friend Lisa was covering for the Post outside 770 the other day, about the crowds on either side of the service road, men on the sidewalk and women reading tehilim on the island, and how I explained to Lisa who is here (every Tzvi, Devorah, and Haim in the neighborhood) and why (because that’s what you do) and what happens now and so on. How as I’m asking a pal of mine to give us some sense of how soon he thinks the funeral procession will come through, the deceased’s half-brother and I are chatting on Facebook, where the public mourning is already well under way.
When the procession finally does come, I will see my rabbi and many other familiar faces in the supremely sad moment when the small coffin is driven through, and afterward when I go to buy a bottle of arak and some lunch meat for my husband I see those same familiar and tear-streaked faces going about their business along Kingston Avenue, because that’s what you do, too.
Jewishly maybe, or in Crown Heights at least, you come out to mourn the death of a child not because you knew the deceased, but because you know the pain is too much, that if it were yours you could not bear it alone. In the same way weddings and engagements are open to anyone who wants to share a l’chaim with the bride and groom, so too are funerals there for everyone to shoulder them.
I wish I could explain ahavas yisroel to the social-media marketer with the wrist tattoos who asks me about my faith in the same stage whisper she asks about black men. But pictures of black Jews like my friend Yedidiyah are the best I can do. In pictures the answer is somehow more comprehensible than it is in words: The truth both terrifying and transcendent is that we’re all just people, and none of us is all that different from you.
Alarming isn’t it? But the fear cuts both ways. Many among the religious are as afraid of their children growing up secular as the seculars are of their children going black-hat. The popular narrative on both sides insists that there exists a hard line between religious and secular; that, like oil and water, the two don’t mix.
What’s come to exist in Crown Heights begs the previously unutterable question: But what if they did?
A few weeks ago, my friends Chana and Joel got engaged (and have since gotten married). Chana is a nurse and Joel a student; both of them are my age, both ex-Hasidic, Chana from Lubavitch and Joel from Satmar, and both deeply entrenched in Footsteps and Cholent and all the other ex-Orthodox groups that function as satellite shtetls for those seeking a way out. In the world within a world of the leavers they are paradigms of success, bastions of hope, pillars of strength. They are as happy as two neurotic Jews might be expected to be, self-supporting, still close with their families though they no longer live like them. You can do it. We can help.
The engagement party took place at a flower shop co-owned by our mutual friend Chani. Deep in Crown Heights, the corner of Albany Avenue with Union, the Rebbe’s town. Inside there are sheitels and Borsalinos and frock coats but also bare curls and naked knees. Here is detente, and not a cold one like between Brezhnev and Nixon, but a detente of wet kisses and delighted screams, of hard liquor and incandescent happiness. I wish I could explain that five years ago, this could never have happened. Three years ago, there was no public place for something like this to be. Today it is here, in heels and a dropped waist leopard print dress of deep coral that just grazes the patella but on Albany Avenue is now perfectly acceptable.
At some level, this is all an illusion; little Chani and Yoeli (named for her Rebbe’s mother and his Rebbe’s father) are never coming back, and while Albany Avenue may accept them, Kingston and Troy and Brooklyn and Schenectady are all still bitterly divided over where and what and how the Rebbe would have seen it done, were he alive today. And yet, it’s a small kind of miracle. Not perfect, not easy, but in a picture you can see everything that makes this singular.
And how did we get here, you’re asking?
It’s a long story, but a story short, I met a rabbi on Twitter when I was 24 who introduced me to my best friend—a self-described “Jewish Jamaican princess,” probably the only person who can claim with any kind of authority to belong to all of this at once—who in turn introduced me to the expansive Crown Heights of the mind we now all inhabit by turns.
Invariably, the end of the beginning begins here, just north of Eastern Parkway, off the corner with Lincoln.
This is how they get you. You’re standing on Kingston Avenue air-kissing your goodbyes outside Basil, the pizza and wine bar, because really when are you not doing that? Basil is a gateway, the gateway 770 was maybe 20 years ago and maybe more than that. Nowadays, anybody who comes in through 770 will be too much for Crown Heights before he leaves the building. But Basil’s a soft sell. Just a coffee with girlfriends, a DMZ between the curious and the confirmed.
So, here I am Sunday morning leaving Basil the way you do, having just extracted a promise from Mimi and Mushky that they’ll scrounge me up the very last Small in their sold-out “tame tiger” stripe skirts—the ass-suctioning ones they call “skirt-leggings”—the one they just know I’ll love. I can pick it up from sample sale their holding at Chevra Ahavas Yisroel.
And just like that, you are being led through door No. 2. From the social hour into the synagogue.
I’ve been to CAY, Chevra Ahavas Yisroel. The shul that everyone who’s anyone in Crown Heights attends. The shul that people come from Miami and Los Angeles and Israel to see for themselves, because of course they’ve already seen it on Facebook and Instagram and Vine and because these rootless cosmopolitans (per Stalin) are all as yentishe as they were in the mythic shtetl of Vishniac and Shalom Aleichem, so they’ve heard about it too. Because the Jewish press(es) have been wringing their hands or whistling their support from the sidelines since the shul was still in a flower shop, and then the Rubashkins’ basement and then about 10 other places before it had exposed brick and a yard and all the other trappings of the Brooklyn American Dream.
This is how the transformation happens: You see something, it becomes familiar, it becomes comfortable, and it starts to feel safe to you. Among the Grateful Yids, as the Chevra members call themselves, you can talk about shoes. For two hours you can talk about clothes and shoes and real-estate prices and careers and get one mention of the Rebbe and maybe two of Hashem. But you have already been at Basil, and soon you will be at Ahavas Yisroel. Because it’s inevitable. We already have you.
Perhaps I am more susceptible than others, or perhaps the hole in me is more plainly visible. I learned how to put on makeup from my father, with her MAC and Lancôme and lifetime subscription to Allure. She was transitioning and I was 12, done with puberty before most girls had started and with no more sense of what it meant to be a woman than I’d had in preschool, when my sister and I weren’t allowed to hold a baby dolls because it enforced gender roles. I often feel that I learned to be a woman the way transwomen like my father do, in secret at first (because my mother loathed anything to do with traditional femininity and loved to remind me that I was “smart like other girls are pretty”) and then in defiance and only much, much later in some internalized way that might resemble self.
Mimi and Mushky don’t know this, but I’m sure they can sense it. They probably smell it on me, this desperation. We are talking about their design business, but what we’re also talking about is how fun and easy it is to be this thing I’ve wanted to be and can’t quite seem to all my life—in my case, a woman—and how perfectly the Judaism they’re so enjoying embodies this thing I want.
Even our Lubavitcher Rebbe was always putting emphasis on women looking good, Mushky tells me, and lo, I am sold.
As we step into the vestibule to do up our coats, Mimi asks if I worry what will happen to my career when I have a baby. It sounds like the same question people ask young ambitious New York women all the time, but when she asks it the meaning is inverted. The two are successful fashion designers, Mushky three years younger than me with one son, and Mimi a year younger with two. What they’re really asking me is, What kind of pussy are you?
Kiruv doesn’t happen how you think it will. The old style might sell somewhere else, but here in New York we’re all too sophisticated for the Shabbos candles dolled into hands on Friday afternoons and the pimply 14-year-olds out begging you to shake the lulov.
This is how they get you.
For generations, no Jewish seeker’s journey was complete without a visit to Crown Heights, and specifically to the southwest corner of Kingston and Eastern Parkway. But the ground is slowly shifting. Even those of us who don’t belong here acknowledge that, for the double-tap generation, all paths lead to @chevraahavasyisroel.
Chevra is the hipster shul at the center of everything I find hopeful and uplifting and promising in what otherwise feels like an increasingly worn-out, threadbare system of drawing in the lost. This is coming from someone who will freely admit herself extremely vulnerable to kiruv—if nothing else, I always light my candles on time. It could not be easier to draw me in. Yet, inevitably as you get closer to the center you start to ask, Drawing into what?
You come to the center, to the Rebbe’s town, and what you feel is a vacuum, or maybe more like a gyre swirling around no fixed point, or spinning away from itself, or dispersing into a thousand tiny orbits. The theoretical “center,” of course, is inside 770, at the spot on the floor where crazy Saraleh points from the balcony and informs you (quite seriously, with the utmost seriousness) that the Rebbe is sitting, not “manifest” now but perfectly real, corporeal even, just hidden. Would you like to say the yechi with her? Would you like to write a letter to the Rebbe and stick it in this book and say the yechi and then open the book and receive your answer, directly from the Rebbe King Moshiach Forever just as easily as if you’d drop two quarters into Zoltan and get a card with your future printed on it . . . ?
But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it? There’s supposed to be answers, answers you can feel vibrating inside you with that special ring of truth that all our guts are supposed to know. The rat race, capitalism, vanity, whatever, that’s knocked the flora of our collective mental guts so far off balance we don’t know ourselves or the truth anymore, but here they have answers like kumbacha has probiotics and if you just drink ... well, you know how it works.
Anyway, that’s history. The new hope lives north of the Parkway, at Albany off Lincoln. It happens I’m at Chevra for a Purim story I’m doing about how they used to have a big party that the shul loved and the wider community hated, but this year the rabbi has suddenly pulled the plug, said no party, we’re going to be grownup this year. Enter tension, and with flagrant abuse of the word hipster (though they are, they truly are) and lo, we have news.
The paper asks me to arrange a picture, and dutifully I do. Chevra does a big communal havdalah service every Saturday night, and because it’s technically after Shabbos you can shoot it—which my Catholic photographer does, harrowingly, with candle wax in his hair and bruises from the inevitable jumping/dancing/sweaty upright wrestling that signifies deepest spiritual joy on Albany Avenue. Afterward, the same Catholic photographer tells me it’s the most fun he’s ever had in a house of worship, and I smile inwardly to myself because it’s so obvious this place is special and all I had to do was pull back the curtain and say I told you, yo, this shit is cool.
But then, a few mornings later I spent about three hours interviewing Rabbi Chezzie at Chevra Ahavas Yisroel, and now ... It’s funny the way interviews go in circles, how the first two times or so around the same facts you’re still not really at the heart of the thing, and then all of a sudden after three turns on the same theme there you are, in the real shit. We’re almost two hours in when Chezzie tells me he went to Israel in a deep spiritual crisis, that he’s afraid the judgmental-rat-race status-obsessed-popularity and cool-factor-bullshit he built this place to escape might infect it (sounding not unlike every other hipster who’s ever complained existentially about New York), that at 28 he’s burnt out, and the Purim party felt like the last straw.
We’re burning fast and bright, bright and fast, he keeps telling me as he rolls Golden Virginia cigarettes and smokes them one after the next, dropping ashes on the hardwood and blowing wooly smoke toward the exposed-brick walls.
For me and probably most of the Chevra (of which I am not a part, though we dabble), the shul is the platonic ideal of Jewish life. But here’s the rabbi telling me that ideal lives in a tent with six settler boys (ages 14-18) on a hilltop outside Old Jerusalem, working as shepherds and sleeping in shifts to guard against the Arabs ... that’s authentic, that’s true, that’s real and good and Jewish and right. It’s a little like someone who loves a band until the band gets popular, and then decides they’re done, sold out, not cool. If they built a house on the hilltop, or had enough food, then it wouldn’t be it anymore.
Chezzie keeps talking about a revolution, and about his fear that this revolution will devolve into something he doesn’t call bureaucracy but is really the same thing. What he seems to be saying and doesn’t quite say is that if and when that happens, the Grateful Yids will be just the same as everyone else in Crown Heights, or worse, they’ll be the same as the seculars. There’s a lot of talk about emptiness, about vacuums and corpses and assholes (either we’ll fall off or we’ll end up a bunch of assholes). We’re 28, these things seem deep and imperative to us.
He tells me everyone in the secular world seems old to him. He tells me there aren’t any answers, that you can twist the Torah to say anything you want, that answers are a goyish concept. He chews his beard and lights another cigarette, and for a while we chat about the construction and the stop-work order and the rats (real ones) racing around in the walls and how this is the first congregation to buy a building in Crown Heights in 40 years. Forty years! In the same breath he wants to tell me that everyone who hates them is wrong, how people have taken everything the Rebbe ever said and twisted it to be the opposite, how there aren’t any answers. But then we’re back in Eretz Yisroel, in a tent on a hilltop among the Arabs and the sheep ...
I admire Chezzie, but I don’t envy him much. For us, the stakes are much smaller. We like davening, but if circumstances keep us out of synagogue for a week or two the earth won’t lose its orbit. Despite what our name might suggest, we Sholklappers spent our first year here shulless and might still be shulless now except for a happy accident. At least, that’s what we thought when we joined the beautiful local synagogue just up the block and around the corner from us.
But then, just when everything seemed settled, our shul went to war.
By the look of it, you wouldn’t think us capable of such a thing. Ours is a small, sleepy, yet oddly diverse community housed in a 1920s synagogue that sits immediately adjacent to the exposed shuttle tracks and is by all appearances completely abandoned and derelict.
We’re a motley bunch—a handful of former Black Israelite families who converted to normative Judaism, a preponderance of Ashkenazi men with African American wives and mixed-race children, some ex-Soviets, an Ethiopian, a little clutch of Israelis, a lot of white American hipsters, and some white American yuppies and a collection of Lubavitchers, among the occasional Jewish Ethnic Other (Moroccan, Bukharian, blonde chick in tallis, whatever). Brises outnumber weddings, though the balance seems ever poised to shift. I’m not sure we’ve had a bar mitzvah in recent memory, but then you can’t have everything.
In truth there aren’t all that many of us and very few indeed who constitute “paying members in good standing” since we passed our bylaws 14 months ago. There are 16 of us, actually. Sixteen families or 16 individuals I can’t recall, but it’s almost certainly inflated in any case. Either way, the Sholklappers are what you might call “a significant fraction” of said membership. Like pillars of our community, or some shit.
If you had asked 14-year-old me whether I’d be a fucking pillar of a fucking Orthodox shul in Crown Heights another life again later, I’d have laughed in your face and then gone home to cry over how very wanted and very much impossible that would be. Even now it seems very impossible, though also less wanted. We’re not really those people, and nobody’s really fooled into thinking we’re those people, but we are the people who are there, and whose money is there, and perhaps the most profound lesson I’ve learned yet is that of all the wonderful qualities a person may have, thereness is the only one that counts for shit.
Our rabbi is likewise there, and he has been there well before there was a place anybody wanted to be. He bought a house off the avenue 10 years ago and has for years served as the de facto leader of our shul and its main fundraiser and advocate and voice in the community without ever asking a red cent. (Not that we’ve got one to give him.)
Our rabbi is a Lubavitcher, and he looks and talks and acts like a Lubavitcher, which is great for bringing in young members and rousing a minyan when one is not apparent and for bringing in money and supplies and services from nothing, but not so hot for the older members who consider themselves and the shul to be Modern Orthodox and consider that to mean something very proud and dignified and well-defined (we differ in this). We Sholklappers make it a policy not to notice or care about differences like those between Modern Orthodox and shlichus-style (Chabad house) Lubavitch. We studiously avoid and “unsee” these points of dispute, as instinctively as the citizens of Beszel unsee the ul Qomans in China Mieville’s The City and the City. We very profoundly don’t care.
I suppose it’s a very goyish attitude of ours, this deep-seated unfeeling for petty details of Jewish observance. One recalls the famous joke about the Jew on the desert island who built two synagogues so he’d have one he wouldn’t go to. We were happy to unsee them while we poured our green-ass cash into a yawning rift between the two “sects” of our shul and while everyone fought endlessly about the bylaws that no one could remember wanting to enact and having enacted could not seem to remember having themselves thought up and fought over and argued about ... and somehow, in 14 months of the boiler getting replaced and the roof not getting patched and the eruv only maybe a third of everyone either lives inside of or believes in being repaired at $125 a tear, it came to be decided by the board (which, if you count spouses, constitutes more than half the “paying membership”) that the bylaws we’d only just barely agreed to ratify now forced them to “fire” the rabbi they never paid nor selected, but who like the building and the plastic tablecloths and the lavish kiddish lunch is somehow simply always there.
I can now recall “unseeing” this coup for months while it was in the making. I just thought if I unsaw it—that is, if I imagined very hard that what is happening all over the tiny, fractured Jewish world was not also happening to our tiny, fractured congregation—I could continue to gossip with the ex-Black Israelites in the back of my pretty, forgotten old shul, where the train shambles by so frequently in the wide-windowed heat of summer we grow hoarse whispering between the shuttle and the Shemoneh Esrei.
If it weren’t for the synagogue, the whole thing would quietly sort itself. But the building is very old, and very valuable, and so each Shabbos we expect a war.
By late spring, the war has gone from cold to hot. In the midst of this one Shabbos afternoon in April, a few friends head back to our place after shul to eat orange smiles, give our souls a little chemical lift, and discuss the possibility of a coup. The problem, said Avi, is that everything gets done with good wishes, and that shit don’t fly with hipsters and breeders and whatever other young Jews might otherwise find $3,900 to patch the roof (which just collapsed) or host a Young Jewish Professionals kiddush once a month or generally make things not suck.
The problem, said Avi, is that you make something nice and then the schnorers who are not necessarily part of the shul but who somehow show up, fuck it up before it even gets started. You know these people—we all know these people, except Ilana who was already uplifted when she came and didn’t know until we went home that there was even a war, or what it was about, or that the roof had collapsed in the interim.
When you are young and just becoming passionately invested in something, it’s easy to confuse forces of inertia with those of opposition. By forces, I mean people, and by inertia, I mostly mean age.
What I mean is old people. Not old by the calendar—some of the youngest members of our shul are in their seventies—but gray in their outlook.
These are the people who take all the wrappers off the food before a party and touch it with their hands; if there is no food to touch with their hands they shuffle around like zombies with bedbug stains on their clothes filling the gaping maw where free food might have been with endless, mind numbing talk. The schnorers talk and talk and talk at you, filing your head with terrible, bigoted thoughts about how old people are vampires who suck the life and ambition and energy out of young people and then heave their ill-cared-for bodies across all the resources—jobs, real estate, medical care—defying you to change one thing, anything about their precious, perfect, collapsing, and ruinous world.
Specifically: The olds call a secret meeting of members in good standing to vote on a contract for the beloved 75-year-old titular rabbi of the shul, who usually comes for Yom Kippur but not always and is otherwise completely absent and in fragile health and who lives—wait for it—in Borough Park, a quick 8-mile jaunt from the synagogue. Unlike our Chabadnik rabbi, who has no compunction about texting after 10 p.m., The Rabbi of the Shul will almost always call you back within one business day about any urgent halachic question you may have, a service for which we have somehow been employing him for an entire decade longer than I have even been alive.
Meanwhile, the thirtysomething guy leading services and doing brises and weddings and bar mitzvahs (I forgot that we did have a recent bar mitzvah, for a Hells Angel in his sixties, at the bris of the rabbi’s most recent son in whose birth the biker had an important comic role) has no contract. But it’s more important by far for the board that The Rabbi of the Shul is not Chabad.
We on this side of the philosophical gray line mostly cannot fathom why it matters. But then, we on this side of the gray line mostly are not members in good standing. Tal and I very nearly refused to dignify the meeting with our presence, but then at the last minute we did, which ironically created a quorum and allowed for the vote which we had gone explicitly to oppose. So ...
Of course, as soon as the vote was finished and the old rabbi was rewarded with a new contract, the victorious olds surrounded Tal and dragged him away for maariv.
I fled home, where I was immediately thrust back from the clarity of Modern Orthodoxy to the chaos of my shtetl in the form of cryptic texts from a fortysomething Hasidic acquaintance who’d become mad—rabid, even—with the desire to attend a less-than-frum Seder for second night in walking distance from him, which should logically be impossible to begin with. Naturally, he thought of us. He was curious how we did things.
If he wanted chaos he was coming to the right place. Problematically, the guest list for our Seder had predictably metastasized out of all control. Already, I had received first, second, and third warnings about people who absolutely must not come (they came), and that I must stop extending invitations, and had started a second, shadow guest list of people whom I would be forced to pretend I did not know where coming until after they appeared.
It’s a shell game, one at which I am already quite expert: When I was a child, I was never allowed to have friends home at all, most especially my best friend, and even more so my boyfriends, though they did come, clandestinely. Whereas I thought I was conducting an open secret, my mother was very truly shocked the one and only time I was caught home with company and may well have been shocked to learn I was almost never where I claimed to be when I was not at home, had she had the time to learn the names and numbers of my friends or their parents or virtually anything else about where I roamed at all hours doing exactly whatever I felt like—mostly long, obsessive spells in the library or bumming cigarettes outside the hospital or weaseling rides to shitty underage punk shows or having sex in places where it was illegal, mostly shitty underage punk shows.
Naturally, my adult reaction was to overcompensate with crises of entertaining—I never cook for fewer than 10 people if I can avoid it. Shabbat and the holidays are natural excuses for this Freudian hosting exercise of mine; ironically, at home is often where I feel most Jewish, or rather closest to what it is that I want Judaism to be—in my own home as much as other people’s. This is the language I am learning, the rite I am perfecting, the work I can neither finish nor abandon. Come in, it’s cold out there! Can I get you anything? Seltzer?
There is literally no time of day or night I have not fed guests, and few who circle this orbit have not been hauled in for a plate of chicken and rice or packed off with a baggie of the hamantaschen my army of girlfriends and I assemble every year for Purim. I have physically dragged Jews to my table from the street.
A few weeks ago, a group of friends and I were backpacking in the Catskills. We accidentally marched 10 miles with a 1,000 foot elevation gain and had just collapsed into a lean-to at Beaver Meadow—boots off, booze out—when a group of hikers happened on our just-made camp. The sun was bright and the lean-to dark, and at first all I could see of our visitors were their shadows. But in the Jewish Hamptons, you can fairly assume Brooklyn provenance.
Do we know each other?
But of course we do. Wouldn’t you know it, dear reader, this stranger has eaten at my table—not once, mind you, but twice over as many years.
She bakes the best challah, our new/old friend Freyda tells her companions as we pass the vodka around for a l’chaim.
If I am remembered for nothing else, oh Lord, may I be remembered by every hipster in Brooklyn for my superior challah.
And then, at last, it happens. The coup we’ve all been waiting for. It happened on Tisha B’Av, because of course it did.
What happened is this: In the days leading up to Tisha B’Av, our rabbi sent out one set of service times and the shul board another set. Because the board is Modern Orthodox, their times were early. Because our rabbi is Chabad, his times were convenient.
To me, Tisha B’Av might as well be Orthodoxy’s line in the sand. Religiously, it’s one of the most important dates in the Jewish calendar, yet most secular Jews have never heard of it.
That’s because Tisha B’Av is miserable. Observing it sucks. At least Yom Kippur has redemption at the end of it—Tisha B’av is all the dirty/sad/starving with none of the fall-on-your-face-and-weep-for-redemption ecstasy. You sit on the floor in the dark and read about mothers boiling their babies, and then go to work hungry. Plus, there’s all that stuff about the temples and Moshiach that the liberal denominations find kinda squicky.
But me, I never miss an opportunity to suffer toward meaning. Maybe the physical suffering rendered meaning for me where there wasn’t, but because it happened on Tisha B’Av, the coup was an outrage.
On Tisha B’Av, we mourn the many tragedies of the Jewish people, most of all the destruction of the temples. We lament the deprivation that led to our exile, but our communal mourning belies the words we speak: We were a people before we were a building, or a city, and we remain a people after it. We are a nation, a tribe, a community. Or rather, we’re trying to be.
Monday morning, Erev Tisha B’Av, I schlepped to Forest Hills for a bris. To me, brises are a serious Jew’s other line in the sand. Religiously, they’re one of the most important rites, and yet the way I was raised, you only went for family, and even then, rarely.
It makes no sense, because brises are great. You sit through one minute of surgery, two minutes of praying, and poof, covenant with the Almighty accomplished, everybody’s happy, and there’s whitefish. WHAT MORE DO YOU NEED?
I am definitely my most Jewish at a bris: anxious, ecstatic, effusive, a little teary. We are Jews whose entire purpose is expressed in the making of this tiny new Jew, whom we now welcome among us, Jewishly. Rinse and repeat til Moshiach, ad mosai ...
Before our shul was a congregation, I learned on Tisha B’Av, it was a chevra. That’s the name on its incorporation documents, chevra. Chevra often translates to congregation, but its real meaning is more like a brotherhood or society, or a crew, to use the parlance of the NYPD. Congregation is locative, chevra genitive, a function of its membership whether they inhabit it or not.
Jews were a people before they were a building. It’s just that lots of those people, most of us maybe, got lost in translation from chevra to congregation, from shul to synagogue and synagogue to temple. Our institutions are expensive empty buildings kept from putrefaction by more expensive air-conditioning. Most of the old ones got sold off to churches, and half the new ones are little more than health clubs with Hebrew in their names.
Our shul escaped this fate by the skin of its teeth. Half a decade before we moved here, they barely got a minyan. Now it seems we’ve got a bris every month, ka”h. It’s divisive to hypothesize how this came to happen. An influx of young people in Brooklyn invariably brings as part of it an influx of young Jews. What I know is, we walked into what we’d assumed was an abandoned building two years ago on Yom Kippur because we were too hungry to walk to the shul where we’d been for Rosh Hashanah. We came back the next Shabbat because of our rabbi.
I know we are not alone, and yet, as I sat with my temple pressed to the freshly varnished mechitzah (among fellow rabble-rousers I call it “the women-pen” for the wooden screens at the front that slam open and shut like a barn), listening to The Rabbi of the Shul describe the venerable history of this venerable building, I felt it.
How can he not know he is addressing apostates? I wondered, as this man I’ve seen in shul maybe three times in two years described members like us as “irregulars.” Is that what all this was for? All this work, all this sacrifice and grief and humiliation? Is that what I want for my children, to have them branded as “Irregular”? And if we here in shul on Tisha B’Av are irregular, what does that make all the rest of Klal Yisroel?
It says something that The Rabbi of the Shul—by all accounts a wise and learned man, certainly a compassionate and an experienced man—had to be educated by a man who was then my age and less than half of his about the fact that there were 85 Jews in Crown Heights who would show up for a Friday-night Shabatton and be at home sleeping through shul the next morning. That there were those types of Jews at all.
They’re not shul people, our rabbi is said to have explained. Not yet. But they could be.
It says something that the figurehead of our small but venerable institution was at most vaguely curious about meeting these people, and seemingly put-off by the idea of them joining us. Or, more accurately, of us, those would-be former not-shul people, joining them.
The founders of our shul understood that the customs preserved here are largely passé—they said as much when they drafted the original incorporating documents in 1928, when they designated ours as a “strictly orthodox shul.” And yet we persist in them. Or they do. Clearly it depends whom you ask, who’s us and who’s them.
Dozens of people, maybe a few score, got the email calling Lamentations for 8:45. A few hundred got the one calling the same for 9:30. Had we not been tipped off about the coup, we would have been among the untold number left out in the dark. We’d have arrived just in time to hear the board had got a heter from the Beis Din to take our rabbi to Brooklyn court.
I tried to explain the trouble to my friend, the rabbi from Twitter.
i seem to be grappling with this a lot these days: do they want us or not? i am stunned that they are stunned that there are jews like us, ones who didn’t necessarily grow up in observant homes but somehow now (i suppose in their view misguidedly) are trying to build them, or maybe just trying to decide whether we want to or not, or in what way we might try it. jews like us in their very midst! how dare we.
sometimes i want to scream at them, do you have any idea how many jews like us there are? jews who might actually like to be here, who might even want to be a part of this if you’d only deign to let us in? jews who grew up with nothing and took on the terrifying, mortifying work of learning, jews who grew up in shuls just like this one and discarded them, until something, someone nudged them back in? is your conviction really so weak that our curiosity threatens it? how do you expect to survive if it is?
you get this, i think. [our rabbi] does, definitely. whatever the fight that led us to this point was actually about (and very few people know) it’s revealed a stark divide to me. on one side, people who believe judaism is like a building or a bank account, something you inherit. on the other, those who believe it is something you live.
Earlier this summer, my brother-and-sister-in-law made Aliyah. To say the timing was poor would be a dramatic understatement. Objectively, the timing was terrible.
Granted, there’s never a very good time to move to Israel, or go there even: The same way an observant Jew might mark time by the holidays (he was born around Purim, she was married by Hanukkah-time), a visitor to the Holyland generally recalls his stay by the conflict that was raging then (I was on Birthright during the Gaza pullout; on our last visit they were drilling for possible gas attacks from Syria).
This time there are rocket attacks. In the absence of a more rational option, we download an app that alerts us to let us know when they are.
The weekend after Ari and Sarah moved, my husband and my youngest brother-in-law and I took the bus to Hartford, Conn., to visit my aunt and uncle and two of my cousins and to spend a long weekend in their pool, where all seven of us were early Friday afternoon—already Shabbat in Israel—when all seven of our phones began alarming in unison, wailing this mournful, urgent sound.
For a moment, everything stopped. This was very early in the conflict, when you could still number the dead in your hands. When you could still be afraid every time rockets fell, when we still thought about calling even though Ari and Sarah are Shomer Shabbat. For a moment, my husband thought only of his brother, my brother-in-law, only of his friends being called up from the reserves, I about my reporter friends already posting Gaza selfies on Instagram. In the absence of a more rational option, we prayed for them.
For almost half of American Jewry, this is what it means to be Jewish. Not so much the praying—if you haven’t installed the app, Googling the right tehilim to say on such an occasion requires whole minutes you could be antagonizing BDS’ers on Twitter—because many of us were never taught to pray, not spontaneously the way one does in the throes of illness or sudden terror, gratitude or grief, or any other emotion with existential weight behind it. Bless her heart, Debbie Friedman’s songbook has little to offer the higher registers of human feeling.
Instead, we outline our share in Judaism’s communal suffering and take positions around it. Roughly 75 percent of American Jews say remembering the Holocaust is an essential part of being Jewish, while more than 40 percent say caring about Israel is the core of our identity. By contrast, fewer than 30 percent believe it’s necessary to be part of a Jewish community. Fewer than 20 percent think it has anything to do with Jewish law.
Once, being a two-day-a-year Jew meant observing Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Now it means Yom Ha’Atzmaut and Yom Ha’Shoah.
Nearly half of all American Jews believe displaying their support of Israel is essential to their Jewish identity, which makes these wars a core element of their religious/cultural/ethnic self. Friends are unfriended, semantic battles fought and won 140 characters at a time. We’re at our most us-against-them.
I’m not staking a position on the conflict, by the way; my only position is deeply informed disinterest, my interest having long ago been deflected onto Israel’s many other fascinating social problems, including but not limited to: the violent battle over Tel Aviv’s tens of thousands of African asylum seekers, the thousands of assimilated, Israeli-born children of non-Jewish migrant workers the state wants to deport, Israel’s striking failure to integrate 120,000 Ethiopian Jews while at the exact same time successfully integrating 1 million Russian ones, its layers upon layers of Jew-on-Jew discrimination—I remember the sudden, head-smacking clarity I felt walking into an IDF mess hall when I was 19 and on Birthright and realizing that half the soldiers were Ethiopian and none of them were sitting with the sabras, and thinking Oh. Right. Jews are fucked up, too.
And then right away thinking, Why did nobody tell us?
Why did they teach us Shalom Aleichem instead of Isaac Babel? Who among our newly imported Soviet émigré classmates wouldn’t rather imagine himself as Benya the King than Tevye the Dairyman? How is it possible to learn in kindergarten how many Jews Hitler killed but grow into adulthood never hearing how many Persians our ancestors cut down protecting themselves on Purim? Does it threaten our martyrs to recall those who fought not to be them? Does remembering our gangsters make our holy men fools?
And if so many of us are more like Emma Goldman than Anne Frank, if like Sergei Dovlatov and Shani Boianjiu you’ve known the weight of heavy artillery and not merely Michael Chabon’s effete imagining of the same, if the jokes you make to survive sound less like Larry David than Lenny Bruce—in short, if you find yourself on the carefully erased side of our history, more Benchik than Tevye, what tribe does that leave you?
What happens when you reduce 3,000 years of history to less than 100? Take a people and divide them neatly between a genocide and an embattled nation-state? When you willfully omit those who don’t fit the narrative, blotting their names from the earth for no other reason than they died alongside others more likable than they were? More palatable, if we’re all being honest about it, and not to us—because who’s us anyhow—but to them?
Remembering the Holocaust should be essential to human identity, but erecting its ashes as a pillar of faith to me feels both horrifying and obscene. Caring about the State of Israel should not negate the essential humanness of its inhabitants, who suffer the same static friction as people everywhere elbowing against one another over the surface of the earth.
As I write this, I keep coming back to the Etgar Keret story “Shoes” and to the ceasefire that ended our current conflict with Hamas. What does it say about us that our dead are twice as important to us as our living? That a piece of real estate where less than half of us live means more than the God who supposedly gave it? What happens to those of us left clinging to the Holocaust and Israel in lieu of our tribe and its rules?
What happens? I’ll tell you.
I was raised between the liberal denominations of the hyper-liberal San Francisco Bay Area, where our entirely nominal “Jewish” education occupied a few brief hours on Thursday afternoons and Sunday mornings, its value only enhanced by our carpool of ex-Soviet refugees. In our synagogue, even Israel was suspect; as first-graders we made sugar cookies in the shape of the state, with blue icing for the rivers and green for the Occupied Territories. Tikkun olam might as well have been the shema to us—as it was, a sanitized version of the shema was the only prayer any of us knew.
A few days before Rosh Hashanah, the year between the Oslo Accords, I was admitted to the hospital a mile from our shul with a severe case of pneumonia. Nobody imagined it was something more. That in a matter of hours we’d be racing lights and sirens toward the nearest pediatric ICU. That my 8-year-old life already hung in the balance—how could it? A God who barely exists to begin with can be neither unpredictable nor mysterious. Children don’t die in the secular world.
When they try to, the secular world expels them.
In the three months I spent trying to die, my family became untouchable. No rabbi came to visit, no teacher from my Hebrew school. No one prayed for us, nor even asked for prayers, and only one close friend’s mother made us a meal.
The sleek modern work of tikkun olam leaves little energy for outmoded concepts like bikkur holim: The Reform congregation where we’d belonged since we’d moved to the community steadfastly ignored my twin sister starting third grade and my younger sister preschool while my father searched in vain for a job and my mother stayed chained to my bedside in the pediatric ICU. No chevra came to comfort them while my skin-stuck ribs struggled to open and my crippled lungs to fill. They were busy remembering the Holocaust and caring about Israel.
On Yom Kippur, I asked the doctors to remove my feeding tube. I can’t articulate why I did this as clearly as I can tell you why the doctors said no: Like most of the rest of my body, my gag reflex had been paralyzed, which meant I couldn’t eat on my own. Besides, I was still in the ICU and losing weight rapidly—I’d always been thin and quickly plummeted to dangerously emaciated. All told, I lost more than 20 pounds.
I didn’t know that children don’t fast, or that the ill are forbidden to. Nobody taught me that. All those rules, that God stuff, that’s the dirty stuff, the sticky yucky backward superstitious shtetl stuff, better wash your hands good after that. My parents talk about mikvah like it’s bloodletting—You don’t actually do that, do you?
What I remember is I wanted to pray to God to help me and didn’t know the words. I thought removing the tube would show Him what I couldn’t say, that it would help Him remember me in a way those supposedly closer to Him refused to.
I don’t believe that Judaism is inflexible, that its only valid expression is one that’s been frozen in time—but neither can I accept the opposite, however much I may admire its ideals. A sanitized Judaism, one that’s been bleached of its gender problems, its gun-toting gangsters and yicky-icky superstition, one that’s pruned its tribal roots and polished its diplomatic credentials, whose prayer is performed in an air-conditioned auditorium, a Judaism that’s carefully shed its shtetl accent in favor of state-approved pronunciation—what is it, finally, but a mountain of ash on bloodied earth?
Being a part of a Jewish community is being Jewish—there can be no other definition. Jewish observance, if it has no other value, acts as an organizing principle. Painting each other’s faces on Purim, eating in each other’s apartments for Shabbat, tearing drunk from shul to shul on Simchas Torah, napping on each other’s shoulders on Yom Kippur—this is Judaism. The rest are merely the joints that connect it, the struts holding it up.
A few weeks ago my friend Yocheved posted a video to Facebook: In it, one of her daughters and her classmates from Lamplighters Jewish Montessori school had set up a lemonade stand on Eastern Parkway collecting tzedakah to send to the soldiers of the IDF.
I don’t know whether selling lemonade for soldiers is any more or less effective then praying tehilim or tweeting treatises, or signing up for an app that alarms every time rockets are launched. To me, it is simply more Jewish, an act of faith giving shape to an act of love.
Like San Francisco and Los Angeles where Tal and I are from, most of us who are not born here come to New York searching for something, only to leave because it isn’t there. We who already have what to eat wander in search of Jerusalem or El Dorado or Shangri-La, or else try to build it with gourmet cafeterias and bicycle shares, with reclaimed wood and exposed brick and kombucha on tap. We try to cultivate it as though inside a sterile lab of ourselves, forgetting what God saw from the start: It is not good that man should be alone.
It may be messy, but #thatslife and #thisisus.
Cover image: The author hosting a Rosh Hashanah Seder in 2013. Photo by Skyler Reid.