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Shul Hopping: A Single Man In The Land Of The Married

It ain’t easy being a single Jew in among the married crowd. Read More

By / January 13, 2012
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Many of my closest friends find themselves married with children (I don’t hold it against them.) They also happen to be my more religious friends. People ask me if this puts any pressure on me to live that life, both of the married and of the religious kind. I no longer take offense to the assumption that religion, marriage and kids are the only components to happiness, not because I adopted that position, but because I realize that we all live different forms of happiness. For a while I fought with people, contending that early marriage stunts growth, but as I’ve matured I found this generalized statement hasty, and plainly judgmental. With my distance from a my previous religious lifestyle, I found a new ability to enjoy Westgate, one of Teaneck’s young married communities. To clarify, Westgate is simply one block of about 50 two bedroom apartments. All the apartments contain similar layouts, which makes the necessary, “Oh, your apartment looks great,” humorous to everyone involved.

Westgate, or a similar neighborhood, received its first literary mention from the ever-angry Shalom Auslander. Auslander, in his book, A Foreskin’s Lament both lambasted and lampooned one such community as a bunch of pudgy husbands, their stomachs distended with their wives’ delicious chulents, while the stereotypical women, one baby on each arm, stood outside gossiping. I felt no shock to find that Auslander’s description drew heavily on his own internal insecurities more than the reality of the actual community. I don’t disagree with Auslander in regards to the constrictions such a community places on a couple, but he exaggerates the knuckle dragging nature of the couples, and definitely exaggerates their inability to tolerate dissension amongst their ranks. Most people simply don’t care enough, in a refreshing manner.

On Friday night, we attended services in “the bunker.” The synagogue itself is a converted basement that never actually went through the process of conversion. I walked down carpeted steps that moaned and groaned and coughed up dust into the air. My first thought, because my first thought always, oddly, tends towards the Holocaust, was that this place feels like a makeshift shul to hide from the authorities. I imagine that somewhere amongst the mess, lives a button one could press and in a moment all the religious articles would turn over into pictures of football players or celebrities, so as to hide the religiousness from the Nazis, or Communists, or Greeks; choose your persecutor of the Jews.

As people stagger in, sometimes in groups, most often by themselves, the small sanctuary quickly fills up to only standing space. Those who came early enough receive the privilege to sit on chairs that look like they deserve euthanization: a white, paint chipped rocking chair, a set of mahogany, turquoise cushioned antique chairs, and motley group of folding chairs that provides the most diversity in the service. For once, it seems, the fact that the average height of Jew is considerably lower than other nationalities comes in handy because the six foot tall person would need to crouch, or bend their neck to fit into the room. Above us, I see ducts with insulation, dirt stained pink insulation sticking out. The ceiling, sheetrock, looks like cardboard and directly above me contains a considerable hole and curiously a footprint.

Here, in what some of the locals dub Anne Frank’s hideout, I find it hard to distinguish between people. Usually we rely on looks and dress, initially, but people here begin to bleed together and only the slightest nuances distinguish people. Most wear some form of a black yarmulke, whether suede, velvet, or knit. Some people wear ties, some don’t. I don’t fully understand the significance of this difference. Those with ties break down into two groups, those who button their top button and those who leave it open in a nonchalant manner. Most of the people went to Yeshiva University. Collectively, amongst the 35 people in the room, we’ve logged between 150,000  to 200,000 hours of intense Talmud study. Some people wear wedding rings, everyone else, still married, shuns this practice for religious reasons. No one cares one way or the other. Everyone looks tired, understandably so. Prayer feels like a chore here, something to get through, quickly, so we can walk the ten steps back to our abodes. I don’t even need to ask why anyone would want to pray in a fog of asbestos because when tired we value convenience and celerity in prayer over an aesthetically pleasing and spiritually moving service.

A place for women to pray simply doesn’t exist in this bunker, and yet, for once I feel no offense at this slight again half of humanity. In some ways, the service feels too fake to demand anything from it. I find it more humorous than offensive. Three children attend the service and despite my lack of credentials in the health department I worry about the asbestos ingestion, the open wires dangling from the ceiling, sticking out of the wall, and eking out of the washer and dryer machines.

I find it hard to pray here because I keep playing the I spy game with myself. I spy out of the corner of my eye a… guitar amp under the lectern, light covers not used, two old-school filing cabinets full of papers that I imagine serve no purpose; an odd number of unused cylinder light bulbs. Two sets of washer and dryers, cleaner fluid form the 80s, magnets for plumbers, locksmiths, and dentists to name just a few of the relics in the basement.
Yet, despite the sheer lack of aesthetic sensibility, and despite the health concerns, a strong sense of community abides in this hovel. As you walk in everyone greets you with a weary smile, or a handshake that looks like a long swipe at your hand, or even a hug. The rabbi, self appointed, though without any competitors, calls for volunteers to make a minyan for a person who just acted heroically in a car crash and  receives an immediate quorum for the bedridden neighbor.

During the day, the communal Kiddush, sponsored by one of the couples, the husband from St. Louis, is one solely devoted towards the Cardinals’ miraculous World Series victory. The only basic Kiddush food present is chulent, otherwise, hot dogs, chicken cutlets, a cake for the Cardinals, a keg, pretzels, hot pretzels and peanuts abound. Lamenting the lack of ingenuity in kiddushes all around the city, I feel shocked to find the creativity in this community.

The Orthodox world, even those living in this community, evinces ambivalence towards this transient bungalow colony. The insulation of the community provides warmth, trustful neighbors, safety, and a strong sense of community. You can rely on the fact that everyone knows the names of everyone else’s children and that other parents will look out for your children with the same parental love for their own. However, the downside of this 1950’s pleasantville community is not new to anyone, especially the community itself.  Because as usual insulation can also cause claustrophobia, a feeling of the tightness of life. The  community itself navigates this tension through a healthy sense of the slight absurdities abounding in their one block of home life. One friend explained that for the most part parking spots create the most tension, “which can get pretty heated, by the way.”

Another tool to stave off the boredom of this bungalow colony, or dormitory living, lies in the power of gossip. Inevitably, just from sheer boredom in communal matters, gossip offers a reprieve. With nothing actual to discuss, most people turn in on themselves and their community with playful gossip, rarely malicious. (Who puts their TV in their bedroom and who puts their TV in the living room?). As a single person I expected more offers for set-ups, but overall, each family seems content in their own lives. I find it hard to criticize anything because few seem particularly attached to this lifestyle. It’s hard to poke fun at a community that thrives on making fun of itself.

People laugh at the pretensions to power in this do it yourself minyan at the same time that they create lectures in their homes, arrange food for a sick person, and help take care of the everyday chores that pile up for their friends. Everyone knows and hopes to leave the community, yet at the same time, despite this inherent tenuous attachment, most try to create a strong sense of connection. I could never imagine myself saying this, but I find a certain beauty in this communal navigation of the early stages of adult life. True, the community feels both puritanical – the range of religious opinions is small, women do swap recipes while standing outside holding two babies, or watching their children play in the cold, their kids decked out in fancy jackets bought by wealthier in-laws or parents – and prosaic, but a calm warmth permeates all interactions.

For the most part, I just found the experience delightful. I can see that an insular community can grate upon a person’s soul, but this fleeting neighborhood provides what so many of us feel lacking in our lives: a sense of community, warmth, acceptance, albeit with the restraints one must accept upon themselves as an admittance ticket. Yet, upon leaving, I felt a sense of freedom, perhaps puerile, but nonetheless present. Freedom from the responsibilities and obligations of marriage and parenthood, freedom to choose anything in life, or any lifestyle. I realize, in a sense, that I can enjoy this weekend immensely because it’s one weekend amongst many. It’s a vacation into someone else’s life. I also experience that so much of the tension in creating a vibrant Jewish community of any sort lies in navigating this duality. We grow up valuing our freedom, our independence, but we learn that we need a community in order to survive, an assumption we rarely complicate or explore. However, to find a balance between autonomy and communal devotion, despite this experience, strikes me as one of the greatest challenges to all synagogues, one that even a communal bunker cannot solve.