When a native Israeli asks me where I’m from, I usually tell them New York.
For starters, everyone in Israel has heard of New York, so I’m able to move on to the next stage of the conversation without tripping over blank stares.
Additionally, Israelis really enjoy that answer. It gives them an opportunity to daydream about the lights on Broadway or imagine themselves strolling through the streets of Manhattan with Robert De Niro during Tribeca. (If you don’t believe me, just ask them.)
And, in a way, I am a “New Yorker.” Though I grew up hating the Big Apple (it’s a requirement for Orioles fans), I fell head over heels in love with the land of subways and overstuffed pastrami sandwiches during my eight years in Washington Heights prior to “the big move.” (I also became a Mets fan. Yes, I do like to suffer.)
But if I’m going to lay all my cards on the table, I must admit that the real reason I have adopted NYC as my port of origin is that I have a very complicated love-hate relationship with Baltimore, the charming little city where I was actually born and raised.
Before I anger the Southern masses, I must clarify that I have no beef with the fine folks of “Bawlmore.” For close to 20 years, I was surrounded by the most genteel, supportive, and affable cast of characters you could ever imagine. (The incredibly warm “homecoming” I experienced this past Shabbat proves that they haven’t changed a bit.) All of my good habits (the few that I have) were born and refined south of the Mason-Dixon Line, no doubt the products of top-notch tutelage (both formal and informal) by so many strong and impressive individuals.
In the words of every Orioles fan during the seventh inning stretch, “Thank G-d I’m a country boy.”
However, I did always take issue with (read: passionately detest) the “system” that pervaded our city’s streets, synagogues, Jewish schools and Kosher eateries. This system made us (the residents of Baltimore) believe and spew nonsense about Jewish identities and practices – primarily those of others. Instead of promoting tolerance and the importance of embracing our differences, the system sought to marginalize those who did not conform to its own definition of a “good Jew.”
Attending particular schools, frequenting specific shuls, and wearing certain articles of clothing (jeans!) was a social death sentence. Not because the folks around town were innately cruel, but because they were petrified of what might happen to them – by perpetuating the system, they avoided becoming its next victims.
Though I hope and pray that things have changed over the years (for the sake of the wonderful people who still live in Baltimore), my gut tells me that the system is still alive and well.
It is for this reason that I approached my trip to Baltimore for the Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly with an odd mixture of excitement and trepidation. I was delighted to finally have an “excuse” to visit, but I wondered (even worried) how the JFNA could pull off an event centered around open discussion and collaboration across streams in a city beset by a system so profoundly resistant to both.
After day one of GA 2012, I can confidently say that my formative years would have been wildly different had the JFNA been at the helm of my grade school. Translation: never could I have imagined such a warm and welcoming environment for Jews of all stripes in Baltimore.
Indeed, the Baltimore Convention Center is now operating on an entirely different system.
The impressive (and somewhat overwhelming) schedule is packed with sessions and plenaries featuring Jews of every flavor, and there are set times and locations for Traditional and Egalitarian prayer services. Kosher food is available to all, but those who opt for local fare are not condemned for their choices. All are made to feel comfortable so that the focus can remain squarely on the much larger communal fish in need of frying, namely finding pragmatic solutions for securing the Jewish future, funding Jewish institutions and causes around the world, and effectively supporting Israel, politically, financially and otherwise.
The diverse crowds in the exhibition hall and every hallway are a sight for sore eyes. Over the last twelve hours, I’ve met some very interesting people, heard quite a few excellent speeches, learned about several incredibly important causes and organizations, and scored some awesome freebies. But the best part thus far was the moment I took a break from schmoozing to survey the exhibition hall and enjoy the sight of authentic cross-stream dialogue taking place all around me. When Jews who wouldn’t normally interact with one another take the time to really listen to each other, the Jewish future is so bright that you need shades.
This reminds me of a conversation I had with popular American-Israeli radio personality Yishai Fleisher several years ago. In the midst of setting up a radio interview for one of my clients, Yishai explained to me that the story I had pitched appealed to him because he was always interested in learning about “how other Jews do Jewish.” He went on to explain that recognizing that other Jews connect with their faith and identity differently, rather than blindly attempting to force conformity on all fronts, is the key to keeping the Jewish identity ball in play.
“The rules we live by are sacred and incredibly important, but there is often an issue of putting the cart before the horse,” he said. “If we can first ensure that all Jews are jazzed about being Jewish, we will no doubt be moving in the right direction.”
I couldn’t agree more.
It is for this reason that I (childishly) wish the GA could stick around here indefinitely. If only we could harness this power to bring a large-scale change to Baltimore. But I know that the JFNA will have to pack up the Big Top on Tuesday and move on to the next big thing. As such, it becomes our responsibility to help complete the transformation from insular to inclusive.
And because the aforementioned “system” is by no means unique to Baltimore – it lives and breathes in many Jewish communities across North America – our mission becomes both considerably more difficult and vitally important.
If we ever plan on soaking up the rays of our Jewish future, we better keep the cross-streams dialogue flowing well after the GA.
So, how do you do Jewish? I’m all ears.