In her novel White Teeth, English author Zadie Smith writes of O’Connell’s Pool House in London,
O’Connell’s is the kind of place family men come to for a different kind of family. Unlike blood relations, it is necessary here to earn one’s position in the community; it takes years of devoted fucking around, time-wasting, laying-about, shooting the breeze, watching the paint dry – far more dedication than men invest in the careless moment of procreation. You need to know the place.
My Jewish life for the past three decades has been a search for a Jewish kind of O’Connell’s, hold the booze. Here’s how it happened.
When I moved to New York as a 22 year old college graduate in 1980, I did what every new kid in town does: checked out the scene. But while my cohorts hit the bars and discos, I nosed around the temples and synagogues of Gotham, part of my emerging interest in Judaism. My search criss-crossed boroughs and viewpoints, from the Village Temple (Reform), the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (Reconstructionist) and the beginner’s minyan at Lincoln Square synagogue (Orthodox) in Manhattan to the Flatbush Minyan (Orthodox) and the Kane Street Synagogue (Conservative) in Brooklyn, where I actually lived.
I heard the word “frum” for the first time.
I became what I now call a Torah barfly, flitting from one setting to another to find that place where “everybody knows your name,” as the theme song from the bar-set TV show Cheers asserts. The urge for connection drew me the same way others crowded into Dorrian’s Red Hand, the dying Studio 54 and other hot spots. I didn’t booze up but I made friends, settled on a place to hang out (Kane Street, my first version of a Jewish O’Connell’s) and juiced my dating life at the spiritual bars in which I my acquaintance. Indeed, the very first women I dated in New York I met at a synagogue event on West 23rd Street.
The emotional connection between a good bar and a good shul hit me when I heard New York Times Magazine “Drinks” columnist Rosie Schaap on NPR’s “Ask Me Another” program on February 2. Author of the memoir Drinking With Men, Schaap told host Ophira Eisenberg what makes for an appealing drinking establishment: engagement, conversation, friends. She likes dive bars, which are just neighborhood places, “a corner bar you can rely on.”
I instantly identified with Schaap. I’ve had a tight bond with my shul of the last three years, Beit Chaverim, in a way I haven’t with any place since I moved to Connecticut over 20 years ago. First in Westport and then in Stamford, I did my spiritual barhopping. I liked Westport’s Conservative Synagogue when it was new and located above the Baskin-Robbins in town, but even after I joined so my son could attend the religious school it never quite jelled. I tried other large, modern-looking shuls and just couldn’t bond. Before I left town while getting divorced, I became more involved in the small, plucky Beit Chaverim, but that became more difficult when I moved 15 miles away to Stamford.
In Stamford, I bent my elbow at a half-dozen shuls, from Young Israel to Humanistic Judaism but nothing really clicked. Some gravitated to placed based on specific programs, like Torah studies at Temple Israel with Reform scholar Rabbi Eugene Borowitz and Agudath Shalom with Rabbi David Walk. Ultimately, Agudath Shalom felt more like home base than anyplace, although I always remained at outlier.
After seven wandering years in Stamford, I returned to Westport. My new apartment abutted Beit Chaverim, so if I wanted to get involved I had a 30 second walk to shul. You can’t do better than that. My good memories of past involvement there remained, so I buckled down and, for the first time since I left Kane Street, made the effort to do some serious attendance at the Torah bar. That meant regular services, learning how to don tefillin for Sunday mornings (where my presence critically counts for the minyan), and scholar in residence events. And really, anything else that’s going on.
Like in a good bar, the people and the environment merge together into one warm experience. I’ve always gravitated to the smaller, homier, heimish shuls. As rich in features as they are, the modernist suburban shuls don’t really connect for me. I’ve tried several times. I feel socially isolated as a single guy, and I’m missing the old-country shteibel sensation that must be embedded in my Eastern European DNA. Boxy, bright and straightforward, Beit Chaverim and its minyonnaires connect well with me.
Most recently, I added a weekly Hebrew/Talmud class to my spiritual elbow-bending. I’ve studied Hebrew before, but never prayerbook Hebrew, so the class is breaking new ground for me, and I’ve never studied Talmud.
Meeting in a member’s home, the class reminds me of the friends I’ve made (I can actually remember names now, after years of introductions and reintroductions) and the enjoyment of seeing regular faces at shul and other events. We’re not knocking back beers and playing pool, but rather engaging in study that challenges and refreshes us. Sometimes we even do some a capella singing, of a sort, when we apply what we’re learning in Hebrew to a prayer. And we’re still gaining the psychic benefits, without the hangovers, of the Jewish O’Connell’s.