A Northern Jew In The Heart of Dixie

Because my wife works in an academic setting, the end of December is usually a good time for us to get away for a week or so. Synagogue activity tends to slow down then as well because so many people are away. It is, as I like to call it, a great opportunity to “air out.”

We already have children in Orlando, Israel, and Okinawa, and within a few short weeks, the one left in New York will be in Copenhagen for a semester. I’ve suggested to my wife that we classify our family as a “multi-national corporation.” It’s hard to imagine having any free time and not going to visit one child or another. But as things worked out, it just happened that we were able to get away for a few short days by ourselves. What a concept, right? Just us. And in order to truly air out, we picked a destination that we had long wanted to visit but never got to: Charleston, South Carolina.

Why Charleston, you might ask? Well, anyone from the south can answer that question quickly. It’s among the most beautiful, charming and historically rich cities in the country. If you have an interest in the Civil War era and American history more generally, which my wife and I both do, there is no more significant city to visit. It is where the Civil War began, it was the cradle of slavery and secession- there are numerous plantations that one can visit- and the historic section of Charleston is fascinating. The novels of Pat Conroy, favorites of my wife and daughter, have also secured for Charleston a special place in their hearts.

So here we are, deep in the heart of Dixie, and enjoying ourselves thoroughly. I must admit that there is an added dimension of this kind of vacation that I find particularly restorative- historic Charleston is not a Jewish area, at all. It is true that the oldest Reform congregation in America is here, but beyond that, there is little if any Jewish character to the city, at least in the historic section where we’re staying.

I’m sure there are some readers wondering how or why a rabbi would say something like this- that being where there are few Jews is restorative. I understand the question. And what’s more, I know that many of my colleagues davka (intentionally and purposefully) search out areas where there is a Jewish community for vacations. I certainly did when I was saying kaddish, to make sure that there would be a readily available Minyan.

But the truth is that, at least for me, part of “airing out” involves gaining some distance from the incessantly intense parochialism of Jewish communal life, and the sense that life is to be lived on a crisis-to-crisis basis.

That rhythm is very much the rhythm of my life. I try, as a rabbi, to teach my congregants to see the world though Jewish eyes, to live by the pulse of the Jewish calendar, where weeks revolve around Shabbat and the issues impacting the Jewish community are front and center in our individual and collective consciousness.

But I have to admit, and I do so, obviously, in a very public forum, that it feels awfully good to go somewhere where what’s going on in Israel isn’t what everyone is talking about, the relations between the ultra-Orthodox and everyone else in Israel isn’t table talk, no one is preoccupied with an article in a college paper about who slept with whom. For a few brief days, no one is calling to imply to me that if I don’t devote my attention to one communal issue or another, the Jewish world will collapse, and it will be my fault.

Lest you think that I am completely liberated from my professional life (I am writing this article, by the way, as you’ll note), I of course am carrying my trusty iPhone, and between that and my computer, I am completely reachable and responding to urgent e-mails and the like. These days, one never leaves the world completely behind, and I of course realize that the nature of my work makes that unwise and irresponsible.

But that said, how great it is to be out and about with my wife in a wonderful setting, seeing new sights, meeting different kinds of people, breathing different air, and taking a step back from the crazy intensity that is Jewish life in New York. My life and work there will be waiting for me the nanosecond I get back- of that I’m sure. For these few precious days, it’s good to do what Steven Covey might call “sharpening my tools.” There’s no substitute for distance, and perspective.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.