Shortly after my vacation this past summer in California, I wrote a piece for this column about California and its charms. Having slowly and lovingly driven the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Los Angeles, I lamented how coming back to New York City- which I admittedly love- was not so easy. Concrete jungle and all that….
Just this afternoon, I returned yet again from California, this time a two-day trip to Los Angeles for meetings related to my vice-presidency of the Rabbinical Assembly, the professional organization of Conservative rabbis. I left New York City in the grip of a cold spell, and landed in Los Angeles to a temperature in the sun-drenched high 70’s. I couldn’t even talk about it to friends and family in New York, because when I tried, they told me that I was being cruel. (Actually, what they said wasn’t quite that nice). And, of course, it snowed like crazy yet again when I was away. The cognitive dissonance of staring at my heavy winter coat hanging forlornly in the hotel closet in L.A. as I looked out my window at people walking around in shirtsleeves was simply overwhelming.
Social anthropologists have long discussed the impact of climate and other environmental factors on human behavior. I never really paid all that much attention to the discussion, because this part of the world is the only place I’ve ever lived in, with the exception of two years in Israel as a student. I am a New Yorker through and through, and if anything, the aggressive behavior of Israelis that I witnessed in my years in Jerusalem was quite familiar to me.
But on this very brief trip, as I had the chance to interact with so many of my rabbinic colleagues in the Pacific Southwest region of the Rabbinical Assembly, I couldn’t help but reflect on how the well-documented laid-back lifestyle of Southern California impacts its Jewish community in ways that I admire.
They work every bit as hard as I do, if not harder, but both individually and as a group, they present as much less harried and bothered than New York rabbis do. The nature of their interactions with each other reflects the best of California- just a little slower, kinder and gentler than anything we New Yorkers are used to.
And it wasn’t only my colleagues in whom I noticed this.
Our meetings were held on the magnificent campus of the American Jewish University on Mulholland Drive, and in those moments of break between sessions, I snuck outside to (apologies to Sheryl Crow) soak up the sun every available second that I could.
All around me there were students who looked to me like they were on summer vacation, but they were actually right in the middle of their semester. Their body language was relaxed, they were polite and helpful, and they appeared – as best as I could tell – to actually be enjoying themselves.
Amazing, I thought to myself. Just amazing… Students in school, in a demanding program, who appear relaxed! That was never an adjective I would have used to describe me when I was in school. It is, of course, a compliment to the program at the AJU, but I have to believe that being in that setting surely doesn’t hurt!
It is, indeed, that time of year when we Northeasterners rightly lament the onset of seasonal affective disorder. The winter here in New York has been brutal, and it is taking its toll on all of us, even if we don’t realize it.
But beyond being grumpy because we have to shovel snow yet again, it might be worth contemplating for a moment or two how, on a macro level, the nature, pace, and climate of this great city of New York breeds that particular form of human being that others not always lovingly refer to as “the New York Jew.”
I do indeed live here because I want to, and this Jewish community is very much the ocean in which I choose to swim. But there are other Jewish communities out there, and it is just possible that all that sun, warmth and beauty has helped them live their Judaism a little more sweetly than we tend to.
Kinder, gentler, sun-drenched, a little slower… yes indeed. California has its charms, Jewish and otherwise.