Being a “New York Jew”— and a New York Rabbi, no less — is what many of the more sharp-tongued among us would call a diagnosis. In the mouths of some non-Jews, it is a not-so-polite way of implying pushy, opinionated, parochial, narrow-minded, prickly, and demanding. And in the mouths of many Jews, particularly those from outside of this geographical area, it implies ethnically narrow, religiously conservative, along with a few of the aforementioned adjectives. None of them are particularly complimentary.
So this New York Jew/Rabbi did what every New York Jew /Rabbi should do from time to time. I went to the epicenter of “non-New York Jew” territory — to California. And not only did I go to California, I went to northern California, to spend a long Shabbat/weekend in Carmel, where my wife and I joined in the wedding of my nephew. A native of Orange County, he is a medical resident at Stanford, and he and his fiancée held their wedding on the beach in nearby Carmel.
In a time when “destination weddings” are all the rage, and people might opt for anything from the wine country of France to a secluded cove in the Dominican Republic, choosing the beach in Carmel, California doesn’t exactly sound like a radical choice. But anyone who’s ever been to Carmel would attest to the fact that, for sheer natural beauty and all that is best about the California coast, Carmel doesn’t take a back seat to any destination. Downtown Carmel is a charming village with a plethora of quaint shops and galleries, and the beach there affords a seemingly infinite view of the majestic Pacific coastline, north towards Monterey and south towards Los Lobos. I grew up spending summers on the Jersey shore, and I loved it. I’ve also learned to appreciate the south shore beaches of Long Island. But Carmel… Carmel is in a class all its own.
A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a study retreat at Camp Ramah in California, in Ojai. I remember returning from my few days there — another stunning locale, in southern California — and suffering the same kind of location dissonance. It was hard to transition from the mellow, majestic setting of Ojai to the sounds of the city here in New York. If anything, coming back from Carmel is even harder in that regard. It’s hard to shpatzir around the streets of Carmel, one more beautiful than the next, and celebrate the natural beauty of its beaches, and then return to the noise and congestion of Queens Boulevard. I love New York City and all that it offers, but natural grandeur is not on the list of offerings.
In truth, however, the consciousness of radically different physical locales, though jarring enough, is only part of the challenge of coming back to New York City. Just as difficult is what Jimmy Buffett would call a “change in latitude, change in attitude.” It’s not just that California is “more mellow,” as East Coast people like to say. That’s certainly true. But the New York Jewish community, and because of that New York Jews, are, indeed, tightly wound in a unique way, no matter with whom we are juxtaposed. We are a tough group, both with those outside our community, and with each other. We are, far too often, all about attitude, which is to say we are products of the city in which we live, where attitude is considered a survival skill.
Sometimes I have the feeling that the Jewish community of New York sees itself as a kind of contemporary Babylonian exile. Students of ancient Jewish history will know that, even when the Temple was rebuilt and Jewish cultic life was once again centered in Jerusalem, most of Babylonia’s Jews remained where they were, and did not return. The Jewish community of Babylonia remained greater in number and in Torah leadership than that of its counterpart in Eretz Yisrael. When Jews today study Talmud, it is the Babylonian Talmud they study, not its “Yerushalmi” counterpart, which is considered far less significant in terms of quality and Halakhic import. And one doesn’t need to search too hard to find instances where the two communities sparred with each other over who spoke for the Jewish world.
New Yorkers, in general, tend to regard New York City as the epicenter of the world, and New York “attitude” is an organic outgrowth of that chip on the shoulder. Not surprisingly, New York Jews tend to regard themselves as the center of the Jewish world, and we, the rabbis, undoubtedly reflect that bias. No issue is minor here, and “laying back” is rarely our posture. We tend to fight over every square inch of territory that we consider ours.
To its great credit, California Judaism is not that way. It reflects the more mellow culture of California just as New York Judaism reflects the “don’t tread on me” attitude of New York. As I sat on the beach in Carmel waiting for the wedding to begin, I was totally conscious of the degree to which it was not an experience I would ever have in New York, and it wasn’t just about the beach. The biggest issue that people were talking about was whether or not to take their shoes off. I have to admit, it was more than a little refreshing. No one was double and triple checking who the witnesses were, or whether the officiating rabbi was following this custom or that, or what food was being served. People just allowed themselves to appreciate the moment. In the best tradition of California, they were “chill.”
I love New York, and I am proud to be a rabbi in one of the great Jewish communities of today’s world. But I love California too, and I readily admit that it felt awfully good to trade both latitude and attitude for a while. California Jewish was a wonderful tonic for this New York Jew.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.