God is relocating…to Brooklyn

Something tells me that God is relocating … to Brooklyn.

Not to just any part of Brooklyn, mind you. The ungentrified, workaday Brooklyn of middle-class families and non-artisanal merchandise probably wouldn’t interest Him much. Not the strip malls of Flatlands, or the inelegant shopping bunker of Kings Plaza — which doesn’t even have windows, let alone sidewalk seating. God’s standards are surely higher — He wouldn’t live in a double-fare zone. He needs a subway stop and a gluten-free muffin.

He apparently has a thing for café culture. I can’t blame Him. Who doesn’t like exchanging  theological speculations with lumbersexuals over mugs of microbrew? Who wouldn’t want to perch at a little round outdoor table and watch fit young Creatives and Knowledge Workers traipse by in vintage clothing? The sight is spiritually stirring; it hints at limitless potential for rapturous encounters.

Like ambitious municipalities the world over, He has figured out that old married geezers and families with snot-driveling kids are not where the money is.

Families are both costly, and dull. You have to provide them with services — schools and such. They don’t eat out too often, and when they do it’s not at the trendy juice bar or the hipster cupcake haven. They don’t attract tourists — they aren’t tourists. They aren’t students, or transients. You have to give them homes, not microapartments.

As with cities looking to revitalize on the fly, so with religion: homes and families are the kiss of death for anything like transcendence. Homes run on habit. Kids need stuff “drilled into” them. Parents, too, have to comport themselves in ways that have little to do with inspiration or euphoria.

Seinfeld knew that family life is a dull, day-to-day grind and so, apparently, does God.

That’s why He no longer frequents conventional Orthodox minyanim, where the women sit complacently behind the mechitza. How religiously sterile and spiritually empty. How unsexy.

Male rabbis — also not hip. Traditional gender roles altogether — leave them in flyover country! Dress codes associated with a religious identity? Total turnoffs. Only in clothes that identify you as a hipster can you expect to have a “personal spontaneous expression.” Whether it’s an expression of reverence for God or simply for the ideal of personal choice — who cares? The main thing is that it be personal, spontaneous, and expressive.

Take that kippah off! How can you reach your spiritual potential and live in the presence of God if you wear something merely out of habit? It’s like trying to to feel inspired on a street without a Starbucks. Drinking the same old coffee every day just doesn’t cut it. Never mind that you like your regular cuppa, or that you find espresso too strong, or frappuccino too sweet. You need to be ready at a moment’s notice for a transcendent experience — if it’s just pleasant, or comforting, why bother?

And let’s not get started on the age thing. Just as municipalities never talk about attracting old people, so does God find no particular delight in the banal mutterings of veteran worshipers. He’s heard it all before. That old man with the long white beard who has hauled himself to shul three times a day, every day, for the past 70-odd years — who still does it, despite his aching limbs, out of habit — he’s got nothing on the ponytailed young seeker eagerly striving to combine the wisdom of Buddhism with Kabbalah, until the craft beer pub closes for the night.

But here’s the thing. You can’t really found a city on one age group, no matter how photogenic — or on one type of business, no matter how hip. What you end up with is a Potemkin village: and what could be less “authentic” than that?

Jane Jacobs talked about the element of time in cities. She noted how indispensable it is to the formation of relationships between people — the relationships that make for stable neighborhoods and functioning districts. She also pointed out the need for buildings of diverse ages — including old buildings:

Time makes the high building costs of one generation the bargains of a following generation […] Times makes certain structures obsolete for some enterprises, and they become available to others […] One century’s building commonplace is another century’s useful aberration.

There are no shortcuts to the fine-grained diversity of a successful city area. Even as new buildings go up, old buildings must remain and be used, and repurposed. Even as new people move in, longtime residents must stay to absorb them.

And there are no shortcuts to a lifetime of constant, small-scale, banal, incremental religious observance — the whole that is so much more than the sum of its parts. There is a place for youthful energies and ecstasies. But let’s not pretend that they measure up to decades of lived experience.

About the Author
I am a Jerusalem-based translator and former academic librarian.
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