Why the Upper West Side? A British Israeli Navigates Jewish New York

When N and I announced that we were moving to New York, our family and friends were keen to know where we would live. It was a good question, because having visited New York once between us, we were pretty clueless. The advice flung at us fell into two camps:

You Two Are Made For Williamsburg, instructed our Tel Aviv friends, The People Are Hipster But There Are Loads Of Ultra-Orthodox Jews To Pray With. Well, we went to Williamsburg during our apartment search and were not best pleased. Instead of edgy, it read like a fraternity for young professionals who had reinvented themselves in college. The other camp saw a young, modern orthodox couple and concluded, You’re Going To Live On The Upper West Side, Right?

Williamsburg we could forgive — it did, in all fairness, used to be edgy before it turned mainstream. But the UWS assumptions stung. Unpacking why this suggestion affronted me so much led me to reflect on my past experiences of Jewish community.

I absolutely loved growing up Leeds, UK, where the small Jewish community was not the sum of my social life. I had my — mainly not Jewish – School Friends and a little gaggle of Synagogue Friends who I chatted with during services in-between my mother’s glares. My family attended an Orthodox synagogue, though most of its regular Shabbat attendees were more traditional than observant. The fact that many members left synagogue and went straight to watch the football wasn’t important — they showed up, supported, and cherished the community, they were good, caring people who loved being Jewish.

I only realised how rare that was when I got a bit older and started attending youth group camp, where I made London Jewish Friends, who I visited often. Although sometimes I found it difficult to be left out of their fun, I was also left out of their drama and, because I wasn’t around all the time, my LJF only ever saw the best of me, which elevated my status to Special; in my fifteen-year-old diary I recount two of our gang fighting over my friendship (my personal social peek) — oh, the perils of popularity.

When I did visit the communities of North London, I was struck by how gossip-y it was — everyone seemed to know the ins and outs of their neighbours’ lives, and discussed them constantly. I also disliked the boxes people were sorted into, particularly when it came to religious observance. It seemed far too simple that the synagogue you attended, the clothes you wore and your interaction with the opposite sex defined your connection to God. I’ve noticed these two traits are also typical of other large communities I’ve since experienced, which is why I, typically, avoid them!

I attribute my marriage to a Uruguayan – who seemed impossibly exotic to us Brits – in part to my aversion of the larger British Jewish communities. I’d dated (and had briefer encounters with) spawn of such communities throughout adolescence and university and felt like I’d seen it all. I wanted someone surprising, challenging and just different. The fact that no-one knew him or his family was certainly a massive plus in my book; we were free from prying eyes and meddlers. Bliss.

Given that keeping my distance from large communities had served me well so far, there was no need to deviate when I made Aliyah and got married (same Uruguayan). In Israel, communities take on a different meaning, divided not by religion but levels of religious observance. We renounced Givat Shmuel where many of our friends resided because, quite frankly, it read like my own personal hell; gossip galore, exhaustive matchmaking and a community that, for all intents and purposes, fit snugly into one box. To a large extent, I fit into the same box, which was precisely what put me off; I wanted to meet people with different beliefs, histories, traditions and outlooks — as I had done in Leeds.

Instead, we settled in Herzliya – not the posh part on the beach, the grubby part by the bus station (we explained to dismayed enquirers), where we knew enough people to have a full Shabbat table but could still hear cars whizzing by and bars blasting music. 

As soon as we could afford to, we moved to Tel Aviv. As Shabbat-keepers, we were in the minority, although the synagogue we attended was just across the street and was full to the brim every Friday night. Our Shabbat table hosted a motley crew each week — from kippa-wearers to proud atheists, using our dinner as a pre-game to their wild night ahead. Some joined us in singing Shalom Aleichem out of nostalgia, most chose not to use their phones, everyone appreciated the technology break, and focussing solely on the present company, good food and wine. For many, we were the token Religious Friends, and we considered it a massive compliment that we had bridged Religious/Secular divide so prevalent in Israel.

So, based on our own experience, when N and I moved to New York, the Upper West Side was never a consideration. Added to the horror stories (I’m not one to mince my words) relayed to us by friends in the city, of synagogues like meat markets, widespread delight in dishing the dirt on every Tom, Dick and Harry, social pressures, and snobbery — no thank you. Instead, we’ve settled in the East Village (on a good day)/Alphabet City where we attend a small synagogue on the Lower East Side filled with the kindest, most welcoming, non judgemental people you can imagine.

And, on our way home, we pass people from all walks of life — a gratifying reminder that we simply make up a small piece of the neighbourhood’s puzzle.

About the Author
Rachel is a freelance journalist with a focus on arts and culture. A born and bred Brit, Rachel lived in Israel for five years before her Uruguayan husband was relocated to New York. She now, semi-reluctantly, resides in the Big Apple, where people mistake her for an Australian far too often for her liking. Her work has been published by the Jerusalem Post, Time Out Israel, the Forward and Kveller.
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