Thursday, October 23rd, 2008
“Yeah, I can be myself here in this small town. And people let me be just what I want to be”
– John Cougar Mellencamp
For those who want their kids to emulate their own lifestyles and traditions, there are few considerations more crucial than where they grow up – the physical environment in which they live, the sense of community there and the people with whom they surround themselves.
The 2001 National Jewish Population Survey, based on U.S. Census data, came to the unsurprising conclusion that 95 percent of us live in major metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Miami. That probably hasn’t changed much in recent years.
It’s much easier to go where the action is: not just kosher food but dozens of restaurants and grocers, not just a Hebrew school but a variety of yeshivot, not just a temple but the shul you go to and the one you wouldn’t be caught dead in.
Most of all, observant Jews like to be surrounded by people with like minds and customs, so as not to feel like a fish out of water.
But anecdotally, you can see a strong shift among young Modern Orthodox Jews toward the suburbs. While the West Side, Flatbush, Forest Hills and Riverdale have their appeal, people tend to look at smaller communities as places where they can better express their individuality and enjoy diversity.
Two years ago, my family joined this cohort. After spending our entire lives in Brooklyn (an even four decades in my case) we packed up the minivan (and two moving trucks) and moved to Long Island town with a small but significant Jewish population.
In our prior ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Flatbush, we often felt like there was too much of a good thing: Not just Jewish neighbors but Jewish neighbors who were way more rigidly observant, and sometimes made us feel like the fish out of water, usually not deliberately.
In our new Nassau County abode, we went from a block that was 99 percent Orthodox to a block that seems to be 80 percent non-Jewish and probably less than 1 percent Orthodox (we’re still meeting the neighbors). Not that I was looking for such a change, but it was nice to live on a block where I didn’t feel I needed to find a yarmulke just to take the garbage out.
From a neighborhood that probably has more shuls and kosher stores per square mile than anywhere in the world, we went to one that has five shuls (two large, three small), and four kosher restaurants. The overall Jewish population town is estimated at around 25 percent, or about 6,000 people. That’s about 10 blocks of Flatbush.
When we first arrived, it was months before we had a Shabbat meal in our own home, and we now regularly socialize with more than a half-dozen families with kids the same age as ours, almost none of whom we knew previously. Dining at one family’s house often leads to invitations from other guests at the table.
Getting to know people has become even more simple in this day and age because of the e-mail “shuls list,” encompassing the entire community, in which people offer their cast-off furniture, computers and other goods to the first taker, offer or seek jobs, announce their mazel tovs or shiva notices or, on occasion, simply wish everyone a good Yontiff.
Then there’s Facebook, with a group dedicated to our community, and people “friending” each other virally, linked by mutual pre-existing friends.
It’s a much smaller world than I imagined growing up in the multiple unit apartment complex in Bensonshurst where, from our 19th floor terrace, I could see nearly all of Brooklyn stretching out for miles, up to the Manhattan skyline on a clear day.
Looking down I watched people scurry across sidewalks like ants on a hill and cars and elevated subway trains speed around like toys. I grew up thinking of the world as a massive, cold, busy place where tens of thousands of people, despite being packed in close proximity on teeming city blocks, would never and could never know each other.
Now, from my second-floor bedroom or back yard, I can see house after house for several blocks back, but no tall buildings. It’s not unusual to go an hour without seeing a pedestrian or car pass the house.
I’m not sure who coined the phrase, “you can take the boy out of Brooklyn, but you can’t take Brooklyn out of the boy.” But I can feel its meaning.
At night I lay in bed waiting for the familiar sound of car alarms or emergency-vehicle sirens, the occasional truck backfire that might have been a gunshot or even a noisy city bus or garbage truck. But all I hear is the far-off sound of the Long Island Railroad train’s horn as it gracefully glides through a crossing, sounding more like a kid’s toy than the silver beasts that roared overhead on the B-line and made my young ears ache. And the closest I’ve seen to a traffic jam are the four cars behind me at an intersection, all of them honking at me because I’ve forgotten you can turn right on red.
Ninety-five percent of American Jews can’t be all wrong: There are still plenty of good reasons to stay in a big city like New York (cheaper property taxes and closer hospitals being just two of them).
But I have a hunch there’s a ton of insight about Jewish continuity that can be learned from Jewish families who leave Flatbush or Kew Gardens Hills, where they lived in Jewish metropolises almost unparalleled outside Israel, to live in quiet towns with four shuls, two pizza stores, and no need to wear a yarmulke while taking out the trash.