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A Community Raw And Unformed

A Community Raw And Unformed

Associate Editor

Wednesday, June 18th, 2008

There will be hundreds of articles still to be published in Jewish newspapers and magazines in the next six months, but I have already identified one that is surely to be one of the most ridiculous of 2008.

The new issue of the very glossy “Jewish Living (June/July) has a big cover story, “Where We Live Now: Top Ten Neighborhoods” in North America to “raise a family, get involved, meet a mate, score a great nosh.”

According to the magazine, “it’s not merely size or even longevity that counts. Along with quantifiable criteria like the number and variety of synagogues, proximity to kosher restaurants, and options in day schools‚ all of which are included in our descriptions‚ we unearthed the qualifiable, as well. We have identified neighborhoods across the continent that are growing, rebuilding, reinventing themselves, unifying their disparate parts, and exploring our traditions in unconventional ways.”

Fair enough. Here’s the one neighborhood they pick in all of New York City, in the entire tri-state area: Soho-Tribeca.

In fact, other than Lower Merion in Philadelphia, we’re told that Soho-Tribeca is the hottest Jewish neighborhood in the United States north of Florida and east of St. Louis.

Let’s see, is it lacking kosher restaurants? Check.

Lacking a mikveh? Check.

Lacking a strong variety of shuls? Check.

Lacking day schools? Check.

In the magazine’s own words, “the community is raw and unformed.”

In the magazine’s own words, the people are trying to create a Jewish community “where there has never been one.”

What do the have? A Chabad – like 5,000 other neighborhoods.

They have a “post-denominational” shul “without walls,” the SoHo Synagogue, “attracting a largely unaffiliated crowd,” which means these people – sweet though they surely are — have little to no experience with the nuts and bolts of community.

And those are the bragging points.

Oh, in the fall, “the 92nd Street Y will bring its hip uptown Makor arts and culture programs down to Tribeca.” Makor is so hip it couldn’t survive uptown where “there are more Jews per square inch than some parts of Israel,” but we’re supposed to believe that in Tribeca, where there are far fewer Jews, Makor will thrive. We’re told of several other arts and culture options in Soho-Tribeca.

Look, I love Jewish arts and culture as much as the next guy, and probably more than most, but no Jewish neighborhood in New York ever thrived for long based on art but absent any day schools or serious big-time shuls appealing to the affiliated. That’s right, the affiliated.

Art won’t make the unaffiliated affiliate. It won’t make too many people into serious Jews. I love James Joyce, the Boys of the Lough and the Clancy Brothers but that won’t make me Irish. I can tell you lyrics to Leadbelly and The Temptations but that won’t make me vote for Obama. The Lower East Side had the greatest Yiddish theater but the Yiddish theater closed and the Lower East Side shuls are still open for davening.

I don’t think of myself denominationally – as Yitz Greenberg says, “I don’t care what denomination you are as long as you’re ashamed of it” – but I’ve never really been sold on shuls that get too cute about being post-denominational. A synagogue’s denomination tells me what to expect. It tells me the shul has some basic theological coherence.

Of course, I wish Soho-Tribeca all the best and I admire what the people there are trying to build, but to tell me that this is already one of the “Top Ten Jewish Neighborhoods” is just silly, if not insulting to both readers and at least 30 other Jewish neighborhoods in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut that are not “raw and unformed” but terrific places to live and find community.

There’s another list in the new issue of “Jewish Living,” a guide to salami. The third best salami is “completely not kosher.” Thanks, pal.
That’s why I need a Jewish magazine, to help me find non-kosher meat, sure.

If “Jewish Living” made a list of the kind of Jewish reader they seem to have little use for, I’m their man: I’m kosher, I’m affiliated, I give a damn.

Of course, most Jews aren’t and don’t. I get it. Any kind of Jew is worth a loving look. A general newspaper or magazine would do a story on any of Abraham Lincoln’s descendents, even if none of them were interested in politics. A Jewish newspaper or magazine can justify a story on any of Father Abraham’s descendents, even if none of them were interested in God. I’m fine with that.

I almost never pass a baseball field where I don’t stop to watch and even pick a team. I almost never see a new Jewish newspaper or magazine that I don’t root for.

But I don’t get where “Jewish Living’s” kind of Jewish journalism is going. You don’t see football magazines aimed at people who aren’t really interested in football, or cooking magazines aimed at people who prefer eating in Wendy’s.

It’s hard to figure a specialty magazine aimed at people who don’t think the specialty is all that special.

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