If I forget thee, O New York, may my right hand wither.
For the great Hebrew poet, Yehuda Halevi, living in exile in 12th-century Spain, it was the holy city of Jerusalem that summed up all his earthly aspirations and became a touchstone of his art. Like Halevi, who famously wrote, “my heart is in the East, and I am in the depths of the West,” I yearn for an eastern city. But for me, that city is New York, just a couple of hundred miles away.
For although my wife and I moved out of the city more than a dozen years ago to teach at a liberal arts college in the wilds of Pennsylvania, the Big Apple remains my spiritual home. I’d trade the Western Wall any day for the right field wall of Yankee Stadium. I’d take New York Harbor over the port of Jaffa in a heartbeat. Instead of any place in Israel, I’ll take Manhattan, and Staten Island too…
I don’t get back to New York more than a few times a year. I keep in touch in other ways — e-mailing my parents in Great Neck, Skyping my analyst in Scarsdale, following my Manhattan friends on Facebook and doing phone interviews with New York playwrights for my Jewish Week column. But sometimes I need to get back in the flesh and, indeed, every return feels triumphant, as if somehow making it back to New York means making it in New York. I feel the kind of euphoria that I imagine a returning soldier feels at Christmas, finally home for the holidays. If I could, I’d end my family’s Passover seders with “Next year in New York,” rather than “Next year in Jerusalem.” Until my wife nixed the idea, I even thought of naming my daughters after boroughs of the city, although Staten Island didn’t really work as a girl’s name. (Neither did the Bronx, for that matter.)
As the British writer Stephen Brook has pointed out in his 1984 book, “New York Days, New York Nights,” it is necessary to leave New York for periods of time in order to truly appreciate it. According to Brook, New York’s “exhilaration is also a kind of terror. New York needs to be paced, to be left and returned to, like a lover who asks too much.” In this view, the Big Apple comes into focus only when one has had the benefit of being away from it, of having had the experience of other places. And then, as Brook notes, “To return to New York is to repossess it. After a year abroad or a day in the country, you hungrily reclaim the city, and the city responds, recharging you, awaiting your deepest pleasure.”
Like Brook, as soon as I see the New York skyline from the Jersey Turnpike, I begin to quiver in anticipation. My excitement at being back in the Jewish cultural and religious mecca of New York can only be compared to the extravagant physical and emotional response that Meg Ryan’s character has to the experience of being in Katz’s Deli in “Where Harry Met Sally.” Little wonder that one of the greatest scenes in all of cinema is the opening montage in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” with fireworks going off over the skyline to the majestic strains of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”
This is not to say that the world outside New York is inauthentic. Life in a quiet, provincial state capital — we call it simply galut — is less expensive, less stressful, and much easier in terms of raising a family than life in New York. (For one thing, it’s a much easier to find a place to park.) But the richness of the Jewish life in New York simply doesn’t exist elsewhere, and my wife and I long ago gave up trying to reproduce the Upper West Side — or at least the more heimishe, less tony, more liberal and more intellectual Upper West Side where we met and fell in love in the 1990s — in a locale where Jewish values and commitments are very different, where most Jews are Republicans, and where almost all the communal energy goes into simply keeping the Jewish institutions afloat.
Why did Halevi vow that his right hand would wither if he forgot Jerusalem? I think that he was saying that with the lack of Jerusalem in his consciousness, he would lose his very ability to create; he would lose the potency of his artistic vision. And, in practical terms, he would simply be unable to write. This is how I feel about New York; I feed off of its energy, especially its Jewish energy. I couldn’t do what I do without it. New York, for me, is the greatest city in Jewish history.
New York, New York — in the words of Brooklyn’s Betty Comden and the Bronx’s Adolph Green — it’s a helluva town.
Ted Merwin,who writes about theater for the paper, teaches at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa.