I lived in New York for approximately 8 years, and there are plenty of things that began to grind on me over that time. But now that I won’t be living there anymore, I don’t want to focus on those things – I want to highlight the aspects of New York that I loved and I will miss. This is the first of a few posts I am hoping to do in this vein.
Now, here’s a fact that everybody already knows: New York is a mecca of Jewish life. The thing is, though, while you can know this fact, I don’t think you can truly understand this fact until you have lived in New York. When I first moved to New York, a guy I knew in law school who grew up on Long Island told me that for the longest time, he thought the entire world was 50% Catholic and 50% Jewish because that’s what he was surrounded by growing up. There are very few places in the world where you can say it feels like the population is 50% Jewish.
And besides for just living in New York, to get the Jewish experience, I would even take it one step further and say you’re not getting the full experience unless you spend some time living close to an Orthodox Jewish population.
Before I go any further and ruffle any feathers with my previous statement, I want to say that this is in no way intended to diminish the amazing and vibrant Reform and Conservative Jewish communities in New York. They absolutely exist and, from what I understand numbers-wise, while the Orthodox population is growing, these communities make up the majority of the Jewish experience in the area. (If I absolutely had to label our family, I would probably put us in the Conservative bucket.) But frequently, these Jews blend into secular life. Orthodox communities stand out because there are undeniable, visible indicators that they are living a different lifestyle. And it is this – the fact that they are in the world, but different from the world – that I am truly going to miss.
Our neighborhood in Forest Hills had a nice population of Orthodox Jews (we were involved with the Chabad of Forest Hills North, more about them later), but to really get the experience, you needed to go one town over to Kew Gardens Hills.
If you have never been to an Orthodox community or an area that has a larger Orthodox population, at first glance, it might just look like any other part of New York City. Apartments. Maybe some houses. Buildings. Cars honking, people walking out into traffic. A main street with businesses: bodegas, restaurants, stores. Hey look! Even a 7-11! But then, you’ll start to notice that the men look a bit different. Specifically, a vast majority of them are wearing yarmulkes. The beard per capita is closer to what you’d see in the hipster part of town. A lot of them are wearing a more business casual dress. Some of them may, in fact, look like they are going to a funeral. (That is normal.)
After noticing that the men look a bit different, you may start to notice that the women look a bit different, too. Pants and shorts are almost non-existent. Dress in general is more modest. Quite a few women are covering their hair. And hey, was that woman who just walked past me wearing a wig? Why yes, she was. (In Orthodox communities, pursuant to a commandment from the Torah, married women cover their hair. Usually they will use a hat, a scarf, or a wig. Some Orthodox women do not do this – I hate to use this example, but think Ivanka Trump. Overall, though, I would say covering is generally the norm.)
Once you’ve noticed the differences in the people, the next thing you might start to notice is the Hebrew on the buildings and stores.
Hebrew may be on storefronts or buildings for a number of reasons. That house or building that blends in with the rest of block, but has Hebrew on the front is likely a synagogue, or at least some small congregation. Orthodox men pray collectively 3 times a day – morning, afternoon, and evening – usually in groups of at least 10 men, so it is not unusual that they need a communal place to gather to do this. If the structure is a bigger building, it may be a yeshiva – a Jewish school. The Hebrew may indicate that the store is “shomer shabbat,” meaning they keep the Sabbath and are not open for business on that day.
Yet another reason, as with the picture above, is to indicate that the restaurant is a kosher establishment. Keeping kosher – meaning following the Jewish dietary laws – is a hallmark of Orthodoxy. Most people are familiar with the general concepts of keeping kosher – no pigs, no shellfish, no cheeseburgers (meat + cheese is a no go). But the laws in practice are much more complex. Just because a restaurant doesn’t serve food that is treif (not kosher), does not mean the restaurant is kosher. To start, the restaurant needs to be certified kosher by a local body that has such authority – one for example is the Vaad Harabonim of Queens. There needs to be a mashgiach, a person who supervises and makes sure everything is kosher, on the premises as well. There is much more that goes into making a restaurant a kosher establishment, but basically all you need to know is that an Orthodox Jew is generally not going to a restaurant unless it has some form of kosher certification from an authority he or she trusts.
So now that I’ve pointed out a few differences about the Orthodox Jewish area by where I lived (trust me, there are more), you might be thinking, “Ok, so that’s it? What’s the big deal?” Yes, that’s it, but these seemingly little things are so much more. Let me explain.
On the keeping kosher front, besides for only eating at establishments that have been certified as kosher, almost every food that people bring into their homes has to be certified kosher as well (I say “almost” because there are things like raw fruits and veggies that generally do not need a kosher certification). As I’m sure you can guess, you can go to your local grocery store to shop and check each product to see if it is kosher (which can be super time consuming), but not everything there will be. Can you imagine a grocery store that sells only kosher products?
Well let me tell you, they exist, they are magnificent, and we had 3 or 4 of them by where I used to live. My favorite where I regularly shopped was Aron’s Kissena Farms. They have everything that a regular grocery store has, plus many other Jewish food options that your regular grocery store is definitely not carrying, like gefilte fish, kishka, and shmaltz. They have deli counters and pre-made food for take-out when you just don’t want to cook that night. Typically, their kosher meat selections are massive, with a wide variety of cuts of beef, veal, lamb, turkey, and chicken. You can also find a wide variety of Israeli products. Because I love to cook and we keep kosher in the house, having a kosher supermarket is something I will miss.
And it’s not just the wide selection of kosher food that I will miss, it’s also the ambiance. I know, I just said “ambiance” about a grocery store. I must have really gone off the deep end. But seriously, there is an ambiance. The music playing is in Hebrew and is usually prayers turned into upbeat songs. You see parents with their kids talking about and getting excited for Shabbat. You also see husbands doing the grocery shopping, frequently with kids in tow, which is something I wish more people could see because I know many times people believe that in Orthodox relationships, the women do all the domestic work like food shopping, cooking, and taking care of the kids.
Now, I can’t lie – there are some down sides to the kosher supermarket. I have seen the absolute worst of humanity in the parking lot when people are vying for a space as we are getting closer to the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). But overall, it is a great experience that feels like more than just food shopping, it makes you feel like part of a community. In the kosher supermarkets and kosher restaurants, you are surrounded by people who scream “Jewish.” In these places, you are the majority and that is something that you are not going to find in a regular grocery store or pizza shop.
Another thing that might not seem like much from the outside is the observance of Shabbat. Okay, so you don’t have your stores open on Shabbat. What’s the big deal? Two things.
First, have you ever seen a commercial area in New York City just shut down during prime weekend shopping time? I’m talking a long stretch of shops that are not open and the area is a retail dead zone on a Saturday at noon. Well, admittedly the 7-11 is still open, but it’s not a totally kosher establishment, haha. (The Slurpees are, though!) But in all seriousness, it is a sight to behold.
Second, like with the laws of kosher, Shabbat observance in the Orthodox communities is more complex than just the basic premise, which is abstaining from work during the 25-hour period beginning Friday night and going through Saturday night. There are many other things that are halachically (coming from Jewish law) considered “work.” Cooking, using your smartphone, watching TV, driving a car. None of these are done on Shabbat. And you know what that leads to? People go out and walk to each other’s homes and to their synagogues. On Shabbat, while the stores may be closed and the retail area is dead, the community is alive with people outside, walking around, and just being in the community. It’s really awesome to walk by another group of Jews and say “Shabbat shalom” or “Good Shabbos” to one another. And again, just like with the kosher restaurants and supermarkets, this is not something you are finding in many places outside New York.
And finally, I just want to talk for a minute about my own little Jewish community. As I mentioned above, Jason and I were involved with our local Chabad, Chabad of Forest Hills North, while we lived in the area. This tight-knit community is what I will absolutely miss most about New York. The rabbi and rebbetzin (rabbi’s wife), Mendy and Chaya Hecht, are amazing people. They give so much of themselves and always provided a very non-judgmental place to learn about Judaism. I feel so lucky to have learned from them in the past three years. And I am still learning from them! I had a question about if, pursuant to Jewish law, our walk-in closet needed a mezuzah (What is a Mezuzah?) and they got back to me right away. The answer was yes for anyone dying to know.
Besides for the rabbi and rebbetzin, we made so many amazing friends while being a part of that community. The people came from all walks of life and were from all levels of observance, so you were always getting a different take on everything from being Jewish to what new TV show you should watch. Below are just a few of my favorite pictures from some great times in the community:
At the Chabad Women’s Kinus banquet in Brooklyn.
Chanukah in the park with an 18-foot menorah.
Making latkes for a Chanukah event.
Lag B’Omer bonfire and BBQ where Jason was the grill master.
Chaya (the rebbetzin) and me at the Rosh Hoshanah card-making event.
Hamantashen-making event for Purim.
Amazing concert given by the rabbi’s sister, Sara Hecht.
We made our own edible arrangements for a Tu B’Shevat event.
Cutting a bit of hair at the rabbi and rebbetzin’s son’s upshernish.
While we are reaching out to our local Chabads down in the Raleigh area, which we have great experiences with already (more to come in a separate post!), Mendy, Chaya, and the Forest Hills community hold a very special place in my heart. Thank you for an amazing three years. We will miss you all, but we will be back to visit soon!