Recreating the Neighborhood

July-August 2001By David C. Stolinsky

David C. Stolinsky, M.D., who is of the Jewish faith, lives in Los Angeles. He is retired after 25 years of medical school teaching at the University of California at San Francisco and the University of Southern California.

And I Will Dwell in Their Midst: Orthodox Jews in Suburbia.  By Ethan Diamond. University of North Carolina Press. 0 pages. $18.95.

Have you ever examined an Oriental rug or tapestry? Richly multicolored yams make up the beautiful pattern, but if you turn the rug over, you discover that it is held together by plain-looking fibers. Communities are like that, as this book illustrates.

This informative study of how Orthodox Jews moved to suburbia is interesting in its own right particularly for those who tend to associate the Orthodox with older sections of central cities. But it is interesting in a wider sense, in that it gives insight into how devout religious minorities can preserve their identities while becoming a part of middle-class suburban fife. The author, a social historian, traces the migration of Toronto’s Orthodox Jews from their original home in an older section of the downtown area to a larger suburban area over the course of the decades following World War II. His task was eased by Canada’s requirement that religion be stated on national and local censuses, a rule that Americans would find intrusive — here we see another example of the conflict between individuality and social responsibility, a tension that exists in both politics and religion.

To understand Judaism, especially Orthodox Judaism, one must realize that it is less a set of beliefs or even religious practices than a way of fife. Christians tend to argue over doctrine or ritual, while Jews argue mainly about how one should act in daily fife. For example, a key element of Judaism is the Sabbath. Observant Jews (which include the Orthodox and some Conservatives) are obligated to attend synagogue services but must not ride in a vehicle from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The origins of this practice are the requirement that animals also be given a day of rest, and the prohibition of making a fire, which is extended to include electricity and engines. But as with so many old customs, this one has profound modern implications.

Since one cannot ride on the Sabbath, one must live within walking distance of a synagogue. This in turn means that food stores, restaurants, bookstores, other businesses, and religiously based primary and secondary schools will all develop within a relatively small area — in short, a neighborhood, with all the social support, friendships, and networking that it implies. Dietary laws require that food stores and restaurants be kosher. Jewish books and ritual objects, such as candlesticks and cups for the sanctification prayers on Sabbath and festivals, are provided by appropriate stores. Thus, openings are created for businesses that meet the community’s needs. In addition, many events of life — for example, the prayers said by mourners — must be communal, not individual. This requires neighbors you know and trust, who will probably be there in times of need. Of course, they will also be there to criticize you if they perceive your practices to be less than perfectly observant, and to yell out the window at your children if they get into something they shouldn’t. This is either a plus or a minus, depending on one’s point of view.

When other ethnic or religious groups moved out of “the old neighborhood” because they no longer wished or had to live in aging sections of the inner city, they tried to re-establish themselves in suburbia, but with varying success. The same holds for less-observant Jews, who usually live where they please and attend synagogue, if at all, by car. But not so for the Orthodox, whose sometimes rigid adherence to tradition has, both directly (through religious observance) and indirectly (through the neighborhood), assured their continued existence — which is no easy task in these times.

While Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and secular Jews are decreasing though inter-marriage and lack of interest the Orthodox are increasing, from both lower attrition and a higher birth rate. This has obvious parallels in Christianity, where “mainline” Protestant denominations and liberal Catholic parishes are losing members while the Evangelicals and orthodox Catholics are faring better. Obviously, every religious group must strike a balance between rigidity, which alienates some young people and adapts inadequately to today’s needs, and flaccidity, which alienates nearly everybody and adapts so well that nothing distinctive or compelling remains.

I would have thought (and preferred) that a middle ground would be most successful, but experience shows that a more traditional approach is what works best. Perhaps the problem is that without a strong religious hub, a community has nothing around which to revolve and tends to disintegrate. This may not be true in ethnically homogenous nations — Norway, for example — where there are other bonds to hold things together, and where the population lives in smaller towns. But in America, with its diverse population living in large and impersonal cities, the only bonds that promote national cohesion are the English language and a sense of Americanism, both of which are not merely weakening but are being actively eroded by what passes for popular culture. What remains is apathy and alienation in the majority, and fragmenting “ethnic pride” in various minorities. This is not an encouraging prospect in a multi-ethnic nation that hopes to remain peaceful and free.

Modern secular society provides little to hold onto, and modern “buffet” cities induce one to skip the vegetables and load up on desserts, however unhealthful they may be for the mind and ,spirit. All this often leaves us with a profound sense of emptiness and isolation. Orthodox Judaism retains the essentials, and in its Modern Orthodox form, prospers in middle-class suburbia by recreating the neighborhood. Clearly, this is the answer for only a minority of a minority. But through studying this example, we may gain insights into how to form neighborhoods in the midst of modern cities, and to thus make them a bit less amorphous and alienating, while at the same time striking a balance between group identity and national cohesion. I would expect that the general level of happiness (not fun, which isn’t the same thing at all), and the crime rate as well, would benefit from such an approach.

If we hope to continue to enjoy the beautiful design of our national tapestry, made up of many multicolored yams, perhaps we should give more attention to the plain-looking fibers that bind them together.

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