Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Buzz of Englewood

It is now 12:41 on Tuesday morning. I just got in from seeing A Serious Man with HOBB and Big Babe at Lincoln Plaza Cinema-- a seriously surreal, unpredictable, hilarious, quirky, deeply Jewish and original film that only the Coen brothers could have made.

More than 12 hours earlier, I opened up this template to write a spiritual travelogue of our recent holiday and Shabbat excursion to the beautiful community of Englewood, NJ for Succot but got immediately sidetracked by the pressing demands of work and life.

With the rapid-fire volley of urgent emails on hold, I have returned to my task of earlier today, eager to capture the experience of the weekend before it evaporates from the forefront of my memory.

Our exodus to Englewood is actually a tradition of sorts, now closing in on its first decade. Since the first Succot following 9/11, it has been our tradition to flee Manhattan for the refuge of suburban New Jersey, staying with friends and taking our meals with the loving, generous and culinarily-gifted COBBs (Cousins of Bungalow Babe) -- who come equipped with two teenage boys (a taste of Nirvana for Little Babe) and a wonderland of friends.

Celebrating Succot in Manhattan has always seemed especially pathetic. Fitting oneself into a cramped, crowded Succah in the alleyways of apartment buildings, on a busy urban sidewalk or, gloriously, on the rare and windy roof, is always something of an ordeal. Even when the Succah occupies a beautiful space -- such as the quad of the Jewish Theological Seminary, just blocks from my home -- the logistics of arranging meals is an exhausting manner.

The ultimate destination for Succot (as for all the Jewish holidays) is Israel, but short of buying plane tickets, the drive over the George Washington Bridge transports us to a Succot Xanadu. Whether hand-built wooden shack or prefab cloth structure held up with scaffolding, beautiful Succot adorn porches, backyards, frontyards, driveways and decks as far as the eye can see.

In the final hours of our visits, HOBB and I always stroll solemnly through the streets, gazing hungrily at the FOR SALE signs adorning the charming homes of the neighborhood, asking ourselves, could we, should we consider this pleasant community if only for the sake of Little Babe, born and raised in the city?

Anyway, it was my intention this morning to capture not only the warmth of time with family and friends around the colorful holiday table, the myriad meals, late night wine-sipping, Succah hopping, leisurely strolls and power walks to burn off the gajillion calories we ingested...but also to gleefully report that I had the personally satisfying experience of being greeted as the Jewish equivalent of de Toucqueville during my visit, praised at every turn for an article I had written this summer about the non-sustainability of Jewish day school due to the exorbitant tuition.

The impact of the article derived from my ability to write candidly about the dramatic effect that this financial overhead has had on my own life over the past two decades, I was told. My willingness to admit that the cost proved ruinous to my personal life in a variety of ways -- shattering the myth that if something is important enough, you simply "stretch" to make it happen -- opened the door for others to do the same.

Even in this enclave of gracious homes and stylish families -- where affluence seems both ubiquitous and effortless -- the high cost of being Jewish had suddenly become a real problem, I learned. But appearances deceive; people have lost their jobs and their savings. The prospect of new employment is elusive. With tuitions soaring over $20K per child at most local Jewish schools (with Manhattan schools topping $30K), the amenity they had counted on is suddenly a luxury item.

So I stopped and listened to people's stories, heard painful details of what it is like to live through an economic cataclysm, took in shamed confessions about applying for financial aid, heard doubt expressed about the soundness of the educational system we had built, gained behind-the-scenes glimpses at the stresses visited on families in their effort to earn enough money to pay for Jewish day school.

Though I had lived it myself, there is power and poignancy in hearing these stories from other people. I was touched by the father of three who cannot afford summer camp (because of day school tuition), the doctor's wife who is astonished to find that her husband doesn't earn enough to support their lifestyle (because of day school tuition), the day school educated twenty-something with the three preschoolers who is adamant upon sending his kids to public school...because of the looming prospect of crushing tuition.

This matter is indeed one of the most pressing issues plaguing the Jewish community and my contribution to the discussion is to keep it on the radar screen. I wish that my expertise was in finding a solution (a communal fund for Jewish day school??) but my role is to identify and explore the dimensions of the problem and stoke outrage that so many of us have suffered in silence. As in the period immediately following the publication of my article, I encountered excitement and relief in Englewood that this matter is finally being aired and change might be on the horizon... as witnessed by the group of local parents who are seeking an alternative within the public school system.

Still, to paraphrase the doctor's wife whom I met on this visit, there is an equal amount of fear that once the economy adjusts itself, the issue will evaporate with the wealthy resuming their ability to pay tuition with nary a thought while the rest of the community is left with their private, shameful struggles.

Which is why it is impossible to ignore the irony of the recent renovation of Ahavath Torah in Englewood. Standing in the lobby on Shabbat morning, the prevailing conversation appeared to be about the new shul building itself, beautiful yet also cringe-inducing in the current economy. Overhead in the bathroom, from two college girls home for the holidays – “I hate coming here; it’s all about your clothes and shoes and how rich you are.”

These are not my words.

Yet it did make me wonder if anyone had proposed that even a portion of the renovation fund might have gone to level the economic playing field and guarantee day school tuition for the Jewish kids in Englewood, which would have set a fine and bold example for the American Jewish community.
Which brings me full circle to A Serious Man.
The most intimately Jewish movie I believe I have ever seen, filled with mystical ideas and insider references, A Serious Man is not for everyone. Some Jewish viewers may have a difficult time with its exaggerated and often unflattering Jewish characters and concepts. Stereotypes prevail; there is often a lampoonish, nearly grotesque aspect to practically every scene. I was fascinated and uncomfortable at the same time.
Yet I cannot recall another movie where Hashem -- called by the name Hashem -- exists in dialogue and concept, where the characters suffer and weep for the lack of their ability to figure out His/Her plan. As the sun comes up on this Tuesday morning, I confront the startling realization that my visit to Ahavath Torah entailed more than grousing about clueless affluence.
Indeed, as a parade of people with movie-star good lucks and outfits passed through the cavernous lobby, I stood in a tight circle with Big Babe and my friend Scott discussing the problem of prayer, the nature of God, Buber's concept of the I and Thou and our respective relationships with Hashem, both inside and outside of the synagogue. We formed a pow-wow in the midst of the kinetic space, our theological musings constituting our shared reality. The synagogue fulfilled its mission after all, housing our Hashem-directed thoughts and conversation.
My article on day school tuition is here, if you wish to read it: http://http/www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c56_a16519/Editorial__Opinion/The_Last_Word.html

Chag Sameach!

No comments: