Jewish World Review Oct. 2 1998 / 12 Tishrei, 5759

Yitta H. Mandelbaum

Ode to the
Golden ghetto

THERE HAVE BEEN DAYS when I thought that surely I should leave.

Riverdale ... Teaneck ... or even the Upper West Side would be infinitely better than here, I have occasionally mused, places where people actually know who Michael Lerner is and what the Politics of Meaning really means (Does anybody?)

When I glance at a typical bundle of my daily mail, I have to laugh and idly wonder if anyone in my neighborhood can parallel this motley assortment: Commentary, Publishers Weekly, The Village Voice, Psychology Today, Tikkun, Harpers, Midstream, and the Jewish Observer (a fervently-Orthodox glossy) all rolled and rubber-banned in an eclectic tube, an eloquent emblem of my divergent interests.

A small longing rises up in me some mornings, a yearning to be able simply to step outside my door, plunge into conversation with a neighbor about the spectacular success of The Celestine Prophecy and what this bestselling phenomenon portends for the future of publishing, and how I've decided to tap into the heart of its story -- coincidences -- and write my own book about the subject.

But while the kind, compassionate and highly intelligent women who surround me possess prolific knowledge of the Torah and an assiduous ability to quote Psalms by heart, few on the block have ever heard of Deepak Chopra or John Grisham; nor do they care.

And, yes, it's lonely at times. Often I feel depressed about living at the edge of my society, instead of truly in it; but despite all things, I know in my heart that I could never leave the Chassidic enclave, the cloistered ghetto, the place where I make my home ... Boro Park.

"You're joking!" people exclaim in disbelief when they learn where I live. "A European shtetel, an anachroism, a throwback to the distant past ... What are you, a sophisticated woman, doing in Boro Park? It's not where you belong!" they accuse, astonished.

Silent and chastened, I wonder if they're right, if I haven't done myself a grave disservice by staying in a community that in certain ways doesn't support my intellectual curiosity or my professional growth.

And yet. It's precisely at this point in time, during the months of September and October, which subsume the Jewish holidays of Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and Succos, that I feel most acutely in every fiber of my being, that there is simply no other place in New York where I would rather choose to live.

Nowhere else does my heart sing and my soul breathe as they do here. Nowhere else can I openly celebrate my Jewishness and let my spirit soar.

It is during this special religious festival period that the contrast between many other neighborhoods and Boro Park impacts me. Walking the streets of other sections that boast large Jewish populations, I find no tangible clues, no real signs anywhere that one of these three Holidays is imminent.

The air in these other places is not thick with the possibilities that each Holiday invokes. The introspection prompted by Rosh Hashana, the apprehension elicited by Yom Kippur, and finally the unbridled joy of Simchas Torah are all missing from these other neighborhoods, conspicuously absent. The tedium of daily life drones on uninterrupted here, unmindful of the momentous Jewish calendar; there are a flatness and sameness in the streets, an oblivion that the Jewish season for transfomation is upon us.

I feel melancholy.

Returning to Boro Park in a rush of homesickness, I almost laugh in relief at the various tableaux unfolding before me as I disembark from the "B" train. Here, the very air is redolent with the Holidays, and the atmosphere is permeated with a pulsating, frenzied energy.

Thirteenth Avenue, the area's main shopping district, is a bustling maze of double-parked cars, teeming masses of shoppers pushing impatiently through gridiron crowds, skull-capped street vendors serenely presiding over temporary stalls where they hawk jars of honey for a sweet New Year, kittels, judge-like robes of white, for a pure Day of Atonement, esrogim, (citrons) and lulavim for festive Succos rituals.

Advertisements plastered on the windows of the stores that line the Avenue beckon prospective patrons with the promises of fragrant honey cake, succulent pickled tongue, stuffed cabbage that is surely a taste of the World to Come.

Other stores display signs urging customers not to forget to buy machzorim (High Holy Day prayer books), crisp white Chinese tablecloths (both discounted and on sale) for a gleaming Holiday table, Jones New York suits (This week only ... 25% off!) for the modestly-dressed but fashion-conscious balabusta (housewife), and human hair wigs direct from the designer salons of Hungary, Switzerland, or China.

A delightful cacophony of sounds wafts into the air as itinerant beggars shrilly plead for tzedakah (charity), fresh-scrubbed, rosy-cheeked school children with pushkes (charity boxes) in outstretched arms cajole for pennies, and bewigged matrons, heedless of the pandemonium swirling about them, placidly gather on the street corners to trade favorite recipes: for kreplach (soup dumplings), tzimmes ( a carrot and sweet potatoe stew) and farfel (a grain dish).

Surprisingly, my nerves do not jangle from the bedlam or the tumult. Instead, I inhale the noise (such warm noise, the noises of resurgence and life) lustily.

I am content and at peace.

A few blocks away from the vortex, I pass a massive warehouse where bearded men busily load cartons onto a steady stream of trucks, vans, and stationwagons. The building belongs to Tomchei Shabbos, a charitable organization funded by private donors. The thousands of cartons jammed on the sidewalk waiting to be hoisted aboard are free food packages sent weekly to Boro Park poor.

As I continue on my way, I meet an acquaintence, a mildly retarded young man sporting a small kipa who originally hailed from upper-crust Woodmere but now has permanently settled in Boro Park.

"May I have the honor and privilege of your company for a Yom Tov [festival] meal?" I call out gaily.

"I'm totally booked for the whole year. All the Chassidim in my neighborhood fight over me!" he grins with pride.

I smile and wave and move on but, without warning, find myself caught in the midst of a torrential downpour. I am unprepared and defenseless against the slashing rain. As I wonder where to seek shelter, a battered Chevy pulls up and a woman I don't know gestures me inside.

"Quick!" she yells; "you're getting drenched!"

"Oh I don't know how to thank you enough!" I murmur to my unknown benefactress.

"That's okay," she smiles easily. "After all, it's a mitzvah!" (religious precept)

As the light gradually changes and the sun slowly sinks behind the horizon, the powerful vitality which has coursed through Boro Park all day, ebbs, quiets. and then comes to a complete standstill. A gentle hush descends over the now empty streets, and I turn toward the flickering candles to make the blessing that will usher in the Holiday.

Enveloping my face with my hands, as time-worn custom dictates, I tenderly envision thousands of other women in Boro Park -- my sweet counterparts -- who are at this very moment replicating my every move. Together we encircle the flames with our hands, collectively we bend our heads low over the sparks of fire, en masse we utter the prescribed blessings that span and bridge the generations --- blessings that unite us despite our ostensible differences and bring us all into a vast healing circle of light.

As the siren that signals the onset of the Holiday echoes throughout Boro Park, I know with certainty that I have not made a mistake after all.

I am precisely in the place where my soul needs to be. Surrounded by community and tradition. At home. In Boro. Park.

Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Small Miracles : Extraordinary Coincidences from Everyday Life and the just released sequal, Small Miracles II : Heartwarming Gifts of Extraordinary Coincidences.


©1998, Yitta Halberstam Mandelbaum