A Light Unto the Neighborhoods

Yoni A. Dahlen
June 25, 2014
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From my office window in Boro Park, I see Hasidim buying flowers and carrying challahs. Girls in long skirts and leather shoes talk in front of brownstone stoops, covering their mouths as if embarrassed by their giggles. “Es iz tsayit tsu geyn a haym,” my supervisor tells me. “It’s time to go home, Yoni. A gut Shabbes, un’ mir reden Montik.”

This is a shtetl rebuilt, a carved out piece of Brooklyn that beats to the paradoxical pulse of subways and klezmer. Strollers and shtreimels, knishes and kreplach stand alongside Haitian restaurants and halal delis. The pace is hectic. Shabbos is coming, and while this I take the stairs to the D train, excited to get back to upper Manhattan for synagogue and dinner, I can’t help but feel the pains of nostalgia for a world about which I know so little.

There is solace in the recreation of the Jewish Eastern European past. It feels haymish, comfortable, as if the unspeakable horrors of Europe have been gessoed over and a familiar painting has been cast on a new canvas. The peasants simply wear different clothes, the czar has been given a different title, and the currents of the Volga have flowed into the dirty waters known as Hudson and East. And yet, as an outsider, there is a painful aspect of denial that exists here deep in Brooklyn. This Pale of Settlement is free from pogroms and racist decrees, but this city is not and never will be Russia. Brooklyn is a home. Brooklyn bleeds community and unity, and Brooklyn needs the love and unwavering dedication that lies intrinsic to the concept of Yiddishkeit.

But we, in the outskirts and our well-to-do neighborhoods in New York and all across the country cannot shake our heads and point fingers. We too have run away to our safe havens. The suburbs have been a blessing and a curse. They have created a culture and a treasure of their own Jewish ethos. They have fostered wealth and have provided space for growing families. They have been a refuge from the chaos of the Jewish past. Safety lies in the question, “what do gated communities know of stone throwing or anti-Semitic slurs?” And yet, the suburbs have simultaneously instituted communal isolation, distance from synagogues and neighbors, and use-as-needed blinders for the pains and struggles of the urban majority.

So where should we turn? Where can we find the Judaism that once brought so much pride to our people? Where are the new Heschels, willing to walk side by side with those who are oppressed but call themselves by names other than Jewish? Every week there are fundraisers and dinners, galas and Jewish events, and only a notable minority of these seem to be concerned with the troubles of those who live by our side.

We live in the age of the ego. We, as a country, as communities, and as individuals are scared of the world around us, and that fear leads time and time again to polarization, isolation, and suspicion. But the neighborhoods we need are the kind that serve as the loving hand pulling us from the pit of our fears and our selfishness. And to create these neighborhoods, we need to see beyond the labels attached to our personal Judaisms. Love comes from opening the doors to the soul, and it is the soul of the Jewish people that speaks of justice and peace, of courage and hope.

From my office in Boro Park, I look out at a world dancing to the melody of a beautiful past. My train ride uptown takes me from the shtetl to an equally scared and equally confused present. But from the window of our collective tradition, I can see a future of holy bonds and friendships, of trust and support, aid and assistance. We are strong and important communities. We are quick to give and to help, to listen and to contribute, and because of that special and inescapable goodness, we can work on being the neighbors we are meant to be.

May those that hold the torch of kindness and outreach serve as our teachers of Jewish responsibility. Let us not cast judgment on ourselves, for true giving can only come after loving oneself. But let us be aware of our fears and insecurities, of our need to always do better. To be a light unto the nations, we must be able to call the nations brother and sister, friend and family. Then and only then will our light begin to burn with the peaceful flame of its full potential.

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Yoni A. Dahlen is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He attended Brandeis University where he received a Masters of Arts in Jewish Philosophy. Pursuing a career in academia, his topics of interest include Jewish mysticism, political theology, and the religiosity of Labor Zionism. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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