Looking for Jews in All the Wrong and Right Places

Living in Nassau County in New York, in many of the towns, one finds either large minorities or hefty majorities of Jews. While in Fort Collins, a good hour north of Denver, the contrast is pretty dramatic, especially it seemed right around Christmas, which came shortly after we moved there.

It feels quite odd that the thing I seem to miss about Long Island is really about New York, and a good part of that seems centered around being close to Jews in New York. What is it exactly, since it's not the religion, in my case. The food, the look (ethnicity shows, politically correct or not, even Terry Gross and Dustin Hoffman said so), the humor -- the last seems the most important, the wit, the laughs, yes the humor. A couple of funny things happened related to my being asked about my adaptation to Colorado, and one was a friend mentioning an NPR interview with Dustin Hoffman, in which he spoke about his need to get his Jewish "fix" in New York and visiting his roots ever so often to feel that feeling. It made sense to find this out, since I felt a kinship with it already.

Then I remembered my good friend Laura mentioning to me she had read about a group called something like "Jews Without Borders," which didn't seem quite right, and turns out to be called "Jewish Without Walls," with quite a different sound to it. So while I was in New York working and visiting, I went further than remembering and wound up meeting with founder Beth Finger, which was made suddenly easy by our both being near the same place at the same time. As not only one thing can lead to another, one person can lead to another, and even if "Jewish Without Walls" as it is may not be exactly my cup of coffee and perfect bagel, the concept itself is a breeding ground for offshoots and possibilities.

It turns out I am not alone, nor was I in the days when I searched for a way to express and pass on my Jewishness, without immersing an intermarried and intermixed Italian atheism and Jewish agnosticism in a religious institution which wasn't us. After the local reform synagogue rejected even the rabbi's blessing for a Sunday bagel (food of course!) breakfast for young families with legends of the Jewish people -- Bible stories, if you will -- on grounds that we weren't members, the search kind of went downhill (except that I did wind up doing my own alternative Seders and writing them every year). Beth said with drama, as she heard this, and became irate and and saddened: "The religious part doesn't speak to so many people; in every other part of our lives we have so many choices, but here it's 'join a synagogue or bust' so we are just going to write off 65 percent of the population?"

Don't get her wrong, Beth Finger feels positively about synagogues and the choices to join them. She is herself offering an alternative to people who can come together from a wide variety of Jewish backgrounds, including families of mixed marriages with women who aren't Jewish (considered by some Jewish groups as non-Jews without a matriarchal lineage). Beth is buoyed by the enthusiastic response she has been getting and sees the spreading of these groups all over. Her main interest now is in working with outreach for families of young kids, and more recently of teens. But many people of 50 and 60 and above called her so there is room for classes in Yiddish and Jewish humor and more, while there is a grass roots orientation and much of the programming has to be self-initiated.

For some of us who are older, the initiative part may feel harder, especially when we have had years of being made to feel like bad Jews for our lack of affiliation. To her credit, at least to my mind, here is where Beth strikes a chord for the freedom of worship or not worshipping: Why should I or anyone, she says to me, empower these groups to judge us, and how dare they judge us, she more than implies. Well, it's a long story, as people who have felt rejected by their larger group aren't as eager and easy about inventing ways to belong. Beth was not rejected, ever, in her at first secular family that sent her to a yeshiva and Orthodox sleep away camp as she ate ham sandwiches but went to pray for two hours (ham is distinctly non-Kosher, by the by).

One of the pulls not there for Beth, while it is funny for the Jewish humor, is guilt. Her calling is to find a joyful way for Jews to come together. And while she is trying to gain non-profit status, people are stepping up, feeling encouraged by going for something they want.

Now here is another question I have for me and others more like me: Is being around Jews or joining a synagogue or celebrating Jewish holidays with Jews what we yearn for? I'm not sure. Over the years religion or the company of one group only, has felt more and more exclusionary and limiting. I did learn, however, long ago in a class on Jewish Identity in America, at Yeshiva School of Social Work, that to be Jewish is to feel Jewish on one level or another.

Maybe that's part of our job, to not have to believe in orthodoxy as much as to know its power over us, and the yearning we have for some of the traditions and music and habits if you will. After all, we integrate with one another best, connect to one another best, if our own identity isn't just amorphous but at least somewhat understood. I am seeing, as I write, a group discussion on just this.

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