Whenever I choose to take an afternoon cappuccino break at a popular Upper West Side coffee shop, I am hoping to be regaled with some overheard conversation at the communal table. One recent, greyish midweek afternoon, I was not disappointed.
The two studious-looking young women facing me were deep into deliberation. One was insisting on the importance of the rabbinic dictum, “The world was created just for your sake,” while her friend countered with, “Remember that you are but dust and ashes.” Do these two points of view contradict one another? Or is there some way to live on the spectrum between inflated self-importance and despair over nothingness? One of the women suggested that we keep each of these dicta in our two pockets and practice which one to take out when.
I mixed the last drops of warm milk with a clump of cinnamon feeling satisfied with my afternoon’s refreshment.
Since my return from twenty-two years of self-exile in France, I have come to terms with the somewhat obsessive nature of Jewish concerns characterizing the Upper West Side where I now live. I have even joined Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, familiarly known as BJ, attracted, as are thousands of others, to its musical uplift of the spirit and its commitment to social justice. I find myself surprisingly comfortable with its neo-Hasidic fervor and progressive political stance.
But even in this new-found haven, we are far from anxiety-free. Recently, the focus of the rabbis and the board turned to real estate. BJ leadership was determined to repurchase what once was theirs — an essentially graceless school building that backs up to the one we call home. The building was sold by the financially-strapped congregation in 1984, and was now to be reacquired for something like twenty times its selling price. This too is just another West Side story.
Somehow, BJ managed to raise some $20 million through a mildly distasteful capital campaign, and we acquired the building. With that signed and sealed, misgivings among my middle-aged peers became more audible. It turns out that not only were we beholden to a small number of wealthy donors for the purchase, they now held the purse strings to the possibility of our ever actually inhabiting that costly space: The cost of renovations and upgrading to meet building codes runs to the tune of many unanticipated millions more. In these economically challenging times, the project was taking on tinges of the absurd.
Some warned of deeper malaise: How can we maintain our equalitarian membership policies now that money has come to seriously matter? How will our progressive values hold up if challenged by the major fortunes whose more conservative politics do not jive with our guiding principles? Who can guarantee that our beloved BJ will not go the disillusioning way of so many other formerly high-minded Jewish institutions once in the grip of self-imposed financial debt?
Sure enough, a test case was not long in coming.
On the close of the Shabbat service in late November, Rabbi J. Roland Matalon, known to all as Roly, spoke of the events of the day at the United Nations. Israel had stood nearly alone in its refusal to support the Palestinians’ petition for non-member statehood status. Roly quietly informed the congregation that he wished Israel would have had the courage to accord the others the same dignity Jews were once granted, on the same calendar day, some sixty-five years earlier when we petitioned the world body for partition of Palestine.
I was aware of a ripple of pride and solidarity enlivening the congregants at Roly’s words.
Within days, following his e-mail expressing the same views, a skewered version of the story ended up on the front page of the New York Times, falsely representing a congregation divided against itself with many of its members allegedly scandalized by the rabbi’s insufficient support for Israel. All that followed has been amply chronicled elsewhere — a series of oddly worded e-mails to members with partial retractions (though never about the core message, only its articulation), further accusations, then public and e-mailed apologies for having included signatures of dissenting staff and board members, all of this unfolding amidst a feeding frenzy of censure and lampooning, far and wide in the Jewish press.
Soon enough, it became known that major donors to the building fund were threatening to withdraw their support if the rabbis did not agree to henceforth checking in for consensus, and to toeing an unwavering pro-Israel line. Some of us had anticipated this showdown; it comes as no real shock when rich people turn out to be bullies. Still, the spiraling events left the majority of BJ members, most of whom supported the rabbis’ sentiments, bewildered as to how their cherished community and its leaders would weather this storm.
It took several weeks and a fair amount of crisis management before Rabbi Matalon fully rebounded. He let it be known to an inner circle that if pushed to make a choice, he would sooner abandon his dreams of a new building than compromise the values that have always fueled his and most of his constituents’ loyalties to the BJ mission of social justice. Withal, we wondered if he would find it within to once again be courageously outspoken on political issues concerning Israel. When, a few weeks ago, on the eve of Purim, Roly came out with unequivocal disapproval of the West Bank settlements, we took it as a sign of restored health.
Roly explained that as Jews we are variously appealed to from opposite ends of the response/restraint spectrum. The Purim story of threatened annihilation evokes the gratuitous violence in the Biblical story of Amalek, in which we are told always to “remember what was done to us” — to be vigilant and vengeful. Yet on Passover and every Shabbat, in remembrance of our own origins as slaves in Egypt, we are instructed not to inflict the sort of suffering we endured on others.
Which is it? Are we to be vigilantes or humanitarians? Was the world created for our sake, with our singular prerogatives and national interests in mind? Or should we best be mindful of our origins in dust, our fragility and the limited time we have to do good? I’m reminded of the coffee shop conversation about always having two pockets for storing two opposing caveats. How do we know which to take out when? Is there any way we can take out both at the same time and try to find the right balance between the two?
Roly reminded us that as Jews we live with the tension between an instinct for survival and the imperative of empathy. What he didn’t exactly say, but many of us heard, is that we live with other tensions as well — between our ideals and the money it takes to realize them, between belief in our own possibilities and humility as to our limitations.
Today, walking down Broadway toward the communal coffee shop, I regret that in my eagerness for spring I left my hat and my gloves home. There’s a chill wind blowing through me. I keep my hands buried deep, one in each pocket.
Susan Reimer-Torn holds a Master’s degree in dance history from Columbia University and has written widely on dance, culture, lifestyle, and women’s issues for French and American publications. While living in Paris she had a regular cultural column in International Herald Tribune. She also published Kids Extra!, a quarterly serving the expatriate community. Susan has lived in New York for the past twelve years and works as a writer and a life coach.