Religion, Community, Secularity (An Interview)

Religion, Community, Secularity (An Interview) May 23, 2018
A Purim painting (19th century). Public Domain.


The following is an interview with a dear friend (a writer and, dare I say, polymath) who grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household. It was done remotely (as he and I are both travelling). He wrote responses to questions I sent him. Over the years, I’ve spent a good deal of time talking with him about what it means to grow up in a “traditional” community, one with a sense of separation from the secular world. Given the release of The Benedict Option, the growth of the homeschooling movement, and the general tendency among orthodox Christians to establish their own communities within our society, I thought it important to record some of his reflections. They are unfiltered and testify to the positive and negative aspects of such an upbringing. Its style reflects the ambiguity of his feelings. I hope you might find it worth your time and thoughts.

  1. Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a two-story home in Eatontown, New Jersey, in a small neighborhood built over what remained of farmland turned by a real-estate company with a monopoly over the land and an ambition to make of it an ever-expanding ring of culs-de-sac of identically-sized homes at identical lengths apart, at the Western edge of the few miles of pristine shoreland where Syrian Sephardic Jews, already Americanized—having settled first on the Lower East Side of Manhattan (where they were denied rooms in Ashkenazi tenement boarding houses and asked incredulously why they didn’t speak Jewish and cooked with oil instead of shmaltz and did they even have it cut down there?) then in Williamsburg, then in Benshonhurst (my great-grandfather served as hazzan—cantor—at Syrian synagogue on sixty seventh street) then triumphantly, and with riches beyond their first generation’s immigrant dreams, in the opulent stucco mansions of Flatbush, then the Southern-style beachside homes at Bradley Beach for the hot summers tasting of ice cream and kisses stolen behind makeshift synagogues or at dances or at the local movie theatre on Main, and then, after some few industrious pioneers had decided in the spirit of their forefathers and with the relative liberal prosperity of the 1970s (we were still Democrats then!) to buy up land in the largely empty township of Deal a few miles north of Bradley, and after some of these found even Deal too suffocating and too inhabited and after they had begun to slowly inch, house by house, synagogue by synagogue, toward the alien outer edges and looser tax regimes of Long Branch, West Long Branch, Ocean, and Oakhurst—where this Community finally reached the very inland limits of its expansion, in the very cul-de-sac that I grew up in, where the most recently-established synagogue in the year-round Jersey shore Syrian community had been built and filled with several generations of boys and girls, and which continues to receive as new neighbors those young couples with newborn babies named after their long-dead grandparents who took their own English names after Irish friends they’d made waiting in line at immigration on Elis Island or else in the cramped barracks of the gargantuan steamships that took them from the ports of Marseilles or Paris or Beirut to the city of New York where their descendants would like them be itching to escape the borough of Brooklyn or the wintry emptiness of townships and neighborhoods directly at the water’s edge for those townships and neighborhoods where the watery ocean wind did not blow, though it was only a short drive away, and there were ten men and thus a quorum and thus a community within the Community.

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