Nearly five months in New York, and I feel like I’ve started to get acquainted with some of the social worlds humming and shifting in this city. The civic technologists, urban planners, activists, med students, jewish philanthropists, and orthodox.
Getting to know the jews has been a wonderful experience. Alone and without reputation in a new city, I’ve found myself interacting with peers in highly unstructured settings. Unlike past periods of my life, these interactions were not mediated by authority figures, nor structured by organizations. It’s been, for lack of a better term, an act of integrating into a society, in a real and very classical sense. I am on my own, with nothing but my wits and knowledge. It it as times exhilarating and terrifying, challenging and inspiring. I love it.
So what about the Jews appeals to me?
The biggest and clearest, to me, is the emphasis on learning. Unlike some of my past communities and societies — the Berkeley counter-culturals and the global nomads, to name two — value among the jews here is measured, in large part, by depth of knowledge. Unlike those other communities, which valued the loudest, the craziest, the boldest, this community values the thoughtful, sober-minded, and perceptive.
Having cultivated all six traits, but being naturally inclined to the latter three, the magnetism of this world should be unsurprising.
The second big appeal is the sense of history. Having grown up at the end of history (California), being a part of a community that can comfortably and naturally refer to events of millennia ago is striking. Being a lover of classical thought and history, I’m drawn to the sense of causal grandeur. That said, I clearly recognize the secular scholarship which contests the traditional jewish understanding of history, and I don’t mean to suggest that the jewish version is completely historically accurate. I’m still wrestling with the issue of weighing the value of a shared sense of history vs. a commitment to data-based epistemology.
As it is now, though, the ability to build relationships over a shared narrative is new and exciting, and something I’d like to explore further.
The third enchantment is the tradition, the sense of a way of acting. As someone who has alternatively embraced convention, and rejected it, my direct experience has shown that while convention can be destructive, it can also be healthy. The radical and hawkish perspectives of total rejection and total acceptance have no weight in my eyes — thoughtful and empathetic struggle with the rules of your society seems like the only way to go, for me. There are some strains of judaism which, to my taste, lean too far to one extreme or the other. I try to maintain relationships with them all, though, as I think they that they each have some valuable insights, some unique perspectives, into the human experience which I hope to learn from. But on balance, compared to the total rejection of convention (in name only, I often found) among the communities of my past, the convention/rejection ratios I’ve found in the jewish world to be both intriguing and somewhat to my taste.
Making my way through young jewish New York is revealing itself to be a formative experience. As I become more intimately connected, I find this world starting to act upon me, as I think to act upon it. As I build relationships, I find myself forced to hold myself up to a mirror, to take accounts of my values, and my hopes. So I follow my instincts (which is, if you’ve never done it, an absolute pleasure). And I am patient. And I try to leave people better off than I found them.
To be continued.