Sunday, April 29, 2012

800 Words: A Mosque in Pikesville! Part 1

This week was Yom Ha’atzma’ut – the Israeli independence day on which David Ben-Gurion gathered an entire congress into a swelteringly hot Tel Aviv room and declared Israel a free and independent state.  Upon that same day (called the Naq’ba – or ‘the catastrophe’ by many others), eleven separate armies declared war on Israel and invaded immediately: Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, the Holy War Army, the Arab Liberation Army, and the Muslim Brotherhood. In the war, half the Palestinian population was displaced (by whom? Does it matter?), and 1% of the Israeli population was killed and another 2.5% of the population wounded.

I have two interests in Yom Ha’atzma’ut/The Naq'ba:
1.      1. It provides a spate of concert dates for the choir I conduct, and we get to go around the Greater Pikesville Area, singing to audiences who care much more about this holiday than I do.
2.      2. The opportunity to offend highly privileged people who take this day so seriously.

It was after our gig this morning, as my chorus members were munching on bad falafel, that one of them told me something that made me laugh, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh. I’m not sure I’ve discovered comic gold this fantastic since 9/11.

The Slade Avenue Mansion is going to become a Mosque. Now for the interests of clarity, allow me to explain a few things about the Slade Avenue Mansion; I have no idea what the Slade Avenue mansion once was before it was an unsuccessful assisted living home for the elderly – I vaguely remember my father telling me something about it being the house of department store owners, and that makes sense, no rich goy would have lived that close to a Jewish country club before 1970, and the only Jews who’d had enough wealth in the early twentieth century to afford the Slade Avenue Mansion would have been department store owners. What I do know is that it was suggested by a couple people in real estate that my family firm - Deronda Corp - buy the Slade Avenue Mansion and try to find occupants to rent. I was not at the meeting, but I do recall that my father’s response was “Hell No.”

I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about the plans for a Mosque much, much sooner than I did. People in Pikesville real estate were clearly desperate to sell it, I’d gotten vague queries from multiple friends about strange goings on in Pikesville which I knew nothing about, and the gossip mill of this town runs more efficiently than any Nazi train system.

The Mosque will be located at Park Heights and Slade Avenue, barely a block from the very epicenter of Jewish Baltimore. It will be across Slade Avenue from Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and its Day School – the very oldest Jewish congregation in Baltimore. It will be diagonal from Temple Oheb Shalom, whose sanctuary was designed by the great architect Walter Gropius. Across Park Heights Avenue will be the Suburban Club, a 100 year old Jewish country club. Within a mile of it will be Chizuk Amuno Congregation and my ‘almamater’, the Krieger Schechter Day School which it houses, Beth Tfiloh Congregation and its day school, and Beth El Congregation. Those are three of the world’s largest synagogues. Within a mile and a half is the Seven Mile Market, which recently expanded to become the single largest kosher supermarket in the world. Within a two mile radius will be dozens and dozens of small orthodox congregations, dozens of Jewish retirement homes, the Ner Israel Yeshiva, Sol Levinson & Brothers Funeral Home, Sinai Hospital, The Suburban House, Lenny’s and Miller’s Delis, and roughly ten kosher restaurants. It is a Mosque located at the absolute center of Jewish Baltimore. For nearly half a century, no new church dared open its doors near Upper Park Heights Avenue for the knowledge that that attracting new membership would be a fool’s errand. It is perhaps the sole place in America whose commercial districts are guaranteed not to have Christmas decorations in the winter.

Many Jews view it as a special Jewish paradise, sheltered not only from the problems of 2000 years of bigotry and violence the world over, but from the problems of contemporary America as well. It is an artificial 1950’s, preserved by a self-policed omerta that omits from view the terrible urban blights which exist a mere thousand feet away from Pikesville’s border. If you ever want to be truly shocked, go around the Pimlico racetrack and look across Northern Parkway. Across that iconic Baltimore street lies gorgeous houses and pristine buildings, new development aplenty and special blue lights as far as the eye can see. Look the other way and you’ll see nothing but dilapidation, desiccation, and decay. Whether its residents realize it or not, Pikesville is a delicately balanced antique, a ballet troupe dancing on a volcano that has perpetually been on the brink of eruption for the entire time that it was Jewish. And like all delicate balances, all it takes is a single gust of mild wind to let something so fragile crash to the ground in ruins. While I’d certainly have concerns if the whole balance came down, I would in no way view the end of an exclusively Jewish Pikesville as a tragedy, but there are many who would, and will do everything within their power to ensure that it does not happen – mostly within the law, but sadly, all it takes is one…

Like everything else about this white picket shtetl of my origin, a mosque in the center of town is a contradiction like every other contradiction. Pikesville may border Baltimore City, but it is a small town like any other small town, with all the lack of privacy, gossip, mistrust, and envy which that implies. Yet within that small town is a virtual America in miniature of Jews, with as many separate ethnic groups, religious creeds, and education levels as exist in the entirety of America – the only difference being that everybody is Jewish. There are even poor Jews in Baltimore (!), but most of them are Orthodox and are supported by the Ner Israel (Light of Israel) Yeshiva.

(Just watch.)

It’s one of the more noxious ironies of Pikesville that so many of the people who oppose social welfare and public housing for minorities have feelings bordering on affection for a welfare system every bit as blatant and of more dubious social value.  We Jews are commanded to devote our lives to the Torah, and some Jews take that command extremely literally. Men are discouraged from having jobs and instead become acolytes to their Rabbis, the more intellectually capable men study the Torah every day, devoting all the hours of their adult lives to studying the books of the Bible and the 2000 years of commentary accumulated around them. The less intellectually capable spend their days raising money, trying to pester other Jews into coming back to orthodoxy, and patrolling the streets for ‘undesirables’ during the neighborhood watch. Their women exist merely as vessels to birth more Jews, and the average ultra orthodox family currently births roughly 7 children per household. If they need money, it is the woman, not the man, who is expected to earn a living in addition to raising her children.

(Everyone should watch Kadosh – the film that many experts believe began the Israeli cinema revival. It is a movie about the repression inherent in today’s Ultra-Orthodox community)

The current ultra-orthodox lifestyle is like most modern fundamentalisms - one of medieval belief married to modern means. Very few Jews in history who weren’t rabbis themselves had the privilege of devoting a mere few years of their lives to Yeshiva study. But with subsidies that come from a diverse number of places - including charitable foundations who’ve found a way to make tax-free write-offs, and even the State of Israel itself – they’ve found it reasonable to build a community whose sole purposes are to study Torah ad infinitum, and to make babies by the dozens who will one day study more Torah.

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