Before I write anything else, I should state immediately that there are important arguments in support of the thought that a Mosque in Pikesville should be opposed. And even if I in no way agree with the conclusion such arguments lead to, these points have genuine legitimacy and should be considered in any debate over the question.
I do not know if this Mosque is intended to be Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Nation of Islam or any other Islamic denomination. What I do know is that when the Baltimore Jewish Times reported on this sale, the article stated that the Mosque paid a full $900,000 for the Slade Avenue Mansion and has a membership of 40 families. Now…what congregation comprised of 40 families in any religion can pay one or two hundred thousand dollars for a venue, let alone $900,000? This simply does not make sense.
Perhaps this Mosque is meant for Black Muslims who live in Pikesville’s surrounding environs, or perhaps there is a truly indigenous Muslim community in Pikesville. But there are other Mosques for Black Muslims closer to where most of them live, and it would come as a shock to most Pikesville residents that there are even 40 Muslim families living in Pikesville. Perhaps there are, there is an ever growing Mizrahi (literally meaning ‘Eastern’ in Hebrew) Jewish population in Pikesville, particularly among Iranian Jews. Ner Israel Yeshiva owes much of its success to a drive in the 1980’s to raise money for getting ‘Persian’ Jews out of Ayatollah Khomeni’s Iran. Due to Ner Israel’s achievements on their behalf, the contingent of Orthodox Iranian Jews in Pikesville is so sizeable that there are two separate Iranian synagogues in the area (both of them gorgeous). Perhaps other Iranians moved in as well to be around Farsi speakers, or perhaps from other countries in the Middle East to be around Arabic speakers.
But even if this Mosque is meant to serve a legitimate Islamic community in Pikesville, Maryland whose members have only the best of intentions, they simply could not have bought one of the area’s most prominent landmarks without enormous financial assistance. Where does this assistance come from? I have no idea, but I’d venture a reasonably certain hypothesis that those who bankrolled the sale have intentions as bad as its members are good.
The Slade Avenue Mansion is next to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, and Temple Oheb Shalom – two organizations that can be guaranteed upon to be models of open-mindedness (it’s also next to a Jewish country club, but country clubs should be disbanded on general principle…). There will surely be a spate of interfaith events, dinners, symposia, dialogues, and it might be very exciting to those who have open minds. Unfortunately, many people do not have open minds, and there has to be some people involved in this who count on precisely that.
(this happened in Jerusalem because a store in an outdoor market couldn’t get closed in time for Shabbat. They’re yelling ‘Shabbos!’ the Yiddish-ized version of Shabbat…. Seems like an awful lot of work to be doing on the Sabbath.)
No matter how liberal and tolerant 98% of the Jewish community acts toward the Mosques’ congregants, there are those in Baltimore’s Orthodox community who will eventually seize an opportunity to deface the Mosque, to harass its members, to discriminate against its wishes to ingratiate itself. No matter how good the intentions of most people on either side of this transaction, I guarantee that there are others whose sole reason for supporting this Mosque is to provoke the Jewish community into demonstrating that Jews are oppressively bigoted and violent, and still others who are all too willing to demonstrate precisely that.
It is entirely possible that Pikesville, in its own infinitesimal way, just became another front in the Israel’s ongoing conflicts with its neighbors. Just as many Middle Eastern governments have often put their own citizens in harm’s way for the sole purpose of blaming Israel for the entirety of the resulting violence, so might these congregants be senselessly put into harm’s way merely as a way of showing that American Jews are oppressively violent and cruel. And no matter how liberal, ingratiating, and menschlekh 98% of Jews (a conservative estimate) act toward any form of the ‘other,’ there will inevitably be a few that will not. And there is a far too large portion of the world’s population who will draw conclusions about all of us because of their total ignorance about this other 98%.
In a perfect world, Jews would be free to ignore such provocations, but the real world is anything but perfect. And while I hope that every one of the roughly 90,000 Jews in Northwest Baltimore shows its solidarity and support of this Mosque if it is ever defaced (as I would unhesitantly), it is still legitimate not only to feel as though we’ve been provoked, but that any Muslims who go to this Mosque are unwittingly being duped by whoever gave them the money to buy the space.
For half a century, the delicate balance of Pikesville was the delicate balance of America itself. Jews viewed the urban migration to suburbs with fascination and envy – if whites could flee cities to live exclusively among white people, why can’t Jews flee cities to live exclusively with other Jews? But whereas America could not keep the delicate balance of suburban dreamland past the late 60’s, Pikesville, Maryland has kept the ‘American Dream’ going all the way until 2012. The ingredients for this success were all too simple: a perverse mixture of dumb luck and superior values.
I don’t use the word ‘superior’ lightly, nor do I necessarily mean ‘superior to’, because there are many who practice the best which Judaism has to offer without even being aware of it (often better than many Jews themselves do). But Jews survived two millennia at the mercy of host countries by placing premium value on practicality, education, and critical thinking against throngs who often wanted nothing more than to see them dead. Other civilizations rise to the greatest heights only as prelude to dramatic falls, yet at every point in their history, Jews have borne the worst brunt of humanity’s awfulness. Yet we’ve managed to outlive all the great empires which treated our ancestors so abominably. And because of the strength of these values, Jews were inevitably persecuted by people who did not share them. When endowed with the opportunity by their host countries to apply their values to a purpose greater than mere survival, they have flourished as no people ever have. But when any great country begins its inevitable decline, it’s not too long before people notice that Jews have been shielded from the worst of it, and these well-sustained Jewish communities are blamed as the people who have robbed their host countries of prosperity. The end result is not a decline of the Jewish community, it’s inevitably exile or annihilation. It’s simply foolish to believe that it will not one day be the same here, even in America the world is what it is.
But thus far, no country has ever treated Jews better than America, and no ethnic group has treated America better than Jews. American Jews comprise 2% of the country’s population, yet make up a hugely disproportionate slice in the very fabric of American culture and humanities, have won 30% of the country’s Nobel Prizes, comprise 12% of the US Senate and 40% of America’s billionaires. From the era of Joseph in Egypt onward, anti-semites have noted the utterly disproportionate Jewish success rate to their population. They attribute it to some sort of private conspiracy, but the answer to how it works is utterly simple and explicable: good values.
(The Israeli police clash with settlers in Beit Shemesh. There were a number of prominent Baltimore Rabbis, some beloved even by the non-orthodox community, who advocated violent resistance to the Gaza settlement evacuation.)
And yet I must admit that even I, a kid raised to speak Hebrew and Yiddish (badly), who grew up in Pikesville and still works two jobs there, who might as well change my name to Israel Yehudawitz, can’t deny an occasional twinge of sympathy for at least a very little bit of this terrible anti-Jewish feeling.
Let’s face it, we Jews are an extremely closed community, and nowhere moreso than where I grew up. Until I was 16, I barely knew a non-Jewish person – my sole contacts with the non-Jewish world being through music and summer camp. Baltimore is already an extremely insular city, and it seems an unwritten rule no one who moved here after the age of 18 can ever be considered a native. How much moreso is it true in Pikesville?
In just the last two weeks, I’ve had three members of my choir complain to me – entirely independent of each other – that Jewish Baltimore is a club to which they can never belong. Apparently, if you didn’t experience high school or grammar school in Baltimore, you can never understand the vast network of insider references and private language it takes to be a true Baltimorean. The rest are left feeling perpetually on the outside, like interlopers in a community that neither understands them nor accepts them.
As an insider even among Pikesville insiders, I have a strange sympathy for them. There are few things I’ve ever wanted more in life than to be from somewhere else. In any community so insulated as this one, there is an extremely uniform image of what a person from this town is supposed to be – an image I could not fit more badly if I tried. So many peers I knew as a child have long since left this town with a golden ticket in their pockets, able to excel in the finest schools, jobs, and cities to which anyone could ever expect. But as a learning disabled child, I was given no such ticket. As an adult, I work in my family’s business in an office that’s a five-minute walk from the house where I grew up. Every Tuesday, I conduct a choir that meets in the music room of my elementary school, and only on this blog am I able to imagine what it’s like to have my days filled with occasions more exciting than the everyday responsibilities of a person born in a small town who will probably never have occasion to move away.
Seemingly like every other small town in America, Pikesville has seen its best days. My generation cannot remember a time when Baltimore was not a dying city, and the most promising among my peers have long since deserted Baltimore for Washington, New York, and even farther afield for the elite opportunities which Baltimore can no longer provide. Our great-grandparents slaved in sweatshops and factories so that our grandparents could own businesses of their own, who in turn slaved so our parents could become doctors and lawyers, who slaved in turn so that we could do absolutely anything we wanted. But unlike New York, Baltimore is not a city of infinite opportunity. It has always been a city for people with ambitions for a better life, and every year those ambitions become harder to fulfill.
In the best of times, it was all too easy for Pikesville to live up to its vision of itself – a community secular and liberal in its views, yet completely Jewish in its character. If there were people within it who failed to live up to its vision, and many people failed much more spectacularly than I, then we were the exceptions who proved the rule - the barometer by whom the ‘chosen’ ones could measure their success by their distance from us. We are now a community whose most promising new members have fled, whose younger generation is disproportionately ultra-orthodox and poor (relatively speaking), whose political views are slowly metamorphosing into reactionary conservatism, and whose city still teeters on the verge of collapse. We are a community rising no longer, and our decline will be followed by a proportional decline in our neighbors’ esteem. And as one of the 'unchosen' among the chosen people, if the community declines and ceases to be what it once was, there is a part of me, a large part, which will dance on its grave - I can't help it.
That old Freudian phrase, “The Narcissism of Small Differences” is constantly thrown around for little use. But Pikesville may not only see an interfaith fissure in which Muslims are harassed, it might also begin to see an intrafaith schism in which non-Orthodox Jews are harassed for betraying the faith, for being welcoming to others, for being open to new ideas. Time, demographics, and logic are all on the Orthodox side, and their population will steadily grow as the secular Jewish community shrinks to the size of a yarmulke. Whatever Orthodox Rabbi was the first to observe that any accommodation of Judaism to secular life leads to assimilation was absolutely correct, but that doesn’t mean he was right.
By the worst times of Jewish history, it’s already too late – and there is no escape for Jews from a land already in ruins. Over and over again, history tells us that we will blamed for the decline of wherever we live, and as punishment will either be sent into exile or to our deaths. But in the early stages of that decline, there are still two options: assimilation or Orthodoxy. The center cannot hold, so we can no longer be secular and Jewish at the same time. Eventually, the day is coming when every person, every family, every community will have to choose one or the other.
But let’s be honest, if that’s the case, then those who would still choose to become Orthodox should be considered clinically insane. There are certainly upsides to being Jewish, but one cannot overlook history: being Jewish is a terrible burden to which no person fully sane would take upon themselves in bad times. Even in good times, to willingly expose yourselves and your progeny to an historical precedent of so many centuries of suffering is lunacy. If we can assimilate, we should…….but we won’t. The extremity of our Stockholm Syndrome is just too great.
A place like Ner Israel is not a cause of Pikesville’s decline, it’s just a symptom. Similarly, a Mosque in Pikesville will not cause the world to be turned upside down, nor will it bring terrorists and Jew murderers to the doorsteps of elementary schools. The only way which a Muslim place of worship could destroy such a strong Jewish community is if Jews destroy the community themselves. And if there is one thing Jews are good at, it’s not money, it’s arguing – especially with each other.
“Three Jews, Four Synagogues” the saying goes and that burning desire to find the right answer, to be right, is both our greatest strength as a people and our very undoing. Judaism is a religion of ethics and laws, and because Jews care so deeply about action – we’ve spend thousands of years trying to determine the correct actions. We have a series of laws so obscure, so difficult to interpret, so divorced from the realities of the secular world, that it can only lead to misunderstandings - not just between Jews and Gentiles but especially between Jews themselves. Anything the most extreme Islamist element in America can do to Pikesvile is insignificant next to the damage which Jews can do to their own town. So if Muslims want to stake a claim on a prominent place in Jewish Baltimore, And if the inevitable suspicions that they’re planning third intifada at The Suburban House happen to be true, allow me to recommend the kreplach.
(Didn’t Curb Your Enthusiasm cover precisely this issue?)