Sunday, September 27, 2015

800 Words: How I Spent My Yom Kippur - Shul 2 - Beth Am

I walked this afternoon through the unimaginable wealth that is Guilford and Tuscany-Canturbury. I only say unimaginable because this is Baltimore; by the august standards of Georgetown and Bethesda and Potomac, the houses on display there were relatively modest. To be sure, there is true wealth in the Roland Park districts, but I doubt there's anyone who lives around there worth more than $100 million, which, let's face it, is by the standards of our current banana republic a relatively paltry sum among the greedy class.

Were Baltimore a functional city, the center of our wealth would be not Roland Park, but Reservoir Hill. Reservoir Hill is easily the most beautiful neighborhood in Baltimore - overlooking Druid Hill Park in all of its verdant magnificence, with hundred year old housing stock that would be a prize beauty for any city in the world.

Once upon a time, Reservoir Hill was, of course, the wealthy Jewish area - Look ye mighty and despair! We are the German Jews who came over in the 19th century and ran the department stores that catered to the every need and whim of all you lazy Goyim: Hutzler's, Hochschild, Kohn, and Hecht's. Just the names alone tell you exactly what kind of person owned them - and German though Baltimore has always been, I guarantee that none of them were ever owned by a Lutheran from Cologne or a Catholic from Munich. My father's always joked that had the Tucker family came over in the 19th century like so many German Jews did, we'd own IBM by now.

I don't know how to explain the disproportionate success of Jews in America (or anywhere else) except through stereotypes. We've always valued industry and learning, and put those traits to good use. Perhaps gentiles don't value those traits as much, but I'm not in a position to know. What I do know is that the unique social position of Jews in the United States - neither longstanding members of the white overclass or the white working class or the colored (please forgive me, I lack a better term...) working and underclass - were free to make their own identities in America as no other group of American immigrants ever was. After twenty-five-hundred years of systemic discrimination by Europeans against Jews, the was not enough time for Americans to embed systemic discrimination against us to let their discriminations have much effect. Reservoir Hill is a monument to the explosion of Jewish opportunity that lay in (department) store for us from the moment we arrived in America. Our drive to achieve in America wasn't just for our own gain or to make our parents and grandparents proud, but a residual triumph to take hold of the opportunities that with very few exceptions were denied Jews for millennia.

The monument to the prosperity that was once Reservoir Hill is Beth Am Congregation - built in 1922 to house the very same Chizuk Amuno that built the Temple in which B'nei Yisra'el worships a half-century earlier. The German Jews of Lloyd and Lombard Streets grew too wealthy for downtown living. Directly to the West of them were Baltimore's Italians in Little Italy, and to the East were Baltimore's Poles and Ukranians in Fells Point and Canton. The German Jews needed breathing room, and moved across from Druid Hill Park, where the most threatening presence at the time was the trees obstructing the sunlight. that it would then be the Russian Jews at the mercy of the gentiles.

But fifty years later, Druid Hill Park, like West Baltimore itself, became ridden with crime, drugs, poverty, and hopelessness. It was a place where the wealthy dare not show their faces, and so the wealthy of Reservoir Hill retreated from their opulent beachhead to where all wealthy Jews eventually moved: around Stevenson Road, and it was on Stevenson Road that they built the new Chizuk Amuno - an edifice that dwarves even Beth Am's mighty stature.

When Chizuk Amuno left, Beth Am immediately moved in - a monument not only to the Jewish community that was, but to the dream of community engagement. Chizuk Amuno might isolate itself in the County, but Beth Am would would be a shul for Baltimore - overlooking Druid Hill Park where so many Civil Rights protests happened and so many Jews walked arm-in-arm with Blacks, Beth Am was established to continue the dream of a place that engages with the wider community - Jewish and Gentile, it was always meant to be the Jewish ministry to the tired, the poor, the needy, the sick, and a direct rebuke to all those Jewish congregations who retreated into Pikesville and acted so strenuously as though Baltimore no longer existed. But going there on Kol Nidrei night, I saw nothing but affluence.

Rebuke was the particular specialty of its irascible founding Rabbi: Dr. Louis Kaplan. Irascible was literally how he was described in his Baltimore Sun obituary. Dr. Kaplan hated Orthodox Judaism for its exclusion and having nothing valuable to say about modern life, he hated Reform Judaism for its insistence on assimilation to the customs of the rest of the world, and he didn't care much for Conservative Judaism either. Before he was the Rabbi for Beth Am, he was the President of Baltimore Hebrew College for forty years. Yes, forty years; after which he became the Acting Chancellor of UMBC (University of Maryland Baltimore County). During all that time, he founded no less than three synagogues: Beth El - a splinter synagogue from Beth Tfiloh, Beth Jacob - now merged with Beth Tfiloh, and Beth Am - a splinter synagogue from Chizuk Amuno. What the hell did he storm away from that founding three separate synagogues was necessary?

Baltimore Hebrew College was mostly a college in the way that City College was a college - it was truly a high school where Jews of particularly high intelligence could complete their Jewish education. But it was also fully accredited as a college, so that when my parents and uncles finished high school, they'd already earned a Bachelor's Degree in Jewish Studies.

Dr. Kaplan was a particularly legendary name in my family, not only because he presided over a College that issued them degrees when they were sixteen, but also because he married my parents, as he no doubt did so many other young Jewish couples of the Baby Boomer Generation who grew up with Dr. Kaplan as their guiding light. His Shabbos table was open to all his students every week, which numbered practically the whole of Jewish Baltimore from my parents and uncles to Ira Glass. My parents remember him as an authoritative lecturer with a booming voice who would pronounce judgement on any and all issues with extreme moral imperiousness - never giving the benefit of the doubt to those thinkers and students who disagreed with him, and telling his students exactly why all those who disagreed with him were wrong and stupid.

Just as Rabbi Wohlberg was the preeminent Jewish voice of my youth, Dr. Kaplan was the voice of my parents' youth, and perhaps my mother's parents as well. But how different Dr. Kaplan's vision for Jewish Baltimore was from Rabbi Wohlberg's. Rabbi Wohlberg, Baltimore's pre-eminent Rabbi for the last thirty-something years, is a moderate consensus builder who since 1978 presides over a synagogue that every year performs another act in a delicate dance on the ledge between orthodoxy and non-observance in an age when non-observant Judaism is disappearing. Whereas Rabbi Wohlberg spent nearly forty years working to never be pinned down on taking a stand on any given issue except the State of Israel, Dr. Kaplan, the liberal authoritarian, never met a stand he didn't take. He created Baltimore's Jewish landscape, he founded synagogue after synagogue, and presided over nearly half of Baltimore Hebrew College's duration. One personified the explosive dynamism it takes to create a community. The other personifies the careful politicking it takes to preserve such a community. Rabbis like Wohlberg exist not to create new things but to keep old things in place. Preservation is always necessary, but as this institutions ossify, they become relics that make a mockery of what used to be.

By the time I took classes at Baltimore Hebrew University around 2007, it was an organization in tragic death throes. There were barely five people in any class, and the few students who went there as undergraduates were clearly there because they were chronic underachievers who would not graduate from any more serious environment. It was a sad place, and two years after I left the building was gutted and bulldozed, and the institution itself melted into a Jewish Studies wing of Towson University.

This was what Dr. Kaplan's dream amounted to - Baltimore's Jews achieved such privilege that they had to move to the County to find a place to properly house their affluence, and so their even more privileged children had to leave this dying metro area to find jobs in accordance with their exalted station in life. By its end, Baltimore Hebrew, once a Hebrew School for the creme-de-la-creme among Jewish students, was a babysitting school for Jewish slackers like me trying to get a back door master's degree from Johns Hopkins. It is now just a small cog within a factory university that churns out more than 5,000 graduates a year.

Dr. Kaplan came to Baltimore to take over BHC in 1930, before he was thirty himself. He lived long enough to see Baltimore into the next millenium. He was a fixture of my youth, active and relatively fit until his very last years. My parents would introduce him to me at least once a year, and he would never remember who I was. When my Dad asked him to come to my Bar-Mitzvah, Dr. Kaplan, already in his nineties and with age having made him no less gruff, asked where I was being Bar-Mitzvahed, when Dad told him, he harumphed "I don't go to Beth Tfiloh!"


I had not been inside Beth Am for a good twenty years when I went last night. Everything I'd ever heard about the impressiveness of their synagogue was absolutely true. Beth Tfiloh and Chizuk Amuno might seem like Cathedrals due to their size, but their wall-to-wall carpeting precludes any such pretension. Beth Am, on the other hand, is truly breathtaking - a cross between a Cathedral and a Concert Hall with a live acoustic that reverbs for days and self-amplifies. In the twenties, it was a statement of Jewish prosperity: 'We've made it!' In the twenty-tens, it is a statement of Jewish defiance: 'We're still here!'

I knew what I was in for the moment I parked. I had to park four blocks away from the synagogue, with the rear of my car jutting slightly into the street. Directly in front of me was a car with a bumper sticker that spelled out "Obama" in Hebrew letters. The neighborhood was deathly quiet, and in a neighborhood so poor and black, I expected far more presence on the street. The hush surrounding me on my walk to the synagogue was as quiet as silence itself - I was either completely safe, or about to get mugged.

I quickly realized why nobody was on the streets that night. The police were out in force - at least ten surrounding the congregation, all of whom were extremely solicitous and friendly to me, though I wonder to whom they might have been less friendly in the hours leading up...

Like nearly everything west of Howard Street, Reservoir Hill long since declined into poverty. So long has the ark of decline been that it's swung around a bit, and beautiful townhouses in pristine condition stand next to boarded up shanties. The March of Gentrification in Baltimore is always more of a crawl, and when prosperity crawls from one end of Reservoir Hill to the other, Baltimore knows that its future is finally secure. It would spread next to West Baltimore, and when West Baltimore improves, the Messiah has truly come.

But how did things ever get so bad that gentrification is necessary? Every good time is paid for by somebody, and even now that wealth is gradually moving back in, 7 in 8 residents in Reservoir Hill are black. The prosperity of the neighborhood will be paid for in the forced relocation of people who will be thrown out of homes they've probably lived in since the early 70's. Fifty years ago, we left this city. Do we really have the right to claim it back?

When I arrived at the front, there was a ticket-taker. Non-Jews are always non-plussed by the idea that people have to buy tickets to go to the High Holidays, but the truth remains that few synagogues operate at sufficient capacity these days that they could ever turn down a potential member. The idea of selling tickets goes back to the days when the High Holidays was something of a performance, with an operatic-style cantor and trained chorus for whom you were mostly supposed to sit in awed appreciation of their beauty. It is a custom that clearly operates with a shelf life.

I asked the ticket taker if I could just walk in - prepared to pay at least a small nominal fee if I had to, subtly at least since Jews aren't supposed to handle money on Shabbat or Yom Tov (the Torah mandated Holidays). She replied "I don't know why you'd want to, they're almost done." To a lifelong Beth Tfiloh attendee who feels lucky when Kol Nidrei services end at 10, this was a bit of a shock. I know that other synagogues get out earlier, but it was only a bit after 8 o'clock at this point.

When I entered, I realized that the crowd was at least larger than it was at B'nei Yisra'el. Beth Am could easily hold a thousand people in its pews, and capacity seemed to be at roughly 40%. The crowd was obviously affluent, but I was truly amazed at how few people I recognized. My mother tells me that Beth Am gets a steady stream of members from people who get pissed off at Chizuk Amuno - Beth Am seems a hell of a distance to drive, but a person who quit a job at Chizuk Amuno in a huff has to be able to spot more former Chizuk members than this.

Like all non-Orthodox shuls, the membership is as old as the day is long, and as unenthusiastic as you'd expect from an older crowd. I felt strongly out of place when I allowed my semi-operatic voice to sing out at one-third capacity, as though somebody was going to turn around and shush me. All the moreso because all I got to hear was the last few prayers - if the congregation is not going to sing along to the Aleinu ("On Us", the Rosh Hashana prayer about standing before God in Heaven that became so beloved that it's now part of the everyday liturgy), God knows what it's like earlier in the service when they chanted special prayers which Jews don't sing every day.

I can't say I loved the atmosphere at Beth Am, but I was immediately much more comfortable than I was at B'nei Yisra'el. The reason was obvious, Rabbi Burg, who was everything this other Rabbi was not - funny, personable, an actual human being. He was good enough that when he advertised that they were beginning a Sunday minyan, I briefly considered going - particularly when the last words of his salespitch rang out to laughter around the synagogue: "You might even meet your Bashert."

This was a very sore spot for me. Bashert is Hebrew for 'Pre-destined', and in biblical 'slang' it means the spouse that was predestined for you. There was a short period when I thought that I perhaps had found my Bashert earlier this year. It was, definitely, oh so definitely, not to be. Hopefully we can remain friends, but it's going to be hard going for a while...

Not that that bothers me as much as it should. I seem to fall, usually silently, into unrequited 'like' with a different friend of mine every month. Some unrequisitions are worse than others, but unrequited love is always a bore, and over the years, I've had it bad.

I don't know what it's like to be among the unrequited middle age would-be-Don Juans, and I shudder to think that the time is soon coming that I'll find out. But I would imagine such irredeemable states are due in large part to the hormones of youth. I eagerly await the moment these engines cool. It can't be too far away can it?

No one still in the flush of youth can truly imagine what generations before them sacrificed for their benefit, because no youth yet knows the magnitude of what those sacrifices entail. All they see is the wears and tyranny of their elders, and not having any experience of what it means to be in the driver's seat of life, we youths always imagine we can do better. Perhaps we can, perhaps we can't, but until we overthrow the old generation and sit atop their thrones, we will never understand their view.

I'm now closer to my thirty-fourth birthday than my thirty-third. My much younger brother (and still the older of two) is now married, and my prospects to join him in the next phase of life don't look so great at the moment. Whether or not I've meant to, I've prematurely aged, and will probably not have the consolations of middle age that others have until I am so far into middle age that I'll be a relatively elderly newlywed and father - if I achieve either at all.

But this retarded adulthood does let you perceive some details among the passing of time that elude others. You see what youth desires, and as you are in the same life-circumstances as the young even when you're middle aged, you see just how worthless its desires are.

What are the young - or in the case of Baltimore the thirtysomethings who pretend to remain young - truly fighting for? Superficially, they proclaim that Black Lives Matter, that American Militarism has ruined our inner cities and reputation abroad, that America is a country of conservative puritans palpitating with contempt for blacks, women, and gays. The louder they get, the more of us they implicate. It is no longer the conservatives who are the primary villains, but the liberals themselves who have failed to prevent conservatism's onslaught. In one of language's more sinister maneuvers, they group conservatives and liberals together under the rubric of 'neoliberalism.'

Try as I might, I can't ascribe anything at all but cynical motivations to them. Our grandparents bequeathed to us the greatest conditions the world has ever seen, and as they pass from this world, the world revolts against everything they stood for for a second time. Yes, unimaginable poverty is everywhere, but for the first time in human history, there would be a fair fight to eradicate poverty if ever the forces to the left-of-center united with one another instead of silencing heretics who say 'Maybe we can't do it all at once...' Such people once perverted the Civil Rights Movement into the '68 protests, the urban riots, and stomped out Civil Rights' gains in their infancy, meanwhile saying nothing about the real protests being silenced across the Iron Curtain in Prague and issuing no warning about what inevitably lay in store from Mao's Great Leap Forward. Their spiritual children have now perverted the gains of Obama into Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, the Bernie Sanders candidacy, calls for slavery reparations when the government is already $20 trillion in debt, and calls for internet censorship against politically incorrect statements when we just spent fifty years overturning just such censorship with regard to religiously incorrect statements.

Here in Baltimore, rioters are excused because white and affluent residents allegedly have no right to criticize those in poverty, never mind that thousands of black lives were ruined and thousands of jobs which poor black people would have gained will never now move to the city. The goal of such people is not to improve the city - because nothing gradual is fast enough for the instant gratification they seek. Whether or not they realize it, the goal they seek is to blow the city up and rebuild it from scratch, because surely a faint nub of a slummed out crater like 1945 Warsaw or Tokyo is better than a city teetering on the edge of gentrification. Once again, liberal gains are perverted into a Marxist framework, and what people do is judged by who they are, rather than who people are being judged by what they do.

The irony is that these people who call for the end of capitalism and militarism are completely addicted to its benefits. It was not socialism that made the clothes with which they wear their political statements and the technology they passionately use to denounce capitalism, it was not anarchism that created the corporate music they listen to and the special-effects laden movies they watch. It was not the Soviet Union that allowed them the freedom to protest, almost always without assault or retribution against them. It is Capitalism which does all that for them and more, but they hate Capitalism because Capitalism demands nothing of them and gives them a secure bed and desk around which they can think for themselves (badly). It is a religion they seek: a religion without God. Their God is not Christ or Allah or Yahweh, their God is Sex.

Sex is inevitably the end goal of such movements - Marxism crossed with a pagan-like devotion to earthy pursuits and physical sensation. Their social cliques are virtual hookup webs, creating nothing less than a circle of sexual trust. Half a millenium ago, various types of Protestants created the first financial credit networks because a fellow believer was someone who feared sin. Contemporary anarchists and Marxists created the first sexual credit networks, because a fellow believer fears sins of a completely different type. In these networks, one temporary spouse is often exchanged for another on near-whim, all of whom whose personality, beliefs, clothing, hair, voice, and body type, might as well be interchangeable - so much for diversity. And for those whom serial monogamy does not meet the particular need, there is always non-monogamy; and even non-monogamy doesn't mean what it used to - the one-night stand is now passe because we are now in the Age of the Open Relationship - in which people delude themselves into thinking that they can tame the infinite beast that is sexual desire into a domesticated pet that can always work through jealousy and always properly interpret consent and refusal.

Personally, I love sex as much as the next person, but I'm looking at the vast sexual desert that likely lies before me and am, I think, understandably bitter. Sex is at the dead center of our society - the only thing which left and right can agree is absolutely sacred. We debate issues of sex as though they are the only thing in life which matters - abortion, homosexuality, the nature of pornography, revealing clothing, the themes of song lyrics, the implications of movie images - ad nauseum to the end of space and time. I sometimes go for five years at a time without sexual activity, trying my best when I can to store up satiation like a camel does water in its... oy... 'hump.' In a technical sense, perhaps sex really is the only thing that matters in life, but if it truly is, then how bleak our lives must be.

Well before 9 o'clock, the service ends. Oh my god, I can still catch the last hour of Beth Tfiloh's service... and maybe I will go to that Beth Am Sunday minyan...

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