/ february 2006:
Young, hip, and perennially
guilt-ridden, a new wave of Gen-X Jews are walking the
fine line between modern and Orthodox.
By Benyamin Cohen
It's a hot and muggy August night in New York and on the Hebrew calendar it's the little known Jewish festival of love known as Tu B'av, the closest thing us Heebs get to a bona fide version of Valentine's Day. At the Hudson Beach Cafe, a cozy outdoor bar overlooking the waterfront on the corner of 103rd and Riverside Park, a group of hip, young, Orthodox singles have decided to throw a party in honor of the festival. More than 500 people show up.
According to some estimates, there are more 20-something Modern Orthodox Jews in the Upper West Side of Manhattan than there are in the rest of North America combined. Estimates have the number in the thousands.
In this 35-block radius, nestled comfortably between Riverside and Central Parks, knit yarmulkes and long jean skirts are de rigueur. Not a surprising sight in New York, but when you consider the skirt is tight and low-riding and the knit yarmulke has creased folds from being in a pocket all day at work, then it's a whole different ball of matzah.
They are in their 20s, proud of their religion, and inventing their own unique brand of Judaism. They do the secular (travel, watch movies, go dancing) and they do the religious (have an active synagogue life, keep kosher, and study Torah). And they are all single. They are the Metrodox.
Free from the religious confines of the parental nest and Jewish life on college campuses, this is the first time they are living without the constant daily inundation of a Jewish influence. Being tugged from the secular world, on the one hand, and from the religious, on the other, they have stylized their own compromise.
For all intents and purposes, they define themselves as Modern Orthodox: They grew up observing Shabbat and keeping kosher. They probably spent a year after high school hanging out in Israel, and then went on to attend a college with a heavy Jewish population. Now, they've graduated and are in the workforce tackling the professional worlds of computer programming, marketing, Wall Street banking, non-profits, and occupational therapy just to name a few of the popular fields.
Safely away from their families, they are living with thousands of like-minded Jewish singles, and have created a counterculture unique all their own. While they may keep kosher and pray three times a day, they also go clubbing and are involved in physical relationships with those of the opposite sex. While they may feel a sense of connection being around so many like-minded young Jews, they also feel an unbearable sense of loneliness and despair.
It's a cognitive dissonance that has the rest of the nation befuddled and perplexed at how this enclave came about, what motivates them, and where its future lies.
To fully comprehend the inner workings of the Metrodox, you need to take a look at how they evolved. Some experts theorize that the creation of the Upper West Side community in general, and the Metrodox in particular, stems from the myriad Jewish communities throughout America.
"The way Jewish communities are set up with life revolving around the JCC, the synagogue, and family life singles are meant to feel inadequate," explains sociologist Scott Friedman. "They stand out like a sore thumb and are ostracized for not being married."
Friedman believes this is one reason they have all fled to a common, more accepting environment like the Upper West Side. The lifestyle, termed Ortho Chic, is more Greenwich Village than Kew Gardens.
But the insular nature of the lifestyle can be inhibiting. As Friedman points out, in a community full of singles there are no families and happily married couples around to serve as role models.
"No matter where one grew up their background, their religiosity the Upper West Side has become the hub for the post-college single Jew," says Isaac Galena who, along with his twin brother Seth, run the Metrodox Web portal, bangitout.com. "Most Jewish communities, if not all, have a tendency to make Orthodox single people in their 20s feel like freaks. As if there is something seriously wrong with them since they aren't married by the age of 23. The Upper West Side serves as a community that embraces people in singlehood. It makes them feel as though they belong and serves almost as a fun support group and a stepping stone during this interim period."
As Galena will tell you, an interim period implies that eventually the Metrodox will find a mate, get married, and graduate to greener, more suburban, pastures.
So, what's the dating scene like? Picture a Jewish Melrose Place. With thousands of young Jews packed into the same neighborhood, Metrodox dating has become a phenomenon all to itself. Consider this: Jewish singles from all across America travel to the Upper West Side just to go on dates.
One out-of-state 28-year-old male who, for obvious reasons, wished to remain anonymous, told us he traveled to New York 13 times in one year alone, and has gone out on more than 100 dates with Metrodox girls. Asked why he didn't just move there, he had this to say: "If I lived in the Upper West Side and saw hundreds of available Modern Orthodox women at synagogue, I wouldn't even know where to begin. It would literally be overwhelming and I'm afraid that, like many who live there, I would just get jaded."
If desired, a typical Metrodox male could go out with a different girl every night of the week for an entire year. There's an entire cottage industry around Web sites that cater to the Metrodox's dating needs including jewishcafe.com and frumster.com. And once somebody gets engaged, they can post pictures and mazal tovs online at onlysimchas.com. Some Metrodox check the site twice a day.
Which, inevitably, leads to the wedding blues.
It's a recent Sunday night and there's a wedding taking place at the posh Plaza Hotel in midtown Manhattan. Horse drawn buggies loiter outside as passersby gawk at the rich and famous entering the hotel. Inside, 200 guests attend the wedding of two Upper West Siders, two of the lucky ones who made it out safely to the other side. As midnight turns into morning, the remaining single friends adopt an almost bitter attitude, slowly dismissing themselves from the dance floor, and chug yet another glass of wine. While the newlyweds are enjoying their wedding night, the singles will head back to their cramped apartments and the solace that awaits them there.
There's an old saying in the Upper West Side that's kind of reminiscent of prison terminology: "You're either here for six months or six years." Which leads to the obvious question: If there are so many singles, why would it take so long to find a mate?
Arye Dworken, who has lived in the Upper West Side for half a decade, calls it the menu theory. "Every time I go to this restaurant with a pretty large menu, I have a hard time figuring out what to order," he says matter of factly. "People have this A.D.D. mentality where you see everything at once. That's why you need less selection."
Elana Beckerman, 26, moved to the Upper West Side from Atlanta three years ago. She says that, besides the fact that many feel insecure about moving beyond the friendship stage with those of the opposite sex, most Metrodox feel they've did their job just by relocating to the Upper West Side. "Once they are there they are not proactive in dating," she says. "They just sit around and complain about not being married."
As well, Beckerman points out, not everyone there is the Jewish Brad Pitt. "There are a ton of socially awkward people. Some just never mixed with the opposite sex while others are just plain weird."
Those awkward ones can hone their skills at the epicenter of Jewish life on the Upper West Side, Congregation Ohab Zedek. The synagogue is the Jewish Gen-Xer's answer to Studio 54. It's a kosher meat market.
On this particular Friday night I join a crowd in full force. A couple hundred young men dash into the synagogue's sanctuary, hair still wet from their recently applied gel. In attendance, but not as prompt, the women begin to fill their section two at a time, in pairs, as if Noah had called them in from the rain.
The architect of O.Z. was a genius, a pure mastermind. The women's section is located on a horseshoe balcony surrounding the men's section, making eye contact between the opposite sexes all but involuntary. Sure, it's not what God intended, but it draws a crowd.
Midway through the services we sit, listening attentively to the congregation's pied piper, Rabbi Allen Schwartz. Clean-shaven and wearing a velvet yarmulke, he raises his hands as he speaks, almost pointing to the women upstairs, taunting the men as if saying, "You've got to wait another 20 minutes before you can flirt with those women."
As the services came to a close, the crowd now a strong 300 makes its way through the front foyer out onto the steps and into the street. The mere volume of Jewish singles in attendance makes it almost impossible to exit the synagogue in less than a half hour.
It is on these steps, these legendary steps, where the real services begin. Guys who have been scoping out their prey inside now make their move. It's like watching a Discovery Channel documentary on wild hyenas in their natural habitat. "The male hyena," the voiceover intones, "after completing the ceremonial prayer service to the wildebeest gods now feels confident to approach the female." It's a deadly mix of testosterone and Torah.
"The Melrose Place analogy only lends itself to the problem of people not being able to commit," explains bangitout.com's Galena. "Since there are so many people, so many choices in one small community it's tough not to keep looking over your shoulder."
Some even find the problem, um, maddening. Chananya Weissman runs EndTheMadness.org, a Web site whose sole goal is to help stave off this crisis and get these people married. "The root of the problem is social pressure," he says. "Our culture is dominated by an unwritten code of conduct and standards, a perverse sort of oral Torah. Conformance to this code often supersedes observance of fundamental principles of the actual Torah."
"The large number of potential dating prospects tempts singles to keep playing the field in search of someone perfect or 'even better' than the flavor of the day," Weissman adds. "The mystery of who might be behind door number two is tantalizing, and leads singles to focus on reasons why the relationship might not work, rather than reasons why it will. Dumping someone for some little reason is no big deal, since there are so many other singles right around the corner for you to date."
The lobby of the Westmont is, at best, non-descript. Nothing too fancy for this Manhattan apartment building on the corner of 96th Street and Columbus Avenue. Mirror covered walls encompass the lobby. A steady slew of people come and go. A lone security guard relaxes at the front desk.
Two 20-something girls whisk through the front glass doors, one holding takeout sushi from a nearby eatery, the other holding a prescription bag from the Duane Reade across the street and a video from the Blockbuster next door.
Aimlessly pacing around is a 26-year-old named David. It says so on his knit yarmulke. It also says he's a Blue Devils fan. A few minutes later, an attractive girl in her mid-twenties comes out of the elevator and smacks a wet one on David's mouth. She ends the mouth-to-mouth with an intense hug. David's tzitzit, which are dangling from his untucked shirt, sway with the motion.
"As for Jewish observance, everyone is different," explains Galena. "I believe anyone, after they have hit a certain age and maturity, will begin to progress whether toward more or less religiosity. That's just part of life's self actualization process. But the Upper West Side does not have the religious pressure that many other [communities] do, and people tend to make their own religious decisions as opposed to following community standards. For most, it's a great place for people to find themselves, while at the same time finding their life's partner."
Friedman, the sociologist, disagrees. "They're not being true to themselves," he says. "They act religious when they go home for the weekend, but they're wearing bikinis on the beach on their Miami vacations."
Beckerman understands that the Upper West Side serves as somewhat of a dichotic outlet for Gen-X observant Jews. "I feel that many religious from birth people feel that this is the only time in their life that they have the right to act less religious before they get hitched and might act in a less religious way than before they graduated college."
The odd fact in the majority of these cases is that unlike, say, less observant Jews, the Metrodox actually feel guilty when they transgress. "I totally ate treyf today," a Metrodox male tells me one afternoon. "I was at a client lunch and I asked for a salad, nothing on it. Sure enough, it comes back with all sorts of stuff." At this point he shakes his head in self-disappointment. "Man, I feel bad."
While some are guilt ridden, others find nothing wrong with what they're doing. Wearing a skirt becomes a privilege of fashion rather than a burden of modesty. "Buying a cute skirt is trendy nowadays anyway," a 20-something Metrodox female tells me. "If I was forced to look frumpy, that would be an entirely different story."
Dworken believes the problems lie in the categorization. "Everyone is really different," he says. "People here create a facade or these clichιs for themselves for these insecurities."
As for Beckerman, she's come to terms with both the pros and cons of what the Metrodox lifestyle has to offer. "I've learned that as much as I tried to change the dynamics of the Upper West Side, it just is what it is and I've gotta love it for that," she says after retiring from serving as president of the Young Leadership Committee at her synagogue, where she organized social events and a Shabbat singles service which attracted 200 people each week. As for her dating life, well, she's learned something about that too in the three years she's lived there. "I've also come to realize that I do not want my prince charming to be Brad Pitt."
Bangitout's brother Seth puts it all in perspective. "Since there is so much going on and so many interesting people it can get really distracting, in terms of dating and religiosity," he says. "It's tough to focus, but if you can, and you take advantage of it all, there is no better place to be single and Jewish in the world."
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