In my teenage years there was one weekly commitment, which involved watching the latest episode of Friends. We waited for that first kiss between Ross and Rachel, we watched as Monica and Chandler went from friends to become husband and wife, and we laughed at pretty much everything Joey and Phoebe would do. It also meant that the city of New York held a special place in my heart, as the place where these wonderful people lived and the setting for all of their adventures. Add to this a love of the film ‘When Harry Met Sally’ (also set in the city) and you can understand that for me, to paraphrase Alicia Keys, New York was the place where dreams are made of.
When I first visited New York with my family I remember being struck (and somewhat intimidated) by the size of the buildings; they towered over me and appeared to block out the sun unless it stood directly overhead. But on my second trip to the city my entire perception changed.
In 2003 I attended a conference on Neo-Hasidism and Renewal at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) of New York. I cannot remember many of the specifics from the conference, although I have a thick pile of notes, but I remember being greatly impressed by the setting. The JCC in the heart of Manhattan was an incredible building; I could not believe that the Jewish community would be in possession of that kind of structure. It had a whole range of programming rooms, but then it also had a roof with an exceptional view of the city, a fitness centre, and even a swimming pool – I look forward to seeing our own London JCC growing on the Finchley Road.
This one building seemed to me to be symbolic of the way that Judaism and the Jewish community was present and visible within the city. Walking around, it felt like there was Hebrew visible in at least one shop on every block, and there was just a way in which Judaism permeated the city. I was not surprised to learn that New York has the second largest Jewish population after Tel Aviv. And despite being in a new city in a foreign country I somehow felt at home because of the way Judaism surrounded me.
Having lived in Los Angeles for three years as part of my rabbinical training and being married to an American, I have become much more comfortable with American culture as a whole and it is no longer the foreign country it once was. So when the opportunity came to assume a rabbinic position in The Community Synagogue of Port Washington, just outside the city of New York, it was just too tempting.
Although I am living just outside the city the Jewishness still permeates my surroundings. When looking for furniture at one particular retailer, they had a section with jars of sweets (I believe they’re called candies here) to entice patrons to stay a little longer, and amongst the jars was one labeled “kosher”. The sweet wasn’t great, but the fact that they had a jar just for us Jews was quite delightful; and then this past weekend I walked past the number plate “1CHALLAH” (you can see a photo on my twitter feed – @dannyburkeman), people are happy to be out and proud about their Jewishness, in a way which we are sometimes reluctant to be in England.
I am hoping that you will be joining me on my American adventure; every month I will be writing an article for the Jewish News about my experience of New York Jewish life. Some things will sound completely foreign and strange to the British Jewish community, while others might plant the seeds for ideas which could take root back in Blighty. In the meantime I will continue trying to teach the locals how to make a proper cup of tea.