Jay Rubin straddled his Harley, checked the mezuza on the fuselage and rode the 800 miles from his Falls Church, Va., home to Milwaukee, scene of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co.’s centennial celebration over the Labor Day weekend.
Rubin joined 200,000 riders for five days of concerts, bar-hopping and ear-splitting excursions around town. But as the sun set on Friday night, he left the beer-swilling ranks for a cup overflowing with Manischewitz. In the glow of Sabbath candles, Rubin feasted on a kosher chicken dinner, thanks to Bernie Cohen, a part-time mohel who opened his doors to seven of the Jews who had made the pilgrimage to Harley’s hometown.
Cohen wasn’t the only Milwaukeean to provide yidishkayt to Rubin and the other visiting Jewish HOGs, as Harley riders refer to themselves. (It’s short for Harley Owners Group.)
On the same night at “Harley-Davidson Shabbat” at Congregation Shalom, a dozen visiting motorcyclists joined congregants including Harley-Davidson CEO Jeffrey Bleustein. For the occasion, Rabbis Ronald Shapiro and Shari Shamah and Cantor Karen Berman donned motorcycle regalia.
Shapiro gathered the riders together before the service. “He said in his tongue-in-cheek yet serious way that we were about to embark on what was probably a new life-cycle event,” Berman recalled. “We all groaned appropriately.” Shapiro then said a prayer for the riders’ safety and to commemorate the good will that pervaded the city.
The phenomenon of Jews riding Harleys is “fairly new,” said Martin Jack Rosenblum, official historian of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. “I really had not seen Jewish riders until the ’90s. Maybe one or two here and there, but not groups, not large numbers.”
Rosenblum grew up in an Orthodox family in small-town Appleton, Wis. “When I got involved with Harley-Davidson motorcycles (in the early 1960s), it was the greatest sin I could commit,” he said. The recent upsurge in Jewish riders says more about Jews taking their place as red-blooded Americans than it does about motorcycles, according to Rosenblum.
“The Harley-Davidson melting pot has reached Jewish culture in America,” he said. “This is when Jewish culture, more so than in any period in history in America, is blending in.”
On Sunday afternoon, Rubin, a computer programmer with longish gray hair, chatted amiably at a kosher barbecue sponsored by the Men’s Club of Congregation Beth Israel. Congregants wore orange T-shirts decorated with a revamped Harley-Davidson logo saying, “Kosher Hog Heaven.” Harley rider Larry Black of Washington was thrilled to spend an hour among landsmen. “I know that I’m not going to find bacon in the baked beans,” he said.
Eating challah with HOGs is new for Rubin, 51, who has been riding motorcycles since he was 16. Four months ago, he founded the Mid-Atlantic Hillel’s Angels motorcycle group. “I got tired of seeing all these Christian motorcycle groups, and I said, ‘Hey, it would be nice at a Harley-Davidson rally to have a Friday-night service,’” he explained.
He said his group has a mailing-list of about 55 men and women, including a congregational rabbi, a synagogue president and an orthopedic surgeon. Each month, 10 to 20 members get together for a long ride. “One member is very observant, so we let him pick out the restaurant,” Rubin said.
Rubin isn’t the only HOG in search of a minyan. Jewish motorcyclists in and around New York City belong to the Chai Riders. The original Hillel’s Angels is sponsored by the synagogue Men’s Club of Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, N.J. In Toronto, Jewish riders cruise as the YOWies, or Yidden on Wheels Motorcycle Touring Club. The Star of Davidson Motorcycle Club is based in Armonk, N.Y. In Ohio, there’s a Hell’s Bagels chapter.
For observant Jewish motorcyclists looking for tips on finding shuls and kosher food on the road, Cohen the mohel recently established a Yahoo discussion group called “Kosher-HOGs.”
For the record, Cohen’s Harley is mezuza-free. “My motorcycle,” he explained, “doesn’t have a door.” Other Jewish riders are less sure of their convictions. They can debate these fine points at the discussion forums on the Star of Davidson Web site (www.starofdavidson.com).
“Can’t hurt, right?” one Web-poster wrote about having a mezuza on his bike. “I placed the mezuza behind the right front fork, with the top tilting into the bike.”
Another poster wrote that he always had a mezuza on his bike and “has found a certain amount of peace of mind from carrying my tefillin and tallit in my saddlebags when riding to shul. There is no substitute for being a safe and alert rider, but having a mezuza is also a good thing!”
For Cohen and other frum riders, the road-trip issues run deeper. Because observant HOGs can’t stop at McDonald’s, Cohen said he pulls “a little trailer with a grill, cooler and food.” He also researches his routes. “On a trip to Baton Rouge, I knew I was going to spend Shabbes in Memphis,” he said. “I went on the Internet, found a synagogue and called. I asked them to set me up for Shabbes and asked about stores with kosher food.”
Even with a helmet over his yarmulke Cohen doesn’t feel like he’s defying a stereotype. Riding a Harley “is just something I do,” he said.
But Beth Israel congregant Morton Swerdlow, a Harley enthusiast and retired motorcycle cop, never ceases to be amazed by Jewish HOGs. “It’s astonishing, really,” he said during the kosher barbecue. “You just don’t think of Jewish motorcyclists.”
Andrew Muchin is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer who can hum the melody of “Born to be Wild.”