How do Jews in America live today? And how do they party, celebrate, throw down, and share joy?
For this new Life feature, we’ll attend three diverse Jewish social events and share our experiences of all three.
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Drinking, for the culture
The lazy way to describe the Jewish Museum Purim Ball gala after party, is that it felt like a party on the TV show “Gossip Girl.” The ludicrous spectacle of the indoor ferris wheel, the unusually servile waitstaff, the invitees’ surreal CW beauty, each glowing like a vampire after a feeding — all would have paired well with narration by Kristen Bell.
It was a snowy night at the Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, as lithesome thirty-somethings stepped stilettos up the sludgy steps, replacing waves of exiting older attendees who were leaving the gala. It looked like the generation that went out of Egypt drifting into the next life as their children prepare to enter Canaan, but more fashion.
Do you know that Jewish folktale, about the poor man who attends the rich man’s party in raggedy clothes and pours soup on himself to make a point about social stratification? That’s how I felt, arriving at the Armory, dressed like a public school substitute teacher, in an outfit that seemed nice in my apartment. In the light of the Armory it looked it had been cobbled out of old felt scraps by a team of willing house mice. The women’s bathroom, full of apparent models discussing real estate holdings, could have passed as a holding room on the premiere of The Bachelor.
The theme of the evening was carnival. It’s a popular theme, which lend itself to a handful of red clown noses and fistfuls of Mardi Gras beads. In this case, it manifested as contortionists hanging on silk threads from the ceiling, mimes on stilts, vintage arcade games, and a working indoor ferris wheel, courtesy of designer David Stark. It was simply the fanciest event I have ever attended in my life.
It feels odd to knock back spiked green juices to benefit an organization that feeds the lifeblood of American Judaism. Martha Rosler, who recently had a phenomenal exhibit at the Jewish Museum, would probably have rolled her eyes. But what is there to do? Without young donors, what museum could afford a Martha Rosler?
Tipsy and fending off waiters bearing mini, spinning ferris wheel models laden with appetizers, my friend and I waited for men to approach us, like second-stringers in King Ahasuerus’ harem. No one approached. Ah, life! One second you’re in a ballroom in Manhattan eating a truffle off a working ferris wheel, the next you’re a dead ringer for an ancient Persian king’s eunuch (the Purim story has a surprising number of eunuchs.)
We approached some men, always an instantaneous cautionary tale in not approaching men. We spoke to lawyers, real estate investors, and a lone Trump supporter. We spoke to a nice, attractive, interesting man who mentioned that he was married with a child a mere 20 minutes into our conversation.
Every interaction ended the same way: the men forced business cards into our hands. Here are the jobs listed on the business cards I found in the bottom of my purse after the event: Managing Principal, Development Manager, CEO.
We stood in line for the ferris wheel, where we signed release forms stating that it would be our greatest honor to die in the Park Avenue Armory. The men running the ferris wheel were happy, they said, because no drunk girls had fallen while getting on or off the ferris wheel in heels yet tonight.
For a brief moment, at the top of the wheel, I looked down at the little people dressed in gold and drinking champagne, talking about investments — and then squeezed my eyes shut. I’m afraid of heights.
Yoga, meditation, and a full-scale Jewish meltdown
Brimming with urine, and striding through the streets of Brooklyn like the Fellowship of the Ring striding towards Mordor, I approached The House Of Yes, the clubby-cum-farmers-market-y venue where Lab Shul’s Shabbat “Slow Down” event was being held.
I was late and had inadvertently paid a taxi to drop me off exactly one mile away from the event. So by the time the very patient drag queen at the door watched me have a small breakdown as I searched Gmail for my ticket confirmation, and by the time I put four fried pita chips into my cheek pouches, and by the time I had peed ferociously in the all-gender, rhinestone encrusted bathroom that glittered like a queer mishkan, and by the time a wind chime rang and people began to gather on the dance floor for the ritual, I really, really needed to slow down.
The high-ceilinged main room at the House of Yes, hanging with human-sized bird cages and giant disco balls, was unrecognizable. Tapered white candles sat melting among piles of daisies and almeria flowers. Almost two hundred people sat, legs crossed, in concentric circles, dressed in white, faces covered golden glitter. “Our friends at the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care teach that there were 72 different labors that brought us this food,” intoned Ezra Bookman, Lab Shul’s creative director. Tonight, he said, we would do everything at half its usual pace. Flames around the room flickered on gold sequins and the looming disco balls as we took off our shoes, one by one. And my heartbeat flickered, catching itself in its normal relentlessness. We set intentions and lit more candles. A guided meditation commenced. Accept for a handful of white kippot bobbing in the dim light, there would have been no way to know that this was a Jewish event.
“Way, way back when,” Bookman murmured into his microphone, “My ancestors had a really great idea. They had some bad ideas too, to be fair, but this one was brilliant: that one day a week you stop working. That’s it. That’s the whole idea.”
That was not “the whole idea” I thought, feeling that familiar flick of anger, like a gas stove sparking an angry flame. A teacher led a standing, stationary yoga exercise. People hummed, muscles popped, and I felt the confusing sensations of being both sensationally relaxed and furiously angry. The singing of Lecha Dodi marked the first use of Hebrew in the evening. Activities led by Rabbi Emily Cohen based on the “ministering angels of Shabbat,” Shalom, Boachem, Barchuni, and Tzeitchem — peace, arriving, presence, and letting go, riffing on the themes of the traditional shabbat song liturgy — marked the last.
“Are you settling for any less than your song?” a leader asked the room. “Your story?”
I was raised in the Reform Movement, the punchline of the other Jewish movements. So I know well that when a person walks into a Jewish space that feels radical and her response is to ridicule, that person is in the presence of something powerful. Lab Shul’s slowdown made me feel like Brett Stephens might when reading Teen Vogue. And the salient thing about violent reactions to Jewish practices is what they tell you about the person having a reaction — that they’re feeling threatened and proprietary.
The chime brought me out of my reverie. We had stretched, meditated, talked of Buddhism, set intentions, lit individual candles, hummed in unison, pulled quasi-Tarot cards, chanted, “We are loved by an unending love,” and applied glitter. It was so beautiful. It felt as Shabbosdik as any night I have spent davening in a Carlebach Shul or singing Dan Nichols in the Berkshires or pressed up against the Western Wall.
But was it Jewish? Nearly every ritual act had been pulled from a tradition that was not our own. If we had read from — or mentioned — the Torah, we might have learned that in that week’s portion, the people of Israel give so much, and so generously, to the building of the community’s dwelling place for God, that Moses has to beg them to stop. And we might have seen that reading one chapter a week from the same book on repeat year after year after year is Jewish meditation.
The Slow Down is not meant to replace Shabbat services. “It is an experiment in opening up the wisdom of Shabbat as a universal practice,” Bookman told me. Lab/Shul holds monthly “Shabbat Queen” services with Hebrew, Torah, and more traditional prayers. But in this experimental ritual, I found as I do in the community’s regular services, that since the world is already a God-optional place, a “God-optional” prayer space can just feel God Absent.
But the room was stuffed with hundreds of people glorying in their gold glitter, their queenly white outfits, the total lack of judgement, the notable absence of a predatory dating culture and the implied pressure to look normative. The night ended with a concert by a local musician, people in white lounging and listening as volunteers distributed fresh fruit and pastries, then rising to dance.
There were flowers everywhere, so many and so fresh-looking that they were obviously fake. I pinched one, just to make sure, and felt the fleshy petal crumble between my fingers — okay, okay. It was real.
A critical analysis of leading contemporary Orthodox art, by a superfan:
It probably wasn’t necessary to arrive at the Manhattan JCC on the Upper West Side for the premiere of Season 2 of the millennial Orthodox dating web series “Soon By You” wearing an ankle-length skirt, a turtleneck, and a Star of David necklace. Is it possible to dress in Jew-face if you yourself are Jewish? I will tell you this: I was extremely sweaty.
The JCC auditorium filled with attractive young people chatting amicably about Ariana Grande and Ilhan Omar. The lights went down, brand-new sheitels swished to attention, and the long-awaited first episode of the sophomore season of “Soon By You” began — you can buy or rent the episode here. The first season, which can be watched in full on YouTube, delivered clear-skinned, mumbling uptown Jews, on the baffling journey to commitment. Could that magic be kindled again? Those riveting, impossibly high production values? That brazen, obscene product placement, carving out the ultra-specific comedy niche of straight-faced actors working halachic prenuptial agreements into their monologues?
The finale of “Soon By You” season one ended with protagonists Sarah F and David NOT frenching in front of a water feature as many critics hoped, but instead deciding to work on their relationship, despite her plans to make aliyah and his desire to stay in a country that has good tacos. Couple B, Sarah J and Ben, left things with him ready to admit his growing feelings for her, and her wrapped in the shame and stigma of being a still-unmarried women. Couple C — me and a gold-sequined floor length Orthodox bridesmaid gown — was similarly stalled.
The premiere episode — the longest yet, at over 30 minutes — opens with a sumptuous wig commercial that is as good as anything else in the episode (and I mean that as a compliment both to Kiki’s Wigs and to the episode).
Suddenly, we are in the car with Sarah F and David, young lovers and mumblers both alike in dignity, in fair Upper West, where we set our scene. To put it in rabbinic terms: You could light a yahrtzeit candle with the spark of this pair’s sexual tension. I cannot be alone in wondering — when are we going to watch these two have a freaky make-out? I want to see them put their tongues in each other’s mouths. And as I have paid four dollars to own the episode on Vimeo, I do believe it is my right. Sarah agrees to come up to David’s apartment only after a wonderfully awkward discussion about yichud (I had to Google it.)
In the apartment, we are reunited with Z, fan favorite and David’s roommate, who is running a kosher pop-up restaurant out of their apartment, and wearing an apron that says “Pizza is my yetzer hara.” Also, we learn that Z, whose lot in life it is to pine after Sarah J’s friend Noa, is himself the object of another woman’s affections (blonde Jew alert!) Kayla, resplendent in a “Challah Back Girl” shirt, is burning a torch/havdallah candle for Z. The unrequited lover has an unrequited lover! Love is a straight line that leads nowhere! An arrow pointing at the vast emptiness of infinity! At this point, the principle characters each share how long they wait between eating milk and meat.
We learn, at last, what happened between Sarah J and Ben at last season’s climactic wedding — he confessed his feelings, but her insecurities and fears stopped her from moving forward, despite her clear interest. Surely this, not the two wet blanket brunettes, is the heart of the show! “What can I do? No means no,” Ben sighs, earning my heart forever.
Next, Noa heads to HODS, the Halachic Organ Donor Society, to do some consulting work and to participate in a one-line joke about cow tongue that I found fairly brilliant. She meets Jacob, a glasses-wearing sleaze-ball whose phyllo dough-thin layer of faux-feminism appeals to her for some reason (we’re supposed to like him, but I know my rights.)
Then, Sarah F finally gets to be endearing, teaching painting to a delightful troupe of children at the JCC. “You’re a natural artist!” she tells a little girl, who is touching up a canvas. “Maybe you’ll grow up to be a painter!”
“I don’t think so,” the girl snaps. “With yeshiva day school tuition and the price of kosher meat, I’ve got to think practically. I’ll probably go to law school, or review beauty products on Instagram.”
The episode ends back where it all began. Sarah F and David, like old socks, have found each other. Sarah J and Ben have found that they don’t know how to be together. Z still hasn’t found a work area on which to focus his passion. And Noa, his romantic focus, still hasn’t learned that being a feminist doesn’t mean being capable of divesting from the biological imperative to mate with people who are physically attractive. Ask either Obama.
The episode ended even as certain employees of independent Jewish news organizations screamed that they could watch ten more hours, and the principle cast and creators took seats on the stage for a panel. Ivanka Trump-style dresses — a neutral or gem-toned high neck with bell sleeves — dominated the lineup.
In the second season, “We really want to partner specifically with groups who represent people who are marginalized in the Jewish community,” Leah Gottfried, the series creator and actress who plays Sarah J, said.
Last season’s episode arc about halachic prenups got pushback online, Gottfried said, with halachic arguments emerging in the comments section on YouTube. “We’re getting the lesson that you can’t please everyone every time,” Dany Hoffman, who plays David and writes the show with Gottfried, offered.
“Nor do we want to,” said Gottfried.
The audience filed out into the light-filled lobby, where Kiki’s Wigs, Jewish Spice For Relationships, and JScreen maintained tables. A piano version of “Livin’ On A Prayer” filtered through the speakers. Kosher wine trickled into plastic cups.
Who knows when we’ll find out what happens with Sarah and Sarah, and Sarah and Sarah’s lovers and friends? The answer depends on fundraising and product placement deals, Gottfried told the audience at the JCC. Each episode of “Soon By You” costs $30,000 to create in total — a steal, compared to any network TV show.
Isn’t there some Jew or organization that wants to speed this along? Robert Kraft has some teshuva to do, and some cash to throw around, and this is fun for the whole family. I know, because I have actually watched it with my own family.
Oh, “Soon By You,” please come back soon! And let the fundraising for episode two be at least halfway there. Because oh, oh, we’re livin’ on a prayer.
Jenny Singer is the deputy life/features editor for the Forward. You can reach her at Singer@forward.com or on Twitter @jeanvaljenny