A Reform Floozy Attends A Chabad Young Professionals Shabbat: A Social Diary
I asked the Uber driver who took me to the “Shabbat 18,000: Chabad Young Professional Gala” to drop me off down the street.
Night had fallen on the Upper East Side, and as I walked towards the security guards standing in front of the beautiful stone building I tried to tuck my cellphone into my red dress, a garment simultaneously so high-necked and tight that it could never conceal an Apple product. My attempt to dress “tznexy” (a portmanteau for tznius — modest — and sexy) made me look like a low-rate Melania Trump impersonator. And walking into an Orthodox social event, I felt a little like she must feel walking into the White House.
When in Rome one should do as the Romans do. But when on the Upper East Side at a Chabad event, what’s a Reform West Sider to do?
The answer, it turns out: Get drunk, hang out with a Chabad Rabbi, and talk about concentration camps.
As Katy Perry once wisely said: “This was never the way I planned, not my intention.”
Here’s what happened:
On the wings of eagles and the heels of more confident women, I toddled from the cab towards the event. The evening was held at what I took to be a castle but turned out to be Ramaz, the Upper East Side Jewish day school. When I was in 2nd grade, my Jewish day school was housed in a semi-converted hardware store, so I am still not sure if I think the Ramaz building is a magnificent testament to the Jewish commitment to learning, or an overreach of pride that should be sold off to feed the poor.
Modern Orthodox women, whose sleek hair, ivory teeth, and glowing skin suggest that they occupy the exact sociological balance between the aesthetic demands of the western patriarchy and those of a community that places a high premium on early marriage, are so beautiful — I would have thought as I walked inside, if that didn’t sound like a 19th-century anthropologist plotting racist experiments. In the low lavender glow from the lights, everything was beautiful. The men wore suits. The women wore sherbet and ebony-colored dresses. Everyone was holding a drink. It was like a Jewish version of the early scenes in “Titanic.”
I attended the event with my friend, whom I’ll call Miriam, who grew up in a small Orthodox community in New York. She took me to the bathroom to realign my Spanx and review our goals for the evening. Her’s was to introduce herself to new people. My goal, as it always is when I represent the Forward at Jewish young adult events, was to find a husband or die trying. And by die I specifically mean to create a Jonestown-esque post-Masada experience for the whole room.
I’m just kidding! It was to get through the night without doing a comedy-routine I had thought about a lot prior to the event where I approached people like a young Chabadnik holding tefillin or Shabbat candles. Except instead of that, the Reform version — where I shout, “ARE YOU JEWISH? YOU JEWISH? DOES ANYONE WANT TO SING DEBBIE FRIEDMAN? DEBBIE? FRIEDMAN? WANT TO HAVE A DEBATE ABOUT THE TWO-STATE SOLUTION?”
In the bathroom a woman who looked like a Bond-extra adjusted her sateen bralette and told me that the event was a first date for her and a man she met at a Purim party. What did you do between the Purim party and April 27th, I wanted to ask, but didn’t, because just then a woman in lace came out of a bathroom stall and announced quietly that she was at the dinner alone. She and the Bond woman knew each other, but the Bond woman left in search of her date, and the woman in the lace dress stayed in the bathroom, pacing.
Back in what was either the high school’s ballroom or a very cleverly decorated gymnasium, Miriam and I got drinks. We spoke to a man who used to work for AIPAC and his girlfriend, an anthropologist. It was crowded — I drank my whiskey ginger quickly so I wouldn’t spill it on the seersucker and chiffon passing by. We talked to Miriam’s friend, who was hosting a table. “How did you come to be hosting a table?” I asked. He said that he’d gone to some services at Chabad when he first moved to the city and had become close with the rabbi. I asked him if he considered himself a part of Chabad. “No, I’m not religious,” he said. He smiled. I smiled with confusion, unable to untangle the mystery of the “non-religious” man hosting a Shabbat dinner with Chabad.
The room continued to fill with sleek-haired, well-dressed young people who looked like they knew their way around a siddur. Everyone seemed to know everyone. It didn’t feel unwelcoming at all, just like I was an out-of-town guest at a lovely wedding. Eventually the rabbi, who I was surprised to notice was the only person at the event who looked at all like an Orthodox rabbi, leapt onto a low wooden table. He started to sing. A reverse-game of musical chairs ensued, in which the rabbi tried valiantly to entice people into their seats by belting a niggun, and every person in the room tried to stay standing and talking as long as possible. I said goodbye to Miriam, who was assigned to table 12.
Four women sat at the large round table near the back of the room. I sat down in the empty seat farthest from them. More people filled in around the table until every seat was filled except the two on either side of me. I made a mental note to convert to Christianity.
A tall, attractive man with a European accent sat down in the chair to my left. Then he turned to the women next to him and introduced himself. A smiling man with long hair sat down to my right and shook my hand. At last! I thought. Two out of the three men at this table are sitting next to me, though they had no choice. “Hi,” said the smiling man. “I’m Jenny,” I said.
“JAYNAY. LAAAIFE IS LIKE A BOX OF CHOCOLATES,” he screamed. I gazed longingly at the women across the table. They seemed nice.
I try not to drink while I cover events for the Forward. However. I am a vegetarian, and there was not a lot of vegetarian food at this event. I also find it difficult to masticate full cooked bell peppers while maintaining professional credibility. And there was a lot of alcohol.
In about 4.5 minutes, when the rabbi announced that people who wanted to wash their hands should go do so, I realized that I lacked the ability to perform any ritual task or go anywhere.
Here are the names of the people at my table, based on my rigorous mnemonic system: German Man, Finance Girl, I Don’t Know, Natalie, Yaron, Penina, Penina’s Tall Fiancee, and Smiler. Now, things started to go wrong. “I’m from Germany,” said the man to my left. I opened my mouth to say something to him, really anything, other than, “Germany! The birthplace of the Holocaust!” but my brain had fallen out of my head. He acknowledged that his home country was the birthplace of the Holocaust. I sipped my drink to avoid saying something like, “But what was YOUR family’s role in the Holocaust?”
Germany turned to Finance Woman. “What do you do?” he asked. “Oh,” she blushed. “Just finance.” She said “finance” as if she taught mindfulness at an unaccredited college. “What does that mean?” I asked with the needless aggression of someone who may never afford to own property. “Finance can mean lots of things,” she said, “Like being an accountant.”
“Are you an accountant?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
I asked Germany about his job. “I sell mortgages to banks,” he said, with an accent that would remind a less refined person of every single character in the movie “Schindler’s List.”
“Oh,” I said, scrambling. “You caused the financial crisis.”
“No,” he said.
“Yes, you did,” I said, basing my information off the movie, “The Big Short.”
Smiling Man told everyone a crazy story about a girl he matched with on JSwipe. “She gave me her number, so I called her,” he said. I, and two women who had moved their chairs to our table because their table didn’t have enough men, agreed that this was a very bold move. “She picked up the phone and told me she was on a date!” he said. She told Smiler she wouldn’t be free until tomorrow morning.
There were gasps around the table. That was the punchline of the story: a woman whose picture he found on the Internet suggested she might be having sex with someone who wasn’t him. Everyone around the table shook their heads. “I know,” said Smiler, bravely, “That any woman who didn’t have the social awareness to know not to do this isn’t someone I want to spend time with.” People nodded.
“No!” I slur-shouted. “Maybe she was SUBVERSIVELY testing you to see if YOU had the … self-confidence to stand a woman who dates other men!” Nobody agreed with me. Pnina and Pnina’s fiancee told us that they met at a Shabbat dinner, but that he didn’t ask her out until seven months later. I thought about which of the men at the table I should ask out in seven months to make an extremely drawn-out point about feminism.
I’m not sure how it happened. One moment I was quietly working to not break out into a Debbie Friedman medley or a 2007-era URJ summer camp Maccabiah chant, and the next moment I had instigated a table-wide discussion about Natalie Portman’s decision not to attend the Genesis Prize ceremony. “It’s sad,” said Finance, shaking her head. “It’s just sad.”
“Sad how?” I asked. “Sad like — sad for the poor Palestinian children? Or sad like — sad for Bibi?” I prompted her.
“It’s incredibly ungrateful,” said Yaron. Or he said something like that — I don’t know, and I wish I did. I was drunk, and in keeping with Shabbat I could not write anything down or record anything on my phone. I was participating in the Oral Tradition of Jewish Journalism.
“What do you think, Natalie?” I asked the woman next to him, smoothly proving that I am a friend to women everywhere, and that Yaron’s opinion was stupid.
“I don’t know,” said Natalie. Natalie insisted that she did not have feelings about Natalie Portman, and Yaron insisted that the optics of Natalie Portman’s decision, regardless of her intention, would have drastic consequences that she would live to regret and, besides, she was irrelevant. Germany added that while Portman’s actions may be wrong, talk of stripping her of her Israeli citizenship was horrific, and I said — you should know from horrific, you come from the very heart of darkness where Adolf Hitler was born.
Dinner ended and Miriam and I walked between tables, looking for interesting people’s conversations to interrupt. We talked to two cousins, both wearing beautiful sneakers. We talked to a few girls who had come alone to the event and said they were looking to make Jewish friends.
We spotted two male friends in deep conversation. “I want the short one,” Miriam said. We approached and I said hello. We started a conversation about Boca Raton, Florida. Have two people ever wanted to talk to other two people less than those men wanted to talk to us? I’m not a scientist, but I don’t think so. “Hello!” I shouted desperately at a man passing by in a red blazer. “I like your sweater!” He gazed at me with the look of beautiful cruelty cats often give dogs.
Miriam’s friend took me to meet the rabbi, Yosef Wilhelm. He and his wife Devora Wilhelm are the co-directors of the Chabad Young Professionals of the Upper East Side. Rabbi Wilhelm was sitting at a table in the back of the room with several younger men and one woman. They greeted us extremely graciously and sat us down with a man named Ethan, whom he said could answer all of my questions. Ethan launched into a beautifully heartfelt and only slightly cultish rhapsody about everything Chabad has ever done and ever will do. He explained that the rabbi and his wife created the Chabad Young Professionals group in an effort to welcome in every single Jewish person, and that there was no judgment on any person’s choice of observation, which I acknowledged was my experience that evening.
Ethan told me a long story about a man who had been educated at Reform rabbinical college, discovered Chabad, and asked for his money back from the rabbinical school. I communicated to Ethan, via shouting, that I was the wrong audience for this anecdote. Ethan smiled kindly and said something kind that I don’t remember, but the effect was more or less, “Ah, yes. We are all the children of Hashem.”
I thought about how every person I had met that night had been reasonably kind and interesting. In the depths of my vengeful egalitarian heart I had to admit that the guise of the evening as a community Shabbat event rather than a singles night had probably fostered the pleasanter-than-normal atmosphere. Unlike at the many dating events I have covered for the Forward, the most nefarious motives I could suss out in the men here was trying to find Jewish community.
I thought about how my aunt, who deals with serious mental illness, is welcomed by her local Chabad rabbi as “family” every single week, and how she wouldn’t be treated as well in any of the Jewish spaces I frequent.
How had I never realized that Chabad was so amazing? How had I accepted a cartoon stereotype of Chabad as women-haters who exist to push free sets of tea candles on me? Was I, a ride-or-die Union of Reform Judaism fan, falling for Chabad?
Ethan and Miriam started talking about the popular phone app, HQ Trivia. “I’ve never played HQ Trivia,” I whispered, moved by my own thoughts. “USE MY REFERRAL CODE,” Ethan shouted. I gazed at him, eyes filling with tears — was this life from now on? Choosing between my staunch Reform values and the warmth of the Chabad community? Using my one and only HQ Trivia code on Ethan whom I’d only known for five minutes?
Miriam and I left the gala. We turned the corner and hailed a cab and took it to a place where we could buy late night Indian street food. Then we walked home, like real Chabadniks, singing zmirot all the way.
And all of them were by Debbie Friedman.