There’s Urban and There’s Urban!

My wife and I took a recent jaunt to New York City.  It was a glorious two days spent walking Manhattan boulevards, exploring central park, taking in a show, eating well (and too much and too often) and generally enjoying a great city’s vast and unparalleled cultural offerings.  New York is New York after all.

Now for those of you who are less familiar with Baltimore, here’s what you need to know about our city.  It has many of the trappings of New York urban living save two critical and related things:

1. It has far fewer people
2. Because of this, it has a much lower population density.

Fewer people means less demand for retail or entertainment.  And our more diffuse population leads to a whole host of challenges including ample vacant housing, few population centers to sustain robust mass transit, and a cash-strapped city government lacking the necessary resources to sufficiently address endemic problems like poverty and violent crime.  Yes, one can and does find great theater or restaurants, museums and shops in Baltimore.  It is simply a question of scale.

While in the process of listing our condo back in Chicago, our realtor suggested, in setting a price, that we consider what many first time home-buyers are looking for.  “They want to live near the ‘L’ and good schools,” he said, “and they want to be able to walk to sushi.”  I love my new neighborhood of Reservoir Hill.  It is grand, well located, with good housing stock and an improving school.  It has resources nearby like Druid Hill Park (and the zoo), our soon-to-be-built playground and easy access to the 83 Expressway.  But it is a long and impractical walk to the light rail and there is no sushi in sight.

So while I remain quite optimistic about the present and future of Res. Hill, I am also beginning to reframe my expectations of urban living.  What has emerged is the great paradox of Baltimore. On one hand, we cannot escape from one another as easily as New Yorkers or Chicagoans.  We have fewer cafes, shops, and subways in which to hide, and this means that our challenges are often more noticeable.  The median family income in Baltimore City is comparable to that of New York, but poverty  is more obvious here, closer to the surface.

On the other hand, we have an arguably greater capacity, here in Baltimore, to fulfill a great Jewish principle of living: Because there is more to do, we are better able to partner with God in the ongoing act of creating and perfecting the world.  I loved my time in Chicago and have nothing but affection for my hometown, but doing the work of social justice in Lakeview or Lincoln Park requires one, detective-like, to peer between the bright edifices into the darker places within.  In some cities, it is a challenge to locate the problems.  In this city, the greatest challenge is figuring out where to begin.

The New Jewish Neighborhood (Part 3)

I remember feeling a great sense of pride when, as a college student, I first heard the expression Member of the Tribe.  “That’s me,” I thought, “M.O.T.,  Red Sea Pedestrian, not just ‘Jew-ish,’ but a proud Jew through and through.”  My reaction, as reactions tend to be, was informed by a number of prior life experiences.  Though my parents certainly raised me to be proud of my Judaism, I had still grown up with a good deal of ambivalence about my Jewish identity.

I attended a high school which was the very definition of “diverse,” with students from 60-70 different countries, speaking 30-40 different languages.  My friends were Korean, Indian, Polish, Greek, Taiwanese… and Jewish.  I had learned from an early age to value the diversity I experienced every day in school.  And yet, I also learned that, unlike many ethnic/racial differences, Jews (like white gays) were an identity within an identity.  We could “pass,” and many of my Jewish classmates were inclined to do exactly that.   It took college, Hillel, Israel trips and a good deal of spiritual and cultural exploration to find my true Jewish pride.

My experience, I suspect, is not all that dissimilar from that of many other Jewish Gen X’ers and Y’ers growing up in an era of shifting metaphors.  The “melting pot” was becoming a “tossed salad” and we, those of us who happened to live in places where we encountered the other “ingredients” of that salad (in person and not just on TV) were all trying to figure out how to preserve our own particular flavor without dominating (or being dominated by) others.

The conventional wisdom about today’s younger Jews is that they shun tribalism, but this is not entirely the truth.  Jews today experience an openness to Judaism and Jewish people unparalleled in previous generations, including my own. (I still remember the utter confusion I felt in the 4th Grade when Mrs. Christiansen informed me that the word “Jewish” was fine, but the word “Jew” was a slur).  Jews in their teens and twenties have matured in a world of Adam Sandler’s Hannukah Song and The Hebrew Hammer, of JVibe and Heeb Magazines, of comedy shows like Glee where central characters are Jewish and flawed but where Judaism is not a punchline.

Once, Jewish families looked to settle in comfortably contained neighborhoods, to seek refuge in kosher markets, synagogues and organizational structures transplanted from the Old Country.  Later, Jews trended toward assimilation, eager to move beyond the provincial neighborhoods of their immigrant parents.  These days, Jews are looking to reclaim a place not of difference, but of distinctiveness within the whole.  This is why public-space Judaism works so well, why so many are drawn to services in Druid Hill Park or bar-parties in Fells Point or Jewish story time at Barnes and Noble.  “Fitting in” no longer means “blending in.”

The New Jewish Neighborhood is a place of Jewish pride, where being a Member of the Tribe means belonging without compromising other important Jewish values like pluralism, service or sustainability.   Today’s Jews (no longer a slur) are increasingly comfortable with who they are.  And who they are is people who are increasingly comfortable walking in a world that is bigger than their own.