The New Jewish Neighborhood (Part 4): Calling All Locanthropists

Sometimes we can make a local impact without even knowing it.  A couple months ago, Miriam and I finally decided it was time to take the plunge and get a minivan. I would give up my old car and inherit my wife’s Subaru. We contacted an organization called Vehicles for Change which accepts donated cars, repairs them when possible and distributes them across three states.  Two weeks later, a flatbed truck met me on Eutaw Place, across from the shul, and drove my car toward the highway.  

A couple weeks later, I got an email from our emeritus rabbi who lives across the alley from us.  “I think I saw your car in the neighborhood today,” he said.  “No, you must be mistaken,” I replied, “I donated my car.”  But sure enough, parked around the corner from my house is my old car with the same familiar stickers on the dash and the tell-tale portion of the key I once broke off in trunk.  

Rambam tells us that it is a higher level of tzedakah to give anonymously – and I certainly tried.  But the story reminds me how powerful it can be to support one’s own neighborhood, one’s own community.  The Talmud says: Ani’ei ircha kodmim, the poor of your own city (or community) come first, and we are reminded that we should construct our dwelling places so as to provide access for the poor.  Rashi adds that a gatehouse must be situated in a way that ensures the owner of the home will hear the tza’akah of the ani, the cry of the beggar looking for food (Bava Kamma 7b).*   This is how we harness the Jewish values of tzedakah and gemilut hesed.

The word “locovore” was Oxford’s word-of-the-year in 2007.  Eating locally is great, but perhaps we also need a word to express the value of volunteering and giving locally, something like “locanthroprist.”

Definition:  One who excels at locanthropy, of course.  

*Thanks for Dr. Aryeh Cohen for introducing me to this beautiful text.

The Din of the Sukkah

Two days ago I was eating lunch in my sukkah, enjoying a picture-perfect afternoon and catching up on some reading.  I designed (with a good amount of help) the temporary structure to fit snugly on the rectangular footprint of grass that we in Baltimore city row-houses call a backyard.  Midway through my meal, I heard some nearby neighbors laughing and joking with one another – and they were loud!  After several minutes of this I began to tense-up, feeling increasingly frustrated that their boisterous frivolity was encroaching on my quiet Monday afternoon reading in my sukkah.  I remembered my undergraduate days when I would seclude myself in the library stacks, escaping blaring television sets and radios to finish an assignment or just enjoy some peace and quiet with a book.  

I thought of going indoors, out of my sukkah and away from the noise.  And then I realized something: this is the whole point of Sukkot!  Sukkot, in the Jewish imagination, is more than simply a harvest festival.  It is an immersive experience that commemorates our ancestors’ journey through the wilderness.  The sukkah is porous: to cold or warmth, rain, fragrances both delightful and unpleasant, and (yes) sounds both agreeable and distracting.  These factors make a sukkah a sukkah.  It is the embodiment of the ephemeral and the antithesis of our hermetically sealed cars and homes.

Sukkot in an urban neighborhood where, much like a college dorm, we live in close quarters, presents a number of challenges.  Living in the country, away from people, things are quieter.  The city is a place saturated with human and natural events. Living in the New Jewish Neighborhood might just mean getting beyond the “four cubits” of our own desires (as I needed to).  How often do we simply take in the fact that our neighbors have conversations to enjoy and things to laugh about?