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240 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 9 illus., 4 tables, 9 maps, 1 fig., notes, bibl., glossary, index

$23.95 paper
ISBN 978-0-8078-4889-0

Published: Fall 2000

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And I Will Dwell in Their Midst
Orthodox Jews in Suburbia

by Etan Diamond

Copyright (c) 2000 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.

Excerpt from Chapter 1.

Like many of his contemporaries in 1952, Sol Edell was looking for a place to live in Toronto. And like many of his fellow Orthodox Jews, he was looking in the "better neighborhoods downtown," where most of the city's traditionalist Jews lived. He quickly changed his mind, however, when one of his friends asked, "'What do you mean you're going to look downtown? Everyone is moving out of downtown. Where are you going to go? You're a young man. Why do you want to go with the old people? Old people are down there. Young man, you want to get out. Out there. Everybody's going up north, north of Eglinton and Lawrence.' So I said, okay." Responding to a newspaper advertisement for a house at Bidewell Avenue, just east of Bathurst Street and north of Wilson Avenue, Edell agreed to meet a real estate agent on Avenue Road, just north of Wilson Avenue. "I drove and I drove and I drove, and I thought I'd never reach it or find this place, it seemed like a hundred miles away. Anyway, I finally got to this place, and went around the corner, and he showed me this house. The first house I saw had picture windows, a gorgeous garden, open. Where we used to live was closed in. This was all open."

Standing outside the house with the agent, Edell heard a car horn. "I take a look and it's Joe Silverberg. I knew him since I was a kid, and his father and my father were in business together. He said, 'What are you doing up here?' He was already up here. I said I was looking at a house and he said, 'Buy it!' 'What do you mean, buy it?' 'We need you for a minyan [quorum of ten men necessary for Orthodox Jewish worship services]. We're looking for people.' So I said, 'Is there any place around?' He said 'Yes, we're davening [praying] together already, but every person counts.' So I thought about it. I went back, I eventually negotiated a deal that I could handle and I bought it. But if it wasn't for him going by saying that there was a minyan, that they were already starting to daven together, it wouldn't have been. So I say the Ribono Shel Olam [Master of the Universe] works in weird and wonderful ways. I hadn't seen Joe maybe in months, but all of a sudden he passed right there and spots me on the street. You never know, but that's the way community is built."[1]

The early 1950s were a time for relocation for Lillian Silverberg as well. She and her husband were living in a house on Rusholme Street, in downtown Toronto, but were looking for a newer and bigger home. She recalled that Bathurst Street north of Wilson Avenue was "just being developed. It was all farm at that time." Still, her younger brother decided to relocate to those newly built neighborhoods of north Bathurst Street. "He's the one that made the move up here. He moved up here on Raeburn east of Bathurst. We were very close and this was our incentive to move along. Sol [Edell] was living in this area. My brother-in-law, Joe Silverberg, he lived in this area. We knew quite a number of people living up this way." So Silverberg and her husband moved too, although their home was just "partially built, the streets weren't paved, [and] we didn't have phones for quite a while." Despite these hardships, one essential institution was already in place: the synagogue. After all, she explained, "If you're Orthodox you have to be close to [a synagogue] to attend your services." Fortunately for the Silverbergs, "the shul [synagogue] was already there. When we first moved up we davened in a tent. Then they built a hall where we used to daven."[2]

Aaron Weisblatt is a generation younger than Edell and Silverberg. Right before his thirteenth birthday in 1956, his parents moved from downtown Toronto to an apartment along Bathurst Street. After living downtown for a year following his wedding in 1969, he and his wife, Anne, hoped to settle down. Rather than stay downtown or in the neighborhoods of his childhood, he looked further north and bought a semidetached house in the Greenwin Village subdivision within walking distance of B'nai Torah Congregation. Weisblatt chose that neighborhood and that synagogue because "a lot of the young community was moving up here. I was a young grad, just starting out, trying to attract new business. This was where the action was." Besides, "it was fun, getting involved" in a new synagogue and a new community.[3]

Religion. Prayer services. God. Community. Not terms that one might typically associate with postwar suburbia. But then, one does not typically associate Orthodox Jews with postwar suburbia either. Yet in almost every major city in the United States and Canada, Orthodox Jews live lives that are far removed from the stereotypes of lower-class, urban immigrants of the early twentieth century or of modern suburbanites with few religious ties or community relationships. Instead, the late twentieth-century Orthodox Jewish suburbanite has blended into the upwardly mobile, consumerist world of North American suburban culture, all the while retaining a strong sense of religious traditionalism and community cohesion. This amalgamation did not evolve smoothly or free of conflict, but its sheer existence offers a strong counterpoint to the dominant assumptions about suburban society and religious culture in the twentieth century. How this blend of traditionalist religion and consumerist middle-class suburban secularism developed--what the historian Jack Wertheimer has described as a "law- and community-bound movement in the midst of freewheeling, individualist, late-20th-century America"--is the story told in the pages that follow.[4]

That an Orthodox Jewish community evolved in twentieth-century suburbia might strike many readers as odd, considering the fundamental clash between the nature of traditionalist religion, as manifested by Orthodox Judaism, and that of postwar society, as found in metropolitan suburbs. One can understand this clash in two ways. The first posits the restrictiveness of traditionalist religion against suburban society's emphasis on lifestyle choices. At its core, a traditionalist religion such as that practiced by Orthodox Jews mediates, structures, and, most important, limits one's life experiences. Orthodox Judaism contains rules and restrictions that demand that a religiously observant individual practice certain rituals and believe certain doctrines to the specific exclusion of others. These rules, regulations, beliefs, and practices are not random or man-made but have divine roots; in the case of Orthodox Jews, God transmitted to Moses a written text (the Torah) and an oral tradition (the Talmud). The divinity of these texts means that they are inflexible and beyond reinterpretation; one accepts the authority of halakhah (Jewish religious law) and observes its dictums, even if that halakhah is not "modern," "relevant," or "in touch with contemporary ideas."

In a society where religious observance has been transformed into a matter of personal choice, choosing a lifestyle rooted in a traditionalist religion such as Orthodox Judaism means choosing for oneself a lifestyle of limitations. Such a choice directly opposes a modern metropolitan mentality that encourages and even demands individual choice and multiple options. As early as the 1930s, the pioneering urban sociologist Louis Wirth characterized the city as an environment in which a person faces an array of social and cultural choices far more extensive than found in rural communities.[5] More recently, the historian Robert Fishman described the modern metropolis as a "city à la carte," where individuals construct their own networks in which they live, work, shop, and play.[6] Other trends confirm these observations. A cycle of material acquisition, consumption, and discarding drives the daily activities of metropolitan society, with advertisers tantalizing metropolitan residents to choose "new and improved" products to replace those "old and obsolete" ones bought only a year before. As metropolitan regions have increased in size and decreased in density, individuals have gained the ability to experience a wider range of environments.[7] The automobile and a comprehensive highway system have facilitated this access, resulting in highly personalized patterns of metropolitan movement. In short, post-World War II metropolitan suburbia--identified here by the socioeconomic and cultural expansion of a middle-class, consumerist society and the spatial expansion of the urban periphery--can be characterized as an experience of unlimited choice.

Traditionalist religion and secular suburbia also clash over the issue of "community." Religion fosters community as few other social institutions do. Members of a single congregation typically share a wide range of beliefs and behaviors, as well as similar socioeconomic characteristics. Such shared backgrounds, attitudes, and lifestyles create a sense of community among congregational members, who look out for one another, offering help in times of need and a smile in times of happiness. These faith-based "caring communities" contrast with a twentieth-century suburban culture that fosters isolation and unconnectedness. Suburbia is often criticized for impeding the development of close social bonds with one's neighbors or anyone else for that matter. In classical postwar analyses, suburbia is a place inhabited by the "lonely crowd," individuals and families unconnected to one another in any meaningful way.[8] Contrasted with those who live in tight-knit small towns or ethnically connected urban neighborhoods, suburban residents are described as being connected only to communities of "limited liability," where neighbors have a minimal and pragmatic interest in fostering community bonds.[9]

If traditionalist religion is "choice-limiting" and "community-promoting" and secular metropolitan society is "choice-enhancing" and "community-limiting," then one can clearly see the potential for problems when the two intersect. Furthermore, if one examines specifically Orthodox Judaism in the context of contemporary suburban society, even more tensions appear. Two of the most basic elements that structure any society are time and space. Regarding time, North American metropolitan society follows a distinctly secular rhythm. The daily routines of suburban family life require adherence to a strict schedule: beating the morning rush hour, driving the children's school carpool, delivering children to after-school sports practices or music lessons. On a weekly basis, suburban life alternates between the five-day workweek and the two-day weekend, with the latter having particularly suburban qualities. The suburban weekend is a time for engaging in various projects around the house, recreational sports, or other hobbies, often with as much seriousness and diligence as the occupational activities of the workweek. As Witold Rybczynski has explained, on the weekend, "people used to 'play' tennis; now they 'work' on their backhand."[10] Other civic and religious holidays, and even the seasons of the year, have been reformulated into economic events when stores and shopping malls mark the calendar with sales and promotions. These daily, weekly, and annual rhythms organize suburban life throughout the year, with occasional breaks for children during the summer and for adults during their standard two-week paid vacation.[11]

Time in Orthodox Judaism follows a very different structure. One must pray specific prayers during specific periods during the day, which, unlike secular time that is marked from sunrise to sunset, begins at sundown and ends at sundown. The clearest distinctions between secular and religious time occur on the Sabbath, when Orthodox Jews hew "a day of sacred respite out of the rock-hard secularity" surrounding them.[12] On the Sabbath, Orthodox Jews must abstain from any secular activities from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. Also forbidden within that sacred time are many types of "work," which through rabbinical interpretation include such common activities as writing, cooking, using electricity, and driving or riding in vehicles. The Jewish calendar also creates conflicts with the secular calendar. The former follows a lunar cycle, meaning that holidays occur on different secular days in different years. For an Orthodox Jew, this sacred temporal structure means that one often has to be absent from work or school when a holiday falls on a weekday; unlike the weekly Sabbath, Jewish holidays are not fixed to specific days of the week as secular civic holidays often are.

The temporally based structure of the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath and other holidays also leads to spatially based structures in the Orthodox Jewish community. Because the many prohibited activities on the Sabbath and holidays include a restriction against driving or riding in vehicles, to fully observe the Sabbath, a shomer shabbos (Sabbath-observant) family must live within walking distance of a synagogue or else forgo attending synagogue services.[13] Although this religious law matters to an Orthodox Jew only every seventh day, it nevertheless structures one's life by limiting residential choice to areas close enough to walk to a synagogue. At the same time that Sabbath laws constrain individual choice, they also structure the entire community, since the situation of many Sabbath-observant families living within walking distance of the same synagogue necessarily creates a religious community with clear spatial and social boundaries. It is, as well, a caring community to a high degree. Orthodox Jews routinely share meals on the Sabbath and on holidays, provide meals for one another when a baby is born, celebrate one another's family simhas (lit., happinesses, refers to celebrations such as weddings and bar mitzvahs), and comfort one another during the shiva period (lit., seven, refers to the seven-day period following the death of a relative when friends and family members comfort mourners). Although these other aspects of the caring nature of Orthodox Judaism are not explicitly linked to the Sabbath, the spatial proximity engendered by Sabbath observance facilitates these other shared experiences. The sociologist Chaim Waxman articulated this centrality of the Sabbath, writing that "the fact that Orthodoxy proscribes driving a car on the Sabbath even for the purpose of attending services at synagogue, thus, has a very deep sociological significance. It lays the foundation for the 'omnipresent sense of community' which is unequaled in other branches of Jewry."[14]

It is also unequaled in other religions. To be sure, other religious groups have lifestyle regulations. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, for example, demands many lifestyle modifications from its adherents, including financial tithing and abstention from drinking and gambling. Certain evangelical Christian denominations also discourage consumption of alcohol and such aspects of popular culture as movies and rock music. A Muslim's life is regimented by requirements to pray at specific times during the day and to fast in specific months.[15] But none of these groups face the same spatial restraints that Orthodox Jews face because of the Sabbath. Therefore, they can much more easily fit into the flow of suburban life. Perhaps the one group that does confront spatial constraints is the Amish, whose religion prohibits technology such as automobiles. These groups generally isolate themselves in rural communities, however, and thus avoid the problems that such spatial constraints would impose if they were to live in a metropolitan environment. In contrast to all these groups, Orthodox Jews live fully within suburban society, despite the once-a-week hardship of the Sabbath and the daily structure of the Orthodox Jewish lifestyle.

To most people in the metropolis, religious or not, choosing a place to live involves finding a place that balances attractions of the immediate surroundings (nice neighborhood, house, neighbors) with metropolitan needs (convenience to work, school, shopping). The location that best meets all of these needs and also fits into a household budget is usually the one that is chosen. This holds true even for members of faiths that are religiously restrictive. Fundamentalist Protestant families might desire to live near a church or near other fundamentalist Protestant families, but they are not religiously mandated to do so. Residential choice for Orthodox Jews involves a very different, and far simpler, process. For members of this group, one question usually supersedes all others when moving households: is it near an Orthodox Jewish synagogue? If not, then that particular place will get crossed off the list, no matter how nice, affordable, or convenient it might be.

The many disjunctures between Orthodox Judaism and suburban society should not obscure the fact that the two cultures share other characteristics. For example, both Orthodox Judaism and middle-class suburban society emphasize the family and the education and socialization of children. The family and the home are central to the religious schema of Orthodox Judaism. In the home, religion involves the entire family, from dietary practices to Sabbath and holiday observances to life cycle rituals. For generations, traditions and observances were transmitted informally from parents to children in the home. Together with this informal education, formal education of Jewish texts has also long been central to Orthodox Jewish life. Though focused on an entirely different set of values, these emphases parallel the values typically associated with middle-class suburbia: the nuclear family, the transmission of middle-class values to children, and the role of education in providing opportunities for upward mobility. Orthodox Judaism and suburban society share similar emphases regarding issues of material culture as well. Perhaps more than any other religion, Orthodox Judaism is a religion of "doing" (or not doing in many cases). Most religious commandments, or mitzvoth, involve some action: reciting blessings, eating ritual foods, giving charity. Many of these mitzvoth require the use of material objects such as wine goblets and candelabras. A long-standing tradition of hiddur mitzvah, or the enhancement of the mitzvah, encouraged people to use objects that were not only functional but also materially attractive. This emphasis on material culture and the enhancement of ritual objects stands as a religious version of suburban materialism, in which houses are filled with an array of objects that "enhance" one's lifestyle. Again, though derived from entirely different value systems, this shared emphasis on material culture helped to bridge the gap between Orthodox Judaism and twentieth-century suburban culture.

Given the many social, cultural, spatial, and temporal tensions with suburban society on one hand and the many characteristics shared with that society on the other, the development of a suburban-based Orthodox Jewish community in the twentieth century would seem to have been a complex and even counterintuitive process. Something had to happen for the "square peg" of Orthodox Judaism to fit into the "round hole" of suburban society. This book explores that "something." What were the processes through which Orthodox Jews religiously integrated into the suburban environment? Were compromises or modifications made in Orthodox Jewish religious observance to make it more compatible with the suburban way of life? How did Orthodox Jewish institutions--the synagogue, the school, the religious home--adapt to suburban styles and attitudes? More broadly, what did it mean to have a suburbanized Orthodox Jewish community in the postwar period? As the rest of this book makes clear, Orthodox Judaism, despite the tensions and clashes posed, proved flexible in its structure and adaptable in its culture for the Orthodox Jewish community to find its place in the culture of postwar suburban society.

For readers not familiar with the world of Orthodox Jewry, the discussion thus far might have seemed somewhat abstract and vague. One might ask, Who exactly are the Orthodox Jews of America? The question is a good one, considering that most people's image of Orthodox Jews is probably a Hollywood-filtered stereotype of bearded men with curled earlocks, wearing black hats and black coats, mumbling in Yiddish, and accompanied by stern-looking, kerchief-wearing women and several small children. One might call this the Fiddler on the Roof stereotype, and it has been perpetuated in movies, television shows, and books. But while such an image might have been true for nineteenth-century Eastern Europe or early twentieth-century North American urban neighborhoods (and it is not entirely accurate for those times either), this stereotype clearly fails to describe Orthodox Jews in late twentieth-century suburbia.

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