Spirituality, Culture, & Religion: Confessions of a New York Jew

by Rabbi David Zaslow
December, 2002

Okay, I admit it. I’m prejudiced! I’m a New Yorker and everything New York is Jewish and everything out of New York is not-so-Jewish. So Italians from New York are Jewish even if they’re Catholic, and Jews in Los Angeles are not-so-Jewish even if they’re Jewish. Bagels from New York are Jewish. Bagels in Ashland are round chunks of chewy bread with holes in the center. No self-respecting New Yorker would ever buy a jalapeno bagel. My wife, my holy Devorah, outed me last month as an ethnocentric, bialy-centric New Yorker who has a very distorted view of the size of America. I remember a map they sold in New York called “A New Yorker’s View of America.” New York was huge (pronounced “youge” please) and the rest of America was all shrunken. I should have bought it!

I used to hear my parents talk about the “old country” with sentimental yearning. When they would say something in Yiddish and I’d ask them to translate, they’d fumble for words and finally proclaim, “You just can’t translate this into English. Words have a different meaning in Yiddish.” Of course, they meant that Yiddish was better than English and it would be degrading to try to explain some nuance of translation to me in such a cold and intellectual language as English. I never understood. Now, after 32 years in Ashland, Oregon, I get it. There are things a New Yorker can say that just cannot be translated. I understand Tony Soprano even when he isn’t talking. Body language, food, posture, it’s all part of the language. To me, New York is my old country. Okay, New Jersey too. Philadelphia but not Pennsylvania. Not Connecticut at all. Yonkers? All right, Yonkers but not Brewster. White Plains? All right. White Plains too.

So what is it about the culture we grew up with that gets into our bones so deeply? I don’t want to analyze this too deeply. See, my love for the Brooklyn Dodgers and hatred for the Los Angeles Dodgers is really quite objective and based on facts. I don’t want some two-bit sociologist writing a paper on the “relativity” of the teams we root for. It may be true for other teams, but the Dodgers, the Brooklyn Dodgers, are mythic not relative. In fact, the Dodgers are still in Brooklyn – that’s how deep my faith is. And Jackie Robinson lives! Maybe not on the physical plane, but in a higher dimension for sure. So when the Dodgers actually do return to Brooklyn (and the Giants return to the Bronx for that matter), and they will, it won’t be a shock to New Yorkers. Okay, it will be a shock to Yankee fans, but it won’’t be a shock to most other normal humans (pronounced “yu-mans” please) from the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan, Staten Island, or Brooklyn.

So, “this is the bit,” as my high-school boxing coach Enrie Spanokos used to say. It’’s dangerous to confuse culture with morality. There’s nothing innately good or bad about living in Minnesota, Tucson, Miami, or Brooklyn. Tribal wars are started over the confusion of morality and culture. Religion is a system to organize spirituality, and each religion is like a culture. This group stands. That group sits. This group sprinkles with water. That group dunks in water. This group is ecstatic. That group is passive. There’s no good or bad about it. It’s all about personal preference. It’s all about style.

This is not to say that style is not important. Believe me, I’d rather be dead than eat a jalapeno bagel. But jalapeno bagel eaters (perish the thought!) do not have to repent on Yom Kippur. They should, but they don’t have to. Religion is the culture that organizes spirituality, but the essence of any great religion is its spirituality, not its particular ritual practices (i.e., we do Shabbos on Saturday, Christians do Lord’s Day on Sunday). Now, don’’t get me wrong, I do not want to merge spiritual practices any more than I want to merge bagels. But beneath the religion, beneath the culture of the religion, is spirituality: a deepening connection to God, a living connection to the ancestors, a connection to history, and a sense of profound hope for the future. It is the sacred task of each religion to develop a path that will lead its followers to some degree of direct experience to that which is understood as the Divine. As the new paradigm unfolds before us it seems crucial for all all to bear in mind that the path is simply the path – it is not the destination.

Gabi Meyer recently taught us about the difference between the map and the land. I may like my map, but my map is not the earth itself. Judaism is my map. Judaism is my culture. My synagogue is my culture. I am devoted to my culture for sure, but the culture is not my goal. My personal connection to God is my goal. My person to person connection to each of you is my goal. If my Judaism helps me to get to God, then it is a good religion. If the Havurah helps me reach these goals, then it is a good organization. And, last but not least, if the Brooklyn Dodgers can get me to a game in Ebbets Field, then it is, indeed, the best team that has ever lived.

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