A Jewish Experience To Return To
by Avram / DWNTN
Right before walking into the Mlotek apartment for Purim of 2015, I had to take my shoes off in the hallway. There was a mountain of shoes outside and it was unclear if it was because of the snow that would be tracked in, or some burning-bush- style signal that we were about to walk on holy ground. I hoped it wasn't the holy ground shtick, because I was not there for a religious experience.
I was there because it seemed better than the alternative of spending another hectic Purim with my family in a very traditional Orthodox setting. I'd recently met Avram, the rabbinic intern at my college and had started studying Yiddish with him. This was another in a long line of
attempts to find some connection to an alternative Judaism. With each attempt, something reminded me too much of my damaged relationship with Judaism and I spiraled out, back into a love-hate relationship with religiosity. A few times, while we studied, Avram would bring up Shlomo Carlebach, or some mystical thinker, and every time I feigned a smile and rolled my eyes internally, "I'm more interested in the
Now I was walking into his home, crossing a threshold of hippie comfort and hoping that my cynicism would hold out. It is customary to wear a costume for the holiday, so I came dressed in a chicken suit with a bright red keytar strapped around my back. I wasn't too worried about accidentally getting all spiritual. I was comforted by the thought that no one has ever had a religious experience while wearing a chicken suit.
Walking into the Mlotek dining room I took a seat between a man in a fluorescent green clown wig, who I would later learn was concealing a Mohawk underneath, and a woman wearing a tichel, a traditional Jewish hair covering. I wasn't certain if I felt more or less comfortable seeing a display of the religious community I left behind.
After a few songs and many more people filing in, Mr. Fluorescent Green Clown Wig stood up to say a few words of Torah. He said a quick idea, and I wasn’t quite paying attention until he mentioned that this is “L’kvod, in honor, of all of the Jews who aren’t on the derech, aren’t on the path. Namely, Joey Ramone.” With that, he pulled off his wig, became Mr. Mohawk, and launched the crowd into the next song, “I Wanna be Sedated”.
I wasn't sure what to think about any of it anymore. For one, I realized Avram has weirder friends than I imagined. But also, I was able to keep my skepticism up by reminding myself that this was unusual, it may have had me intrigued, but this section of Judaism was sure to slip up and be exclusionary soon enough. Someone would say something offensive. I’d get a dirty look for not wearing a yarmulke. Something would happen to remind me that I didn’t belong.
An hour or so later, my cynicism was on shaky legs. I made it through songs old and new, English and Hebrew, religious and pop, familiar and unknown. I sang along for some but kept aloof for the most part. Slowly throughout the next hour my cynicism chipped away. I saw the biography of MLK on the bookshelf, or a collection of poetry I remembered from my high school years. Someone shared their hesitation with embracing Judaism, or a funny snippet of their Purim night dressed as Sigmund Freud. By the end of the night, I was completely comfortable. At no one point did I notice the change; it was like boiling a frog in a pot of water by slowly raising the temperature. I was cooked. Done. I was enjoying myself and enjoying a Jewish experience. It was one like I’d never experienced, but still it was still surprisingly inclusive and blatantly Jewish.
It had a flavor unlike any Jewish community I’ve experienced. It was intentional and pluralistic and accommodating of so many different religious practices and non-practices, while still not making anything seem foreign. With such a wide range of people in the room, nobody could feel out of place or out of the norm, there was no norm. A Christian pastor stood next to a woman in a tichel who stood next to her bearded husband, who stood next to someone in a mohawk, who stood next to someone with dyed blue hair, who stood next to me, in a chicken suit, singing at the top of my lungs.
When I left, I reminded myself that I wasn’t there for a religious experience. I wasn’t even sure what that would entail and honestly, I still don’t. I funneled out into the hallway along with several other guests and dug through the pile of shoes, handing off pairs to their owners, assembly line style. Finally, I found my shoes and put them on, ready to leave the holy ground shtick. But, this time I was just a little warmer to the idea of spirituality and for the first time in a long time, I had a Jewish experience I wanted to return to.
With Base DWTN, I’ve been able to return often. Since Purim of last year, a whole new world of Judaism has been opened to me. The level of newness and innovation that I saw that night has continued, whether it’s their weekly service project cooking for St. Xavier’s shelter across the street, a talk on the Jewish community’s response to the Syrian Refugee Crisis, or the Purim feast this year, which ended up being crazy enough to be shut down by the cops. Each time I come to the Base, I’m reminded of where it all began, and how maybe I should be just a little less cynical and a little more open.
Sam Langstein is a recent graduate of CUNY Hunter College and is currently an Avodah Corps member working at Footsteps.