On Purim, Sabbath, and Hanukah: The Jewish Culture in New York

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This Saturday was a big event in the lives of Jewish people: Purim was celebrated on February 23rd, a Jewish holiday revolving around the entrance of Jewish people into the old Persian Empire. Matter of fact, I was even invited to a modern version of the classic Purim out in Bushwick. The joint supposedly hosted 800 blissful party-seekers and lasted until 5:30 in the morning. A lot of dressing up was involved, in addition to drinking and dancing. Purim is only of those few Jewish traditions which have become an important part of New York life.

Most people who come to New York for only a few weeks or months underestimate the Jewish presence in the Big Apple. Sure, you always hear about Hasidic neighborhoods out in Williamsburg (which by now almost do not exist, thanks to the annoying Hipsters extending their realms all the way out into Bushwick and rich students moving into the lofty apartments off Bedford). Even guidebooks mention the Orthodox Jews living in certain parts of Brooklyn (nowhere else in New York; Brooklyn is their kingdom) but also depict them more as an oddity than anything else. Now I myself might be prejudiced in the fact that they are “rare” and nowhere else to see. Perhaps working for a classic Jewish company in Midtown has geared my selective attention towards the kippot, ringlets, and bearded men reading the Torah on the train early in the morning.

Now, guidebooks cannot always be trusted, and you will therefore find proof of Jewish culture throughout the entire City. A fact is that 1.5 million Jews or people with Jewish origin live in New York. Supposedly they make out 12 percent of the metropolitan area’s population – the highest Jewish population outside of Tel-Aviv in Israel.

A friend of mine once said: The Jews rule New York!” – but I was not entirely convinced of his words. True, some stem from rich families and live all the way out in apartments in the heart of Brooklyn with lesser costs attached to them than, say, a house in the Upper East Side of New York demands.

Then my first full-time job was with a Jewish company and, smack, all of a sudden Jews certainly ruled my life. I was working 40-hour-weeks for a non-for-profit organization which was called into existence to distribute Germany’s reparation costs towards Holocaust survivors and (as the years passed) their heirs. This might sound ironic, since you know by now that I am German and grew up in the Southwest of Deutschland. It did appear a bit awkward in the beginning and I remember a few looks here and there from fellow co-workers who were trying to check out my family’s history (and the feelings of insult I dealt with in the very beginning). Least to say that many fellow Germans, including me, had no idea that a percentage of their tax money still goes to this organization (after almost 70 years since the end of WWII).

Aside from the pure essence of its work, this non-for-profit adhered to the standards of the Jewish religion. To observe Sabbath, from late fall to early spring, Fridays always ended earlier than the usual 9 – 5 hours we were used to. Since traditionally you had to be home before candlelit hours on Sabbath, the organization had to give their employees 2 hours of time to travel before the darkness started. Sometimes we were off as early as 2 PM during mid-December days. Only a half day of work on Fridays – an arrangement most workers had lived by for years already.

Of course non-for-profits are not the only organizations who observe Sabbath. Take for example my two favorite camera stores called B & H and Adorama. Both are owned by Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, and they are also off every Friday at 1 PM already (even during the summer). Now you also know the reason as to why they are not open every Saturday: It is due to observing Sabbath, which lasts from Friday night until Saturday night.

So what exactly is Sabbath and how is it to be observed? Theories vary on this as does the degree of observance. The most striking feature of all is that traditionally it is prohibited to use any forms of electricity. My Orthodox Jewish coworkers told me stories of pre-set oven timers, alarm clocks and pre-charged cell phones. “So you don’t have a social life because you can’t reply to your friend’s messages on your cell phone?” I once asked my coworker Sally. “Of course you can, you just have to be around your cell phone when the message drops in to see when and where they want to meet!” she confirmed after pulling out her smart phone (and showing the handy feature of home screen messages). And in case the Jewish family forgets to turn off their lights or set the timers? They ask random strangers on the street, such as my Asian friend James who was once walking down Bedford Avenue. An Orthodox Jewish boy ran after him and gave him $10 to enter their house and turn off the oven. Not bad for 5 minutes of work.

Not all Jewish people adhere this strongly to their religion’s rules. But Friday night is always a big event. I was once invited to my friend’s Sabbath party out in Bushwick. Together with her Catholic roommate and her roommate’s sister we silently sat throughout the ceremony, which involved pouring red wine into glasses and offering bread to all attendants. The whole ordeal starkly reminding me of the Christian offering, which has copied this tradition from Judaism. My friend had also cooked a variety of meals and guests brought several bottles of wine so that it ended up being a modern-day party after the Sabbath ritual had ended.

And then the many days off work, because the company adhered to Jewish holidays. It hurt my paycheck since I was being paid hourly but it was still nice to have more than the average of free time (especially since America is the land of only 10 day vacations and 5 federal holidays). They gave us off for almost one entire week spread out throughout 2 weeks when Passover came along. Corporate events were always an occasion to taste some yummy (kosher) food brought to the office. Such as the annual Hannukah party which combined the almost 200 people all into one conference room. Or the hummus dips presented during Passover time.

Time at the non-for-profit has taught me many valuable things about a culture you don’t find to this extent in Germany or other (catholic) European countries devoid of Jewish traditions. Of course some oddities were also involved. Such as the Orthodox Jew who insisted on telling my Polish (Catholic) coworker on where to find good wigs at a reasonable price. All because she and her fiancé lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. She tried not to get offended that he thought her waist-long hair was fake… Or the fact that it is a tradition to offer a future fiancé a fancy and expensive bracelet instead of the 5-karat diamond ring most Americans expect for their engagement.

After one year of constantly dealing with Jewish coworkers I found that being Jewish is a form of culture moreover than a form of religion. It also made me forget about the quazillion other cultures this city has to offer, so my next job was a welcome change to a one-sided but nonetheless interesting deal in New York.

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