I’ve Got the Outer Borough, Tertiary Street Blues

Or, Why It’s Hard to Make a Minyan in a Snowstorm in Queens

12/30/10
Special to the Jewish Week

Writing an on-line article is a tricky business.

When you write for a hard copy local newspaper, which the Jewish Week is in the New York area, you are, essentially, writing for a local audience. New Yorkers will catch the regional references that won’t necessarily make sense to people reading my article online in, say, Des Moines, Chicago, or, for that matter, Jerusalem.

But I’m hoping that our recent whopping blizzard here in New York- and the miserable job the city’s Sanitation Department did in clearing it- has gotten enough coverage to make this article relevant even to those reading it from afar. If not, I apologize in advance.

So we had a snowstorm- a true, by-the-textbook-definition blizzard here in New York City last Sunday afternoon into Monday morning. Most areas in metropolitan New York received somewhere between eighteen and twenty-four inches, with wind gusts over fifty mph and in some places sixty miles per hour, mammoth drifts… you get the picture. It was, in all honesty, an epic storm- the kind that humbles you and makes you realize that, when all is said and done, nature is a far more powerful force than human beings are.

New York - and New Yorkers - don’t like to admit that anything is bigger, better or stronger than they are, and that goes for snowstorms, too. So when it was snowing and blowing powerfully late Sunday afternoon, we began our annual ritual- the one that accompanies snowstorms without fail. “Do you think we can get a minyan for morning and evening services?”

Though we tend to repeat the discussion year in and year out, it’s not a trivial question at all. Aside from the people who value daily prayer with a minyan over individual worship, there are people saying kaddish for a departed loved one who feel guilty if they miss a service, and also older minyan regulars who don’t get around so easily or safely in the snow. When I have to make this decision, I take it very seriously.

As the storm progressed and got increasingly severe, I decided to exercise some discretion and call off our effort to get a minyan on Monday morning. Truth to tell, it wasn’t that hard a decision, because the situation outside most of our houses and apartment buildings allowed neither for walking nor driving. It was way too deep to walk, and absolutely impossible to drive. A no- brainer.

Well, I thought to myself, so we missed a service. I used the medium of our synagogue listserv to disseminate some ideas for Torah study in lieu of kaddish, and assumed that, by nightfall- maybe the latest the next morning- we’d be back together for our regular service.

Here’s where those outer-borough, tertiary street blues come in.

Do you remember that famous New Yorker poster that had Manhattan over about eighty percent of it, with a thin strip of land in the distance labeled- graciously- China, and another England, and so on?

Well, if you think New Yorkers think that Manhattan is the center of the universe, you’re right. And if you happen to live in one of the other four boroughs of the city (that pay the same taxes, by the way) - like Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, or Staten Island - you live in the twilight zone called “the outer boroughs.”

It’s difficult to convey just how much contempt people in Manhattan tend to have for the outer boroughs, but the best analogy I can give you is that if this were the Miller Analogy Test - remember that, boomers?- I would say that Jerusalem is to the rest of Israel as Manhattan is to the outer boroughs.

People from Jerusalem don’t leave Jerusalem unless they absolutely have to. And people from Manhattan - of all ages (the kids pick this up early) - don’t leave Manhattan to travel to Queens unless they absolutely have to.

And oh yes - here’s the point. When there’s snow clearing to be done - and there was a LOT of snow clearing to be done – Manhattan, the center of the civilized world, will always be cleaned and plowed before the outer boroughs. Always. Absolutely always.

We woeful inhabitants of the outer boroughs know this. Choosing to live here in Forest Hills, or in Riverdale, or Park Slope, means that you are willing to always play second fiddle to “the city,” no matter how unfair.

But here’s the real rub. Eventually, they do have to plow our streets in the outer boroughs. But then there’s a priority list. First come the “essential arteries,” then the secondary arteries that traffic must flow through, and then - horror of horrors - there are the “tertiary streets,” which means, basically, “where the normal people live.”

And if you have the grave misfortune to live on one of those tertiary streets like I do, you might as well hunker down and see what’s on “On Demand,” because you’re going nowhere quickly. And surely not to minyan.

It gets even better. The ordinary, grossly annoying bias against the outer boroughs notwithstanding, the city basically forgot to plow us out this time around. “Oh,” said our ever gracious mayor, “you’re stuck on your street, and that’s why our perfect snow removal plan has not come to your contemptible borough yet.”

Uh, Mr. Mayor with national aspirations, I don’t think so. We’re stuck on the street because YOU DIDN”T PLOW OUR STREETS YET, and we can’t move.

Well, four missed minyans later, our esteemed sanitation department finally got around to plowing our streets. But they devised an ingenious plan. They waited until we shoveled our driveways, and then they plowed and blocked us in again.. And then we shoveled our driveways again, and they plowed us in again. And they we shoveled our driveways again, and they plowed us in again!

I am offering a silent prayer that Mayor Bloomberg will overturn term limits yet again and run for re-election so that I personally can help defeat him.

Or better yet, maybe when he has some time on his hands, we here in the outer boroughs can teach him what it feels like to plow out your driveway four or five times, two days after people in Manhattan are conducting business as usual. Unlikely…

The good news is that our minyan is back up and running, The bad news is that it’s only December 30!

Happy New Year!

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

Last Update:

12/30/2010 - 20:26

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