Before the Internet Age rendered geography irrelevant to community there was the eruv, the rabbinic response to spatial separation. A strategically placed wire here, a natural hedge border there, the inclusion of a fence or a highway, turns a neighborhood into an imaginary walled community of halachic intent, as such a deliberate remembrance of pre-diasporic Jerusalem.
I was only 16 when I left my community of Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, convinced I was on an upward trajectory. I was, after all, trading the prospect of Brooklyn College for Vassar, abandoning the staid, simple streets of Bensonhurst for the lush opulence of the quad in Poughkeepsie and later Manhattan, leaving behind the little shul where I sat with my mom in the obligatory women’s section for the vast progressive egalitarian temples that were sprouting everywhere in America.
Are we bound together by common purposes and goals? (This approach is beloved by the community organizers.) Or is there something deeper, more intimate, in the idea of community, something that reaches down to family? In this construct, the community provides the individual much of what the family provides; it’s the idea of kinship.
Lifnei seiva takum, v’hadarta p’nei zaken — “You shall rise up before the elder, and you shall honor the old person.” Kabed et avicha v’et imecha — “Honor your father and your mother.” These two normative biblical principles, separate albeit related, inform much of Jewish life and by extension our larger society, often — and sadly — more in the breach than in the observance.
Growing up in a small town where there were few Jewish families, Jewish stories gave me belonging despite the fact that there wasn’t a physical community for me to belong to. Educated at Brandeis University where I was immersed in a largely Jewish student body, Jewish stories gave me pride, for there we were, descendants of the twelve tribes learning side by side.
My father continues to breathe — huge, wheezing, unconscious but determined breaths — despite the doctor’s predictions, despite the Alzheimer’s that’s ravaged his brain and despite the broken hip and pneumonia that brought down the rest of him. And somehow, that continued existence seems entirely appropriate for this inadvertent survivor.
‘I am becoming a new rabbi and an old rabbi — both at the very same time.” This is what I pronounced at my Academy for Jewish Religion ordination ceremony six years ago. I was turning 60 just a few hours after the festivities ended, and according to Ethics of the Fathers (5:21), ben shishim le-ziqnah, old age begins at 60. Two major changes in my life were occurring simultaneously.