Sunday, January 28, 2007

Hyperventilation and the Headstand: The Jivamukti Yoga Studio at Broadway and Thirteenth Street

I accidentally had a religious experience yesterday at the Jivamukti Yoga Studio at Broadway and Thirteenth Street.

For the past several months I have been going to a wonderful, flaky yoga class on St. Mark's place called Yoga To The People. My first time, I was very skeptical. I was really going to yoga? I was going to be one of those people? If yoga really helps you relax, why are most yoga studios filled with - and run by - tense, anorexic women?

Actually, it turned out to be great. I rarely sit still and do nothing for more than 30 seconds at a time. (Think about it - do you?) When my mother visits me in New York she tells me she wants to throw a sheet over my head to stop my constant overstimulation, so that I'll stop moving around for just a few minutes. She thinks I'll be less exhausted that way. Yoga allows a person to feel like she is still doing, you know, something, while in fact long periods of nothing are involved.

When you are doing yoga well, you are aware of every single inhale and exhale breath. All other sensations are secondary - including the sensation of fatigue or muscle exhaustion. The repetition of the breath and the movements of your muscles actually free your mind to wander. The complexity of the poses uses up the part of your mind that is usually wasted anyway, worrying about whether you should cancel your Netflix account, whether you've gained weight, whether things are going well at work. With that annoying voice quieted, your mind can free associate, can pursue long chains of improbable connections until - sometimes - you stumble into a realization that seems perfectly obvious after you've already got it. Often this is something like "I should do what will make me happy" - a thought that would totally annoy you if you read it on a Starbucks cup, or that you would brush off if your parents told you (and they probably already did), but that is a genuinely earthshaking revelation when you get there on your own. Plenty of rhythmic activities have the ability to free up your mind in this way - I've also gotten there through painting and long-distance running. I'm sure that prayer, for the practiced, has the same effect. For me, prayer has never been absorbing enough to have this effect. I have plenty of nervous energy left over to watch the clock, adjust my clothing, and ponder my Netflix account. How to take a step deeper into it?

Yoga To The People lacks most religious overtones. Classes there are primarily calm, peaceful workouts, and you pay by leaving a couple bucks in a Kleenex box on your way out the door. A thoughtful, poky, slightly paunchy mid-30s guy usually leads lessons (I almost wrote "services"). He limits religious overtones to mild exhortations to "think about your breath," "think about your whole being," and "be loving to other people." (In fact, he is sometimes so overwhelmed by his own directives toward lovingness that he often spends the last five minutes of class - while the rest of us are lying peacefully on our mats - making out with his wife.)

I guess that sounds creepy, but it doesn't really bother me. Much more creepy, to me, is the interaction (whether literal or symbolic) in the more traditional American yoga cosmology between Smiling Wise Old Male Yogi and Thin Young Earnest Female Acolyte. As a young woman I have a strong suspicion of old gurus of any kind. Thanks, Santa Claus, but no way I'm gonna sit on your lap. Even if you can do a really great headstand.

The change from my usual peaceful gang to the Jivamukti Yoga Studio (where my friend Allison got a free class by bringing me) was quite dramatic. Jivamukti is huge - there are about six big classrooms and many classes run simultaneously. The hallways are wide and noisy, and are filled with posters encouraging you to eat vegetarian and say no to fur. Nine out of ten people there are women - generally slender and dressed in correct yoga attire (sleeveless top in solid colors with built in bra; three-quarter-length black spandex pants). Classes at Jivamukti will run you 17 bucks.

Allison and I picked an "open class," which means that you can go whether you are a beginner or an Advanced Yogi, and you'll basically be able to figure out what to do. Our instructor was named Paisley. She was tense and very thin, with long blond hair and Horus Eye and Sanskrit tattoos on her feet. Paisley sat down at the front of the room in front of a shrine with icons of Hindu deities, a potted plant, candles, and a bunch of photographs of old yogis with the usual Clintonesque grins on their faces. We all sat down cross legged on our mats facing her. She began to chant, rocking back and forth, one line at a time, and we called the lines back to her. I have no idea what they meant. I was going to ask her afterward but I was too intimidated.

Actually, the singing was my favorite part of this class, and also the most religious-feeling. Paisley sang in loud, low, open throat tones that almost reminded me of women's singing from the Balkans. I completely buy that singing like this helps you relax - you can't produce those noises unless you are pretty relaxed in your whole throat and chest. My opinion of Paisley improved.

After the singing, unfortunately, the class deteriorated pretty quickly into a Series of Hard Things I Couldn't Do, and that I Particularly Couldn't Do Quickly. This included the first Hard Thing in the class - forced, huffing, hyperventilating breaths for a minute at a time, followed by maybe 20 seconds of breath holding at a time. Repeat. Repeat, Repeat. Ever been in a room with 20 people hyperventilating? It's terrifying. Their bony backs shake with the effort as their lungs expand and contract. Just as breathing slowly relaxes you, breathing quickly stresses you out. I gave up trying to follow the hyperventilation very soon, but my heart started racing anyway, in panicked sympathy.

Here are other things I couldn't do (particularly within the span of one inhale or exhale as commanded by Paisley):

[Thin, reedy cry:]"Inhale!" (Kneel, wrap left leg over right leg, thread left arm under left knee, wrap right hand behind back and grab left hand.)

"Exhale!" (Kneel, place forehead to floor, clasp hands behind head, press elbows together, raise self to handstand)

"Inhale!" (Full split, with left leg forward and right leg backward)

There was one guy at the front of the room who was literally in a handstand three quarters of the class. Showoff. My religious experience degenerated into, I guess, the equivalent of counting the pages until the Oneg: watching the guy in the handstand, sneaking glances at the clock, staring reproachfully at Allison.

Finally it was over and Paisley gave us a soft "namaste," with a humble, tense smile. We trudged out. She had totally schooled us. Next week I'm going to be back in the beginner class, where I belong.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Stage Lighting, the Lion of Judah, and the Bar Mitzvah Class from New Jersey: Congregation B'nai Jeshurun on West 88th Street, Manhattan

I walk up the stairs into the synagogue and a guy starts looking through my purse. This is embarrassing. I’ve had a rough week at work, so he is finding a lot of Au Bon Pain receipts, crumpled flyers for events I probably won’t go to, and okay, a few cookie wrappers. I try to push the cookie wrappers down to the bottom of the bag. The crumbs are falling out of the bag and into my purse. I think he sees them, in spite of my efforts, but he doesn’t really care. He’s looking for bombs.

What a harsh reminder this is. We tell each other, “May you be blessed with Shabbat peace.” And it means – “let’s hope nobody brought any bombs.” Let’s not get misty for the good old days, though, when it meant “let’s hope nobody brought any Cossacks.”

Finally I’ve made it to B’nai Jeshurun. I’m having a hard time writing about it because it is such a known quantity to everyone I work with. To “professional Jews,” this is one of the handfuls of famous success stories of synagogue revitalization. Those to whom I confess wanting to finally try attending religious services here in New York reflexively answer, “oh, you should try B’nai Jeshurun.”

B’nai Jeshurun is the success story, the congregation that under the auspices of a charismatic rabbi grew from fewer than 100 households in 1985 to 1,900 member households in 2001 (2,800 adults and 800 children, according to their website). A professional Jew is obligated to ask herself – how did they do this? Was it a fluke? Was it following some kind of Synagogue Revitalization Effort that professional Jews might be able to write down in a binder, circulate nationally, and bring all Jews back to the synagogues they are currently ignoring so happily?

After I get by the bomb checker – come to think of it, it’s kind of like trying to get by a bouncer into a New York City club; once he decides your driver’s license is real, he’s let you in and you get this little rush of smugness -- we enter through an unimposing and rather confused passageway. People looking for books are going one way; people looking for kipot are going another; people looking for their girlfriends are standing there abashedly and getting in everybody’s way. I push by all these people and into the main sanctuary, which is really splendid.

Ornate wood paneling covers the entire front of the room. It is carved in complicated curlicues and is painted in strong jewel tones and bright gold. An alumna of 1970s Jewish Institutional Architecture, I have only previously seen this type of decorating in Jewish institutions that have been restored by historical preservationists. I keep looking to see if the paint is chipping, if the moldings are dusty. But they’re not. They’re lovely. The back of the room has an old fashioned balcony with a number of additional seats, and the back wall (nestled among still more Moorish curlicues) is painted with these medieval looking crests: one, I think, is the Lion of Judah. The other one is an eagle, or hawk, holding what looks to be the Holy Grail. Or, no, wait, maybe it’s a Kiddush cup?

One of the key moments of this congregation seems to be the Great Ceiling Collapse of 1991 – probably the result of building restoration gone awry. The congregation decided not to replace the ceiling curlicues – really they still have plenty – and instead put up a stage ceiling that’s pitch black except for where it’s dramatically lit in royal purple. It’s all framed by some kind of metal work. I’m usually a historical snob but I actually really liked this. My first thought was that it made the sanctuary look very dramatic and very up-to-date. My second thought was that if things are really collapsing maybe next time I go I shouldn’t sit in the balcony.

A small green “Save Darfur” banner hangs from the center of the ceiling.

We have a whole world pop band set up here in the middle of the room. (As is the cutting edge style, the seating fans out in a circle around the band and the rabbi. It’s anti-hierarchical). My companion and I go up to the balcony to get a better view. Guitars, electric keyboards, Middle Eastern drum, cello and mandolin. A female singer keeps pushing back her hair. Unlike the Reform congregation where I grew up, where they do basically all the components of the worship service Friday night, and keep Saturday open for Bar Mitzvahs, in this congregation they do most of the heavy lifting (Torah reading) on Saturday, and leave Friday almost exclusively for singing. Here again the feeling rises within me: “We didn’t do it that way!” and I have to remind myself, “I didn’t like the way we did it.” I stare down cautiously from the balcony. I don’t know any of their tunes, and the world pop beats seem suspiciously happy.

A number of the worshippers are also suspiciously happy. (I only make fun because I’m envious). They stand, sing lustily, rock back and forth, and move as the spirit moves them. At one point they join hands and start dancing around the room, they’re just that blissed out. I am totally impressed but I am just not in this zone. I don’t know the songs. I have spent the last five days behaving very decorously, and it takes me a while to come down. Not these guys, I guess. I am entranced by their total lack of self consciousness. My companion, noticing the same thing, gestures to a bunch of bar-mitzvah aged kids sitting below. All wear identical bronze kipot. None are dancing. “I bet those guys are all too cool to dance,” he says. It’s true. Why would they want to dance with a bunch of women their mom’s age? But just as we think we’ve figured this out, one of them leaps up, and it must have been the cool one, because all the rest of them follow and join in the dancing. Okay, except for two, who are still sitting there making wisecracks.

I still find this dancing thing very awkward. How can you dance with more than two thirds of the room just sitting there? At Yale, the Very Cool Kids used to throw Naked Parties. (I was never invited, so the dilemma of whether to attend did not come up). The strictest rule of the Naked Party (at which, by all accounts, people did the same things I always did at clothed parties) is that if you enter the Naked Party, you must be naked. When entering the room, you are required to stop in a totally blacked out vestibule where you remove all your clothing. Thus, you can’t see a Naked Person unless you yourself are also naked. I feel like dancing ought to be the same way. If people are just watching, (“aww, isn’t that cute? The young people are holding hands!”) it kind of ruins the mood. Come to think of it, this is a problem with a lot of Jewish programs. The kids might be having a lot of fun, but they just know they’re being watched. Awkward….

The first time I tried to go to B’nai Jeshurun, I accidentally went to the earlier, family service. This turned out to be quite a lot of fun to watch, though there wasn’t a lot to the service. “Tell me something good that happened to you this week!” the charismatic head rabbi asked a shy five year old in his oh-so-charming Argentine accent. And wouldn’t you know it (welcome to New York), the kid goes, “I went to the opera!” The adults all around the room murmured their approval. The rabbi asked another kid the same question. This one was too excited even to finish a sentence, but spluttered “I did…. I went to the….It was the….I really liked….” The rabbi nodded wisely like they teach you in Rabbi School and tried not to crack up. “Okay, whatever you did, it sounds like it was really great. Now let’s all be thankful for the things we did this week….”

When it was established in 1825, BJ was the first Ashkenazi congregation in New York City, the ninth congregation in the United States overall. Clearly it’s gone through a number of changes since then. Back in the day, there were no denominations per se. You just hung out with your ethnic community and you did what they did (unless you said Fuck These Rabbis and checked out entirely, which was another popular option). Then BJ became a Conservative movement synagogue (the Conservative movement’s most recent claim to fame is its governing body’s recent brilliant decision, in the face of community deadlock on the gay rights issue, to rule both for and against gay ordination at the same time.) A number of people today are saying that the Conservative movement is falling apart – its more conservative wing is moving rightward to meet the the Modern Orthodox (all of the rules, none of the dress code); the left wing is moving leftward to meet the Reform movement (fewer rules; no dress code; growing interest in traditional liturgy and decreasing hostility toward Jewish ritual).

But that’s another post, for another time. in the mean time, we’re wrapping up the service. We mourn those who died this week and whose death-iversary falls on this week. We sing more songs that I don’t know. The boys in the bronze kipot, who turn out to be a Bar Mitzvah class from somewhere in New Jersey, pinky swear each other to secrecy about dancing with the middle aged ladies and peace out. We shake hands with a couple of people we don’t know (actually, we’re supposed to, but we don’t – we’re hungry and exhausted and head straight to dinner instead). We all file out; some nice man gives us pieces of challah.

A transformative religious experience? Not exactly. From the way this was sold to me, I got the feeling maybe I would feel instantly at home and have a transformative religious experience without putting in any work at all. Obviously, this was a lame assumption. It’s okay though - It’s just going to take some time.

Next Week: We Meet the Young Catholics

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Welcoming, Hip-Hop Dancing, and the Message Bible: The Onnuri Korean Church on 68th Street

In Which I Do Some Networking
When I decided to investigate New York religious communities, I thought my friend Mark might have some good leads. Mark went to college with me, and his work now runs parallel to mine in some interesting ways. A fearsomely talented, Alabama-born rock guitarist of Korean heritage. Mark now works for a non-profit serving the sizeable community of Korean immigrants in Flushing, Queens. Mark’s organization is a sort of one-stop-shop for immigrants - it connects them to English classes, jobs, health organizations, and the like. Last year I went to Flushing for the Chinese New Year celebration in Flushing and was astonished by the number of parade floats belonging to local non-profits. This struck me as a strong sign of community health.

The reason I thought Mark might know something about religious communities is that nonprofits in Korean Queens often have strong ties to the local churches - not because the organizations themselves are religious, but simply because Korean churches play such a central role in Koreans' daily lives. Korean immigrants are busy, insular and exhausted. Aside from their homes and businesses, the only place many of them go is church. Thus, all information relevant to the community – public health, politics – gets a tremendous boost if it is linked to the church, and the pastors of these churches wield significant local political power. Mark, who is well-educated, nice-looking, and personable, has been working in this community for only a year, and he has already been approached about eventually running for public office in Flushing. (A local paper gave him a front-page article last month, headlined something like “Smart Young Korean-American Comes Back to Help Community.”) However, to do so, he would have to become a presence at one of the local churches, which are overwhelmingly Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian. As Mark is a practicing Catholic, this might take some finesse.

Mark himself attends a Catholic church in the East Village, but many of his friends from college and from work attend Korean churches in the New York area. When I asked him if he had any friends who would let me tag along, he not only volunteered to come with me, but found a friend, Christina, who attended a church with an English-language service. Clearly, this made my reporting job a lot easier.

The Onnuri Church

The church I attended this morning - - is a year-old branch of the 19-year-old Onnuri Church, a Korean (as opposed to Korean-American) Presbyterian church. It has run a Korean-language service since its inception, but just began an English-language service a month ago, in an effort to attract a larger student population. In fact, its congregation is primarily made up of students and young New York professionals - quite different than the Flushing crowd.

This church is currently holding services in York Prep, a private school on a quiet residential street on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Oddly enough, York Prep itself is housed within a Jewish synagogue. Thus, we walked into the building under a stone fa├žade reading “Jewish Institute of Religion,” descended into a basement gymnasium decorated with banners celebrating the achievement of York Prep’s sports teams, and settled in for an English language Korean Presbyterian worship service. The churchgoers, doing their best to improve the ambience, had covered the floor with blue tarps and had decorated their temporary stage with tall banners with quotes from Corinthians and pictures of clasped hands and blue skies.

An entirely separate Korean church was winding up a worship service when we arrived. (“They always run late,” a young deacon informed us apologetically as we waited in the upstairs room.) As the participants filtered out, we went in and took our seats. In the back corner of the room a rock band warmed up.

We were the first people in the room, but over the hour-long service, others kept trickling in, and we were at about 50 by the time the service wrapped up. It was an astonishingly young group, considering it was 10 AM on a Sunday; most attendees were singles in their early 20s. There were at least two women for every man (Jewish worship communies are similar in this respect). As far as I could tell, everyone in the room was ethnically Korean.

An older man in a suit said a brief blessing and then the rock band cranked it up. We all stood up and clapped along. The energy, considering it was 10 AM, was truly outstanding. As they played, a projector threw the lyrics of the rock hymns(?) onto a big screen with a background of sun coming out from behind the cloud so we could follow along.

The rock band's set was followed by a six-person, mixed-gender troupe of hip-hop dancers (“His Groove,”) which danced to two Gospel/hip-hop numbers by performing artist Kirk Franklin.
“It's a mystery for someone to give their life just for me /
What you did on Calvary/
Makes me wan’ love you more”.)

I see on Wikipedia that Kirk Franklin was recently on Oprah discussing how he overcame his porn addiction ("Only recently Franklin had informed his wife, after first having proposed to her to share the pornography together, which she rejected"). Hmm. I should also point out that Kirk Franklin has just been nominated for two Grammy’s.

The Message Bible
Pastor Marc Choi, a young guy in a suit and pink tie, began his sermon, which focused on the reading of the week.

The language of his reading struck me before the content. It was from the “Message Bible,” which seeks “to capture the tone of the text and the original conversational feel of the Greek, in contemporary English.” There are versions of the Message Bible in all different languages – it simplifies and paraphrases the text for contemporary audiences, so that they can focus on the message rather than puzzling through the words. This would horrify the shit out of a Jewish audience – the core of Jewish practice is the study of the original Biblical texts – but I can see how it would make sense for communities of immigrants, or maybe the younger crowd. Pastor Marc encouraged everyone to go on and invest in a copy of the Message Bible. Below, find the text of our parable for the week, from Matthew. (For a comparison excerpt in King Jamesian, you can go here:

14-18"It's also like a man going off on an extended trip. He called his servants together and delegated responsibilities. To one he gave five thousand dollars, to another two thousand, to a third one thousand, depending on their abilities. Then he left. Right off, the first servant went to work and doubled his master's investment. The second did the same. But the man with the single thousand dug a hole and carefully buried his master's money.

19-21"After a long absence, the master of those three servants came back and settled up with them. The one given five thousand dollars showed him how he had doubled his investment. His master commended him: 'Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.'

22-23"The servant with the two thousand showed how he also had doubled his master's investment. His master commended him: 'Good work! You did your job well. From now on be my partner.'

24-25"The servant given one thousand said, 'Master, I know you have high standards and hate careless ways, that you demand the best and make no allowances for error. I was afraid I might disappoint you, so I found a good hiding place and secured your money. Here it is, safe and sound down to the last cent.'

26-27"The master was furious. 'That's a terrible way to live! It's criminal to live cautiously like that! If you knew I was after the best, why did you do less than the least? The least you could have done would have been to invest the sum with the bankers, where at least I would have gotten a little interest.

28-30"'Take the thousand and give it to the one who risked the most. And get rid of this "play-it-safe" who won't go out on a limb. Throw him out into utter darkness.'

This struck me as a little harsh on the unfortunate thousand-dollar-servant, who really did seem like a nice guy – but on the other hand, this gives a lot more sympathetic portrait of the bankers/moneylenders than one usually finds in New Testament stories. (A coincidence that Pastor Marc chose this text to preach to an ethnic community with a strong entrepreneurial presence in New York? I don’t know.)

Next, Pastor Marc did a little stand-up act about his wife and two daughters going to the mall to get their ears pierced together, and made fun of his five-year-old-daughter, who volunteered to go first, then decided that one piercing would do her just fine. (“I told her I couldn’t let her go to school with just one ear done. They’d think her daddy didn’t have enough money to pay for both!”) This girl is going to kill him once she’s old enough to understand he’s preaching about her. Anyway, Pastor Marc then analogized being a Christian to being a soldier, an athlete, and a farmer, all of which he viewed as extremely difficult professions. (“Girls? How many of you want to marry a guy who’s a farmer. I don’t want to be a farmer. No, I don’t want to be a soldier either. I like it fine right here in New York.”) He exhorted his young flock to work hard at being Christians and at being professionals, and to serve as examples in their work places. (“That’s very Korean,” Christina told me afterward).

Wrapping Up
Next was “Offering,” which, when I asked another of Mark’s friends to explain to me beforehand, she just gave me a blank look and said, “You know, the offering.” Okay, so it turns out that “Offering” is when they collect donations – they passed around a red velvet bag and we all put in a dollar. During the Offering, this friend got up and sang. She is a classical voice student at the nearby New School, from which this Onnuri church draws many of its flock. She sang a Psalm, in Korean, while the psalm’s text, in both English and Korean, was projected on the slide projector.

Afterwards, Pastor Marc made the announcements. Finally, something I was completely comfortable with: it was just like in my Friday night Shabbat services at home, where everyone starts to shuffle their feet and pick up their papers, getting ready to jet, and the preacher’s voice takes on this slight edge as he tries to get through all the announcements before everyone runs for the door. However, unlike in my own Friday night services, I was actually paying attention. So I can tell you that the hip-hop dance team was recruiting new members. Pastor Marc is forming an “intercessory prayer team” to meet at 9:00 every Sunday morning, to pray specifically on behalf of us 10:10 AM worshipers. Furthermore, the Onnuri church is running a “40 days of worship” series of morning prayer services at its offices in New Jersey. It’s sort of a New Year’s thing so it goes until early Feb. They run a bus every day from New York City to New Jersey at 5:30 AM, and apparently, people really go. Yikes.

Then one more huge rock number, and it was over, but not before the pastor issued a special welcome to first-time visitors, asking them to stand up and be recognized. Someone gave us each a copy of the Onnuri monthly publication and a baggie with a couple of Now and Laters in it (religious subtext? Oh well, I already ate them), and then he asked us to come over for a few moments after the service for a greeting from the Welcome Committee. At the mention of the Welcome Committee, a young man in the corner sprung to his feet and raised a gigantic banner saying “WELCOME” over his head. The earnest young Welcome Committee didn’t know quite what to do with itself – we all went around the circle and said our names, our ages, and where we lived. There were about seven of us, all between 19 and 27. Half students, half working people. The Welcome Committee said a little prayer for us that we would find God and ideally that we would find God here with them as members of this church, and then they asked us to fill out a form.

On Prayer and Evangelism
I used to get kind of upset when people prayed over me, but I’m over it. It was certainly fair game this morning, given that we had just attended an entire worship service. But more than that, I’ve grown into my own skin. I"m not worried that anything's going to, you know, happen. Christianity is belief-based; if you believe in Christ, according to Christians, you’re in. Judaism is much harder to pick up and also harder to cast away. Most Orthodox Jews will accept converts to Judaism under extremely specific circumstances, but they often don’t accept that people convert out at all – they simply view them as Jews who have adopted some exasperatingly incorrect talking points. Christians will often identify Jews as those who don’t believe in Christ – but the truth is, we really just don’t think about him much, one way or the other. By this logic, you can’t really do much to us by praying over us. I remained a Jew. It was a very nice sentiment on their part. End of story.

Most Korean churches are strongly evangelistic. According to the New York Times, after the United States, South Korea has more missionaries abroad than any other country: 12,000 at any given time, in 160 countries. In fact, the main purpose of the 19-year-old Onnuri church is the training of missionaries. According to Pastor Marc, there are currently 614 missionaries abroad who belong to the Onnuri Church.

On Koreans and Jews

Christina explained to us that Koreans, even those who are practicing Buddhists, often attend Korean churches simply for the Korean network that they provide. Christina herself used to attend the interdenominational church in Times Square, but it “just didn’t feel right,” so she went back to worshiping with Koreans. We discussed the analogy to Jewish communities – the large and energetic subpopulation of Jews who are deeply committed to their Jewish identities but who are indifferent or even contemptuous for religious observance. They just like to hang out together.

Apparently we weren’t the first ones to think of this parallel – Mark just sent me an article from that discussed the success of the Jewish community in achieving success in the broader American community while retaining its own identity.

The article, by Professor Pyung Gap Min, is called Korean Community at the Crossroad: What Can We Learn from the Jewish Community?

According to Professor Pyung Gap Min, “The Korean community in New York, as well as those in other cities, is currently experiencing an intergenerational transition….”

He contrasts the position of Korean immigrants, who are prevented by the language barrier from dispersing into the general labor market and who are thus highly dependent on their ethnic community, with the position of native-born Korean Americans, who “are greatly detached from the Korean community.” Professor Pyung Gap Min believes this is because native-born Koreans “have achieved social mobility largely based on their educational credentials and individual achievements,” and thus that they “do not feel the need for ethnic solidarity to protect common interests.”

“Moreover,” he writes, “since Protestantism is not a religion indigenous to Korea, Korean English congregations have eliminated much of Korean cultural traditions, with native-born Korean Protestants accepting Christian, rather than Korean, as their primary identity. Finally, native-born Korean Americans are very much detached from ethnic media because few of them can understand Korean-language ethnic media.”

He then contrasts this division among Koreans with the solidarity of American Jews [really? Solidarity? this is the only point at which I would quarrel with this article], writing that “Jewish Americans have been more successful than any other ethnic group in combining the adaptive assimilation with the ethnic retention.”

The rest of this article is so eloquent I'm just going to leave it in its own words:

“First, [Jewish Americans] put a great deal of emphasis on children’s education as the major channel for social mobility…However, Jewish Americans have also made great efforts to preserve their ethnic traditions and to help their members by establishing many Jewish organizations. …. Jewish Americans have had a huge advantage over Korean Americans in maintaining ethnic traditions and ethnic identity through their religion because Judaism is their ethnic religion. The Korean community in the New York-New Jersey area with about 200,000 Korean Americans has more than 1,000 ethnic organizations, far more ethnic organizations than the Jewish community in the area with about 2 million Jews. But almost all these Korean organizations are Protestant churches (about 600) and friendship associations based on pre-migration ties, such as alumni and district associations, with social service and empowerment agencies comprising a tiny fraction of the organizations.

“Moreover, Jewish Americans have made great efforts to protect their civil rights and to empower their community by establishing a number of civil rights and political organizations.... An important lesson we can learn from the Jewish community is that we need more and stronger social service and empowerment organizations in the Korean community to provide social services for different segments of the Korean American population, protect Korean Americans’ civil rights, and enhance Korean-American political power.”

Thank you, Christina, for being such a friendly and helpful guide. I learned so much today and I appreciate your time and the generosity and Godliness of your community.

Very best,

Next week: The trendiest Jewish prayer community in Manhattan?

A Place To Start

I am looking for a place where I can feel comfortable praying. This is complicated by two factors – the fact that I am not comfortable praying in the first place, and the fact that each place I visit inspires in me the response “This isn’t how I used to do it!” I must then remind myself that I didn’t like how I used to do it, either.

From second grade through high school, I more-or-less attended a Reform temple in the suburbs of Chapel Hill-Durham, North Carolina. There I received – sorry - a poor religious education, surrounded by classmates who hated being there. The underground description of religious education among Jews is “the only place good Jewish kids go to be total assholes.” They threw chalk and spitballs at each other (I know, so retro), talked dirty in chevruta, and hijacked every in-class discussion to return the conversation topic to Duke-UNC basketball games. When our synagogue published the inevitable “Where are they going to college?” issue of its bulletin, highlighting the successes of the few remaining non-dropouts in our religious school program, I was astonished to see that a girl whom I had never heard utter a blessed word since I joined the religious education program in second grade was attending an outstanding university. An arrogant teenager, I had mistaken her decade-long catatonia for idiocy, when it was in fact her defense mechanism against her peers. As she explained to me later, “there wasn’t anything I wanted to say.”

We made Seder plates out of paper, year after year. We learned the tunes for the prayers. What we did not learn – or what we failed to retain – is anything that would place us within the broader Jewish spectrum. A confession: my mother was not Jewish at the time of my birth. In what the Reform movement would probably term a success, and what I would term a failure, I was unaware that the vast majority of the Jewish community worldwide would not consider me Jewish for this reason. This brought me up short during the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel, a summer trip to Israel for 26 students of different Jewish backgrounds: Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Orthodox, and “other.” I’ve gotten over the pain of being told I wasn’t Jewish – in fact, thanks to the Bronfman Youth Fellowships, I can sit at a lunch table and listen to a fellow Jew say just about anything about me without losing my cool – but I haven’t gotten over my anger at the movement that raised me for drawing its shutters so emphatically against the larger Jewish community. This does no justice to the Reform Jewish community, as it does no justice to the Jewish community anywhere. Too often I see Reform rabbis today crouched in this same defensive position. “They don’t recognize us, so why should we talk to them?” Because you’re pissing off your children, that’s why. You want to be part of the community? You are obligated to sit at the lunch table and take whatever they throw at you, until they’re exhausted. Then the real conversation begins.