Monday Morning Greetings 2021 #27 – The Jewish Alachua

July 5th, 2021

The Jewish Alachua[1]

 

When the pandemic started, I was in a bit of a bind. The place where I usually stayed in Upstate New York wasn’t available. Fortunately, by providence, a new place was made available in Jackson, New Jersey, which is the next town over from the subject of today’s post: the culture of the town of Lakewood.

 

Lakewood is the fifth biggest and fastest growing township in New Jersey. Almost 60 percent of its residents are Orthodox Jews, and they support almost two hundred synagogues and one hundred yeshivas, including the 6,500-student Beth Medrash Govoha, the second biggest yeshiva in the world. I was fascinated when I first drove through the expansive city-town on my way to visit a friend further south in New Jersey. I just saw a “normal” town – families, children, people working, going to school, shopping and so on – except that all of the residents were dressed in 18th century vesture.[2] Even the sign of a Chinese restaurant that I passed was in Hebrew.

 

As the average Hasidic family has more than six children, there continues to be exponential growth in Lakewood, three generations after the first Orthodox Jews settled here. As a result, there has been a substantial expansion of the sect to the quieter and more affordable townships next door, including the neighborhood where I presently reside in Jackson. In fact, due to the financial power of a unified community looking out for its own, any Hasidic Jew seems to have the means to immediately buy available housing at top dollar as soon as it hits the market.

 

Recently, two families purchased and renovated two stately houses directly across the street from where I reside. As my desk faces a large picture window to the street, and the women and children seem to spend most of their time outdoors, it is natural for me to occasionally observe how they live. I was surprised with how impressed I was with the way they manage their families. I was surprised because when I grew up, my family, and similar minimally observant Jewish families, did not have a high opinion of Hasidic Jews. I guess some of that rubbed off on me, for it seems that I also initially negatively pre-judged Hasidic Jews, which was fortified by the media’s often unfavorable portrayal of them through stories of people who left their fold.

 

I saw exceptionally happy and well cared for children in peaceful and harmonious families. In fact, when they moved in, one of the families made the effort to come across the street to introduce themselves and to apologize for the noise caused by the months of reconstruction of their house before they moved in. I found them genuine.

 

I was especially impressed by how the children could be peacefully left alone on the front lawn, even from a very young age, to explore their surroundings. I joked to Kadamba and Jayadeva[3] that there was a child only six inches tall blissfully wheeling around a toy plastic lawn mower with his older brother, twelve inches tall, riding behind him on a foot scooter with a helmet, and their eighteen inches tall sister skipping rope. Of course, they were bigger than that, but I practically never saw such young children, some just beginning to walk, so carefree and independent. I noticed, however, that whenever the mother, who was in and out of the house, came outside, the children huddled around her affectionately whenever she called. When the father appeared, I observed a mutual respect among the husband and wife. The family seemed especially joyous on the Sabbath, when the whole family seemed to be on a perpetual stroll through the neighborhood to various religious and spiritual gatherings. I also noted that even though none of the parents were older than their mid to late twenties, they seemed to have an age-appropriate maturity for adults, one that is too often lacking in today’s Peter Pan culture.[4]

 

I am not so naïve as to claim that a few families in the neighborhood are a substantial test sample, or that in such a patriarchal society, like any system of hierarchy in the modern age, there isn’t risk of and instances of oppression or abuse. I can only say that there were positive things I gleaned from what I saw from people living in a traditional cultural model that I felt was worthy of sharing.

 

Peaceful Life

Too much time in modern society, often into one’s middle age, is spent worrying about establishing the four foundations of stable life:[5] a place to call home, a compatible partner, a suitable occupation or career, and having a spiritual teacher or tradition. In a traditional culture, these pillars of stable life are almost all set, without question, by one’s early twenties.

 

Compatibility in Marriages

One of the most successful examples for stable and compatible marriages is Hindu society. In one sense, that can be credited to carefully planned marriages affirmed by astrological compatibility that doesn’t overly prioritize a suitable match based on temporary sensual attraction. But that’s only part of it. There is great care that spouses are matched from the same sub-communities where one’s values and culture are exactly the same. Similarly, traditional cultures, like Orthodox Jews, begin the challenges of partnership very much within already agreed upon values and cultural proclivities among the partners in marriage. The divorce rate is therefore miniscule.

 

Schooled in Child Rearing  

Growing up in large families and communities where children have responsibility for other children at an early age creates a strong culture of proper child rearing that is carried down from generation to generation.

 

Community Support

People in traditional cultures tend to group in communities where they know their neighbors. One can’t minimize the value of such an asset for the support and affirmation of the way one lives one’s life and the values one has.

 

Non-difference Between the Religion One Practices and the Culture One Lives In

A feature of religion in America, even among the most religious, is the large dichotomy between one’s religious beliefs and the culture one embraces.[6] The culture of traditional societies is based on a close-knit community supporting one’s religion, so that one’s lifestyle facilitates, rather than dampens, one’s spiritual aspirations.

 

Anyway, I was surprised with what I saw. Perhaps these young, third-generation Hasidic families have, in a sense, become even more expert than their great-grand-parents in living their tradition in the context of America. Even if traditional cultures cannot be transferred wholesale to people growing up in a post-modern society, I think a study of them is certainly relevant to those serious about spiritual life. And that’s what I learned from The Jewish Alachua.

 

 

 


[1] Alachua, as many of you know, is a town in Florida that is so predominated by the Hare Krishna devotees that the Hare Krishna Project there is known by the name of the town. I am therefore using the term Alachua as a euphemism for any town that is predominated by a religious sect.

[2] A person garbed in ancient or traditional attire usually of a religious nature.

[3] The family I live with.

[4] Peter Pan is a fictional character created by Scottish Novelist J.M Barrie who is free-spirited and never grows up. He has become a cultural icon, symbolizing youthful carelessness and escapism.

[5] I coined the term and concept “The Four Pillars of Stable Life” from my own social study and observation.

[6] Often we see that people who profess various faiths in the United States are often as passionately devoted to NASCAR (The National Association of Stock Car Racing), the WWF (World Wrestling Federation) and the NFL (National Football League) and other various forms of entertainment as they are to the God they worship.

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