Shabbos in San Jose

The Rabbi was yeshivish, clearly so because he used words that most of the shul didn’t understand, caught himself, and then said the English translation afterwards. My host said he was a YU guy, but I couldn’t see it. Was he one of those guys that went to YU, frummed out, infiltrated the yeshiva system and somehow got people convinced that he was raised within the yeshiva system? I really couldn’t place it. He was way too friendly to be a New Yorker and he didn’t speak like one either. He also had a firm handshake, a sure sign of someone who had grown up modern but somewhere along the way adopted the yeshivish lingo and donned a black hat.

The rabbi’s background could sound normal to a yeshivish or a so called illustrious right wing modern orthodox person. On the one hand, he had learned in Lakewood, Shar Hatorah in Queens and the Mir — Sounds like someone who took the position to bring chizuk, ruchnias and a bit of mussar to congregation that was a bit more modern then his background, right? Sounds totally typical until you learn that he went to YU for a BA in history and then University of Pennsylvania Law School. Had the YU part not been included, it could be “normal” – he would have had to get a BTL – Bachelors in Talmudic Law — and finagle some coursework through FDU or the IDT learner earner program, but there are plenty of yeshivish folks who get into great graduate schools. Heck, I know of plenty yeshiva guys who went to graduate school without ever having step foot on a college campus.

The Jewish community of San Jose, California is interesting. It’s definitely got a unique flavor – not as much as the community members pride themselves on — but it does fall within the generalization that most small communities west of the Mississippi are unique and different. My hosts kept insisting that their community was different, that northern California and the Bay area was unique and unlike any other Jewish community.  I found this same attitude amongst people who really take a pride in their communities and I find they are always trying to convince me why theirs is even more uniquely unique.

This was just my second shabbos in the Bay area. I haven’t even been in California for 2 weeks but already I am beginning to understand a bit about the area. I have been riding my bike, checking out the kosher restaurants and asking a lot of questions of people. There 5 communities in the Bay area, Berkeley, San Francisco, Oakland, Palo Alto and San Jose. There are tons of Chabad houses scattered about but rarely does the mere presence of a Chabad house mean there is a significant orthodox Jewish community. Palo Alto and San Jose, spaced about 15 miles apart from each other, are the larger communities in the area, and arguably more mainstream. Berkeley is rather left wing, Palo Alto, although left wing, has a vibrant kollel full of former (are they ever former?) Lakewood and Chofetz Chaim guys and San Jose, while deprived of an Eruv, has the only right wing non-chabad shuls in the area. The Bay area has 250,000 Jews, but only a few hundred frum families – craziness!

I chose a seat all the way in the back, close to the exit and right next to a bookcase full of seforim. This way I had two escapes:  I could simply leave, in the event of a drawn out drasha, or I could read about how I would be killed for picking the good jelly beans out of the bowl on shabbos.  Everything was almost perfect — almost because my seat was at a terrible angle for mechitza peeping. In fact, the mechitza made it impossible to see what lay beyond it unless I counted the shadows and silhouettes. The mechitza was made of cloth, and was similar to a shower curtain. Even when they opened the mechitza for the speeches, I couldn’t see because the bimah was blocking my view. Luckily I had already done my research and found out that there wasn’t much to look at in San Jose. There actually seemed to be a reverse shidduch crisis  — there were a bunch of single guys but no girls. In general it does seem to often be the case in small communities. Probably due to the fact that the girls all flee to the shidduch epicenter in New York and then men weed through the thousands of profiles on Saw You At Sinai, organizing marathon dating sessions in which they travel to New York for a weekend and squeeze in 10 dates. I had previously heard that the best female crop, solely for viewing in my case, were the ladies in Palo Alto, particularly since there was a very low mechitza. Even though I am in a relationship, I feel a noble selfless need to scope out the territory because I feel like I may just find some friends of mine a true out of town girl to marry.

The seats at Am Echad are amazing. The actual chairs. Seriously folks, if you are ever to go there you are sure to check out the seats. As opposed to the shul in Berkeley, where your butt cheeks rub your neighbors’, the shul in San Jose has wide stadium like seating, with thick cushions and armrests. Had I not been enthralled in the Chofetz Chaim biography I had found, I would have fallen asleep and slept like a baby.

The Rabbi got up to speak before maariv on Friday night. I hate the Friday night speeches. Everyone is starved – I mean as a single guy I go on a hunger strike starting Friday in order to prepare for Friday night, so I want to get davening over with and pound some challah. So as he gets up to speak and I suppress my groans, something strange happens. First of all, he doesn’t speak the traditional type of speech. Instead, he talks about making tea on shabbos. Of course half of the shul are Baalei Teshuva and they have to clarify that the second cup is in fact the kli shlishi. BTs can get really detailed in their questions and he had to clarify multiple times that the urn is the first cup. Everyone started arguing with each other and talking over each other, in a friendly way of course and it became kind of like a question answer session.

It reminded me of yeshiva. Back then, once a year we would have a question answer session with the rosh yeshiva in which everyone would gear the conversation towards sex and masturbation. Everyone would try and shlug the Rebbe up (no pun intended) and go into complex situations, like “Rebbe, let’s say someone said we would be killed if we didn’t look at girls?” It was always really a lot of fun while being terribly embarrassing, especially because beis medrish would sit in for entertainment.

My host was actually a fan who had offered to host me for shabbos when he learned I was in the area. He must have been previously acquainted with  my tactics because instead of me eating both meals at his house, he sent me to someone else for Friday night. More than that, he made sure to send me to someone who had a lot of guests and very good food. This is probably because he knew I would write about the whole thing, though now I am now unable to since he revealed my identity to those present.  (Speaking to all fans who will host me in the future, my preference is to remain incognito unless someone actually recognizes me because this way, I can observe and write freely. Now, I have to censor some things – which will have to be made into separate posts, which really sucks). One of the ladies at the meal asked me if I was dating, because she saw I helped clear the table. I often help clear the table as a strategy to move things along — because it will usually send synapses to the host’s brain that dessert should begin.

People in Silicon Valley don’t ask you what you do beyond the question of “Software or Hardware?” Almost everyone works in software or hardware, and they work for companies you actually use. I had the pleasure of meeting the guy who got my You Tube account back after it was deleted last year. He used to work at Google and we had a whole chat about ads and how people milk Google with sites devoted to ads. All in all, very interesting stuff. Case in point, our host has something to do with SEO and I met people at shul who work for Linkedin, Yahoo and several of the other companies located in the area.

The shul in San Jose was the physically ugliest shul I have ever been in. It used to be a bank, and from the outside it looks like a giant mushroom and has that ugly 1960s look. The inside is a big circle with the mechitza hanging near the middle, giving the women a few fewer seats than the men. The bimah is “regular” and the rabbi wasn’t visible from my seat, which is good because he seemed like the type that stares at you with one of those knowing smiles that makes you feel bad that you are spacing out or reading some book during laining. The walls are white brick, and the ceiling is made up of those ugly office building lights, which should really be a skylight, but there are actually no visible windows in the shul.

You know those frummies that refer to all bad people as drug addicts? This rabbi was one of those, those types that talk about sports, movie and rock stars with the drug addict suffix, “a bunch of drug addicts” – so 1995 by the way. I remember back when it was a fad for rabbis to speak that way and always  found it kind of funny. At the end of the Friday night speech, he launched into a mussar schmooze of sorts about coming on time for minyan. He said there was no excuse for people to come late to Friday night mincha on New Year’s Day. It was interesting, because I checked out the demographics of the shul and it really didn’t seem like the type of place that would be receptive to mussar.

The Rabbi seemed to be well liked by the shul citizenry, who I think were really digging his mussar. It seemed as if they were a bunch of brand new BTs who were just pumped to have any guy with a black hat preaching to them. You could tell they were all very excited about shul. After Kiddush, most of the shul went back in for a shiur on sefer hamitzvos. No one really spoke during shul and everyone took forever when they davened shemona esrei. It kind of reminded me of the Agudah in St. Louis where no one ran home after shabbos and instead they busted out a little more learning – how bizarre?

I was down with all of the mussar, being a Talmud of the chofetz chaim system and having a hell of a lot to work on. It was also nice to be in a more mainstream place. No offense to the left wing modern orthodox and chabad shuls of the area, but when all is said and done I like the torah and feelings of the centrist yeshivish/right wing modern orthodox crowd best. Greasy yeshivish is much, but little things really go a long way, like how the rabbi quoted from Rav S.R. Hirsch and the fact they said the prayer for Israel in Hebrew – saying it in English irks me tons, it sounds too churchlike.

It sucks to have a host that keeps halacha strictly. My host woke me up several times. I ignored him until he said that I have to come with him because it’s yichud. I was kind of mad, I was really comfy and wanted to roll on in at musaf, but since the seats were so comfortable I assumed I would just doze or space out, and maybe get some glimpses of the non existent girls in the community.

I carefully analyzed the demographics of the shul. There were about 30 men there for shachris. There were 4 black hats, one cowboy hat; one of the black hat wearers was visiting from Detroit. There was no yarmulke of choice, but the knitted yarmulkes were in the minority, including myself there were 3 men wearing them. Most men opted for the black suede or black velvet yarmulke style, pushed towards the middle of the head signifying a BT leaning. There several boys with longish hair who wore black velvet leading me to believe that they were the children of baalei teshuva. I have often noted that the children of BTs are always forced to wear a certain type of yarmulke that never seem to quite fit. The shul demographics are even more interesting because a third of the shul is Sephardic, a whole bunch of French speaking folks as well. Most people wore dark suits and white shirts, there were 4 people wearing colored shirts and only 3 including myself not wearing jackets. Almost everyone who davened for the amud or made brachas over the torah said them with a Tuf rather than a Suf.

The shul even had someone that I would call the shul hocker. Though he wasn’t much of a hocker, he was a loud guy who liked to show off his yeshiva background, learn gemara while everyone’s davening and seems to be twirling imaginary peyos during most of shul (I wondered if he knew about washing negel vasser after touching your hair)

The people in San Jose reminded me a lot of Dallas. They were all comfortable – poor people don’t really live in the Bay Area since it’s not very affordable at all. Everyone is educated and intellectual but not in a snooty way. Most of the people are transplants — it is quite rare to meet someone who actually grew up in the area. The houses are modest, although terribly expensive and people aren’t too nosy, or prying. As with Berkeley, people aren’t overtly friendl. Though they were nice and courteous, I wasn’t receiving lunch and dinner invitations from everyone in shul, which is fine. I can’t expect every community to be like Denver, Minneapolis or Dallas.

I did forget to mention that most of the frum Jews I have met so far have been quite conservative in their political views and I am wondering when I am going to chance upon those hardcore “left coast Jews”. I have heard that many Jews are so right wing round these parts because the anti-Israel hatred is so extreme and they see it firsthand, rather than somewhat abstractly on CNN.

I expect to be hitting up Palo Alto, The Mission Minyan in SF and the Oakland Jewish communities in the near future.