Shabbos in Oakland

It took me about 4 minutes to fall in love with Beth Jacob. I found a siddur situated in the little holder in front of me, stretched out my legs to gage whether legroom was ample and gazed around and the unbelievable fact that within arms reach there were three different things to read. These included a calendar, shul bulletin which was 2 pages long and a guide to the Bay Area Jewish community that had an interesting description for each shul in the area that all think of themselves as open, caring and spiritual.

I looked up and noticed that the shul looked like a giant ski house –an a-Frame construction that was intriguing. I especially liked the dark and cozy tones of hardwood that made up the ceiling. The mechitza was low enough to lean on, but high enough to prevent me from jumping over it should I have felt the tayva to do so.

Kabbalas shabbos was quick but after lecha dodi they sang the shabbos kodesh song for a good 8 minutes. Curiously enough, everyone stood at their seats clapping but, no one bothered to try and form one of those Carlebach circles around the bimah. The bimah was all the way up front right near the ark. This seemed a bit strange but good for folks who needed a quick escape should they see the gabbai approaching them for a shul reject job like holding the second torah during shabbos rosh chodesh or something. Even when I get asked to do some reject job, I always make sure to state clearly that I will not sit with a torah in my lap. I wonder if people give donations for shul reject jobs like gelilah or pesicha for anim zemiros.

I noticed that the siddurs were kept towards the rear of the shul and that there 5 separate entrances to get into the men’s section. I really liked that, in fact I’ll make mention that Beth Jacob should probably win the award for easiest and least embarrassing late shul entrances. You can walk all the way to the back, grab a siddur and sit down without anyone ever noticing you. Although I am not a fan of the Koren Sacks Siddur (having been weaned on Artscroll I simply can’t do the text switchover – I think of the Koren Sacks as the Mac of siddurim) I liked the diversity of siddur selection. I noticed some blue Shiloh siddurs. That took me back to my siddur party at Yeshiva Ketanna of Manhattan and I noticed they weren’t just rocking the Stone Chumash. I love when shuls try to support and break the Artscroll monopoly at the same time.

As is tradition I sat around trying to figure out what hashkafa the shul was. The Rabbis are both YU guys, the assistant rabbi wears a black hat and I think he may have even tried to throw me a dead fish – I don’t recall. Switching from a real handshake to a yeshivish one must be tough practice though, something you surely have to chazer over and over again. Can you imagine how hard it must be to go from a firm and dry handshake to a clammy half alive fish? I hate to think about it.

The bathrooms solidified my feelings of love toward the Oakland Jewish community. I never would have expected it, but Beth Jacob has full urinals and I was amazed. I also felt a little homesick for I know that New York City public restrooms are the last bastions of the full wall urinal. Both men’s bathrooms at Beth Jacob have full walled urinals. The type that have such a large surface area to pee onto that you really need not aim. I figured they had the full walled types because their Kiddush clubs must be wild affairs. Being that they aren’t a Young Israel affiliated shul, I figured that everyone would go and booze it up during the haftorah and at one point some younger members complained about the piss covered floors and finally the shul decided to purchase full wall urinals. Whatever the case may be, I love full wall urinals and if not for the fact that I have trouble peeing in front of other men I would have taken more advantage of them. I was a little disenchanted by the claustrophobic stalls which were made of wood and so closed that the smells get caught inside them and fail to leave. I was also disappointed to see the little shul bathroom tissue dispensers with the classic hybrid of sandpaper and paper towels in a compact size.

As is usually the case, I sat through much of shul trying to get a feel for the people and the Rabbis. Were they just plain old modern orthodox, which way did they lean? Were they liberals or conservatives? Did they have good food? Would there be any old ladies in the way at Kiddush that I would have to mow down in order to grab the cholent spoon before it fell in the pot? I wondered all of this until the rabbi said something about shalosh seudos.

No he didn’t. Did he just say shalosh seudos? Are modern orthodox rabbis of shuls that have a women’s mincha allowed to bypass the word seudat shlishit and say shalosh seudos? I thought it was against the rules. I know that modern orthodoxy is a little lax on whether it’s pronounced halacha or halakha (with that little bar on top), but surely they would be burned at the stake for saying such a blatantly yeshivish term. I wondered if they said gut vach after havadalah and gut yuntiff in the streets. Maybe my judgments were all wrong and I was in a right modern shul. I really had to pay better attention.

I was kind of shocked that the Torah was not walked through women’s section. Rather, the women lined up to kiss it over the mechitza. I also noticed that there were a pretty high amount of sheitles, falls and other full head coverings in the shul and a distinct lack of lampshade hats. Maybe the lampshade hasn’t made it to the west coast yet. I also noted the lack of an American or Israeli flag in the front of the shul – although one of the tunes during davening was Hatikvah – so cliché.

I woke up late on Shabbos morning and my tardiness was extended by my hosts’ amazing coffee. It was seriously top notch and it had the sediment on bottom of the cup just how I like it. Since moving to California I have developed a taste for good coffee and good wine – it’s kind of strange. I used to drink half a cup of wine and get woozy and now I can sit at a Shabbos meal and drink for hours and not feel a thing. I took advantage of the rear entrance on Shabbos day and entered into what I would call the talking and beginners section. I say beginners because during musaf most of the folks were doing the feet apart side to side sway, basically the “I don’t know what I’m doing but I like it here”.

I did notice that a large percentage of the shul didn’t seem to be orthodox. I was definitely not dan l’kav zechus. I noticed many of the people carrying in their talis bags even though there is no eruv. If it were biblical times the shul could have live pay per view broadcasts of their members being thrown off cliffs. Can you imagine auctioning off stones for throwing during Yom Kippur auctions?

On the walk over I noticed a bunch of Jewish cars parked out front that weren’t there the night before and it really struck me how cool it was that Beth Jacob had all of these non-observant members that were coming to a traditional shul. They must be doing something right. I don’t think any of the other shuls in the Bay Area could boast such a large membership of non-orthodox shul goers. One person told me that about 30% of the shul was orthodox and another person told me that a majority of the shul was not orthodox and that is super impressive.

What was even more impressive is how sociable and how relaxed the shul atmosphere is. Unfortunately some of the shuls in the area take themselves too seriously. I like it chilled and off the cuff. The Rabbi’s speech was relaxed, and it didn’t feel rushed — it was one of those end of the davening speeches. I always feel kind of pissed when that happens, like you’re done with shul, you feel so cool because the rabbi didn’t speak and bam he nails a 20 minute schmooze on you as you’re about to load of on stale cookies and tortilla chips.

Another shocker — the rabbi quoted the Late Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory in his speech. I noticed that he fumbled with the of blessed memory, like he had to make sure to really get it down that he died. Either way, it is impressive to see a modern orthodox rav quote the rebbe – kind of weird, eh? Speech was good and it was so classically Chabad — changing around the tochachah to be a good thing. That’s Chabad for you. They either take the opposite stance on something or they do gematria. On a side note, I was sitting at Chabad of Reno several weeks back and the rabbi gave this gematria speech that made no sense – one old guy in the shuk pipes in after the rabbi is all finished and says “but rabbi, who cares” and I myself feel this way after almost every gematria talk I have ever heard. Thank God for snags.

I was a bit dismayed at the shul library for two reasons. It’s located in this awkward little room right where the rabbi sits in front of the shul, there is a side entrance, but whenever you’re roaming around in there the rabbi looks at you, as if to say, it’s davening time now. I want to look back and say “I know. But I just love some inspiring shtetl stories to improve my davening” but I didn’t find much and all I really look for are shtetl stories and Artscroll gadol biographies also known as The Life and Times of…books.

If I may digress for a moment, I am addicted to the gadol biographies by Artscroll even though most of them suck. They are almost all exactly the same, kind of like VH1 behind the music. The gadol is born to poor family (besides Rav Dessler – the Desslers were big pimpin) family realizes he’s an Illuy and sends him to learn in Khelm, Slobodka or Radin and then they talk about the gadol’s humility for the rest of the book. The only one that was any different was Chaim Shmulevetz and Yaakov Kaminetzky. Elchanan Wasserman gets you mad and the Chofetz Chaim is so cliché you feel like you’re back on the Chazon Ish or something but I am still in love with them and if you want to donate any to me I would love to own them all.

So the rabbi speaks and we all bust into Kiddush and I am shocked at what happened next. No, they didn’t bring out a 7 course meal. No, a bunch of hot Chabad girls didn’t enter the building and start feeding me grapes and fanning me with cardboard. The Rabbi didn’t wait for everyone to be in the room to make Kiddush. Let me repeat this revelation again. A YU modern orthodox, clean shaven, non hat wearing, rabbi made a timely Kiddush without pausing 3 times to make sure everyone was present and he didn’t even give warning. I know this may not be important to many of you, but those who think like me and there are loads that do surprisingly – understand why this is almost as important as the invention of clear Pepsi.

One of my biggest problems with modern orthodoxy is its unwillingness to abide by the law of hunger. Kiddush takes forever and if you take a little plastic cup with which to make Kiddush, the Kiddush bouncers or members of the sisterhood are likely to castrate you or at least bar you from having any cholent until all the people who waited for the rabbi to make the blessing had theirs. Modern orthodoxy is very politically correct when it comes to food. I watched this 4 year old kid at Kiddush trying to take the last strawberry on an empty platter with the spoon. I sat and wondered why he didn’t just use his hands; it’s a strawberry for Gods sake. He finally gave up and pushed the strawberry into his bowl but, not without looking around first – I was appalled at his manners – at 16 I was crawling under peoples legs and mowing down younger children to get to the prized Entenmann’s raspberry twist before the adults got to it. At 20, I had a knack for elbowing little old ladies in the guts, and kicking men on the cholent line in the shins. At 28, I simply move in the second the first person takes food and I’m out before the lines even form.

That’s another thing. I spoke about this before but Oakland provided me with another example of the peacefulness of Californians at Kiddush. Instead of rushing the table they formed single file lines on one end of the table that made it a bit awkward when I moved in for the teriyaki pasta salad while others wondered how I already had a tuna bagel. I should mention that the Kiddush was a classic case of “look better than it tastes” other than said scallion-teriyaki pasta salad. Oh, and the almond cookies were simply divine. I never did get to thank the rabbi for blowing my mind with his prompt unwavering Kiddush.

They had bagels, lox and the works for Kiddush but no cream cheese. They brought out the cream cheese later but that was already when I decided that based on my hosts look he wouldn’t be having milchigs for lunch and I didn’t want to disturb the flow of fleishigs. In fact, I was more than right. My host told me that he doesn’t even do milchigs on shavuos – totally unexpected since everyone from the other communities said that Beth Jacob is a really modern shul. Really modern shuls don’t have members that don’t have milchigs on shavuos. It’s a real frummy thing not to have milchigs on shavuos. The people I was by last year had cheese cake for Kiddush one day and that was it – kind of disappointing if you ask me. There are no milchig restaurants here and I am really in the craving milchigs stage.

Every community in the Bay Area has its own uniqueness; Oakland was the first one I went that reminded me of New York in a good way. Actually, in my mind I was thinking that it seemed like every cool and nice person from New Jersey up and left their terrible state to settle in the beautiful hills of Oakland. It was also the first place that I visited in the Bay Area that wasn’t dominated by tech.

In other communities the thing to ask is whether someone is in software or hardware. Nerdy engineering discussions dominate the table and whenever someone tells you what they do, all you can do is nod your head and say “interesting” without having any idea about what they just said. I also noticed that many people work in large corporations and in general work for someone else. In Oakland it seemed that many people owned their own businesses and I didn’t meet anyone who worked in tech.

I must have heard about 5 times that some big folks at Pixar were members of the shul. It seemed that every person wanted to tell me about the producer of Ratatouille and how the shul got special passes to the pre-screening. I also recall something about Toy Story characters of some sort. I also found out that the owner of the Raiders has two seats in the shul. The seats were comfortable but I heard that it was $5,000 for two seats – is this true?

Oakland also had the first real machers I met in the Bay Area. They weren’t hockers but actual machers. It’s kind of hard for me to explain why I pinned that term on them. It could be because there’s a lot of money floating around and everyone was so chill and unpretentious about it. The shul itself must have loads of money. They have a youth director, NCSY guy, assistant Rabbi and I am sure there must be some other well paying positions out there being divvied up. With all that money I was kind of disappointed that they couldn’t have imported a bunch of single 25-31 year old women so they could lure me into moving into their community.

I did a mini demographic study of the shul. Based on my calculations there was exactly one black velvet yarmulke in the shul but the guy wearing it was moving to Israel so I am not sure if they have the means to replace him. There was one black hat in the shul. He wore a black knitted yarmulke though. The yarmulke of choice was the knitted yarmulke with a different color border placed to the rear of the head. The suit to shirt and pants ratio was almost equal. There were a few polo shirt wearers and no one seemed to look twice at my sandals. I noticed a couple of folks wearing their tzitzis yeshivish style and short beards weren’t uncommon either.

It seemed that sheitles took a back seat to falls. Many of the fully covered hair women chose the bandanna or thick head band and fall. I believe there were 3 sheitles present but I could be wrong. Although the women were very good looking, they were all married or teenagers. The shul also doesn’t appear to contain any nebs. In general the Bay area doesn’t have too many nebs. This is mostly because it’s just too expensive to live here as a neb.

There were several Sephardim as well as Israelis. Based on the people I met, I would say that the political affiliations of the shul members are very mixed. I met diehard right wingers and left wingers, kind of cool considering that all of the other shuls are mostly one way or the other.

Overall a good time, I wish I would have had time to walk around the area which looked to be really cool. Save for San Francisco, most of the other Jewish communities are located in new suburban communities – whereas the houses in the Long Ridge Shtetl appeared to be classic and beautiful, the lawns were manicured as if they were ready for a bunch of Italian lawn bowlers and everyone appeared to be walking their dogs or playing out front. Fortunately the folks by whom I ate for lunch are of a real sociable breed and after lunch a steady stream of men and women came by. So there we men were sitting around having a shabbos party while the women held kids and shared their public breastfeeding nightmares and we men spoke about Jewish music that doesn’t suck and wine making.