In their never-ending search for fulfillment, formerly freewheeling yuppies are now embracing ultra-strict Orthodox Judaism. For their neighbors in Bala Cynwyd and Lower Merion, it’s anything but kosher.
At the height of summer, in a big fancy yard in Villanova, 220 Jewish women milled about under a tent set up near the swimming pool. The gathering was Orthodox. The food was kosher, brought in from New York, and many of the women were obeying Jewish law, covering their heads and wearing long dresses. An Orthodox rabbi moved among the women, talking to them about finding God in their lives, and as dusk fell, an Orthodox rabbi’s wife gave a speech about using Torah wisdom to relieve anxiety, by grappling with your yetzer ha’ra, or evil inclination, be that alcohol, consumerism, sex, anger, whatever.
The speaker, Lori Palatnik, aimed her talk at professional mothers, and any expectation I’d nursed that these women would be dowdy, round-shouldered and suspicious — Orthodox! — quickly vanished. They were affluent and well-educated. A few were even glamorous. I met a yoga queen, Seena Elbaum, who told me how Orthodox worship had come over her physically a few years ago: "I was, like, smitten. The fire, the passion, the joy, the spirit — I felt like I had just run 12 miles. It just woke me up."
Then I met a member of a rich philanthropic family who said that Orthodox worship is "the cool thing now — it’s not your father’s Oldsmobile."
In rebranding itself for young professionals, Orthodox Judaism has also rebranded a part of the inner Main Line: In the past 10 years, Bala Cynwyd and Lower Merion have seen an influx of an estimated 400 Orthodox families, many of whom walk to synagogue in sober clothing with covered heads, sometimes crowding the narrow side streets as if expecting that no one else will be driving, either. Walk down Montgomery Avenue any Saturday afternoon, and you see them, young families, the men wearing yarmulkes, some women in wigs, making their way past Hymie’s deli — all those secular Jews inside, looking on. Numbers from the synagogues and the township suggest that the Orthodox make up about 20 percent of a local population of some 9,000 people, and they are giving a makeover to a community that has a national reputation for its understated and regal air — the Barnes Foundation’s Cézannes, the mansions that inspired The Philadelphia Story.
The Acme on Montgomery Avenue has put in a huge kosher section, where a slab of brisket will cost you nearly $50. A kosher Chinese restaurant opened a year and a half ago on Montgomery Avenue, across from the Judaica store. A few steps from another Judaica store on Bala Avenue, Rabbi Moshe Trager has opened a kosher dairy restaurant (vegetarian), Cafe Shira, on whose counter can be found brochures advertising Trager’s other line, as a mohel, or circumciser.
Indeed, the restaurant has given rise to the first new mohel joke Trager has heard in many years: "They say I do everything from soup to nuts."
Over a dinner of fish and chips at Cafe Shira, I watched a bunch of Orthodox girls taking pictures of each other on their cell phones at a big center table, and heard Orthodox parents at another table arguing with their left-leaning son — the males wearing yarmulkes, the mother’s head covered — about Israel’s conduct during the Lebanon war.
"It’s Little Jerusalem," says Conservative rabbi Steve Wernick. The Philadelphia Story indeed.
NOTHING SYMBOLIZES the Jewish-izing of Lower Merion so much as the reopening in September of the General Wayne Inn, an icon of the inner Main Line. "There hasn’t been a Jew in there in 300 years, the General Goy Inn," Moshe Trager says. Adjacent to a Friends’ meetinghouse on Montgomery Avenue, the inn was shuttered for years after one of its former owners murdered his partner there, but in 2004 the place was bought by Lubavitchers, the Hasidic sect based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and noted for its long black coats, black hats, and ecstatic and accessible religious practice. They have rechristened (sorry about that) the yellow stucco inn as the Chabad Center for Jewish Life.
Both the General Wayne and the Lubavitchers have roots in the 18th century; these days at the inn, you can hear a learned kabbalist explain the different forms demons assume in our lives, and how they enter the subconscious at night to rob our astral projections of the order our spirits seek in dreams.
Just what Madonna is studying — along with Victoria and David Beckham. Indeed, the Orthodox insurgency in Merion and Bala draws on popular and global trends in religious life. The other brands of Judaism — Reform and Conservative — have lost adherents, and Jewish leaders are panicked about what intermarriage and assimilation have done to overall Jewish numbers in the United States. Amid these downward signs, Orthodox worship is soaring, up by about 50 percent in the past decade. One reason for this is obvious. The spiritual immediacy that the Orthodox are marketing to other Jews — and yes, marketing is central to the Chabad Center and to Aish HaTorah, the "outreach" congregation that held the supper under the tent in Villanova — can compete with other offerings in the religious supermarket, whether it’s the "higher power" of the recovery movement, Buddhism’s idea that God is in all of us, the New Age interest in past lives, or the evangelical Christian campaign bent toward conservative bona fides like opposition to gay marriage.
Orthodox practice actually offers all those products, and the social walls the Orthodox erect against the world seem to the Jewish leadership like a good answer to intermarriage, let alone consumerism and pornography on television.
"The soul has its own character, and the soul has its needs," says Avigayil Pechter, 34, a former office manager who moved inside the eruv three years ago from Havertown. Jewish laws serve those needs. "People think of Judaism as a source of archaic, horrible rules, but it’s important to have objective moral standards to live by."
Not that this is an altogether happy story. The influx of several hundred Orthodox families who adhere to a strict moral code has altered the character of a liberal suburb, in which affluent people share drinks with neighbors and count on those neighbors to drive their kids to the hospital in an emergency. Some despair. "I hate it, it’s overwhelming," says one woman, a friend of my mother (who lives in Merion). The seculars (and even some observant Jews) are put off by the fundamentalism and narrowness of the Orthodox Jews, who are governed by 613 laws of behavior that include, for women, covering their hair, bearing children, making a Jewish home, lighting the Shabbos candles, and having a ritual bath after menstruation. Alas, none of these neighbors wanted to give me their names. Don’t want to sound intolerant.
"I don’t hate these people, I just wish they’d go to a different neighborhood," says my mother’s friend. "I don’t have any Jewish grandchildren. They’re half Jewish. And they’re terrific, they’re good people. … I actually think religion causes most of the problems in the world, more so today than ever." Raised Orthodox herself and now secular, this woman says the Orthodox are "adding nothing" to the community and "couldn’t care less" about institutions like the schools and Lower Merion Township government.
"We’re adding diversity. It’s not based on going to a political rally," responds an Orthodox mother who recently moved to Merion and also requested anonymity. "I should get a kaffiyeh [the Arab headdress favored by Yasir Arafat] — she would like that better? Or maybe I should be Pocahontas Bernstein, she would like that?" This Orthodox woman is not alone in pointing out that the religious have boosted Lower Merion’s real estate values, and cemented the affluence of a community that borders City Avenue.
"We’ve probably put $250,000 onto the price of her house," Moshe Trager says when I tell him about my mother’s friend’s complaint. "She can come down here and kish mir im tuchus." (Yiddish for — well, figure it out.)
PEOPLE SAY THAT MERION and Bala began to look different about five years ago, but the Orthodox community there owes its origins to an event that occurred in 1990, when a local synagogue put up a taut, transparent line of monofilament going from telephone pole to telephone pole. The string creates a virtual Jewish home in a community by surrounding it in a continuous boundary, or eruv in Hebrew. The significance to religious Jews of an eruv is that on the Sabbath, they’re permitted by their laws to do more inside their homes than outside them — for instance, they can carry books or children, or pick up reading glasses. Once an eruv is established, making an entire neighborhood a "home," they can carry books to synagogue and push children in a stroller.
This might be just another one of those wacky things religious people believe in, from white salamanders to the resurrection of the dead, but for its consequences to neighborhoods. All of Jerusalem is an eruv, and eruvs have been fought in London and in Tenafly, New Jersey, and elsewhere, because of what they do to a place. The Merion eruv was put up by Lower Merion Synagogue, a gathering of the Orthodox not far off City Avenue. Bruce D. Reed, a Lower Merion commissioner, says the township never had a problem with it, and indeed, the three then-commissioners who supported the eruv were Jewish. The eruv encloses about 2.3 square miles of suburb north and west of City Line Avenue, between the Main Line train tracks and Belmont Avenue.
"You live in Lower Merion, you’re living among the one percent — one percent of the country that controls 90 percent of the wealth," says Steve Wernick, the rabbi at Adath Israel, a Conservative synagogue, emphasizing that those who end up on the Main Line are very lucky indeed. The traditional Orthodox community in Philadelphia is in the Northeast, near Castor and Bustleton, but as more and more Orthodox Jews have become professionals, they have, like everyone else, moved up. Merion has always been a magnet to the lawyers who work downtown, doctors at the blue-chip hospitals, academics at the universities, not to mention the psychiatrists who treat them.
About 10 years ago, Young Israel, an Orthodox shul, or congregation, that had been inside City Avenue moved to Montgomery Avenue, the main street of Merion. Then, six years ago, a group of seven Jewish scholars and their families, from one of the country’s leading yeshivas, or Jewish academies, in Lakewood, New Jersey, arrived, and started a kollel, or Talmudic study center supported by the community, across from Hymie’s, also on Montgomery Avenue. Soon they were followed by Aish HaTorah and Chabad, the two "outreach" congregations that market Judaism. Except for Chabad, all these groups have a bare-bones, shop-front feel to them, in a community where institutions tend to have fieldstone manors and slate roofs.
One Jewish community leader who declines to have his name published says that what upsets the non-observant Jews is the shades of the old country. "The long black coat touches a stereotype that the seculars have worked hard to distance themselves from," he says. "It evokes the specter of huddled masses and conjures up many of the negative Jewish stereotypes. It has followed them from Eastern Europe, and now it’s lapping at the door."
I talked to half a dozen secular residents of the community, most of them Jewish. Their chief concern is that the Orthodox are diminishing an enlightened community by importing a culture of narrow-minded fundamentalism. The concerns entail everything from unfashionable dress and large families to political conservatism and (the hot button) norms about gender relations, like the description of homosexuality as unnatural and rules against Orthodox shaking hands with members of the opposite sex. Many of the Orthodox women work in professions, but they obey religious laws that include reserving a place of respect at the table for the husband and lighting the candles of the Sabbath on Friday nights. The Orthodox can be evangelical about this belief, approaching women on the sidewalk to offer them candles so that they can perform the duty.
One Merionite, a Conservative Jew, told me that the tension between secular and Orthodox is "like Shiites and Sunnis." He’s had Orthodox peer into his shopping cart at the Acme and buttonhole him: "Why are you buying that chicken?" "I don’t care what kind of chicken you buy," he says, "and I don’t want you telling me what kind of chicken to buy. That’s why I shop on Shabbos [Saturday] now. I know they won’t be there."
An Episcopalian I spoke to, William Gross, was more forgiving. He said he prefers the influx to, say, evangelical Christians, though he’s noticed that the Orthodox don’t say hi to him when he greets them on his regular 3.3-mile walk. Still, he got the children of an Orthodox neighbor to play with his grandchildren in his yard.
There are rumors that gentiles are moving out of the eruv, further down the Line. "I heard that a longtime member of the community has chosen to move to Wayne," says Gary Erlbaum, a philanthropist who is on the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. "I would say they were anti-Semites before, they’re anti-Semites now. These people are great neighbors," he says of the Orthodox. "Who would run from this?"
These cultural tensions echo the quiet conflict of Jews and gentiles a generation ago. Professional secular Jews began moving into the Main Line 50 years ago, for the same reason the Orthodox are moving there now: good neighbors; a safe, pretty place for kids to ride bikes and go to school. The secular Jews had a distinct set of values (including tight family life and high achievement) and were met by astonishment, bafflement and discrimination. Golf courses and tennis clubs wouldn’t let them in.
Those Jews, my parents among them, wanted their children to succeed along American lines. My mother had six children in part because of her concerns about Jewish population figures, but two of those kids married out of the faith (including me, a fact I wasn’t in a hurry to advertise to the people I interviewed). Intermarriage, and the desire to make it in America, have produced something of a crisis for Jews.
"We used to be four percent of the population. Now we’re 1.8," says David Wachs, a leading philanthropist, in Starbucks. Gary Erlbaum, of Federation, echoes the point: "How many Jews existed in America after the Holocaust? Six million. Add a normal growth rate, 1.5 percent. That would make 13 or 14 million today. The last study I saw said 5.25 million."
Wachs and Erlbaum are Conservative, but both have sons who have become Orthodox, and Erlbaum’s has moved inside the eruv.
But the Orthodox movement isn’t about numbers. At the heart of the revival are people raised in disaffected or typically Conservative homes who have sought greater spiritual depth in their lives — even if that means accepting the restrictions of Orthodoxy.
ON A RECENT SUMMER morning, the eruv was bustling with the feeling of progress. A contractor at one big new house was putting in special stainless-steel-lined dishwashers, two of them, for two kitchens, so he could sell to the Orthodox, who have strict rules about separating plates for dairy and plates for flesh. A chandelier-cleaning service was passing through one of the narrow back lanes, near signs saying "The Barnes Belongs in Merion." Rabbi Shraga Sherman rushed around the General Wayne Inn talking into his Treo, then pulled a contractor aside to discuss the finishing details of the front room. A man inside Rosenberg’s Judaica leafed through a book called How to Prevent an Intermarriage.
And on Bala Avenue, Moshe Trager was talking on his cell phone, trying to get his kosher cheese order in for the weekend.
"Hey Mohammed, I need 20 pounds of parmesan, make sure it’s the Chalav Yisrael," he says — the highest level of kosher supervision for dairy products.
Trager sits down to lunch with me in his sun-filled Cafe Shira, just down from the Bala Theatre, and tells me how he got to this spot in life. It all began at the beach in Greece, in 1989.
Then 24, Trager was an unaffiliated Jew enjoying all the pleasures of modern American life. He had long hair and had experimented with drugs; he was dating a Christian woman who was studying at the Sorbonne in Paris. But he found out he could fly from Athens to Tel Aviv for $60, so he decided to go, and an acquaintance gave him the address of a place he could stay for free in Jerusalem. It turned out to be a hotel run by a yeshiva near the Western Wall. Trager didn’t get back to the States for six months, and when the old girlfriend called, he went to meet her wearing a yarmulke with ducks on it, and apologized: "I guess I owe you an explanation. I sort of bugged out."
He had become fascinated with Judaism. When he was young, Trager says, there was never praying in his synagogue: "I’d go to synagogue and hang out with Nancy Schwartz. But we actually have a real religion. We have mysticism, and we believe in angels? I gotta know about this." His Christian friends had an easier time understanding Trager than Jews did. His parents at first thought he had joined a cult. Before long, Trager was back in Jerusalem, and going from Marc to Moshe.
"Moshe? Moshe?" one of his friends exclaimed. "What the f— happened to your name? Did it get run over by a truck?"
The themes of Trager’s story repeat for other Jews in the eruv who fell up the stairs. Israel often plays a role, with its Jewish pride and surround-sound religion. Then there’s the desire for greater meaning that boomers all over the nation are feeling.
But I was also fascinated by the restrictions that Orthodox women accept. Robin Moskow, 47 and a former Eagles cheerleader, told me that they might seem oppressed from the outside, but in fact, the female sex is exalted: "Women are considered more spiritual, more elevated." Orthodox life is centered on the home. A woman is expected to bear children because children are deemed a blessing from God, and who can decline a blessing? Orthodox understanding of Jewish law tends to rule out contraception, and a woman who seeks it for, say, her mental health is expected to discuss that decision with a rabbi. Abortion, a litmus-test issue for many secular Jews, goes against Orthodox law, though rabbis do allow it when the pregnant woman’s life is at risk. Modesty is a core principle, in behavior and dress. Orthodox women don’t wear jeans. Hiking and tennis are in, so long as a girl or woman wears a skirt and covers her head, elbows and knees. She should be, Merion writer Sara Esther Crispe told me, "attractive without attracting." That means modesty even in the way she walks. Which is not to say that Orthodox women are not empowered. Crispe, whose husband Asher is a rabbi, runs a website for Jewish women under the auspices of Chabad in Brooklyn.
Orthodox families vary on where they draw lines in the home. Avigayil Pechter threw out her television just before she had her first child two years ago, though some Orthodox homes do have TVs. Pechter’s son is started on a diet of children’s books. "Some Orthodox families won’t have books with animals that are non-kosher. You won’t find Three Little Pigs in their children’s libraries. We have it. We don’t care."
Orthodox Jews seem to accept that their religion will mean professional sacrifices. A software engineer I met at the Acme said there’s pressure in the Orthodox community to start your own business, because so many important business decisions are made in places Orthodox Jews can’t go, bars and restaurants after work. "That’s when a red light flashes on and off, saying, ‘You can’t do that; that conflicts with family life.’"
As it is among fundamentalist Christians, sexual morality is a central concern for those who regard the Torah as a divine gift to the Jews. One Friday morning I went to the kollel, across from Hymie’s, and sat with a dozen men studying that week’s Torah portion, which described the arrival of the Jews in ancient Israel. Many Jews lost their way during the years of exodus, and the rabbi who led the discussion that morning, Yechiel Biberfeld, spoke angrily of the Biblical community of Baal-peor, where seduction was the order of the day: "Baal-peor is similar to today’s world in America. You can do whatever you want with whomever you want," he said.
When I asked Moshe Trager whether he’d enjoyed his permissive youth, he sighed and said, "Oh yes!" before allowing that all the experience had damaged his sense of wonder: "Every kiss is floating around inside your head. Everything you did is in there. Every Playboy you opened is floating around in there somewhere. Your brain doesn’t forget anything. I wonder how that affected us and manipulated us and created our moral structure. And I also value the purity of a more religious environment. If you’ve slept with every girl in town, how’s any girl going to come up to that?"
Trager’s 14-year-old son just entered a yeshiva in Baltimore, and that’s another reason he has misgivings about his wild youth. Orthodox life is expensive: four kids in private schools; meats and cheeses that cost four times the price of non-kosher products. If Trager had done less experimenting and spent more time with his nose to the grindstone, he’d be having an easier time of it.
Some people drive to worship at Lower Merion Synagogue, and he’s noticed — the parking lot has many BMWs and Lexuses.
THE CRISPES, SARA ESTHER and Asher, were the most intellectually sophisticated couple I met in the eruv. They had their feet in two worlds, modern literature and ancient Torah. They spoke excitedly of the Hebrew words for Torah’s injunction to be fruitful and multiply, and why that commanded a Jew to be creative, and a few minutes later Rabbi Crispe jumped up to get a copy of Swann’s Way in French, which he studied just so he could read Proust.
The Crispes could have moved anywhere on the East Coast within shouting distance of New York. They chose the Main Line because of the natural beauty, the great schools, the intellectual level of their neighbors, and because they definitely did not want to be in a religious enclave. For that reason, they gave up variety in kosher restaurants and steered away from such locales as Lakewood, New Jersey, and Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Sara Esther Crispe says the kosher bakery at the Acme is a good symbol for the community. Everything it produces is kosher, but the non-kosher consumer doesn’t consider that for a moment, while a kosher eater is pleased to find such variety. "You’d never get cinnamon raisin or croissants at a kosher bakery," Crispe says. "What you have here is something serving the public at large, but doing so to meet the needs of the Orthodox. That’s a symbol of why we’re here."
In that sense, the Crispes represent a real shift in the culture of Orthodox Jewry, which used to be more inward-looking and isolated. "After the Holocaust," says Asher Crispe, an expert on kabbalah, "many groups within Orthodoxy retreated inwardly and tried to create invisible walls to preserve this scraggly remnant from disappearing for all time. That totally insular, closed community seems to me antithetical to Torah."
Like eager immigrants, the Crispes keep throwing out compliments. They want to have people over to dinner; they want to learn from their neighbors. The Torah commands you to relate to the other, Sara Esther says, and to learn from the other. When I tell her about some of the seculars’ criticisms, the chipper look doesn’t leave her face. She says she’s going to do her utmost to undo those bad feelings. I hear the same from others. Shraga Sherman says he wants to sit up with me late at night in his office and drink vodka; Moshe Trager offers Jack Daniel’s in his sidewalk café late at night. And maybe his buddy will show up, the guy who left Hollywood and a life of dating models to be inside the eruv. And we can then discuss that central issue of Torah: how to stop being a schmuck!
If the divide between the Orthodox and the seculars is going to soften, it will be because of such small moments. Hundreds of thousands of individual gestures blurred the divisions between secular Jewish life and gentile culture in the last generation (and led to my marrying a gentile woman from Chestnut Hill). Perceptions change bit by bit.
After all, the Orthodox in Merion and Bala are Jewish representatives of a national religious revival that gives seculars the heebie-jeebies. Believers are everywhere these days. When Rabbi Yakov Couzens of Aish HaTorah says, "I don’t believe in coincidences, everything happens for a reason," he’s echoing what George Bush has said in virtually the same terms.
What are considered the "culture wars" nationally are happening right in Lower Merion Township. And if the seculars are going to give an inch on their beliefs — hey, maybe there is a soul that defies rational explanation — the religious will have to yield some ground, too. By, say, taking on environmentalism as an issue, or speaking up for the equitable treatment of Palestinians. One thing I’m certain of from visiting Merion is that it’s going to happen slowly.
"I always wonder when I’m walking around the supermarket, ‘What do they think of us?’" Avigayil Pechter says with a laugh. "When they see all these women with their heads covered and all their children, I definitely wonder what they’re thinking. And I hope they know that we’re normal people."
Philip Weiss is working on a book about religion and politics.