"I hate New York."
Over and over and over.
"I hate New York."
I want you all to close your eyes for a minute and just imagine someone, no, several people, no, almost all your closest friends throughout your life saying they hate where you grew up. It starts off as a joke, doesn't it? Oh, yeah, haha, very funny. Maybe it stays a joke. But how long can a joke last before it starts to become a sharp little attack at what made you who you are today? And I'm not looking for a snide remark to that like, "well, if you're an overly materialistic, narrow-minded jap, then why shouldn't I knock what made you into that?" ...Am I those things? Do you really think that's what it means to live in New York? I'm not talking about Brooklyn, I'm not talking about Queens, I'm not talking about New York City, I'm not even talking about the Five Towns. I'm talking about all of us who live in none of those places but who still live in New York and who still get knocked for it (and, by the way, there are also people who do live in those places who do not fall under all the stereotyping going on about them). It is possible to live your entire life in New York and be a reasonable, open-minded, not-on-fast-forward, appreciative of the simpler things in life person with excellent values, a realization that there are others different than you, good manners, a friendly disposition, and practical ideas.
"Do you live on farms where you grew up? Did you spend your free time going cow tipping?"
Sound familiar? If any of you think I'm directing this post at you specifically - I'm not. Amazingly (or maybe it's not such a shocker), nearly all my good friends from out of town complain about the same thing and nearly all of them gripe about how they hate New York. And I have and have had many, many, many friends from out of town. In fact, most of my closest friends in life have not been from New York or have moved out of New York at a young age.
Do any of you not from New York enjoy hearing about the cow tipping over and over? When it's a joke, well, you can laugh along with it. You can even make fun of it amongst yourselves. But is it really funny to you after the hundredth time? Don't you wish people realized that wherever you're from is a normal community?
I'll let you in on a secret.
I grew up in a community not that different from yours.*
I loved my childhood. I was a happy-go-lucky kid with an incredibly loving family and I thrived in quite a close-knit community. When I was younger, nearly everyone went to the local Jewish elementary school. It was close enough to my house to walk. I knew basically every single kid, no matter what age. I may not have spoken to a lot of them, especially the ones a lot older or a lot younger, but I knew who they were. There weren't people in my community I didn't recognize and it was rare that I didn't know another kid's name (again, no matter what age). Back then there was one main shul everyone davened at (now there are a few smaller ones). The Rabbi was, and still is, one of the greatest people I know - I'm talking in terms of gadlus. We as kids all took him for granted because he was the only Rabbi we really knew, but as we got older, went to Israel, things like that, we realized how recognized he was (is) even outside of our quiet community.
On Sundays in the Spring, our shul ran (and still runs) Little League baseball for kids of all ages, with both girls teams and boys teams. I spent many, many Sundays in the local baseball field. When I was younger and first started playing, I was in the outfield. I remember being both extraordinarily bored and swelteringly hot as I stood there with nothing to do (none of the other girls could hit far enough for me to do anything) and the sun beating down on me as I watched the infield through squinted eyes, my hand getting sweaty in my glove. When I got a little older, I was, thankfully, moved to shortstop (where I finally got to do things). I remember going to my brother's games often, too, and thinking that Lawrence was a place in Cedarhurst because their team was called Lawrence Cedarhurst (and they were always so good, too).
In the summers, the Sisterhood has camp-like activities for women who are home (baseball, barbeques, arts and crafts activities, etc.). In fact, my community has lots of activities that create a nice, close community feel. The Purim carnival where all the mothers make their kids promise not to bring home any goldfish, the Simchas Torah kiddush while all the men are getting their aliyas, the women's Simchas Torah tisch on Simchas Torah night (so they don't have to just stand there watching the men dance), Shabbos youth groups, Parent-child learning, the shul Sukkah hop, the shul kiddush-a-thon, the nut roll on both Succos and Pesach (always an exciting event for a kid), tashlich at the duck pond...
Just - everything. The fact that my community, like any community that is small enough, has its quirks that everyone knows about, has its characters that everyone knows about, has that feel that you can just walk down the street and know everyone you pass by and can smile at them and say hello, not just because you're being polite but because you actually know who they are.
In some ways, the community is growing - a lot of young families are moving in and they're not all sending their kids to the local elementary school and not all of the older members of the community know the younger members. But the community tries to stay cohesive and tries to integrate the newer version with the version it used to be as best it can.
On a more personal level, my parents raised me with excellent values - and both of them are born and bred New Yorkers. I learned to put others before myself. I learned to give more than I receive. I learned to always smile, to always greet someone in a friendly way, to always act like a mentch. I learned that wherever I go, I represent my family and I have a responsibility to do so in the most positive way possible. I learned that material things don't matter as much as family, friendship, knowledge, manners. I learned to always treat others with respect, to approach the world with an open mind, and to value the differences another person might have from myself. I learned not to judge too quickly, that midos are more important than money, and that it's highly important to appreciate what we have and to take the time to enjoy the world God has created for us - not to rush through with our heads down.
A classic example of how I was taught values:
This sentence is grammatically incorrect, though is colloquially the way little kids speak:
"Me, Sarah, and Bracha went to the park."
"Sarah, Bracha, and I," my father would say. "Always put yourself last."
There are two lessons there. The first is that, grammatically, it is "I," not "me," and the "I" goes at the end of the list. The other is that it is crucial to recognize the importance of other people and to respect that importance by listing yourself last. Be polite. Don't cut in front of other people. For instance, when you're driving - don't cut someone off. Don't make it impossible for them to get into your lane. When you're handing something out, make sure everyone else has before you take for yourself. Things like that.
Wait, you think. Wait a minute. But...you're from New York! And you have...manners?!
Amazing, isn't it? Incredible! Bizarre! Unthinkable!
And guess what?
I'm not the exception to the rule, either!
Isn't that just the most bizarre thing you have ever heard?
Do you want to hear something even more unbelievable?
...I know some pretty jappy people who are not from New York! And who are not even from the tri-state area! I even know jappy people who are from ( gasp) the Midwest! The problem is not only in New York, you know.
Yes, there are issues with New York. There are problems with people who fit the stereotypes you are thinking. And those people are real. They exist. There are way too many of them. I agree.
But we are not all like that. And not all New York communities are as horrible as you think they are. Some of them are just as tame as what you're used to. I can't even tell you how many times I've had an out of town friend come to me for Shabbos and say, somewhat surprised, "Wow, your community is just like mine. This feels exactly like where I live." And why shouldn't it?
Just like you don't like being stereotyped, I don't like being stereotyped. Just like you love where you grew up, I love where I grew up.
But after years and years and years and years and years of having my own friends knock my home, it's starting to hurt.
I know what you mean. I do. I understand completely. I went to a high school in the Five Towns and I felt what you feel when you come to New York and don't like it. My community is not like the Five Towns and I wasn't used to it. And I went through a time where I was completely intimidated by the city. I did not always like the city. I found it dirty. I found it smoky. I found it loud. Even when I was in Israel in the Old City, I mourned the lack of grass. I mourned the fact that there was no autumn. I desperately did not want to go back to New York because I was so done with that whole scene. But I had been thinking of the intense scene from the Five Towns that had left its impression. I had forgotten that there are people even in the Five Towns who don't fit that mold. And that my own community does not fit that mold. And that Stern College is big enough that you don't have to be in that scene at all.
Autumn in my community is so gorgeous. It's got that New England look with multitudes of trees of brilliant reds, oranges, yellows, and every shade in between. We have grass. We have parks. Big parks not that far away! We have a creek! We have a duck pond! We are not all fancy homes. We do not have big buildings. We have plenty of parking. We don't have smoke. We don't have dirt and grime. We don't have much crime. We're a relatively sleepy town. By an out of towner friend of mine, we've been called "quaint." We are heimish. We are warm. We are welcoming.
We are in New York and, you know what? It's still a great place to live. And I'm not at all sorry that I grew up there.
*As far as community life goes. I'm not talking about hashkafa or anything like that.