Religion & Beliefs

Shul Hopping: Hanging With The 1%

What it’s like to pray with the rich and the super rich. Read More

By / November 14, 2011

Recently The New York Observer ran a piece on the top ten power shuls of New York. At first, I regarded the list as cheesy, if not slightly absurd, but eventually it served as a delightful muse for a shul hopping topic. Full disclosure: this piece veers somewhat from previous pieces. Whereas in previous pieces I reported on the experience of one specific shul, here I hope to describe an element of synagogue experience which is more pronounced in some shuls more than others. However you define a synagogue, never did I associate synagogue with power; Real world political power, an important entity of the financial sector, some big judges, representatives, powerful rabbis with sway, lawyers, bankers, doctors; The job list of the 1%, largely.  My cumulative experiences with the power shuls of NY, and those of similar ilk in other Jewish neighborhoods awoke me to this important element.

The first hint, or possibly necessity of a power shul, entails a structure that potentially engenders a sense of grandeur and awe, but also strikes a tendency towards the ostentatious. In general, Jewish tradition praises the beautifying of religious objects. Consequently, a gorgeous building that often either looks like a church, or a congressional hall, or even a castle does not belie the spirituality of the place. But at some point it emerges that certain structures act as a testament less to the glory of God and more to the glory of the congregants. Or at least the line between the two turns precariously thin so that I cannot discern the difference between majesty and intimidation. Often, the structure mimics the inside atmosphere.

The contrast from the kol nidrei of the 99% starkly presents itself as I walk into what feels like a courtroom, or at least some senate committee hall meeting on how to allocate budgetary needs. The flags here, the American and the Israeli, serve as less of a nod to our ambiguous identity, and more as symbols of power. Some people in this room make the news regularly, whether explicitly or not, whether through infamy or fame. The room, a large rectangular hall with impeccably clean walls, a deep blue rug, elicits a feeling of power. Young republicans unite! The bimah stands far from the dais in the front, a dais that again, looks like a stage for politicians: rich mahogany wood, caramel chairs that appear to grow from the wooden background, luscious looking.

The shul, exudes a sense of being a powerful bastion of something, what, I cannot be sure, but the flow of its systems, of the internal dynamics of the shul, to an outsider looks like an engine, a strong engine working hard towards something. At least three people cannot sit still, and as per custom, or just intelligence, we choose them as gabbaim (those who run the minyan) to channel their desire to take part in everything, while others of these restless float from conversation to conversation like collectors, but here collectors of knowledge, of opinions, of gossip, because here in this system gossip is power, but of course so is money, and make no mistake about it, these shuls, belong whether as a large minority, or small majority to the 1% of Americans. Of course exceptions abound and many of those who used to live the lush lives of the 1% now mire in the muck of the middle class with the bulk of us, but regardless.

If the structure itself won’t feel daunting, well then, wait for the congregants.The women, especially many of the elder generation, wear jewelry easily classified as “bling.” Diamonds the size of eyes weigh down their frail hands. These same women know their way around alcohol, how they like it, with three cubes of ice, no more. These matriarchs of powerful families demand respect, attention, and devotion. Women, grown women, apologize as daughters to these mothers for the lack of moistness in the banana cake. This elder generation refers to black people as schvartzas and dismisses them, casually, like Lucille Bluth from the TV show Arrested Development (“What? That’s how we kid! She doesn’t even have a house!”). The younger generation, disproportionately attractive, dresses to kill, and it looks like it kills to dress like they do: insanely high heels, tight dresses that cut off oxygen flow, that constant sense of ogling, the perpetual game of comparison to her hat, his suit, her dress, his argyle socks, her legs, is that cellulite? The men wear the right suits, tailored, cut to the fashion of today, some with ascots, a large proportion slicking back their hair. They all know the value of fashion, of image, and of impressions.

The rabbi, an imposing figure, a real orator, commands respect without asking for it. No one walks past the rabbi without saying hi, and like a good boss, or don, or CEO, he knows the ins and the outs, the details of every one of his congregants’ life, both those of squalor and those of love: the bar/bat mitzvah celebrations, the divorces, the successes and troubles with business, the wayward children, the affairs, the scandals, the backstabbing, the addictions, the loyalty. In his considerable mind he harbors the secrets of this community, which entails the weight, but also the power of knowledge. The Rebbetzin, bearing the same balance of power and burden, comes off as someone whom I imagine wouldn’t be my friend if we were the same age because of the disparity between our levels of coolness (Hers trumping mine, of course.) Despite the intimidation factor, I cannot discount the excitement of feeling in the center of life.

Electricity bounces throughout the room. I expect secret, or not so secret licentious trysts; Flasks, not so secret excursions to the Kiddush club in which we imbibe expensive liquor. Something feels alive here, more than in most shuls, something important, at least the veneer if not something actual. You feel like your life is moving at the speed of a Sorkin film.

At night, due to the almost complete lack of women and the lack of desire to not talk, the room becomes a men’s club. We feel outraged that synagogues contain Kiddush clubs, but seen in this manner, I don’t understand why these men do not always hold a scotch in one hand and a fine Cuban cigar in the other, while they discuss matters both of substance, global or national politics, but also petty matters of communal politics.

In some ways, these communal dynamics feel like camp, especially Color War. Camp creates community, appoints its own generals, and all of a sudden the rules of play have changed. Those in the roles of power change personalities, they scream at friends, command respect, while the minions, otherwise content to not care about how well they did in a sports game of no value, all of a sudden turn on their obsessive social radars, wondering how they look, how they did, how they compare to this women and her fancier dress, or better sheitel, or lack thereof.

Not that this necessarily distracts from the genuineness of the prayers, but it adds a convoluted layer to the synagogue experience. I imagine these dynamics to be true of any shul, of any community, but here, one feels it so obviously, so outwardly without any pretense to hide it. I feel ambivalent about it. Some part of me wants purity in the type of shul I would daven in, but another part feels invigorated by even the image of power and influence in this room. However, I feel most ambivalent because these shuls truly represent the 1% and stand in such stark contrast to my experiences at Occupy Wall Street on Yom Kippur. Something about all this power, about how no one man, or woman, should have all this power disturbs me. I feel alienated by the disparity between money brackets.

In dwelling on this disparity, I finally realize this type of us vs. them mentality does a disservice to the greater good. I cannot deny that something within me stirs at this real world power, despite the methods of how anyone attained this lopsided sway. I realize that at our own risk we gloss over that fact within us all we contain the drives of both the 99 and the 1%. Both serve as human expressions of different experiences, ideals, goals, and values. Demonizing the other rarely helps in the long run of a fight. It musters troops, it creates clear lines, but it also alienates, exaggerates, and simplifies complexity.

I think I can understand why we feel jealousy towards the rich, despite our knowledge that at some point more money does not translate into more happiness, and why on some level we don’t fight this inequality enough. To state the obvious, a part of us that we often want to deny, at least publicly, values being rich, and perhaps more importantly being richer than other people, we all do, it’s kind of hardwired, at least in this age. We can associate with the people we of the 99% fight against because we still, with all the talk of equality, value the dream of affluence, the ease of life it bestows, and our ability to actually attain it. We cannot overlook our inculcated desires to rise towards a better version of ourselves, to attain power over others, whether as a boss, or as a parent, or teacher, or therapist, or doctor, or lawyer, or writer etc. Part of this defines our life. We need to believe that we can move ourselves to that special 1% who really make it in life; what good American doesn’t believe that? It’s our hope, our dream, and our destiny that as long as we fight for it, we can get to the sweet life at the top where we control larger aspects of society.

Many, for years now, have posited the death of the American Dream. But standing there amongst the 1%, ostensibly equalized in the eyes of God, I realized the persistent strength of this dream. Our American dream has only lain dormant, not dead, and part of the tension of the rebellion against Wall Street, perhaps, is a tension of desires: to indulge our more socialistic, perhaps idealistic selves, selves that we pride ourselves on, but rarely act upon, or to indulge  our normalized feelings of narcissism. The question the protests place before us, as do these power shuls, at least on the most basic level, after we get over these petty attempts to vilify,is, will you learn enough about the government, about the system,about campaign finance, and if you realize its corruptness, what parts of yourself, your community, are you willing to give up to fight for justice and equality?