My eye is twitching. I’m outside in the streets of Jerusalem, feet away from my workplace and my study hall, Mayanot. I’m screaming on the top of my lungs.
And, weirdly, even though I’m aware of it and I know in the moment that it’s insane, my hand is grasping, grasping, grasping. Open, closed. Open, closed.
I have never been more angry in my life. Never. Not when I had anger problems with my parents. Not when I was going through a manic episode. Nothing compares to this, nothing comes close. I am out of control.
It was the injustice of it. The brazenness of the man. The liar. The dirtbag.
He was my landlord, and we were finally moving out of the place where sewage (and insects and maggots) literally came up from our floor when we flushed the toilet. Where, inexplicably, bugs began to appear all around the house, and especially the ceiling of our bathroom.
This was before I learned to build an Israeli backbone, so I had been holding in all the rage against this man, and now it was coming all flowing out like a volcano that had been hiding an unimaginable force for far too long.
He had decided, after I had painted our apartment completely (this was all before I learned to have an Israeli backbone), after I had restored the apartment to a better condition than it had been in before we came, that he wasn’t going to give us our security deposit back or let us have our last month free (which we had paid for).
It’s because I had forgotten to put the key somewhere for him on time. He yelled this at me the moment I picked up the phone.
And that’s why I snap, that’s why I explode. The injustice of it. The chutzpah.
And, to be honest, it has to do with all the injustice I had experienced up until then, living in Israel.
Not to mention, my wife and I are poor. We need that money. We’re screwed without it.
And so my eye twitches, my hand grasps, and I yell.
I am out of control. Anyone walking by must’ve thought… I dunno, maybe this is normal in Israel, actually.
“Another Jerusalem landlord” is what they probably thought.
The next place we live in, the landlord is even worse, but I’ve learned to deal with these things now, and have built up that backbone.
But I also have learned one more thing: I hate Israel. Or rather, I hate living in Israel. And specifically Jerusalem. Hate it.
Part 2: Crown Heights
I’m screaming on the top of my lungs. I’m almost as angry as I was that day in Israel, but now I’m in America and screaming like a maniac isn’t quite as encouraged here, you know. But I can’t help myself.
I’m in Crown Heights, in the office of the man who is about to no longer be my landlord.
He has just informed me that an agreement we had verbally agreed to he is now reneging.
This mess all started when we had to leave our apartment because our youngest daughter had blood work done and we found out that the lead concentration in her blood was dangerously high. We told our landlord (the man I’m now screaming at), and he promised to take care of it.
He did. A few men came to our house and had started working on breaking down the walls and putting up whatever-it-is to block out the lead.
Intuitively, as my wife told me they had started working and our daughter was sleeping in the other room because they told her it was safe, I decided to Google safety precautions people need to take when they do this process. I called my wife up and started listing them.
Not one of the things I listed, of the 10 or so, were they following. Not one.
I called up the landlord and told him he needs to pay for my family to move out. He speaks smoothly and calmly to me, saying he had no idea, he’s so sorry, he’ll take care of it.
We move out of the place, temporarily, we think.
The next day we realize we have forgotten something at our home. So my wife, Rivka, goes back to get it. What she sees upsets her more than I could have imagined. They have done nothing that we asked them to do. Now there is lead dust all over every one of our things that isn’t in a drawer or cabinet. Every object from our children’s beds to our cooking utensils.
What follows is my wife refusing to ever move back there again. She’s scared for our children, believing that he has no problem putting their lives in danger in order to save a few bucks.
What follows is weeks of arguments that my wife has with this man, while he sweet talks me every time I speak to him. He tells me she’s overreacting (women, right?). I kind of fall for it because I’m stupid.
Then I walk into that office, and it’s supposed to be the last day, the day we’re officially done with this place and we’re handling things “unofficially” because, you know, this is Crown Heights. Also we’re poor and they’re rich and we don’t have any choice but to do it their way.
And so I come in, and he hands me our breakup documents. I notice something. There are a few numbers missing from the area in which we had agreed to the amount they’d compensate us for having to move out. I ask him about this. He comes up with a non-response. He calls his mom, who actually owns the place, to “clarify”.
My gosh, I’m living a Crown Heights moment, I realize.
And I freak out. I’m yelling. The worst part is that I know I can’t do a thing. That I need to sign it and walk out, which makes me yell more.
The injustice, the lies. Suddenly I see it all, everything my wife had been telling me this whole time, it was right in front of my eyes, how he was a snake, a liar, a manipulator who pretends to be nice as he steals from you and puts your children’s life in danger. He knows this money will hurt my family, that we will have a harder time finding a new home because of it. He knows he agreed to this earlier.
And as I storm out of there, having signed his ridiculous document and having lost all energy to yell, and holding a check for barely anything and trying to figure out how I’m going to tell my wife what happened, I know one thing. I know it with all my heart.
I hate New York City. I hate Crown Heights. I don’t just hate living here, I hate it. I hate it because of all the other frustrations I’ve dealt with up until now, also. The other liars and manipulators. The other people who stole money from me right in front of me, with no shame.
I hate it. I hate it with every fiber of my being.
Part 3: Israel and/or Crown Heights
It’s now, as I write this, only 6 months after that yelling match. It’s about 4 years after the other yelling match in Israel.
On the face of it, they’re two identical stories. Landlords from a place I hate screwing me over, with me powerless to do anything, and screaming at the top of my lungs out of the sheer aggravation and anger at all the other injustices and frustrations I’ve endured up until this point.
In the end of both of these situations, I hated the places, I blamed the places, for the pain I was going through and the circumstances my family had been put in because of them.
I no longer hate Israel, although I’m sure I would hate living there. I no longer hate Crown Heights, although there is still so much about living there that I hate.
There is, in truth, only one real difference between these two moments in my life, these two adventures.
I’m staying in Crown Heights. For the foreseeable future. Maybe for years.
I left Israel, on the other hand, as quickly as I possibly could.
Which is weird. Because Crown Heights and New York City in general share so many of the problems that Israel, and Jerusalem specifically, possess.
They both have insanely high rent that is rising astronomically. And for that rent you get to live in a small box in a bad neighborhood. They are both places where the poor have it rough and the rich have turned into their personal playgrounds, and there seem to be very few in between.
I often joke with Rivka that we moved from Israel to Israel. From all the similarities listed above to the fact that we hear Hebrew practically everywhere we go as we walk down the street. This feels even more true during Tishrei, when Israeli Chabadniks fly in and practically double the population of this crazy neighborhood.
All of this begs the question, then. Why on earth are we staying? What is keeping us in Crown Heights, or in America for that matter, if both places are so similar? Why not move to Israel where we had the same struggle but at least were living in the Holy Land? And if we can’t handle Israel, why don’t we move to a nice little suburb? Or at least closer to our families, whose distance from us causes us burning pain?
We could have a beautiful four bedroom house close to the area my parents live, near St. Louis, if we so chose, for the same monthly price we’re paying for the place we’re living in now.
I write this piece now because this question, especially the one about Israel, is almost always brought up when I even so much as hint as to my frustrations with the New York Religious Jew life in posts. There are always well-meaning people saying, “Come to the holy land! Your problems will be addressed, and even if they aren’t at least you’ll be with Your People!”
Then there are the people who believe it’s our holy obligation as Jews to strengthen our people in the Holy Land by moving and, in their minds, hastening the redemption of the Jewish people. They’re a bit more intense. But I get it, it’s what they believe with all their soul. Fair enough.
These people, the well-meaning and the soul-believers alike, seem to comment on every article that ever addresses issues in the diaspora.
The arguments they usually give is that people like us, those in the diaspora, in New York City or in St Louis or Argentina, or wherever we happen to be, are comfortable. We’re happy, physically-speaking. But we’d either be much happier or much holier (or both) if we lived in Israel. And it’s only the momentum of life, the inertia (or lack thereof) of our mundane concerns, that have caused us to not do the single most important thing we could do. Especially those of us, like me, who are unhappy with where we live.
This article is for those commenters and for anyone who has had to deal with their well-meaning desire for our wellbeing, or their angry self-righteousness at us for our “selfish” choices.
But on the face of it, their concerns at least seem valid.
I have no physical reason to be in New York City. And there is much I desperately, desperately miss about Israel.
So why do we stay?
Part 1B: Israel and a letter
My wife and I are trying to decide whether to stay in Israel or not. It’s a few months after my yelling match, and we’re living in a much nicer place in Jerusalem, a neighborhood called Katamon. We can’t decide what to do. Rivka is now pregnant, but I have a job, one that I love, my first foray into startups, which will set the course of the rest of my professional life.
But it’s still hard. My commute is three hours each way. And we feel very alone.
But my wife still loves Israel. Much more than I do at this point. She feels so connected to the land, and enlivened by it. But she understands that perhaps this may not be the place for us.
She tells me, “Elad, there’s only one way we can decide what to do: what’s our mission?”
Ever since Rivka and I had gotten married we had a dream, one we both shared deeply: we wanted to be, as we put it at the time, “art shluchim”. Rabbis of creativity, people who spread it as a spiritual medium into the Jewish world and beyond.
In Israel, we were having trouble realizing that mission. We weren’t sure why. It seemed like the perfect place. Nachlaot, one of the neighborhoods we lived in, is beautifully artistic and spiritual. So are so many other places in Jerusalem. Israel is a playground for arts and spirituality.
So what we did, what we always do, when we have a big decision to make and aren’t sure where to turn: we wrote a letter to our Rebbe, the deceased 7th Chabad Rebbe. One in which we described our troubles and difficulty in understanding what to do, where to go. We then placed it in a book of the Rebbe’s letters to get our “answer”. (This, by the way, is a practice that some love, some hate, and some, like us, just do because we believe in it.)
We stuck our letter in the book, and what came out was a letter in response to a man who desperately wanted to make Aliyah from London. Here was the Rebbe’s response:
“You do not realize the extent of your soul’s abilities. You are qualified and are prepared even for a high level of sacrifice if you would find it necessary. But in the matter in hand the situation is just the reverse. The life of a man of your calibre (with the ability witch you have been erased as well as your initiatives) who moves from England, the US et. to the Holy Land becomes by far less challenging, by far more suppressed (in business, communal affairs, independence, creativity [italics mine], etc.) and from year to year as his stay there prolongs, the above mentioned continually degenerates….”
In that moment, we knew the answer, and we we knew where our mission was meant to take place. And it wasn’t Israel.
It wasn’t that we were overcome with some supersitious belief in what we were reading (although that was for sure there), it was also revealing something we both already knew but were afraid to see clearly.
If we wanted to fulfill our mission, to be art shluchim, and anything else significant we were meant to do, living in Israel would destroy that mission. Rather than aid our transforming the Jewish world, it would absorb our energy and disperse it into what was already happening without our help. We weren’t suited to change Israel, we were suited to change America.
Shortly thereafter, in what we saw as more proof of what God really wanted from us, an opportunity arose at my job. They needed someone to be their representative in New York City, where all of their actual business was being done. We had grown enough that someone needed to finally go.
I offered, and since I was the only native American willing to make the trip, they took me up on that offer. And we went from being to be too poor to move to the US to being paid to move back.
Part 2B: Crown Heights and three letters
It’s now three years later. I have another dream startup job (or so I think), but this one happens to be remote. I can work from anywhere, live anywhere.
It’s a month after I yelled at my landlord, and we are desperately trying to find a new apartment.
Thank God, at the exact same time we were looking for a place, a friend of mine has left Crown Heights for two months and needs someone to take his place (it turns out that two months is how long it takes to find a proper place in this freaking city).
While we’re looking, though, we wonder: should we be here? We never wanted to live in this city. God chose it for us when my job sent me here, when that was the only way could afford to leave Israel.
Did we really belong here? I was still in “I hate Crown Heights” mode and ready to get the hell out. My wife was beyond traumatized by how the landlord had treated her, and was more ready than I to jet.
But we had a problem. New York City, and Crown Heights specifically, was exactly where our career as art shluchim had flourished. Almost from the moment we landed in Crown Heights, my blog Pop Chassid started to finally gain traction. We were leading open mics, connecting with art friends like Matthue Roth and Saul and Elke Sudin who were both aiding us as individual artists, helping us build on an already-existing (but just beginning to burgeon) community of incredible Jewish artists, and also had become significantly involved in our efforts to be the art shluchim we always imagined we’d be.
Not to mention, a few months earlier, I had started this other blog, this one called Hevria (built from the angry energy I had built up after another situation where a CH-er stole from/lied to me), the one you’re reading. And it was starting to show some promise.
And so as we sat in my friend’s apartment, feeling lonely and shell-shocked, with almost all our things in storage as we spent at least two hours a day searching for and visiting apartments, we had to ask ourselves: was it right for us to go? Our mission was happening in front of our eyes. Could we really leave?
Rivka said something that sound familiar: “We can only leave if it’s for our mission. Comfort has nothing to do with it.”
But how could we decide? Maybe we’d be just as effective, or more effective, somewhere else in America? Who knows, maybe we should even go back to Israel, at that point we were so confused and helpless we were open to anything.
So we did what we always do in these situations. We wrote to the Rebbe.
This time, we had to write three.
The first letter:
“Our ancestors in Egypt were a small minority, and lived in the most difficult circumstances. Yet, as our Sages relate they preserved their identity and, with pride and integrity, tenaciously clung to their way of life, traditions and distinct uniqueness, precisely in this was was their existence assured, and also their true deliver from slavery, physical and spiritual.”
Okay… seemed pretty straightforward.
But time went on, and we continued to hate Crown Heights, we couldn’t find an apartment, and we were generally miserable. So Rika wrote the second letter. Here’s what the Rebbe wrote back:
“Your recent letter describes your unhappy lifetime experience, your wanderings, and your troubles, and your frustrations and your disillusionments. You are concerned abou these things and seek an explanation which will help you understand the suffering and misfortune which has beset you and your family. Some serious reflection will suggest that you shouldn’t be overly concerned with explanations. A person only sees a limited part of the big picture.”
Okay, again… seemed fairly clear he was telling us to soldier on. But Rivka was angry. She wanted the Rebbe to tell us whether to stay in New York or not, she wanted him to tell it to us in plain English. Enough with the playing around, Rebbe, we need an answer: yes or no. That’s almost exactly what Rivka wrote to him, but much more respectfully, in our third and last letter to him.
He wrote two key things. The letter started by describing how moving negatively hurts children, especially because of the schools they attend and are attached to (our daughter goes to an incredible school called Lamplighters run by a fellow writer on Hevria, Yocheved Sidof).
The second thing was right at the end of the letter: “‘Go into exile to a place of Torah” [a quote from Rabbi Nehorai of the Talmud, by the way]… I am certain that when parents concede to the above saying of our Sages despite their personal sacrifice it is amply rewarded with the joy and happiness of their children… I cannot overemphasize the importance of return to New York before Rosh Hashanah.”
New York. He had said the words, just as Rivka had asked.
We moved into our apartment two days before the Rosh Hashanah of Hassidus, Yud Tes Kislev.
And we’re not planning on leaving any time soon.
Since then, the Rebbe’s words have come true in so many ways. Just from one summer break we see how much our daughter misses and needs Lamplighters. Hevria, this site that you are reading now, would not be even close to where it is without my staying in New York City, where I can regularly speak to Matthue, Hevria’s co-founder, about our site over too much whiskey. Where I can meet up with Saul to arrange our music video series, and personally talk to the musicians who will be joining. Where I can connect with all the incredible artists that live in this city, or the people who want to be artists, or the people who just love creativity.
Unlike Israel, we are needed here. We can feel it. We have a role to fill. Our energy isn’t being sucked from us, it’s being intensified by that need.
Our decision not to move has seemed to have the same results as our decision to move out of Israel. Just like Pop Chassid finally being something, meaning something, turning into something, Hevria has become more and more alive. The dream Rivka and I had, to be spiritual messengers for art, is coming more true every day, and more “successful”. And we know now that if we had left, that would not have been the case.
The end/the beginning: never returning to Israel
That’s why I’ll never go back to Israel, why I’ll never move back there, even when I’m old, even if the antisemitism in this nation gets worse or the rent flies higher in New York City or the economy tanks.
The diaspora, as it exists now, is just as an important part of the world of the Jewish people as Israel is. And there are those of us that have missions in Israel, and there are those of us who have missions outside of it.
What matters in life, what matters in what we do, where we live, in every decision we make, as my wife has said with every decision we’ve made, is, “Does this serve my mission in life?”
If it does, you can live anywhere, and do anything. I know people whose mission it is to live in Israel who have taken jobs as janitors, dough-makers at bakeries, not to mention soldiers, just so they could be in that country. They don’t have to fight in the army if they live outside of Israel. They could get much better work if they lived outside of Israel, or even Jerusalem, but they love where they live so much that it supersedes every difficulty, danger, and worry they have.
That’s how Rivka and I look at New York City. It’s not the same, of course, but the motivation is the same. This isn’t where we want to be. But the more we dig into our mission, the more we become who we are meant to be, the more we do what God ordained us to do, the less things bother us day-to-day. The more they wash over us, like waves on choppy waters that we’re navigating towards the land of our dreams.
So, while I yelled at a landlord in each country, only one of them was truly able to hurt me. Truly able to disable me. Because over there, in Israel, my mission did not thrive, I had no mission, and it would never succeed. And so a landlord’s injustice pained me deeply and sucked all the holiness of the land away from me.
Now, as I look back on the other landlord, the New York City landlord, I look back in strength and confidence. “You helped me,” I think. Made me stronger. Made me more focused, forced me into a better home and a better life. All because it forced me to concentrate my energy even more into my mission. Without him, we never would have written that letter to the Rebbe, we never would have realized how much we truly were willing to sacrifice in order to accomplish our dreams, and I never would have pushed myself to force those dreams as high as they can possibly go.
They say a home is where you feel comfortable, at ease. I think they’re wrong. I think (if you have a mission) a home is where you are willing to be uncomfortable. It’s where you’ve chosen to lay down roots despite all odds.
For some of us Jews that means fighting tooth and nail, sacrificing everything, to move to Israel and make it their home. To others, like me, my wife, and many others, that means something else.
The idea that we all have one mission, or that there is one place we can live in this world of Galut, is in my mind a dangerous one. One that has caused many people who made aliyah to live lives they weren’t meant to live, and to hurt their families and people around them in the process (not to mention themselves).
What we need, as a people, is less dogma and more unity in diversity. Thanks to the internet, this is more possible than ever. We can have a site like Hevria, where proud aliyah-sojourners and stubborn New York City-ers can unite and create a voice that is incredibly stronger precisely because of its diversity.
We as Jews are all in this struggle to bring a more perfect world together, wherever we live, and if we all encouraged each other on our individual missions, rather than trying to sell our own mission to others, the more likely we are to bring about that perfect world. The more wherever we are, no matter how uncomfortable, will be home. And the more we’ll all, together, be able to overcome.