San Francisco Made Me Orthodox

I’m in San Francisco this week, the city where I grew up, the city where I learned not to grow up. I moved here when I was 22, shortly after I became observant, partly as a dee-double-dare-you to my Creator — I’ll give myself one month to make a living doing poetry, I told G-d, and either you help me out doing that, or I’ll bow out gracefully and go to yeshiva.

Three years later, I hadn’t left yet.

I used to hate the tourists and business visitors. Now, years later, I am one of them. I stay in the convention center for most of the day. I wander around, searching for the rare corner store that doesn’t sell $7 bags of artisan tortilla chips. I keep kosher, dammit. Back when I lived here, you could buy a normal 99-cent bag of Lay’s Potato Chips, certified kosher by the Orthodox Union, totally ghetto and not that expensive. Now if you want a mass-produced kosher bag of chips, you practically have to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. And I don’t have time for that. I’m a professional video game designer. I’m only here for my conference, and another session is starting in ten minutes.

It’s weird to walk around here. It’s a totally new city, the way any city rejuvenates and reinvents itself, only more completely than most. The cheap stores are gone. The expensive stores are even more expensive. The middle-class people have deserted the city: it’s all rich people and homeless people. Almost every storefront on Valencia Street is different. All the places I never went inside, but still had a relationship with, are gone or going: the bookstore with the windows taken up by fat fat cats, the cafe with a strict no-wifi policy. In my newspaper freelancing days, I once gave a Best of the Bay award to Bombay Ice Cream, a place I’d never eaten at personally since it wasn’t kosher but, dammit, their curry-flavored ice cream was legendary, and I wanted to write about it. I needed to write about it.

San Francisco was filled with those things, the things that may have been forbidden to me, or maybe there was just no reason I should care about them, but still interested me wildly. All my friends were gay, which was a strange choice for an Orthodox Jew, but one that completely made sense to me. We were spurned by general society, ostracized and alienated because we were weird and loser-y and didn’t fit into normal social guidelines. Plus, at gay clubs I could dance the way I wanted to (crazily, punkily, jumping up and down) without worrying about the Orthodox stigma against dancing sexy or touching women.

At 25 I wrote a memoir about living here, an ill-advised career choice, since at 25 I’d certainly done enough stupid humiliating things (and tried to make them better) to fill a book, but hasn’t quite learned the lessons or earned the wisdom to raise it above the level of memory and make it into an actual recollection.

So now I’m going around the city, this city that used to be mine and no longer is, telling my co-workers stories of my conquests and failings. Last night there was a company reception down the street from the bar where I did a reading once, accompanied by a friend who was visiting. She was underage, the bar wouldn’t let her in, and I stayed and performed anyway. She never spoke to me again after that night. I still cringe, thinking of my selfishness. Maybe I was justified. Probably I still shouldn’t have stayed. Definitely I just acted like a jerk.

The reading series doesn’t exist. The bar isn’t there anymore — now they sell soap or some forsaken thing. The work reception was in a building shared by a bunch of video game companies, all strange in their own right. On the door was a hand-drawn stick figure from a game called Kingdom of Loathing, in which you play an accordion thief who battles goblins and bugbears and ghuols (they’re so stupid that they even misspell their own names), all while wielding an accordion and causing damage by singing out of key. It’s good to know that someone is holding down the fort on the neighborhood’s weirdness level.

But there are still secrets in this town, and there are secrets I have yet to discover. I’m taken to a secret morning minyan of old Russians downtown, in a building of artists’ studios, where one elderly man leads his compatriots in reciting Psalms in Russian after prayers:

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morning psalms in Russian

A video posted by Matthue Roth (@matthueroth) on

(There is vodka following morning prayers, of course.)

And the crazy thing is, I’ve been here before. Leaping into the car with the rabbi after services, I spy a bar around the corner. I was here a few years ago. The bartender stopped me; he wanted to ask me about my yarmulke. He was a big, bald, fat, tattooed guy. I remember shrugging him off; I didn’t want to define myself to him; I didn’t want to have to explain myself. I only wanted to be. Then he started speaking to me in Yiddish. I should have set him up with the rabbi, or invited him for Shabbos myself. (Really, I should have replied back in Yiddish, but I don’t think any of the five words I know were appropriate.)

Today, leaping into the car, I tell the rabbi about him. “Maybe he’s moved on,” I said to my rabbi. “Or maybe he’s still there,” said my rabbi, “waiting to be found.”

Yes: this city still has its secrets.

Tonight I walk home in the middle of an empty street. I remember how it was to go walking, not because I’m too cheap to take the subway or even because I have any destination at all, but because walking is a necessary act, the act of digesting the enormity of G-d’s creation one step at a time. I choose the streets not because of how flat they are but because of how steep they are, giddily anticipating the moment I reach the top and allow myself to turn around, seeing the bowl of a thousand streetlights below me. In the morning I will wake up to the shrills of a bunch of kids who are not my own, some of whom were babies when I lived here, others of whom weren’t born or thought of — I’m staying at the house of the amazing Chabad rabbi, who’s my age. When I lived here, it seemed crazy that he was married and had a baby while I was still running around single and hopeless. Now I’m astounded that he’s stayed in one place, created a community of Jews around him and a community of kids in his house. (They feed me! They tell me stories!) And in the morning I will go to morning minyan again, and pray, and chug vodka. But for now, I will just wallow in the contradictions of who I was, and how they made me into who I am today.