After about six months of being in Monsey, New York I am back in my favorite city in the world, New York, New York. I’ve set some serious goals for myself and have, as my friend Joe would say, a “plan of attack.” I tried to leave once more, but this is one city that just doesn’t want to let me go. I don’t want to let it go, either, I suppose you could say.
The Monsey Plan
At the time that I left to go off to Monsey, I didn’t think that I would be there all too long. I really only went there to study at a yeshiva program (much like the one I attended when I was in Jerusalem last year.) I was in a fairly serious relationship at the time, dating a girl who lived in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. (I didn’t know this at the time, but author Harvey Pekar, comic book writer, also had a residence in Cleveland Heights for a lengthy period of time – it’s something I could have brought up when he autographed my copy of the “American Splendor” comic collection recently.) At the time I had this notion in mind that I was going to move to Cleveland in a short period of time so that we would get married and I could start a career as a teacher. As time went on in the program, I started to think that perhaps I would want to teach as a Rabbi as well. Things took a turn for the worse in the relationship and we decided to end things, and so I stayed on in Monsey, thinking that I was going to stay there until I would apply to a rabbinical school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I thought that I would surely be able to handle between a year and a year and a half of being in Monsey. Oh, how terribly wrong I was.
For my entire childhood, I lived in various suburban areas of New Jersey. Now, there are some people who have made the joke that New Jersey is just a suburb of New York City. If this is at all true, it could explain at least a little bit my attraction to this beautiful city. I remember visiting the city with my parents when I was a child. There’s a really terrific photograph of my parents with my brother and me standing in front of the World Trade Center. (As a side note, I tend to keep ticket stubs – particularly to films that I see, but sometimes to other things. When I visited the World Trade Center, more to show it to some friends of my family, I arbitrarily decided to keep the ticket stub. It’s something I am quite happy to have now.)
As I got older, I started taking more independent trips into New York. When I was in high school, I visited on a few occasions – notably when I came with my photography class. I’ve seen a number of places around the world, albeit not all too many, but there’s nowhere in the world I have been where I have enjoyed taking pictures as much as in New York. Another interesting thing about being in New York is that even when I have gotten lost, I still have always felt a sort of comforting reassurance that I would get to where I wanted to go and that all would be okay. It’s almost like getting lost inside one’s own home that one hasn’t quite gotten familiar with. Even though you’re not sure exactly where you are going, you’re still home. In all of the places I’ve lived, I never felt that kind of feeling until I came to New York.
Another happy association that I have with New York is tied to the music group Phish. Between June of 1995 and September of 2000, when they began a hiatus that was to last a little more than a couple of years, I saw them forty times. Of those forty shows that I managed to get to, eleven of them were in Madison Square Garden. Living in New Jersey, shows at Madison Square Garden were quite easy to get to – all one had to do was to get onto the New Jersey Transit North East Corridor line going into New York, and then walk up a set of stairs – and that’s it! There’s not much walking to be done to get to the show. It was always a pleasure to see them, and even more so in Madison Square Garden, what with its good seating and more than adequate facilities. Its location made it all the more wonderful.
Black and White, with Gershwin
Out of all the films in the world which depict New York in any sort of way, I would have to say that Woody Allen’s Manhattan depicts it the best. The cinematography, by Gordon Willis, is absolutely brilliant. The music used is entirely by former Manhattan resident George Gershwin. (At one point when I was first looking into apartments to live in, there was the possibility to live on 103rd street, where George Gerswhin once had an apartment. To me, that was a selling point.) On top of that it is a lovely story, and entirely hilarious. For all of these factors it has been on top of my favorite films list just about since the first or second time I saw it.
“Bad Things Happen When You Leave the City”
There has been an advertising campaign run by a mini-storage company of New York that has that, or something along those lines, as their ad slogan. I laughed out loud the first time I saw the ad, which was a couple of months ago in a visit I made from Monsey. I had already started to feel the strong longing I had for New York. It wasn’t like this was the first time I had made this sort of mistake, of course. That would have been perfectly forgivable. No, the first time would have to be when I went to Jerusalem and I got a strange notion in my mind that I was going to live there, if you could imagine such a thing. Could you just imagine me, being so incredibly fond of Manhattan’s architecture and the gardens and parks, living in a city like Jerusalem? For someone who is used to the architecture styles of midtown and Upper Manhattan, Jerusalem leaves a bit to be desired. A smidgeon of creativity, for one.
Let us not forget that I also had the silly notion, at one point in my life, that I was going to get married and spend most of my life living in the great land of Australia. My stay in Australia ended up being a bit less than two weeks, so I didn’t quite get to start missing Manhattan yet, though I was missing it by the time I was staying in a basement in Highland Park. I went there to get readjusted to the shock of having an engagement broken off and to try to find work in New York. All of this, of course, is what led up to the Monsey exile.
The Monsey Exile
Let’s not start with who put me into the Monsey exile and assume that it was entirely of my own volition. Fine. So I thought that for the purposes of getting a good Jewish education, I could stand to be outside of New York for a bit. What I didn’t count on was the cultural black hole called Monsey. You could say that it’s hard to have a conversation about the possibility of going to the Guggenheim to see a Picasso exhibit when you can’t find anyone who knows what the Guggenheim is, or who Picasso was. Well, that could have also have had something to do with the type of school I was attending. It was meant for people who were only recently becoming more observant (religious observance, that is) and so what seemed to happen nine times out of ten is that a person would simply disassociate himself from anything not to do with the religious life – the sort of thing I always found to be completely nonsensical. I have personally been able to make some interesting breakthroughs in religious thought while doing things not at all associated. In any case, living in Monsey was probably one of the most stressful experiences I have had in all my life.
Despite the fact that I was in an environment in which I didn’t really have to do anything, as it were, but learn something I found to be most interesting, I felt quite unhappy because I felt so different from all of my peers. There wasn’t even anyone there with whom I could talk about my longing for New York – most often any conversation I tried to have about New York ended up with the other person disparaging it in some manner. It grew to be
so irksome that I eventually stopped talking to most people. This is how I began to see staying in Monsey as a sort of cultural exile. Much as the Jewish people were exiled from the land of Israel into what was then known as Babylon for a period of seventy years, so too here I was exiled to this cultural wasteland known as Monsey.
I thought I could really do it – survive the exile, that is. It was really too much for me, though. I had second thoughts on the idea of being a rabbi – there are plenty of men in this world who are suited to be rabbis, and I didn’t feel that I was going to be making all that much of a contribution to the Jewish people by becoming one. Better, I thought, to go ahead and get some sort of a serious job with which I could support myself while working on getting my writing published, to find, G-d willing, the right person to marry, and to live in the most beautiful city in the world – Manhattan. That’s the plan of attack. In any case, I’m moving in the right direction – I’m dating a girl who seems to be almost as fond of New York as I am – at least it seems she would be perfectly happy living here. The lesson has been learned – I’m staying.