Nice Jewish Goys: No Religion Required in New Shabbat Traditions

Lobster kugel, anyone?

Gefilte fish tacos at Young Manhattanite Shabbat

Gefilte fish tacos at Young Manhattanite Shabbat

“We weren’t that religiously observant, but we liked the idea of this self-created religious ritual,” said Mr. Valley. “For me, it’s about carving out a space of personal ownership with friends. It’s a way of connecting to each other but not abiding by any of the rituals that we don’t consider necessarily holy, in and of themselves.”
But if YM Shabbat was on the fringe edge of hipster sacrilege—enough to warrant a small piece in The New York Times and a much longer piece on The Awl—it was reflecting a larger movement in New York millennial culture. After two decades of Wall Street-like ambition, in which having your BlackBerry on-hand during family meals and working through the weekend was en vogue, the events of the early 21st century hit the city where it hurt.

We weren’t, as Tom Wolfe put it, “Masters of the Universe.” The world would keep revolving if we took it easy on a Friday night or, hell, the whole weekend. There was the “slow” movement in food and lifestyle (the latter adopted by Arianna Huffington and promoted on her 24/7 newsicle website, which always seemed a little suspect). Self-help gurus like Timothy Ferriss urged us to work less and take short cuts. It doesn’t take a leap of logic to figure out why the idea of Shabbat—literally, a day of rest—would be appealing, no matter what your religion.

All of which isn’t to say that traditionalism has flown out the window, or that every Sabbath dinner is some freaky free-for-all. Take Zachary Thacher. A 39-year-old with his own digital ad agency, Mr. Thacher has spent every Friday for the past 11 years holding his own form of Shabbat dinner in a “traditionalist egalitarian” community he created on the Lower East Side, called Kol haKfar.

“It does matter to me that it’s all in Hebrew, that people are actually following the traditions,” he said. “But it’s equally important to be progressive. We have women leading the service, and we have had a long-time member of the minyan who is African-American and converted to Judaism. And we’ve had other women of color as participants. so we’re very open to any kind of people, as long as they are open to learning and being serious.”

At first blush, Messrs. Thacher and Krucoff may seem to exist on separate ends of the theological spectrum, yet they are both examples of how the rules of Sabbath can become flexible when adapting to modern times. Yes, even in the Orthodox community. If you don’t regularly attend temple, for instance, you can just log on to Shabbat.com, a sort of Airbnb for Jewish dinners. And while inviting total strangers into your home might seem unnatural to New Yorkers—who tend to avert their eyes in the elevator to avoid knowing their neighbors—one member who contacted me over the phone claimed that the honor system works. “You can leave reviews for people, and to join the site you need to have some Jewish references,” said the man, who only wished to be identified as a “practicing Orthodox” individual.

“We open our home to everyone, gay or straight, man or woman,” he said, noting, however, that the people would have to be either Jewish or seriously interested in Judaism. Not that he would pass judgment on someone else’s version of Shabbat.

“There’s a whole Jewish universe, and one of the nice things about Shabbat.com is that it’s open to everybody,” he stressed. “We don’t have someone at the door checking ID.”

When asked what kind of people usually sign up to attend, rather than host, meals, our source made Shabbat sound like JDate. “Oh, it’s usually young, single people,” he said. “And you sound like a nice, young Jewish girl …” he trailed off.

And there it was, as brazen as the gefilte fish matzo tacos that once sat as a centerpiece at a YM Shabbat: the implied question that every young person will find herself being asked on a Friday night, no matter what her religious beliefs happen to be.

“You’re single, right?”