By Jared Chausow
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Drive down Central Avenue in Lawrence on a Saturday afternoon (unless you're an observant Jew) and you'll see its signs: hundreds of well-appointed baby carriages pushed by hundreds of well-appointed people. This is the Shabbos stroll of upwardly mobile and young Orthodox Jews, a scene far removed from the shtetls of eastern Europe and even Borough Park. And not even close to the way Orthodox Jews live in Israel. Only in America. And maybe most prominently in the Five Towns.
"It's something new," says Calev Ben-David, a columnist for the Jerusalem Post who grew up in the Five Towns and moved overseas in the mid-'80s. "This kind of suburban Orthodox community hasn't really existed before."
Reporters from Jewish publications and the New York Times have also noted the influx of tens of thousands of yuppified Orthodox Jews into the Five Towns. Why live in crowded Brooklyn or Queens when you can blend the good life of spacious houses and green lawns with the protective enclosure of a vibrant community of like-minded believers, synagogues, Kosher markets and schools? All of it within walking distance, of course, as prescribed by ancient law and custom.
Back on a semi-sabbatical and living in Atlantic Beach, Ben-David has reported on the phenomenon for his readers back in Israel. Last fall, Ben-David described for them what he called "a sometimes disconcerting mix of religious piety and consumer passion" in the Five Towns.
The Five Towns is still an affluent place, but it's no longer just the domain of secularized Jews fully assimilated into suburban American culture. The new Jews of Suburbodoxy faithfully follow their religion's dietary laws and numerous other strictures. (Some of them graciously permitted themselves to be photographed for this story and shared their Shabbos meal, but demurred when it came to further participation because of the holy nature of the day.) They spend their Saturdays in prayer and meditation, a family day with a meal consisting mostly of the succulent stew known as cholent, prepared ahead of time because no cooking can be done on Shabbos. The Saturday stroll of baby carriages belonging to these young and growing families is possible only because of the existence of an eruv, a physical boundary staked out anywhere Orthodox Jews congregate so that the observant can wheel carriages and carry prayerbooks on the Sabbath. Other reporters have noted the presence of organized Talmud study on the LIRR commute to the city and of the brand-new combination of fitness centers, cell phones and extremely traditional life.
Ben-David, a self-described Conservative Jew (meaning, in part, that he's less rigid in his practices than an Orthodox Jew), marvels at the concept of gymnastics classes for Orthodox girls. In Israel, women would never be allowed to do such a thing in public.
A decade ago, when the first wave of Orthodox Jews moved into the Five Towns, some residents worried that their property values might decline. They were thinking of the grimly anachronistic, old-fashioned Orthodox Jews who had transplanted their European culture to places like Brooklyn. In fact, property values have skyrocketed in the Five Towns as the young and observant have moved in and remodeled houses to suit their big families.
"They've created in the Five Towns a world," marvels Ben-David. "And it was so quick."