Wednesday, February 5, 2014
In a few weeks, hundreds of Jewish New Yorkers will gather for the 10th annual Limmud conference, right here in Stamford.
Since the Limmud website says barely a word about the host town, let me introduce you to the place I’ve called home for over half my life. While undoubtedly most Limmudniks will venture no more than a few blocks from I-95, you might still want to know what it is about this buzzing place that makes it so different from the sleepy suburbs of John Cheever stories or the stuffy, bigoted Fairfield County of “Gentleman’s Agreement.” No, Stamford is not Stepford, and its recent rise demonstrates the growing allure of small cities — and their potential for nurturing dynamic Jewish communities.
Like the Yonkers of George M. Cohan, Stamford stands 45 minutes from Broadway, as the crow flies, at least if the crow is flying aboard a Metro North express. I’ve found it odd over the years how New Yorkers often assume that Stamford exists on some remote planet, when it takes as much time to get here from Grand Central as it does to get to the outer boroughs.
Stamford is close enough to New York to have attracted such luminaries as Maury Povich and Jerry Springer to display the fine art of incitement on the sound stage of the Rich Forum. And if that ain’t crass enough for you, we’re the home of professional wrestling — you’ll see the WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) flag proudly waving from its headquarters just a few exists down the pike.
For those into more conventional athletics, NBC sports has just moved its entire operation here, right next to Chelsea Piers — yes, Chelsea Piers, though in Stamford it’s neither in Chelsea nor on a pier. We have a Fairway too, which is located near a pier, in a neighborhood called Harbor Point, whose massive redevelopment has become a national model for urban planning. The city’s vibrant downtown features dozens of new eateries and drinkeries (Fairfield County has the second-highest number of restaurants per capita in the nation), a huge summer concert series and the world’s biggest balloon parade this side of Herald Square.
With large corporations like Starwood and U.B.S., this is not your typical bedroom town. Many New Yorkers come here for weekends and call it their “country” home, while others reverse commute from Manhattan to work here. We’re betwixt and between, part bedroom and part boardroom, our landscape dotted with barns, beaches and bars, a chameleon-like collage that has served us well over the years.
Situated along the DiMaggio Line between Boston and New York, Stamford is a demilitarized zone where fans of the Yankees and Red Sox can stroll harmoniously together among the cherry groves of Mill River Park and then dine at Bobby Valentine’s, where Stamford’s favorite son circulates among the tables. Pluralism and diversity are woven into all aspects of life here. We’re not ghettoized, like folks in bigger cities, or yawningly homogeneous, like smaller ’burbs. New York may be where Jackie Robinson played, but Stamford, always an island of coexistence, is where he lived. It’s where William Buckley pontificated, Gilda Radner laughed, Benny Goodman tooted, Gutzon Borglum sculpted and where Mel Allen, the legendary voice of Yankees, prayed — at my synagogue, in fact.
Two years before Allen’s 1996 death, just hours prior to Yom Kippur, baseball officially cancelled the World Series for the first time in Mel’s lifetime (the players were on strike). Everywhere, people were in deep mourning. The baseball world, the country and the calendar were entering an autumnal abyss. How could it be the fall without the Fall Classic?
I wasn’t sure what to say to Mel before Kol Nidre that evening. I wanted to comfort him in the hope that he could comfort me. So I said to him, “Such a sad day.” And Mel, in his matter of fact way, which could often camouflage deep wisdom as plain common sense, replied: “This is not a tragedy. War, now that’s tragic. Poverty and hunger, that’s a tragedy. This is not a tragedy.”
And I ascended the pulpit that night a whole lot wiser. Mr. Baseball, the one I had thought lived and breathed only for the game, made me understand that it was just a game. On that night that the Voice of the Yankees enabled this Red Sox fan to understand that ultimately we are all on the same team.
And that’s what Stamford can do for the Jews.
The kind of inclusiveness that Limmud accomplishes once a year, we do all the time. Only in Jewish Stamford could the Conservative rabbi meet the new Reform rabbi for the first time at an Orthodox shul — on Tisha b’Av! With veteran political aisle-crossers like Joe Lieberman and Dick Blumenthal having called Stamford home, we are among the nation’s prime exporters of bipartisanship to the nation’s capital.
Don’t get me wrong. I love New York. And there are challenges to building vibrant Jewish communities far from the Broadway buzz, without a pool of a million Jews from which to draw. But we are doing it. My shul’s Kabbalat Shabbat service is every bit as sophisticated, musically innovative and inclusive as anything you’ll find on the Upper West Side. We’ve got two excellent day schools, a vibrant federation and JCC and a plethora of dynamic synagogues and havurot. All that, and I’ve got a rooster in the backyard.
As the suburbs blossomed in the late ’50s, Herman Wouk warned that Judaism would vanish “down a broad highway at the wheel of a high-powered station wagon, with the golf clubs piled in the back.” That has not happened here.
It’s fitting that the diaspora’s most concentrated Jewish urban center is taking its grand annual Jew-pallooza out to the periphery. The welcome rebirth of urban Jewish life does not have to mark the death knell of suburbia — especially when that suburb can itself become a mini-core, taking on some of the more salient qualities of urbanization while remaining eminently livable.
Enjoy Limmud. But know that just outside the hotel there is a Manhattan in miniature, a dynamic crossroads that is also an oasis of amiability, a Jewish Wobegon, where the women are strong, the men good looking and the services way above average.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.