I just moved to New York City from Cote Saint Luc, a suburban village that is the closest thing to a shtetl anywhere in Canada. So everyone’s been asking me the same question: what's life like in the big city?
It’s a good question. When I grew up in Monsey, New York, it was a small town, a place where everyone looked out for each other. And like any small town boy, I still crave that unique sense of camaraderie. Rod Dreher features this small town spirit in his memoir “The Little Way of Ruthie Leming”. Dreher left his small town in Louisiana as a teenager. After years of city life, he returns when his younger sister is diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Dreher was so impressed by communal support given his sister that he decided to move back to Louisiana. There’s simply no community like small town community.
Big cities are very different. Ferdinand Tonnies, in his classic work “Community and Society”, describes the city as dramatically different than small towns: it is built around advancing individual ambition rather than building communal cohesiveness, and as a consequence, is rather cold and impersonal. And to the minds of many, big cities should be avoided. Thomas Jefferson once remarked that “I view great cities as pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”
So what happens when a small town boy like me moves to the big city?
Actually, this question is relevant to every Jew, wherever we live, because Jews are fundamentally small town folk. The Book of Genesis offers an extended critique of big cities; the plans of the first city builders are frustrated by God, and there is marked contrast between the hospitable small town ways of Abraham and the big town coldness of Sodom and Egypt.
Yet despite the failures of cities and empires, the Torah does not demand that the Jews remain tent dwelling nomads; in fact, it encourages us to build a cosmopolitan state with well developed institutions.
So what happens when small town Jews build a big city? We bring the small town with us. Maimonides teaches that despite the Biblical obligation to love one’s neighbor, the Rabbis added additional obligations to visit the sick, bury the dead, comfort the bereaved, and marry off brides. The point of these additional obligations is that we must do more than love our neighbor; we are obliged to extend beyond our immediate social circle and build community. It is not enough to treat those we know with kindness; we must create an embracing community that cares for all of the sick, each mourner and every bride. And the magic of the Jewish tradition is that even when we build large cosmopolitan societies, we insure that within them beats the heart of a small town community.
Israel is an excellent example of this unique small town ethos. In 2014, Sean Carmeli, a lone soldier from Texas, fell in battle. There was virtually no one to attend the funeral. But after a worried friend posted a Facebook message about his funeral, news spread like wildfire, and in the end 20,000+ people attended Sean’s funeral. This outpouring of kindness could only happen in Israel, where a large country still carries the warmth of a small town.
Now that I’ve arrived in New York City, I’m learning that in this bustling metropolis there’s a small town hiding underneath. In my first Shabbat at my new synagogue, we honored the outgoing chair of the synagogue’s Bikur Cholim; this dedicated group visits patients at Sloan Kettering every Shabbat. Here in middle of Manhattan is a team of volunteers visiting the sick, making this community, like every Jewish community, one big small town.
So what’s it like living in the big city? To tell you truth, as a small town boy, I feel right at home.