Wednesday, July 30, 2003


Manhattan’s upper West Side is unlike any place I've ever been to: half the population are Jewish with minyanim on every corner and something for everyone, whatever their persuasion. There is even an Eruv! Whilst the upper West Side has a very large community, it differs from many others in that it's residents don't intend on staying. Most hope to meet someone, get married and move on to the Suburbs. At times - it's as if people's entire lives are based around dating. That being the case, why are so many still single? One answer may be that quite a few are married already …. to their careers. They live to work, to establish themselves, to get to the top, and earn a six-figure salary. In a city where a twelve-hour day is the norm and a two week annual holiday a privilege, people talk about little else but work. Psychologically speaking, they never leave the office!

Another answer may be that people are spoilt for choice. A local Rabbi compared the situation to cable TV: "if you don’t like what you see, just switch channels, there are hundreds more to choose from”. Despite there being more Jewish singles here than any place on earth, it seems that 'more' doesn't guarantee satisfaction. Men complain that Women are neurotic and obsessive. Women complain that Men are self-centred, wimpish, and career obsessed. On balance, women have it tougher than their menfolk. Many would like to settle down, but most men here seem to be more interested in furthering their career, whilst waiting for the “perfect woman”.

If the upper West Side is a Mecca for Jewish singles, then “OZ” (pronounced “O-ZEE”) is its "holy of holies". "OZ" stands for the name of the Shul, “Ohav Tzedek". On Friday night at "OZ" the numbers are overwhelming, with 600 plus crowding into Shul, and standing room only for latecomers. People congregate outside for up to an hour afterwards, with many searching for a date, or somewhere to eat. Whenever a Bachelor arrives in town (otherwise described as "new talent"), all eyes are fixed on him. "Where does he live? What does he do? (i.e. how much does he earn?) where’s he from?”. I actually saw a group of women fighting over someone: "He's mine, I saw him first", "No, I saw him first". English accents always seem to attract the most interest. Englishmen are seen as being more cultured. But it’s also because the local men have such an appalling reputation.

Despite there being a lot to fault, this is one of the most vibrant, exciting and passionate communities I've come across. Firstly, people seem so much more educated and cultivated both within Jewish and secular spheres. Because of the separation of religion and state, religious schools are private and are attended by a high proportion of the community. The standard of Limudei Kodesh is high and put our schools here to shame. Orthodox women are far more liberated than they are here. Many are familiar with Talmud, and more than a few are running the affairs of the community. I could say fairly confidently that the women over there know rather more than men do over here. And they're very opinionated. I have heard English men complain that American women have "attitude". What they mean is, they speak their mind, and they know what they're talking about.

What was also impressive was the level of activity in community life. When the English don't like something, they whinge. New Yorkers on the other hand have more faith in themselves and get things done. Everyone seems to be involved in the community at some level, whether it's fundraising for a political cause, running educational courses, (or marrying people off). (Stay in Town for more than a few days, and someone will try and set you up with their friend).

And we could learn a lot from them about hospitality. The Shul's I visited actively welcome visitors. If new to the community, you can be sure of an invitation to Friday night dinner. Friday night is the best time to meet people, when far more women go to Shul than on Shabbat morning. The locals may be hospitable, but be warned, they're also very nosey! Whilst I avoid discussing work on weekends, New Yorkers regard Friday night dinner as a "talking shop", an opportunity to "network", or to find a new job. Avoid discussion of your career, and people think you're being evasive.

New Yorkers are obsessive about networking. Apart from the Friday night table, people visit conferences, go to forums and attend parties, just to network. But it's certainly effective. If you’re out of a job, you can be sure of finding someone who knows somebody else. And if you want to meet people with similar interests, you'll find them. People are also very spontaneous. Things happen quickly, and you have to be on the ball. Mention to a colleague that you're out of work, and you could find yourself with an interview that same afternoon! And if you make a new friend on Monday, expect an invitation for dinner on Tuesday. Forget about your diary, people arrange things on the spot!

New York's upper West Side is an exciting place, it's certainly the best cure for apathy that I've come across, but it's easier to live there if you're a man, particularly an Englishman. People open doors for you, strangers invite you for meals and girls ask you out on dates. I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it as much if I were a woman!