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Bonfire of the Vanities

Tablet’s reporter learns that ironic distance cuts no ice in LA, where stoned young people seek spiritual meaning while eating s’mores and having a sincerely good time

by
Ani Wilcenski
February 11, 2022
Photo Media/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Photo Media/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Photo Media/ClassicStock/Getty Images
Photo Media/ClassicStock/Getty Images
To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here.
To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here.

A few days into Tablet LA, our bureau received an intriguing tip. Apparently, a group of Jewish 20- and 30-somethings host a weekly bonfire at a mansion on the west side. The friend-of-a-friend who tipped us off had never been, but bonfires are nice, as are swanky Los Angeles estates. So we packed some wine into a tote bag as a contribution, piled into Tablet news editor Jeremy Stern’s minivan, and drove into the hilly enclave of Bel Air.

“So what exactly are we attending here?” asked Tablet staff writer Armin Rosen.

“I have told you literally all the information I have,” said contributor Suzy Weiss, who arranged the whole thing.

“What if it’s like a prayer thing?” I asked, as the wine bottles clanked in the backseat.

We followed Google Maps to the end of a long, darkened driveway, which was lined with cars but oddly quiet for a party. It was unclear what horrible fate would befall us if we were lurking in the wrong person’s Bel Air driveway in crime-panicked LA, so we sent Suzy and Armin ahead to scout.

“You think these people will care if I smoke a cig?” asked Jeremy, as we got out of the car and rounded a corner toward the sound of voices.

“Nah, but we need a lighter from anyone who smok—” We abruptly stopped talking as the scene came into view. A circle of 20 people were sitting at rapt attention around a gas fire pit on a tennis court, which was ringed with lush tropical leaves and looked like something from a five-star Indonesian resort. A rabbi paced around the group, delivering what seemed to be the climax of his sermon. I wondered what Suzy had done with the wine. Rendered into a shameful silence, we walked toward the tennis court, which was deceptively deep-set; I gravely misjudged the distance and almost broke my ankle plummeting toward the clay. I could hear Jeremy snickering behind me as I limped toward the group.

The rabbi finished his sermon (about which I sadly remember little, having been focused on the searing pain in my foot) and opened things up for question-and-answer.

“What I want to know is, how did the Jews end up in Europe?” asked an Israeli guy in the outer ring of the circle. The rabbi said something about how the Jews are not a race, and that he could care less how they got to Europe.

“Is it just me or is everyone hot?” Jeremy whispered.

He wasn’t wrong; it was a very good-looking group gathered around the fire. Everyone was young, fit, and fashionable—I spotted Off White, Balenciaga, and Cartier love bracelets. Besides the Israeli guy, nobody had any questions for the circle. So the rabbi wrapped things up by encouraging people to grab some s’mores and seek him out for individual conversations. Still bemused by what sort of event we’d ended up at, Suzy and Armin mingled among the crowd, because they are skilled and intrepid reporters, while Jeremy and I stood awkwardly around the perimeter of the circle.

Within moments, surely noticing our out-of-place-ness, we were joined by the rabbi, who turned out to be from Chabad of Bel Air. Rabbi Chaim Mentz, “Rabbi to the Stars” and Paula Abdul’s personal Jewish mentor, explained that this group has been meeting here every Tuesday for over two years, gathering outside even in the heart of the pandemic and through harsh LA winters. The bonfire is just one event put on by an organization called Chai House BH, described on its website as “an exclusive social club for young Jews in Los Angeles.” According to the organization’s Instagram, Chai House has organized casino nights, a Tu B’Av white party, “Hookah in the Sukkah,” and an Igloo Fest for the last night of Hanukkah, with a special appearance from DJ Beachball.

Rabbi Mentz tells me that these gatherings are the brainchild of a Jewish family with several children in their 20s who were looking to build a deeper and more personal connection to their Jewish faith. Over the past two years, he says he’s cultivated meaningful relationships with the young attendees, who value the opportunity to explore Judaism and hear from a rabbi in an intimate yet casual setting. His words were proven true about 30 seconds later, when a girl in a fluffy jacket burst up to us with a “Rabbi! I have so much to tell you!” They stepped out of earshot for an intense-looking conversation, the only snippets of which I caught were “Rabbi, he doesn’t want to be exclusive,” and “His tone changed so much since Shabbos.”

At this point in the night, Jeremy muttered excuses and made a swift exit (which was exposed to the group after his car got penned in by someone’s Toyota and he couldn’t figure out how to operate the mansion’s high-tech automatic gate). I headed over to Suzy, who was talking to a young couple in trendy athleisure wear whose newborn baby was asleep inside the home boxing gym. We discerned that nobody had started on the s’mores and immediately positioned ourselves by the fire with fistfuls of marshmallows and chocolate.

I enjoyed myself for a while gorging on sweets and eavesdropping on the guy next to me, who was talking to one of the Chai House founders about how he used to import fake Dior bags from Shenzhen to give his ex-girlfriend for special occasions. But this romantic monologue was unceremoniously interrupted when two guys behind me, who had been ambiently singing and strumming a guitar all evening, broke into “Shallow” from A Star Is Born and started shushing people so a girl in the back could join in.

“Everyone out here is so earnest,” said Suzy.

“I know. Imagine if I’d taken out a guitar at the Tablet house.”

Earnest was the perfect word, and it certainly wasn’t meant as an insult. Everyone seemed to be having quite a nice time. We’d blundered into this close-knit, personally meaningful religious event largely uninvited and 30 minutes late, snickered at their singing and eaten most of their kosher marshmallows, yet we’d been welcomed with open arms. Meanwhile, if someone accidentally brushes into me at a store in New York I will complain about it for the rest of the day.

There are lots of things that could be said about the youth of Los Angeles. They’re a little vapid, a bit boring, smoke way too much weed in conversation-driven settings and bring guitars far too many places—but they are mostly pleasant and seem authentically nice. They’re probably having more fun than those of us in New York City who can’t shut our mouths for long enough to enjoy the moment and have a nonironic good time. Lesson learned. Hopefully, the Tablet bureau gets invited back.

Ani Wilcenski is Tablet’s Engagement Director.

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