When I lived in Chicago, about ten years ago, I cobbled together a living with various part-time jobs, among them teaching chess to kids in the public school system and collecting data for the U.S. Census Bureau—you’d be amazed at how many people are home during the day, and how many offered me bong hits as they filled out the forms. I also worked as a substitute teacher at Anshe Emet, a fine synagogue in Lakeview whose students—mine, in the Second Grade—would typically school me about Bible stories as they munched on lunchtime grape juice and these mini egg challahs that I stockpiled when nobody was looking. So I was excited to learn that Anshe Emet has become, thanks to some inclement weather, the default the location for the JCC Chicago’s 7th Annual Shabbat on the Lake. If you were a Chicago Jew, this was the place to be last Friday night.
In my head, the event, which was attended by hundreds of Jews in their 20s and 30s, would present some sort of microcosm of a familiar portion of American Jewry—heavy on the Israel love, some prayer, some reunion, plenty of consumption, awkwardly hip. I brought a friend with me, my buddy Jason, who was raised Jewish in a small Midwestern town but now identifies as an “atheist with a capital A.” Maybe you’ll meet your wife, I told him, the woman of your dreams. At the very least, I told him, he’d have a good nosh. That did it. Like good friends do, he came along for the ride.
The night got off to an auspicious start when I checked in: A smiley volunteer named Allison told me that she too had a last name that begins with a Z and, when she found out I work for Tablet, she confessed her love for our Unorthodox podcast. I nodded politely, eager to get to the beer. I found some, and then I walked into the egalitarian service already in process and found a seat in the back row. As I sipped a can of IPA, I wondered: Why don’t temples serve or encourage alcohol during services? Maybe some do, but I’ve never heard of it. PSA to clergy and religious decision-makers: Let congregants booze. I’ll bet you good money that they’ll be involved like never before.
I left after five minutes. Back in the event’s main space, slam poet Vanessa Hidary, the Hebrew mamita, was telling a crowd of about 20 people—much less than she deserved—about how she earned a “PhD in Him…from All About Him University”—a rhythmic condemnation of deadbeat men (or perhaps one man) that is both empathetic and invigorating. I nodded my head with her words. I think my cheeks were red.
Hidary was followed by her pal, Kosha Dillz, a rapper from New Jersey who took the stage wearing a “Party Like Its 1948” T-shirt. “I love rapping at Jewish events, dinners,” said the rapper, who had flown in from Tel Aviv that morning. Someone in the crowd was curious: Had he performed at a bris? “No,” said Dillz. “Pre-circumcision parties, though.”
There is something about being a prideful Jewish rapper that rubs me the wrong way. It’s not the being Jewish part; it’s the part in which Judaism is the shtick, the seemingly primary source from which the music—however serious or jokey—is made. But I was impressed with Kosha Dillz on a number of levels, in addition to his sense of humor. For one, Dillz, born Rami Matan Even-Esh, was charged with having to entertain in a huge hall filled with maybe 200 to 300 people, only a small group of which—we’re talking maybe 30 now—were gathered at the stage to hear him. And yet he performed up, forcing the crowd to match his energy, not the other way around, the mark of a driven entertainer. He showed us young Jews how to cheer, choreographing our arms for us—“move your right like an obtuse angle, then back”—because we wouldn’t do it ourselves.
Next up was a band helmed by YidLife Crisis’s Jamie Elman. They sang “Hey Jude” as “Hey Jews,” an original rendition I thought only existed in a stoned conversation between brother and sister. Bravo. And then, Israel showed up.
During what I believe was a kiddush, a man at the mic shushed the crowd to little avail, asking attendees, most of whom were drinking and taking selfies and otherwise conversing and perhaps flirting, to mourn the very recent murders of some of our brothers and sisters in “the land of Israel.” This, of course, had meaningful intentions, but it felt like a surprise given the tenor of the three previous performances. I headed for the beer with a pocket full of drink tickets.
On the way, had I been so inclined, I could have grabbed a “Defending Israel” pamphlet off the ZOA table, then washed it down with freebies like a SodaStream beverage or some Bamba or Bissli, another Osem favorite, both of which are wholly owned by Nestle. Or I could have gone to the Israel Policy Forum table, where I could have picked up light packets about “Advancing Two-State Security” or “Regulating Israeli and Palestinian Security in Area C.” Or, I could have picked up a copy of George J. Mitchell’s A Path to Peace, a hardcover that even Kosha Dillz had introduced onstage.
I did none of this, opting instead to converse with Laurie Grauer, “the dyke who got kicked out of the Chicago Dyke March,” and to nab some popcorn from the JCC Camp Chi table even though I didn’t go to camp there or anything. Then I found Jason, who was six deep at that point, and we stuffed our plates with chicken, all kinds of chicken, and a fantastic hamburger, the best damn kosher hamburger I’ve ever had. The after-dinner sweets? Nobody likes the pareve stuff, including Jason’s friends, one of whom was sitting on his lap; the other, a self-proclaimed “good Midwestern girl,” told me she was still looking for her man. (Email me if you want an intro).
Soon, it was time to go. I looked around, wondering. Had Jason found a wife? No. But he hadn’t expected to. But were we sated and smiling? Yes. Are you not entertained, Jonathan? I sure was.
I said goodbye to Allison the Unorthodox fan, who was still smiling and who asked me to tout her orchestra, the Fox Valley Orchestra in Aurora, Illinois, because I will not deny a human being who plays viola in a music ensemble. Jason said goodbye to his people and we walked out. It was drizzling. I hailed a cab. We hopped in and were greeted by a Lyft driver in a pepperoni pizza onesie who told us about the cardio routine he uses to stay in shape for sex, and who has Mr. T programmed as his GPS guidance voice.
“In 1.1 miles, take a left, sucka!” And he did.
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.