It started small, two rooms in an office building adjacent to a strip mall with a Safeway and a branch bank. One day a sign appeared on the door: Jewish Enlightenment Center, Rabbi Yakov Blitz, Leader. No one knew what to think about that, though Dotty Adams remarked that she hadn’t known there were any Jews in the neighborhood, and some patients of the optometrist next door said that the men in long black coats and broad-brimmed hats and women in long skirts and babushkas that visited the rabbi made them uncomfortable. They wondered if the men were Goths, like those boys at Columbine. But someone pointed out that those boys weren’t Jewish which put a stop to that.
Within three months another office became available when an actuary with a small suite relocated to Cherry Hills Farms and then within a year the whole third floor was occupied by the Jewish organization. Activities increased accordingly. Now, in addition to Shabbat services on Saturday, there were gatherings for religious dancing and even a boys’ klezmer band that people as far away as the liquor store could hear tuning up on weekends. Yet while men in traditional black clothing, women in bowl-shaped wigs, and little boys with payes and tsit-tsit hanging beneath their sweaters now frequented the kosher aisles in the grocery store, no one complained. Some people thought the Jews might be actors.
In fact, no one in our neighborhood said a word until Blitz and his followers purchased the New Zion church on the corner after the Lutherans moved out. First it was Koreans in the old Baptist church and now a Jewish community down near the corner. Someone said the neighborhood was beginning to look more like Brooklyn than a suburb in Colorado. The person who said this had never been east of Limon, but the point had been made. Things were changing and most people felt change was seldom for the better.
Still, the gatherings at the new synagogue remained largely peripheral to our lives. There had always been a few Jewish families in our neighborhood, of course, but they were quiet and seemed much like everyone else, the women in minivans, the kids in ripped jeans, the men going off to work in the morning as lawyers, doctors, or accountants. People reassured themselves about their open-mindedness, their lack of prejudice. Everyone got together at the neighborhood parties, though some of the Jews seemed uncomfortable at Oktoberfest when Charlie Schmitz wore lederhosen, played Wagner on his huge speakers and sang loudly until he got too drunk to stand up. And despite the vague uneasiness at the new presence of strange strangers, things were much the same in the neighborhood. Sandy Irvine, who lived next door, sank deeper into the mystery of Alzheimer’s. Ed Williams toured the neighborhood with his earphones and sunglasses shielding him from the world. Grass was mowed, children were taken to lessons, small tragedies and triumphs occurred as they always had, in private and away from the notice of others.
Everything changed when the eruv was created. The first we heard of it was when we saw men in long hair and hats up on ladders running what looked like a guy wire around the village south of ours and then ours, extending east to the state park line and south four or five blocks to Havana. Some assumed they were from the phone company or maybe fixing the cable which seemed to go out whenever there was a high wind. But in time a circular arrived on our porches announcing that Yakov Blitz had created a “symbolic religious enclosure in which pious Jewish residents could carry on their daily activities on the Sabbath.” Beneath this was the crest of the village government so apparently the whole thing was legal. There were mutterings that the Jews had bought off the town commissioners but still there were no serious complaints because no one knew what this eruv really was.
Chuck Shapiro, who pronounced his name Sha-PIE-ro, had once lived in Omaha and claimed to be familiar with this sort of thing. Chuck explained that really religious Jews weren’t allowed to work outside their homes on the Sabbath. Even tasks as small as carrying a box were considered work so the establishment of an eruv allowed them to consider the whole neighborhood to be their homes. This seemed like playing fast and loose with God’s law, but Chuck told us that was normal for Jews, that they carried on like this all the time, that finagling was almost an art form with them. It was clear this caused Chuck a certain amount of embarrassment, though it did make him feel more important than he had since he was a judge at the village ice-carving contest.
“I don’t know,” Dottie Adams said. “It don’t seem all that normal to me.”
Dottie wasn’t much of a moral relativist but her meaning was clear. The newcomers weren’t like the people in our neighborhood, many of whom had been among the first to settle this area thirty-five years ago, often coming from as far away as Kansas and Missouri. They were drawn by clean air, open land, and good schools and many had stayed on even after their children had grown up and gone away. Now we had mature vegetation and while the city had grown up around us, the state park was still adjacent to our community, which until now had made us feel insulated from change. Neighbors came and went in the complex rhythms of life, you accepted that. But this was different. This felt like an invasion, like Joseph taking his people down into Egypt. You read the Bible and Joseph’s a hero, but how did the Egyptians feel about that little excursion?
What seemed odd about this was that while you’d expect an eruv to have natural boundaries like mountains or a sea wall, this one had just been dropped in the middle of sixty-five quarter-acre homes on the Colorado prairie. Why here? was the question. We all liked our neighborhood, but it didn’t seem especially Biblical. Why hadn’t Yakov Blitz taken his flock into North Denver where most of the Jews in town lived, or, since they seemed to have money, into Cherry Creek? Why a small suburban community that had, at most, four Jewish families living there?
Before anyone could answer this question, however, another circular arrived, this one announcing a meeting of the zoning committee to consider an application for expansion of the new synagogue, in order to provide space for a Hebrew school and summer camp. Rabbi Blitz’ flock had grown and the Lutheran church was no longer equal to the congregation’s needs.
Before this meeting could be held, however, more mail arrived, this being a letter from a lawyer in Boulder offering to buy our houses “above market, no broker involved.” The attorney claimed he represented a friend who wanted to live in the area. And while it seemed a bit intrusive, Dottie Adams was enjoying the attention. “I never used to get mail,” Dottie said. “Just those damned emails from my kids. Now I get a real letter every day and they all have Hebrew writing. I feel like I’m living in Israel or something.”
Others were less pleased by the solicitations, though, especially when we discovered that Art Sellers had sold his house with the help of the Boulder lawyer whose client turned out to be a follower of Rabbi Blitz. Then the Crawfords over on Elmira sold and before you knew it there were five new families, all with kids wearing skull caps as they rode their bikes around the neighborhood.
“I don’t care if they’re Jews or Moslems or what they are,” Earl Daggett said, “but they could at least say hi when you see them on the street. It’s like some kind of goddamned cult or something.”
It had always been the protocol in our neighborhood to wave as cars went by, to greet one another as we walked our dogs, to attend the neighborhood parties—small and superficial rituals, but important to everyone. Yet the new arrivals attended nothing, greeted no one and kept to themselves, except on Shabbat when we’d see them walking en masse toward the synagogue, black coats swaying in the summer breeze, women deep in conversation, kids running around their parents and somehow avoiding the traffic. After services they’d troop back to one house or another, often bringing friends with them for dinner, which would last long into the night with much laughter and hilarity for all to hear.
It might seem reasonable to wonder if part of the neighborhood reaction had to do with envy for people who seemed whole in themselves, found what they needed in obscure customs, and cared little for general approval. People who didn’t seem to care what their lawns looked like, what cars they drove, or how they dressed even if they had the money to buy our houses, fund a new wing on their building, and buy their rabbi a late-model Mercedes. But if other people were resentful no one admitted it. Despite some dark mutterings about rich Jews buying their way into the neighborhood and the comments about social snubs, if things had gone no further than this people would have adjusted, just as they did when the Pope brought thousands of people in for a mass at the state park in ‘92 and the kids trampled everyone’s lawns and smoked pot down by the lake.
Soon, however, an electric sign appeared on wheels in front of the synagogue announcing new initiatives of Rabbi Blitz. It wasn’t enough to keep the activities of the synagogue within its walls; now the rabbi was reaching out to Jews driving by on Belleview Avenue or anyone else who might be interested. In addition to the Hebrew lessons, there was an adult study group that met regularly. “Lessons of the Shulchan Aruch, Halacha and Modern Life,” the sign proclaimed one week and “Mysteries of the Zohar Revealed” the next. Then it was “Pentateuch and You: Listening to Torah.”
It was as if a new theatre had opened specializing in cabbalistic subjects. While there had long been a bible study group in the neighborhood and every year children walked around with charcoal smears on their foreheads during lent, these practices weren’t seen as revolutionary or disturbing in the same way as Yakov Blitz’ latest initiatives.
Whether it was the sign or something else, however, new people were appearing daily on the streets of our neighborhood. There was an article in the paper about the synagogue and its leader, with Yakov Blitz pictured in a black suit and big-brimmed hat wearing a quizzical expression on his face. And while we had heard that traditionally Jews were opposed to missionary work, the article said Blitz was drawing his congregation from as far away as Longmont and Fort Collins. Who even knew there were Jews in those towns? The article went on to say that disaffected members of other congregations like the Jewish Educational Alliance over in West Denver and Congregation Emanuel in Hilltop had broken from a more liberal path to follow a new and more exacting spiritual leader.
What’s more, Blitz turned out to be good for business. Since the pious couldn’t drive on the Sabbath, followers who hadn’t yet bought houses in the eruv drove to our neighborhood and booked rooms on Friday night at the Marriott or the Hyatt. Since weekends were dead times for the hoteliers, they began to offer what they called Shabat Sales, where the faithful could get a room and a kosher meal blessed by the rabbi for less than it would cost to book during the week.
On Saturday morning, you could see a pious army in satin wrappers and beaver hats, issuing from hotel row up the hill to the synagogue and then back after Havdalah, which marked the end of the Sabbath. No one was sure what went on in the little building during the rest of the day but soon there were basketball nets and a volleyball court on the side for the kids, and while the new congregation did nothing that could be considered disruptive, there was no question that Blitz and his followers were here and growing by the day.
An enterprising Korean dry-cleaner advertised special rates for the kaftans and fedoras and promised faithfully to have them “Ready for Shabbos.” There was talk of a kosher deli opening in the strip mall where the rabbi had originally been located and someone said he’d heard Blitz now had a real estate interest in the shopping center and was negotiating with a kosher butcher for space when the Radio Shack lease was up. People weren’t sure they wanted to live in the upscale Jewish ghetto that was developing, but there wasn’t much choice, unless you decided to move and perhaps as a result the rate of sales escalated through the summer. It was a Yiddish version of block-busting, in which greedy realtors scared gentile home-owners with stories about declining property values if more Jews moved in.
Of course it was actually the opposite, a sort of real estate gold rush with people getting prices they had never dreamed of before. Jim and Anne Simmons, who had been among the first to move to the neighborhood and had purchased their house for $65K thirty years ago, closed with a young couple from Baltimore for ten times that. And now wealthy parishioners were buying houses to use only on Fridays, which insulted some of the neighbors more.
“They’re making us look bad,” Bob Schultz said one night. “I mean, we have to live here all the time. With the money they’ve got they can buy a house for one night a week and maybe the High Holy Days.”
It was impressive that Bob knew what to call the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur but he didn’t apparently think to compare buying a house for religious purposes with the cabin he owned in Silverthorne where he went skiing a few weeks a year. Irony dogged us, but as time went on resentment toward the Jews grew.
Not everyone reacted with either anger or dismay, however. One morning I saw Sandy at her customary post at the mailbox and went down to talk to her, as I usually did to make sure she was all right. Sandy looked at me with a direct, unblinking stare. She had no idea who I was though I’d lived next door for ten years. “I’m in a movie,” she said, more to herself than to me.
I tried to imagine this as she might have. Her life was going by and she was only watching, not participating, or she could have been saying simply that it all seemed unreal—life, death, what lay in between. It was a more thoughtful comment than most of my neighbors would make and it was odd because Sandy was the only one losing her mind. I asked what she meant.
“Fiddler on the Roof,” she said. Then she turned and went back indoors. It made more sense than most of what I’d heard for the last month or so.
Some people seemed curious if not exactly interested in the interlopers and a few started trying out various terms they’d heard on late night TV. Walking my dog Max, I stopped to chat with Ed Williams, who always has time on his hands. For once he had taken the earphones off so I asked how he was. Ed threw his arms wide and said, “Tsuris, that’s how. You got kids, you got tsuris, that’s all I know.” He bent down and patted Max on the head. “You know what I mean, don’t you, Max.” Max was childless but he always looked sympathetic which seemed to be enough for Ed, who now shook his head and went back into his house.
Tension grew as the date approached for the meeting with the zoning board. By now there were eight families in the eruv and as if to mark the precipitous growth of that community, some kids dislodged the wire marking the eruv in the middle of the night and threw red paint at the east wall of the synagogue. Someone also hung toilet paper from the cottonwoods in front of one of the houses and in the morning it hung down in pristine white tendrils over the lawn.
TPing a house was generally reserved for those residents who had pretty young daughters and some felt this could have simply been a mistake but no one offered to help clean up. It hardly mattered. Used to discrimination, pogroms and worse, twenty Jews were out the next morning on ladders, removing the toilet paper and replacing the wire marking their domain. In their black pants and yarmulkes they reminded me of so many crows on a telephone line, bending to their work, ignoring the world around them.
If anyone in Blitz’ congregation was upset or blamed anyone besides restive teen-agers for their inconvenience, it didn’t show in their attitude toward us. They remained as distant as ever but not more so. Perhaps as a comment on all this, the message on the sign in front of the synagogue this week read: “Make Misvoth Matter.” But beyond the alliteration it was unlikely this advice had much effect since no one who lived in our neighborhood was likely to know what a mitzvah was.
Because of the attention the rezoning petition had received the board decided to meet in the auditorium of the Middle School rather than at City Hall as usual. It was hard to know how large Blitz’ congregation was, or who might be residents of our village and who merely interested onlookers, but the Jews arrived early and settled in the front of the room, all dressed in black, men and women separated by an aisle as if preparing for worship. To the right were three young women with notebooks who seemed to be representatives of the press. Bored cameramen in jeans and sweatshirts with television cameras on their shoulders leaned against the wall waiting for something newsworthy to happen. The rest of us filed in and sat here and there, perhaps a bit embarrassed both by our new interest in zoning matters and the recent acts of harassment toward the Jews.
The chairman of the zoning board was a man named Hal Congden who’d lived in our neighborhood for years and was an expert on the village bylaws. This had come out a year ago when he objected to asbestos tiles being put down on someone’s roof, pointing out a little-known subsection of the village code that it turned out he’d written on a slow day in 1987. Hal hadn’t ingratiated himself with the homeowner in question that day but everyone was impressed with his knowledge of the law and willingness to enforce it, which accounted for his position on the zoning board.
Tonight, perhaps impressed by the gravity of the occasion, Hal was wearing a tan blazer, blue shirt, and striped tie, though it was a warm night and the air conditioning in the school wasn’t really keeping up with the crowd. After letting people get settled, he tapped his gavel on the table in front of him and said, “Okay, nice to see everyone tonight.” Then he looked to his left and asked to have the minutes of the last meeting read aloud. The secretary was a middle-aged redhead who looked tired and nervous. She read in a halting sing-song and seemed incredibly relieved when she had finished. Hal asked for additions or corrections and seeing none called for new business.
At this Yakov Blitz himself rose and addressed Hal. “Mr. Chairman, there is the matter of our request to enlarge our place of worship.” He pointed to the table. “There, it’s in front of you, I believe.”
Most of us had never heard Blitz speak and may have expected him to have a heavy Yiddish accent. Instead, his voice was polished, oracular, his words resonating in the room decorated in blue streamers exhorting the Mustangs to victory. Blitz was a small man with a big voice and dapper in a blue suit, impressive in an area given to informality. You wouldn’t have said he was handsome with his small stature, forehead laddered with wrinkles and thinning hair, but he had force, which shouldn’t have been surprising given the success he’d had building his congregation in a short time. What was more unusual was his obvious sincerity and even modesty. There was neither swagger nor Swaggart about him and now we bent forward involuntarily to hear. “Where’s that dude from?” Ed asked in a stage whisper. “I never heard a Jew talk like that before.”
Ed’s knowledge of Jews and Judaism was limited, as was true of the rest of us, but the question was legitimate. Blitz seemed to have descended from somewhere unknown, a man with no background we knew of, apparently unmarried and without attachments, a rabbi in a strip mall but one clearly on the move. Now Hal cleared his throat. He looked at the pile of papers in front of him and squinted through his trifocals at them. “Well, now, Mr. Blatz,” he said, amidst some snickers, “it seems like what you want to do is make your church bigger, is that right?”
Blitz smiled thinly, too savvy to be bothered by Hal’s mangling of his name. “The synagogue, yes, that’s right. As we indicated on the form. We have an architect, a plan, all we need is permission from you and we will begin construction immediately.”
Hal may not have been prepared to be so directly involved in neighborhood conflict. The zoning board was usually a pretty quiet place, but now he was on the spot. “Well, sure, but acourse it isn’t just up to me. We got a board here and all.”
Blitz nodded as if his knowledge of village politics was extensive. “Naturally,” he said. “I presume you’ll need to vote on our proposal, is that right?”
Hal had recovered now and sat back in his chair. “After we’ve had a chance to discuss it and gotten some community input, then we vote, you’re right about that.”
Blitz nodded. “And when might we expect that to occur? I rather thought the vote would take place tonight.”
But before Hal could answer, someone in the back shouted out, “What about the traffic?”
Blitz jerked in his chair as if he’d been shot, but Hal was on the job. He looked toward the speaker and said, “That ain’t Mr. Blatz’ problem, Jim. It’s just like any other construction in the village I guess, streets blocked off and the like.”
“Yeah, except it’s permanent maybe.”
Now Blitz turned and spoke. “I gather the concern is that our community is growing and there may be more joining us, especially if we have a new building with better facilities.” He turned back to Hal. “Mr. Chairman, I think this is a legitimate concern. After all, this is a small neighborhood, sheltered before now from anything other than controlled growth. I can tell you that we intend to be very sensitive to this issue, I can assure you of that. I have, however, spoken to my colleagues at Christ Presbyterian, just to the east of us, and they informed me that approval of their expansion occurred in a matter of days. Is there some reason this seems to be more complicated?”
The question seemed to upset Hal who looked anxiously left and right for someone to help out because everyone knew what the delay was about, why it took longer for Jews to be approved than Presbyterians, even if no one was going to say so directly. The audience seemed to respond to the sudden tension in the room, a guttural murmur was emitted from somewhere, and people looked away in embarrassment. Whatever might be their secret thoughts, or even the truth, everyone in our neighborhood liked to think of himself as being a good neighbor, friendly, open to new ideas and suggestions from others. It was a protective illusion that allowed us to feel better about ourselves, though in this case it was in part the clannishness of the Jews that encouraged introspection. Had they made an effort, some might say, to get to know us, if they were friendlier, maybe more accepting, then we wouldn’t even be here. But we didn’t know these people and it was clear they didn’t want to know us.
In this room with the seats small enough for younger bodies, no one was going to make any overt display of animosity, but Hal apparently felt the potential was there for an ugly scene. He looked down at the rabbi and said decisively, “Every case is different, Mr. Blatz. Everyone’s unique. But our board meets again in a month and I can guarantee you we’ll have a decision by then.”
Blitz stood as if to protest this further delay but Hal gaveled the meeting to a close and the room emptied in a hurry until it was only Blitz and a collection of his followers standing in the front, their black hats and babushkas bobbing rhythmically, as they talked urgently among themselves, though to what purpose it was impossible to guess.
The next morning small groups of people gathered on street corners with kids and dogs surrounding them, talking about what happened at the school. Strangely, if one had expected residual resentment to boil up, the opposite was more nearly the case, as if approaching nearer the enemy and inspecting them had the effect of robbing people of their outrage. As a result of the meeting, the strange was no longer as strange as before.
“Tell the truth, I was embarrassed,” Charlie Schmitz said. “I mean who the hell are we to say they can’t build an addition to their church? That rabbi was right. When the Presbyterians wanted to put a new hall on there no one said a word.”
“Synagogue,” Dottie Adams said. “They call it a synagogue, not a church.”
“Yeah,” Ed said. “Well, whatever, we got no business mucking around in the whole thing. They seem like good people, with their families, their kids and now they’re making our houses worth more money. Something wrong with that? So they don’t say hello if you see them on the street, so what? Can you tell me a reason we should give a good goddamn? What’s more, I like going over to that little deli they got over there in the strip mall. You ever try that pastrami? Beats the hell out of a sub sandwich, I’ll tell you that right now.”
And while the meeting at the school might not have seemed the ideal vehicle to transmit fellow feeling, Yakov Blitz’ followers also seemed marginally friendlier. They also had dogs to be walked and women would now wave shyly as they passed our houses, often accompanied by children.
On one occasion Sandy and I were standing at our posts at the mailbox when a couple passed by and nodded in our direction. “Fiddler on the Roof,” she said again and it occurred to me that if she were going to choose an alternative reality, the position of the Jews in 19th century Russia might mimic her present situation—limited and yet not without room to maneuver.
As much as anything, though, it could been the image of Yakov Blitz standing in the well of the auditorium asserting his rights that turned people around and then only because his frustration with the process seemed real and understandable. We simply want to go our own way, he seemed to say, even if that’s different from yours. In the days and weeks that followed there seemed no reasonable way to oppose this.
The building permit was approved by the zoning board without discussion at their next meeting, and construction on the new wing of the synagogue began soon afterwards. When the framing was finished, we received another circular, this one on synagogue letterhead inviting the neighborhood to an oneg Shabbat after services on Friday to consecrate the new building.
That night most of us gathered in the shadow of the partly-completed edifice which was blessed in turn by the pastors of the Presbyterian and Baptist churches before Yakov Blitz offered a Hebrew prayer no one understood. Then he turned to the group and said, “We extend a warm welcome to our friends in this small community. We hope to be better neighbors in the future. Torah instructs us to be accommodating to all strangers. In that spirit we invite you not to be strangers here.”
I looked up at the wire encircling the neighborhood that had started everything. It was still there but seemed less threatening than before. It made the eruv more noticeable and the wire’s harsh and forbidding aspect was leavened by bits of toilet paper that remained.
What had started as an artificial boundary meant to provide the faithful a means to live more easily with God’s requirements had the unintended effect of including within it others who had no desire to be part of their community. Like any existing authority, people in the neighborhood hadn’t welcomed a challenge, especially the one offered by Yakov Blitz. And it wouldn’t be over anytime soon. If a fragile peace had been effected through the school meeting and the oneg, there was no way to say whether it would hold if more of us sold our houses and were replaced by Blitz’ faithful. The children of the orthodox still didn’t play with ours and if we weren’t exactly the Jets and the Sharks, it was pretty clear that there would be little social mixing in the neighborhood. Tonight, everyone was making nice, but in this, as in most things, there is a tipping point. Everyone was relieved that conflict had been avoided, that the new addition had been built, but we’d have to see what it brought in the way of more problems. In the cool night air with people circulating, drinking tea, and smiling at one another beneath the encircling wire, no one seemed very interested in predictions for the future.