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My Three Brooklyn Tribes

September 14, 2010

I have never really told you about the three communities I belong to. I’ve had interesting interactions with each of them these past few weeks.

You see, at this stage of my life, I find myself with no children, and precious little family.  So I’ve made it my business to commune with different communities, and to make my friends my family. Most people who know me know I belong to one or two of these tribes; few know of all three.

To begin with, Shelley and I are Jewish, and although we are not very observant, on the High Holidays we go to a local synagogue (Kolot Chayeinu in Park Slope). This is no ordinary place, however. I like to call it the “none-of-the-above” synagogue. If you’re normal in any way as a Jew, you simply don’t belong there. Most are those who might never feel welcome in most congregations – gays; bisexuals; interracial and inter-religious couples; transvestites; transgendered; you name it. (Shelley and I are probably one of the few straight couples there). The rabbi (Ellen Lippmann) is a lesbian whose partner is an Irish Catholic. She is also a remarkable speaker who takes on topics in her sermons as broad and provocative as they are deep. Between the way she speaks and the way the cantor sings…well let’s just say together they comprise the two most compelling voices to be heard from any pulpit in the city.

But I digress. A few things of note happened to me this past Rosh Hashonah. One is that on the bus ride to the synagogue, there’s a schizophrenic loudly babbling away (and very emphatically) about God-knows-what. But then I listen, and indeed, he starts reading from the Bible, “…remember to number your days…” I leave the bus, and a few minutes later arrive at the shule. After meeting Shelley on line (there’s always a wait on Rosh Hashonah) and finally getting inside, we sit down and I open the prayer book. As is common for the holidays, there’s a special little orange song sheet to accompany the service. And there, on the very top of the sheet, is a song we would later sing in Hebrew – the line from psalm 90:12, which reads, “…teach us to number our days, so we may get us a heart of wisdom.”  

The rabbi would speak a few words about it  —  “number your days; count them and make them count; treasure them”.

I find myself wondering — Does God speak to people through schizophrenics?

The next day, Shelley and I do Tashlich at the lake in Prospect Park. It’s a wonderful little tradition where you take some breadcrumbs (or popcorn, if you want to help control the duck population) and toss them into the water as you recall the year’s sins, one by one. We are by ourselves, and soon a trio of black hats approach us.

 “Oh oh” I think. What now? Are we in for some kind of lecture or something?

 “Excuse me. Have you heard the shofar yet today?” a handsome, bright- eyed young man, maybe 20 years old, asks.


 “Would you like to?”


 “Let’s do it!”

He presents me with a prayer book, and wants me to recite in Hebrew.

“I can’t read Hebrew”, I confess.

 “Ok! Repeat after me…”

And he starts reciting, and I find I can fill in most of the rest, from memory.

And then the one holding the Shofar begins to blow…for five minutes! Each note follows a word in the prayer book.  And as he gives us this private little concert, I close my eyes and am transported back to the hills of some ancient land of my ancestors who heard the same exact notes played from the same instrument thousands of years ago.

Then it was done. And this was all these young men wanted — to do their Mitzvah (good deed) and be on their way.

Brooklyn — not a bad place to be at such a time of year!   

My second community is the tribe of men I belong to. This is a community that also is thousands of years old, but these days, in this town, few men seem to identify with it.  At a time when the very word “man” is disappearing from our vocabulary (or haven’t you noticed?); when my younger male patients identify themselves as people first, and almost flinch when I use the “M word”; this little tribe is alive and well. Here in my neck of the woods, I belong to a men’s group (actually we call it a men’s team, but that’s a whole other story) and we affiliate with other such groups and call ourselves the Brooklyn Bucket Brigade. We play volley ball once a month and get our hands dirty with community service projects. Each year we go to what is called “The Spirit Weekend” which is like post-graduate work in deep masculinity, and I just came from one of these weekends two days ago. I’ve been in and out of men’s groups throughout my entire adult life. Frankly, I don’t know what would have become of me without them. And these days, with so many men so isolated, never knowing what a healthy, non-macho male pride is, or what kind of vibrant, life-giving legacy is available to them, well, it just saddens me. And this unruly and rowdy, yet soulful and deeply caring group of men has been the mainstay of my support system for decades.

I am blessed and proud to count myself among them.

My third tribe is a little more difficult to talk about. I belong to a sub-culture here in NY that largely exists underground. It’s a community of open-minded and open-hearted (and mostly highly-educated) explorers and revelers who gather for conferences; personal and group experiences; and wild ass all-night parties.

Shelley and I and a few friends of ours attended just such a party two weeks ago. It was held at a secret location here in Brooklyn – a warehouse by the water, of some 44,000 square feet, transformed for the occasion into what could most accurately be described as another planet, complete with dozens of interactive, experiential art installations, and dancing that went on till dawn. And about a thousand people.

My friends and I were the oldest there by far, but this is our community and we felt welcomed. Besides, we boomers – we invented partying, you know. I myself danced like a crazy maniac for hours. And what did the younger people think of us? Every now and then, one would strike up a conversation with us, expressing appreciation.

As the night ended, and we walked out into the dawn’s early light, one particularly stunning young lady, who’d traveled up from D.C. for the occasion, walked up to us and said, “I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate you guys being here: You made my night!”

Shelley put her arm around her. “Remember,” she said, “You’re never too old!”

I am not a wealthy man, but my life is rich. And I am blessed to be a member of three tribes here in Brooklyn. How people survive whole these days without belonging to something larger than themselves is beyond me.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 14, 2010 10:46 pm

    I can’t believe you didn’t invite me to the Spirit Weekend!


  2. Pam Teller permalink
    September 15, 2010 8:27 pm

    I am enjoying reading about your life. Just a comment. It’s more polite and politically correct to say” A person with Schizophrenia, rather than say “A Schizophrenic”


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