"The teacher says we all have art in us somehow, and we have to recover it," Alex explains. His companions, Richard Bakst and Lori Mark, nod enthusiastically. "It's a way of getting in touch with yourself," adds Richard.
This could be a scene from any one of hundreds of dimly-lit cafes dotting Manhattan. But there's one crucial difference: Alex, Richard and Lori have come here hoping to meet other Jews. That, in fact, is what this cafe is here for.
This is Makor, one of the hottest new hot spots on the New York culture scene. The brainchild of zillionaire philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, it's meant to be a sort of Jewish drop-in center for the young and hip. That's proving controversial.
To a visitor, the five-story townhouse resembles nothing so much as a Hillel House for grownups. There's a performance space and adjoining cafe (beer and wine, no booze) in the basement, a reading room and lecture hall at ground level, art gallery and screening room above that, and two more floors of classrooms.
Makor's goal is to attract under-40 singles, who don't generally frequent Jewish institutions, by offering cultural programs they can't resist. "We try to bring them higher Jewishly as they move upward through the building," says Makor's creative and rabbinic director, Rabbi David Gedzelman.
And if some end up married, well, Makor won't object. That was a key motive behind the project's conception, though it's downplayed lately, having evoked too much smirking. "This isn't a dating service," Steinhardt insists. Still, "a measure of the health of a future Jewish community relates in part to Jews marrying Jews."
For Steinhardt, 59, the community's health is a personal crusade. A Wall Street legend, he retired in 1995 to pursue Jewish continuity full-time. He created his own organization, the Jewish Life Network, and hired a stable of young rabbis to dream up new ideas, which are then spun off. One grants seed-money for new day schools. Another enlists young Jews in social-justice projects. Steinhardt is an avowed atheist and a political skeptic. Mostly, he's a sworn contrarian.
Makor, like many Steinhardt initiatives -- including Birthright Israel, his best-known -- had naysayers howling from day one. Skeptics (your correspondent included) considered it an overpriced JCC for spoiled yuppies. Costing $11 million to build, requiring a staff of 28, it targeted a population that was already richly served by innovative synagogues and no less than two community centers, including the renowned 92nd Street YMHA. Who needed another facility?
As usual, Steinhardt has the last laugh. Five months after opening, Makor draws between 1,000 and 1,500 people a week, staffers say. Its mailing list tops 12,000 names. Monthly Sabbath dinners are always sold out.
"It gives you a good time," says Alex Dwek, sipping his wine. "Saturday is always packed with people dancing and everything. Sunday you can come for brunch, meet people and hear good jazz. It's a place where you know you're going to meet Jewish people. Maybe as a soulmate, maybe not."
Equally telling, Makor has won a reputation as one of New York's leading venues for jazz and alternative pop music. Under Gedzelman's supervision, the basement cabaret, open six nights a week (closed Fridays), books acts as diverse as the Klezmatics, the Christian McBride Band, bluesman Derek Trucks and Pharaoh's Daughters, an Israeli fusion group.
"It just sort of showed up on the scene a few months ago, and it's got tremendous buzz," says Simon Moshenberg, a Columbia University junior who wandered in on a recent Saturday night to hear jazz banjoist Tony Trischka. "They're booking really great acts. People are coming to hear the music."
Success prompts new waves of criticism. Makor's programs are so popular, critics wonder what's to prevent non-Jews from coming. What if Makor ends up promoting intermarriage instead of fighting it?
The complaint circulated in whispers along Manhattan's west side for months. Then, last month, the debate exploded into public view in a hostile cover story in the mass-circulation New York magazine. The article, titled "Goy Vey!," took shots at the Makor phenomenon along with "Kosher Sex" author Rabbi Shmuley Boteach. Its bottom line: trying to make Judaism popular and hip is bad for Judaism.
That's an argument rippling through Jewish continuity debates for years. Traditionalists warn that reaching out too eagerly to the unaffiliated risks perverting Judaism. Liberals say refusing to adapt means abandoning most of the next generation.
Makor may be the boldest, most expensive effort yet to test the limits of outreach. "If we want to reach the broadest range of Jews in their 20s and 30s and give them opportunities for Jewish connection and exploration, we first have to meet them where they are," Gedzelman says.
Will it work? The jury is still out. About half of Makor's monthly attendance is for the cabaret, half for the upstairs programs. It's not clear how many music fans actually wander upstairs. Gedzelman is planning a study of his clientele, which should help clear that up.
The study will also show how much of the clientele is Jewish. Gedzelman thinks audiences are 20 to 25 percent non-Jewish at the cabaret, far less upstairs. "We don't see it as a problem," he says. "In order to reach the Jews we want to reach, the cafe context has to include the open society."
The debate rages on, even down at the bar. "I find it strange here," says Andrew Hahn, a graduate student in Jewish philosophy. "It's secular, yet it's Jewish. It doesn't fit. What keeps it Jewish? It makes sense in Tel Aviv, not here."
A few feet away, Emma, a non-Jewish filmmaker who won't give her last name, has the opposite problem. "The whole thing seems narrow-minded and bigoted to me," she says. "If I'd known what the purpose was, I wouldn't have come. But now that I'm here, it's really great."
Her friend Martine, a Jewish psychotherapist, suffers no such qualms. "I've been hearing about it a lot, and I'm glad I came," she says. "And, hey, if I could meet a Jewish guy here, that would be great."
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal