October 11, 2007
There goes the Hood
If, on the Friday afternoon of Simchat Torah, you happened to be on Pico Boulevard, a couple of blocks west of Doheny Boulevard, and you were looking for Nathan's Famous hot dogs or Label's Table deli, you probably would have noticed about 50 Jews of all ages and ethnic backgrounds singing and dancing like party animals, right on the sidewalk.
Where do these people think they are, Israel?
Something has happened to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood, my friends, and I don't mean the opening of the new glatt kosher Subway or the anticipated arrival of a new upscale kosher restaurant (Mamash). Those new eateries have generated their share of buzz, but this is whole different type of nourishment that has come to the heart of our neighborhood.
After 13 years of virtual exile, The Happy Minyan has relocated to one of the busiest stretches of the hood -- with its very own storefront.
Around here, this is bigger news than the upcoming Middle East Peace Conference in Maryland.
If you want to understand the significance of this development, swing by Pico on any Friday night or Saturday and look for the Karate Academy sign sandwiched between Nathan's and Label's. Go inside the Karate Academy, and if you see a few aging hipsters, some Breslev and Chabad Chasidim, a few Sephardim, some young Persians, women in bandanas with a sparkle in their eyes, an adopted African American kid in payos, a yogi dancing by himself in the corner, kids running everywhere, and even a few men in regular suits, you'll know you're at The Happy Minyan.
Actually, you don't have to go inside to know you're there. You just have to be in the vicinity, close enough to hear the joyful chanting or to see a few happy daveners hanging around the entrance. But watch out; if you get too close, someone might ask you to dance.
If that kind of stuff scares you off, I suggest you stay on the north side of Pico until you are safely past Glenville Avenue. That will get you to the exquisite confines of Young Israel of Century City, a Modern Orthodox synagogue that is a marvel of perfection: perfectly friendly, perfectly designed and perfectly orchestrated.
There are many ways to describe The Happy Minyan. Perfectly orchestrated is not one of them.
"Hard to ignore" would be more like it. If you take a Shabbat stroll on that strip of Pico, you won't just see the usual parade of earnest Jews walking with a purpose. Now there are the Happy Minyanites who turn Shabbat into their own little happening -- with no other purpose than to share a little holiness and simcha with those who are looking for it.
They certainly took their time getting here.
For 13 years, this nomadic Torah-observant tribe has been doing their thing in "hood adjacent" territory, first at Beth Jacob Congregation and most recently at Mogen David synagogue, which is a good 10 to 15 minute walk west of their new location. And they did it inside. While they have developed a sort of mystique as the premier Shlomo Carlebach minyan in town, it was always easier to hear about them than to actually see them.
Ready or not, the neighborhood will see them now.
The street buzz started as soon as they moved in for the High Holy Days. One of their famous attributes is that once they get to shul, they never seem to leave. When I was there on Friday for the morning services of Simchat Torah, I left at around 4 p.m. -- and I left early.
At one point, David Sacks got up to auction off the aliyot for the Torah readings that would end the year and begin the new one. I figured it'd be a quick process, so that we could all move on to the festivities. An hour later, the auction had organically evolved into a spiritual encounter group where just about everyone -- men and especially women -- offered to add a little donation on behalf of some soulful cause.
Instead of wrapping things up efficiently, Sacks himself would go off on holy riffs, praying for everyone to meet their soulmates this year (or in the next 72 hours), praying for "the end of loneliness" and, of course, telling the occasional Shlomo Carlebach story. No one seemed to mind that by 2 p.m., the Torah reading hadn't yet started.
If time doesn't exactly stop at The Happy Minyan, it is definitely a minor detail.
What won't be a minor detail for this brave bunch is what to do with all the walk-in "business" they are sure to attract. On the day I was there, there was a continuous flow of curious visitors, including a little band of testosterone-filled Persian teenagers who seemed to have gained a second wind after finishing their own service at another shul down the block. It turns out they were the noisiest among us when we all ended up dancing with the Torah and singing "Am Israel Chai" in front of Nathan's Famous.
Oh, and in all the commotion I did notice an interesting visitor to The Happy Minyan. It was someone named Ezra Pollak, and I recognized his face because I always see him when I go to his shul: Young Israel of Century City, that paragon of perfection on the other side of the street.
In fact, while we're on the subject of brotherly love, guess who's been announced in the Young Israel program this year to lead occasional "Friday Night With Reb Shlomo" services? You guessed it, the chazzan of The Happy Minyan: the very popular Yehudah Solomon, of the band Moshav.
Now, if two shuls as wildly different as The Happy Minyan and Young Israel of Century City can find things to share with one another, I'm not worried about my neighborhood -- or the future of my people.