NYC, like Toronto but Jewier: Phoebe Maltz Bovy reports from the Upper West Side

The Messiah stickers, found throughout NYC, in this instance on West 79th Street.

I have returned from the mothership, the land of my own literal mother (and most of the rest of my extended family) as well as the home base of a certain sort of Jewishness. Hegemonic and Ashkenormative an assertion as this may be, I’ll risk it. I live in Toronto and am grateful to do so, but centre of my culture is Zabar’s, where a mere few days ago I got one of their amazingly still-existent Styrofoam and plastic wrap packages of smoked mozzarella balls. A Proustian experience I tried to share with my children, though I think they were less keen. Lox would be the cliché, the thing to get, and I know theirs is excellent, but hometowns can never be tourist destinations. I get what I remember and can’t get anywhere else.

It’s hard to explain what I found so Jewish about day-to-day life in New York of 2023. There are bustling Upper West Side cafés whose kosher status can be inferred by the Orthodox attire of some of the patrons, but this would be true in a Jewish area anywhere. It’s more that experience, one I used to associate with going to Israel, of noticing that a lot of people look like me. This is true all over the place in the city, not just in ostensibly Jewish locales. But unlike in Israel, they also seem like me, which is, I think, more the point.

A posh-looking middle-aged woman in tennis garb and holding racquets shouted obscenities at a dangerous driver. I turned to my family and was like, see, this is just my culture. Preppy on the outside, Larry David on the inside. My people. I say this having no idea if this lady was Jewish and frankly my guess would be that she was not.

Toronto, with its silent subway cars, with its general anti-yelling culture, is now my home. This is now normal, and New York, despite having a lot more Jews and a lot more of my own relatives, is this other place that I can now see with the eyes of someone with enough distance to actually notice things about it. And maybe this, the famous wandering, is the most Jewish thing of all.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected] and on whatever Twitter is calling itself this week @bovymaltz