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Eternal City

My Mezuzah and Me: A New York Goy’s Dilemma

My wife was perfectly content to let the mezuzah be. But I was seized by doubts.

A mezuzah attached to a doorway.

The author’s mezuzah. (Zak Jason / Hell Gate)

The moment my wife and I arrived at our new apartment on the Upper West Side earlier this year, we were presented with a dilemma that countless gentile New Yorkers have faced—do we leave the mezuzah up? 

A previous tenant had left theirs, glued to the front doorpost. Like many sheltered goys growing up in small-town gentile America, I had first learned about this item of Judaica as a teenager watching "Curb Your Enthusiasm": "We put it over the door," Larry David explains to his handyman, "so that every antisemite in the neighborhood will know that we live here in case they want to burn down the house." 

The Old Testament dictates that Jews affix a mezuzah to their doorposts. What's important isn't the finger-sized decorative case, but the small parchment scroll it contains, inscribed with verses of the Torah, which are supposed to provide the home with spiritual protection. (Thank you again, Larry, for this knowledge.) 

We had made the financially questionable choice to move to New York City in our 30s and with a toddler, while we were still in a pandemic and a truly demonic rental market. It felt prudent to take all the protection of any god we could get.

My wife was perfectly content to let the mezuzah be. But I was seized by doubts. Was I inviting divine wrath by being deceitful? Was I a schmuck goy if I left it up? Or was I a schmuck New Yorker if I removed a tiny layer of a city defined by its layers of history that in turn define its people? The day we moved in, I emailed these questions to my former boss Ben Birnbaum, a Brooklyn native who'd gone to Orthodox seminary in the '70s before ditching rabbinical life to become a writer and editor.

"You're the 45 millionth or so gentile who's moved into an apartment in NYC and found yourself under the protection of Yahweh and eligible for a discount membership at the nearest synagogue and not quite sure what to do about it," Birnbaum responded. As to us literally fronting as Jews, he was unconcerned. "There's no Jew on this planet who believes any gentile wants to pass as a Jew," he wrote. "They'll probably assume you're from Wisconsin or thereabouts and you think it's the doorbell."

Reassured, we left it up. Spring came, then summer. The only people who ever commented were our Jewish friends. "Nice mezuzah," they'd say, in the same dry tone friends of Nancy Pelosi might have told her, "Nice kente cloth." (It isn't a nice mezuzah. It's a plain shaft of stainless steel with a rubber topper that looks less like a sacred vessel and more like a promotional thumb drive from a job fair merch table.) 

Then fall arrived, bringing a rising wave of antisemitism. White nationalists cheered on Ye stumping for Hitler and Kyrie Irving stumping for antisemitic conspiracy theories. Ariel Dumas, the head writer for "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert," reported that her family's mezuzah was ripped off and thrown down her hallway. There were reports of stolen or vandalized mezuzahs on college campuses in California, Florida, Indiana, and Michigan. Last month, in New York alone, antisemitic hate crimes were up 125 percent from the previous November.

I began fretting. Was my mezuzah a form of passive solidarity? Was my mezuzah a low-level hate crime itself? Or was I free to do what I pleased? 

I stopped by West Side Judaica & Bookstore, where the shopkeeper informed me that if I were Jewish, I would have to have the parchment properly buried because Yahweh's name was inscribed on it, but I could just throw it away. Hesitant to leave a religious object with the Sanitation Department, I then called synagogues around the city. The rabbis were generous—one invited me to her rabbinical installation—and full of stories about mezuzah dilemmas involving gentiles throughout history. There's the Talmudic (circa 400 CE) story of a Jewish teacher gifting a mezuzah to a gentile nobleman. There was the 15th-century German Talmudist who refused to give a mezuzah to a gentile mayor asking for one to protect his castle. And more recently, there was the Jewish financial advisor in Queens who in 2014 invented the Christooza, a $20, crucifix-shaped "mezuzah for Christians." 

Rabbi Roy Feldman at the Modern Orthodox Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side took his time to offer his thoughts. He first explained that, unless it's nearly certain that the next tenant will be Jewish—if the building has a Sabbath elevator, say—Jews today tend to take their mezuzahs with them. Beyond spiritual protection, another reason for the mezuzah is "to identify a Jewish home," Feldman said. 

Where did that leave me, I asked.

"I would suggest you take it down,” he said. "It's somewhat disingenuous for you to have it up if you're not Jewish."

Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of the Upper West Side's (less doctrinaire) Conservative synagogue Ansche Chesed had a different opinion. "For my two shekels, I see nothing wrong with that," Kalmanofsky told me. "You inherited this one, and can surely keep it. Please take good care of it."

"Is it deceptive?" he continued. "Conceivably. You might be communicating something false to your neighbors. But so what? What advantage does it bring you? Maybe they will put cookies outside your door on Purim. Maybe they will knock on your door if they need a prayer quorum at a mourning house. But then you'll correct them and all will be fine." Kalmanofsky went on: "Still today, in 2022, I have known plenty of older but deeply committed Jews who don't put up mezuzot because they are afraid of advertising that they're Jewish." He added, "If you want to fly our flag now, we'll take it."

Rabbi José Rolando Matalon from the Upper West Side synagogue B’nai Jeshurun had an even more expansive take. "According to Jewish law, you may keep the mezuzah on your doorpost if you wish," Matalon told me, adding that its purpose "applies to Jews and gentiles alike."

There was only one thing left to do to make my peace with our mezuzah. I opened the top and stuck a chopstick down the hole. It was empty. The scroll was gone, or never there to begin with. Our house was getting no protection. My mezuzah wasn’t even a mezuzah. 

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