Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Kosher Bar

A few nights ago, I went to a bar for the fourth time in my life.

I should emphasize that have nothing against bars or alcohol per se. It's just that when it comes to meeting guys, bars don't offer much for me, as I'm looking for the type of guy who is more likely to be found at my local synagogue than in the local pub. When it comes to hanging out with friends, I prefer to be able to see them, and to hear them without shouting. And when it comes to drinking . . . well, maybe the "problem" is that I don't get "buzzed." I go straight from sober to sleepy. Getting drunk is not something that seems fun for me. My idea of fun is a ruthless game of Star Wars Trivial Pursuit, or a day at a good amusement park, or talking to my sister when she has lots of funny stories about my nephews. Bars are just not my thing.

The first time I ever went to a bar was the night before my graduation from Barnard. For four years I had lived, studied, and worked at a secular college, surrounded by people for whom bars were very much their thing. A place called the West End Gate is a particularly popular draw for most Barnard and Columbia students -- but not for my immediate circles of close friends. During Senior Week, when the undergraduates have left campus while the Seniors stick around to celebrate their upcoming Commencement, I was mentioning to some friends that it seems wrong, somehow, to graduate from college having never been to a bar. Going to bars is such a quintessential part of the American college experience. I didn't regret my lifestyle, but felt that it was somehow un-American to let graduation come and go without going to the West End Gate. They said "we've never been to a bar, either! Let's go!" And so, the night before we graduated, I went with my friends C. and J. to the West End Gate. The place was empty -- the undergrads were gone, and the seniors had free on-campus parties to entertain them -- but we each ordered one drink, sat at a table, and were "yotzei our chiyyuv" (fullfilling our "religious" obligation) of going to a bar while in college.

The second time I ever went to a bar was a year later. I was living in Cambridge, and once again the tension between being a young, single American in an urban environment and also being an Orthodox Jew for whom bars meant nothing was starting to boil to the surface. What was I missing? I mentioned to some other Orthodox friends that I'd never been bar-hopping, and they said, "well, let's go!" So one night I went with B. and J. to a bar in Cambridge . . . and then to another bar in Cambridge . . . and then to another one . . . and in each place I thought "what exactly is the point of this?" At the first bar I ordered a kahlua and cream. After that I stuck to Coke. In one place, B., who did not grow up religious, suddenly pulled out a cigarette -- I have no idea where it came from -- and indulged in an old habit. I think B. felt a little guilty for exposing me and J. to the vices of alcohol and tobacco. After the third bar, I felt that I'd wasted enough of the evening, and we left.

About 6 or 7 years passed. I went to UYO, and made some friends who, it happened, were more into bars than I am, including my dear friend E., who was working as an actor in New York. A few months later, E. decided to move to Atlanta, and invited me to his going-away party, at some bar in downtown Manhattan. I don't remember what it was called, just that the windows were completely covered by red velvet curtains, and that there was no sign over the door telling you what it was; you either knew there was a bar in there, or you didn't. Despite getting there a little late, I was still there before E. and his other friends. So I ordered a Coke and sat down. When E. came in, already a little buzzed from some pre-party partying, he looked at the glass in my hand and exclaimed "Sarah!?! You drink?!?" I replied "E.. It's a Coke." He sighed and looked relieved, as if the idea of Sarah drinking alcohol had been spinning the Earth off its axis. Of course, in a way he was right. I stuck around for a couple of hours, talking to E's other friends, who all seemed very nice, when I could hear them, and then went home. That was about four years ago.

Last week, my friend L. sent me an email, inviting me to O'Connell's for her 30th birthday party. I looked up O'Connell's on the internet and discovered that it was a bar. I sent her an email saying "What does one wear to a bar? And if I don't drink will I be totally geeky?" She wrote back that it's a KOSHER bar (that is, it has certification that all the food and drinks are kosher), and does not attract the typical bar clientele, and I could wear and do whatever I want.

Indeed, the place was not packed, and the people who were there were deep enough into their 20's and 30's that the atmosphere was fairly subdued. There were two guys at the bar itself. Only one person was smoking in the entire place. The music was loud but they played songs that I like a lot. And since it is kosher, I could order food! I ordered fish and chips (and a Coke) at a bar! Wow! Israel is a great place. Yeah, everyone else in our birthday party was having beers or tequilas, but I realized, while I was eating my meal, that they don't care whether I'm having a Coke or what, and also that I don't really care if they think I'm geeky. I am geeky. And I like it that way.

I guess I've matured enough to realize that not only do I not need bars, but I also don't need to not need them. I could hang out with other people, note that having to shout and not being able to see them is quite annoying, enjoy my fish and chips, and then go home, pleased that I'd made my friend happy and met some new people. I know myself better now, and I don't have to prove to myself or anyone else that I'm frum enough, or that I'm American enough, or that I'm Israeli enough, or that I'm cool enough. I'm a cool chyck who does not like bars, but will gladly go to one if that's where my friend wants to celebrate her birthday.

The kosher bar, and me. We are what we are.

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