A few days into Tablet LA, our office received an intriguing tip. Apparently, a group of 20-30 year old Jews are having a weekly bonfire at a west side mansion. The friend of a friend who warned us had never been there, but the bonfires are nice, and so are posh properties in LA. So we packed some wine in a tote bag as a contribution, piled into Tablet editor Jeremy Stern’s minivan, and drove into the hilly enclave of Bel Air.
“So what exactly are we witnessing here?” asked Armin Rosen, Tablet’s staff writer.
“I told you literally all the information I have,” said contributor Suzy Weiss, who straightened it all out.
“What if it was like a prayer?” I asked, as bottles of wine clinked in the backseat.
We followed Google Maps to the end of a long dark alley, lined with cars but oddly quiet for a party. It wasn’t clear what horrible fate would befall us if we were hidden in the wrong person’s Bel Air alley in crime-ridden Los Angeles, so we sent Suzy and Armin to scout.
“Do you think these people will care if I smoke a cig?” Jeremy asked as we got out of the car and turned a corner towards the sound of voices.
“No, but we need a lighter from everyone who smokes…” We abruptly stopped talking when the scene appeared. A circle of 20 people sat attentively around a gas fire pit on a tennis court, which was surrounded by lush tropical leaves and looked like something out of a five-star Indonesian resort. A rabbi paced around the group, delivering what seemed to be the climax of his sermon. I wondered what Suzy had done with the wine. Returned to a shameful silence, we walked towards the tennis court, falsely sunken; I seriously misjudged the distance and nearly broke my ankle falling to the clay. I could hear Jeremy snickering behind me as I limped towards the group.
The rabbi finished his sermon (which I unfortunately remember little of, having been focused on the searing pain in my foot) and opened things up for questions and answers.
“What I want to know is how did the Jews end up in Europe?” asked an Israeli in the outer circle of the circle. The Rabbi said something about Jews not being a race and he didn’t care how they got to Europe.
“Is it just me or is everyone hot?” murmured Jeremy.
He wasn’t wrong; it was a very nice group gathered around the fire. Everyone was young, fit and fashionable – I spotted love bracelets from Off White, Balenciaga and Cartier. Apart from the Israeli, no one had any questions for the circle. So the rabbi wrapped things up by encouraging people to pick up s’mores and seek it out for one-on-one conversations. Still stunned by the kind of event we had found ourselves in, Suzy and Armin mingled with the crowd, for they are skilful and fearless reporters, while Jeremy and I stood awkwardly around the perimeter of the circle.
Within moments, surely noticing our disorientation, we were joined by the rabbi, who happened to be from Chabad of Bel Air. Rabbi Chaim Mentz, ‘star rabbi’ and Paula Abdul’s personal Jewish mentor, said this group has been meeting here every Tuesday for more than two years, gathering outdoors even in the midst of the pandemic and across the harsh Los Angeles winters. The bonfire is just one of several events organized by an organization called Chai House BH, described on its website as “an exclusive social club for young Los Angeles Jews.” According to the organization’s Instagram, Chai House hosted casino nights, a white Tu B’Av party, “Hookah in the Sukkah”, and an Igloo Fest for the last night of Hanukkah, with a special appearance by DJ Beachball. .
Rabbi Mentz tells me that these gatherings were the brainchild of a Jewish family with several children in their twenties who were looking to make a deeper, more personal connection to their Jewish faith. Over the past two years, he says he has cultivated meaningful relationships with the young participants, who appreciate the opportunity to explore Judaism and hear from a rabbi in an intimate but relaxed setting. His words came true about 30 seconds later, when a girl in a fluffy jacket burst towards us with a “Rabbi! I have so much to tell you!” They came out of earshot for an intense conversation, the only excerpts I caught were “Rabbi, he doesn’t want to be exclusive” and “His tone has changed so much since Shabbat”.
At this point in the night, Jeremy mumbled an apology and made a quick exit (which was put on display to the group after his car was blocked by someone’s Toyota and he didn’t figure out how to do it operate the mansion’s high-tech automatic gate). I walked over to Suzy, who was talking to a young couple in trendy sportswear whose newborn baby was sleeping in the home boxing gym. We discerned that no one had started the s’mores and immediately positioned ourselves by the fire with handfuls of marshmallows and chocolate.
I had fun for a while gorging on candy and listening to the guy next to me talking to one of the founders of Chai House about how he used to import fake Dior bags from Shenzhen to give them to his ex-girlfriend for special occasions. But that romantic monologue was cut short when two guys behind me, who had been singing and strumming a guitar all night, burst into “Shallow” by A star is born and started shutting people up so a girl in the back could join them.
“Everyone here is so serious,” Suzy said.
“I know. Imagine if I had released a guitar at home Tablet.
Serious was the perfect word, and it certainly wasn’t an insult. Everyone seemed to be having a good time. We had blundered into this close-knit, personally meaningful religious event largely uninvited and 30 minutes late, snickered at their chanting, and ate most of their kosher marshmallows, but we had been welcomed with open arms. In the meantime, if someone accidentally touches me in a store in New York, I’ll complain about it for the rest of the day.
A lot could be said about the youth of Los Angeles. They’re a little tasteless, a little boring, smoke way too much weed in conversation-oriented settings, and bring guitars in way too many places, but they’re generally pleasant and sound genuinely enjoyable. They’re probably having more fun than those of us in New York who can’t shut up long enough to enjoy the moment and have a good time without irony. Lesson learned. Hopefully the Tablet desktop will be invited again.