Riding chai Jews on motorcycles speed past stereotypes

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No pork enters Mort Friedkin's kitchen but there's a hog in his garage.

A Harley Davidson, that is — with a silver and red body, and black and wire accents. The only words the characteristically articulate real estate mogul can find to describe his motorcycle are, "Whoa, really cool."

On weekends Friedkin tears up the hills of Oakland, Contra Costa County or "wherever there's not a lot of traffic." Suburbanites make way for the slight 5-foot-8-inch rider who sports Levi's, a leather jacket, helmet and gloves.

"All you can see is my beard, helmet, sunglasses, and I'm stereotyped an enemy of society," he said during a recent interview at San Francisco's Cafe de la Presse.

Dressed in a double-breasted suit and suspenders whose design displays mice crawling upward, and with his cellular phone ringing constantly, Friedkin, 48, hardly evokes the image of a biker.

In fact, he's past president of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, a board member of the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and past chair of Northern Californians for Good Government.

However, he's hardly the only professional Jew with a penchant for an "Easy Rider" role. Defying stereotypes casting them as nebbishy, a number of Jews have opted for open carburetors over chess tournaments and cello lessons.

Consider Detroit's informal Jewish motorcycle gang Members of the Tribe. Or Toronto's Yidden on Wheels Motorcycle Touring Club, a 110-rider organization.

YOW meets weekly, publishes a monthly newsletter and is a regular presence at the annual motorcycle show at the Toronto Convention Center. The group's logo is a motorcycle riding through the curve of the Hebrew letters for chai.

Bay Area riders are less cohesive. Instead, they follow a more rebel-California-loner spirit model.

But they, too, balk at myths like "nice Jewish boys (and girls) don't ride motorcycles."

"My greatest fear is to be stereotyped," said Bob Stolkin, a longtime biker and a commercial real estate salesman from Sausalito.

At 37, he boasts, "Wearing a suit during the day and riding a cycle on the weekend, I don't appear a motorcycle-riding free spirit. I'm Jewish, you know, `people of the book' and all. I'm reasonably well-read. And I know a few things about a few things."

One thing he knows is what it feels like to take a bad turn on the road, soar over a cliff and come close to losing all his teeth. Metal braces saved Stolkin's smile.

This accident, which happened when Stolkin was 14, was the only excuse his parents needed for taking away his motorcycle.

Stolkin had received his first minibike just three years prior, having incessantly begged his parents, "Can I have a bike? Can I have a bike? Can I have a bike?"

His parents surrendered with a Honda 50 Minitrail.

"I think it's my favorite bike still," said Stolkin, now the owner of a bright yellow Ducati — an Italian racing motorcycle. "I tore up our acre-and-a-half front yard in Indiana riding it."

When Stolkin graduated from the minibike to a bright red Honda SL70, he began his next campaign — begging his parents to let him race motocross.

"My parents said, `Absolutely not. You've gone as far as any Jewish boy should go,'" Stolkin said. "They said, `There's no Jewish racers in history. And you're not going to be the first.'"

While Stolkin's accident may have deterred his parents, it didn't stop him. He bought a Kawasaki 500 — "a death machine," as he calls it — a few years later and kept it in a friend's garage.

"You're out on a twisty road and you turn on the gas and really fly. The adrenaline rush comes from being master of the road and at the same time vulnerable to speed and outside forces," Stolkin said. "It's about speed and freedom, wilderness and being unhampered by rules."

Stolkin's parents still don't know about the Ducati.

While Stolkin's biker persona is known to few, Rabbi Yosef Langer's motorcycle is infamous.

The Chabad spiritual leader rides around San Francisco on a Honda that once belonged to a meter maid. The back section is cut out to accommodate additional riders, and it is customized with a menorah and the words "Chabad of S.F. Mitzvah Bike" and "Moshiach NOW!"

A takeoff on Chabad's Mitzvah Mobile, the Mitzvah Bike allows Langer to "take the message [of Judaism] to the streets," he said.

Just as Chabadniks invite Jews on the street into their large mobile homes — teaching men how to lay tefillin and women how to light candles for Shabbat — Langer also keeps both candlesticks and phylacteries on his bike.

However, unlike most Chabadniks, who approach Jews in the name of outreach, Langer has curious people coming to him.

"They say, `Who are you?' and `What is this?" said Langer, 48.

"It's kind of romantic too. People look at Judaism as a bunch of do's and dont's. But when you're selling it on a mitzvah bike, people can climb inside and take another look."

The Mitzvah Bike, like Chabad's chanukiah in Union Square and the "Grateful Yid" Shabbat dinners aimed at attracting young Jewish Grateful Dead fans, is a symbol of Langer's push beyond the four walls of the conventional synagogue.

"My concern is to touch lives, make that connection. You have to go out into the street to touch the disenfranchised Jew," he said. "This is the wild woolly West.

"San Francisco is renowned for its Hell's Angels. I'm trying to be one of heaven's angels."

While Friedkin, Stolkin and Langer shock the establishment by "coming out" as bikers, Miriam Geller straddles the fence between two stereotypes.

Raised in a Conservative kosher home in Philadelphia and now working as a product manager for Apple Computer, Geller appears the quintessential "nice Jewish girl" — i.e., not biker material.

But Geller, 30, is also a lesbian "and people sort of expect [the motorcycle].

"I defy Jewish stereotypes by riding [a motorcycle] and yet it goes right along with all the lesbian stereotypes. Its a dichotomy."

Of course, Geller has long been bucking the standard Jewish establishment.

A Hebrew-school dropout, Geller attended Penn State on a field hockey scholarship.

"I was the only Jew on the team," she said.

But the purchase of a Honda Magna 500 more than seven years ago was neither a rebellion against traditional Jewish roles nor an affirmation of her sexual orientation.

"It just seemed like fun. I'd say it's the wind in my hair, but it's not," said Geller, who wears her hair closely cropped. "It's easy to get around. You jump on. You jump off. You go between cars. Kids look out their car windows and point.

"Plus it gives you this extra dimension. People wonder if you're wild and crazy."

Friedkin mirrors the sentiment.

"My mother thinks I should have my head examined. She says, `Morty, what did I do wrong?' My friends think I'm crazy too. But then again, they probably think its fits," Friedkin said.

"My wife holds her breath every time I go out on it."

Nonetheless, the thrill that thrust Friedkin onto a Honda 125 at age 16 drove him back onto a Harley Davidson at 40, and keeps him riding.

"The bike is an extension of the self. It's this torquey machine being controlled 100 percent by you," Friedkin said. "Your whole focus is on what you're doing, and reacting to what you have done. It's you reacting to you. It's a bit Zen actually.

"It's you and the bike becoming one. It's freedom."