When I got an email from my daughter/traveling companion that a friend had suggested we visit Boro (Borough) Park in Brooklyn I laughed at how the universe converges. Two years ago I watched a special on Hasidic life in that neighborhood and put it on my calendar for my next visit to New York. I had been moving it forward and had recently updated it to coincide with our trip. I just hadn’t yet mentioned it to her.
What better companion than my daughter? She has been attending a synagogue with her partner who is Jewish, and when Kellee enters a realm, she informs herself. She was able to give me a running commentary throughout my educational journey.
That day in New York we hopped on and off the metro, covering the span from the Ultra-Orthodox to the most open of groups – not even reconstructionist, but unaffiliated- from Brooklyn to Chelsea where the LGBT community worships. And it was a trip.
Our first leg, getting off at the Fort Hamilton Parkway stop and heading up Ultrect St. was not what I expected. The metro is elevated in that area and walking along under it felt like being in a gritty area of any city. Car repair shops in juxtaposition to a restaurant serving Mexican-Chinese food didn’t seem the entree to the neighborhood of a highly structured religious group – but we kept walking.
Soon the men in long black coats (with the fringes of their tallit katan peeking out) and wide brimmed hats were more prevalent. More women were dressed to carefully shield their bodies and their hair from public view – if not by scarves, then by wigs. And then we were immersed. Small boys wearing payot (side curls) careened around us on bicycles or walked in after school groups – laughing, talking, shoving. Very young mothers shepherded their children, and men in black suits and hats pushed strollers purposefully.
We weren’t isolated in our “normal” dress, though. There were the occasional Latino or Asian pedestrians going about their business. Still, i felt a bit like a foreign country. (More on that later.)
Nevertheless, our day held the usual lesson in oneness. In my search for myself in cultures other than my own, I was pleased to have a moment with an older woman on the street. No more than a little connection – woman to woman – but enough.
And, of course, there was the realization that religion may change the exact routine of days for men and women, but routines continue. Emotions (which may be expressed differently) remain universal. There is joy. There is sadness. There is pain. There is ecstasy.
And life goes along. Meals are made. Children are cared for. Jobs are fulfilled. And there is still cleaning to be done and garbage to be collected.
On our trip together, we have not so much routine as continuing choices. Kellee and I have tried to be clear about what may be important to us. What do we not want to miss? What is fascinating? What is fulfilling in concept if not in actuality?
Our day’s choice included an evening in Manhattan on W. 28th St.
This past year Kellee’s congregation had gone through an extensive search process for a new Rabbi. The woman who was chosen had interned at a Beit Simchat Torah, a welcoming congregation in New York. Attending a service there during these High Holy days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur felt important to her. And for me it was a first.
Again, she guided me. Although she was fully involved in the spirit of the service, she was considerate – letting me know the import of particular …. And pointing out what might be inappropriate.
It was a time of sensations.
The music – although the words and tunes were unknown – was familiar and comforting. Maybe it all stems from seeing Fiddler on the Roof so many times, but the cadence felt like home. And now I understand why synagogues have Cantors. Prayers are lifted in the form of music.
The cantor seemed more than the song leader I remember from my Protestant upbringing. He had a lovely voice that, together with the Rabbi and another intern, led the congregation. (To my daughter it felt like too much of production. To me it felt wonderful to be surrounded in song.)
Earlier in the day Kellee had explained that the Hasidim worship is intense in their joyful dancing as a part of services. I caught a glimpse of that in the bobbing, swaying, and dipping to the music that went on around me in this modern group. It was a warm and powerful way to learn more about Synagogue.
And now back to being in a foreign country.
Our next stop in travel, Paris, brought an entirely different view of life as a Jew in this modern world.
Kellee had given me a bit of background on the attacks on Jews in Paris. You might find this article informative. It is interesting that the photo in the article perfectly depicts the armed officers guarding a Synagogue on a quiet back street in the Marais that we walked along in Paris on Yom Kippur.
What was interesting in Paris, however, was the great diversity on all of the streets. I can’t speak to the whole of the city, but on the streets, in the shops, on the metros, etc. where we were, there seemed to be no separation of races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds. Muslims walked easily on the busy streets as did blacks, Hassidim, Asians, and every color and ethnic group imaginable. It was markedly different than New York where races and religions seem to be localized into Little Italy, Chinatown, etc.
Interesting insights are gained from travel, aren’t they?