1990. I am in the habit of cycling down to the Boat Basin after work every day to revive my spirits; descending from the noise of the city to the peace of twilight by the river. I ride back and forth until I find a bench that beckons, lean my bike against it, take my watercolors from my backpack, and attempt to catch the shift of colors as the last beams of daylight filter down into night. I am drawn to this edge of the city because I have a hunger for sky, for water, for small sounds and wind, for some sense of vastness.
Today is the beginning of the Jewish New Year. Although I don’t observe the holidays, I seize the opportunity to work only a half-day, getting home early to change into my biking gear. As I set out towards the park, the streets whisper the hushed excitement of people hurrying home for the holiday. Pedaling fast, I whiz past Broadway to Riverside, past the gnarled oak that points the way down the hill. I choose the path that goes around the Soldiers and Sailors’ monument, at its base a semicircle of Civil War cannonballs, half-buried in the earth; frozen in time as if waiting for a giant pool cue to break their formation, awakening them to action.
I pedal down the path to the right, past the railroad underpass that trains sometimes still pass through, whistling eerily, hidden from view. A right turn brings me into a tunnel under the highway. I sing a resounding note and hear the accoustic equivalent of a rainbow. An arc of river is visible through the tunnel’s mouth until I tear through and enter the riverside evening.
It is quieter down here. Trees line up, arching their crooked limbs over the path to the marina, which we Upper West Siders refer to as the Boat Basin. I approach, welcomed by peaceful creakings and clankings, and the slightly fetid salty smell of low tide.
I pass the boats and find an empty bench, park my bike, and take in the view. Across a blue-gray expanse of river is the New Jersey shoreline, looking peaceful and stolid; benign hills punctuated by boxy highrises. I have painted this view in many of its different moods: urban/industrial, stormy and mysterious, transcendent. Today the sky is a cheerful cerulean, clear and transparent, with a yellowish haze towards the horizon.
This is my favorite time of day for painting—late afternoon, just before sunset. The light changes as I paint, the sky turning a rich cobalt, pale rose bleeding up from the horizon. Clouds gather and are blown upwards, offset by gray-shadowed undersides. On the river, light and shadow swirl into patterns of silver and purple. I work fast. It is a code of sensation— blue, then purple; green to ochre, red. Soon, paper saturated, I stop to let it dry.
Something is different. The walkway is becoming crowded. .. with groups of men in black suits and hats, like flocks of crows. Orthodox Jews, down by the river? They walk up to the railing and lean on it, taking hands from pockets and flicking them over the water. Some daven, bending their knees and bowing in prayer.
I know there are some pagan elements left in Judaism. But they do not belong here, obstructing my view. I feel a frisson of annoyance. Let them stay in their synagogues! The river is my territory.
I sense a presence on my right and look up to see a boy, maybe 12 or 13, sitting next to me, watching me paint. He is wearing the dark clothes of the Orthodox, complete with yarmulke and braided fringes hanging from his belt. The coiled curls of his light brown payes frame the pale moon of his face.
“Hi.” I’m not sure if he’ll want to talk with me.
“What’re you painting?” He leans toward me slightly, bracing his hands on the bench.
I point a brush towards the river. “I’m painting the view, there.”
He looks toward New Jersey, then down at my painting. “Looks just like it.”
“What’s going on tonight? I mean, what’s everybody doing down here?”
“It’s Rosh Hashanah. We’re casting our sins. It’s called Tashlikh.”
Nice to have a 12-year-old for a teacher. I feel suddenly ashamed to be wearing bluejeans and painting on the holiday. I am, after all, a Jew. Or am I? I certainly don’t feel much in common with these Jews, in their peculiar old-world garb. I find them unsightly, their refusal to inhabit the modem world embarrassing. This boy, however, seems open and friendly; just a regular kid. “Happy New Year,” I tell him.
“Thanks.” He looks surprised. “You’re Jewish?”
“Yes.” I think of my little Jewish Grandma, Sophie, from the Bronx. “I wasn’t brought up religious, but I’m still Jewish.”
“Happy New Year. Shana tova,” he mumbles.
I swirl a brush in water. “Do you like to paint?”
“When I was little, but I don’t do it anymore. In school, it’s for girls. I’d like to, though.”
His candor surprises me. “Well…all you need is to sit down and do it, and be willing to make a mess. It takes practice, but it’s worth it.” I resume painting. “Where do you go to school?”
He tells me the name of his yeshiva and points behind us. I know the big corner building on Riverside Drive; I’ve often hiked past the boys playing ball in front of the Soldiers and Sailor’s monument, yelling and running around, their brightly colored yarmulkes somehow staying on their heads.
I look again at my bench-mate. He looks well-fed, probably doted on by his parents, as Jewish boys often are. Probably much-loved and much-disciplined. I wonder who he’ll be when he grows up. I can’t imagine he’ll be the kind of young man interested in conversing with a painter on a park bench.
The light suddenly blazes up, gold pouring down from the sky, pooling onto the tops of waves, gilding the river. The sun, blood-orange, pokes a hole through the clouds and streams outward, a fan of dark and light beams, straight out of a Renaissance painting. It’s spectacular, the kind of sunset you get to see once a year, if you happen to be lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.
I tum to my young companion. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
“Yeh,” he says, but I can’t tell if he means it. Swathed in the pudgy inscrutability of puberty, he’s hard to read. He looks at my painting, then at the spectacle in front of us. “I wish I could do that!” he proclaims, and I feel a sudden bond with him; he is right there with me in this glorious moment.
And so it is, gold streaming from the sky, clouds ablaze; red above, purple below. In the Hudson fire swirls with silver and ink. My hands fly; the light of the sunset passing through my eyes, down into my fingers, through my brush, onto the paper in pools of color. My way of praising creation.
A middle-aged man in black appoaches the bench, and my young friend looks up. This must be his father. “Shayna tohva,” I say uncertainly, pronouncing it wrong.
He looks at the boy, then at me. “L’shana tova.” Polite, but not entirely friendly. A quick gesture of his head raises his son from the bench. “Time for dinner.” He ruffles his son’s hair.
I try to make contact. “Your son’s been keeping me company while I paint.”
The boy’s father nods a polite smile in my direction. I immediately feel foolish—as if this man could care less about my painting. He does not realize that for me, it is a spiritual act, like prayer.
“Goodbye,” I say to the boy, “Nice talking with you.”
“Bye,” he says. Off they go down the path, two silhouetted figures merging with the others heading home for dinner. I keep painting. The light has started to fade. The streetlamps come on. The Jersey lights twinkle; the bridge will soon be a diamond bracelet on night’s wrist.
I pack up quickly, flinging my dirty water onto the ground behind me. As I balance the wet painting on top of my backpack, a shadow falls across it. A homeless man, pushing a broken-down cart filled with his possessions, has stopped in front of me.
At twilight the homeless appeal-—sleeping on benches, in tunnels, under trees; modern-day trolls, reminders of everything we don’t want to happen to us.
The man points to my sketchbook. “What you doing? Let me see that!” I hand him my painting, the colors barely distinguishable in the yellow lamplight.
He looks more closely. “Yeah, you got it, girl! How you do that?”
Why should it surprise me that this man, with his bags and boxes and bedroll, cares about art? It is something we have in common. That, and taking refuge in this margin of the city.
What did it mean to be a Jew? The word was tinged with bourgeois undertones. I inherited my mother’s desire to transcend her old-world immigrant roots, but rejected the materialism that came naturally to prosperous second-generation Jews: women displaying their clothes and jewelry in synagogue, and families competing to throw the biggest bar mitzvah with the most food and best band. I wished at all costs to avoid these spectacles, but until the age of 14 I was powerless to resist, and suffered through them, awkward and itchy.
Then came the ’60s, when I finally had a chance to rebel. I cut high school and spent my days in Central Park, walking, reading, painting. Blue trees, purple rocks, with faces and eyes and spiders hidden in them. I memorized songs by Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, etching their messages of alienation into my soul. I smoked cigarettes, drank, smoked pot, took acid. I dressed in dashikis, swam in the Central Park lake, and made out with scraggly longhaired teenage boys. I went to the first Human Be-In in the Sheep Meadow. I ironed my hair to make it stick-straight and wore Erase on my lips, trying to erase the self I was born into.
I read books about Buddhism, existentialism, mythology. I identified with Sisyphus, Prometheus, the sufferings of Christ. Wanting to be like Siddhartha, I weighed each word before I spoke. I stopped sleeping, burning incense late into the night. I impaled myself on my loneliness and anger. A few years later, I hung a cross on the wall of the bedroom of my first apartment and sold my grandmother’s Shabbos candlesticks at a street fair. I believed that in breaking my ties to my family I was choosing spiritual non-attachment.
1991. Twilight. The Jewish holidays have rolled around again. I sit on my bed in the dark, looking at the silhouettes of buildings against the violet New York dusk. My dad, sick in the nursing home, has had a crisis. For the second week in a row, a nurse has called to say he might not live through the weekend. Feeling forlorn, I find myself thinking about my grandmother. How good it would be to see her again, to feel once again the warmth of family. I suddenly decide to go to synagogue. Nobody else I know goes, so I will go alone.
I put on dark slacks and a silk blouse, gather my keys, pet the cat, and am out the door, rushing into the evening to find a synagogue. This is the Upper West Side; there are a gaggle of them up here. An acquaintance has mentioned a small Conservative synagogue with an alternative slant, in the west 80s. I let my feet lead me. Before long I am at the door. An usher greets me.
“Are you a member?”
I shake my head.
“You have to have a ticket.”
“I’ll be happy to send a contribution. It would mean a lot to me to come to services. I’ll just stand in the back.”
He confers with another usher, then allows me in, telling me to sit where I like, as long as I will give up my seat to a member of the congregation if asked. I agree, and walk upstairs to the sanctuary, shaky-legged and sweaty-palmed, and choose a seat far back on the left. All around me are families: mothers, fathers and children; grandmothers and grandfathers. There is a buzz of talk. As far as I can see, I am the only single person there. I feel like an intruder, a vagrant.
A mournful chord silences the room. “By authority of the court on high and by the authority of this court below…we hereby declare that it is permitted to pray with those who have transgressed.” At least I am welcome here.
I listen to the congregation recite Vidui, a litany of repentance.
With each phrase congregants rap loose fists on the area over their hearts. We abuse, we betray, we are cruel…We gossip, we hate, we insult…We mock, we neglect, we oppress…We pervert, we quarrel, we rebel…. This is new to me. Not at all like the abstract prayers of Thee and Thou, conquest and might that I remember from my childhood. Psychologically specific. Something for everyone. If I feel like a sinner, I’m in good company.
We rise and recite: We have sinned against you…wittingly and unwittingly…through arrogance… through selfishness…stubbornness …and by succumbing to dismay. Each verse of spoken confession is followed by asking forgiveness, sung in Hebrew. Though I don’t know the words, I find myself humming the beautiful, mournful melody.
The congregation chants softly, “On Yom Kippur it is decided…who will live and who will die.” Whether or not I believe this, I close my eyes and pray for my father.
Shana tova. Everyone wishes each other a sweet new year. I turn and head down the stairs, alone among strangers, towards the cool air and light streaming in the door. Shana tova.
1995. A new friend, Marilyn, invites me to spend the holidays with artist friends in the balcony at a West Side synagogue where they welcome non-members if there is room. After the morning service I go for a walk in Riverside Park. It is a mild, clear day, and down by the river congregants from different synagogues converge and mingle. Boats bob peacefully on the water.
Dizzy from fasting, I walk more slowly than usual. Looking at the world from this slowed-down vantage point reminds me of how the world looked when I was a child— things looming large and colorful, people individual and unique, with distinctive faces, smells and voices. Perhaps this slow strolling is part of what the Sabbath is supposed to be like, not just strict laws of what you must not do.
That evening, on my way to synagogue for the closing ceremony, as I turn west on 88th Street, a spectacle awaits me. A small group of people are gathered in front of a brownstone. A woman standing on the stoop, holding a box of cornflakes, is in animated debate with a younger woman who gestures with an open box of crackers. A young man squats near the curb, peering under a car, while another is bent over, hands on knees, talking to the ground.
“What’s going on?”
One of the women turns to me. “There’s a chicken in the street. We’re trying to figure out what to do with him. He’s terrified.” She throws a handful of cornflakes into the street and makes clucking sounds. “Here, chick, chick…”
I go to the curb and there, behind the tire of a parked car, is a large golden rooster. His red comb trembles as he darts back and forth. He gives a half-hearted peck. I try not to laugh. Dogs, cats, birds I am accustomed to, but a chicken loose in the streets of the city is a ludicrous mix.
“Maybe he’s afraid of us. Let’s give him room.” The rooster runs into the street.
“Have you called the ASPCA?” I ask.
“They don’t deal with chickens.”
“The Humane Society?”
“Yes, but they’re closed now. They said they’d send someone tomorrow.”
A car turns east on 88th from Riverside, right towards our rooster, who stands transfixed in the middle of the road. “Shoo! Shoo!” we yell. I run into the street, arms out, corraling him to the other side of the street. We take turns protecting him from oncoming cars.
Across the street a small crowd has gathered under the awning of a building. The doorman and I exchange a few words. He is sympathetic. “I used to work on a farm. The chickens, they ain’t too smart…poor fella, lost in the city.”
“Where did he come from?” someone asks.
One of the guys looks up, shrugs. “Who knows? Must have escaped from somewhere, maybe from a kosher butcher. I think it’s a Jewish holiday today.”
It hits me slowly. The chicken has escaped from ritual sacrifice performed on Yom Kippur, left over from the old world. I’d heard from a friend that this ritual, called kapores, is still practiced in some of the more Orthodox synagogues. There are dozens of them in this neighborhood. The chicken is held by the feet and waved overhead while a prayer of thanksgiving is said for being allowed to be inscribed in the book of life for one more year. Your life for my life, is the gist of it. Then the chicken is slaughtered.
The chicken looks around with his glass bead eyes. This little guy is a survivor. If he doesn’t get hit by a car or die of starvation, he too will be inscribed in the book of life. He is a chosen chicken; at least for the time being he has escaped his fate. Running from the clutches of tradition, he is far from farm society, but at least he is free. Of course, there is the problem of adapting to the city. I too have run for my life, unaware that perhaps I am being watched over…
The sky is now dark. A small batallion of onlookers is busy protecting the chicken, so I say goodbye and head toward the synagogue. Maybe I’ll be in time to hear the final blast of the shofar signal the beginning of the new year. I stride up the steps, only to be stopped by an usher.
“Full house, I’m sorry, you can’t get in without a ticket.”
“But I was here this morning!” I can see the families within.
“Sorry, but those are the rules.”
I can’t believe he won’t let me in. Standing outside on the synagogue steps, I take one more look through the open door. The night air is pierced by the wail of the ram’s horn.
1997. Two years have passed. I go to synagogue with my friend Jay, whom I’ve known for years, lost touch with, then met again by chance in synagogue, where he’d come to say Kaddish for his mother. In the late afternoon, a group meets in synagogue to head en masse to the river for Tashlikh, to symbolically discard the sins of the previous year. In my pockets are torn pieces of a slice of whole-grain bread from the health food store. Inside, the congregation discusses the ritual. One woman protests having the river-dwellers, fish and fowl, eat our sins and suggests we throw pocket-lint instead of breadcrumbs into the river. She is serious, but I think it is absurd to take things so literally. I don’t want the fish and ducks choking on my pocket-lint.
We troop down to the river, around 70 of us, taking a stroll to the park on a fine Indian-summer October afternoon. We walk past the oak tree, down the hill, under the tunnel, and soon I am leaning against the iron fence beside the river. I think about what I most want to let go of, and toss away one by one along with my breadcrumbs: confusion, doubt, bitterness, hopelessness, despair, arrogance, aggression and lack of compassion.
I walk down the path, hair blowing behind me, greeting people I do not know with a lighthearted shana tova, and they return my greeting. The river flashes its mutating crescents of light and color. My river, transformed into an open-air synagogue. I breathe in sunlight and fresh air. Ducks float by and nibble at the crumbs.
Mindy Lewis is a painter, graphic designer and writer.