Gangs of New York

Recently I was privileged to join an FJL trip to the Big Apple as a senior educator. It was my first ever visit to the sprawling metropolis. I met so many interesting people and saw some fascinating places. Here are a few of the thoughts that occupied my mind as a strolled the streets of Manhattan.

Day 1

Big.

Everything here is big. Big buildings. Big stores. Big cars. Big portions. Big skyline. Big arguments. Big opinions. Big dreams.

Even God is big here. Much bigger than He is in England, where we position Him cowering meekly in a corner awaiting the next volley from Richard Dawkins.

This isn't the city that never sleeps. It's the city that doesn't want to. In case it misses out. On the next big thing.

But amidst the noise, the buildings, the horns, the fireworks, the cheers. I am struck: Sometimes to dream, you need to be asleep. Sometimes God's true essence is found not in the wind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire. But in the thin still sound of Rosh Hashanah’s shofar.

Humble. Unassuming. Small.

Day 2

Unity.

New York is multicultural like the sea is wet. It's a fact of life. Here, to be a minority is to be the majority. To be anything else is to be a parody of what it is to be human.

We visited the UN when its cavernous Halls of Pontification were out of session. Empty. Silent. An echo of what could have been. Don't get me wrong, the UN has done some tremendous work down the years. But the cracks are beginning to show. The desks look old. The carpet outdated. The tour guides bored. It has become a parody of itself. A monument to unity.

Manhattan has taught me that you cannot legislate unity. It has to sprout and grow from beneath. Swarming to the surface on the crest of a wave of a million people from a million backgrounds crashing through the gates of Grand Central at the end of a busy week spent making this already-thoroughly-melted pot of a place great.

Day 3

Escape.

Manhattan is a prison for the brave and free. Surrounded by water, subdivided into grids, hemmed in by the Atlantic to the east and New Jersey to the west. And so it escapes upwards. Constantly growing. Relentless in its quest to escape itself.

And everyone is in on it. In on the Great Escape. Everyone. There is confidence and verve here like I have never seen before. The poor and homeless demand a smile if you have no change. And they get it. The national anthem is a Bittersweet Symphony.

Eventually, this city will run out of room. It won't be able to escape itself. I pray that when that day comes, the natural confidence of every person I've been fortunate to meet will be tapped into. Reflecting the spark of the Divine that truly makes us, all of us, equal.

Day 4.

Liberty.

America's earliest import and most enduring export.

Liberty is a bridge. A bridge spanning the two tectonic plates of human intrigue. The capacity to destroy. And the capacity to create. Both done, of course, in the name of a cigar called Happiness. Or Hamlet. Who knows? Somewhere along that bridge lies the answer.

In New York, I had begun to believe that they had it. The answer. The way out of the friction thrown up in the head on collision between objective liberty and subjective happiness: Life.

In the beauty of human interaction, the fission of liberated happiness becomes the fusion of happy liberty. God bless the founding fathers for they hath bestowed upon us cotton-candy, monster trucks and a 'World Series' containing just one country. Because you don't need more. If the idea is powerful enough, one is enough. And life is powerful enough.

Day 5.

Stories.

Manhattan is a living, breathing canvas. Full to the brim with colour yet blank at the same time. People come here to make a new start. People come here to tie up loose ends. People come here for one or the other, get dazzled by the bright lights, and forget entirely which is which.

New York is America's mural, and the ideas painted here seem to spread across the continent like wildfire. Wildfire fuelled by an insatiable hunger. The hunger to be heard.

The magic of a place is its people. The magic of a people is its poetry. The magic of poem is its passion.

From Chinatown to the Bronx to Lower East to Upper West. A living, breathing poem. Sometimes of pain, sometimes of joy. Sometimes of love, sometimes of hate. Somehow amidst the constant cacophony of noise, the voice of humanity rises higher than the skyscrapers, reaches further than the bridges, and paints yet more layers onto the infinite canvas that is this totally crazy city. As small as Manhattan is, it always has room for more.

Day 6.

Hope.

Hope is a dangerous thing. A medicine. A poison. Too much of it can kill you quickly. Too little of it can kill you slowly. And for the life of me I cannot decide which I'd prefer.

Battery Park is the gateway into Hope. Millions of bedraggled, starving, hopeless peasants limped and stumbled their way through these small gardens on their way towards the Five Points - the kiln where through violence and tribalism, bigotry was beaten into democracy.

And then I saw it. Unexpectedly. A monument to the immigrants who diluted New York into saturation at the turn of the 20th century. Thanking them for their contribution towards Making America Great (Again). A monument. A tribute. A testimony.

Who on earth builds a monument to immigrants? Only a fool. But a fool's hope is the most powerful. Unconquerable. Immovable.

Battery Park was named so for the fixtures of cannon batteries installed there to keep people out. Oh the irony. The gateway to the new world became America's power-pack, super-charging the continent with intoxicating hope.

And then I saw her for the first time. The Mother of Exiles. The Statue of Liberty. The statue about whom Emma Lazarus, a young daughter of Jewish immigrants wrote:

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" Cries she with silent lips.
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

And finally, after a week of trying, New York broke my stiff upper lip. And I wept. Tears of relief for those who made it. Tears of sadness for those who did not. Tears of hope that this magnificent land never loses sight of that humble monument hidden in the greenery of the Battery. The huddled mass of the tired and broken who, barely one hundred years ago, gazed up in awe at the New Colossus, and tasted in the salty sea breeze that most heady of tonics, that elixir of life: Hope.

Day 7.

Home.

They say it's where the heart is. I say it's where the soul feels the greatest sense of purpose and inspiration.

Home is where a person can have the greatest and most wide-reaching impact on the world around them. Anywhere else, they are merely a tourist, taking more than they give. Home isn't necessarily the place you believe in most, it is the place that most believes in you.

Rosh Hashanah. The day to dream big. Where we proudly display our unity as a people, pledged to escape the shackles of our mistakes as we head toward the liberty of a brand new story, a brand new us. And it is that hope for a better and bolder future that drives us to come back, seeking the honey-sweet embrace of a loving Creator and astonishing Nation, the space in time we call home.

Badda-bing-badda-boom.

 

- September 13th 2019

About the Author

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Rabbi Eli Birnbaum Eli studied in Talmudic College in Israel for six years before attaining rabbinic ordination from the Jerusalem Kollel. Eli completed a BSc in Criminology & Social Psychology. Together with his wife Naomi, Eli moved back to London to take up a position in the JLE’s campus department, setting up Lunch & Learns across London’s major campuses, as well as creating the ‘Genesis+’ program, aimed at older students and post-graduates. Following this, Eli taught Jewish Studies at Hasmonean for a year, before moving to Aish to work as an educator, primarily focused on the burgeoning Young Professional demographic and, more recently, as the Director of Education for Aish UK. Eli is a lifelong Spurs fan and an avid reader, citing his favourite book as ‘Legends of Our Time’ by Elie Weisel. Eli and his wife Naomi live in Golders Green and have three adorable children. 

More in this series

Responsibility - The Impossible Dream

I Closed My Eyes….

Trial by Twitter

Track & Trace

What's in a Name

God's Jedi Mind Trick: A Star Wars Story (kind of)

The Dark Night Rises: Exodus with Tom Hardy

Gangs of New York

The Refugee Crisis: A Jewish Perspective

Smoke & Mirrors

Bo - Between a Rock and a Hard Place

#Fakenews - Parashat Vayigash

Vayeitzei - Lies, Damned Lies & Statistics

Toldot - Strength of a Thousand Men

Chayei Sara: The Sequel No-one Asked For

Vayeira: Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V

Sitting on the Fence

Noah’s Sweet Fifteen

Uniting a Fragmented World

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