A Wedding, NYC Taxi Rides through the Old Neighborhood, and Pesach
By Rabbi David Hartley Mark
We had a family simcha (joyful event) recently, returning to our hometown of New York City—my Old Neighborhood in particular, the Lower East Side—for our nephew Justin and his new bride, Sue’s, wedding. The venue was a hall directly across from the Statue of Liberty, who sent her welcoming torch-rays over the waters as the sun set and the evening crept over Battery Park. Bridal pictures were taken near a titanic statue of an American Eagle commemorating US Navy personnel who made the supreme sacrifice during World War II, a remarkable joining of present love and past history.
The ceremony was very moving, as created by the celebrants. I read prayers and wishes of love on behalf of the family, explaining the ritual of sharing a glass of wine together, using a quotation from the Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho (1947- ): “Accept what life offers you, and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle.” Finally, I presented them both with cloth-wrapt glasses to be smashed, and described the tradition, beginning with the Destruction of the Holy Temples, moving through the fragility of love, and concluding with Judaism’s inclusion of demonology—our own, and those of the various cultures in whose midst we have sojourned. We spent the remainder of the evening celebrating, eating, drinking, singing, and dancing.
We stayed in a hotel in Chinatown, immediately adjacent to my Old Neighborhood, which gave the trip a bittersweet tinge. Chinatown is expanding, even as the Jewish and Italian sections are shrinking. This is the logical fulfillment of Jewish social critic (and author of World of Our Fathers, 1976) Irving Howe’s famous statement, “For the sake of her Jewish children, the Lower East Side was prepared to commit suicide. Perhaps she did.” My new wife and I left New York City, in 1980, along with hundreds, perhaps, of our fellow Baby Boomers.
And now, the City is rebuilding itself: ramshackle Lower Broadway factories are, phoenix-like, springing back to life as apartment houses, much in demand by young entrepreneurs; restaurants rise up and fall, and flashy new boutiques appear where once heroin and crack dealers peddled their deadly goods. This is New York: forever dying, forever being reborn.
The three of us—son Jordan was there, too—sped through the same old streets I wandered, Alfred Kazin-like, as a Walker in the City—in sleek new, unmarked, Uber and Lyft vehicles driven by Aydin, from Istanbul; Abdul from Sana’a, Yemen; Isidro, from Santo Domingo, and even Fadukh, from Tajikstan. They are the new New Yorkers, replacing the Jews, Puerto Ricans, Italians, and African-Americans of my youth. We summon the cabs via cellphone; they arrive within minutes, and English is no barrier, because the universal language of computer-voiced GPS speeds us to our destination.
The City is the same size, but more crowded than ever, it seems; I could not live there, today, nor would I wish to. I urge my Florida college students—they are young, for the most part, and eager for adventure—to visit and live in New York for a time, or to consider living in other parts of this vast and wonderful country. America is an enormous gift to these bright, young, eager immigrant- and first-generation-American youth, just as it was to our parents and grandparents, ready for their own, personal life-adventure, their own Exodus from Egypt, from old, stale notions of what family, job, and personal future must mean and be.
And that, finally, leads me to Pesach, Passover. An old friend emailed me recently, asking if I told him, years ago, that Pesach is my favorite holiday. It is not: I have too many memories of arduous toil, climbing a stepladder in my parents’ old apartment, God rest their souls!—or in our various homes, through the years, switching dishes and silverware and cups and towels, scrubbing down cabinets, the fridge, and counters, and moving the microwave out from its tight corner to see if any chametz had crept in behind. For my friend, Pesach meant merely consuming matzo balls and gefilte fish; these do not tempt my palate, either. No.
The meaning I seek in Pesach is more universal: it is the freedom of Justin and Sue—our nephew and niece entering a new phase of their lives together, as our little family grows, and we look to our children to carry on our traditions and stories, either purposefully or unintentionally (children will listen, as Stephen Sondheim tells us, especially when parents drop their voices—that is when they will listen hardest of all).
It is also the freedom sought by our newest Americans, those immigrants who, despite the prejudice of certain troglodyte politicians, have come to this country as did our ancestors, speaking a different language, practicing different folk and religious customs, but hoping with all their hearts to seize a portion of the American Dream for themselves and their children. Many of these New Americans have lived under or escaped from conditions of unspeakable horror and oppression. I believe time will prove them to be among the most loyal and hardest-working of our fellow citizens.
Finally, it is the freedom of Pesach, as we read in the Hagada, that remarkable prayerbook-instruction manual-hymnal-history-debate guide, which guides us through the Seder, the earliest audio-visual learning experience known to humanity, invented by us Jews, a people who stand foursquare for the power of Education to uplift and elucidate the minds of humanity. I therefore bemoan the current trend toward “One Hour,” “Half-Hour,” or Seder-Meals lasting even fifteen minutes, and would strongly recommend that all committed Jews hit upon a Hagada with Commentary to read at some point during Pesach, either prior to or following the Seder, or even during the year. Do not read it cover-to-cover; dip in, here and there. For years, my personal favorites have been the Artscroll Haggadah of the Chassidic Masters (Rabbi Shalom Meir Wallach, 1990) or the more offbeat The Santa Cruz Haggadah (Ed. Karen Roekard, 1991).
This Pesach, I wish my readers more mitzvote than matzote; more “amens!” (in temple) than afikoman gifts; and more chachmote (wise sayings) than chad gadyas. Pesach is more than just a Seder, and a Seder is far more than Thanksgiving with more wine than usual. Be sure to create your own customs, involve the children, answer their questions to the best of your ability, and bring the questions you cannot answer to me. (That’s my job.) If you are joining us in Temple for the First Night of Seder, we will welcome you wholeheartedly; if you are going elsewhere, go in good health—Ah Zissen Pesach—a Happy, Sweet, and Kosher Pesach to all!