The Gift That Is The City of New York

Macy's at Christmas by Jan Mundo 2009

Macy’s at Christmas by Jan Mundo 2009

Now that my daughter has had a baby out in sunny So Cal, I’m often asked, “What will you do? Will you stay here or move back [to the state where I spent forty years of my life]?” Of course, I’m being pulled forcefully in that direction by my emergent grandma hormones. However, there are just some things about living in New York City that one is unlikely to experience elsewhere. The city gave me that gift this year, and I give it to you. It all happened within a period of 24 hours during three subway rides. . . .

There was a large holiday crowd getting on and off the 6 train on a chilly, early Saturday evening. In the bottle neck throng, there were four exuberant young Santas getting off the train and six getting on. They had lots of cheery greetings for each other as riders entered the car. I got out my camera and snapped the Santas. In seemingly simultaneous combustion, the far end of the car burst into a rousing chorus of “Jingle Bells,” replete with “HA, HA, HA”s. Without restraint or hesitation, the entire subway car, which was filled with passengers, joyfully joined in for the entire song until our next stop. The carolers exited and tapped the window saying g’bye, and in acknowledgment of the Santas. As one Santa said, “I guess the singers left.” The car fell silent, but—smiles inner and outer—were displayed all around.

Subway Santas photo by Jan Mundo 2009

Subway Santas photo by Jan Mundo 2009

On Sunday, all dressed up, I was running late to our family Chanukah party in Brooklyn. I got off the local train at 42nd Street/Grand Central Station, so I could take the express train sooner to cut my time. Getting off the local was counter to my usual M.O. because the platform across the way was empty, which is a sign that the express had just come and gone, therefore indicating a longer wait. It took a while, and I was antsy when it finally came. The front of the train was fairly empty, but as is typical, the middle cars were more full. The middle car that stopped in front of me looked to have more empty seats. I entered and headed toward the other end of the car where there was seating. A curled up young man was huddled on the seat, alone with a black plastic bag filled with his stuff. The closer I got, the more the intense stench of stale piss struck my nose. I headed back to the other end of the car. Then we were on our way. All of a sudden, a booming voice began testifying in his Haitian accent. This was the voice of someone practiced in proselytizing for Jesus, or telling his story to ask for money. It began typically,

Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen. (cough, cough) Oh man, I can’t do it. My stomach can’t handle it. (Really, my stomach is not good with with these things, I can’t take it.) Okay! Who’s coming to the next car with me? Mark my words—that smell will stay in your clothes. Smell yourself when you get home, you will still smell it on you. I’m telling you, don’t stay in here.

He opened the door and passed quickly between the cars with the train moving. (This is no longer allowed, although some people still do it.)

Because it was the express train, we had to go by three stations until the train stopped at the fourth, and we could get out to change cars. I bolted to the car in back of ours along with the other refugees. The preacher who had earlier escaped was exiting, and as I entered the odor-free car and took a breath, the passengers were laughing. He’d been Lord-oh-Lordying about it. He must have talked up quite a storm. The woman I sat next to was laughing, too. I smelled the sleeves of my coat.

Oh my God, do I smell? The guy said the smell would stay in! I suppose my walk from the subway to the party will air my clothes out.

She laughed,

It’s okay, you don’t smell,

calling out “Bye!” to me when she exited. A shared New York experience.

Empire State Chanukah by Jan Mundo 2009

Empire State Chanukah by Jan Mundo 2009

Our Chanukah party makes me smile just thinking about it. Not only did it feature fantastic latkes, with homemade applesauce and creme fraiche, but it was our first virtual one. With times tough economically and a new baby out West, we instead assembled our NY family, our Cali family, and our Florida family all on our MACs. We videoconferenced together via iChat, and then lit the Chanukah candles as we sang the prayers, followed by “Ma’oz Tzur,” “Dreidel, Dreidel,” and “Oh Chanukah!” My daughter held up her baby dressed in a white bunny suit for her first Festival of Lights, and, wholly unplanned, my son held up his white cat, both dancing and participating, as we all ROTFLOL at the sight of them and all feeling happy and delighted to be connected LIVE!

I headed back to Manhattan on the A train, a smile on my face, warmth in my heart. I knew that I had to share my subway stories—of the collective spirit and the gift that is New York. I looked down trying to reconcile how I could write about my experiences, ending on a higher note than the piss story and thought of reversing its order with that of the Santas. I looked up. A bearded man, with curly, dark brown hair sprouting out from under his felt hat, spoke to me in broken English with a strong Yiddish and Hebrew accent,

You are Jew-ish???

I replied,

Huh?

He tried again, pulling out a huge box of Chanukah candles from his plastic bag,

Are you Jew-ish? You know about lighting the Chanukah candles? All Jews should light candles during Chanukah.

I tried to explain in my slight guilt that I hadn’t yet dug my menorah out of the closet at home although it was already the third night of Chanukah. I reported proudly that I’d just lit candles with my family in Brooklyn, until I realized that he didn’t speak much English.

In our brief ride, as he stood in front of me a bit uncomfortably, he asked if I knew about the Lubavitch? (I think to myself, they are Orthodox Jews, and kind of shook my head yes and no.) He began to explain the tenets of Chabad, an acronyn for Chochmah, Binah, and Da’at, translated: “Wisdom, Understanding, and Knowledge.” At the time, I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but looked it up on wiki when I got home. This sect is a branch of Chasidism and studies the Kabbalah as it applies to daily life.

I’m not one for the evangelical sects of any religion, feeling that people can make up their own minds. But in this case, he didn’t feel overbearing, and right then, although I felt vaguely uncomfortable, too, it was a good reminder of, and tunnel into, my hidden roots. “Yes,” I replied. “My family was from the town of Tsfat in Israel (which is known to hold a special place in Jewish mysticism.)” That made him light up. “They are guardians of the gravesite of a famous holy man who is buried there. My grandpa and grandma were Orthodox Jews, my uncle was an Orthodox rabbi here in America, and I was raised in a Jewish home.”

He seemed to understand and insisted,

Take. Take the candles. Free, no money. It says how to light them on the box. (The prayers were all in Hebrew without the telltale vowels I needed, but I know the songs and prayers by heart.)

I helped him find his next stop, which it turns out he’d missed by five exits and a borough in becoming engrossed in our conversation.

Chasidic Chanukiah photo by Jan Mundo 2009

Chasidic Chanukiah photo by Jan Mundo 2009

So here they are, lit on my kitchen table. I didn’t get my silver menorah down from its closet stack. When I opened the box he gave me, it contained a golden tin menorah and a set of beautiful, colored tapered candles that I never afford myself the luxury of buying, and this year couldn’t afford at all.

The holidays in New York, like most of what happens here, are a shared experience—especially this year, when the famous, elaborately decorated department store windows are being toned down and even recycled from years past. (Would you believe Louis Vuitton on Fifth Avenue reused their display from a previous season? Shocking!) Even the red velvet ropes that typically funneled the crowds through in an orderly manner were gone from the front of Macy’s.

Especially this year, the community that is New York is shining brightly in returning to the connections between people and groups that make it special and a gift just to be here.

Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Everybody! xoxo

For Migs

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27 thoughts on “The Gift That Is The City of New York

  1. Hi Jan,

    Happy holidays – as always it’s great to hear from you, and the photos are stunning!

    I’ve much to be grateful for as 2009 comes to a close. At the top of my list as always are family members and old friends. I’m also grateful for new friends and acquaintances that entered my life this year through my mindfulness meditation group, my newly formed writers group, the St. Paul Interfaith Network, my affiliation with United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, and the blogosphere.

    I wish you all the best in 2009.

    VB

  2. Hi Jan,

    Wonderful stories! Ah, New York.

    Mazel tov on the grandchild. I, too, became a grandma this year. It’s soooo sweet.

    Happy holidays, happy New York, happy New Year.

    Linda

  3. Hi VB,

    Thanks for stopping by, the good wishes, and for sharing your gratitude. Glad you enjoyed the photos. Let’s have a great 2010!

  4. Thanks you, Jan. This is so beautiful. I hope you have a great holidays and get to hang with your lovely grandbaby. I have a picture of that bundle of joy in the 2009 Retrospective…a sort of Greeting Card for the holidays. Blessings and love, Eliz

  5. Oh, yes, I forgot, Kelly and Heather are going to have another grandbaby for me in February. love, Eliz

  6. Hi Jan,

    Happy Holidays. Thanks for those wonderful NEw York stories….it’s just like being there. I find that smiling at strangers makes them friends and wonderful things happen.

    I hope 2010 brings you abundance along with good health and love. Maybe we’ll see you out here in CA this year. Love to your ever expanding family.

    Love to you,
    Linda

  7. Hi Jan,

    Really great stories. I’ve been in NY now longer than in my native Calif. It is truly home to me now. But i sure do miss my Cal family and friends. Hope to see you soon. Mike

  8. Linda – Thank you for your good wishes and adding to the conversation. I hope to see everyone in Nor Cal, too — one of these days! Love to you and the family!

  9. Hi Mike,

    Wow, that’s a long time in NY! You’ve become an East Coaster! I know, I miss everyone, too. Once you’re out here, it seems really far to get back to the other side. 😉 Hope to see you soon, too.

  10. Hi Jan,
    I just loved visiting New York through your wonderful story. Your experience with the Lubavitcher man was very touching. You come from quite an esteemed Jewish background. I take my Judaism along with many other faiths but it is exactly as you put it, the tunnel into my roots.

    If you’re out here give me a call. I’ll probably be in New York this Spring :):) See you then.
    Love to all your kids and say hi to Manhattan for me.
    Sheila

  11. Hello again Jan,

    When I commented earlier I’d just seen the stunning photos, I hadn’t had time to read the stories. But I got back to them later and wanted to let you know how very much I enjoyed and appreciated them – the humor, the tolerance, the faith, the joy, the love of family, and the flavor of of NYC.

    Thanks again for this lovely holiday gift.

    vb

  12. Sheila! I’m glad you enjoyed the stories. Yes, the Lubavitcher encounter led me to further explore my ancestry. It’s hard to track wandering Jews and immigrants b/c of spelling/name changes, reticence to talk about history b/c of all the family they lost in the Holocaust. However, my aunt sent me some amazing records that show my great grandfather living here on Rivington St (Lower East Side, for those not from here) in 1893.

    I’ll see you in NYC this Spring, and will give you a shout when I’m visiting the family in So Cal in early Feb. xo

  13. Hi Jan,
    Thanks for the stories and account of your activities.
    I couldn’t relate to the Adam Sandler video, however.
    Mazel Tov on your grandchild (Rena’s child?).
    Are you still involved with the headache clinic? If so, will you have opportunity to do the same in Calif, if you decide to move back there?
    Deena and I have been in Jerusalem for over 9 years now . . . . . healthy and happy (despite the occasional violence and overwhelming politics that you undoubtedly read about). David and family (5 kids) live in Baltimore; Shari and family (7 kids) live in Johannesburg: Loren and family live in Ramat Beit Shemesh in Israel (4+ kids). Sister Aviva also lives in Jerusalem; don’t have any contact with my other 2 sibs.
    Be well,
    Auri

  14. Auri – good to hear from you and thanks for your family update. I had no idea that Shari lives in Johannesburg! Wow! I also wasn’t sure about the exact locales of L & D, so it’s good to get the rundown. Ooo-wee, you have lots of grandkids!!! Yes, Rena had a baby. Check my facebook albums.

    Yah, I figured that not everyone would relate to Adam Sandler, and deliberated with my executive blog team (me, myself, and I) and they voted it in – “the kids” like it. 😉

    Yes, I’m still working with headaches, plus coaching, writing, and copyediting. I only have plans to visit the Left Coast, so far.
    xo

  15. what a beautiful post Jan – thanks for all the holiday thoughts and wishes – isn’t NYC amazing!

    I love that you met your Lubavitcher man – what a generous spirit!

    Love you and happy chanukah, holidays, new year!

  16. Happy Holidays to you too Jan!!! Your card/blog is making me feel nostalgic for NYC. I can’t wait to bring Serafina there in a few years for the holidays; it’s one of my favorite times of year there. Thank you.

    Love,
    Molly

  17. Nancy and Molly – Thank you both for visiting and your appreciation. Yes, we love NY – that generosity of spirit! 😉 Stay tuned for Central Park day-after-the-snow photos for more of the “being there/here” experience. Lots of kids and adults out sledding, but the snow melted fast and didn’t really stick to the trees.

    All the best to you for the season and New Year – Love, Jan

  18. I loved the pictures and the holiday stories! Jan, you sound like a real New Yorker !

    It’s good to hear from you. I’m glad you and everyone in the family is well. Best wishes for a great new year–2010– ahead. Happy holidays! Be well,
    Kim

  19. Hi Kim! — “a real New Yorker!” – Look who’s talkin’, you (ex-) Southern Belle, you! Thanks for visiting and reading, and all the best to you and the family in 2010! xo

  20. Hi Jan,
    Happy New Year!!!
    Sorry it took so long to respond.
    The photos are amazing; you really have a gift.
    Funny thing is; that one of the “Santa” girls looks like
    my niece who lives & goes to college in NYC.
    LOL, if that was/is her. In closer view I have my doubts; but funny non-the-less.
    All the Best
    T~

  21. Hi Jan
    How lovely and charming! enjoyed your stories and photos – and how you put them together. You captured a nice chunk of our NYC essence.
    Sorry it took me so long to respond – just found your email again – I had flagged it when it arrived.
    see you soon – so now I know what ICHat is for – next thing I need – a videocam
    happy New year!
    Janet

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