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.
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.
It’s okay, you don’t smell,
calling out “Bye!” to me when she exited. A shared New York experience.
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???
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.
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