Two messages

Two messages

I work in New Jersey but I live on the Upper West Side, and one of the things I do to maintain my sanity in this increasingly mad world is to drag my dogs on long, long walks.

My walk generally takes me up Broadway, where I walk past Columbia to the east and Barnard to the west.

It’s generally a pleasant walk, with a seasonal rhythm. Excited new students join the blasé-acting older ones in the fall; test-taking tension tightens the air and Christmas lights brighten it as the end of the winter semester approaches. Broadway goes quiet for a while, but students come back and I watch them shed their coats and often much of the rest of their clothing, too, as spring comes. More and more happy students walk around in their graduation robes until it finally culminates in the end of the school year. Then more quiet, then summer students — and then it starts all over again.

This year was different.

Last week, police cars and police officers lined 116th Street and Broadway. There were waved Palestinian flags and signs, loud chants, loud drums, loud everything. Lots of keffiyahs, many of them on very white students. I didn’t see any overt acts of hate, but it felt hostile.

The dogs and I escaped to Riverside Drive. The Jewish students were not so lucky. Now they’ve been advised to go home, to flee a campus that had felt so Jewish (before that, to be fair, it didn’t feel Jewish at all — but that is not in living memory).

How is it possible that now Jewish students in Morningside Heights have to flee Columbia?

This is very very bad.

I also walk south with my dogs, down through the beauty that is Riverside Park, with the constantly changing river and the huge ships and tugboats that never seem to be moving but somehow are much faster than I am.

I walk on Riverside Drive, too, and last week I saw a sign on a townhouse there that caught my eye.

It was hung from a trellis over which a tree had been draped, in a probably vain attempt to start a little formal garden. The sign said, “When we see fruit trees in bloom for the first time in the spring, we recite a special blessing called Birkat ha-Ilanot. This blessing is recited once a year.”

The blessing followed, in Hebrew, in transliteration, and translated into English.

Then there’s a paragraph about when it’s best to say the blessing — Rosh Chodesh Nisan would be best, it advises us, but if you can’t, you can’t. Say it anyway.

And then it ends with this:

“Kabbalah teaches that the blessing of blossoming fruit trees can redeem souls. So stop & smell the flowers!”

So here, just about a mile apart, are two contradictory messages about being Jewish in this area right now. It’s like the two pieces of paper that Reb Simcha Bunem carried, one in each pocket, as the legend tells us. One said “The world was created for me.” The other said “I am but dust and ashes.”

It is springtime, but it is a terrible year. It is a terrible year, but it is springtime. All of this is true. How we handle it — how we fight back, how we stay sane, how we improve the world, how we improve our world, and we find pockets of joy and revel in them — is entirely up to us.

Let’s all try to choose wisely.


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