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March 29, 2020 8:43 am

A Walk in the Park Amid Coronavirus

avatar by Jeremy Rosen

Opinion

A man rides a bicycle up a nearly-empty 6th Avenue in midtown Manhattan during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, New York, March 20, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Mike Segar.

This past Shabbat, I went for a walk around Central Park. It was a beautiful day. The air was cool and fresh. The sun was out and I was feeling good. I was careful to observe the statutory social distancing from everyone else, and chose paths that were not busy. The cherry trees were in blossom. The magnolias were heavy with gorgeous blooms. I could not help recalling a line from my favorite movie, The Life of Brian. There is a scene when Brian gets thrown into jail and is about to feel sorry for himself, when he hears a voice from the dark. He turns to see this ancient bedraggled prisoner suspended in manacles from iron rings in the seeping wall. The old man looks down at him and says, “You lucky, lucky bastard.”

That was how I felt. Not sick. Not cooped up in a small, crowded apartment. Actually, I was also feeling relaxed about the fact that I had not been in the synagogue that morning worrying about people talking instead of praying, getting bored during a long and not very interesting double portion of the Torah, and then having to give a sermon and worrying if I was entertaining enough, educational enough, inspiring enough. Here I was feeling closer to God in the park — and very, very lucky.

As I headed alongside 5th Avenue, I passed Temple Emmanuel and the monument to 19th century German Jewish immigration — Jews who tried so hard to escape their Jewishness and to imitate Christianity in their desperate desire to assimilate. This was a “temple” that had switched services to Sunday, removed Hebrew from the liturgy, and resolutely opposed the idea of a return to Zion. Eventually, it backpedaled. Walking past and seeing the kippot and hats of Jews in families proud to be identified as such was delightfully ironic.

I passed the homes (or which once were) of the Schiffs, Goldmans, Lehmans, Sachses, Loebs, Seligmans, and Baches, who had been powerful Jewish financiers in the 19th century and were now completely lost to the Jewish world. I felt proud that I, my family, and so many of my pupils were forging a new, vibrant, committed Jewish future, many of them living happily, safely, and productively in Israel.

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I passed Cleopatra’s Needle (like the one on the Banks of the Thames in Westminster). I thought of Cleopatra’s Egypt, of slavery and oppression — and thought of what we say on the Seder Night: “If God had not taken us out of Egypt, we, our children and our grandchildren would still be slaves in Egypt.” How privileged I felt that I was not a suffering Egyptian under an authoritarian regime with few prospects — living hungrily in a slum with a family I could not support.

On to the Metropolitan Museum that had once looked down on Jews. I saw the Guggenheim Museum, one of the great architectural buildings of the modern world. Then on past the Jewish Museum in a building where Jews had once been excluded from so-called polite, snobbish, antisemitic society.

As I walked, I noticed, as I always do, which new trees and shrubs had been planted — which were thriving and flowering and which had died during the winter since the last time I saw them. And I felt such gratitude to the Almighty for the beauty of nature. Nature too can be stricken with deadly diseases and viruses. But it survives. And the thought struck me that this ghastly plague will have reduced significantly the amount of poison that cars and jets are spewing into the atmosphere. At least for a while.

Then I reached Harlem, which has always symbolized the racism of American society. It is now gentrified and expensive. Yet even so, it is a place redolent of slavery, more recent but no less dehumanizing. “All Jews have to imagine as if they had come out of slavery,” says the Seder Haggadah again. And, as the Talmud says, we must repeat “God took us out of there.” Which could really mean anywhere where we were oppressed, victimized, and killed.

Down south, with the sun on my face, I walked past plaques referring to Seneca Village, a 19th century group of homes of successful and educated black citizens that were demolished to make way for the civic privilege of the park. I heard two young women discuss how, although they have been New Yorkers all their lives, this crisis was the first time they had been to Central Park.

Almost home now, I passed the oldest New York synagogue — the neo-Classical Spanish and Portuguese Shearith Israel. It was founded by Jewish families who were originally refugees from the Spanish Inquisition. How communities change. As in London, they were once the pillars and powers of Jewish life. Now its membership pales in significance compared to the hundreds of thousands of Hasidism in Williamsburg and Brooklyn. And, like our Persian community, it now has an Ashkenazi rabbi.

My thoughts strayed to the Black Death and the endless plagues that our forefathers suffered from in Europe and the East. I thought about how many of those Jews who survived were accused of being responsible for the plague by the same sort of primitive, pathetic conspiracy theorists we still have in abundance today. Jews were murdered as a result. And again, I thought of the text of the Haggadah: “In every generation, there are those who rise against us to destroy us.” Once, 19th century German and American Jews wanted to remove such embarrassing statements from the text and thought that, by lying low and inconspicuous, they would be fine.

We no longer think that way, thank goodness. Although I cannot express my disgust enough at those Haredi religious leaders who chose to ignore advice and instructions because they think they have Divine protection. They reminded me of those who told their followers to stay in Europe when the Nazis invaded. Fortunately, the vast majority of Haredi rabbis in our day publicly instructed their followers to follow the recommended guidelines, the “Law of the Land.” But I couldn’t help but realize that we too have our religious fools.

At any rate, I was alive, healthy, and grateful. And I thought of another song from my past:

Lucky, Lucky, Lucky me,
I am a lucky son of a gun,
I work eight hours and sleep eight hours
That leaves eight hours for fun.

I wondered how many people will indeed be working eight hours for the foreseeable future. I consoled myself by thinking that, instead of eight hours for fun, I had other values — study, faith, and those I love, to live for. And then, back home to seclusion.

Shabbat Shalom wherever you are.

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen received his rabbinic ordination from Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. He has worked in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and academia for more than 40 years in Europe and the US. He currently lives in the US, where he writes, teaches, lectures, and serves as rabbi of a small community in New York.

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