Growing up in Springfield, Ohio, was peaceful, bucolic, steady and dependable. Respectable, boring and vanilla. Our occasional family visits to New York were like going to the land of Oz. From my Ozzie and Harriet little town I would find myself cast into a sea of every nationality, shape, size and accent. It was our big New York trip, so my parents worked to amaze us from FAO Schwartz to Broadway. New York had towering buildings that created urban canyons. The cabs whisked you through these canyons like a white water raft. You held on, white-knuckled, until you arrived.
Fifty years later NYC still amazes me. That newness sort of defined how I went through the city. I have to commute from the Upper West Side down the 1 train, change at 96th Street for an express to Times Square, then cross to the East on the 7 train. I emerge from Grand Central 25 minutes later. On these commutes I could not help but stare at the people on the subway. I am from a Midwest world and am quite the extrovert. The son of a salesman and a long-time salesman myself, I am gregarious. Looking up and about, however, can lead to eye contact – and eye contact can lead to chatting. Sometimes, even I was speechless in the presence of strange events. There was the gospel quoting rapper; there was the young man who wore a British bowler hat, a punk rock t-shirt, a brown denim kilt with rubber snorkeling slip-ons. What can be said? I put my head down when a groups of young thugs started singing obscene songs as they hovered, menacingly, above what looked like two retired NY school teachers. I was afraid to say anything. When I saw someone seemingly normal with the makings of any kind of smile I might return that smile. OK, not everyone chose to look up.
I shared my experience with some longtime New Yorkers. Some just shook their heads. Even the kinder ones suggested that I not look for too much conversation from my fellow commuters. Finally one said, “Bob, as you look around, what do you see people doing?” The next day I watched carefully. Almost everyone had their ears clogged up with headphones and their eyes covered with a newspaper, book or iPhone. Others looked straight forward without seeing. It was if they had some kind of temporary cataracts that shielded their sight. I was trained in marketing. I am willing to look at things objectively. This was not a welcoming car.
Recently I sat on a bench at 50th Street while waiting for the uptown 1 train. A young father had his 5ish son on his lap. The boy, with his black curly bangs and a freckled face, looked like a young Beaver Cleaver. He had an infectious laugh. If his father put his hand on his head, made a face or covered him with his striped scarf...the boy convulsed. I just could not help but be charmed. It brought back memories of being the father of three young boys.
We all got on the local 1 train to head uptown . Now seated in front of me, the comedy show continued. This kid couldn’t stop laughing for the next 10 minutes . As people got on 59, 66, 72,79 , 86 and 96 they got drawn in. The entertainers seemed to be invigorated by the stream of new audiences. One by one, stop by stop, they gained their attention and melted their hearts. Some remained blind – as if they were in some kind of trance. Perhaps they had eaten a poison apple or had their finger pierced by a knitting needle with an evil spell. Even this most joyful sighting could not pierce the spell.
That night at Kabbalat Shabbat at Romeimu, Rabbi David Ingber asked us all to look around at our fellow members. Turn around a look. Let your eyes meet theirs. He specifically asked us to overcome the “New York thing” where we don’t allow ourselves to look. He wanted us to shake that off – to pull back the veil. I thought, well, it’s finally time to give up my tunnel vision. As I walked out I greeted several people. This time their eyes met mine. Good Shabbas.
I have thought of that train ride and of the rabbi’s request. It seems to me that many of us have many veils that keep our eyes from connecting with each other. Some hide behind a veil of shame. They are embarrassed about what they have achieved, the decisions they made or did not make. Others are consumed by themselves. They don’t think to look up. Some are budget conscious. They limit the amount people they can know or care about others. They have imposed an austerity budget of the spirit. Their batteries have run down- they can only engage for a short time. They can’t find their chargers.
Our kehillot need to be places where you can be seen and see others. They need to be places that increase the amount of energy you have not drain your batteries. The first century sage Shammai argued that we should “greet each person with a shining countenance.” We need to look up and show that we are happy to meet our neighbor. The next morning at Kiddush lunch I was pouring a cup of seltzer water when two kids came out from under the table and bumped into my leg. When the water spilled on me I quickly realized that this spill would not leave a mark. I also remembered that real life is messy and you sometimes get a jolt. Shabbat challenges you to keep your eyes wide open for the sight of wonder- a laughing boy winning over a grumpy subway car or a pair of Shabbat munchkins finding so much joy hiding under a kiddush table.