Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dealing (or not) With Differences

Throughout this journey, all across the country, we’ve seen some familiar reactions again and again: sad remembrance; heartfelt gratitude; peace, healing and closure. Today we encountered with the Newark police and fire departments what we found two months ago with the firemen in Santa Fe: they had no idea why we were there. Predictably, upon explanation the mood changes, intensifies, becomes more intimate. ‘At first we just thought we were coming down for some kind of photo op for somebody,’ remarked one of Newark’s finest. ‘Now it all makes sense.’ From there those emotions surface once more, in the kind of familiar moment that could never become redundant.

The first of a handful of men and women to put their prayers in the Cross was a stout and sun-weathered fireman of about 50, the kind of guy you assume has pretty much seen it all. ‘On that first day, twelve, thirteen hours in…I saw a woman with two children, walking through the debris with sandwiches for people.’ Pride and heartache welled up in his eyes. ‘That woman was an American…That’s all...’ And he turned away, shading his face from the sun.

‘I was at home that morning, got called in on stand-by,’ Sal explained as he stood in the 101-degree heat, black uniform heavy with accoutrements and buffed with Kevlar. Sal was a member of the Newark Police Emergency Services Unit. He and his comrades were assigned to the security and protection of the FBI recovery team, housed in a hotel on Clinton Street and shuttled back and forth to the city on guarded trains and ferries. ‘At first there was all this uncertainty about what was going on. We had our task, we knew what we had to do. Beyond that, not much. But then we started hearing things, people coming to us with all these reports of suspicious people doing this or that…it was surreal, the feeling. Everyone on the street, everything around us was a potential threat. We just didn’t know.’

Newark, New Jersey can be a rough place. Through the weeks after 9-11, rough took on a completely new and different meaning.

Aside from groups of men and women in uniform having no clue what the guys with the short pants and cameras and the big cross-looking thing were doing on their property, all across the country virtually everyone we met had a positive reaction to Jon’s sculpture once he explained. Even the young Hindu gentleman we met at the Grand Canyon, at first confused if not outright offended when he was told the Cross was meant to represent everyone who was and has been affected by that day – that is to say, all Americans and even those beyond these borders – could understand the idea behind the image. Yes it is in the shape of a cross because that is what St. Peter’s Church requested. Yet it is comprised of several pieces of varying shapes which come together to comprise something that resembles a human form – a representation of a country made up of many kinds of people who, regardless of their differences, came together as one people.

Still, in a country of 300 million people, there has to be some disagreement.

‘You should do a Star of David,’ the man said, the fringes of his thick white beard resting on his equally impressive frame. We’d been parked on Lee Avenue in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn for over an hour. This man was the first to take the time to talk to us.
‘No Jewish people are going to be interested in a cross, it’s not a Jewish symbol.’

Williamsburg, at least the part we saw, boasts a heavy concentration of Orthodox Jews, often referred to as Hassidic. The men all wear hats, pursuant to their belief that their heads should remain covered. Most have beards and long curly locks hanging from their temples. In the scorching afternoon heat they keep their long black coats on. The women dress in conservative black and white, walking with their children or pushing them in strollers. Many eyes were drawn to the contoured metal shining in the sun; some slowed their step; very few would say anything to us, even – especially? – when we tried to engage them. So it was borderline astonishing when two younger men working in a bakery across the street came over to ask us what the cameras and steel were all about.

Michael, the more outspoken of the two, was supposed to fly to Israel on 9-11; he was going to get married that weekend. ‘I ended up staying home, it was a very sad day.’ He went on to describe how it was very unsettling for the next several days around his neighborhood. ‘After the attacks everyone was scared about security.’ This fear could arguably have been punctuated by the underlying stance that permeates the Hassidic community. They maintain an insular, closed community we were told. ‘Don’t be fooled, they are very smart and business-savvy,’ our bearded friend had said. ‘But they have what they need, that’s it, there’s no need to deal in other people’s business.’ Still, what we heard the day before in Staten Island was echoed by our new friend Michael. ‘I hope this brings peace to everyone,’ he said of the Cross. For that is what most of us want.

As he spoke to us an elderly man, overtly orthodox, said something in Yiddish which none of us understood except for the charged and scolding tone of his words.

Michael had ducked back into his shop when Alan Messner came along, stopping to take a break in the shade and talk for a while. ‘If a church commissioned it, then of course it should be a cross,’ he said. ‘If it were a Star of David I wouldn’t feel it represented anyone but Jews.’ Alan himself was Jewish, but wore a light, blue checked shirt instead of a long black coat. He had a yamaka but no curly locks. And although he didn’t subscribe to their orthodox ways, he had a keen insight into the ideals of the Hassidic community.

‘What’s interesting,’ he explained, ‘is that they would probably be more offended and upset if you drove up with a Star of David.’ On the surface this didn’t seem to make much sense to us. Alan seemed to figure as much. ‘These people are even against the State of Israel, they’re anti-Zionists. They see Israel as secular, not representative of true Judaism.’ If we, being far from Jewish, rolled up with a symbol of Judaism, it would be a wholly fraudulent act in their view. We did not represent true Judaic law.

A cross they could ignore. A symbol of Judaism would be an affront.

Not all on the block were Hassidic, or even Jewish. Daniel Diaz worked in the general store right behind us; eventually he emerged from the glass door of his shop, bounced up the short staircase onto the sidewalk and threw his smile around as he asked us what we were all about. Daniel came from Puebla, Mexico in 1999, to work and save some money. ‘Most people work four or five years and go back,’ he told us. ‘But I love it here, I’m going to stay.’ Still in his twenties and not at all ostensibly wealthy, Daniel nevertheless felt he was living the American dream.

Another young man, perhaps of Central or South American or even middle-Eastern descent though in the moment it didn’t matter, stopped his motorcycle, parked it across the street and came jogging on over. ‘I saw this on the news,’ he said, beaming. ‘This is really beautiful, man!’ In the course of our conversation Jason asked him what faith he was. ‘Loving,’ he answered without missing a beat. ‘I believe the sun comes up every day, you do the right thing and that’s it. Whatever religion you are that’s your business.’

The lingering question, then, is what to do when someone else’s business seems far from the right thing.