Monday, April 23, 2012

Finding My Way to Poetry

I was running late for my New York Cares volunteer commitment.  I needed to get to 1372 Broadway in the Fashion District but kept getting conflicting directions -- first from the hot dog guy on Times Square ("You're not anywheres close; take a right and keep walking.") to the newspaper/magazine guy ("Easy, take a left and keep walking.") Finally, with reliable directions from the hostess at Ruby Tuesday, who consulted her phone (why didn't I think of that?), I arrived at my destination.  The activity had been cancelled.

What to do?  Plan B - the library!  According to my phone (I'm a fast learner), it was an 8-minute walk to the "main branch" at 42nd and Fifth Avenue.  After heading the wrong direction for a couple of blocks, then turning my phone and myself around, I was there in 15.

It couldn't have been a more beautiful day to get lost (or temporarily off-track) in midtown Manhattan.

The library was awash in sunshine, 

with people occupying every available step in front, and sprawling on the Bryant Park lawn  behind.

The Children's Center's banner was the only invitation I needed to check out some children's books. . .  poetry books.
My pockets were completely empty of poems. Time to find just the right one!

In the 811 section under Waldo, Maisy and Arthur

I sat in a chair which Goldilocks would have described as "just right," and perused the shelves.  From listening to way too many Mother Goose rhymes when I was growing up, my ears prefer children's poems that rhyme; poems that make me laugh first and think later.  As a second-grade teacher, I found the children's all-time favorite poets were Dr. Seuss,  Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky.  I added J. Patrick Lewis to that list, and both students and teacher could be found chuckling and reveling in the joy of words all day!

Mmmmm. . .what to pick for my pocket.  Which poem should I choose to copy and carry around with me for the rest of the month, in case an inquisitive child should ask, "Do you have a poem in your pocket?'

To select just the right one would take some thought, and I needed food for those thoughts.  I remembered seeing an ice cream truck parked outside.

      Time to start reading. . .
      then find my way home.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Jewish Hasidic Walking Tour in Brooklyn

Friends, thankfully, lead us in directions we might not go on our own.  When my friend, Marian, suggested a Jewish Hasidic Walking Tour in Brooklyn, I said, "Sure," barely familiar with the term Hasidic, but intrigued to learn more.  She had discovered the tour after watching a TV segment of Oprah's visit with Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn.  My own experience was limited, primarily, to seeing Hasidic Jewish men walking New York streets dressed in dark, loose-fitting suits, black hats with large crowns, often bearded, often with side curls.

On the morning of the tour, we met Rabbi Beryl Epstein at the Crown Heights Rabbinical Study Hall and Rebbe's Library, a half block from the Kingston subway stop.  "I've been leading these tours since 1982," he explained. "It's a way to help people outside the Hasidic community to better understand it."
Two other people joined the group, both Jewish.  Marian and I added a Catholic and Episcopalian flavor to the tour; we just hoped the rabbi didn't call on us to answer any Jewish questions.

Our first stop was a few doors down in a skinny-looking building with a skinnier staircase. With a refreshing sense of humor, the rabbi joked,  "Hold on to the banister. "I haven't lost anyone yet."  Comforted, but not totally reassured, I didn't look down as the stairs curved upwards to a landing, then into a room filled with Torahs and a scribe.

Rabbi Beryl Epstein
 "This is one of the few places in the world where Torahs can be repaired," the rabbi explained.  As he detailed the process, I picked up a hollow quill, the tip blackened with ink, and tried to imagine the patience and precision necessary to hand write each character, perfectly.

One floor down, three men sat at desks intently crafting Tefillin, black leather boxes containing Torah verses written on parchment.  "Men wear them on their foreheads and arms during weekday morning prayers," said Epstein, as we wandered from one to the next observing the intricate steps.


folding the parchments and inserting them in a Tefillah

attaching the strap

sanding it down

                                                              finished Tefillin

I looked for men wearing Tefillin when we visited the synagogue next, but did not see any from the women's gallery where we sat behind a plexiglass partition.

The room was filled with men chanting, reading, walking, rocking, talking, and perhaps arguing.  Rabbi Epstein accompanied the male member of our group to the floor of the synagogue, and without a guide, we understood little of what was happening.  However, the significance to the participants was obvious.

Leaving the synagogue, Epstein led us through a typical Crown Heights neighborhood where he and many members of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic sect live.  He stopped in front of a windowless building and motioned for us to follow him.  "This is a bakery," he shouted over his shoulder. "If you're looking for a bakery that will put pounds on you just by walking by, that's down the street.  This one makes matzo bread only," he continued as we entered a room piled high with matzo bread boxes and men's frenzied voices.  "They have 18 minutes from the time the bread and water combine to the time the bread comes out of the oven," the rabbi explained. "After 18 minutes, it is no longer unleavened bread."

Over the heads of the workers, I saw a long, narrow table with women on both sides rolling balls of dough into thin, round circles.

The circles were placed onto longer, rounded sticks, then passed along to the oven room, where the dough was cooked in a flaming oven.  (No pictures were allowed except in the oven room.)

Matzo bread ready to be boxed and shipped.

Ending the three-hour tour with a kosher deli lunch, we thanked Rabbi Epstein.  I extended my hand to shake his, but he nicely refused.  "We do not touch women other than our wives," he said.  Marian and I walked away with more questions than answers, but deeply grateful for the opportunity to learn.

For more information about the tours, you can visit the website, Jewish Hasidic Walking Tours.  The site provides a five-minute video of tour highlights, along with a link to buy tickets.

My latest article for Downtown Magazine appeared online today, "Titanic at 100, Myth and Mystery - New Exhibit Opens at South Street Seaport Museum"


Monday, April 9, 2012

Brooklyn Botanic Garden. . .With More Friends

Who knew that there is more than one botanical garden in New York City?
A friend recently began describing  the Cherry Watch Blossom Status to me.
"It's on the botanical garden's website. You can find out the best time to view blossoms.  It looks like another week or so before most of them will be in full bloom," she reported.
Confused, I said, "But I've already seen cherry blossoms at the New York Botanical Garden."
"Not that botanical garden, the other one, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden," she patiently explained.

I must start reading my guidebooks more closely.

On a perfect Easter afternoon - no clouds, only blue sky, sunshine and 60-degree gentle breezes - I was off.  I couldn't wait until the "best viewing time."  Another garden awaited my exploring.  This one is somewhat smaller, 52 acres rather than the 250 of its Bronx counterpart, but plenty big for me. . . and two friends.  Different exploring buddies than the ones who trekked with me to the New York Botanical Garden last week, but world adventurers, none the less.

                         Shannon and Nola, friends whom Drew and I first met when we all worked
                                                  in Egypt, at Cairo American College

So, what prompted me to take my camera out every couple of minutes, stopped me every few feet to smell and listen?  The better question is, "What didn't?"  Such incredible beauty, fragrances and birdsong compacted into 52 acres!

The Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden particularly captured my attention, as an area I did not find at the New York Botanical Garden.  Wandering around the rim of the pond, I found collections of trees and flowering plants that meshed together so perfectly, it was hard to tell where one stopped and the next started.

                       Cherry blossoms found a perfect home on the pond's edge.

  It was not only the grand sights, but the tiny, timid leaves and flowers who asked me to stop and take their picture.


                A walk in nature always leaves me with memories and a "wanting" to return.

      The delicateness of a cherry blossom lingers in my mind. . .

                     while a field of green blades, soon to be awash in Bluebell, will bring me 
                                (hopefully, with Nola and Shannon) back in May.

      In the meantime, if any of you knows of yet another botanical garden in New York City, 
      please leave me a comment.         

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

New York Botanical Garden. . . with Friends

There are days when I crave a bigger patch of nature than the lovely City Hall Park outside my window.  I need miles of woods to walk in, towering trees to keep me company, and birdsong to remind me to stop the mindless chatter and listen, deeply listen.  I found 250 acres of just such a place yesterday at the New York Botanical Garden.

Mary and Polly, friends from years past and miles apart, had traveled to New York for a brief 2-day reunion.  As the three of us added possibilities to an already lengthy list, springtime in the Botanical Garden continued to rise to the top.  The Garden's website lured us towards the Bronx. . . "Flowering Cherries - the delicate pink and white blossoms of more than 200 flowering cherries beckon you to take a peaceful April stroll."  As we rumbled through 16 subway stations, then walked 5 to 6 blocks from the Bedford Park station to the Garden's entrance, our anticipation could not prepare us for the reality inside the gate. 

Within seconds of entering, the collective din of urban life simply. . . disappeared.  A heaviness I didn't know I was carrying, left as I crossed the threshold, replaced by an overwhelming urge to breathe to the bottom on my lungs.

A waiting tram escorted us ---

through crabapple collections  

under greening towers 

around "Daffodil Valley"

past inviting perches

Every scene as joyful as the next.  

Then climbing a gradually sloping hill, we crested among cherry blossoms.


We left the tram to walk among them, to linger in the smell of freshly cut grass, to extend the moment.

The fortunate one of the trio living in New York, I can return to see the azaleas and lilacs blooming in a week or so and walk, again, along the paths and sit among the new growth.  And think, gratefully, of good friends. . .

Twylla, Mary and Polly


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