Tonight, I am taking the long way home after work, feeling no strength to board the commuter train as I do night after night, sitting with people to whom I have never spoken despite years of travel together, each of us alone in our seats hiding behind newspapers that continue to shock us as the world raises the ante on sin. I read last night what seemed like the fourth article this month about a cannibal not in the Amazon jungle but in an American city. America, the most advanced society on earth. Where have we heard an expression like that before?
Rather, I wander west on Chambers not sure why, but then realizing why as my heart warms to the sight of street signs that mean something so different to me than they do the current residents on Hester, Essex, and Delancey.
I think of my bubbe who walked these streets upon her arrival to these shores shortly after the Russian Revolution. I think of the elderly Rabbi Eisenbach who sold me my first pair of tefellin a lifetime ago. I am old enough now to feel no shock in being called Sir other than the shock that young people even know the term anymore. Few do.
The world marches along with its sub-molecular engineering, seedless watermelon, and gay marriage but I retreat, spending a good portion of my day in the decades before I was born, trying to be with people who are no more.
I recall my grandparents bemoaning the changing world, sometimes with anger at the wildness and recklessness that characterized the only world that I knew with its neon lights, push button phones, and bucket seated cars. I confess they sounded like aliens to me, my grandparents, who always looked like they didn’t quite belong. Only now, half a century later, I too am an alien in this place and my grandparents and even their grandparents and I have become Mahjongg partners, our values all lined up like tiles. My sole concerns in life are to earn a living while battling the pressure to login on during Shabbos and to keep the children frum. Some things change and some do not change at all.
People on the street are chatting away and I don’t understand a word. It is Chinese? Maybe it’s Korean. I can’t read the signs either. I don’t know a lawyer’s office from that of an accountant. I feel this way in shopping malls too, despite the English, lost, out of my element as the rap music pounds my ears and the new fashions bring me nearly to tears.
In the office it’s the same. I pass the cubicles and overhear chatter about reality television and layoffs. I hear gossip. I hear betrayal. It might as well be spoken in Chinese because it makes no sense to me how this society treats the people who comprise it. Earlier tonight, I passed a homeless man who was screaming at the sky, “I am a human being!” And I muttered, “I might be one too, but don’t tell my boss I said that.”
I’m trekking down East Broadway now. The neighborhood is 99% Asian as far as I can see. I’m passing a building that clearly was a shul back in the day, but now houses Buddhist statues.
Yes, I know we moved on to new places and such nachas I feel when I visit Lakewood, Monsey, Passaic, Teaneck, Flatbush. “The Jews are the most tenacious people in history,” wrote gentile historian Paul Johnson. We’ll never quit. If Moshiach doesn’t come for another 150 years, we’ll carry on building day schools. But my feeling is what’s the point? Haven’t we proved ourselves by now, surviving everything the world has thrown at us, including the ikvisa d’meshicha, modern times, the quintessential wolf draped in sheep’s wool? We have shown the goyim what happens when a people says twice a day “Hashem Echad” and means it. We have shown ourselves too.
Any Orthodox Jew today can list the reasons why we need Moshiach now, why we can’t live with these people anymore, why it’s time to go home and end this long, long workday. It is time for Shabbos and for me to see my grandparents again and to say, Bubbe, Zeyde, we made it across the finish line. Moshiach is here and we have kippas on our heads.
I’m sitting in MTJ now, just outside the beis midrash, near the Pepsi machine. Reb Moshe can you hear me? Will you tell Tate that we want to come home? We’ll carry on if we must, but must we? We want to come home.
A voice enters my head and says that I should tell Him myself. So I do.
(written in 2013)