Tuesday, December 29, 2009

I Know a Place

This summer, back in Israel for the first time in three years, I visited in Jerusalem with an architect friend who is similarly fascinated with the mix of buildings, history and culture. After coffee in a retro café that used to be a bakery we explored the city at night, first on foot and then by car. Do you have time to stop? He asked. Of course I answered. We parked and paused at a lookout, below the road and reached by a small flight of stone steps, a balcony with a serene view of the modern city, the ancient city above at our backs. Jerusalem lights are modest by comparison to my home town; its buildings are low and its streets quite silent in the dark. We looked on in our own silence for a moment. How could you ever leave? I asked. We held another pause, heavy with love of place. My friend let out a soft sigh. You hit it exactly he admitted with a knowing laugh. He was about to embark on a months-long visit abroad.
Before I left for Israel in June I ventured down to the Meat Packing District, determined to see the High Line (www.thehighline.org) the week it opened, despite the rain that plagued the city for most of the month. It was love at first step, somewhat surprisingly. I had followed the evolution of the project from early on, skeptical even while intrigued by it. Years ago I went to Grand Central Terminal to see an exhibition of proposed designs for the site’ one was a fanciful swimming pool. I love my island, alternate universe that it is, and know more of its nooks and crannies than many of my fellow denizens, although I recognize the large band of New Yorkers who proudly display and share their knowledge of their own personalized city kingdoms. The High Line offered everyone the opportunity to journey to the new and magical within this beloved and well-traversed landscape. What a gift. I have been back a dozen or so times, to take in the views and show them to various visitors and friends. It is my favorite new spot, a landmark of 2009; I wanted to claim that I knew it well as soon as possible and have others equally in the know.
There are many unexpected, detailed pleasures to take in. One of my favorite elements is the combination of the commanding view of the Hudson with the more intimate peeks into the surrounding buildings; it reminds me a little of the odd balance of scale that one experienced from the outdoor deck of the World Trade Center. I also love standing at the point were the path turns parallel on 10th Avenue. Looking north one sees a long view up the Avenue while looking back south one can catch a perfect glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. The neighborhood is a great mix of New York’s old and new, the gritty outdated industrial markers adjacent to and intermingled with shiny new design and fashion outposts. Most delightful is the anticipation of the next stages of the project, with further stretches of the path expected to open in the next few years - as if one needed such a reason to keep coming back.
I grew up on the Upper West Side and more particularly in Riverside Park. The Hudson is one of my oldest landscape memories and it never leaves me, even when I neglect it. The streets and hills of Jerusalem are as well and do the same. The best places do that I think: they stay lodged within us even when we force ourselves away in order to have the adventures of our lives. Somewhere within we are always anchored by the vistas that shaped us. When we yearn for those places or wonder if they have changed we can at least visit in our mind’s eye.

©2009 Leah Strigler

My Father, Humming

For Mordecai Strigler, z”l*

My father sometimes hummed to himself, while doing routine chores or walking or putting on his coat. He mostly hummed Jewish music, but not always. I remember this as a morning activity, a fresh start to the day and a show of optimism that for me was always all the more stunning in light of his personal history. He had a lovely singing voice and used to sing me Yiddish lullabies when I was little.

The humming was also surprising because I usually thought of my father as a serious person, although I knew that he had a sense of humor that was quite wry and light, given to intellectual word play of a linguistic or logistical nature with a touch of satire added. As I grew older and learned how to formulate my own jokes we began to share this particular form of play, trading witticisms as we spun out our observations on a given topic. I think my father especially relished being able to use his voice to convey exclamation, surprise and other reactions. I later learned that he was admirably able to convey such reactions in his writing as well.

Sometimes these witticisms would be based on text study. I studied with my father regularly, at first because I would ask him about the homework I brought home from my Jewish day school. I quickly learned that he knew more than my teachers and that his view of the text was different - more liberal but still studious, literary. Studying with him was far more intriguing and illuminating than my classes were. He introduced me to the activity of commentary by explaining that the text was full of conundrums and that therefore the rabbis were driven to ask questions, explore possibilities and find answers that spoke to them. These questions varied in different times and places. My father had his own questions, about passages that he thought were still opaque, commentaries that he felt had missed certain possibilities or allusions and tenets of Jewish belief that were difficult to leave unquestioned in the latter half of the twentieth century. We would discuss for hours, a discussion on the creation story leading to evolution and archeology, the nature of God’s ability to create, God’s attachment to his creations and fallibility. My father would often comment that he still had much to teach me.

Thanks to our studying together I knew that my father knew everything, or just about. Certainly he knew about anything connected to Judaism or being Jewish - from the obscure text to the obscure Jewish actor or sports figure - and everything about Israeli and Jewish politics. I was a spoiled child in the following way: I knew that I could call my father with any question on a Jewish topic and receive information instantly; I happily relied on him in this way. Despite his instant recall, he always emphasized the importance of checking sources. He would say “I think it’s ___ but let me check and get back to you”. I think he enjoyed the variety of my questions, which grew out of my own studying, reading and later, teaching and working in the Jewish community. My questions would lead to long associative discussions reminiscent of Talmudic passages. Once or twice I was able to offer a tidbit from contemporary Jewish life that was unfamiliar to my father; this would usually yield a phrase that was the closest I remember to his being surprised: “You don’t say!”

My father did not waste words, even in everyday speech. He was thoughtful in formulating his comments. He always spoke softly and carefully. The same is true of his writing; he was thorough and careful while at the same time incredibly prolific. His mind was always working and he slept little, I think as a result of the constant turmoil of his thoughts and questions. He was quietly but incredibly curious about the world and its people and had much to say about them. He would think, read and read more, sometimes while humming, until he was ready to formulate his thoughts in words on paper, writing late at night and early in the morning. I sometimes thought that night was one of God’s gifts to my father: quiet time for reflection and clear thinking, an opportunity to write down some of his many observations and ideas. Perhaps my father’s humming in the morning was simply the result of so much mental energy, his way of letting some of it escape as he began a new day of studying and observation.

PS: I originally wrote this piece for the Yiddish Forverts, the paper my father edited, on the occasion of his yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death) a number of years ago. It has been humming to me to post it on this blog so I decided o heed its call and hope that it inspires me to return to posting more regularly. A News Year’s resolution, bli neder – I do not swear, merely set an intention.

* zichrono l’vracha, may his memory be a blessing

©2009 Leah Strigler

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Circle: Cycles and Seasons

I thank Roxana for inviting me to participate in this lovely celebration of the season, its sensory, familial and festive delights. I wish all a Merry Christmas and blessed turn of the year and decade.
I am Jewish and grew up in an extended family that did not celebrate Christmas. Still, the holiday season has always been the dominant theme of the advent of winter for me. A lifetime denizen of NYC (two years in DC do not count) the cityscape is replete with decorations and events from early on in the fall – this year starting just after Halloween! – and I am ever aware that Christmas falls just after the Winter Solstice, when we are beginning to notice a little more light each day. Actually, it takes some time to notice, not just because of the subtle shift but also because once the festive lights (they are everywhere: stores, institutions, apartment buildings…) come down the whole world seems darker and less colorful for a good while. New York City is one of the most diverse places on the planet, so Channukah and Kwanzaa decorations and in the last few years Diwali has been coming into the spotlight as well.
All senses are inundated with these markers: the bright and colorful sights, the Christmas songs performed in all musical styles, the abundant textures of gifts, ornaments and wrapping paper begging to be touched, the tastes of holiday and winter treats and the aromas that they emit. I am particularly fond of two scents: the rich creaminess of eggnog (with that touch of alcohol) and the pungent sweet fruitcakes that my former super expounded upon every year, asserting that he really loved them. Roasting chestnuts are less common these days but they evoke my city childhood, a time when we saw a lot more snow. As a pedestrian I am most aware of the trees (and wreaths too) that are sold on city sidewalks in the weeks leading up to the holiday. They turn the streets into imaginary forests, with trees that angle outward and perfume the urban locale with the fresh dark green and dark brown of earth and plant. I have from childhood relished the magical escape that they provide and I still love to walk through these corridors of nature, even when they are full of people shopping. On the coldest part of the year it is a beautiful reminder that even in the city we have not completely forgotten the natural beauty of our world. It may be because of this memory that Sierra is my favorite of Roxana’s perfumes – because it echoes that sense of how trees remind us of where we come from.

Please visit the entire advent series at Roxana's Illuminated Journal (and the rest of her site!) for a feast of remembrances, creativity and wisdom: