The Jew, the Jew, and the Gentile

My friend Valerie and I were biking back to Clinton Hill from Williamsburg. It was evening; she wanted to take the Wythe route through the Jewish part of the neighborhood, as it was better lit and less hilly. I noticed a woman in a traditional white long sleeve blouse, long black skirt, and tights signaling quietly but clearly to me with her finger as if to ask a question. Valerie hadn’t seen and kept biking, but I slowed to a stop.
“Excuse me, do you have a moment?” she asked.
We’re trained to run the other direction in those situations (thanks, Greenpeace), but I saw no clipboard in sight. It was also a very quiet street; I wondered how long she had been standing there. I said sure.
“Could you possibly turn off our air conditioner; it’s getting colder than we expected but can’t do it ourselves.”
It wasn’t Shabbat, but I realized that similar Jewish law regarding “work” (like turning a switch on or off) might apply on holidays, so I asked if it was because of Sukkot, to which she said yes.
“Ok, let me make sure my friend will watch my bike.”I thought for a second and then realized what I needed to disclose: “I should tell you that I’m also Jewish but do not follow the same observance custom; does that matter.”
“Oh, yes, it does matter; it won’t work. Is your friend Jewish?”
“No,” I replied, a bit stunned that I couldn’t perform this mitzvah myself. I also felt apologetic. “I hope it’s not offensive that I don’t observe this custom.”
She warmly thanked me for letting her know, and Valerie agreed without missing a beat to go in and turn the switch off. I stayed with bikes and she went in.
When Valerie emerged 5 minutes later, the woman sent her out with cups of water and gave a friendly wave and thanked us again, and we hopped back on our bikes and rode away.
Everything about this little interaction was exciting to both of us. Like anyone would be, we were curious; who in New York doesn’t like seeing any and every apartment possible and how people live? I was also so thrilled that Valerie could – and proud that she willingly did – perform this mitzvah for a family enjoying dinner during the holiday. I was also a bit jealous and uncomfortable that I couldn’t perform the task myself – I had no moral issue with it – but at the same time, I felt a sense of community with a person whose reality seemed so different from my own, because despite my style of dress and relative ambivalence towards the holiday, I was still a Jew in her eyes. I loved too that traditional observance truly mattered so much to this woman, despite how odd it seems in today’s times. 
One more Brooklyn story…

Away down town, where the atmosphere is hazy
From the smoke of the factories ascending to the sky
The smells, Oh! so horrid, would almost set you crazy.
But I’m told in that neighborhood the people seldom die.
‘Way up on the Slope all the people are complaining;
From the foul scented odors their health is quickly waning
And the smoke from the soft coal their linen it is staining
When the wind blows that way from Gowanus Canal.

When the wind blows east, when the wind blows west,
Or when it’s from the north or south, you never get a rest.
In summer or in winter, in the spring or in the fall,
You breathe the same old odors from Gowanus Canal.

from The Gowanus Canal Song, by Michael J. Shay, 1898

Let’s hope the pending Superfund cleanup can stop dolphins from dying, the cancerous agents from thriving in the cesspool, and the smells from invading the general neighborhood.

Bike Corrals Expanding Access to Businesses

imageClear, simply-put argument for the benefit of bike parking rather than car parking. But, that’s because I’m a cyclist. If you’re a car owner in a city of already-limited places to park, I can see where this is frustrating and continues to separate, rather than unite, a community (in this article’s case, my community). It’s a growing pain of transportation reform in this decade, I think, but the sourness and fights will get even worse before folks both car-owning and not can agree on this blown-out debate.

Bike Corrals Expanding Access to Businesses