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New-Year Thought of a New New Yorker

New-Year Thought of a New New Yorker

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Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York (Photo: Library of Congress)
Immigrants arriving at Ellis Island in New York (Photo: Library of Congress)

For the last 12 years I’ve called Brooklyn home, but I always referred to myself as an Englishman—born and raised on the other side of the pond, in Manchester. That changed recently in a Brooklyn courthouse, where I took an oath and become a full-fledged Yankee.

Manchester was not a bad place to be born, with its dedicated and supportive Jewish community. You could nearly always find a decent bagel mit lox. Still, my friends and I experienced our fair share of anti-Semitism. I can still hear the not-so-veiled insults hurled at a young boy walking to shul on the High Holy Days.

As a young man, I was drawn to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Its counterculture vibrancy was a breath of fresh air after the somewhat staid Judaism I was used to. Whether they were standing in the foyer of a supermarket handing out Shabbat candles, or driving through the city in a convoy of cars displaying menorahs on the roof, the energy and pride the chassidim radiated was magnetic. And it was Chabad that eventually brought me here, to Brooklyn.

When we think of Jewish places to live, of course we think of Israel first. But New York, with two million “members of the tribe,” is not too far behind. I love seeing a sukkah on Fifth Avenue, or a minyan at the Yankees game. The sign on the Williamsburg bridge says it best: “Leaving Brooklyn: Oy vey!”

America is grounded in immigration, and Jews have played a big part in its story. So, with a sense of pride and privilege I entered the courthouse, surrounded by people of all ages, races and religions, and took the pledge that made me an American.

As I perused that crowded courtroom, I realized that perhaps the only thing we all had in common was that we had nothing in common. America is more salad bowl than melting pot. The vast variety makes this land distinctive and, like a good diversified portfolio, stronger for the differences.

On the back wall of the courthouse was a mural depicting massive figures, the immigrants who with their bare hands built the infrastructure of this country. The presiding judge told us the story behind the mural. Called The Role of the Immigrant in the Industrial Development of America, it was painted in the 1930s by Edward Laning, and originally hung in Ellis Island. Over the years, the mural fell into disrepair, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service requested permission from Judge Jacob Mishler to destroy it.

Judge Mishler, however, was inspired by the mural; it reminded him of his father’s own immigrant journey. Instead of destroying the painting, Judge Mishler commissioned its restoration, and in 1971 moved it to the ceremonial courtroom in the federal courthouse in Brooklyn. He would ask the immigrants who passed through to look at it and remind themselves of what it means to become an American.

As we approach the Jewish High Holy Days, the message of this mural stays with me. At this time we are called to the heavenly court to stand trial for our lives. And, much like new immigrants, we Jews may be a little confused about our place in the world. We may bring into that holy courtroom the excess “baggage” we have accumulated over the past year. This is the time for us to take an oath not unlike the one new immigrants take, to “renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign sovereignty.” On Rosh Hashanah, we coronate our one and only King.

Two courtrooms: Both offer magnificent opportunities and possibilities. Like the figures in the mural, we must be willing to work hard, to ask tough questions: What kind of people have we been this year? What kind of people do we want to be? Are we willing to put in the effort, the time and the passion to realize our dreams?

During these days of awe, our wandering souls come home.

Simcha Weinstein is an internationally known best-selling author, who chairs the Religious Affairs Committee at the renowned New York art school, Pratt Institute, where he serves as the Chabad emissary. His most recent book is The Case for Children: How Parenthood Makes Your World Better (New Jersey: Barricade Books, 2012).
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david NYC September 3, 2013

very well written i went thru a similar experience recently and can relate to these beautifully composed words!!

would like to see more of this author. Reply

Monty Pogoda September 2, 2013

New Year thought of a New Yorker How can one, as a Jew, swear allegiance to the USA and "renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign sovereignty"? Are we not Jews first and then whatever afterwards? Like Pollard whose allegiance was to Israel> Reply

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