Sakura Park this evening, just past six, on my way to the Living Wage Rally at Riverside Church. I had been invited to give one of the opening blessings (Jew, Christian, Muslim) and set the liturgical table, as it were, for a parade of preachers and imams, politicians and activists, sounding off on the inarguable justness of paying this city's workers "$10 an hour with benefits or $11.50 without!" That's what the way it went with the mic check.
In the two months since Occupy Wall Street began, I had been kvetching about real legislation neglected by the drum circles downtown; and after hosting a labor organizer at our Shabbat services on Saturday morning, I was more than happy to lend a word of Torah to this auspicious public rally.
The Rev. Dr. James Forbes greeted me in his classy, dignified and friendly way and while we assembled men and women of the cloth walked down the inspiring gray aisles of this imposing spiritual landmark, I left my body briefly, hovered just above the floor, and watched a variety of holy spirits conjure unity, inspiration, and righteous devotion to the shared cause we had come together to celebrate. A choir director twisted and contorted his body into the conduction of divine electricity not normally seen in a shul on Shabbos morning; voices rose from the pews to meet the titanic force of those choral vocalizations washing over the assembly; photographers, logistical aides, and those vaunted paragons of our era--organizers--dashed about, making last minute adjustments.
Amidst the noise and prayer I found silence, my mind dashing back, as if I realized I left a precious book on a bench, back there, in the light rain: in Sakura Park: "The park admits the wind, the petals lift and scatter like versions of myself I was on the verge of becoming; and ten years on and ten blocks down I still can't tell whether this dispersal resembles a fist unclenching or waving goodbye."
"A fist unclenching or waving goodbye."
Back to the floor of the church. My mother worked in the "inner-city" of Milwaukee after she and Dad broke up, on a number of HUD development projects assisting poor African Americans in obtaining vocational training and a decent wage in the kind of government-funded community work that today would be twisted into a knot of meaningless partisan mush, neglecting to recognize the civic value of a government of decency and a tool for goodness, caring for its citizens.
That, frankly, is what inspires me about the Living Wage Campaign. It's so logically correct. It's organized around the right idea.
You are a business, seeking a tax-break from the government to do business in the city. In exchange, for the privilege of using the citizens' dollars (the very definition of taxes, by the way) you agree to pay "a Living Wage." Quid pro quo. This for that. Perish the thought: compromise!
In our world today, each side of the political debate so sure of itself, how good it would be to remain in the blessed ambivalence of meeting one another half-way, in a moment, between the peaceful offer of a "fist unclenching" and the warm valedictory of "waving goodbye."
I had never heard of the poet Rachel Wetzsteon until she died two years ago. A Times obituary recounted her too short life and from there her voice came into my head.
As I watched preachers preach and politicians speak, I looked at my own books I had traveled uptown with, which I had firmly tucked into the pew. Ansky's diary from his relief work in the Ukraine during the First World War and my own notebook, with my grandparents photograph on the cover: He, the American-born and charitable doctor, helping the poor; she, the beautiful immigrant from Ansky's Ukraine, caught between two worlds.
Jews were once at this vanguard for labor rights and fair wages; now, the only landsman I could see was Stuart Applebaum, President of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union--a godless Jew doing God's work. We would later be joined enthusiastically by NYC Councilmen Lander and Levin but still, hardly a minyan. The Rev. Dr. H. DeVore Chapman, Pastor, Greater Bright Light & Bethel Baptist Churches gave a real rouser, the likes of which are generally not heard in shul on Shabbos morning, certainly not for "your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Know what I mean?
There hung the sculpted, suffering Jesus, dangling in gold. There celebrated the hand-waving Evangelicals, exploding with intentional enthusiasm. There reasoned the logicians Catholicism and the fatalistic prophecy of Islam, astir with meaning. Comptroller John Liu was there, and all I could think of was campaign and fundraising "bundlers."
Ach--these two worlds I inhabit. It would take Houdini to find the way out only to crave the moment, locked into it yet again, caught, indulgently, between them both.
The poet: "There is still a chance the empty gazebo will draw crowds from the greater world. And meanwhile, meanwhile's far from nothing; the humming moment, the rustle of the cherry trees."
What she said.