On Sunday, October 17, 2010 we were in store for another exciting learning experience in New York City: using our Explorer Pass which gave us access to multiple attractions at one low reasonable price, we had booked a Jewish Tour of Brooklyn, hosted by Rabbi Beryl Epstein. Our tour would focus on Crown Heights, an area that is home to large number of Hasidic Jews.
It is also the international headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, whose name is derived from the Hebrew words for “Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge”. With more than 1350 Chabad institutions around the world, the organization focuses on religious education and outreach to non-observant Jewish people.
Although Hasidic Jews are usually quite removed from modern Western society, Rabbi Epstein welcomed us openly and introduced us to several Hasidic institutions. We first got to go into a local synagogue where we were able to witness a Sunday morning prayer session. In accordance with strict Hassidic gender separation, men were praying in the main area of the synagogue while women were praying in their own areas on both sides of the synagogue which were separated from the main room by tinted glass.
Then we visited a “mikvah”, a ritual bathhouse. Again, separated by gender, bath houses are important pillars of Hassidic Jewish tradition, and a young woman by the name of Esther educated us about Jewish laws of purity, dating and marriage. A visiting school group of Jewish teenagers from a Reform Jewish congregation was listening intently to the much more stringent traditions of Hasidic Judaism.
Then we visited a local store where highly trained scribes repair damaged scrolls of the Torah. In the next room we witnessed the production of “tefillin”, a set of small black cubic boxes of leather that contain tiny scrolls of parchment with verses from the Torah, an important religious accessory for all Hasidic Jewish males. After a brief overview of Hasidic culture, our fascinating visit ended with a kosher deli lunch next to the Jewish Children’s Museum.
We then spent the afternoon in Central Park, this amazing 843 acre oasis in the heart of Manhattan. Designed by famous landscape architects Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux, this huge park was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1963 and hosts about 35 million visitors per year. In addition to forests, lawns and sports playing fields, it has several much treasured ponds: the Harlem Meer, the Reservoir – the largest body of water in the park, The Lake and The Pond.
During our stroll around the Reservoir in the warm afternoon sun we had to make sure we didn’t get run over by some of the avid joggers that were racing around this lake. Central Park is one of New York City’s primary recreational areas and frequented by huge numbers of people every day. Rollerbladers were zooming by on paved pathways that are part of a 6 mile (10 km) network of drives that accommodates joggers, bicyclists and inline skaters, particularly on weekends and weekday evenings when vehicle traffic is prohibited.
At different points we stopped to take in the vibrant street life in this huge urban oasis – there is always lots to see in Central Park. We observed several just-married couples, getting their pictures taken in the picturesque environment of the park. The imposing residential skyscrapers on Central Park West formed a scenic backdrop to behind the leafy trees. Numerous rock outcroppings are remainders from the last Ice Age and provide interesting terrain for rock climbers.
Most excitingly, we witnessed an eccentric older gentleman with a purple wig, green beard and pink ballerina outfit who carried a multi-coloured poodle, proudly stating “I am Lady Gaga and this is my daughter.” This was certainly one of the best statements I had ever heard. You never know what you are going to get in Central Park….
After an intense day of learning and explorations we headed back into the Times Square area for dinner and reflected on the day’s impressions. We had had another full day in the Big Apple.