The Met’s mummies awakened to blowing of the shofar
October 14, 2012 | Jewish Tribune
New York’s famed Metropolitan Museum (the ‘Met’) must come near the top of the list of the more exotic places where I have prayed on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This year, with another 800 or so worshippers, my way to services led through the Egyptian Galleries, past mummies and statues of ancient Egyptian rulers, past the Egyptian Temple of Dendur (transported in its entirety from the banks of the Nile), and through a gallery lined with facsimiles of Egyptian tomb paintings – some of them probably featuring the enslaved ancestors of the Manhattan Israelites. The great auditorium of the museum was the theatrical setting for Rosh Hashannah and Yom Kippur services of Manhattan’s iconic major synagogue, Kehillath Jeshurun – referred to universally as ‘KJ’. When a local doctor blew the three-foot shofar, faultlessly and with great expertise, I expected some of the exhibits to sit up as if they recognized the sound from several thousand years ago.
Just over a year ago, in the summer of 2011, ‘KJ’ was almost destroyed by fire. In the middle of renovation, all of the furniture and the Torah scrolls had been removed into storage; but old, faulty, electrical wiring, perhaps disturbed by the work, caused a fire, which gutted the 140-year-old ‘cathedral’ synagogue. Plans are still being completed for its restoration, which will not be finished for another two years.
Within days of the fire, the management of the Met, in solidarity and sympathy with what they termed as a ‘sister cultural landmark of the Upper East Side,’ offered the congregation use of their auditorium for the Yamim Noraim. (During the year, prayers are taking place in a variety of locations – mainly on the premises of the Ramaz school, which was founded by the congregation 75 years ago).
KJ’s history is dominated by the Ramaz-Lookstein dynasty. Since 1872, there have only been three senior rabbis of KJ – Rabbi Moses Zevulun Margolies (the Ramaz), rabbi from 1872-1936; his grandson-in-law, Rabbi Joseph Lookstein, senior rabbi from 1936-1979; and his son, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who has been senior rabbi of KJ since 1979. Rabbi Haskel, 81, is a remarkable personality, who is adored by his community.
Yom Kippur was further marked by the appearance of the despised Ahmadinejad at the UN on the East River of Manhattan.
There are few things that unite New Yorkers more than hatred of the United Nations. I would like to say that this is because of their opposition to the double- and triple-moral standards of that disgusting organization – but the truth is that traffic is the problem. Whenever there is a UN occasion, especially the convening of the Security Council or a visit by some foreign dictator, traffic in Manhattan is at a standstill to accommodate the diplomatic, security-heavy, motorcades. On Yom Kippur (was it a coincidence?) Ahmadinejad addressed the UN. American media largely ignored his speech. On Yom Kippur, there were two demonstrations against him – one by Iranian exiles, and the other by some 200 or 300 Jews who peacefully gathered in the afternoon of Yom Kippur to chant Psalms. In the event, Ahmadinejad’s UN appearance was overshadowed by that of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, which in turn was overshadowed by Bibi and his cartoon.
So Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in Manhattan passed once more. The city went back to normal; mountains of bagels, lox, cream cheese, tuna and egg salad were consumed to break the fast, according to minhag New York. Ahmadinejad came and went. The mummies in the Met went back to sleep; no shofar will disturb their slumber for another year.
Abba Tudela recently transplanted to Manhattan. He has wandered the Jewish world for several decades. His column appears every month or so.