Thanks, But What Kind of Prayer Books Were Those?

September 23, 2014

The holiest days in the Jewish year are fast approaching.

This sign, hanging in the window of a day care center on Brooklyn’s Montague Street, advertises services available to the observant during the next two weeks.

I can’t speak to the accuracy of the Hebrew used in their prayer books, but they might want to double-check the Engligh.

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Chabad of Brooklyn Heights
Congregation B’nai Avraham


The Land Where St. Patrick Walked

March 17, 2011

The St. Patrick’s Day Parade on Fifth Avenue is the world’s biggest, noisiest, happiest celebration of Ireland and its patron saint. Between the dancing, drinking and green hair, it is easy for an observer to think that those who hail from “the land with 40 shades of green” have always been welcome and accepted here.

But the story of the Irish in New York has many a tragic side. Most terrible is the reason that so many Irish citizens arrived on our shores 150 years ago; they were fleeing the disaster known as An Gorta Mór (the Great Hunger). The devestation began in the late 1840s, when a virus attacked the potatoes planted in the fields of the land where St. Patrick had walked.

Cheap, filling, and easy to grow, potatoes were an essential source of nutrition for poor, rural Irish families. When the virus caused the potato plants to wither and their crops to fail, it wasn’t long before starvation set in.

The Great Hunger, also known as the Great Potato Famine, lasted from 1845 to 1852. During that period approximately one million Irish people died and two million more emigrated, many of them landing in New York Harbor. Now, in a quiet corner of Battery Park, near the spot where those desperate survivors arrived, stands the Irish Hunger Memorial.

Created by New York artist Brian Tolle, the memorial opened in 2002 on a quarter-acre of land shaped to resemble a burial mound cut from an Irish hillside. The base of the memorial is made of slabs of concrete interlaced with bands of plexiglass-covered metal bearing excerpts from reports, poems, songs, sermons and letters describing the desperation and destitution of the victims of the famine. These are intermingled with information about world hunger today.

After walking around the base, visitors walk through a short, dark corridor where recorded voices recite facts about the Hunger and emerge into a small atrium lined with stone walls. A dirt path winds up the hill past thirty-two massive stones, each marked with the name the Irish county that donated it, a roofless stone cottage, wildflowers and grasses, all imported from Ireland.

Every aspect of this small patch of land is significant and symbolic; even the size of the space reflects the Irish Poor Law of 1847, which denied relief to those living on land larger than a quarter of acre. Small, subtle and enormously moving, the Irish Hunger Memorial helps illuminate the wonderful, terrible history of the Irish in New York City.

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Approaching the memorial from West Street

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Closer to the entrance

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Plantings overhanging the concrete

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Through the entry corridor

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Words on the walls

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More quotations on the walls

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The words stretch on

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Climbing the hill

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The view from the top of the hill

CRG Gallery: Brian Tolle
The New York Times: A Memorial Remembers The Hungry
New York Magazine: Irish Hunger Memorial
NYC: Battery Park
Battery Park Conservancy


Good Friday on Court Street

April 2, 2010

Friday evening, and nearly everyone was in a hurry to get home. But on Brooklyn’s busy Court Street, traffic was at a standstill. Horns were honking. Angry drivers were leaning out their windows, shaking their fists, demanding to know what was going on — was it an accident? A disaster? A drill? What could possibly be so important that it caused the police to close the roadway at rush hour?

I walked past the stalled cars and trucks, beyond the police vehicles and uniformed officers that blocked the street, and saw the center of the commotion: a Good Friday procession assembling outside the oddly named Saints Peter & Paul & Our Lady of Pilar Church at Congress and Court Streets.

I didn’t have time to pause and hear a full explanation, and the only camera I had with me was in my phone. If you know more about this event, or this church, please share the story.

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The street was blocked off, but no one was directing traffic

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A crowd gathered

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Police officers stood around the center of attraction

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A priest recited a blessing

Local Catholic Church and Family History & Genealogical Research Guide


Father’s Kingdom Plates

October 15, 2009

These memorable dishes are for sale in a discount store on Harlem’s 125th Street. Only $9.99 for a set of four. According to the package, they are called Father’s Kingdom plates and they come complete with wall hooks.

No, I didn’t buy them.

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Leaning right and left

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Assorted designs


Greek Festival in Downtown Brooklyn

June 5, 2009

The metal signs were propped up on the sidewalk. The flags and banners were hung from the awning. The street was closed, the carnival attractions arrived and the tables and chairs were assembled outside the front door. Most importantly, the yayas (grandmothers) were cooking. And cooking. And cooking.

It was time once again for the festival run in Downtown Brooklyn by Saints Constantine and Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral. Now in its 32nd year, the annual week-long event is one of the biggest fund raisers for the church that has stood here since 1916.

The cathedral is more than just a place of worship; for nearly 100 years, it has served as the center of Greek life in Brooklyn. Many parishioners cheerfully put their business affairs aside for the week and devote their labors to ensure the festival’s success. The attractions include a “white elephant” sale and gift shop, music, kiddie rides and, of course, the food. The barbeques for gyros, souvlaki and grilled octopus were set up in the street, the trays filled with moussaka, pasticio, dolmades, spanakopita, keftedes and pastries — all based on old family recipes — were on the tables under the tent.

The music played, the kids giggled and ran, the younger people manned the grills, the yayas kept an eye on the money box while serving heaping helpings of everything and the men, just as they do in Greece, sat together swapping stories, making plans and watching the passing scene. Oopa!

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A sign on Court Street

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Tables set up on the asphalt

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Cooking the meat for gyros

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Grilled souvlaki

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Assembling a gyro

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Yayas inside the tent

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A tray of desserts

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The carnival attractions help raise money

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The neighborhood kids love winning prizes

The Greek Orthodox of Cathedral of Sts. Constantine and Helen
Recipe: Moussaka
Recipe: Pasticio
Recipe: Dolmades
Recipe: Spanakopita
Recipe: Cat Cora’s Keftedes


Birkat Hachamah: Blessing the Sun

April 8, 2009

God made the two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night . . . And it was evening and it was morning, a fourth day.
—Genesis 1:16, 19

One who sees the sun at its turning point should say, “Blessed is He who reenacts the works of Creation.” And when is this? Abaya said: every 28th year.
—Talmud, Tractate Berachot 59b

It happens once in a generation: The moment when, according to Talmudic tradition, the sun returns to the same position, at the same time and day, that it appeared at the beginning of all creation. Observant Jews mark the occasion, which occurs every 28 years, with a special blessing called Birkat Hachamah, the sun blessing.

Today, Birkat Hachamah ceremonies large and small were held around the world. This one, organized by Rabbi Aaron L. Raskin of Congregation Bnai Avraham and Chabad of Brooklyn Heights, took place on the steps of Borough Hall.

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The crowd began to gather early

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Copies of the blessing were distributed

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Children read aloud

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A brother and sister reading

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This kid reminds me of Kenny from South Park

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This girl wasn’t camera-shy

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The wind blew, but she didn’t lose her place

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Among those reciting the blessing was Borough President Marty Markowitz (right)

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After the blessing, singing …

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.. and dancing

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The women danced together

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The men formed a circle

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Friends laughed together

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The rabbi kicked up his heels

Congregation Bnai Avraham
Chabad of Brooklyn Heights
Birkat HaChamah, The Blessing of the Sun, 2009
NY Times: For Jews, Another 28 Years, Another Blessing of the Sun
Bless The Sun
Chabad: Thank G-d for the Sun
Kenny from South Park


You’d better watch out

December 24, 2008

You’d better watch out
You’d better not cry
Better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town

He’s making a list
And checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake!

-J. Fred Coots, Henry Gillespie, 1934

Watch out and you might run into the jolly old elf anywhere — even in midtown Manhattan. Many people wandered by without noticing, but I spotted him, sitting in a bright red sleigh, beneath an enormous tree in Bryant Park.

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With a friend in Bryant Park

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He knows if you’ve been bad or good

Chordie: Santa Claus is Coming to Town
Newseum: “Yes, Virigina”


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