It would be an easy clichÃ© to say that on the afternoon of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, when all the Jews on the Upper West Side seem to flow into Riverside Park for Tashlich, we are all one big community-or, better still, that we’re really one big connected urban shtetl.
The truth, as Oscar Wilde pointed out, is rarely pure and never simple. It’s not that easy.
But it is sort of true.
First personTashlich is a theologically difficult ritual, a small ceremony that either works for you or profoundly does not. The idea of freeing yourself from your sins by offloading them to the fish can have great spiritual power for some people, while leaving others (including, for the sake of full disclosure here, me) stone cold. There is much room for metaphor in Tashlich.
For those of us in Riverside Park, the physical setting is not at all metaphoric, and it is powerful. We walk across the park’s lush green level and through tunnels that take us under the Henry Hudson Parkway, and we emerge on the other side into another world. It’s a maritime world, with the huge river sometimes lapping, sometimes banging at the rocks that line its bank. The colors almost always are muted; even though it almost always is September, the month of perfectly blue skies, the palette usually is endless variations of gray. We stand on a terrace, with a fence between the water and us. There often are huge ships in the river, sometimes with dwarfed tugboats behind them; sometimes there is a long line of ships, not moving, pointing north, as if they’re waiting for the theater doors to open in Peekskill or Poughkeepsie.
Sometimes there are families of ducks, too; they seem oddly at home in what looks to be an entirely undomestic situation. By this time of year, they are all more or less the same size; no cute chicks paddling after their mother.
On the other side of the broad gray strong beautiful river, the Palisades loom large. The great gray bridge far up to our right, with its lovely sweeping lines, soars, preposterously grand. To the left, around a bend but not too far away, Lady Liberty stands majestically in wait for us.
And there we are, all of us. Almost everyone you’ve ever seen walking on West End Avenue or Broadway seems to be there. Almost every face looks vaguely familiar. It feels comforting and exciting, all at once.
Then you start noticing the differences.
The range in formality makes it hard to realize that everyone is dressed for the same occasion. The far right of the Orthodox world is represented by men in exuberant streimels, towering masses of shiny fur, award-worthy examples of a hatter’s art. The bodies beneath the heads generally are swathed in black satin, with breeches topping white stockings. The women are formally dressed, but unlike the men they do not give the effect of being costumed.
Then there are women in business suits, others in flowing, colorful skirts, still others in pants. Some wear hats, some wear scarves, some are bareheaded. Some men wear suits, some wear khakis, some wear vaguely informal pants. Many people wear jeans and t-shirts. Some bring their dogs.
At first, most people gather in knots with the people they know. They actually recite the Tashlich prayers. Some throw bread into the river, whose murk might well hide fish. Or sharks. Or zombies. Or teenage mutant ninja turtles. The bread they throw bobs on the surface for a bit, and then it sinks. The groups disperse a bit. The atmosphere becomes a bit less stiff. People mingle. They talk to each other. Some leave and are replaced. It gets even more crowded. People loosen more. They talk to each other more. Someone in a dark suit stands next to someone in shorts, and they become engrossed in conversation. Barriers break – or, because it is not helpful to sentimentalize, barriers seem to shrink, and people talk over them.
One year, a circle of young men formed. They looked sort of chasidic, but not exactly. They danced ecstatically. Their arms were tightly around each other and their circle was closed. No intruders were allowed. Someone murmured that they were off the derech, off the path, former chasidim caught between worlds, but at that moment of Tashlich they were strong together in their own private one.
At times, the outside world intrudes. The walkway on which we stand is mainly for runners and bikers. We are massively in their way. Bikers have to dismount and walk around us, and often they gawk as they go. I’m sure that if you don’t know what’s going on, this jumbled mass of oddly assorted people, carrying plastic bags with bits of bread and crumbs, muttering to themselves and then throwing the bread into the river, is hard to make sense of.
Finally the sun begins to set, gilding New Jersey. Even the stragglers have to go – back to shul, back to family and friends for yet another big meal, back to the world on the other side of the park’s access tunnel. Some are lighter because their sins have been discarded, either literally or because they have found a metaphor that works for them. Others are just, somehow, happier. Either way – any way – it is a wonderful way to start a year.