The Ginsbergian howl that is Occupy Wall St.

We stood together, turning our individual howls into a collective Halleluyah, fighting to restore our nation to its status as a “Goldeneh Medinah,” with justice for all.

Occupy Wall Street 311 R (photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton )
Occupy Wall Street 311 R
(photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton )
At 11:20 in the morning on the last Shabbat of October, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I found myself in the middle of a surreal scenario.
As if out of nowhere, large, doughy snowflakes fell out of the sky, at first tentatively and then with great vigor and purpose, targeting the people below.
True, the front page of “The New York Times” had promised a “major storm.”
Still, I considered the possibility of snow in October to be as plausible as sudden peace in the Middle East. This freakish autumn snowfall was bound to pass quickly, I decided. Squaring my shoulders, I turned up the collar of my winter coat and pulled down the wide brim of my black felt cowboy hat.
My synagogue, Anshei Hesed, is located one mile from my home and it typically takes me 20 minutes to get there in my Shabbat shoes, or in this case, boots.
In any other city – or perhaps, any other synagogue – it would be sheer hutzpa to arrive at Sabbath services close to the noon hour. However, when I finally joined Minyan M’at in their fifth floor sanctuary, I was astonished and relieved to discover that the service had not progressed past the middle of the Torah reading.
As I found a seat in the crowded room, I was jolted into a sudden and terrible awareness that the dozens of protesters occupying thin nylon tents in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan – just a few miles from where I sat in happy comfort – were likely freezing half to death.
Especially since Mayor Michael Bloomberg had ordered an end to generators and space heaters at Occupy Wall Street the day before.
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a phenomenon of civil disobedience that began on September 17, 2011, in New York City’s Zuccotti Park, which is in the financial district and close to Ground Zero. Consisting of day protesters as wellas protesters who are camping in tents, OWS is a demonstration against corporate greed, bailouts in the financial industry, corruption, foreclosures, joblessness and economic injustice in America.
Inspired by similar protests in Israel and throughout the Arab world, OWS is a movement led by citizens that has spread from NYC to hundreds of cities around the nation and world.
I tried to banish my uneasy thoughts and concentrate on the Shabbat service, but to no avail. It wasn’t some reflexive social justice awareness that bonded me to the people who were camped out at Occupy Wall Street, nor was I trying on a new hippy-dippy, radical chic, kumbaya consciousness. Having just been down to Zuccotti Park two days earlier, on Thursday afternoon – the latest of several visits, including the much-documented Simchat Torah celebration where we unfurled a sefer torah on the plaza across from Zuccotti Park – I felt a keen brothers’-keeper connection with the Wall Street Occupiers, they who are bold or desperate or crazy enough to shake the public out of its slumber by loudly proclaiming that the American Dream is dead.
I suppose I had come to see Occupy Wall Street as a form of davening (praying) and Zuccotti Park as a shul of sorts… perhaps more of a shul than the one I currently occupied. Maybe that’s why I was so restless.
Occupy Wall Street had been going on for a solid month before I found my way downtown. Part of the explanation for this long delay was related to work commitments and the disruption of the High Holidays, but part of it was due to circumspection. I was skeptical, unsure that the protest had integrity or even staying power.
But I support any effort to curb corporate greed and had been amused, scandalized and horrified by the demonization of the protest by such venues as FoxNews.
My affinity with Occupy Wall Street was perhaps inevitable, given the events of the day that I first made its acquaintance, which was Sunday, October 16th – Hol Hamoed Sukkot. Finding that we had a couple of hours free in the afternoon, my husband and I took the subway downtown to check out Occupy Wall Street for ourselves.
I was vaguely worried that I might find the protesters extreme or perhaps laughable, grist for the mill of my ideological nemeses, those smug, affluent arch conservatives I seem to always sit next to at family events. At these dinners, whenever my new acquaintance and I start to speak about the economic downturn in America, I am stunned by what seems to me to be ethical myopia or simply blindness to the fact that within our nation resides a tiny class of the super-privileged and powerful, while the majority of the nation struggles and stumbles as it slips rapidly into a state of crisis.
I needn’t have worried. What I found at Zuccotti Park on that sparkling Sunday in mid-October was gritty, passionate outrage, a kinetic hothouse of agitation, a laboratory of tikkun olam. All around me were people who felt betrayed by America.
There were filthy, pierced and tattooed twenty-somethings and there were buttoned-up, sober fifty-year-olds. There were the unemployed. There were the uninsured. There were the homeless.
There were the foreclosed. There were the political dissenters and the disappointed.
A petite silver-haired woman strode past wearing a T-shirt that proclaimed “Grandmothers Support Occupy Wall Street.” A sweet-faced young journalism school graduate pitched her services, handing out copies of her résumé to passersby. Flyers were everywhere. A meeting was going to take place later that night to assign cleaning responsibilities.
The recession was Obama’s fault. The recession was Bush’s fault. The recession was the War Against Terror’s fault.
Zuccotti Park is a maze of causes and alleyways, a shuk of complaints. At the west end of Zuccotti Park was a drum circle with painted, bare-chested boys dancing with frenzied abandon. At the south end of the park was free food – crisp yellow and red apples from a local farm. On the east side of Zuccotti Park, men and women were preaching like prophets. There were circles of people echoing the words of the self-appointed spokespeople, forming a human microphone to carry the message out to the crowd. There were lone guitar players sitting cross-legged on the steps. There was a Native American man collecting signatures. There was a handsome young former businessman with a poster board telling his tale of personal woe.
At the north end we found a small sukka erected by Jews for Economic and Racial Justice (JFREJ). When we arrived, a prayer service was in progress. Men and women sang “Open the Gates of Justice,” many wearing kippot and tallitot. A Habad man circulated with a lulav and etrog, asking passersby if they were Jewish. A man from Romemu, a liberal Upper West Side synagogue, taunted the Habadnik, telling him that he would recite the blessings over the lulav and etrog only if the Hasid visited Romemu, which meets in a church. Near the sukka was a lending library called The People’s Library.
Zuccotti Park is the heart of Occupy Wall Street. It is a messy, magnificent collective of human beings who feel empowered and/or desperate enough to gather their grievances in one place and air them in a gesture of defiance – at the foot of the financial district.
Their various complaints form a symphony, a 21st century Ginsbergian howl. The denizens of Zuccotti Park are leaning out of a great metaphorical American window and shouting that they are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.
But I would be disingenuous if I were to draw a divide between the demonstrators in Zuccotti Park and myself. True, they were involved in the active role of protesting and I was merely a tourist, taking note of their signage and garb, listening to their native song, beholding, quite literally, their indigenous dance. Yet what happened to me as I walked through the snaking pathways between protesters is that a myriad of maladies crystallized and I felt that I was part of the fellowship of wounded American citizenry. I, too, have felt my back bent beneath the bulky cost of living; I am she who lost hundreds of thousands of dollars when the real estate market crashed in 1987, who narrowly avoided foreclosure on her home, and whose respectable income has always been inadequate to cover the cost of Jewish education, not to mention private American college.
More pointedly, I am the mother of a 27-year-old journalist who might be handing out copies of his résumé here had he not decided to relocate to Berlin, where he has a thriving career as a freelance arts writer and lives well because of the affordable rent on his apartment, which is a tenth of what a comparable apartment rental might be in Manhattan.
At Zuccotti Park, I experienced the camaraderie one often feels in the waiting area of a hospital emergency room. We were united in our woundedness, dazed survivors of the same cataclysm.
Straight from the heady civil disobedience of Zuccotti Park, I journeyed uptown to watch “Wall Street,” a film that is as spookily prescient about the outer limits of greed as it is an artistic masterpiece. if my earlier excursion hadn’t converted me to the cause of campaigning for capitalism with a conscience, the recognition of Gordon Gekko in a procession of real-life scoundrels sealed my resolve to join the protest.
I am an observant Jew and the way I found to protest was organic.
My first opportunity presented itself the following week at the erev Simchat Torah celebration at B’nai Jeshurun. The next day, occupy Judaism was organizing a Simchat Torah event on the plaza opposite Zuccotti Park, where hundreds of Jews had previously gathered on Yom Kippur. An energetic global grassroots effort created by Daniel Sieradski, a Jewish activist, Occupy Judaism seeks to enforce the messages of occupy Wall Street through Jewish rituals and observances and through the lens of Jewish tradition and ethical teachings; it is also publicly critical of Jewish institutional organizations for their complacency on the issue of economic injustice. Within moments i knew that I would join them.
When i reached the plaza in front of Brown Brothers harriman – where, incidentally or not, heavy-hitting members of Jewish communal organizations are employed – a loose smattering of tentative individuals and communal leaders had gathered around Amichai Lau-Lavie and Naomi Less, both leaders of Storahtelling, an educational group that calls itself “a radical fusion of storytelling, torah, contemporary performance, art and ritual theater.”
After singing nigunim (wordless tunes) to the accompaniment of Less’s guitar and freelance musicians, the moment of truth arrived, the reason we had journeyed so far from our homes and synagogues on the holiday.
Cleaning our hands first with Purell, Lau-Lavie and his helpers ordered us to form a tight circle and then instructed us to hold tightly to the torah scroll as it was unfurled.
once the holy parchment was fully revealed, Amichai went around the circle, yad (pointer) in hand, touching the text and guiding us through the glorious narrative, highlighting the innumerable ethical teachings: “Clothe the naked.” “Protect the weak and vulnerable.” “Love the stranger.” “do not steal.” “Leave the corners of your field for the poor.” “Do not covet.” “Do not worship idols.” “do not kill.”
And on and on and on; until the circle was complete and the end flowed into the beginning. tears streaming down our cheeks, smiling, singing and swaying, we gave each other blessings rooted in the Torah, blessings that compelled us to undertake bold acts of tikkun olam.
On a chilly Friday afternoon in October, we stood together as Jews and Americans, protesters, agitators for change, celebrants of Simchat Torah at occupy Wall Street, turning our individual howls into a collective Halleluyah, fighting the good fight to restore our lost nation to its original status as a “Goldeneh Medinah,” with justice for all.