I’ve never experienced a pogrom or been pursued by an angry mob, thank G-d. And yet my genes seem to hold some residue – bequeathed in some Lamarckian way by less fortunate forebears – that discomforts me when a large crowd of people loudly expresses itself.
Like the one outside our offices on a recent Friday. Agudath Israel’s national headquarters are located on lower Broadway in Manhattan, on the “Canyon of Heroes” where the adulated New York Yankees are paraded when they win a World Series. Personally, I reserve the word “hero” for people in other pursuits than professional sports; but the estimated two million New Yorkers who turned out for the recent parade in the Yankees’ honor clearly disagree.
It was the powerful, swelling din of their joy when the floats drove slowly by, 13 floors below, that sent a shiver of nervousness, not excitement, down my spine. I was well aware that the clamor was celebratory, not predatory; but I couldn’t help but imagine what it must be like to see such a mob waving not flags and signs but clubs and knives.
I’m not afraid of heights or claustrophobic. I appreciate a good roller coaster and am not squeamish (I helped my wife deliver one of our children at home). It’s out of character, this wariness of crowds. Maybe it’s a vicarious memory of sorts. In his soon to be published memoirs, my dear father, may he be well, recalls his childhood in a small Polish town.
“When Passover approached,” he writes, “my parents would tell us children to stay indoors. Sermons in the churches that time of year spurred our Gentile neighbors to try to kill Jews. The churchgoers would parade around wearing big black hats, holding flags with religious symbols and figures painted on them. We used to peek through the window to take in the sight. But we never ventured out of doors when the townsfolk were marching.”
Now I know full well that Yankee fans are not Cossacks – or even Polish peasants. But the large, emotive mass still spooked me. And that was even before my experience later that day, on my way home, of being evacuated along with hundreds of other commuters and celebrants from the Staten Island Ferry terminal, to allow about 20 police in full riot gear to storm a ferry on which some mayhem had occurred. I saw a young man being arrested and handcuffed, an unconscious woman carried out on a stretcher and then a fistfight break out mere feet from me in the crowd.
My vicarious memory doesn’t make me fear sports fans, even fanatical, overtired and intoxicated ones. It reminds me, though, that there are still mobs elsewhere with things other than baseball on their minds, large evil organisms comprised of many tiny evil pieces, held together by hatred – for the West, for Israel, for Jews.
A Midrashic concept has it that evil and holiness tend to counterbalance one another in this world, and that powers possessed by one have their counterparts in the other. And, in fact, I do have another memory, this one personal, of a huge, holy crowd that raised its own overwhelming sound – and it filled me not with dread but with joy.
It was nearly four years ago, on March 1, 2005, at Madison Square Garden (it and the Continental Airlines Arena were packed with 50,000 people – joined by thousands more at other sites across the country and around the world). The occasion was the 11th completion of the 7 ½-year “Daf Yomi” Talmud-study program. The huge crowd had gathered to celebrate the accomplishment, to thank G-d for allowing them to reach the day and to listen to rabbinic leaders and speakers exhort them to continue on the path of Torah life and study.
When the mass of people at “the Garden” that day recited the evening service, the sound of the first verse of Shma – the Jewish credo declaring G-d’s relationship to the Jewish people and proclaiming His unity – was recited by all present in unison. The sound of tens of thousands of people proclaiming those truths with all of their hearts and souls seemed to shake time and space themselves. But it didn’t spook me. It carried me high on its swell.
So I suppose I don’t really fear crowds or their roars. Or, at least, it depends on the crowd and the roar. As it happens, like all Jews who pray daily, I even express a deep hope for an unprecedented crowd and its roar.
In the Aleinu paragraphs that end each service we refer to the time when G-d will reveal Himself and “all false gods will be utterly cut off” and “all earth’s wicked” will be turned toward Him. When “All humanity will call out in Your name.”
What a sound that will make, may it come quickly, in our days.
© 2009 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
All Am Echad Resources essays are offered without charge for personal use and sharing, and for publication with permission, provided the above copyright notice is appended.