The Roars of Crowds

letter-447577_1280

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.

You may also like...

12 Responses

  1. Albie says:

    Yo, S.!

    I don’t think that the “plenty of people” you imagine would fear fights breaking out. And if they did, they would soon realize that the fear was unfounded.

    The fights in the Yankee crowd were among Yankee fans.

  2. S. says:

    >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.

    Of course it didn’t spook you. A million Yankees fans wouldn’t have spooked you if you were one of them either. But I bet 20,000 Jews in black loudly proclaiming Shema Yisrael is spooky to plenty of people who cannot sit in such an assembly comfortably.

  3. Naftali says:

    Jewish Observer: Where is your town?

  4. Yossie Abramson says:

    I would also like to add a topic:
    How to reduce discrimination against those who share an opinion different than the mainstream?

  5. Jewish Observer says:

    “How can we reduce discrimination against Baalei Teshuvah and their children? When will great Rabbis speak against this?”

    – If anything, I have seen reverse discrimination in this regard. You out to try out my town.

  6. Leah says:

    comment for Dovid:
    Do you think/feel that the Siyum HaShas event is “publically” saying to non-jews “look what we did”, or is the event saying this to the jews? I see it as an excellent thing whether we have come along or to a high place of spiritual acheivment. I definately think it is good especially because it reinforces other jews around that we are positive, that torah is alive and that in spite of our difficulties-yes, even in our own am, we can do something positive. I also do not think it’s an overbearing public hype either.
    I think these positive points outweigh the negative. What do you think?

  7. Bob Miller says:

    Religious Jews need appropriately staged big events from time to time to edify us and boost our morale, however imperfect we may still be. Since we are going to triumph, and say so daily (read the prayers!), a little triumphalism is OK by me.

  8. Naftali says:

    Dear Moderators,

    May I suggest these as future topics for Cross Currents:

    How can we reduce discrimination against Baalei Teshuvah
    and their children? When will great Rabbis speak against this?

    How can we reduce discrimination and false negative
    stereotypes against Sephardic Jews>

    Sincerely,
    Naftali

  9. Dovid says:

    Another nice piece by Rabbi Shafran. But I’ve always found myself feeling uncomfortable and uneasy every time the Siyum HaShas rolls around. Most people in my circles (YU yeshivishe type) attend the event, and my friends in yeshiva were usually surprised that I had no interest in participating. I think the event strikes me as a bit triumphalist. We have a lot to be proud of, but this doesn’t mean we should have an enormous gathering to announce in such a public way that “Hey, look how great we are.” I believe there are still too many things wrong with Klal Yisrael – including among our own communities, in the frum world – that need to be properly addressed before we can fill stadiums to celebrate ourselves. It’s great that so many people learn Gemara every day, but by no means is Am Yisrael near where we want to be.

    Yankee fans celebrate their team only after it wins the World Series. I’m not sure if we can say that the Torah world has won the “World Series” just yet. We’ve done a great job rebuilding our “team,” but we still have a ways to go before we deserve our own “parade.”

  10. Leah says:

    How absolutely beautiful it must have been to be present during the recitation of that shema. To know that so many thousands of yidden were reciting this declaration of faith must have been amazing.
    I can only imagine shemayim standing still for that moment to take in the auditory pleasure…….

  11. Lisme says:

    Reminds me of the Rashi on the pasuk where Moshe tells Yehoshua, “ein kol anos gevurah v’ein kol anos chalusha kol anos anochi shomea.” Moshe rebuked Yehoshua for not knowing the nation well enough to judge its mood merely from the sound of their camp at a distance.The Torah recognizes that judging the nature of the noise a mob of people makes is a skill, and an important one. It’s hard to distinguish between different intents.

  12. another Nathan says:

    I’ve been parts of those big crowds, at sports victory celebrations, political demonstrations, even rock concerts. There is a certain ‘mob mentality,’ a feeling of euphoria, even of righteousness, that your crowd has ‘right’ on its side. So whatever you do as part of the crowd is correct, whether rooting for your team, dancing to the music, or physically assaulting those you don’t like (I didn’t do that part). “Hooray for the team” can turn to “Freedom for Palestine,” and then “kill the Jews.”
    When someone told me of the euphoria they felt in a big shul on Yom Kippur singing along with the congregation, I wondered whether it was simply mob euphoria. The joy at a Daf Yomi siyum (and hopefully in shul) is different from mob euphoria though, because your celebrating your relation to the One above you, rather than your connection to the thousands around you.