Occupying Times Square

My friend shoved me out of a black Mercedes shuttle next to the entrance of Yeshiva University. I walked into a room, white shirts and navy blue pants and skirts flooded my eyesight. A flag strapped to their backs. They think they’re superheroes, my Polish friend commented.

They waited for the vibrating of their phones, a modern day echo of the Shofar, the venerated horn of the ram. They walked in single file—boys and girls side by side. I was drawn to the call out of curiosity and nostalgia. I followed. I watched.

The procession walked several blocks in unison. I kept my distance; I didn’t want anyone to think that I was one of them. I took a couple pictures of the crowd with my phone. Eyes had already begun to turn. Blue and white. The Star of David. Holy icons.

Lights began to appear. The crowd of bystanders began to grow. What’s with all the Jews, I heard from a white couple on the street. We were in Times Square—me and them.

They found an opening. A couple hundred square feet amidst the throngs of pedestrians, the waves of flashing light. They sat down, guitars and drums in hand.

I refused to join. My Zionism was not theirs. So I sat on a chair near them. A Muslim couple stood beside me; they also watched.

The crowd of blue and white made a circle and began to sing, though it was initially the sight of them, not their voices, that caught everyone’s attention. A man dressed as Batman stared ahead. He blurted out something unintelligible and walked away.

Alone with my thoughts, despite being surrounded by people, I remembered where I was, what I was seeing. I was close enough to hear the songs, the hymns I was raised with since childhood. If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. They chanted in Hebrew.

I sat. I waited. For what. I don’t know.

An elderly black man with a red scarf asked me what they were saying. I told him I didn’t know—I lied.

The songs grew faster, the voices louder. I wondered, why? Why did they need to perform in front of all of these people, at the busiest place in the world? Their brazenness appalled me. The occupation loomed in my mind.

I glanced at the Muslim couple to my left. We made eye contact; I saw that their faces were contorted in disgust. So did mine.

Images flashed before me. Memories of an entire year I spent in Israel, the neon lights of a nearby advertisement.

A half hour passed. I was there. The Muslim couple was there. They were there, nearly double in size. A police officer stood a few feet away, but he didn’t seem to pay much attention.

I recognized one of the faces in the circle. A friend. I reached in my pockets for my kippah and lifted it to my head. I didn’t want to be seen without it. I didn’t want my otherness revealed, highlighted.

My friend nudged me to join him, to become part of the circle. To sing. He knew my politics, but not the extent of my Zionist heresy.

I froze. Became stuck in time like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim, so to speak. A year’s worth of liberal Zionist activism behind me; I couldn’t join him. If this rally was about spreading peace, why weren’t any Palestinians invited?

I was at a checkpoint on my way to yeshiva in the West Bank. An Israeli border patrol agent walked passed me to the end of the bus. A man with dark skin answered his questions. Showed him papers, his identity. I looked at him. The entire bus looked at him. His brown face reddened with embarrassment, and the soldier left.

Then I was in high school, a large brick building in Ohio. An Israeli soldier spoke because he was a former student. We are so proud of you, the principal said at the podium. The blue and white Israeli flag hung prominently behind him.

Then I was dancing; it was Yom HaAtzmaut, the Israeli day of independence. I held hands with a Jewish girl from Brazil. My friends and I celebrated in the middle of Jerusalem, at the heart of the land. I was a Zionist, proud and confident. The Arabs were wrong. I knew no better.

A small plastic cup was tossed at my leg and I became unstuck in time. My friend was getting frustrated. I got off my chair and walked to the circle. He told me to sit next to him with his hands. The Muslim couple looked back at me. I looked at them. They’re judging me, I thought. I was guilty. Guilty of peer pressure and a hypocrite. I was part of the circle; they were not. Deep down I didn’t want to be, but they couldn’t be.

Confused memories shook my head. The sound of the music shook my ears. I sat cross-legged on the floor. Advertisements flew into my face, American consumerism all over me. I fell into the music as it flooded my senses. I felt as though I was part of something—religious energy conquered me. I couldn’t justify where I was, but soon my guilt began to subside. I looked back to where I had been sitting. The Muslim couple was gone.

Had I really betrayed anyone? There was no way to tell. Were they even Palestinian? There was no way for me to know. I didn’t speak to them, yet a subtle contract was formed. We had stood on the sidelines together, our otherness was united. I joined the circle, but they fled the scene.

As I left Times Square that night, a thought occurred to me. What would that couple say to me, if given the chance?

 

 

 

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