Friday, May 02, 2008

Of walls in Berlin and down Eastern Parkway

One evening in November 1989, my wife asked me to come to the TV; the Berlin Wall was being torn down. For those who don't remember the Cold War, the Communists ym"sh in 1961 erected a wall to keep their miserable slaves in East Berlin from escaping to freedom in West Berlin. That wall, and a Soviet ultimatum to evacuate West Berlin, presented President Kennedy with his first major foreign policy crisis; see here. The wall became the quintessential symbol of evil, Godless Communism, the struggle against which was the defining reality of my generation. I was certain that my wife was pulling my leg; the Berlin Wall would not come down, nor would Communism be conquered, in our lifetime, perhaps not until Mashiah comes. How wrong I was. Euphoric young Germans on both sides joyously tore down that wall with little but chisels and their bare hands. Soon, Communism in Europe would be kaput, and Soviet Jews, for whom we had struggled mightily from the 1960s through the '80s, would pour out of their erstwhile prison to new lives in Israel and the U.S.A.

Being a runner, I trained often in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, shared by Lubavitcher Hasidim and African-Americans. Running down Eastern Parkway, I could not help but notice an invisible wall running the length of the broad avenue in the area where the Jews live. While African-Americans lived on both sides of the divide and crossed it freely, almost all of the Hasidim lived on the south side of Eastern Parkway and hardly ever crossed it northward. It was as if a Berlin Wall ran right down Eastern Parkway; anything north of the Wall was not Crown Heights but Bedford-Stuyvesant, where no Jew who valued his life dared set foot (except for meshugana marathon runners like myself). I often asked myself, if the steel and concrete Berlin Wall, topped with barbed wire, could come down practically overnight, why couldn't an invisible wall down Eastern Parkway come down and all the people there live in peace and enjoy each other's company?

I now work in the area of Crown Heights north of Eastern Parkway and I went out for a run during my lunch hour, as I often do. Running south on Kingston Avenue, I stopped near a large synagogue that had been converted to a church when the Jews left the area and recited Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd. . . . ), and then I noticed a few Hasidim walking north on Kingston Avenue, turning west on Park Place and entering a playground. I too turned onto Park Place to get back to work, and I saw many young Hasidim playing ball and schmoozing on the benches. I flashed a sign and exuberantly shouted out, "Shalom Aleikhem," and they returned "Aleikhem Shalom." A few meters away some black kids were playing ball. It would have been even more beautiful if both groups came together for a high-spirited good time, but hey, Rome wasn't built in a day.

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