Occupied Territory

Jews who are on the fringe of the conversation in Zuccotti Park.

11/01/11
Associate Editor
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On Oct. 29, the anniversary of Wall Street’s 1929 crash, heavy snowflakes came falling through the branches of dozens of honey locust trees in Zuccotti Park, coating the tents and tarps of Occupy Wall Street. The people stayed. The protest held.

As Bob Dylan sings, “there was music in the streets at night and revolution in the air,” which meant there were Jews in the neighborhood.

“I work in the area,” said a lawyer, James Klatsky, 52, who can see the park from his office window. In the last days of Indian Summer, before the snow, Klatzky snapped photos as he weaved through what seemed a corn maze of mattresses and drum circles and cardboard signs and humanity, “so I’ve seen them every day since they’ve been here,” in mid-September. “The protests have been peaceful, they’ve been orderly.

“There are a lot of Jewish people here,” Klatzky noticed, adding that Occupy Wall Street also has a library, on a folding table, “so I’ve borrowed a few books.”

Free haircuts were being given on the Broadway side of the park. “Haircut” is slang for when a banker has to take a loss for a loan that will not be paid back in full. “Bankers don’t like haircuts,” said one of the volunteer barbers, so free haircuts for all.

As if out of the 1930s, a young man with a banjo sang old Woody Guthrie songs, “Rich man took my home and drove me from my door and I ain’t got no home in this world anymore,” singing near a sign that predated the protests: “No skateboarding, roller blading or bicycling allowed in the park.”

“So I guess we’re good,” a wise guy added, with a smiley face, in magic marker.

Woody Guthrie wasn’t the only echo from the 1930s. Back then, Father Charles Coughlin, the famous “radio priest,” published a magazine, Social Justice, railing against “greedy bankers and financiers,” but then blamed the Jews. At Occupy Wall Street, and at its sister demonstrations across the country, there was the chill of Father Coughlin in the wind, occasional placards and online postings blaming Jews, alongside the messianic demands for social justice.

In a worn leather jacket, zippered to keep out the chill, Israeli-born Ari Leibesny, close to 70 years old, has seen it before. A Kahanist, and a Chabad messianist, wearing a small, yellow Moshiach pin, he recognized the messianic dreams in the park, but it was a false messianism, Leibesny feared, if it meant that he had to sacrifice his Jewish dignity for the privilege of being part of it.

Sometimes he wore his yarmulke out but tonight he covered it with what he called his “Greek fisherman’s hat.” Yes, he said, he agreed with a lot of what he was hearing regarding corrupt bankers and corrupt politicians, “but you have a lot of anti-Semitism over here, too. They blame the Jews for having money. They blame Jews for trying to run things … [Jews] control the banks, own the banks. There are no Christians in the banks?”

Maybe it was just some random cranks, but he noticed there were no random cranks slamming other ethnic or interest groups. “There’s nothing against blacks. Nothing against gays. Nothing against women. Nobody says anything about Islam,” only about Jews.

A steady if low flame of anti-Semitism could also be found in the online sites suggested by the semi-official newspaper of the ongoing protest, “Occupied Wall Street Journal.” One site featured a forum where protesters could discuss “International Jewish Banking,” or “Soros, Sore-Ass the Jew!!” and “Central Banking & The Protocols of Zion.” Yet another commented about waking up “to Israeli terrorism against the U.S.” There were posts about “Abe Foxman [director of the Anti-Defamation League] and the ADL … bribing, blackmailing Congress,” and how “the U.S. protects these criminals in the ADL and AIPAC.”

Nonetheless, many Jews are open, active and comfortable within Occupy Wall Street, even forming a spinoff group called Occupy Judaism.

And plenty of Jews have come to the park as tourists, not thinking of themselves as protesters but wanting to learn about the scene and be part of the conversation.

One Satmar chasid dared to argue with a shirtless protester about the virtues of capitalism, the Satmar’s evidence being the economic success of the old West Germany compared to the depravation in old communist East Germany. 

Elsewhere, one young man, 22, from the Lakewood Yeshiva in New Jersey, looked around, and said of the unemployed, “I’m sure they can get jobs if they wanted, maybe not the best-paying jobs.” The Occupiers, he said, were “meshuga, nisht nor-mal,” pronouncing “normal” in yeshivish dialect.

The Lakewood student and a friend, also from Lakewood, walked amid the signs, “No bulls, no bears, only pigs,” past what some were calling an “Obamaville,” reminiscent of the old Hoovervilles, with crumpled sheets on mattresses and people huddled under blankets next to signs: “Home Sweet Home,” and “Motel – No Vacancy.”

“I met a guy here,” said the student. “He’s studying philosophy. He comes down from Maine — from Maine! He sits here, in his suit. I asked this philosopher, do you think something’s going to happen? He said no, but he wants to get his voice out.”

The yeshiva students, in their black suits and fedoras, walked past two teenagers in funkier clothes, Nelson from Washington Heights and Stephanie from Kingsbridge, who were trying to panhandle $50 to buy a tent.

Alongside them, cross-legged on the ground, sat Paula Allison, a Jewish woman, 43, who said her Jewish story was not being heard. There were no official spokesmen here, so she might as well be heard as much as anyone else.

“I was under surveillance by the feds,” she said casually, “because I worked in a nightclub with a lot of terrorist activity — Aryan, Mafia and Middle Eastern.” Undercover cops “were dirty cops. They threatened my life when they found out I was Jewish ... There’s an independent undercover agency that’s investigating the feds and the CIA that I’ve been working with. ... I’ve been raped. I’ve been robbed.”

Wearing a frayed denim jacket over a red and white sweatshirt, she said, “My dad is agnostic but my mother taught me to pray and talk to God. They raised me to live a moral life and I’m a very, very spiritual person.” She didn’t go the “Occupy Judaism” sukkah or Kol Nidre in the park because, “I’m not a religious Jew. I’m spiritual.”

Allison said she had a home, though not really, an apartment on 147th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard, but “it’s a temporary apartment. I try to sleep down here”; it was so much nicer in the park. After all, “somebody — the dirty cops — tried to break into my apartment and steal this literature,” which is how she referred to a long rhyming story she wrote: “This is the story of Jane. The government thinks she’s a pain. They’re trying to say she’s insane. Because Jane knows who to blame. She’s a rebel and her struggle can’t be in vain,” and then “it went bad when they found out she was a Jew.”

She spread out her literature on the ground in Zuccotti Park. Here she felt safe, safer than anywhere else. Here she was home, under a honey locust tree that she thought of as her own.

E-mail: jonathan@jewishweek.org

Last Update:

11/02/2011 - 03:54

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