Downtown: A Tale Of Redemption
Wed, 01/02/2008
Managing Editor

In a high-lonesome twang right out of the piney woods of the Ozarks, rock and roll Americanist Levon Helm sings of “a sorrow in the wind / blowin’ down the road I’ve been / I can hear it cry while shadows steal the sun.” Helm was the soulful, Arkansas-raised drummer in the pioneering ‘60s roots rock group The Band, and the song is an old gospel tune “Wide River to Cross” on his new CD, “Dirt Farmer.” It’s a prayer, really, a poignant hymn to loss but also a declaration that life rambles on, that “I’m only halfway home, I gotta journey on.”

In Helm’s hands the tune carries the weight of autobiography. He spent years battling throat cancer, taking refuge in the gentle, rolling hills of those East Coast Ozarks, the Catskills, in his adopted hometown of Woodstock. When word surfaced that his voice was on the mend and he was hosting Midnight Ramble concerts in his Woodstock barn-studio with a small circle of musical friends, it seemed a tale of redemption right out of a song by The Band — “Someday everything’s gonna sound like a rhapsody / When I paint my masterpiece.” Now his voice is halfway back and he’s recording again: “Dirt Farmer” is a hard-won rhapsody in bluegrass, a masterpiece tinged with sadness.

It’s difficult to walk the rough cobblestones of Tribeca and not hear the “sorrow in the wind” that still cries there. The attacks of 9/11 tore a hole in the city, and they stopped the momentum the small downtown Jewish community had been building dead in its tracks. But as Pete Hamill writes in his lyrical ode to nostalgia, “Downtown: My Manhattan,” in the days after 9/11 New Yorkers may have been dazed and bloodied, “But nobody ran. We knew that at least we had lived in that world before the fanatics changed it forever. With all its flaws, horrors, disappointments, cruelties, we would remember that lost world all our days and most of our nights. And now we would get up in the morning and go to work.”

This year’s model of our annual magazine, Directions, is about the downtown Jewish community getting up in the morning and going to work in the weeks and months and years after 9/11, and building something that wasn’t there before. It too seems a tale of redemption. What is emerging below 14th Street, especially in Tribeca, is a new reckoning with community, an experiment with a new kind of Jewish belonging that is more fluid and free-wheeling than it is further uptown. It’s bottom-up, inclusive, nonjudgmental, not as tethered to traditional denominations as elsewhere in the city.

“People are trying to discover creative ways to deal with post-denominationalism,” says David Pollock, who from his perch as No. 2 at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York is a sharp observer of the Jewish scene. “Many don’t want to hear about Reform and Conservative. What they want is a sense of community, a sense of connectedness. There is a pioneering critical mass being built downtown,” he says of institutions like Tribeca Hebrew and the Jewish Community Project, both of which are profiled in the pages that follow. “These are new models that will attract Jews who haven’t connected until now, mainly because they felt the synagogue of their youth was a turn-off.”

Ayelet Cohen, associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, the popular gay and lesbian synagogue in the West Village, reflects on what gives downtown its distinctive Jewish spirit, and edge: “We do tend to be more open downtown, and we really have a legacy of downtown Jewish activists, labor unionists, artists, radicals. That’s our inheritance, to be open to the world. And our members want to draw spiritually and culturally from across the Jewish world.”

In our travels downtown, we take note of the effects the long Wall Street surge and the real estate boom in the years after 9/11 have had on the general growth of downtown, and the Jewish community in particular. The new, young moneyed class can be seen at the Soho Synagogue, where chicness and spirituality collide. We stop in at the 14th Street Y – Educational Alliance, which has rewired itself, so to speak, and is pulling a younger crowd. We head over to the old neighborhood, the Lower East Side, to see firsthand the relic-to-renaissance transformation that is taking place there. We tour the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, an institution at the tip of Manhattan that is struggling to fit into the wider downtown Jewish community. And we hear firsthand from two downtowners — Rabbi Niles Goldstein of The New Shul and author Freema Gottlieb — whose experiences before and after 9/11 offer close-to-the-ground insights about Jewish life below 14th Street.

Most poignant is the visit to Battery Park City, where the echo of 9/11 is the loudest. “We lost everything,” Norman Kleiman, the president and a founding member of the Battery Park Synagogue, tells us. “We’ve been rebuilding ever since.”

In “Downtown: My Manhattan,” Pete Hamill writes, “The wanderer in Manhattan must go forth with a certain innocence, because New York is best seen with innocent eyes.” The rebuilding of Jewish life downtown is being carried out by those with innocent eyes, eyes that saw in the dark days just after 9/11 that there were Days of Awe too, days of light and promise and redemption. And the prophet Isaiah said, “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Six years later they are, as Levon Helm sings, journeying on, with a “wide, wide river to cross.”