social experiments

The People

Living in NY without a car, spending time on the subway is not a rare occurrence. No matter what, no matter how many times I’ve been on one, the subway is a surreal experience.
It’s a social experiment, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with nobody recording the results.
The experiment: squeeze as many people as you can into a small space, speed them through a hollow cavity in a world of concrete, and deliver them to their destinations. See what happens between each stop.
The doors open, the doors close. A blind man appears at the door at a stop, his cane swinging, “what number train is this?” He repeats it until in unison, the passengers seem to all suddenly hear him and respond “the three!”
The door closes.
A woman, strong boned and straight-faced, an orange hard hat on her back, suddenly catches sight of a friend across the car and soon they are giggling like school girls.
A woman, who could be assumed to be a social worker, or maybe a teacher, sits scribbling notes on a yellow notepad. Her shoes are practical, her socks warm, but her hair looks recently done.
A woman sits next to her, a ponytail pulled back, eyeing the scribbles on the notepad the way we all study those alongside us, perhaps bored, perhaps reminiscing of a former job, or hoping for a future one. Perhaps the handwriting reminds her of someone she loves.
A small boy, fresh-faced and friendly, too new to the world to be afraid of it, waves and smiles at the passengers around him, pulling smiles from even the most exhausted.
A fidget spinner suddenly falls from a teenage boy’s hands, an older businessman sees it and turns to his friend “I must remember to buy that for my kid.”
An object that suddenly reminds me where I am, the harsh sound of it hitting the subway floor, the amusing realization that everyone around me knows what it is and that we all know someone who owns it.
That tiny toy that will be a memory in a week brought me closer in a moment to all the people in that rocketing metal room than anything else did before.
I looked at them all, really looked at them, at the old woman rolling her rosary beads between her fingers, muttering a prayer, at the hipster grinning at his phone, at the tired eyed couple who made each other smile, at the homeless woman with yellow socks, dirty from the universes she had traveled, and I realized that all of their journeys had brought them to the same place mine had. Each of them had been put on earth for a reason, and each of them were just as precious as the next.
The subway ads are calling to us, telling us what books we need to read and which food to order for dinner.  The poetry on the wall prods my mind to think poetically, the people are all so real, the train is so full of people living.
A subway car is a hub of humanity, a place where nobody speaks to each other but everyone sees each other. We move over a seat, stand up to allow a more worthy person to sit, doors open, doors close, the crowd changes. We all avoid eye contact but when we open our eyes to see, that day’s social experiment is complete.

A Social Experiment: Is My G-d Your G-d?

It’s been almost one entire year since I took to the streets of Brooklyn to ask one question.

If you’re an avid reader of this blog, or have spent any sort of time with me, you know that people are not my strong point. I’m a joke when it comes to small talk and I’d rather sit in an empty field than go to a party. But, despite the extents I go to avoid them, I love people. I love observing them, understanding them, writing about them. My alter ego would be able to instantly connect with every person I meet, but the real me prefers to write stories about them in my head.

Therefore, when I got the idea to ask strangers one question to get the answer to a burning question in my own mind, I knew it would take a lot of climbing out of my comfort zones.

But I did it.

I tossed around the finished product, got really close to it being published somewhere, had that thrown back in my face and therefore pushed it to a far corner for a while. It felt like a failure because it couldn’t be published. The more I thought about it, the more I belittled it and myself for assuming this would bring anything great to the world.

But one thing that has always been a burning passion in my heart and mind is the idea that we are all in essence the same. No matter what our outward appearances say, or what history tells us, we all come back to the same core, and I wish that I could bring that fact to more ears and eyes. Yes, this social experiment is the tiniest iota of what that realization would mean. But how can I pretend it means nothing?

If this social experiment that I did on one hot summer day in NY with my friend Nechama helps one person recognize that we are all the same inside, and makes them a kinder, more forgiving human, than it has accomplished something.

Now that I have given the introduction a longer introduction, please take a few more minutes to look at and think about the following:

Is My G-d Your G-d?

One late night I was thinking far too deeply, as I do, and I began to ponder the image of G-d. I don’t mean idols, or any sort of thing like that. I found myself thinking about how I automatically view G-d in my head. My brain had absentmindedly painted a picture of what G-d meant to me. I was suddenly terribly curious.  I always find myself  fascinated by what other people think and the way their brains work. Naturally, I wanted to go on a quest to find out how others translated G-d in their heads.

So I did.

One hot summer day, I took to the streets of Crown Heights in Brooklyn, NY,  with my friend Nechama Kotlarsky (a fabulous photographer) and stopped people of all ages on the street to ask them one simple question:

When I say the word G-d, what comes to mind?

The results were pretty fascinating.

The first reaction to the question was a raw answer. Given another few seconds, people began to express what I was so curious about. The way their brains translated something they knew at the core.

I learnt something special on my quest of curiosity. I didn’t quite know what I was searching for when I started, but at the end I realized what was so awesome about us Jewish folk.

We all have our own brains and imaginations, and everywhere you look; you see it being used for incredible, wonderful things. Our creativity is powerful and creates magic. The way we view our G-d differs when we use our imagination, but at the end of the day? We do all have one G-d. Sure, on the outside we all seem different, because of the way we translate it in our heads, our actions and our dress. But look into the innermost part of a Jew, and you find that deep down, under all our differences, we all do have the same G-d.

The results below, pictured and non-pictured (It was a hot day, most people refused a photograph) show humans that are different from each other; but watch, and feel what I felt on my journey through the streets:

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“The One and only Creator who created the world”

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“Is there one word? Creator, All-Mighty, heaven and earth..”

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“The creator of the Jewish people.”

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“He is the Creator. He is very holy, I feel awe when I think of Him.”

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“I used to see G-d as a flaming Aleph, but then my four year old nephew made me rethink it when he reminded me that G-d is everything. So, my answer is everything”

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“It’s hard for me to put one image to it. He created everything”

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“There isn’t one image. He is everything”

 

Non-Pictured:

“A flame. A Creator”

“Creator, ruler of all things”

“The all powerful Creator”

“A great light, warming everything, being the pulse behind everything”

“Soul, clouds, heaven, spiritual air, unseen sparks. But at the same time, an angel like King”

“G-d is something really great, above everything and at the same time within everything in this world”

“A grandfather with kind eyes, and the sky”

“An all knowing force, that keeps the world running in ways that even we cannot comprehend”

My image?

I can see the whole world in my mind’s eye. Surrounding it and within it is a vapor, encompassing everything. The only thing is that my G-d’s got googly eyes.

My walk through the minds of strangers was captivating. It was a terribly hot day. Those who live in or have visited NYC in the summer months know what I’m talking about.  Anyone who was outside was in a rush to reach air conditioning. The conversations were quick, short and to the point. I worked on how quick I could explain my entire mission before they ignored me and kept walking. So many people had no interest in aiding a young girl on a hot day with a seemingly purposeless mission. They didn’t know that I had a mountain (small hill?) of data, and that they would be part of something bigger. It was just another lesson I learnt that day – how often do I fold myself into the city life, ignoring those around me? How often do I think that all I see is what there is, and that my actions don’t have lasting effects? The first few people that ignored me or refused to take part kicked my self-esteem to the the ground. Each time, I had to take a deep breath, get up my bravado again and remind myself of my goal.

I wanted to do this. It was my chance to prove to myself that I could get answers to my questions if I put effort into it. I could have lived life with this question niggling in the back of my head occasionally. That is more in line with the way I live – grand schemes planned in my head, and that’s where they stay. This time though I knew I could do it. So despite the heat and my crushed ego, I pressed forward. If only to prove to myself that I can do things that I put my mind to. Then, of course, there was the question. What did G-d mean to everyone else? I was so curious. For weeks, it took up my thoughts. I’d ask the question to friends and family, trying to find the pattern. I felt like it was important. It could teach me something. It could teach others something.

As a girl with dreams living in a frum world, for years I felt as if real imagination was too foreign a concept to bring to the table. Most things in Torah are non-negotiable, and the fact that we all imagine G-d in different ways always struck me as strange. Almost wrong. Shouldn’t we all imagine G-d the way we are taught? He doesn’t have an image, we are His image, and anything else is not quite right. As I grew, I realized how faulty my thinking was. G-d created all of us, and while doing that, He threw in all these things that made us unique and different. Especially the way our brains work. Imagination was the secret ingredient that He gave in order that the world be decorated, beautiful and continuously advanced. When I realized that I had an image of G-d in my head, I knew that the rest of the world had one too. Then I wondered how it balances out with our lives as religious Jew’s. I knew there had to be a home base, somewhere that we could all come back to when our imaginations went a little too far.

I wasn’t disappointed.

I was awed by how many people vehemently said  that He is the Creator, when that is such an argued concept in the world these days. But no matter what, the one thing they were most sure about was that He created everything and that He was the life source behind it all. When they began to think about it, they said different things. When they put their own thoughts and imagination to work, the differences that make the world beautiful began to show its colors. But no matter what, at the core of each one, we all whole-heartedly believed in who He is at His essence. Our Creator.