– Jake Weiss
Today, I woke up at 7:30 and went on a personal pilgrimage that everyone should experience when in New York. I, along with a handful of my friends, went to Ess-a-Bagel, an iconic institution that has really mastered the art of boiling and baking dough. I used to frequent it in my toddlerhood while living on the East Side of Manhattan. After a spectacular breakfast, we returned to our hotel to convene with Billy and the rest of the Etgar group before we headed onto the subway and were off to Battery Park.
When we got to Battery Park, where we had an obscured yet distinct view of the Statue of Liberty, Billy asked us a question he had previously told us to have an answer to the night before. The question was, where do our families come from? I, being very interested in genealogy, was well-versed in my heritage and couldn’t wait to share. It seemed that we all were incredibly knowledgeable about our respective family histories. We went around in a circle, listing the countries our ancestors came from. Many countries were the same for people, but others were quite unique. It was all very cool to hear! We then dove into the topic of the American Dream, whether it still exists, and if it is equally achievable by all people. Billy told us about a message he had once seen on a t-shirt that said, “I am my ancestors’ wildest dream.” He then asked us whether we think we are our “ancestors’ wildest dreams come true” or not and what they would have to say about the state of the American Dream. A number of incredibly insightful and eye-opening opinions were shared, and we even engaged in somewhat of a debate. We then followed up on this idea of the American Dream and the ability to fiscally achieve it by taking a stroll through the heart of the Financial District and right past the New York Stock Exchange. Billy spoke about the sheer influence that Wall Street and the Stock Exchange have over American life and society, and he revisited a point made in Tom Shadyac’s brilliant documentary “I Am,” which we had the great privilege of watching earlier in the trip. This point was that the Stock Market is an entirely manmade force, yet it has come to dictate our way of life the way a natural force might. From there, we stopped for some exquisite New York street cart cuisine in a small park, and I saw the American Dream play out right before my eyes. Across the street was an office building in which my Dad used to work. It was scarily random, but I suddenly realized how my Dad’s success in the financial industry had a direct correlation to the tremendous sacrifices that my great-grandfather made, who had run on train roofs across Europe to catch a ship to America, where he worked the oddest of odd jobs making ends meet so he could start a family and give his children the best life possible. And he succeeded. To me, that is the American Dream which we all deserve, whether we are coming to America or are already here.
Sadly, the next part of our New York involved one of the worst American nightmares. We went to the 9/11 memorial. With my Dad having worked very close by, I’ve visited the 9/11 memorial a number of times, and it always hits fatally hard and inches away from home. We had some free time to walk around the pools where iconic symbols of strength and security once stood. It was hard to do anything but gaze into the gaping waterfalls that never seemed to stop. But just as we’ve done a number of times before, we made the transition from solemnity to joy.
We caught the subway back uptown to the Upper West Side, where we stopped for some classic New York pizza. As a native New Yorker, it’s something I’ve eaten more times than I can count, but it never fails to hit the spot.
We then walked into Central Park and enjoyed the phenomenal live music of David Ippolito, who is better known simply as “The Guitar Man.” He is an incredible performer who uses his immense talent to voice his opinions and dive deeper into the culture we live in. It really paid forward our learning about how music is used as activism at the Woodie Guthrie Center and the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame. He played everything from Bob Marley to the “Friends” theme song, and he graciously ceded the mic to some of Etgar’s own great musicians. Josh, our house guitarist, joined Lio, Mabel, and Sela in the Guthrie classic “This Land Is Your Classic.” They even surprised David by knowing the last few verses! In general, it was an awesome time, and it was so nice to be in Central Park, which is truly one of the most beautiful places in NYC. It’s crazy how a place so pretty and peaceful exists in such a chaotic city!
From Central Park, we took the subway down to the Lower East Side, a neighborhood whose history is rooted in Jewish immigration. We first stopped at the historic Essex Market. It’s one of the first ever malls in America, and it was created from the great idea of taking the people who were best at their respective crafts and putting them in the same complex. A few of us further honored our Jewish heritage by visiting The Pickle Guys and indulging in their gorgeous spread of pickled vegetables! The rest just went to a doughnut shop. We then walked along Canal Street, a hub for bargaining and counterfeit luxuries galore. It was a stretch of street comparable to Middle Eastern bazaars, except for the fact that there were fake Gucci products and $40 Yankees caps every 5 feet. But it was truly a sight to take in!
We got back on the subway yet again, this time going to the West Village, which is such a unique neighborhood whose history as a center for the LGBTQ+ movement has really been engrained into its culture today. I met up with my grandparents, and we had a lovely dinner at a nice Italian restaurant. I couldn’t love my grandparents more, but I disagree with them quite a bit regarding politics. Yet we had a great political conversation for the first time in so long, and I used the skills I learned on Etgar to help myself have the discussion. I was comfortable being uncomfortable, and I owe it all to the experiences of this trip and everything that Billy and all of our extraordinary guest speakers have taught us. It was truly a great day in one of the greatest cities in the world!