The Shadow of History

There are overlapping strands of history in St. Paul’s chapel in lower Manhattan. The architecture is Gregorian, and its tower spikes into the air, smaller than the skyscrapers surrounding it, but still dwarfing each person that passes by. It’s old. Like, mid 1700’s old, and it still stands there, casting shadows on the sidewalk, basking in the surrounding neon lights. The walls inside are pale. The paint looks purposefully faded, and the chandeliers catch the glow from outside and reflect it back, in every direction.

The display next to my chair.
It seemed fitting. 
I’m sitting on a wooden chair, 3 rows back, staring at the plastic cup of wine in my hands. There is a man up front, playing old prayers set to new melodies on a mid-century guitar. A screen has a slideshow running of English and Hebrew and transliteration. Three rabbis sit up front, singing along, their excited voices drowning out the crowd’s burgeoning sounds.

St. Paul’s chapel is known for many things. It’s the oldest continuously used building in New York. It survived the Revolutionary War. It survived the Great Fire of New York, where most of the tip of Manhattan burned. George Washington prayed there on the day of his inauguration. It survived the attacks of September 11th, and became a home, a refuge, for volunteers in the aftermath.

There are displays around the chapel detailing its history. Brightly colored banners sent from school groups across the country proclaiming their support for the responders. Their love and best wishes. There is a table in the back right corner covered in pictures and bracelets and necklaces found in the wreckage. It’s sobering to see it, under the antique light fixtures, staring it at while you hear the sounds of prayer.

Pictures and mementos left behind
There are photos of firefighters on display throughout the sanctuary. Photos of firefighters and citizens and people who poured in from across the country to help New Yorkers in a time of need. They built this incredible network together, this community—born out of tragedy, sure, but built on something more than that. On shared history, on a moment in time.

The Jewish people speak a lot about perseverance. About surviving, despite the odds, in the face of challenge after challenge after challenge. I sit in chapels and sanctuaries and living rooms, singing songs and praying prayers about history and about the continuation of a peoplehood that people, my people, have fought for for so long.

It’s getting colder in New York now. People walk down the street bundled in heavy jackets and chunky knit hats. Boots have replaced sandals, and I notice the styles as I stare at the feet of the people I walk by. The wind rattles the walls of the buildings. The wind rattles the walls of St. Paul’s chapel, where I sit; surrounded by history, surrounded by prayer.
The moon over the
trees, taken with
a shaky hand

I like my religion. I like that shared community. That shared history. That shared purpose. I like when it takes me to interesting places, like chapels on the opposite tip of Manhattan—just a subway ride away, but somewhere I never would have ventured on my own.

After the service some friends and I walked out of the warm chapel out in to the windy city streets. The lights were bright, and the memorial for the World Trade Center loomed overhead. I’d never seen it before, and it overwhelmed me.

Sometimes it’s late, and you are literally standing in the shadow of history.

And all you can do is walk down the block and grab a slice of pizza. 

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