HANUKKAH IN HARLEM
By Joshua Tapper
In recent years, Harlem hasn’t been a magnet for Jewish New Yorkers. In addition to a Chabad chapter and an itinerant minyan group, Harlem has just one traditional synagogue. Yet, the Old Broadway Synagogue, tucked under the shadow of the elevated subway, just off 125th Street, remains a stalwart of the small Harlem Jewish community, as it has since 1923.
This Hanukkah, the synagogue opened its doors to the community, bringing Jews and non-Jews together to celebrate the Festival of Lights. On the fourth night of the eight-night holiday, the synagogue, in conjunction with Senator Bill Perkins’ office, hosted a candle-lighting ceremony and feast of latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).
Paul Radensky, the synagogue’s gregarious president, began the festivities by welcoming the crowd of about 30 to the community-building affair. A series of speakers, including Sen. Perkins, spoke of the Jewish community’s importance to Harlem.
The Hanukkah celebration, in its second year, “shows another side of Harlem and the diversity that exists,” said Cordell Cleare, Sen. Perkin’s chief of staff and the event’s main organizer. “We can learn what others are celebrating and it’s a way for us to come together.” Sen. Perkins’ office is organizing Christmas and Kwanzaa parties as well.
As guests filtered into the narrow sanctuary, taking their seats in wooden pews, a silver, menorah sat high on the bimah, an elevated platform at the front of the room.
Ronald Newsome, a 78-year-old Harlem resident, was attending his first Hanukkah party. He recalled the days when Harlem was home to a vibrant Jewish community. “We all occupy the same spaces,” Newsome said, stressing the importance of interfaith programs.
Old Broadway Synagogue has a congregation of 50 to 60, but draws 25 to 35 for regular Saturday morning services. While many of the congregants come from the Upper West Side, there are “more and more Jews living in Harlem now,” Radensky said. He jokingly calls the community “a ghetto in the ghetto.”
The Hanukkah party attracted a diverse crowd. Bearded Orthodox Jews sat next to blacks, some Jewish, some not. Carla McIntosh, a black Jew and Harlem resident who’s attended the synagogue off-and-on for 10 years, said she’s never encountered religious prejudice. The party was important, McIntosh said, “because we’re a community, a small neighborhood, and we need to get along.”
Candace Queen Mother Abbess, also knows as Bishop Shirley Pitts, of the Ethiopian Orthodox Coptic Church of North and South America, is an example of religious synthesis in the area. She’s cared for “Jewish elders” for 40 years and has picked up some of the traditions. She pulled a prayer shawl from her purse. “I always carry a prayer shawl in case the Sabbath catches me somewhere,” she said.
Reporting by Sonal Shah
TALKING ABOUT KWANZAA
By Shareen Pathak
This holiday season, African-Americans will be placing candle-filled kinaras side-by-side with tinselly Christmas trees to celebrate Kwanzaa, which takes place from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1.
Created by Ron Karenga in 1966, the seven-day celebration is the first specifically African-American holiday. The Uptowner spoke to Abdel Salaam, assistant director of Forces of Nature: A Kwanzaa Celebration, opening tonight at City College, about the holiday. (We have edited and condensed his responses.)
Q: What is the history of Kwanzaa? How is it particularly relevant to Harlem?
A: The holiday is non-heroic, non-religious and nonsectarian. It is based on the East African harvest called Kwanza, and finds a particularly relevant home in Harlem, which many celebrate as the black cultural capital of the modern world.
Many of the earliest devotees of Kwanzaa were from Harlem and Brooklyn and helped disseminate its cultural doctrine, the Nguzo Saba, or seven principles. They are:
- Umoja (unity)
- Kujichagulia (self-determination)
- Ujima (collective work and responsibility)
- Ujamaa (cooperative economics)
- Nia (purpose)
- Kumba (creativity)
- Imani (faith)
Q: How widely celebrated is Kwanzaa?
A: Kwanzaa probably has its greatest following in the cities of the United States, like New York, Chicago, Newark, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles, which was the home of Dr. Karenga. While particularly relevant to African-Americans, Kwanzaa’s universal principles can be celebrated by anyone and currently have followers and practitioners in Africa, Europe, the Caribbean, and of course the Americas. Probably about 18 million people celebrate it today.
Q. What special products are sold for Kwanzaa in Harlem?
Kwanzaa cards, childrens’ games, Kwanzaa kits, Mishuma Saba (seven candles) and mkekas (straw mats) are very popular. We also get Kiikombe cha Umoja (unity cups) and vibunzi (Native American corn). Zawadi (hand-made gifts) are available nationwide in most African communities and some major chain stores. Walk along 125th Street and you’ll see what I mean. All the small shops are selling this stuff.
Harlem Stage presents Forces of Nature: A Kwanzaa Celebration, a dance, music and theater experience opening tonight at the Aaron Davis Hall at City College. For tickets and more information, call 212.281.9240 x 27.
EL MUSEO PARADES NEW PUPPETS FOR THREE KINGS DAY
By Shane Show
Note: This story was updated on Dec. 16, 2009.
Having paraded down East Harlem’s streets each January for 32 years, El Museo del Barrio’s renowned, trundling Three Kings Day figurines will be retired this year, to be replaced by 12-foot high papier maché puppets representing the convergence of traditions, races and cultures in Latin America.
Local artist Polina Porras Sivolobova designed and is overseeing construction of the puppets, which will make their debut at this year’s parade on Jan. 6, said El Museo spokesman Ines Aslan. They’ll blend the traditional Christian style with some Caribbean flavor, Aslan said.
The puppets, an El Museo statement explained, are “inspired in the Taíno cosmological tradition, are made of papier maché, colorful fabrics, and a carefully-crafted structure that allows for graceful movement.” Taínos were pre-Columbian inhabitants of Puerto Rico and other nearby islands.
The local parade, which will step off from Park Avenue and 106th Street at 11 a.m. and circle its way to El Museo by 1 p.m., is renowned for its colorful floats, upbeat music and dancing. “The director of the museum started the parade,” Aslan said. “The museum staff and neighborhood artists created the puppets and decorations.”
Three Kings Day, the culmination of the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas, commemorates the trio of Biblical magi who brought gifts to the newborn Christ child. Though often overshadowed by its more commercial holiday counterpart on Dec. 25, Three Kings Day remains popular in many Latin countries, often celebrated with a banquet known as the Feast of the Epiphany.
“The synergy of the Christian and Taíno traditions, wonderfully embodied by our new puppets, perfectly synthesizes the unique cultural mix that characterizes our community, as well as El Museo del Barrio’s mission,” the museum statement said.