Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Monday, April 15, 2024

Coney Island

Who has been to Coney Island?

But what an amazing living artifact of New York, right? And surprise, surprise, Jews were intimately connected to its development in the modern era. For example, Nathan of Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs was Jewish.

Nathan Handwerker was a Polish-Jewish immigrant who started his humble hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1916, helping to bring crowds to Coney Island’s shores.

Every generation of New Yorkers has memories of Coney Island. If your family goes back in New York far enough, chances are your great-grandparents, your grandparents, and your parents all have a story of “that time we visited Coney Island.” It’s a generational inheritance. A joyful one.

We also know that every generation inherits and experiences its own hardships. And, every generation develops the tools to live through and grow from those experiences.

We hear a lot these days about generational trauma, the wounds that are passed from generation to generation. But as a life coach Xavier Dagba said: “As you clear your generational trauma, don’t forget to claim your generational strengths. Your ancestors gave you more than wounds.”

He’s talking about survival tools and he’s talking about generational JOY.

You get handed those strengths as much as the traumas, and Coney Island gives us an incredible story of this.

In addition to hot dogs, the Wonderwheel and the Cyclone, Coney Island is famous for its carousel.

It is a work of art as much as it is a ride. The Coney Island carousel brought the art of European carousel horses to New York and represents the beauty of folk art. It is so historically significant, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Each horse is hand carved and painted in a special style brought over and developed by Charles Carmel and Marcus Charles Illions, two Jews from Eastern Europe who fled from antisemitism in Eastern Europe in the late 1880s.

I learned about this at the Jewish Museum, where two such horses were on display. According to the Jewish Museum: “Carmel was born in Russia and trained in wood carving as a young man. He was steeped in the Eastern European Jewish tradition of intricately carved wooden Torah arks, replete with lions, deer, eagles, and other symbolic animals. After immigrating to the United States in 1883, he settled in Brooklyn, and soon began applying his skills to the crafting of carousel horses at Charles Looff’s and William F. Mangels’s workshops. There, he met three other Eastern European Jewish master carvers — who, like himself, translated their artistic repertoire from the sacred realm of the synagogue for secular use in the amusement industry.”

Illion’s story was similar: “Born in Vilnius, Illions too became immersed in the Eastern European Jewish tradition of magnificent wooden Torah arks as a young apprentice at a carving shop…By 1888, he was in New York, where he soon established his first workshop, employing young apprentices who, like himself, carried on the Eastern European Jewish wood-carving tradition.”

Who knew the art of the Coney Island carousels is inspired by late 19th century synagogue Torah arks? Learning this, and gazing into the intricate, life-like eyes of the carousel horses, I felt a chill.

True, this story’s moral could be as simple as these men seeing an opportunity to apply their skills and make a living. And that would have been enough. But my sense is that they weren’t just looking to make a buck. There seems, to me, a meaningful tie between the Torah ark’s carved wooden doors and the art that would help Illions, Carmel and others escape persecution and find a footing in the new world.

It means something that the tradition of their ancestors was precisely the tool that would save them as they sought a new life of freedom in America.

Jonathan Swift is known for saying, “everything old is new again,” but I think we Jews give this tremendous meaning. We have a toolbox of generational strengths that help us no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in.

Look at this week’s Torah portion, for example.

Tazria: it’s all about skin afflictions and how to keep a communal outbreak to a minimum. This portion has always been dismissed as stuck in ancient days and ancient maladies, yet it became wildly relevant in Covid where it taught us how quarantining was a holy act.

Furthermore, Tazria insists over and over again on trying to find a way for an afflicted person to re-enter society. Our ancient medicinal practices have inspired the way we Jews insist on congregating and community, and has probably influenced the way in which we have extended our arms wide open to people of all faiths, welcoming in folks with compassion and love.

And above all, it teaches that even through plague and persecution, we have found ways to survive - physically and spiritually.

The carousel horses Carmel and Illions carved may be affixed to their carousels, but with their wind-swept manes, bejeweled eyes and hooves in flight, they represented pure freedom - the freedom that the US offered American Jews. And just like the painted ponies of the carousel go up and down and round and round, our sense of safety and opportunity as Jews has its trials, tribulations and cycles.

Carmel and Illions sought to escape anti-semitism, but anti-semitism is one of those things that always rotates back around in one way or another - the moment we’re living in being the latest.

And yet, like the wooden horses who were inspired by the fierce cherubim on the ark doors, we’ll continue to charge forward with gusto, energetically starting over again, as our ancestors have done for millenia. And just when we wonder if we’re making any progress or we're just going in circles, we feel the wind in our faces and the simple joy in living. We hang on tight and keep riding, knowing that we inherited the tools to live and find joy from our ancestors.

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