Shuddering through the Season of Hope

By Daniel J. Wakin
New York Times
April 20, 2003

he weather deities offered a daylong whiff of spring last week. The city's fountains, gagged by drought, burbled anew on that warm day before a chill quickly set in. The terror alert faded to yellow, but not in New York City, where it remained orange.

It is spring and the human organism knows it, at the least by sitting down to Seder dinners and Easter feasts. It is a time of renewal, of liberation from tyrants ancient and modern, of resurrection, the calendar tells us.

Does it really seem that way in New York City these days? Conversations across social and religious spectrums suggest that for many, it is a tough time to feel reborn.

The two obvious culprits are war in Iraq and dark economic times in the city, made concrete for many New Yorkers by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's proposed budget of doom.

"I have no feeling of renewal at all," said Peter Marcuse, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University. "So much of the world is going contrary to the ideals of Passover."

He cited a passage in the Passover liturgy in which God silences those who would cheer the destruction of Pharaoh's soldiers in pursuit of the Jews, because those soldiers are also his creatures.

"It seems to me that's a very noble passage," Professor Marcuse said, "and it's one that is so far away from the way we are approaching the Middle East these days."

The spirit of freedom from authoritarians evoked by the Israelites' flight from Egypt is also being violated, he said. "There is much happening in our society that gives people the feeling of being in the hands of powers greater than their own," he said - whether the seemingly inexorable drive to war in Iraq or the fear of the dire effects of budget cutbacks imposed by elected leaders.

But Professor Marcuse also pointed out that the deliverance of Iraqis from oppressive hands reflects the Passover story of the Israelites' escape from Egypt into the Promised Land.

As Daniel Jeremy Silver wrote in "A History of Judaism" (Basic Books, 1974): "The Exodus expressed God's will to save, the urgency of freedom, the possibility of escaping tyranny, and God's anger with every form of social abuse." The Promised Land, he explained, "was a statement of possibility, of hopes that come true."

For others, a deep sense of uncertainty makes it difficult to feel that refreshing sense of the turning page. It is like a book with a stiff binding, in which the page refuses to lie flat.

"With Iraq where it is, with bin Laden out there, nothing is complete," said Arlene Simon, president of Landmark West, a West Side preservation advocacy group. "You haven't the slightest idea of how quickly it's going to get better."

In the crowded aisles of Cookie's, the children's department store on the Fulton Street Mall in Brooklyn, Stacey Roach, a home health aide, was looking for a spiritual lift to arrive today, Easter Sunday.

The situation in Iraq is a bit scary and the threat of violence at home is still real, she said, picking through a rack of Easter clothes for her two young daughters. "You don't know if you'll be around to celebrate the next holiday."

But, she vowed, at Easter services at her church, Cedar of Lebanon Baptist in Brownsville, "I will celebrate the rebirth of Christ, and have more faith."

Yes, some New Yorkers feel less anxious about terror attacks. But James R. Kelly, a professor of sociology at Fordham University, has questions. Don't many people out there still hate Americans? And will the budget's spending cuts lead to dirtier streets, an understaffed police force and a reduction in classroom services for schoolchildren?

"What does the preacher do, or even the believer, when he or she says this is a time of resurrection?" Professor Kelly asked.

Americans have been awakened by violence at home, and there is a prospect of more. "We're finally brought to making the distinction between hope and optimism," he said.

Thus the mystery of Easter appears in a more stark light. "I'm going to go to church on Easter, and I'll find my heart being raised a bit," Professor Kelly went on. "I won't be optimistic, but I'll be hopeful."

For Hal Ruzal, a bicycle mechanic in SoHo, Easter and Passover have nothing to do with it. "I feel a sense of renewal just from the weather getting nicer," he said.

Mr. Ruzal, 49, a lifelong New Yorker, also takes the city's latest worries in stride.

"Budget cuts?" he said. "New Yorkers lived through the 70's. It was a lot rougher."

Terrorism? "I hardly pay attention to the terror alert; I grew up in New York in the 60's and the 70's, where it was a different terror," he said, referring to crime. "It was just terror from within."

Emira Habiby-Browne does not have the same measured optimism. She is executive director of the Arab-American Family Support Center in Brooklyn and feels heavily the weight of destruction and death in Iraq.

"The war has been very traumatic for the Arab-Americans in this country," she said. "There's a sense of humiliation, a sense of depression, a sense of, `What's the future?' "

The season has brought her little hope.

"There should be that sense of joy and renewal and spring is in the air," she said, "but I don't feel it at all, and I know 99 percent of the people I talk to don't feel it."

She also said that, even though the threat of terrorism might be receding, it was hard to detect any easing of tension among Arabs and Muslims. "The stares are still there," Ms. Habiby-Browne said.

For some, the prospects of renewal run much higher. A year ago during Easter week, the Roman Catholic Church was besieged by reports that revealed decades of sexual abuse of children by priests. Daily disclosures of molestation and efforts to cover it up by the church hierarchy wounded Catholics, brought back painful memories for the victims and cast a veil of suspicion over priests.

Last year on Holy Thursday, a day dedicated to the priesthood, many priests said they identified closely with the crucified Christ.

This year, many said that the rawness had receded, and that the church could start to move forward, at least to some degree.

"I think it's better, but I don't think it ever goes back to the way it was, the level of trust," said the Rev. Francis G. Skelly, pastor of St. Cecilia's parish in East Harlem. "There was a great deal of damage done to the Catholic Church with this. We're moving on, but it's moving on scarred."

At St. James Cathedral in Brooklyn on this Holy Thursday, the homily of Bishop Thomas V. Daily was striking for what he did not say. Last year, in extensive comments on the scandal, he issued a condemnation of the abuse and sought to boost his priests' confidence.

This year, appearing before white-robed priests in a light-filled baroque church, Bishop Daily did not mention the scandal.

He invoked the traditional Holy Thursday rededication of priests to their calling. "Are you ready to renew your own dedication to Christ as priests of the new Covenant?" the bishop asked. "I am," the men intoned.

Sister Sally Butler, a nun in Brooklyn who was an early whistle-blower about clerical sexual abuse, said that this Easter season felt more hopeful. "Even though it is probably going to take a while, the present hierarchy is crumbling," she said. Most encouraging, she added, "Survivors are getting the courage to speak out."

But where to go for a taste of unbridled optimism in this age of spin? Who better than a press agent?

Sure, the recession has cut his business about 30 percent, said Bruce Cohen, owner of Bruce Cohen Group in Manhattan. "But I've lived through the great fiscal crisis," he said. "I've lived through `Ford to City: Drop Dead,' so I've seen how it turns out."

As for Iraq, he lamented the deaths of civilians but expressed relief that military casualties were limited. "I'm young, I'm healthy, I can go in the park and run," he said. "I'm the luckiest man on the face of the earth."


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