The one museum there that held endless fascination for my brother and me as children, the one that brought us back over and over again, was the Museum of the American Indian. It’s not there any more -- the collection moved to the Smithsonian. But for something like three-quarters of a century, the greatest collection of Native American art and artifacts was in Washington Heights, where just about nobody ever went to see it.
But we did.
Ask any Orthodox Jewish kid if time is a universal constant, and you’ll get a resounding “No.” Orthodox kids know that, once a week, time slows to a crawl, and minutes become hours. It’s called Shabbos afternoon. No TV, no electronics, no riding in cars or spending money. Absolutely nothing to do.
Unless you happen to live near a free Museum of the American Indian. (Did I mention it was free?)
So my brother and I spent countless Shabbos afternoons gazing at spectacular, unique, priceless Indian artifacts. You might think we were extraordinarily sensitive children with exquisite taste who appreciated the aesthetics of a culture so different than our own. But you’d be wrong. Mostly, we rushed past all the fancy beadwork and pottery (though I did slow down a little for the papooses -- they were cute).
We were heading straight for one thing, the thing that fascinated us endlessly, week after week: the shrunken people.
Real shrunken people. Right there in a glass case for all the world to see -- or all the world that bothered shlepping this far uptown.
That was our Shabbos tradition: visiting the shrunken people. I have no idea how old I was when I first saw them; too young to remember, anyway. I was ten when we moved out of Washington Heights, so our Shabbos visits lasted for years. We didn’t go every week, but we went often enough so that I can still remember it vividly.
Sure, now I know that the display of human remains stolen from an indigenous South American culture that shrunk them for some unknown reason of their own was highly sensational, insensitive, and disrespectful. But at the time, I thought it was just the coolest thing ever. It was gorgeously macabre, simultaneously repulsive and fascinating. I remember standing in front of that case, wondering how it was done, why it was done, who had done it, and whether they were still doing it in a deep, dark jungle somewhere. I remember telling my friends about the shrunken people and them not believing me, or insisting at the very least that they couldn’t be real. (Well, they lived downtown; they probably didn’t believe the whole museum was real.)
Shabbos afternoon visits to see shrunken people in a gorgeous Beaux Arts edifice housing the world’s greatest Native American art collection in a gritty uptown neighborhood.
Only in New York.