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Monday, November 18, 2013

The Strangest Shabbos Tradition You’ll Ever Hear Of

Up in Washington Heights, in the neighborhood where I grew up, there’s a place called Audubon Terrace. If you ever stumble across this collection of luxe Beaux Arts Buildings on 155th and Broadway, you’ll find yourself wondering what the bloody hell it’s doing there. It was just as out of place in the 1960s, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Kids take the New York hodgepodge for granted.

Apparently, at the turn of the last century, when the area was still pretty rural, the idea of building fancy cultural institutions to attract city folk for the day made some sense. One of the first to open there was the Hispanic Society of America, which I assumed, given the neighborhood, had something to do with Puerto Ricans. Turned out I was wrong. It housed works by Goya and El Greco. Also at Audubon Terrace were the American Numismatic Society and the American Geographical Society. I don’t recall ever setting foot in those places (though I loved this pathetic image of Don Quixote outside in the plaza).

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.)

I remember my brother coming home one day with a new prized possession, a postcard of the shrunken men, purchased at the museum during a rare non-Shabbos visit. Unbelievably, 40-plus years later, I still have that postcard, and here it is.

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.

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