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Singing After Sandy

A meditation on faith after the devastation of Hurricane Sandy

Avram Mlotek
November 09, 2012

“God sits enthroned above the flood,” sings Psalm 29. I’m sitting in a friend’s living room couch minyan and the words are not coming easily this Friday night. The image of a God in His infinite majesty watching human suffering from afar pangs me days after Hurricane Sandy has left its wrenching mark.

I’ve just come from the Lower East Side where I’ve been volunteering with the Educational Alliance since the day after the storm, having worked there as a chaplain intern this past summer. As the clouds parted on Tuesday and the mornings thereafter, I trekked downtown with friends to check on seniors living in the upper levels of their co-op apartments. We would bring water, flashlights and batteries, offering our cell phones to make a call, eager to take down trash and recycling, ready to listen and hold a hand for an extra moment in the dark, before returning to an upper west side, which felt like another city entirely.

The ancient words glare at me. “God will sit enthroned as King forever.” I’m imagining the mother in South Beach, New Jersey, whose hands slowly lost hold of her two and four year old sons to the rushing waters, of the looting in Long Island, Queens, and Brooklyn, of the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers still without electricity, some without running water, and of the devastation in New Jersey, my home state. How do I sing of God’s enduring throne tonight? And is this flood different from all over floods?

Esther, a home care attendant originally from Haiti, now living in Queens and away from her children since Sunday, shares that she’s lived through at least a dozen tropical storms and hurricanes in her few years.

“New York City, you will recover,” she insists.

“How have you been doing?” we ask her, noticing the hospital bed-ridden client in the corner of a room.

“I’m singing. I been singing.” Suddenly, she starts Psalm 23, closing her eyes and calling out loudly, “I will fear no evil as I walk through the shadows of the valley of death, because You are with me,” as she takes the water we’ve brought and leads us to another neighbor in the building in need of supplies.

Now it is Friday night and Psalm 29’s niggun, its wordless tune, carries onward and upward, spiraling higher and never ending. In the midst of the melody, I’m remembering more faces from earlier in the week. “Some people connect to God in moments of struggle,” a friend said to me recently, “others connect to each other.” And in the escalating swirls of song, I remember freshly cooked scrambled eggs.

We’ve just delivered water to an elderly woman on the 14th floor. She sits in the apartment telling us about her husband who has passed, insisting that I look like her brother from Puerto Rico, when a man suddenly enters her apartment.

“Breakfast delivery!” Ricky, her next door neighbor calls out, thanks to his gas stove. “You all set?” he asks.

As we hike up and down the flights of stairs, flashlights in store, we begin to discover the hidden community of neighbors, of a support system that has blossomed amid the drowning waters of the hurricane. We knock on one door, and a neighbor encourages us to check on another, in the other complex, another building, a different street. We take addresses and do what we can, one friend biking 50 blocks to a pharmacy to fill one elderly woman’s prescription only to return hours later, after dark.

On the 20th floor, we meet a mother who is eager to take as much water as we’ve carried.

“Do me a favor,” she says, “please be Mr. Con-Ed Man for my special needs daughter.”

I nod instinctively, having no idea what this really means. Her daughter appears, a teenage girl with autism, avoiding eye contact.

“Mr. Con-Ed. Man?” she asks.
“That’s me,” I say.
“Sherry, do you want to ask Mr. Con-Ed Man anything?” her mother asks.
“When, when, when are we getting our power back, Mr. Con-Ed Man?”

I look at the mother and then back at Sherry. “I’m not quite sure, Sherry. But we’re all working very hard to make sure that you do.”

Sherry leans forward and gives me a hug. I hug her back as her mother mouths “thank you” and then passes us some trash for our journey down.

On the tenth floor of a different complex, we meet Mrs. Levy who is eager to shmooze before Shabbes.

“I’ve got everything I need,” she insists. “The real question is: are you okay?”

Mrs. Levy asks us our names. Noticing the Avrams and Moshes in the group, she asserts, “What more could I ask for? I’ve got the Bible’s best by my doorstep.”

Mrs. Levy’s self-reliance and independence reminds me of my own grandmother, Chana Mlotek, now 90-years-old, and living alone in an apartment in the Bronx. Surprisingly enough, I receive an email from my Bubby as we make it to the ground floor of Mrs. Levy’s building.

My grandmother works as the music archivist at the YIVO and a columnist for the Yiddish Forward. Her pre-Shabbes email informs the family recipients how her column this week features Yiddish poems about hurricanes. “Hulyet hulyet beyze vintn – Howl, howl you angry winds! Written by Abraham Reisen in 1904 after witnessing the dire poverty of the workers, it’s a pessimistic homage that ends with the lines, ‘The winter will endure long, summer is far off.’ But the workers changed it to end with words of hope, words that we can apply today. ‘Winter will not last long; summer is not far off.’ It was one of the most popular workers’ songs, and it was also sung in the ghettos for hope.’ I think of all the storms my Bubby, Mrs. Levy, Esther and the others we’ve visited have lived through.

We walk back home this Friday night, a two hour exodus by foot, eager to feel a physical drain amid a spiritual haze. Shabbes has come and I look around the room, friends and community members who have united in grateful song, singing words that have been said for years and words that will be said for many years to come.

Suddenly, the verse calls to me in a slightly different way. “God sits enthroned above the flood, God will sit enthroned as King, forever.” Maybe God doesn’t merely sit enthroned, but maybe God dwells among us, suffering with us, drowning as we drown, kiviyakhol, as if He were able. God’s presence will dwell, as King, among us forever, still the same God who swore to Noah in Genesis, that the “waters will never again destroy all of humanity.” A week later, life goes on, the repair continues and the Psalmist’s words still live, as the human spirit perseveres.

Rabbi Avram Mlotek is co-founder of Base Hillel and spiritual leader of its Manhattan site.