Manhattan Mincha Map (2002)
Making my way to the subway on a late winter morning in 1999, I picked up a copy of “Torah Times” from the plastic dispenser on the corner of Kingston Avenue and Eastern Parkway. “Torah Times” is the self-declared “largest Jewish weekly shoppers guide” selling anything and everything, from gefilte fish to sneakers. Half-heartedly flipping through it, I stumbled on eight pages of listings devoted to The Manhattan Mincha Map. Together, they provide a directory of all the places in Manhattan where Jewish men may come to recite Mincha –the afternoon prayer- with a minyan, the required quorum of ten. Some of the locales are synagogues or houses of study. However, most are actual workplaces, such as pizza parlors, shipping offices, printing shops, jewelry shops, and so on. As I pored over the information, visions of people praying amidst boxes of electronics, or reams of cloth and stacks of paper, flooded my imagination. I felt a thrill of anticipation, knowing that some day I would visit these places which had remained hidden and unknown to me after almost a decade of life in New York City. But, in spite of my initial enthusiasm, it took almost two years –and the tragic events of September 11- before the project became urgent, and I attended my first Mincha service.
Mincha is the shortest of the three daily prayers. It consists mainly of the “Shemonah Esrei” or “Amidah,” a group of nineteen blessings. “Amidah” comes from the Hebrew “la’amod,” which means “to stand.” It is recited while standing at attention, symbolic of the posture of the angels. Jewish tradition credits the patriarch Isaac, son of Abraham, with the authorship of the Mincha prayers. Unlike his father, whose life is associated with kindness, Isaac’s was marked by justice. Mincha is a time when actions are scrutinized by the divinity, and the faithful are judged for their daily service to God. This “daily service” commemorates the daily offerings before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
The notions of sacrifice and of temple implicit in Mincha, may seem out of context in the hurried environment of New York City. But a storefront may lead to a small back room, transformed for an hour into a sacred space: a house of prayer.
In the wake of September 11, I became interested in the concept of sacrifice. Seen from the perspective of media coverage, sacrifice emerged as a cruel and desperate act in which an individual surrenders life for the sake of dogma, or as a one-time extraordinary act of heroism in coping with the unforeseen. Mincha proposes that one see it as the possibility of interrupting the rush of work long enough to render a daily tribute to the soul. One world unfolds into another; material pursuit is replaced by spiritual openness, anxiety by internal solace.
In this historical moment, mass murder is perpetrated in the name of religion. Geo-political ambitions are pursued in the guise of a contest of absolutes: good versus evil. For the sake of our continued spiritual survival, religion itself needs to be reinvestigated as a place for tolerant community. Can religious faith function within a secular system larger than itself? How do we strive to better understand this process? Can we find some answers in Mincha and the makeshift temples of Manhattan?