To kiss a cloud of witnesses: Icons on the Lower East Side

NEW YORK — The first thing Maggie Downham does when she enters the inner sanctuary of the Orthodox Cathedral of the Holy Virgin Protection is kiss the icons.

Encased in a simple wooden frame on a pillar directly in front of the iconostasis, the wall separating the nave from the altar, is the icon of the day.

Downham stands before the small table propping up the image and makes the sign of the cross. Three fingers to the forehead, brought down to the stomach, taken over to the right shoulder and then to the left. She bows with her waist, her right hand open and touches the carpeted floor. Rising back to her upward position, she gently touches the contours of the icon and kisses first the feet and then the hands of the subject.

“The icon represents the presence of the sainthood, of a cloud of witnesses,” she said.

Icons can vary in length – the two-dimensional paintings plastered onto the iconostasis stretch upwards of several feet – but this one is the size of a framed family photo. It does contain a family of sorts. Beneath the glass, with the light of the surrounding candles flickering off its golden-hued glint, are dozens upon dozens of figures with haloes. In the center is a Russian Orthodox cross with its three crossbeams, and the background is filled with the domes of the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. Its title: “Russian martyrs of the Soviet era.”

Once Downham has finished, she drifts off to the outer reaches of the church, repeating her metania, the series of prostration described above, before kissing other icons.

“We have a personal devotion to particular saints,” she said. “I try to center myself in front of the Virgin. But as I walk around, I go to whatever icon I feel connected with.”

The veneration of icons is considered by Eastern Orthodox Christians as a form of prayer and a conduit to deeper forms of spiritual reality.

“When worshippers pray in front of an icon, fundamentally they are looking at a mirror of themselves because we all share in the image of Christ,” said Richard Schneider, professor of iconology at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in Yonkers.

Icons have been central to the Christian imagination since at least the third century C.E. Yet throughout the early centuries of Christianity, there was constant tension between the distinction of venerating an icon or actually worshipping it.

“We don’t worship icons. They’re representations, like sermons. They open up to us understanding of the mystery. Because you also arrange them in the church, that order reveals a theology and a point about time,” Schneider said.

The icon of each day is pegged to the Orthodox liturgical calendar which typically celebrates the feast days of different saints. This cycle of change is contrasted with the plastered icons on the iconostasis, images which remain unchanging and eternal.

For Juliana Federoff, icons act as reminders.

“Icons are the connecting point between my worship on the weekend in the church and during the week at home. In both places I’m surrounded by them, and they help me understand life itself as worship to God.”

Even though Downham tends to venerate the icons near the beginning of the service, many will wander towards the images during other parts of the service.

This is because behavior at Orthodox services is much less scripted. “It’s strangely loose. It’s very respectful, but it doesn’t have a rigidity to it,” Schneider said.

Given the central role of icons in Orthodox worship – of how the images are touched, kissed, nudged, and felt – there aren’t many from Byzantine times and most in circulation were created in the 19th and 20th centuries.

But Schneider is okay with the predicament.

“There’s a lot of competition between churches and museums about who gets to keep the icons. The curators say they’ll get ruined, they’re kissed all the time and candles are burning. But icons are like people. They’re born, they flourish, and they die. Just like people.”

Light and dark: An Orthodox Jewish congregation celebrates a Sabbath ritual

NEW YORK — The lights were turned off, except for two round ones on each side of the bimah, a reading table near the center of the synagogue. The mechitzah was taken down, and about 20 worshippers at the Congregation Ramath Orah on 550 W. 110th St. on Manhattan's Upper West Side walked towards the center and stood side by side surrounding the bimah. Facing the entrance, men stood on the right side and women on the left. A Kiddush cup, a lit braided candle and small spice bags were on top of the bimah.

Anna Baron, a 23-year-old law student, arrived at the shul with her fiancé, Ross Boltyanskiy, a 30-year-old postdoctoral research fellow at Memorial Sloan Kettering, a few minutes before the Havdalah service started at 5:51 p.m. on a recent Saturday. Baron grabbed a prayer book from the bookshelf located on the right side of the entrance and sat in the last pew of the women’s side, near the aisle next to the mechitzah that separates the men’s section from the women’s.

The Fourth Commandment, Exodus 20:8-11, says to keep the Sabbath as a holy day for the Lord, and as God created the world in six days and on the seventh day He rested, the people of God will rest on the seventh day as well. To mark the separation of the Sabbath and the new week, Jews participate in a ritual called Havdalah.

A few minutes into the Havdalah service, Baron was one of the first people to rush towards the bimah. Rabbi Moshe Grussgott gave her the braided candle. She held it with her left hand as the congregation surrounded her. Rabbi Grussgott recited the blessings in Hebrew for each ceremonial item in the Havdalah service. First, he gave the blessing over the wine. Then the worshipers passed around small spice bags, which each person sniffed for sweetness and strength in the upcoming week. After that, Baron held high the candle while everyone placed their hands towards its light. Each person held their hands in front of them and turned them upside down while bending their fingers.

Baron and Boltyanskiy have been attending this modern Orthodox synagogue for about a year and a half. Both of their families live in New York City. Weekly, they rotate where they spend Sabbath between Manhattan, with Boltyanskiy’s family in Brooklyn or Baron’s family in Queens. Six months ago, Rabbi Grussgott asked Baron to hold the candle during Saturday night Havdalah services.

For Baron, the experience of holding the braided candle is a big honor. Rabbi Grussgott randomly asked her, she said, because there are not that many women who come to the synagogue towards the end of the Sabbath.

“I feel like it is a big honor, a big responsibility,” Baron said. “It is very special to do Havdalah all together as a community.”

Baron believes that this simple act of seeing the reflection of the light in their fingernails could be related to reflection and growth.

“Nails are constantly growing,” Baron said. “We kind of go through the week looking at something that is constantly growing, so that we can constantly grow in the upcoming week.”

Boltyanskiy is still learning about the significance of specific ceremonies, but he said that he has heard of a mystical interpretation for this ritual.

“Adam was sort of covered in the material that is like our fingernails,” Boltyanskiy said.

Why do the Havdalah candles have to be braided? Boltyanskiy explains that the candles represent the intertwining between the Sabbath and the rest of the week.

“On the Sabbath, we are working on ourselves, we stay at home,” Boltyanskiy said. “It’s meant to be more like self-work and the rest of the week is really outside. That is why we go out and we work and integrate and communicate with everybody else.”

Gila Lipton, 78, has been a member of Congregation Ramath Orah for seven years, and explains the significance of the worshipers putting up their hands towards the light of the candle and turning them upside down while curving their fingers, which generates a shadow.

“That shows the difference between light and darkness,” Lipton said. “And again, asking God to bless us.” She added that everybody asks God together to give them the blessings of light all through the week.

Rabbi Grussgott poured the wine onto the fire of the braided candle that Baron was still holding, marking the end of the Sabbath. Everyone said to each other Shavua Tov, which means have a good week.




Sacred hymns: Mormons look to music to feel God’s presence at Inwood First Ward

NEW YORK — Daniel Dubei reaches for the hymnal tucked into the pew in front of him as the first notes of the church organ ring out through the chapel. He thumbs quickly through the pages, arriving at hymn 195 – “How Great the Wisdom and the Love” – in time to add his smooth baritone to the rising tide of voices around him.

The silhouette of the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ appears dark and ornate against the matte green binding of the hymnal. Its real-life counterpart – thousands of miles from the small Mormon meetinghouse in Upper Manhattan – is a towering and beautiful structure, one of the largest organs in the world. 

The chapel at Inwood First Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where Dubei and his family attend church each Sunday, bears little resemblance to the Tabernacle in Utah. The New York chapel, with its small electric organ, is spacious and well-lit. Dated wainscoting stretches halfway up the white walls, and a plain podium carved from light oak serves as the focal point of the room. The space feels simple and sturdy.

But if a passerby closed their eyes to listen to the music bursting from the Inwood chapel, they might imagine a grander space. The ward – or congregation – sounds more like a professional choir than a random collection of churchgoers. Its members deftly toss the melody back and forth between registers and embellish the text of the hymn with perfectly-executed trills and harmonies. The unmistakable timbre of an opera singer’s voice, clear and bright, rings out from the mass of voices.

The final notes of the hymn hang in the silent air of the chapel as the organist returns to his seat. Dubei taps the hard cover of the hymn book with his index finger and whispers “it should be double this size.” The official book was last updated in 1985, but Dubei says hundreds of unofficial hymns have been composed by Mormon musicians in the years since. Some Mormons, including Dubei, want to see the growing diversity of the church reflected in the hymnal – to hear the voices of their brothers and sisters around the world echo in their own chapel. The church is slow to progress on social issues, says Dubei, but their music doesn’t have to be.

Music is a valued part of all Mormon communities, but it is especially important to the congregants at Inwood First Ward. Dubei, who wears a long tie decorated with musical notes, went back to school in his forties to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. Other members of his ward, he says, are Broadway performers, world-class soloists and accomplished jazz musicians.

Inwood First Ward is a little more liberal in its musical taste than other Mormon wards, its congregants tell me. In Salt Lake City, for example, one might not hear a saxophone accompany the sacrament hymn or a violin solo written by Bach. But in this ward, you can hear both in a single church meeting and observe as ward members rock back and forth to the beat.

The religious significance of music within the Mormon faith stretches back to at least 1830, when a revelation given through the prophet Joseph Smith commanded the prophet’s wife – Emma Smith – to compile a selection of sacred hymns for the church. Dubei readily quotes this verse from the Mormons’ book of Doctrine and Covenants: “For my soul delighted in the song of the heart; yea, the song of righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.”

In the Inwood chapel, the powerful sound of hundreds of voices raised in song expands to fill every corner of the room, filling congregants with warmth and passion. They feel the music in their bodies, a testament to God’s presence. Dubei describes it as opening his heart to God. “Music provides access to the soul – really touches it – in a way words can’t.”

Dubei turns his attention back to the podium as a speaker wraps up her testimony and returns to her seat. A violinist and a guitar player quietly adjust the height of their music stands before the rows of pews. The chapel hums with hushed voices and fussing babies.

The violinist, her long red sleeves swaying as she lifts the instrument to her shoulder, plays the first note. The melody of the hymn fills the chapel, surrounding the rapt audience.

Gradually, as the piece reaches its crescendo, the violinist leans into her instrument, allowing her body to lunge forward into the ascending notes. The scroll of her violin points upwards, as if reaching towards God. Faith and music ring together through Inwood First Ward, each enriching the other.