Puja at the Hindu Temple Society of North America

We took a bus from the Union Theological Seminary to the Hindu Temple Society of North America out in Flushing, Queens. I get super car sick so most of this ride was spent trying NOT to look out the window. When we arrived we got treated to a yummy (but spicy!) meal in their cafeteria. Here’s a photo of my plate, but I quiet honestly can’t tell you what we ate. lol

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So after our lunch we walked to the main temple space, had an informative group discussion with a board member, then a private tour of the shrine. No photos are allowed inside the space so I took a few outside to get the feeling of the location. One of the funniest signs for were the “coconut breaking” signs. We learned that coconuts are a common item to offer in a puja (ritual worship) and there are specific places to break them open before entering into the shrine.

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As you can see from this last photo, once inside all shoes come off (we also did this in the Buddhist Temple and both the traditional and sufi mosques – the idea of sacred ground is common to all these religious traditions). Personally I love taking my shoes off, maybe it’s because I’m a Florida girl, but I feel so much more connected to my surroundings barefoot.

Read more: Student Series! A Hindu Union

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They even provide little cubbies downstairs for your shoes. My shoes are on the bottom right – flip-flops all the way!

As I mentioned, there are no photos allowed inside so that we can preserve the sacredness of the space and the rituals within it. In Hindu belief, the statues are inhabited with the spirits of the gods, so the are so much more than just visual representations of deities. They are bathed, clothed, and ritualistically fed by the priests. This temple has about 25 deities, each deity with a different specialty and some worshipers feel more akin to one deity over another at different times in their lives. Although, theologically speaking, not the same as Catholic saints, there is certainly some parallels to be drawn (see my post about the catholic shine of the Bronx Lourdes). This image below is outside the temple, so it does not have the significance of the ones I described above but you can see the clothing and style that is also on of the deities inside the shrine.

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Unlike some other houses of worship, there is no prescribed communal worship time. The main action in a Hindu temple is individual prayer and puja. When needed, the practitioners will come to perform a specific action to a deity for something they are asking for or thankful for in their lives. Luckily we got to see two different pujas while  there. I cannot tell you anything that was going on but there was chanting, incense, ghee, and a little cone people kept putting on their heads. I was trying to watch without being intrusive to their worship.

I loved walking around the temple, and as an AP Art History teacher, it really brought to life the Hindu temple and Shiva statue I teach. I’ve never been to India and the Metropolitan Museum is the closest I’ve gotten to seeing a Hindu god in person, so having the ability to see them in situ, in a worship site, really made me understand the Shiva as Nataraja much better.

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This is at the Met Museum, not the temple.

After our group departed, I hung around alone a bit to walk in solitude in the shrine. I spent more time looking at the priests doing their daily tasks and the beauty of all the statues. Personally, I loved Saraswati, the goddess of music & knowledge.

Then on my way to the train station to visit my aunts for dinner, I popped into any other sacred spaces that let me in! Here are a few I saw on my walk:

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JMF

P.S. I am not an expert in Hindu theology or practice and the little I know comes from study in college and teaching high school. If you see something incorrect here, please message me so I can fix it!

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Religious Worlds institute.  For detailed information about the institute, see http://religiousworldsnyc.org.


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Worshiping at Convent Avenue Baptist Church

One Sunday of my Religious Worlds of New York Summer Program took us to a black Harlem house of worship, Convent Avenue Baptist Church. Although a Christian venue, I actually felt more “out of my senses” at this church than at the mosque, Bronx Lourdes, or even the Hindu Temple. I think it’s because Catholicism actually has closer ritualistic roots with other religious tradition than with some strains of Protestant and/or Baptist roots. However, I always think it’s a great thing to put ourselves in “uncomfortable” settings – it’s the only way to experience new things!

So first off, we were told the service could last 2 hours…or more. This surprised me because I am used to “getting in and out” in an hour flat. I had no idea what we were going to do for 2 HOURS. But I was about to find out!

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Music

As we were walking in the choir and church members already started their singing, and boy can they sing! If you’ve seen Sister Act, you have an idea of the type of singing I encountered. It was incredibly lively and made you want to move your feet. As I understand, this is a standard in predominately black Harlem churches.

As the service was about to begin the choir members filed in and went to the second-story choir with the organ player (seen in the photo below). They remained an important part of the service for the next few hours.

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Preaching

This aspect was certainly different from what I was used to! There were multiple people preaching and their sermons were passionate to say the least. It’s easy to see how the audience could get wrapped up in the lively messages of the pastor and elders. Most of the sermons aligned with my personal Christian beliefs but there are two I want to point out:

  • During the pastor’s sermon he veered off into the realm of politics, specifically talking about Trump. I personally agreed with everything he said but it does bring up the question of how much (if at all) should religious houses bring politics in such an obvious way to their worship. A few of the parishioners, made their disapproval vocally known with some audible “Why’d you have to bring that man up here!?”
  • Then one of the elders stood up to proselytized about the reason for giving more money to the church. We all know houses of worships rely on donations to keep their doors open but her sermon felt really over the top and I certainly had disagreements with aspects of it. I specifically had issues with the part when she said “G-d always provides for your needs. Don’t worry about the financial aspects.” Now that just feels wrong to me but I understand where she was taking it.

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Altar Call

Another part of the sermon that was new to me was the altar call in which the preacher made a passionate call for someone who wanted to convert to come up to “get saved by Jesus.” He kept calling, and calling and I was wondering what would happen if no one came up. And then of course 3 people did walk up to the altar and the whole congregation put their hands up to pray for their conversion. In my tradition, we are not so communal about conversion until someone makes the final step during the Easter Vigil. But maybe we should celebrate the decision to step up to start the journey!

Final Thoughts

I know Convent Avenue Baptist Church is one of hundreds (if not thousands) of Protestant Christian churches in America and it has made me want to research how different churches, both large and small, deal with issues of politics, donations, and conversions.

JMF

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Religious Worlds institute.  For detailed information about the institute, see http://religiousworldsnyc.org


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Jumma Service at Islamic Cultural Center of New York

The day after our exhausting Zhikr Service we went to the more tradition and mainstream Islamic Cultural Center of New York, which is actually the largest mosque in NYC.

Gendered Dress

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For most of us women, gender roles and proper dress were foremost on our minds. We all wanted to be respectful but weren’t given a ton of tips before we arrived. :/  knew we had to be covered ankles to wrists and wear a head covering. So I decided to dress in my black maxi dress with a tan cardigan and a light grey and cream scarf for my hair. As we rushed out of the cab and I put up my head covering I could feel the eyes of strangers on the street on me. This was interesting as I was explaining how I felt to my small group of all guys.

Read more: Student Series! Women and Islam

Below is my video of trying to put on this head covering in the bathroom on our way out. I guess I did a good job because I got asked by a few of the ladies if I was Iranian…lol

 

Entering & Segregation

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After we dropped off our shoes at the entrance of the mosque, the women were quickly ushered upstairs. Although we all knew we were going to be segregated it bothered me that I couldn’t see a thing! Instead of a clear balcony riling or little TVs, we had an opaque half-wall in front of us. This really prevented me from “getting into it.” And then considering I can’t understand a word of Arabic and we were not given a translation of the Qur’an portion read, I spent most of the time just watching the other ladies around me. There was a huge variety of dress style and level of modesty (although all of us has ankles to wrists and heads covered).

Shahada

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The one part that I could see and partially engage in was the Shahada which is the Islamic creed declaring belief in the oneness of God and the acceptance of Muhammad as God’s prophet. The moment that part started all the women got into strict lines sitting shoulder to shoulder and performed a series of kneeling, standing, bowing, and prostrating. It was beautifully orchestrated; kind of what I imagine it looks seeing a bunch of Catholics during the Eucharist if you are an outsider.

I performed some of the same body movements as the other women so I was not “out of sync” with the line but did not proclaim the Shahada: 1) because I don’t speak Arabic, 2) I feel that would be disrespectful, and 3) it’s not my religion’s creed.

Q&A

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After the service we had about an hour Q&A with the imam when he explained all aspects of the running of a mosque to us, from the sermon to donations, charity, and current media pressure. It was a great way to end the past two days learning about the practices of Islam in contemporary New York City.

JMF

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Religious Worlds institute.  For detailed information about the institute, see http://religiousworldsnyc.org.


Jumma Service

Experiencing a Sufi Zhikr Service

 

One of the most surprising and unusual site visits while on my Religious Worlds of New York City summer program was the visit to the Dergah al-Farah Sufi Mosque. I really do not have the words (or pictures) to describe this night but I will do my best!

First off, we had no idea we had even “arrived” at our location until our group leader announced that we were here. Everyone kept asking “Where?” and then he pointed to the most unassuming green storefront. I don’t know if they are low-key because of recent attacks or if that is just their normal operations. Anyways this door that you see below was like the rabbit-hole in Alice in Wonderland (the whole night felt like a LSD trip too!).

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Unfortunately I do not have any pictures beyond this point; they asked us to preserve the sacredness of the space and the night and we all dutifully listened.

This was the first time that the Religious Worlds program was going to a Zhikr Service so no one was quiet sure what to expect. Our program leader told us it could be a long night but that we could pop out when needed. They actually ended the service short by a FEW HOURS for us and we still left at 10:30 pm. Woah.

Read more: Religious Worlds of New York Site Visits

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The unsuspecting group not sure of what the evening would entail!

Introductions & Q&A

The fist part of the night was an informal question and answer session with a few of the mosque’s leaders and practitioners. I can’t remember the questions but it really helped me to understand Sufism’s place within Islam and some of the similarities and differences between their practices and other “more mainstream” Islamic rituals.

From where I was sitting, I had a good vantage point of the front door so I could watch people streaming in and going upstairs to prepare for the rest of the evening. The most striking thing to me were the type of people coming in. I totally had to check my stereotypes of what kind of New Yorker would spend their Thursday night gyrating at a Sufi Mosque. This one guy especially threw me off because he looked like a typical Key West fishing charter captain (with his Colombia fishing shirt to match). And not only was he there tonight but he had been coming to the mosque for 20 YEARS. Goes to show you never know what are on people’s hearts!

Tea Break

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This is tea I had while in Rome, but reminded me of what we were served this night.

After about an hour, we took a break upstairs for some tea, dried dates and conversation. This was an opportunity to have more one-on-one time with some members and also talk to each other about surprises we had so far. The tea was sweet and strong, which was going to be necessary if I was going to survive the night. I was determined to stay as long as I could but a few others and I made a plan to leave by 11 pm at the latest if the service was still in full swing.

Chanting & Whirling

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We were told that the next part of the night was going to be the “real service.” We were invited to participate as much as our personal religious consciousness would allow and thankfully they translated all the Arabic first so that we knew what we were saying. I decided to participate fully, except for this one chant about Muhammad as the ultimate prophet since I felt it wouldn’t really be right for me.

As we were chanting, I tried to mimic the body swaying of the female lead (who had a break taking voice and rhythm). Once I started to sway in tune it all started falling together into a trance-like state. I cannot even count the hours or minutes of anything we did that evening!

At one point two people, a man and a woman, got up and started to whirl (picture above for reference). The incredible thing (and I do not know if this was planned) was that he was in all white and she in all black. As they started to rotate around the center and then around each other, they blurred into a human ying-yang. It was an incredible view of opposing forces in tandem: light v. dark, male v. female, old v. young.

Once they started to whirl, the rest of the group got up to dance in a circle around them. We were chanting, jumping, swaying, and moving in this heart-beat union. And then it all suddenly stopped. I felt like I woke up from a dream. The leaders told us thank you for participating and we were on our way, back on the cold and noisy New York streets onto a world that had no idea what was behind that small green storefront.

JMF

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Religious Worlds institute.  For detailed information about the institute, see http://religiousworldsnyc.org


Zhikr service

The Mega Met

So while in NYC this past summer, I decided to make a little art history game: I wanted to see if it was at all humanly possible to spend ALL DAY at The Metropolitan Museum and see “it all.” The short answer is no and I would never recommend it to anyone. 🙂 However, it was a fun experiment!

Stats for the day:

  • Arrived: 10:10 am
  • Left: 8:45 pm
  • Food: pizza (outside the museum), 2pm coffee break in the Balcony, sandwich in the American Wing for dinner
  • Bathroom Breaks: only 2 (shockingly)
  • Friends that came to visit: 4 total in two different sessions
  • Most surprising art piece: Hatshepsut (I had no idea she was so big!)
  • Favorite section: European interior design (mostly because I wanted to nap on the beds)
  • Would I do it again? HELL NO

The Plan

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I was in line before the museum opened and officially bought my ticket at 10:10 am, a mere 10 minutes after official opening. From there I got a map and a pen to track my progress as I went through the day. The photo above shows my day-long progress; any room I visited I crossed out. There were some closed exhibits and I tried to indicate them all of them on the map.

A note about how I went through each exhibit: I did not read EVERY plaque and sign and there are some rooms I spent significant more time in than others. However, I did not “count” any rooms I just walked through, because that is totally not “seeing” art. Of course I could have certainly spent more time reading and looking but not everything moves me so I fluctuated my viewing time according to my interest.

The Morning Session

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I spent the first couple of hours by myself wandering around through some Ancient exhibits. One of my major goals in the Egyptian Art wing was the statue of Hatshepsut (because it is part of the AP Art History curriculum) and the Temple of Dendur because I remember that being an awe-inspiring room when I visited as a kid. Neither disappointed!

Art with Friends: Part I

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I told the group of my Religious Worlds of New York summer program that they could join me at the museum and I could do a mini-lesson and we could wander around. I promised them they could pick any exhibit so long as I did not already do it (no double dipping on this day!).

During the morning I had one of my friends come by and we explored the religious art of the Middle Ages. We both learned a lot from each other; she had a lot of theological knowledge from working at a Catholic school up north. And I taught her how to play “Name that Saint; “we had a ton of fun running around the religious art of Europe.

Read more about playing “Name that Saint” with my blog post Museum Madness: Making the Most of your Museum Visit

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After some Medieval Art, we decided to change it up by visiting the Ancient Near East and Islamic Wings. This is some of my favorite art to see in person because of the intricate details, patterning and stylized human figures. The Moroccan Court (seen above) in particular is exquisite because it was made my hand my Moroccan artisans.

Early Afternoon Session

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I did leave the museum for 20-30 minutes to eat some pizza, get some fresh air, and reinvigorate myself for a long afternoon and evening! After my break I visited the extensive Medieval and European Decorative Arts Wing. You can see sections of architecture, armor, interior design, and so many more “full immersion” exhibits.

Asian Art Exhibits

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Although the Metropolitan Museum is best known for their excellent European and Ancient art, they have a lot to offer in the Non-Western category also. I spent a good amount of time in the Buddhist and Asian (East & Southeast) Exhibits which included a huge variety of styles and each room was incredibly different from the last.

Art with Friends: Part 2

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Luckily I had some more friends from my summer program pop in around mid-afternoon (otherwise I think I would have started talking to the statues). We saw a couple of different things according to the desires of the group: Ancient Greece & Rome, Oceania, and Modern Art.

The Evening

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So my friends left around 6 pm and I had 3 hours to go. I stopped to eat dinner (and charge my phone) then resumed my pilgrimage. At this point I knew there was no way I was going to finish to I wanted a combination of seeing a lot with enjoyment so I reviewed my map and just literally wandered wherever I wanted to go until I was forcibly kicked out by the guards.

Funny story: as I was wandering around upstairs in the European Painting Wing again a guard came up to me and said “Little lady, you’re still here?” I was shocked and he said he remembered me giving a lecture to my friend in the morning. I told him my plan for the day and he said I was crazy, in which I whole-heartedly agreed and I went on my way. 🙂

JMF

Have you ever spent ALL DAY at a museum? How did your journey go? Was it enjoyable?

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Unicorn Tapestry @ The Cloisters

One of the most famous medieval artworks has to be the Unicorn Tapestries, especially the Capture of the Unicorn. Luckily The Metropolitan Museum of Art acquired the tapestries together to display in their lovely and quaint Met Cloisters (dedicated to medieval art). Because  of the low lighting in the room, my pictures did not come out super awesome, so I’m supplementing with photos from The Met.

There is still a lot of mystery surrounding the story of the hunt and capture of this mythical creature. Ideas abound that the unicorn is a symbol for the purity of Christ and the spear going through the unicorn is supposed to symbolize the lance through Christ’s side while on the cross. Perhaps, the unicorn is a symbol of virginal purity (since only a virgin would be able to attract a unicorn) so maybe this is commemorating a marriage?

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Something that is also intriguing about this piece the enigmatic letters of “A & E” hidden throughout the tapestries. See the image above and below for the “A & E” tied to the center tree. Is it the initials of the person who commissioned the piece? The monogram of the wedded couple? Does it stand for Adam and Eve?

On total there are 7 tapestries as part of the series that each measure a whopping 12 by 14 feet! The room is not very large and really makes you feel like you are within the story. Another thing that is incredible about seeing these pieces in person is the amount of detail in the tapestry, especially in the background with the flora and fauna. They have catalogued over 100 species of plants in these tapestries. And you can easily see from my picture above that he pieces are covered in individual plants! An art historical and horticultural masterpiece!

Adding to their fame, the tapestry series has also influence film, most notably Disney’s Sleeping Beauty and appeared in the Gryffindor Tower in Harry Potter.

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JMF


Information was adapted from the article “Why the Mystery of the Met’s Unicorn Tapestry Remains Unsolved” by Tiffany Jow on Artsy.

Read more: “Animation History: Disney’s ‘Sleeping Beauty'” on Lauren Magaret, “Capital and Credibility in Sleeping Beauty: Eyvind Earle and the Disney Pre-Renaissance” on Beams on Film & “Art in Disney: Sleeping Beauty” on Art Docent Program

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Enjoying the Great Outdoors while in NYC

When people think of New York City they don’t tend to think about parks and gardens galore. Most people know Central Park but there a lot of other green spaces in the city. I’m going to highlight a few of my favorite spots while visiting this past summer.

Highline

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This has got to be one of the most unusual “parks” I have ever been to! The High Line is a “new” green space that opened in 2014 as a converted freight train line from the 1930s. It has a wonderful perch on top of the city with blooming flowers, benches, and great people watching from above!

Riverside Park

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This is a narrow but long park along the Hudson River that runs along the Upper West Side. It was only a few blocks from my lodgings at the Union Theological Seminary so I went on a couple of runs there or afternoon strolls with friends. Great alternative to walking down the hot city streets in summer.

Brooklyn Botanical Gardens

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I love botanical gardens because they are a metropolitan microcosm bursting with life and color! You can visit any time of year because the landscape changes with the seasons and there is always something gorgeous to see! I visited with a few friends from our Religious Worlds of New York summer program before heading out to our program director’s house for a BBQ.

Central Park

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Ok so Central Park is no secret, anyone who has ever watched any movie taking place in NYC knows what it is but there are some great gems in this park if you spent some time exploring.

Did you know that the park is 843 acres big!?? And it has all different kinds of environments within it: woodlands, green lawns, lakes, and meandering pathways.

There are nearly 200 different species of birds that call Central Park home throughout the year, many as part of their annual migration. Fall and Spring are the best times to see migratory birds as they fly north or south, but you can sit on a bench any day of the year and catch sight of something wonderful. I’ve had the pleasure to explore Central Park in the fall and springtime. Both are two very different places with colors dramatically changing the landscape. It’s gorgeous anytime of year for a stroll, run, or fun game on the lawn!

JMF


Information for this post came from CITIX60: New York, National Geographic’s Secret Journeys of a Lifetime: 500 of the World’s Best Hidden Travel Gems & Destinations of a Lifetime: 225 of the World’s Most Amazing Places.

Outdoors in NYC