The Gods Of New York City

by Sara Gran
Santeria Temple_Cuba 173

Image by hoyasmeg via Flickr

I recently saw The Gods of Times Square, a surprisingly cheerful documentary about days gone by–when street preachers, people who thought

they were Jesus and religious white-, black-, and probably other supremacists tried to convert the confused in Times Square. This as central a feature of the area as the pornography and the prostitution, although far less documented. Filmed in the eighties, what makes this movie wonderful is that the filmmaker himself lived in Time Square, was a part of this community, and has a deep and honest respect for and curiosity about the people he speaks to. Although he sometimes questions and prods, he doesn’t invalidate anyone’s idea of reality and gives everyone’s ideas a fair shake.

New York City back then was kind of a spiritual wonderland. Growing up, it seemed perfectly normal to me that corner stores sold religious candles to folk saints and half the people on the bus crossed themselves when we passed a church. Within walking distance spiritual supply stores catered to practitioners of Santeria and Haitian Voudun (Voodoo), where I overcame my initial fears to ask a few timid questions; a short subway ride away you could find yourself in a Hasidic or otherwise-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood; a Rastafarian enclave; a Wiccan witchcraft shop.

Of course,t his wasn’t the New York City my atheist parents and rationalist private school thought they were raising me in, but luckily, it’s the one I grew up in. In every city there are dozens, hundreds of cities, all occupying the same space and time but entirely different. I’m lucky I found the one I needed, and not the one I was given.

3 Comments to “The Gods Of New York City”

  1. Years ago walking near (but not through, exactly) Times Square with a lady friend a friendly man in Hasidic garb approached us and asked if she was Jewish (ignoring me completely, with my celtic-farmboy aura). “NO,” she shouted (though she most certainly was) and pulled urgently on my arm to hurry me along. Once out of earshot she explained to me that this was a group that was trying to draw Jews they considered insufficiently observant or, worse, lapsed, into their circle. That was the old, good New York.

    • The Mitzvah Tank! They’re lubavitchers, a Hasidic sect. jews don’t believe in converting others, but it is OK to try to bring non-practicing (or reform!) Jews back into the fold. Boy, are they an interesting can of worms–big schism over the Messiah, with about half the community believing the last Rebbe (like a supercharged Rabbi) was in fact the messiah and even though technically dead still lives among us, and the other not really on board! Such an interesting community!

  2. three corrections:
    1/ “the gods of times square” was shot in the 90’s, not the 80’s.

    2/ i did not live in times square then, or now.

    3/ the flick was a videotape and not a film, though i understand
    that the word “film” has taken on a generic meaning these days.

    ~~richard sandler

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