A Thousand Leagues from Hillel
Or, A Moderately Fictional Version of How I Began a Search for the Hare Krishna, Avoided a Lecture on Duck Gender Rights, and Ended Up at Whole Food
Part II continues with the journey to ISKCON, the Krishna temple downtown.
Huh. Hare Krishna. Before the Bob Dylan song set me straight, I had associated the â€œhareâ€ with some sort of Bugs Bunny cartoon. Well, I could set all my rabbit-related thoughts to rest, I supposed, by getting up early on a Sunday morning, grumbling my way down to the Lower, Lower East Side (itâ€™s on Second Avenue and First Street), and finally discovering the truth about the movement.
Having woken up moderately early for a college studentâ€”less than an hour before the event beganâ€”I figured that hopping in the shower and dressing conservatively would be enough to get me to the temple unscathed. However, the icy January wind seemed to have other ideas. Thanks to my lack of a hair-dryer, my damp locks turned into mini-icicles as soon as I hit the pavement. I looked like Bob Marley at the Winter Olympics.
In order to melt my head, I yanked my jacket off and wrapped it around my head like a guru. I knew I was out of line when the guy with the blue Alaskan earmuffs and the couple gyrating on each other by the magazine stand stopped to look at the girl with a black down coat wrapped around her skull.
Thankfully, the train arrived and my hair returned to its cold, yet un-iced, self. Skittering down the one track, I wondered what I would find in the temple of the Krishna movement. The images of the god we had seen in class depicted a blue man or blue baby being worshipped by devotees. The temple was supposed to be the home for the god, so, in a sense, I was visiting anotherâ€™s house. But, if I was to visit someone elseâ€™s house, how should I do it Bring wine? Cheese? A box of chocolates?
In the Jewish tradition, we never really brought anything to temple. G-d was present everywhere, I was told, so this was just one house amongst all the other houses. The Hindu tradition was far more literal. The temple of Krishna was the house on earth of the incarnation of the god Krishna. End of story.
Bounding down the steps to the practically abandoned platform going downtown to Second Avenue, I caught my breath and plopped down on the wooden seats to wait for the train. Next to me was a girl about my own age, her strawberry-blond hair pulled back into a fuzzy blue headband. She curled her booted feet as far into her down jacket as she could, somewhat resembling an armadillo, if armadillo wore $50 coats from the Gap and lived in New York subways.
â€œHey,â€ I said brightly. Glancing down the tracks, there was no sign yet of the E, so I figured I might as well strike up a conversation with my fellow train-delayed passengers.
â€œHi,â€ she said uncertainly, glancing sidelong at me. Self-consciously, I patted my hair. To my relief, it had definitely defrosted to the point that I longer resembled a human refrigerator.
â€œWhereâ€™re you headed?â€ I asked, hoping to prod on the discussion just long enough until the train came and Iâ€™d be off to the home of Krishna.
â€œDowntown,â€ she told me blankly.
I raised an eyebrow, but kept my mouth shut. Considering this was the downtown platform, she was stating the obvious or pulling a Carlyâ€”going in the wrong direction by mistake while thinking you are going in the correct one. Her attitude was almost as frigid as the weather. â€œIâ€™m Carly,â€ I offered, sticking out a hand.
â€œPenelope,â€ she said hesitantly, putting one fleece-gloved hand into min. Awkwardly, we shook hands. I waited for the characteristic rattle of the train to come thundering down the tracks, something to save me from whatever uncomfortable situation I had put myself in, but no such luck.
â€œIâ€™m on my way to see a Krishna temple,â€ I said to fill the awkward pause that ensued.
â€œKrishna?â€ She suddenly straightened and turned to face me. â€œWhat do you know about Hinduism?â€
I assumed she meant that I would know little about Hinduism, given that Iâ€™m so pale that my aunt once told me, â€œYou look like milk.â€ My reddish-brown hair doesnâ€™t help, either; most people even have trouble identifying me as Jewish and not an Irish lassie or German fraulein.
And, to be honest, I didnâ€™t know much about Hinduism. Not yet, anyway. We were only a week or two into classes and had covered some of the basics of Hindu thought and practice. The reason we were going to this temple was to learn interactively by observing a worship service and seeing, for ourselves, what their places of devotion looked like.
Then again, Penelope hardly looked like a Hindu herself. She was almost as pale as I was, except for the orange residue on her face that might have been the remainder of a spray tan or a bag of Cheetos. Stifling a retort, I stuck a half-smile on my face and replied, â€œI know Krishnaâ€™s blue.â€
She snorted in disdain and quite literally turned up her nose, as if to model the side of her left nostril. I eagerly looked at both sides of the track to see if the E train would magically appear, but it remained stubbornly elsewhere. Thus, this little nostril show-off was my only amusement.
â€œPenelope. Thatâ€™s a good name,â€ I ventured.
She brought her nose down to its normal level and looked at me quizzically.
â€œPenelope. You know, from The Odyssey. The poem. Sheâ€™s the epitome of faithful wifeliness.â€
Apparently, that hit a nerve. â€œYeah, that little bitch,â€ she practically snarled. I scooted back a bit in alarm. â€œWomen shouldnâ€™t have to wait for the men. If I were her, Iâ€™dâ€™ve just slept with the first hot guy that came along. You know, pimping style.â€
â€œYeahâ€¦â€ I didnâ€™t know what to say to that. â€œPimping.â€ I nodded slowly, pretending to digest what she said while stifling a giggle.
Luckily, just at that moment, the E-train swooshed in, unleashing a cold wind that may well have frozen my own nostrils. I nodded a quick good-bye to Penelope, silently appreciative that I hadnâ€™t used my other conversation starter: that her name, according to some scholars, means â€œduckâ€ in Greek. Iâ€™d probably have gotten a lecture on the nature of mallards and hoes.
The last stop on the E was Second Avenue. Finally! Hopping up the steps to keep my limbs warm, I peered around me into the bright, cold light. No blue gods or Indian temple-like structures in sight.
Hmmmâ€¦was it possible I had gotten lost again? It was definitely within the realm of plausibility, considering I once spent an hour-and-a-half trying to get uptown to 116th Street from 96th Street. Crossing the street, I approached a small, tattooed older woman carrying what looked to be Dr. Evilâ€™s black leather chair from Austin Powers. â€œExcuse me? Where can I find the Hare Krishna temple?â€ I asked quickly, shifting from side-to-side like a swaying hippie to ward off the cold. â€œOver there,â€ she told me in a surprisingly musical voice. â€œI think itâ€™s closed, though.â€
Oh, no. â€œYouâ€™ve got to be kidding me,â€ I muttered under my breath as I thanked her and dashed across the street. There was no doubt about it: 26 Second Avenue was boarded up like an old haunted house from Scooby Doo. The welcoming orange awnings were set back by the black, wrought-iron bars over the windows, while the sign, proudly declaring that this was the home of the Hare Krishna, beamed out above them. Krishnaâ€™s house wasnâ€™t open for public viewing, it seemed.
I knocked a few times on the door, but got no response. That was it? I asked myself, slumping down into my jacket. Ensuing with the typical internal Jewish kvetch, I went on with, How could I be such a fool? Maybe I got the wrong temple. Maybe they got the wrong temple.
What about the fact that itâ€™s mandatory! Oy ves mir! My fingers, taken out of my gloves to hammer on the door, feltâ€¦well, they had no feeling anymore. I tried to wiggle them, but to no avail. My toes soon began to go the way of my fingers as I waited in vain, hoping to see a TA or my professor pop out from behind a graffiti-covered wall with â€œGotcha!â€
Suddenly, like a beacon of light, a hint of green appeared at the corner of my vision. Glancing to my right, I saw a Whole Foods market. As my mother could tell you, probably 25% of my childhood was spent either in Whole Foods or its predecessors or eating products that came from it. I showered with Whole Foods soap, ate their baby carrots, and drank their grape juice. At last! Something familiar!
Judaism is well-known for its love of food, so I felt a welcoming glow emanating from the supermarket across the way. Willing the blood in my legs to flow just for a few more minutes, until I reached the warmth of the checkout counters, I hobbled across the street, the tantalizing glimpse of recycled canvas bags glimmering in the distance. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally stood in front of the automatic doors. Like magic, they snapped to attention and opened. Immediately, I was enveloped in the marketâ€™s warmth, albeit with a slight chill coming from the dairy section. Krishna may have lived in his temple, but I was home.