Students outside the Three Faiths exhibitLast week, students from the Seward Park Library's Center for Reading and Writing, the Library's free adult literacy program, took a field trip to the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building to see the exhibit, Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam.
As the group trundled up the library steps, one student, a lifelong New Yorker, remarked, "It's funny, I pass by here all the time. But this is the first time I'm going inside."
Outside the exhibit, students were met by Lynda Kennedy, the Library's Director of Teaching and Learning, Literacy and Outreach, who had graciously offered to give the group a tour. She began by eliciting from students the meaning of the word "Faith," which they had studied previously, before briefly introducing the three faiths represented in the exhibit, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Exploring the Exhibit
Inside the exhibition hall, among the first highlights she pointed out was a quote on the wall by George Washington:
"May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid. —George Washington"
Dr. Kennedy explained that the quote was from a letter that Washington had sent to a Hebrew congregation in 1790, back when the United States was new. "They were afraid," she explained. "They thought they might be persecuted, and he said, 'In this land, this America, people can practice their own religion, they can do their own thing in safety, and no one will make them afraid.'"
She led students to a Hebrew Torah. "When you read a book, how do you read? Left to right. But in Hebrew you read the other way, right to left."
"That's the same in Arabic," a woman from Senegal volunteered, "Always right to left."
"Where did the library get all these things?" one student asked, looking around.
"They all belong to the library," Ms. Kennedy explained. "You all came from the Seward Park Library. These are owned by this library, in the special collections."
In the section on annotation, she asked, "Have you ever read a book that's too hard?" Heads began to nod, "And you need someone to help you understand, right? Well, that's what's in the next section. Some of these books were difficult to understand. They needed some explanation. So people started writing books about the books."
As the group moved into the portion of the exhibit on spreading the word, a Dominican student discovered a Bible in Spanish and began reading it out loud, puzzling over the old text. Another student admired a small Qur'an from Nigeria. Two students from China peered closely at a Chinese Qur'an. "Maybe it's from Tibet," one ventured.
"No, they're Buddhist," said the other.
"In the West of China are Muslim people," explained a student from West Africa.
Next were items related to private prayer, and Dr. Kennedy asked, "Who here carries a religious item? A cross? Something for good luck?" Students began rummaging in bags, pulling out rosaries, cards with Catholic saints, and rabbits' feet, and pointing to earrings and necklaces.
There was a commotion as a student from Senegal came across a picture of Mecca. She exclaimed happily, kissed her hand and touched it toward the glass. "My mother just came back from there!" she cried. When asked what her mother's experience had been like, she said, "It was a lot of hard work, preparing," and then added, "You have to be careful if you go—a lot of people die. They fall down, someone else tries to help them. They both get killed. The people walk over them. Seventy years old you can go, but 80, no."
Another student, from Malaysia, nodded in affirmation before adding, "A lot of people don't know, but my country is mostly Muslim."In the scriptorium
Looking again at the picture, the first woman said definitively, "When I turn 50, I want to go to Mecca."
As the group headed for the door, I asked a student from South Carolina what part of the exhibit she had liked the best. "I haven't seen it yet!" she exclaimed. "They're all my favorite!"
Students Visit the Scriptorium
After the exhibit, students headed next door to the Scriptorium, where everyone was engaged guessing which quill and brush came from which animal—"That one is cat hair?" "I didn't know squirrel fur was so soft!"—trying to figure out which animal, vegetable, or mineral produced a particular pigment color—"Really? Cuttlefish?"—and feeling the animal skins—"It says, 'Please touch!'"
At the light table, the students meticulously traced Arabic, Hebrew and English calligraphy. Some who ordinarily struggled to write a sentence traced whole beautiful sheets with studied concentration, letter for letter. Forty minutes later, it was difficult to drag students away for a view of the Rose Main Reading Room.
Standing in the majestic hall one student, looking up, remarked, "This place looks great for 100 years old!" Asked if, now that he knew what was here, would he come use the space to study, he became serious. "Yes."
* * *
The winter class cycle begins in January. Interested students and volunteer tutors can locate a Center here.