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Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 2001/ 8 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Suzanne Fields

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New York: A tale of two towns -- NEW YORK, NEW YORK, what a wonderful town. Just now it's a tale of two towns, where the ashes downtown testify to a tragedy and the heroism that lifts the battered human spirit.

A visitor arrives at Penn Station to confront a traffic jam near Ground Zero. Vice President Dick Cheney, accompanied by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, is surveying the ruins of the World Trade Center. They're engulfed in a greeting by rescue workers, policemen and national guardsmen. This is the vice president's first eyewitness glimpse of the calamity. He takes a few minutes to autograph hard hats.

Just a short distance away, at the U.S. Court House, four terrorists, associates of Osama bin Laden, are sentenced to life without parole for bombing the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. ``This is a time not for eloquence, but for justice,'' U.S. District Judge Leonard B. Sand tells them.

If these scenes do not yet constitute ``infinite justice,'' they demonstrate how American justice has both patience and perseverance and that democracy, in its own way, fights back. Cheney, depicted on Saturday Night Live as living in a cave in Kandahar, indulges in a bit of self-mockery later at a dinner at the Waldorf Astoria on Park Avenue: ``The Waldorf is a lot nicer than our cave.''

New York, New York is alive with dramatic juxtapositions in the wake of the destruction of the World Trade Center. For three consecutive days the October sky is as blue and as clear as it was the day the suicide bombers struck on Sept. 11, and the streets are once more crowded with walkers enjoying the bracing air of early autumn. But reminders come on whiffs of charred rubble, ghostly odors that haunt pedestrians with the memories of those who can no longer enjoy the life of the city.

The storefronts of the streets display the ethnic smorgasbord that makes the city sui generis: ``curry in a hurry,'' tricolored couscous, falafel and piroshki, now all decorated with American flags and posters proclaiming ``United We Stand.'' A shop on Madison Avenue, with a window filled with costume jewelry, puts a gas mask on display as the centerpiece (at $250), surrounded by stars and stripes of sparkling artificial stones in red, white and blue.

Uptown, with an unintended irony of timing, the Metropolitan Museum opens ``Treasury of the World: Jeweled Arts of India in the Age of the Mughals,'' featuring dazzling jewelry of the Muslim empire from 1586 to 1858. These jewels were bought by oil-rich sheiks in Kuwait and were lent by Sheik and Sheika al-Sabah's own museum.

Rubies, emeralds, diamonds and pearls -- real ones -- are for sale in the museum shop. I priced one gorgeous pendant at $58,500, and the clerk suggested I might have liked a more expensive one that she had sold earlier. (Some people have all the luck.)

Instead of buying, I sought refuge in another show down a corridor. It seemed to capture the paradox of human nature with insight more suitable to the times. Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the 16th century Flemish artist, made prints and drawings depicting the seven deadly sins and the seven virtues, vividly crossing the map of good and evil, generosity and excess, charity and depravity, altruism and anger. In our Age of Terrorism, this exhibition can convey the failures and triumphs of humanity with greater clarity than the hours of repetitive footage rolling past on flickering television screens.

Anger, for example, is portrayed in both realistic and symbolic detail as ordinary men and women are massacred by bestial warriors in a microcosm of menace. Some soldiers carry swords, others merely an everyday knife that might be used to cut up fruit, cheese or paper. Evil erupts in the center of these mundane lives as warriors emerge from a tiny tent in a village crowded with people.

The scene is charged with malevolent chaos. The roof on a house collapses. A castle burns. A bird's nest with egg is abandoned. Everyday objects, a pitcher, a plate, a bowl and a bell, suggest a civilization interrupted.

Finally the viewer is comforted by contrast. The virtue of charity depicts townspeople offering bread to the hungry, water to the thirsty, succor for the wounded. Looks familiar. Sounds familiar. It's New York, New York. A wonderful town.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS