Lisa Keller is the author of Triumph of Order: Democracy and Public Space in New York and London and associate professor of history at Purchase College, State University of New York.
Not many Jews, let alone Christians, are familiar with Birkat Hachamah, a relatively obscure ceremony held for the blessing of the sun. One reason for its obscurity is that it occurs only once every 28 years, when the sun is supposed to be in the same position as it was at the moment of creation. Today is the 28 year cycle mark, and this morning a celebration organized by the ultra-religious group Chabad took place at sunrise at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. Though Birkat Hachamah is unknown to many, the history of the celebration reflects the city’s long struggle to balance the concerns of order with the right of free speech.
That a religious celebration will take place is not unusual, but that that it will occur in a public space is. More than a century ago, a rabbi and his followers were arrested for trying to celebrate Birkat Hachamah in Tompkins Square Park. In the densely crowded Lower East Side in April 1897 it was difficult to see the low sunrise because of the rows of tenements blocking the view. So Rabbi Moses Wechsler of Temple Brith Solam brought his congregants to the only open space available to their neighborhood, Tompkins Square Park. The Park area had morphed over the century from a swamp, to an open ground, to a drill ground, to a park, to a wasteland, to a public protest ground, and back to a park. During the January 1874 “Blood or Bread” riot, when thousands gathered in the park to protest unemployment and hunger, a fracas had erupted and dozens of arrests resulted. This was a watershed event, because it was the first major one in which New York City used the new 1872 state law requiring permits for 20 or more people assembling or marching. Few knew about this at the time, one of the reasons for the disruption.
The aftermath of the “Blood or Bread” riot was a turning point for free speech. A debate opened as to whether people could say what they wanted to in public or use the streets as they wanted—and elicited an answer to the question about who had authority over these issues. This was long before free speech was discussed as a judicial issue; rather it was up to newspapers and citizens to engage in this debate. Should we tolerate disorder in our streets, allowing people to do as they wish? “No,” was the resounding consensus. Conversely, should we stop people from “making foolish speeches,” as one newspaper termed it, infringing upon free speech? The answer was also a resounding no—free speech was protected, sacred, and inviolable. But in the turbulent politics of the late 19th century, in the world of immigrants, new political ideas, surging population, and rising wealth, it was order that won the day. New York, to grow and prosper, needed to provide safety and security, and thus it needed controls. The permit rule withstood any challenge and became a permanent fixture of public life in the city. Free speech had to confirm to the permit law.
Rabbi Wechsler and his followers fell victim to the rule of order 25 years later in 1897. He was arrested for assembling without a permit, trampling the grass, and straying off park walks. The indignant rabbi responded that he thought “the public parks were free to the people, and that a person could do as he pleased in those places as long as he was not disorderly.” It turned out not to be the case. The arrest was upheld, although the rabbi was discharged on the condition he did not file a complaint against the policeman.
So if you want to celebrate creation, make sure you have a permit.