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Bench Press

How many other things are there in our public spaces that exist just for us to enjoy



There are many reasons I like the block our family has lived on for many years.

I like the people. I like its central location within our neighborhood. And, I like that we have a yeshivah gedolah as our neighbor. The Torah and tefillah emanating from it gives our block the zechus of partaking in two of the world’s supporting pillars. And with one of our neighbors running an active chesed operation out of their home, we end up with all three.

There are also the smaller things that endear the block to me, like the fact that there’s no parking anytime on one side, especially since it’s a pretty well-trafficked street.

And then there’s the bench.

I’d call it a park bench, except it’s not in a park. For years now, our neighbors in the corner home at one end of our block have had this bench on their property, built by their then-teenage son Eli in a woodworking workshop at his yeshivah. Although it’s not public property per se, it’s there for anyone and everyone to use, our neighbors’ gift to the block, and the neighborhood.

Situated under a leafy, not-too-large tree at the edge of their property abutting the sidewalk, it’s angled to face the intersection and provide a good view of the people and cars passing through it. It’s an honest-to-goodness park bench, minus the park.

The locals seem to get plenty of use out of the bench. Elderly folks and dog owners take a respite on it during their walks. Mothers and fathers spend time there with their little ones, watching the cars and the people go by. Its leafy canopy gives refuge from summer’s heat, and it’s a vantage point from which to enjoy the natural art exhibit autumn’s foliage puts on for us.

From the way I’m speaking you’d think I sometimes sit there, too. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I did.

And still, it entices, charms me. There’s something about a park bench. In a recent essay entitled “The Park Bench Is an Endangered Species,” British novelist Jonathan Lee speaks for me, too, in musing that a “good park bench leaves me in a state perched somewhere between nostalgia and eager anticipation.”

When I look at an empty park bench, I see an ongoing, albeit wordless, invitation beckoning passersby to come on over, sit down and stay awhile. A standing invitation to sit, you might say.

Mr. Lee writes of the “bench’s quiet stoicism, the way they’re willing to wait out their turn in every weather, remaining available to all-comers….” He describes a recent Sunday wandering through Central Park:

I was sweating in my suit jacket, but in a buoyant mood. To be in Central Park in what is hopefully the pandemic’s twilight is to be reminded of the beauty of living in a city that still makes space for park benches in the modern cityscape…. At Cherry Hill, one bench was being used as a table for a two-year-old’s birthday party; another bench held a bucket of fountain water that was being enjoyed by one of the horses being offered up for carriage rides. At the Conservatory Garden, a bride [was] posing for photographs on one black bench, while a busker napped on another…. None of the benches complained. They were possessed of the quiet dignity of a work of art — but unlike most works of art, they could support a whole family.

Consider: How many other things are there in our public spaces that exist just for us to enjoy, and that can actually make us a little bit better as people?

The park bench is one. It’s a place to sit and relax, to doze off, to read, to look around and enjoy the gift of Hashem’s world and maybe even think about Him a bit, or just think, period (how novel — assuming one can resist the merciless pull of the smartphone). Again I find myself nodding in agreement when Lee writes that perhaps “the greatest power of the park bench is its capacity to retain and encourage the art of observation. A good bench catches us in our quietest, most vulnerable moments, when we may be open to imagining new narratives and revisiting old ones.”

It’s that rare venue catering to sociable and antisocial types alike — although not, of course, on the same bench. It’s a place where families can sit altogether, that friends can use to schmooze and spouses to implement Rabbi Shafier’s advice about a weekly getaway. But it’s also somewhere to go to just be alone.

Those who provide people with a bench to sit on do a real chesed. But at times, a bench can be a vehicle for us, the sitters, to do a chesed, too. “Often,” Lee writes, “a bench is the only thing stopping a name or experience from being forgotten. It might be a gold plaque dedicated to a relative who died….”

His words reminded me of a story I’d read recently in the book Shmuel B’Doro on the life of Rav Shmuel Auerbach, who often took evening walks around the Shaarei Chesed neighborhood with older talmidim, speaking in learning as they strolled. Invariably, Reb Shmuel would stop at a little garden along his route named Gan Ephraim, and he’d rest a bit on a bench there before continuing on.

A talmid once asked him why he did so, and he explained: “There was an elderly Jew in Rechavia, a man of little means who never had children, who used his meager savings to donate a bench to the municipality of Yerushalayim. This is someone who endured unspeakable horrors during World War II, a bighearted man who loved Hashem, despite being weak in practical observance of the mitzvos. Whenever I pass here, I try to spend a few minutes learning l’illui nishmaso while sitting on his bench.”

And all these benefits, spiritual and physical, mental and social, are there for the taking at no cost. Imagine that: Something that’s there for us to enjoy and benefit from with no profit motive lurking behind it.

I wish more of our neighborhoods were dotted with sitting benches. My neighborhood is entirely residential, with nary a traffic light from one end of it to the other; yet, only in the local playground can one find a bench to sit on, and even those are mainly places for parents to sit watching their kids run and climb and slide. The one on our block is more in the classic park-bench tradition: a place to sit and watch life unfold, or to do nothing at all.

Which, it so happens, is quite something.


Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 882. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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