In the opening sequence of the very noir movie Blue Velvet, the camera pans across a quiet, bucolic scene. But as the camera zooms in closer and closer and closer, we end up looking into the subterranean world below the pleasant scene. And there we see worms and centipedes and insects and rot. It is classic David Lynch imagery. Everything is fine, we say, but glance at the underbelly of the world and there find horror, or at least the very unseemly.

It’s a nihilistic notion that the world rests on a rotten foundation being eaten out from under us by voracious beasts, large and small. Because the decay is so far out of our reach, it seems unlikely that there’s a thing we can do about it. In such a hopeless world, does anything we do make a difference? Or can we just suck it up and learn to live with the rot?

These thoughts came to mind as I read yesterday’s New York Times. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College released a study on Thursday that mapped DNA found in New York’s subway system — a crowded, largely subterranean behemoth that carries 5.5 million riders on an average weekday, and is filled with hundreds of species of bacteria (mostly harmless), the occasional spot of bubonic plague, and a universe of enigmas. Strikingly, about half of the sequences of DNA they collected could not be identified — they did not match any organism known to the National Center for Biotechnology Information or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Almost half of the DNA found on the system’s surfaces did not match any known organism and just 0.2 percent matched the human genome [emphasis mine].

What does it mean to live on a planet that has been researched and measured and analyzed, only to be told that almost half of a sample of DNA from a New York subway matched no known organism? Are their alien species taking the train to Brooklyn? What forms of life have we still not bumped into formally?

It’s a mean and angry world filled with fanatics who would burn us all alive. It is a scary world filled with fundamentalists of all stripes who denounce diversity as evil.  Do they outnumber us or we them? We can despair over the cooties, seen and unseen, and give in to the rot. Or we can just keep on keeping on. There are no guarantees. There are no neutral zones. There’s no such thing as true safety.

Jews have every reason to give up. We have every rational excuse to jump ship. History has pummeled us senseless. We have all heard stories of Jews who changed their names, who denied their Jewishness, survivors of various anti-Jewish violence who raised their kids as Christians because it was too scary to be “out”. We decry their behavior but we should instead acknowledge their fear as something real to be respected and pitied. The truth is that in the fight or flight equation, running away is a legitimate choice.

The guy who did the DNA subway research was inspired by watching his baby daughter at preschool, sticking stuff in her mouth and then handing to the next kid who does the same and so forth. He marveled at her resilience and wondered just how much contact we had with others. And apparently, even after subterranean contact with utterly unknown bacteria and other microbes on subway poles, humans manage just fine – even without Purell.

Yes we’re still here… Against all odds, despite all cooties.  Like a fiddler on a roof we struggle to keep our balance as we play our music. And not just because of tradition, though Tevye is correct… Long after other nations and peoples have risen and fell, we continue to exist because we have a story to tell, a story that acknowledges the rot while not being overcome by it. Life isn’t so great… but the alternative ain’t so hot.

The early mapmakers wrote in the unknown and unmapped regions, “Here there be dragons.” And do you know how the Jewish people respond? Full speed ahead.

Shabbat Shalom,


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