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In Queens, the American Dream Is a Technicolor Celebration

By Anya von Bremzen

01.31.19

From the March/April 2019 issue

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To see the diversity of the United States, go to Queens.

Photo by Dolly Faibyshev 

To see the diversity of the United States, go to Queens.

Anya von Bremzen dives deep into one of the most ethnically diverse places on Earth—New York City’s borough of Queens.

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I join the throngs streaming through the carved granite gateway of the temple. It’s Ganesha Chaturthi, the festival of the birth of Lord Ganesh, beloved elephant-headed Hindu god of wisdom. To a thundering drum and the blare of a nadaswaram (like an enlarged clarinet), a bare-chested priest leads a procession around the central shrine, where a statue of Ganesh sits decked out in garlands and pompoms.

Suddenly, frantic volunteers rush about, shooing back the crowds draped in maroons and magentas and yellows. Smaller statues of Ganesh enter, five in all, on pallets supported on devotees’ shoulders. The devotees line up and start swaying to the surging rhythm of the music.

Is this Kerala? Varanasi? Nope. We’re in the New York City borough of Queens—the Flushing neighborhood, to be exact—a half-hour subway ride across the East River from Grand Central Station in Manhattan. The celebration is happening at the Hindu Temple Society of North America, also known as the Ganesh Temple.

Each year, Hindu devotees march through the streets to celebrate the birth of Lord Ganesh.
I have lived in Queens—in Jackson Heights, a few miles from Flushing—since the mid 1980s, but it had never occurred to me to attend a service at the Ganesh Temple. I am not Hindu. Religion has never played a role in my life. I grew up as a pork-eating Jew in the atheist USSR, where Jewishness was decreed an ethnic identity, not a religious one. Today, my partner, Barry, and I are culinary multiculturalists. We make gefilte fish on Passover, ham for Russian Orthodox Easter, herbaceous Persian pilafs for Nowruz—drawn to the foods and the festive traditions but not to any actual god. It was the promise, in fact, of the famous dosas at the Ganesh Temple canteen that had brought me to Flushing that evening.

And yet. At this time when American politics have never felt more divisive, I was swept up by the emotion of the spectacle I encountered at the temple, by the welcome I received. It occurred to me that Queens, where more than 130 languages are spoken, offers an inspirational model of tolerant diversity. Perhaps the cultural and religious mosaic around me could cure a heart broken by politics. I hoped to find comfort in rituals, stories, and yes, new food experiences. I was seeking faith, you could say, in this shared America.

Family members young and old take part in the festivities.
Time to Feed the Monks

On a backstreet in Elmhurst, the neighborhood just south of Jackson Heights, a few blocks beyond some of the best Thai restaurants this side of Bangkok, past apartment buildings where teens drift by, texting—a fairy-tale vision stops Barry and me in our tracks.

On top of a bland, two-story brick building rises a dazzling blue-roofed chalet capped by a golden-horned filial. In the courtyard in front of us, a glossy white Buddha reclines amid smaller Buddhas and a jumble of flowers and fruit offerings.

Behold Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram, New York’s main Thai Buddhist temple.

Over the years, Barry and I have seen the temple’s saffron-robed monks on their morning alms rounds, collecting food and donations. We wanted to learn what happened when they returned to their temple. Now, removing our shoes on the temple steps, we’re suddenly hesitant: Will we be regarded as farang (foreigner) interlopers?

Wat Buddha Thai Thavorn Vanaram is New York’s main Thai Buddhist temple and has seven resident monks.
A few friendly nods greet us as we slip onto a side bench in the main prayer room. Barefoot monks are sitting cross-legged on a raised platform, their pumpkin-shaped metal alms bowls beside them. An extremely lifelike monk statue meditates close by under a blown-up photo portrait of . . . himself. He’s the late Phra Ratchapipatnathorn, the temple’s Bangkok-based founder. Some 20 worshippers of all ages sit on the floor, cell phones discreetly in reach. Most, I note, have brought plastic tubs filled with offerings for the monks: new saffron robes and lightbulbs, toothpaste and Tylenol.

The Wat’s seven resident monks are governed by Patimokkha, the monastic code of Theravada Buddhism, Thailand’s dominant faith. The code forbids them to cook, work, handle money—even to express gratitude for donations.

“They rely on us laity for their survival,” a gracious gentleman named Pon explains when prayers are over. Pon is a businessman volunteering at the Wat while on a visit from Bangkok. “They’re our community project!” interjects Sue, a sixtysomething Thai immigrant who comes bustling over to join in. The monks, she tells us, are charged in turn with meditating and chanting, presiding over ceremonies, giving blessings and counsel.

“It’s how they practice tham bun—achieving merit,” Pon adds.

We follow Sue into the temple’s commodious kitchen, where we find volunteers achieving merit their way, by preparing an intensely fragrant lunch for the monks.

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Some volunteers are old-timer émigrés; others, including a young dude in shorts and a Red Bull cap, are tourists from Thailand who found their way to Queens to pay respects to the monks. Two ladies pour thick palm-sugar dressing over a plate of boiled eggs. Others are filling bowls with fiery nam prik dips or stirring pots with simmering curries. Red Bull Cap’s contribution? Ten packets of McDonald’s apple pies.

Sue now hands me a platter of bananas and grapefruit and invites me to join the line to present trays of food to the monks. I count more than 30 dishes—all for the saffron-clad seven, who spoon the offerings into their alms bowls. “Don’t touch the monks or hand them anything directly,” Sue warns, looking ready to slap my hand if I do.

After the monks are fed, we join the volunteers in the kitchen to feast on the leftovers. It all resembles a Southern church potluck, only involving frogs’ legs and galangal. Sam, a cool octogenarian who once owned a seafood restaurant in Manhattan, washes the dishes. “It makes me feel spiritual,” he says with quiet simplicity.

Another tiny, generous act of tham bun.

Food trucks and stalls often sell local cuisine throughout the borough.
This Little Light

It’s Sunday, and the pocket-size church La Luz del Mundo (The Light of the World) is packed. We’re on a residential street on the border of Jackson Heights and Corona, the neighborhood to the southeast. The white, low-ceilinged space is strikingly bare (no crosses, no Virgins), save for its azure window frames and the blue, white, and gold of the lacy mantillas covering the heads of the women.

The pastor sermonizes in quiet Spanish; a small choir sings a cappella. And then the congregation kneels down, in silence at first—until the moans start up, like a wind’s low cries, mostly from women, their mantillas resembling a flock of landed butterflies. The scene’s humble, intimate intensity and visual beauty send shivers of awe through Barry and me.

Ten minutes later, it’s over, and the worshippers stream out to a sidewalk lunch of rice, beans, chilaquiles, and guisos (Latin American stews).

Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights offers a feast of international street food.
It was, in fact, a sign advertising ricas pupusas—the hand-patted, griddled Salvadoran corn cakes filled with gooey cheese or red beans—that first lured me here about a year ago. The pupusas are sold most Saturdays to raise funds for the church, which observes a Mexico-born type of Christian primitivism. Founded in 1926, it’s Mexico’s second-largest faith after Catholicism and claims millions of followers worldwide. María, a chief pupusa maker and one of the congregation’s 225 members, invited me for the Sunday service. “Was it He,” she mused evangelically, “who called you here?”

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María loads up our paper plates and leads us down to the trim basement to join tables of Mexican, Salvadoran, and Colombian lunchers. She lives in New Jersey and works cleaning a department store. After three decades in this country she still gets by without English. She hails from Guadalajara, where La Luz del Mundo is headquartered. On her cell phone María shows off Guadalajara’s flagship temple, a soaring space-age pyramid. Humble it’s not.

“We practice the Christianity of early Christian apostolic times,” says Bartolomeo, another churchgoer, in English. He’s thirtyish, modestly elegant in a Sunday suit and loosened tie. “We don’t celebrate Christmas and Easter, only a Holy Supper in August. Hermano and hermana [brother and sister] we call each other.”

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Bartolomeo crossed the border from Mexico on foot when he was 14. “I walked for days in the desert,” he continues in Spanish. “I cried every Christmas here, missing my family. Then my abuela in Mexico suggested I come to this church.” Here he gained a community and met his wife. And in the Bible he found the answers to all his daily questions. “When we look at each other,” declares Bartolomeo, “we see only Jesus Christ.”

This fundamentalist note makes me, an atheist, uneasy. Then I look at the shared tables, the vitality of immigrant communal life forged here. “We visit each other in hospitals,” María says, as if reading my mind. “Raise money for hermanos in need. Help them with finding a job.”

The hermanos and hermanas around us nod in agreement. The sincerity of their response makes me fall silent.

The Hindu Temple Society of North America in Queens celebrates Ganesh Chaturthi with cultural dress and music.
Celebrating the Elephant-Headed God

Many times I’ve hurried past the boxy exterior of Elmhurst’s Satya Narayan Mandir, obliviously en route to Thai shaved ice a block away. But as I step inside for Madhyahna, the midday prayers to Ganesh, I discover what I’ve been missing.

The lushly carpeted open space glows with a dramatically lit pantheon of multiarmed Hindu deities and long-bearded venerables, statues decked out in gleaming headdresses and garlands and spangly robes.

Satya Narayan means truth and highest god; a mandir is a Hindu temple. But this temple, called a gurmandir, is actually Sindhi, thought to be the only one in the United States. Sindhis come from the section of Punjab that became part of Pakistan in 1947. They uniquely observe both Hindu and Sikh faiths. They, too, are celebrating Ganesh’s birthday.

Members of the Hindu Temple Society of North America prepare a sacrificial melon that will be smashed on the floor to ward off evil.
Barry hangs back as I troop straight to the crowd by the main Ganesh statue. They’re a mix of middle-aged men and sari-clad women carrying marigolds. They chant, punctuating the devotional verses with “Ommmm,” led by a priest in a Nehru-style vest. The prayer bell rings. Across the room, another priest, sitting in a lotus pose on a platform, sings to a hypnotic drumbeat. His voice takes over from the chanting, trancelike, building to a crescendo. I find myself singing along at the top of my lungs with the Ganesh salutation that punctuates his song periodically. Namo namah . . . namo namah. . . .

“Beautiful music,” Barry says, complimenting the priest when we approach his platform. “Ghazals?”

The pandit (an honorific term for priest) looks taken aback. “Ghazals? Ghazals celebrate a woman’s beauty! This was religious music called bhajan.”

“Ah . . . ,” notes Barry sheepishly.

To smooth over this gaffe, I ask what foods Ganesh likes.

“Bananas,” answers the priest. “Also yellow cakes called laddoo.” He hands us both.

Back at the Ganesh statue, we find the elephant god’s potbelly covered by pink robes and a thick garland of roses. Devotees litter his throne with rose petals, fruit, dollar bills. Some press fingertips red with sandalwood powder on him. Nearby, worshippers pour milk over a foot-high phallic shape rising from a dishlike receptacle—lingam and yoni, symbols, we’re informed, of the male power of Lord Shiva and female power represented by the goddess Parvati. They also happen to be Ganesh’s dad and mom.

The Hindu Temple Society of North America honors Ganesh, its patron deity, with a parade.
“You can also pour orange juice over the lingam,” an elegant older gent named Manish says. “But better Ganges water.”

“You can get water from the Ganges here?” I ask.

“Yes, available,” Manish says matter-of-factly. “Did you like our drummer? Competition for musicians is fierce between Queens temples, but we lured the best!”

Downstairs, food awaits. As we enjoy rice, puffy poori breads, lentil dhal, and elbow macaroni heavily spiced with masala, Manish—a temple member since its founding three decades ago—explains the meaning of langar prasad, our meal. It’s a central Sikh practice. Volunteers prepare food free to all comers—independent of status and caste. “We have a philosophy that renounces caste differences,” Manish declares. “Everyone’s welcome here,” he adds. “Ev-er-y-one.

A cup of butter tea is part of wedding festivities at the United Sherpa Association.
Pass the Butter Tea 

Shops that serve Himalayan momo dumplings crowd around Jackson Heights’ subway hub. And just a short stroll away from there, prayer flags cast their goodwill on the polychromatic portal of the United Sherpa Association.

Best known for their Mount Everest climbing and guiding prowess, the Sherpa people hail from eastern Nepal, and now several thousand live in New York. “But our center is for all Himalayans,” says Urgen Sherpa, the association’s president, noting that his home country boasts a Queens-like multitude of Nepalese ethnicities.

Once a Sherpa wedding ceremony concludes, it's time to dance.
He takes us through the richly textiled temple with its long, layered-fabric chutes hanging from the ceiling and altar adorned with ornaments made of butter and flour. The Dalai Lama’s visage smiles at us; Sherpas practice Tibetan Buddhism. Most Nepalese identify as Hindu, but the two religions blur. Buddha, Urgen Sherpa reminds us, was born in Nepal.

Today there’s a memorial service marked with a puja (prayer) led by a visiting monk. Sherpa ladies in long-aproned wraparound dresses offer paper cups of butter tea to arriving worshippers. Afterward, the building is taken over by a pre-party for a marriage ceremony, a kaleidoscopic swirl of silk dresses, massive turquoise amulet necklaces, and hats resembling fantastical fur-lined flowerpots with flaps.

Downstairs in the community center, we join lunch, this one of chapatis and spiced Nepalese chickpeas. Sherpas may be Buddhist, but Heineken and Corona flow freely. A genial middle-aged celebrant in a Stetson hat introduces himself as the association’s treasurer, Phurba. A U.S. resident for 23 years, he’s an Uber driver these days. Indeed many New York Sherpas have swapped mountaineering for the wheel; Urgen Sherpa himself is a livery driver.

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Now a raucous gyaling, a Tibetan horn, starts squawking upstairs. We climb back to witness the groom in prodigiously fringed red headgear edging his way through the throng under a yellow parasol held aloft by his best man. On the street, revelers pile cases of beer into minivans bound for Manhattan, where the wedding proper will continue “loooong past midnight,” Phurba promises.

The attire for Sherpa marriage ceremonies include brightly colored silk dresses, turquoise amulet necklaces, and fur-lined hats.
Church Goes Electric

It was once again food that led us to a place of worship. Before we ever attended a service at the tiny Indonesian Pentecostal Church Ebenezer in Elmhurst, we sampled its community’s cuisine.

Elmhurst’s Broadway is a pan-Asian artery dense with Taiwanese and Hong Kong–style noodle shops, Vietnamese báhn mì parlors, hipster Thai pastry spots, and excellent Malaysian joints. Here the mind-blowing deliciousness of the New York Indonesian Food Bazaar takes place one Saturday a month at St. James Episcopal Church.

On the day we visited the bazaar, a man who works at the Indonesian consulate told me that roughly 5,000 Indonesians live in the New York area. “There aren’t nearly enough Indonesian restaurants to satisfy our cravings!” he said. Hence the bazaar’s thick throng of regulars who load up on pastel ayam (a kind of chicken pot pie), devour sticks of sweet-charred satés, and compare green, pandan-flavored glutinous rice cakes from one stall to the next.

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As we wandered along from a stand where Buddhist ladies hand-pounded peanuts to make sauce for gado-gado (a raw and cooked salad) to a table with sweetly spiced jackfruit curry dished out by Muslim women in head scarves, we fell into a conversation with cooks selling babi rica, spicy pork from North Sulawesi.

“Come to our service tomorrow!” they encouraged brightly.

And so we find ourselves at Ebenezer church, in a spare, windowless second-floor space that’s even more modest than La Luz del Mundo, with which it shares doctrine, more or less. But Ebenezer’s service, in the Bahasa Indonesia language, is something else entirely—a sort of mini televangelical showtime.

Here the athletic, natty, fortyish pastor booms away on the mic, then drops his tone to intimate and folksy. The words “Taking God SERIOUSLY” are projected grandly on a screen behind him. Drums, bass, and electric piano kick off as four showily dressed backup singers join the pastor on a Christian pop song that brings the small congregation to their feet. They sway with arms outstretched, while the screen shows images of ecstatic believers.

In Queens, the Ganesha Chaturthi celebration takes place at the Hindu Temple Society of North America, also known as the Ganesh Temple.
And here we are, once again vigorously welcomed to a Queens basement church lunch, a ritual now so familiar and oddly sustaining I can barely imagine a weekend without it. Once more we listen to immigrant stories, are proudly shown cell phone pics of wonders of their old homelands (this time a marine park off North Sulawesi), and rhapsodize over the food (a fish-ball soup, bakso, prepared by one of the backup singers).

Drifting home afterward, I reflect on the existential comfort and power of communal rituals. I flash back to coming to the United States as an 11-year-old girl with my mom, both of us stateless refugees with all we loved and owned left behind forever. I think of my misery and alienation at Christmas in our new Philadelphia suburb, where I felt so out of place. And then of the aid we received from Jewish Community Services, of being invited to our first-ever Passover at a synagogue. Would my first homesick American years have been less wrenching if we had landed in today’s Queens, where everybody has come from somewhere else? It’s a comforting thought.

Sherpa wedding ceremonies include pre-parties with traditional Nepalese foods.

Where to Capture the Full Flavor of Queens

The New York City borough of Queens is one of the most diverse places in the world. In the couple of square miles encompassing the Jackson Heights, Corona, and Elmhurst neighborhoods, you can sample the plumpest Tibetan momos (dumplings) and Salvadoran pupusas, discover a basement mosque, chant along to Hindu devotional hymns, and help feed Thai monks—all in one day. Time your visit right, and chances are you’ll get to share a meal with the regulars. And while you’re there, be sure to check out the restaurant scene, which serves some of New York City’s most authentic ethnic food. Read on for writer Anya von Bremzen’s favorites.

Indian Subcontinent

In Jackson Heights’ “Little India”—increasingly known as Himalayan Heights for the influx of Nepalese and Tibetans—compare the silky-skinned, spicy Nepalese chicken momos at Nepali Bhancha Ghar  to the pouchy hand-shaped beef- or greens-filled Tibetan versions next door at Potala, decorated with images of Tibet’s holiest palace. For Indian sweets any Hindu deity would approve of, try the delicate confections called mithai at Maharaja Sweets. For something truly unusual, order yhosi (steamed buckwheat) with curries and chutney or sukuti (jerky) with pumpkin “gravy” at Mustang Thakali Kitchen, representing the rugged mountain cuisine of Nepal.

Southeast Asia

In Elmhurst, the strip of Thai restaurants along Woodside Avenue presents a mind-boggling concentration of lemongrass- and kaffir-lime-scented deliciousness. Try the northeastern Thai crispy fried fish larb at Hug Esan or choose from a dozen curries (such as kee lek with barbecue pork and cassia leaves) at Khao Kang. Dessert? Pick between Technicolor shaved ices at the Tea Cup Café or the purple limeade colored with butterfly pea flowers at Khao Nom. In a Malaysian mood? Go for the brawny char kway teow noodles or tangy asam laksa soup at Pulau Pinang. For the next date of the monthly Indonesian Food Bazaar, visit its Facebook page.

Latin America

Most Saturdays, ladies sell pupusas (handmade stuffed Salvadoran corn cakes) in front of Iglesia La Luz del Mundo. On other days, order pupusas at Mi Pequeño El Salvador. Follow with empanadas and dulce de leche pastries at the festive La Gran Uruguaya (85-06 37th Ave.). Or stop by the Ecuadoran food trucks parked weekends on Warren Street off Roosevelt Avenue for crisp-skinned hornado (roast pig) with mote (giant hominy kernels) and banana leaf–bundled tamales. Another reason to visit on weekends? Semiclandestine barbacoa and taco extravaganzas set up in the back of some Mexican grocery stores, such as Cinco de Mayo Food Market or San Antonio Farm Grocery.

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