A Long Friendship Amid an Old Conflict

Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil are the subjects of the new book, ‘An Improbable Friendship’

Ruth Dayan, left, and Raymonda Tawil in Malta. The women, each linked to famous figures on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have been friends for decades.ENLARGE
Ruth Dayan, left, and Raymonda Tawil in Malta. The women, each linked to famous figures on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have been friends for decades. PHOTO: AN IMPROBABLE FRIENDSHIP

The original plan was to interview Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil when the two peace activists visited New York this fall to promote “An Improbable Friendship,” a book written by Anthony David about their 40-year friendship.

I was eager—Ms. Dayan is the ex-wife of the late Israeli general, defense minister and war hero Moshe Dayan—but skeptical. She’s 98 years old, after all. And as robust mentally as she was purported to be, international travel these days can be enervating for someone half her age.

So when I was informed a few weeks ago that Ms. Dayan wasn’t making the trip, I was disappointed but not surprised. A phone interview was proposed instead, though if my experience with ancient relatives is any guide, much of the time would be spent repeating questions as they adjusted their hearing aids.

But when Ms. Dayan’s granddaughter Amalia Dayan, a Manhattan gallery owner, was offered as a go-between, I hoped it might work out.

“We became close as two adults,” Ms. Dayan told me as she sat in Luxembourg & Dayan, her elegant, minimalistic Upper East Side gallery and prepared to call her grandmother in Israel, seven hours ahead. “She tells the best stories. She remembers everything—her life story, the story of Israel.”

Ms. Dayan with immigrants in Israel in 1954.ENLARGE
Ms. Dayan with immigrants in Israel in 1954. PHOTO: AN IMPROBABLE FRIENDSHIP

Not going as far back as Moses, perhaps, but a few years after she was born in Haifa in 1917.

And what, if any recollection, did Amalia, who is 43, have of her grandfather Moshe Dayan?

Her grandmother divorced him in 1971 because of their political differences, she has said. Her husband wasn’t just a hero in Israel but also in the U.S., gracing the cover of Time magazine, in his trademark eye patch, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.

“I was 8 when he passed away,” Ms. Dayan recalled. “I remember his aura. His charisma. The way people near me perceived him.”

Ms. Dayan said she’d never met Ms. Tawil, now 75 years old, who wasn’t just any Palestinian peace activist. She was also Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law.

“They met secretly,” Ms. Dayan explained.

The time had come for our phone call. When Ruth Dayan picked up in Tel Aviv her voice, over the speakerphone, was strong, confident and crystal clear.

“I will be 99 at the beginning of March,” she boasted.

Amalia said, “I was telling Ralph that you have more energy than me.”

“I have to count my minutes now,” Ruth joked. “Especially with this book. I read it a bunch of times in order to see if it’s OK.”

She’s not optimistic about the state of the Middle East, believing peace suffered a severe blow back in 1995 with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who embraced the peace process. “Every day it gets worse,” she said.

Ms. Tawil in the West Bank in 1976.ENLARGE
Ms. Tawil in the West Bank in 1976. PHOTO: AN IMPROBABLE FRIENDSHIP

She hopes the book offers a sort of case study, through her friendship with Ms. Tawil, of how things could be different. Even though it didn’t get off to an auspicious start: Ms. Tawil encountered Ms. Dayan in 1970 delivering toys to a hospital in Nablus on the West Bank and gave her a piece of her mind, blaming Moshe Dayan for the wounded children.

Ms. Dayan refused to accept responsibility for her husband’s actions. “I’m very close to the Palestinians I like and work with,” she explained. “But I feel a lot could have been done over all these years to see two states. Or one state even. The point is to talk to each other. It’s so easy. We look alike. There are very big similarities between Israelis and Palestinians.”

While Ms. Dayan didn’t make it to the U.S., two weeks earlier she visited Ms. Tawil in Malta, where she lives.

“I didn’t know you were going,” Amalia said. “Suddenly I get this text.”

Ruth Dayan recounted how Israeli tourists recognized her at her hotel—“I don’t know why they put my face on TV all the time,” she said—and reacted in disbelief to discover that Ms. Tawil, who joined her, wasn’t Jewish.

“They couldn’t believe—she looks like an Ashkenazi,” Ms. Dayan said, referring to Jews who came mainly from Central and Eastern Europe. “She spoke with them half an hour, talking about peace. She was talking Hebrew to them. They didn’t want to leave.”

A Man Who’s Looked Power in the Teeth

Iranian-born Marc Benhuri has had some famous patients, among them the Shah of Iran

Dentist Marc Benhuri at his Upper East Side office.ENLARGE
Dentist Marc Benhuri at his Upper East Side office. PHOTO: CLAUDIO PAPAPIETRO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Dentists can do well in this town. Some can do very well. But Dr. Marc Benhuri, when we first met at a coffee shop near his East 60th Street office, appeared to be in a league of his own.

He was wearing a Brioni suit and tie, and a watch whose make I didn’t note but which nonetheless radiated prosperity.

“Patek Philippe,” he told me when we got together at his office on a more recent occasion. “I’m a watch collector. I have 34 watches. Cartier. Jaeger-LeCoultre.”

Dr. Benhuri, an Iranian Jew who moved to the U.S. in the 1960s, has written the “Price for Freedom,” a fictionalized account of how the fall of the Shah of Iran, who became a personal friend, and the rise of the ayatollahs, shattered his own family’s dreams.

But that also didn’t necessarily explain the dentist’s excellent taste in ties and wrist wear. However, some of the sartorial mystery started to vanish as Dr. Benhuri, 70 years old, explained the roots, both dental and personal, of his relationship with the Shah.

Dr. Benhuri's Patek Philippe watch.ENLARGE

As he bit into a grilled-cheese sandwich, he recalled his first visit with the ruler of Iran, in 1976. By then, Dr. Benhuri had succeeded at two careers: as an engineer who started a successful booster-cable company and as a pioneer of dental implants.

That’s how he came to meet the Shah, who had fractured his jaw during a skiing accident in Switzerland. Dr. Benhuri was part of a team of experts the Shah summoned, but the only native Iranian and the only one who spoke Farsi.

“My hand was trembling, literally,” Dr. Benhuri recalled. “Thank God I knew self-hypnosis. I took a deep breath. In Farsi I said, ‘Will you please open your mouth.’ ”

The Shah was apparently so satisfied with the results after having lived with a partial denture before his skiing accident—“He didn’t want removable teeth,” Dr. Benhuri explained—that he recommended the dentist to King Hussein of Jordan.

King Hussein, in turn, recommended him to King Khalid of Saudi Arabia. “When I went to get a visa at the Saudi consulate in Rockefeller Center they asked, ‘What’s your religion?’ Dr. Benhuri recalled of his 1983 trip. “I said, ‘Jewish.’ He apologized and said he can’t give me the visa.”

A call from a member of the Saudi royal family resolved the issue, the consul general on his return visit offering him tea, a bowl of fruit and an apology. “He said, ‘By the way, you’re the second Jewish person to get a visa to Saudi Arabia.’ I said, ‘Who was the first?’ He said, ‘ Henry Kissinger.’ ”

The dentist has treated numerous kings, presidents and prime ministers, among them Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and the ruling Al Sabahfamily of Kuwait. Needless to say, they don’t typically come to him. He goes to them.

The Iranian-born Dr. Benhuri has treated world leaders such as the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan.ENLARGE
The Iranian-born Dr. Benhuri has treated world leaders such as the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan. PHOTO: CLAUDIO PAPAPIETRO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Everyone of these world leaders in their residence have an emergency room, ICU, CCU,” Dr. Benhuri explained, referring to intensive and cardiac care units, “and a dental office.”

He said Russian PresidentBoris Yeltsin had among the worst teeth he’s encountered. “I did a full mouth reconstruction,” Dr. Benhuri recalled. “Many of the Russian hierarchy had very bad teeth.”

Back at home, he has treated Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. andLuciano Pavarotti. Unlike other implant surgeons who take months, if not years to complete the job, Dr. Benhuri boasts he can provide a patient a new set of teeth in only three appointments.

“A lot of these people don’t have time,” he explained. “I use IV sedation. I do all the work one day on the upper jaw, and the next day I do the lower jaw.”

He demurred about discussing current patients. However, the walls of his office are decorated with gold records—tokens of appreciation from rock stars—and celebrity photographs, among them a former Yankee player and future Hall of Famer.

At our coffee-shop meeting, Dr. Benhuri had confided he was forced to bow out of a meeting at the Harvard Club the previous evening concerning the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran—he opposes it. The participants, he said, included Dr. Kissinger and grocery-store magnate and former mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis.

A patient, who’d been in a taxicab accident, required emergency dental surgery.

At Last, a Museum on Tort Law

Ralph Gardner Jr. learns a thing or two on his visit to Ralph Nader’s new museum

Ralph Nader in his American Museum of Tort Law, in his hometown of Winsted, Conn.ENLARGE
Ralph Nader in his American Museum of Tort Law, in his hometown of Winsted, Conn. PHOTO: ANDREW SULLIVAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“There are 35,000 museums in the U.S. and a museum on every collectible fruit, vegetable, sports,” Ralph Nader explained. “The doctors have managed to establish maybe over 30 medical-type museums. The timber-and-lumber industry has established very numerous timber-and-lumber museums. But the great legal profession hasn’t gotten around to establishing one.”

I wondered why that might be, even though I suspected I knew the answer. A pile of legal briefs doesn’t pack quite the same punch as a T. Rex skeleton, the Mona Lisa, or Babe Ruth’s World Series bat.

“The benign answer is that they don’t know how to make it interesting,” Mr. Nader went on. “The other is, ‘Let someone else do it. I’m too busy trying cases, lobbying for corporations.’ ”

Mr. Nader, the 81-year-old consumer advocate, author and occasional presidential candidate, has decided to do something about it, creating the American Museum of Tort Law in his hometown of Winsted, Conn. It opened on Sunday.

Is there an accounting museum? Not that I was necessarily equating crunching numbers with the nobility of creating a system of rules that governs human behavior.

I just meant the challenges of translating the subtle drama of that profession might be similar. Then again, there have been endless successful TV series focused on the themes of law and order.

And by the way, what’s a tort?

“It’s when someone wrongfully injures somebody, or property,” Mr. Nader explained patiently. “Like defective cars. GM. Ignition switches. Who hasn’t known someone who hasn’t picked up a hospital-induced infection? Or a bad side effect of drugs like Vioxx? Or toxic exposure in the workplace?”

Ralph Nader with exhibits in his museum.ENLARGE
Ralph Nader with exhibits in his museum. PHOTO: ANDREW SULLIVAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I suppose there’s also this side question: as admirable as the fight on behalf of those who have been wronged, and may not have the power or knowledge to fight for themselves, is that compelling enough reason to persuade people to travel long distances—Winsted is in the rural, northwest corner of Connecticut—to see a museum dedicated to the subject?

Mr. Nader answered the question by taking me on a tour of the institution, a former savings bank on the outskirts of town.

The museum kicks off with a tort history timeline that leads to the museum’s first gallery, devoted to precedent-setting cases. They’re illustrated with lighthearted cartoons, such as 1850’s “Brown v. Kendall,” where in trying to separate two fighting dogs with a stick George Kendall accidentally struck George Brown in the eye.

The decision—Mr. Kendall couldn’t be held liable—was one of the first to recognize fault as a basis for liability.

There is also a children’s nook. Or rather a gallery devoted to “Worst Toys” and toy-related tragedy. Worst toys included a multicolored hedgehog with potentially hazardous hair, and one called Bottle Rocket Party, the name probably saying it all.

But I was eager to get to the main gallery and a beautifully restored 1963 GM Corvair, the sporty-looking rear-engine car prone to crashes, as Mr. Nader detailed in his pioneering work “Unsafe At Any Speed.”

I suggested the vehicle might have more impact, no pun intended, if it was totaled. While the museum’s refrigerator magnets feature the notorious Ford Pinto bursting into flames, the Corvair is the only vehicle on display.

“I had a Corvair that was smashed up,” Mr. Nader reported. “That isn’t the way museum designers operate,” he said in reference to my suggestion. “This is a pretty car. Lethal but pretty.”

Our last stop was the gift shop; perhaps the only museum gift shop in America where you’re likely to find Prosser, Wade and Schwartz’s textbook “Torts: Cases and Materials.” Autographed, no less.

As are several of Mr. Nader’s works. Including a 50th anniversary commemorative edition of “Unsafe At Any Speed” for $100. “It’s incredible how perfect a replica it is,” Mr. Nader marveled as he opened the book to the dedication page and grew solemn.

He’d dedicated it to Harvard Law School classmate Frederick Hughes Condon, paralyzed in a 1961 auto accident.

“There were no seat belts,” recalled Mr. Nader, whose book contributed to Congress passing legislation in 1966 making them standard equipment. “I’d lost a lot of friends in high school and college.”

Uneasy Rider

Bike-Wise, New York Is No Amsterdam


Journalism isn’t typically considered among the riskier of professions—at least if you confine your reporting to the five boroughs. But I undertook an assignment on Wednesday afternoon that put me in imminent physical peril: I rode a Citi Bike for the first time.

Why did it take so long? Because Citi Bike only recently arrived in my Upper East Side neighborhood. Indeed, one of their docking stations is a mere block from my apartment.

I learned of this ostensibly felicitous development while walking my dog one night and running into a couple who live on that block. They moaned about the number of automobile parking spaces the docking station would consume.

I’ve since heard from others encouraging me to investigate journalistically the arrival of Citi Bike in our neighborhood. Some suggested nefarious motives; others conspiracy theories.

“Why here? Why east of Park Avenue? Why so many?” one wrote.

Maybe I’m just naïve, but I tend to think of a bike-share program as a good thing. Bikes don’t pollute. They provide exercise. And they offer a sensible alternative to sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic while your blood pressure rises in direct correlation to the soaring fare on the taxicab meter.

But one reason I wasn’t tempted to mount the sturdy-looking bikes earlier is because they would seem to pose risks even more pressing than those of a cardiovascular nature.

Namely, that you could get thrown head over heels by a car door opening unexpectedly in your path, or crushed under the wheels of a tractor-trailer.

I don’t care what anybody says, New York isn’t a bike city.

People claim that’s changing with the introduction of bike lanes all over the place. And while biking across the Brooklyn Bridge or along the Hudson from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge, one could be momentarily deluded into believing that we’re turning into Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

But spiritually, whether the setting be the boardrooms of Wall Street or the pavement along Sixth Avenue, where I found myself dodging both vehicles and pedestrians, size matters. Survival of the fittest remains the guiding ethos.

Of course, first I had to figure out how to persuade the kiosk at 45th Street and Avenue of the Americas to cough up a ride code that would allow me to unlock a bike and get under way.

It turns out that you can buy an annual membership or 7-day and 24-hour passes. The latter two permit an unlimited number of 30-minute trips, though if you exceed 30 minutes you pay extra.

I might add that I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Some might consider that suicidal. But I thought the beauty of Citi Bike was supposed to be its spontaneity: No cabs in sight? Hop a bike!

What’s the alternative? Carrying a helmet everywhere I go on the off chance I might take a bike ride?

Daily existence makes us feel vulnerable enough. I don’t think we need to tempt it by riding in traffic up Avenue of the Americas, as I found myself doing once I managed to extricate a bike from the dock.

Suggestion to Citi Bike: Add rearview mirrors so riders know what’s gaining on them. I tried to hug the generally unoccupied bus lane. But on the frequent occasions when double-parked vehicles forced me to play chicken with nihilistic cabbies I was reminded that I needed to get serious about estate planning.

I even managed to make conversation at a stoplight with a bike-riding German tourist. But I basically forced myself into such pleasantries to create a sense of normalcy, to produce the fantasy that this was a mode of transportation I’d consider making part of my regular diet.

Entering Central Park at 59th Street, I counted my blessings that I faced no greater threat than horse-drawn carriages, pedicabs and joggers. At least past 72nd Street, where cars were forbidden.

By then it was almost time to exit the park. I rode rather than walked the bike along the pedestrian paths, breaking the law, perhaps, but finally finding somewhere safe to ride.

I also managed to complete the entire odyssey within 20 minutes, and without any wounds.

Out of the Outback, Into the Big City

A celebrated Australian aboriginal artist brings his paintings to Manhattan

Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri with his artwork at Salon 94 Bowery in the Bowery.ENLARGE
Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri with his artwork at Salon 94 Bowery in the Bowery.PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri didn’t so much shake my hand as allow me to handle his.

“They adjust to it,” explained Fred Myers of our customs. An anthropologist at New York University, Prof. Myers was serving as Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s translator. “They know that white people do that.”

I was operating in a near total information vacuum when it came to Australia’s aboriginal people. Mr. Tjapaltjarri ranks as one of their most important artists, and a show of his work is on display at Salon 94 in the Bowery through Oct. 24. It’s better, to my unpracticed eye, and certainly more beautiful than 90% of what passes for contemporary art these days.

I had no idea what Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s native language was, but assumed it might be English. He comes from Australia, after all.

“Pintupi,” Prof. Myers said. “It’s not a written language so it’s a little hard to learn. You can’t take lessons.”

Mr. Tjapaltjarri, who is believed to be in his early 60s, and his family made headlines in 1984 when they came into contact with outsiders for the first time, part of a “lost tribe” of nomadic hunters. “It was very isolated,” Prof. Myers said of their homeland. “They were living about 700 kilometers west of Alice Springs.”

I had no idea where Alice Springs was either.

“The center of Australia,” Prof. Myers added helpfully. “They were among the last people in Australia to be living as hunters and gatherers. It’s a very harsh desert.”

While Mr. Tjapaltjarri, a celebrated artist, had been on a plane before, this was his first visit to New York, or anywhere outside Australia. My idea was that we take a stroll around the neighborhood, though I’m not sure the Bowery is necessarily indicative of the splendors of our city.

Someone had said that Mr. Tjapaltjarri enjoyed sweets and suggested we go for ice cream. This information turned out to utterly and completely incorrect.

I always try to find something, anything, the person I’m interviewing and I have in common. I realized it might be more of a challenge in this case. But I thought we might share a passion for Cadbury Daily Milk chocolate bars or Fry’s Turkish Delight, since I understand such products are readily available in Australia.

“They’re big meat eaters,” Prof. Myers said. “If they have a choice they’d rather have meat.”

“Kangaroo,” added Paul Sweeney, who represents Papunya Tula Artists, Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s community arts center, and is himself from Alice Springs. “Emu. They hunt feral cats.”

“Feral cats?”

“They’re quite ferocious.”

In any case, it quickly became apparent that the artist wasn’t up for a stroll. This seemed the result, in approximately equal parts, of jet lag, culture shock, and genial resignation.

“They’re trusting,” Prof. Myers said.

That morning they had visited the Top of the Rock observatory in Rockefeller Center.

While not as tall as the Empire State Building or the new observation deck at One World Trade Center—“Shorter lines,” Mr. Sweeney pointed out—it was plenty tall enough, given the parched, flat landscape from which Mr. Tjapaltjarri hails. “It’s sandhill country,” Mr. Sweeney said. “You don’t need to get high to see a long way.”

New York University anthropologist Fred Myers and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri in front of one of the artist’s works.ENLARGE
New York University anthropologist Fred Myers and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri in front of one of the artist’s works. PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

What did the artist think of the view? “Crazy white folks taking photos,” he said through his interpreters.

I would think Mr. Tjapaltjarri, as an artist, might enjoy a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art, but neither was on the agenda.

“Generally speaking, things that aren’t incredibly recognizable are a little hard to appreciate,” Mr. Sweeney said. “They don’t have exposure to it in their day-to-day lives.”

While Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s paintings, which range in price from $25,000 to $80,000, appear abstract, the subject matter is apparently quite specific—ancestral stories, the swirling sands of Australia’s desert, the dotted body paint people decorate themselves with for sacred ceremonies.

“The paint reflects off the firelight and the movements get this strobe action, like Studio 54,” Prof. Myers explained to me. “They identify that as ancestral power being brought into the present.”

Dressed in jeans, sneakers, a cowboy hat, and a flowing beard and mustache, Mr. Tjapaltjarri looked not unlike some other sages I’ve seen walking around the Bowery.

The artist and his posse also hit Central Park. “They like the squirrels,” Prof. Myers reported, although apparently not as a food source. “They don’t have them in Australia.

“We’re trying to keep him away from all the scary stuff,” the anthropologist added.

I wondered what that might be.

“Escalators,” Prof. Myers said.

Finally, something we had in common.

“Remember, it’s a moving stair,” Mr. Sweeney said.

I remind myself whenever I board one.

A Garden Where You’d Least Expect It

Artist Diana Balmori creates a floating island on the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal

Diana Balmori’s floating garden, on the Gowanus Canal.ENLARGE
Diana Balmori’s floating garden, on the Gowanus Canal. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

What is it about the Gowanus Canal, one of our most polluted waterways, that attracts art and artists? I visited a bit more than a year ago and spotted some sort of homemade art project floating in the middle of the canal. It was as if the anonymous artist was saying, “Take that, Superfund site!”

A far more ambitious project alighted last week, when Diana Balmori,a celebrated landscape architect and urban designer, oversaw the launch of a floating landscape at the foot of the Whole Foods parking lot that overlooks the canal.

“The reason we picked the Gowanus Canal is the attempt to show that plant material can clean water,” Ms. Balmori explained. At the same time, she acknowledged, “We picked the hardest.”

In other words, if you can make it in the Gowanus Canal you can make it anywhere.

Ms. Balmori and I were speaking in a car on the way from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I hadn’t yet seen Ms. Balmori’s island, which had been forklifted and towed into position only that day, and I was having difficulty visualizing it.

Diana Balmori.ENLARGE

The floating island was to be filled with multiple tubes. In a poetic twist, the tubes were to be made of the same culvert pipe used to dump pollution and sewage into the canal.

Perhaps even more poetically, the goal of the experiment was to test the viability of creating large-scale “edible” islands in polluted urban rivers to serve as a food source. Some plants were to be irrigated with distilled water, others with captured rainwater, and a hearty few even with water directly from the canal.

As we made our way down the FDR Drive, Ms. Balmori, who apparently doesn’t think small—she recently created a superstructure in South Korea’s new Sejong City, composed of a two-mile-long green space, six stories high in places—talked about the island as a prototype that could be used to expand urban space into lakes and rivers.

“Some large cities have no big land available,” she explained. “It’s a way of creating land for intensive production.”

Sounds great. But I suspect I’d want to hire a food taster before I chowed down on kale or cauliflower nurtured on the sewer outflows, the PCBs, coal-tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics that lend the Gowanus its charm.

“We did have a smaller experiment where we tested several plants,” Ms. Balmori confided. “We tested the level of pollution. We got our answer very quickly.”

Bet I know what the answer was.

Not all of the plants withered and died, Ms. Balmori stated optimistically. “Some of it simply didn’t prosper.”

And then there are those hearty reeds and weeds along the sides of the canal, the plant world’s equivalent of cockroaches, that survived just fine.

“There are lots of grasses that can take it,” Ms. Balmori explained.

After idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, we eventually arrived at the Gowanus Canal. There sat Ms. Balmori’s island, called “GrowOnUs.”

I’d be less than honest if I said I spotted humanity’s future in its pots, filled with black-eyed Susan, anise hyssop and sumac, among other species.

“It’s proven itself,” Jessica Roberts, a designer with Ms. Balmori’s company, Balmori Associates, said of the sumac. “When you look at the edge of the canal it’s everywhere.”

No surprise there.

Part of the project.ENLARGE

The island—approximately 12 feet by 8 feet—seemed more reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe than Frank Lloyd Wright, a bastion of human ingenuity and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.

And it came with a soundtrack—the industrial clamor ushering from companies such as Sixth Street Iron & Metal, a scrapyard that overlooked the island, floating at that moment in a not entirely unpicturesque oil slick. (It will find a more permanent home in the canal’s Seventh Street basin.)

Nonetheless, I was smitten by a couple of bluebird houses, even if unoccupied, and by some sort of habitat for “solitary bees,” which I take it are a species rather than insects who prefer to be alone.

“They don’t live in a hive,” Ms. Roberts explained. “It’s almost more of an apartment complex.”

And those bluebird houses? Here, I sweat over whether mine are too high or too low, in sun or shade. “It’s more to show it’s about creating habitat for an animal as a signifier,” she explained.

But I was told that a duck had laid an egg on some earlier iteration of the project.

And indeed, we stood there admiring the island’s three monarch butterflies, a beleaguered species in recent years, flitting about the plants.

Hopefully they’ll make it to their winter habitats in Mexico without suffering food poisoning.

An Insider’s View of Lincoln Center

Longtime Lincoln Center employee Jack Kirkman has seen it all. Columnist Ralph Gardner Jr. gets some of the highlights.

Jack Kirkman, director of production at Lincoln Center in New York City.ENLARGE
Jack Kirkman, director of production at Lincoln Center in New York City. PHOTO: JOHN TAGGART FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

On Thursday evening, Lincoln Center will hold an official ceremony to rename Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, David Geffen Hall. Mr. Geffen, the entertainment mogul, contributed $100 million toward the hall’s coming renovation.

One of Lincoln Center’s current employees who recalls Philharmonic Hall’s previous renaming—for Avery Fisher in 1973—is Jack Kirkman,director of production.

Indeed, Mr. Kirkman, 81 years old, remembers the neighborhood before there was a Lincoln Center. “When they started building this complex I was working at Don Allen Chevrolet, making adjustments on carburetors,” he said.

He was referring to a car dealership in the neighborhood that was going to be torn down to make way for the arts complex. “I was so against building this place. I thought I’d lose this job.”

Seeing little future in car repair, Mr. Kirkman managed in 1963 to land a job at Lincoln Center as an artist’s assistant. In fact, the position was created for him.

“I absolutely loved that job,” he recalled as he sat one afternoon last week in Avery Fisher Hall’s Green Room, where conductors and soloists greet friends and fans after performances. “I would meet the conductor when they arrived. I would collect their mail and any flowers and gifts.”

If anything, Mr. Kirkman may have been a bit too conscientious. Such as the time he grilled the great classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein about the length of his performance. “He said, ‘Listen, young man. I’m playing a concert. I’m not driving a train.’ ”

Artists have their idiosyncrasies. But Mr. Kirkman, who grew up in North Carolina, dreamed of being a dancer and studied acting withLee Strasberg, was a sympathetic spirit.

A 1965 exterior view of Philharmonic Hall, as it was then known, at Lincoln Center. It was renamed Avery Fisher Hall in 1973, and is now being renamed David Geffen Hall.ENLARGE
A 1965 exterior view of Philharmonic Hall, as it was then known, at Lincoln Center. It was renamed Avery Fisher Hall in 1973, and is now being renamed David Geffen Hall.PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

At a Richard Tucker gala one year opera singer Kathleen Battlerefused to perform until roses decorating the foot of the stage were removed. “She had the most beautiful shoes” that she wanted the audience to enjoy as much as she apparently did, Mr. Kirkman explained. “We didn’t do it quick enough, so she started removing the roses.”

A new pair of shoes also proved singer Ella Fitzgerald’s undoing after their slippery soles sent her careening into the drums. At his first opportunity Mr. Kirkman handed them off to the Philharmonic’s engineers, who sanded the bottoms.

“We became quite good friends after that,” Mr. Kirkman remembered. “I’d always come early and she would come early. I’d give her tea and she’d read the tea leaves.”

One of his saddest memories is of Judy Garland during a 1968 tribute concert to Harold Arlen. The frail Ms. Garland had trouble remembering the lyrics to “Over the Rainbow.”

“The audience got wind of what was going on and they came forward; some came on the stage just to be near her,” Mr. Kirkman remembered. “I went out there and took her off the stage.”

On the other hand, he served as bartender to Elizabeth Taylor andRichard Burton during one evening’s performance.

The box closest to and overlooking the stage used to be screened in, Mr. Kirkman explained, hiding celebrities so that they could enjoy the performance without their presence disrupting it.

“One of the things I did was sit with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, pouring vodka” as they polished off the better part of a bottle, he recalled.

The Burtons seemed as pleased by Mr. Kirkman’s performance as by whatever was transpiring onstage. “She said as she was leaving, ‘You pour a hell of a drink.’”

Perhaps Mr. Kirkman’s richest professional relationship was with conductor Leonard Bernstein, with whom he traveled during the Philharmonic’s trips abroad.

During a concert in Switzerland, Charlie Chaplin invited Bernstein to lunch. “Bernstein knew I was trying to be an actor and studying with Lee Strasberg,” Mr. Kirkman said. “He asked me if I wanted to go. It was a delightful afternoon.”

Ella Fitzgerald belts out a song at Avery Fisher Hall in 1987. She and Lincoln Center Director of Production Jack Kirkman became good friends.ENLARGE
Ella Fitzgerald belts out a song at Avery Fisher Hall in 1987. She and Lincoln Center Director of Production Jack Kirkman became good friends. PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

He encountered Mr. Chaplin again when the actor returned to New York in 1972, after two decades of exile in Europe. He was being honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Mr. Kirkman was designated to protect Chaplin from the huge crowds that swarmed Lincoln Center. “When it was over he got back in the elevator, hugged me, and said, ‘I love you, America. It’s good to be home.’”

Mr. Kirkman has been slowed by a stroke and uses a walker to get around the hall these days. But he wanted to take me backstage where, for many years, he has instructed the lighting engineers to “take the house down” when the conductor or soloist gave him the signal that he or she was ready to go.

“Don’t you get a great feeling when you stand here,” he said as he walked to center stage. “It’s so beautiful.”

How the Pope Shaped a New York Priest

The Rev. Hernan Paredes of Loyola School Goes Way Back With Pope Francis

Rev. Hernan Paredes of Loyola School on the Upper East SideENLARGE
Rev. Hernan Paredes of Loyola School on the Upper East Side PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It was March 2013, on a field trip to the Broadway show “Cinderella,” when the Rev. Hernan Paredes was approached during intermission by one of his students at Loyola School on the Upper East Side.

“He said, ‘Father, we have a pope,’ ” Father Paredes recalled. “I said, ‘Tell me his name.’

“He couldn’t pronounce it so I grabbed his cellphone and I read Jorge Mario Bergoglio. At that moment, I just sat down and cried.”

The selection of Pope Francis was more personal to Father Paredes than to most, even most Roman Catholics. The pontiff has been his friend and mentor since Father Paredes, now 52 years old, was sent to Buenos Aires as a young seminarian during the 1980s, when Jorge Mario Bergoglio was rector of the philosophical and theological faculty of San Miguel.

Father Paredes saw the pope in the priest’s native Ecuador on July 7, during his South American tour, and presented him with a Loyola School cap.

Was this a shrewd private-school marketing strategy to drum up enrollment? “It was my idea,” the priest confessed. “I don’t have money. So I asked downstairs in the admissions office.”

Father Hernan Paredes in an undated photo with Pope Francis. ENLARGE
Father Hernan Paredes in an undated photo with Pope Francis. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Father Paredes also visited the pontiff at the Vatican in June. “As you can imagine he’s very busy,” the priest said. “We had a Mass. I was lucky to be in the first row. It was a cardinal, a bishop and myself.”

“He grabbed my cheek and said, ‘You’re too American now,’ ” the priest said of Pope Francis. “That’s his nature. If he knows the person, he will joke about anything.”

If the pontiff has changed, Father Paredes said, it’s that he smiles more for the cameras than he used to. In a photo taken with Father Paredes a few months before his elevation, Cardinal Bergoglio looks almost unrecognizably dour.

“Many people complained when he was a cardinal he wasn’t good at pictures,” Father Paredes remembered. “But as pope, he’s smiling all the time.”

The pope’s reputation for serving the poor is well earned. “He sent us to learn from the poor. Not only to give but to learn from the poor,” Father Paredes recalled from his time in Buenos Aires as a young priest.

Then there was the time when the parish’s cook was about to lose her home. “She didn’t know what to do,” Father Paredes remembered. “She went to Bergoglio,” then already a cardinal, “and Bergoglio out of his pocket gave her the money.”

And the pope has always been hands on. “He showed me how to iron a shirt,” Father Paredes recalled. “Every other week, he used to cook for the whole community.” Steak, rare.

But the most important lesson that the priest learned from Pope Francis was ministering to the poor. Even though Father Paredes teaches at an elite private school, weekends are spent among the needy. “I always go to different parishes,” he explained.

Father Paredes teaches theology, including a senior seminar on death and dying. He hasn’t noticed his students paying him greater respect because of his connection to the pontiff. “I get along very well with them,” he said.

The priest won’t get to see his mentor during his visit to New York City. “I was already twice,” he said of their recent meetings. “Let others enjoy the presence of Pope Francis here.”

When the pontiff addresses Congress on Thursday, the students at Loyola School will watch it together on television. “They are excited,” Father Paredes reported. Loyola is a Jesuit school, “and Francis is the first pope who’s Jesuit in 500 years.”

In any case, Father Paredes can always send an email to Pope Francis. After the pontiff’s election, the priest sent out a celebratory email blast to his contact list, which included the pope’s old address as a cardinal.

Father Paredes was surprised to find a response from the pontiff in his inbox. “Dear Hernan,” Pope Francis wrote in Spanish, “Thank you very much for your letter ‘My Friend the Pope.’ I saw it just today. May God reward you for your kindness. I ask you please to continue praying for me. May Jesus bless you and may the Virgin take care of you. A hug. In brotherhood, Francisco.”

The Gospel Sounds of Jewish New Year

Rabbis Perry and Leah Berkowitz hope to reawaken people of faith at the East Side Synagogue

Rabbis Leah and Perry Berkowitz lead an unconventional Rosh Hashana service at the East Side Synagogue. Services are held at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side.ENLARGE
Rabbis Leah and Perry Berkowitz lead an unconventional Rosh Hashana service at the East Side Synagogue. Services are held at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on the Upper East Side. PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

While I have attended my share of bar mitzvahs, last Monday morning marked my first Rosh Hashana service. Nonetheless, I knew as soon as I arrived that this wasn’t your typical High Holidays event.

Perhaps it was the gospel singers. Or the two rabbis, Perry Berkowitzand his younger sister Leah, grooving to the beat. Or the conga-style line that snaked through the aisles. Though, to be fair, that would come later.

“Are you awake?” Leah Berkowitz shouted. “Are you awake?”

I was definitely awake and only becoming more so. In fact, I felt as if I already needed a breather.

Fortunately, it arrived when Joshua Nelson, the synagogue’s “kosher gospel” music director, was performing a faithful rendition of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” to live piano accompaniment.

(The service was held at the Unitarian Church of All Souls on Lexington Avenue, where the East Side Synagogue has held weekly Sabbath, as well as Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, for more than 20 years.)

A passing ambulance, its siren screaming, may normally be considered an unpleasant distraction during a religious service, but when one rushed by the church’s open doors it sounded as if it were singing chorus.

“More than a few Jews would call this ‘meshugana,’” Leah Berkowitz acknowledged as the music ended. She was apparently reading my mind.

“We all get up in the morning,” the rabbi went on. “But how many of us are awake?”

Affirmations of support, more typical of an African-American congregation, rang from the filled pews. “Open your eyes. Open your heart. Synagogues are one of the few places where people fall asleep. You don’t come to the synagogue to fall asleep.”

I can safely say that I didn’t spot any sleepers. If my mind wandered, it was to more traditional houses of worship such as Reform synagogue Temple Emanu-El—let alone to conservative and orthodox congregations—that were holding their own, one suspects slightly more subdued, services at that very moment.

One couldn’t help but wonder what they would think of this service, “meshugana” perhaps the least colorful of the words they might employ to describe it.

I got together with the rabbis Berkowitz the following day to ask a question that was on my mind, but that my photographer, Mark Abramson, beat me to, in the middle of the service.

“Do you think the singers,” most of them people of color, Mr. Abramson asked, “are Jewish?”

The synagogue’s mixed-faith choir.ENLARGE
The synagogue’s mixed-faith choir. PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Some are, some aren’t,” Perry Berkowitz explained. “It’s very common in synagogues that singers are more often than not, not Jewish.”

But their Hebrew pronunciation was so impressive.

“We train them, with the music director” (that would be Mr. Nelson, an African-American Jew who was resplendent Rosh Hashana morning in a Bukharian yarmulke and flowing robes) “to make sure they do it right.”

The Berkowitz siblings seem to be trying just as diligently to re-engage disaffected or merely distracted Jews. “The unaffiliated, the uninspired is the largest demographic in the Jewish community,” Mr. Berkowitz said. “Seventy percent of the Jewish community aren’t affiliated with a synagogue. It’s a total meltdown.”

Almost anything seems fair game to get them to return to the fold, or at least to a place where they feel spiritually at home. “Too many people have turned the High Holidays into the ‘Fs’—food, family, fashion, friends,” Mr. Berkowitz said. “They get the new clothes, the new shoes. But they have to know also it’s about the other ‘F’—faith.”

The rabbinate is the family business. The brother and sister’s father, William Berkowitz, served as senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side.

Perry, in his early 60s and a decade older than his sister, attended Columbia University; Leah attended Barnard College. They went on to the Jewish Theological Seminary, among other institutions, and their services draw on Jewish movements ranging from the Reform to Hasidic Judaism.

Joshua Nelson leads the band.ENLARGE

“We’re able to draw from the best of them to create a blend,” Ms. Berkowitz explained. “Like an everything bagel.”

They are also influenced by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, for whom Mr. Berkowitz served as a personal assistant.

Mr. Wiesel’s influence may explain why the service included references to the Syrian crisis, the Ferguson riots, the Iran deal and a range of diseases. “He had a great impact on never looking away; not to avert your eyes.”

I stayed until the dancing started, but left after witnessing the fate of a shy young woman sitting in my row. Ms. Berkowitz engaged her in a brief tug of war, eventually dragging her into the aisle.

Would Yom Kippur, a more somber holiday, be more of the same? “A completely different mood,” Ms. Berkowitz assured me. “If Rosh Hashana is joyous and exuberant, Yom Kipper is introspective. The music is much quieter.”

Behold, the Shiny and Spotless Hudson Yards Station

Ralph Gardner Jr. delights in the new subway stop on the far West Side

The new 34th Street-Hudson Yards subway station on the 7 Subway line extension in New York City. The mosaic artwork is titled ‘Funktional Vibrations,’ by Xenobia Bailey.
The new 34th Street-Hudson Yards subway station on the 7 Subway line extension in New York City. The mosaic artwork is titled ‘Funktional Vibrations,’ by Xenobia Bailey. PHOTO: MICHAEL NAGLE/BLOOMBERG NEWS

There are various reasons you might want to visit the new 34th Street-Hudson Yards subway station as soon as possible. The likelihood that you have business to conduct in that windswept neighborhood is the least of them.

Other cities—Paris, Venice, Rome—seem to improve with age. But New Yorkers tend to be brutal on their infrastructure.

It’s only a matter of months (make that weeks) before the gleaming station, which I visited Monday afternoon, the day after it opened and the first new one in more than a quarter-century, is pockmarked with chewing-gum spots, urban scrawl and litter.

But for the moment it’s a thing of beauty, provoking the sort of childlike awe that only something brand new can.

I caught the 7 train at Grand Central, my anticipation mounting as we stopped at Fifth Avenue and Times Square, where most of the passengers exited.

However, I couldn’t help but sense that those who remained on board—it was hard to tell if they were tourists, train buffs, or people with legitimate reasons to travel to 34th Street and 11th Avenue—shared my giddy suspense.

I may have been overreacting, but even the tunnel that took us there appeared new and handsomely lighted. I didn’t clock the journey. But a trip that would have taken a good 20 minutes on foot, and through some of the West Side’s more desolate stretches, was accomplished in no more than two or three minutes.

And the platform we emerged onto was brilliantly lighted and more or less spotless.

I’ve often wondered which is the steepest escalator in the NYC subway system, suspecting it’s the one that leads to and from the 7 train at Grand Central, a vertigo-inducing ride.

However, the moving staircase at 34th Street-Hudson Yards is in the running. But sleek, cheerfully illuminated and with four escalators (two traveling in either direction) it feels more futuristic ride than lawsuit-in-waiting.

Opening day of the Hudson Yards subway station on the far West Side. ENLARGE
Opening day of the Hudson Yards subway station on the far West Side. PHOTO: AP

There’s also a lovely glass mosaic, “Funktional Vibrations,” byXenobia Bailey. It hovers over the main entrance like a constellation of stars, imbuing a quotidian subway ride with a sense of cosmic adventure.

Of course, there’s the question of what to do and where to go once you hit the street, since the area isn’t yet a cultural, culinary or shopping hub. The answer, for the moment, unless you’re heading to an event at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center a block away, or to the northern terminus of the High Line at 34th Street and 12th Avenue, is not much.

After admiring the skyscrapers rising just to the south at Hudson Yards, your choices are pretty much limited to returning underground or purchasing a shish kebab from one of the eight vendors I counted shoulder-to-shoulder at the corner.

The area surrounding the subway entrance is artfully landscaped with benches that serpentine around planting beds. There are also fashionable teal-colored tables and chairs.

I coveted one for my patio. But Edgardo Cruz, a maintenance supervisor with the Hudson Yards/Hell’s Kitchen Alliance, exuded a fierce sense of proprietorship and told me he locks them up starting at around 6:45 p.m.

“Nobody’s going to take them,” Mr. Cruz stated. “I make sure of that.”

And what of those gum stains that make the sidewalks around subways look like they have some sort of contagious disease? At one day old, the pavers remained delightfully unblemished.

“I got a power washer right here in the basement,” Mr. Cruz boasted.

If there’s any condition that might interfere with the maintenance supervisor’s sense of duty, it’s all the tourists asking directions to the High Line. “High Line all day,” he complained, as yet another pedestrian inquired.

The escalators in the new 34th Street-Hudson Yards subway station have a futuristic feel.ENLARGE
The escalators in the new 34th Street-Hudson Yards subway station have a futuristic feel. PHOTO: RICHARD LEVINE/CORBIS

The problem seems to be that while there’s a sign at the top of the station escalator that says “High Line” with a leftward arrow, that’s actually misleading. It’s a left and then another left at the corner.

“They should have a sign on 34th Street, pointing that way,” toward 12th Avenue, Mr. Cruz suggested.

Certainly, the new stop will serve as a major convenience for those coming and going from events at the Javits Center, heretofore something of an odyssey typically involving an expensive cab ride.

However, it will cut down on the exercise one got, and the steps they registered on their Fitbit, while crossing back toward civilization.

It will also lengthen the journey to Mets games or the U.S. Open. Since the only way to be guaranteed a seat on that voyage is to board the train traveling in the opposite direction from Queens, and wait for it to reverse course at Times Square, now Hudson Yards.

But that’s obviously a small price to pay. If one likes to think of Manhattan as his or her oyster, the mollusk feels as if it just grew a slightly larger shell.