Tag Archives: America

Free Hugs

A few days ago, I was walking through Union Square and saw a cluster of people (two men, two women, multiple races, 20s or 30s) holding signs that said “FREE HUGS” in large, colorful letters.

Before even actively thinking about it, I knew I was heading straight for the people with the signs.

I walked towards a man with a bushy brown beard who asked, “Need a hug?”

I made a sound that was somewhere between an embarrassed chuckle and a nervous giggle and replied, “Yeah.” (Truth be told, I can really always use a hug.)

We hugged, I thanked him and wished him a great day, and he sent me on my way with a sticker.

Pretty good advice! Though not so secret if now printed on stickers.
Of course, I thought, noting the URL in tiny letters. Does anything simply come from the goodness of the heart? But then I looked up LightSourceTemple.org. If you’ve clicked on the link, you’ll notice what I noticed – the domain has expired. LightSourceTemple.org doesn’t exist.

So why give out free hugs? For a laugh? For fun? A dare? A cult initiation? Or because the world can be really hard and sometimes people just need hugs?

While I can’t answer what those four people in Union Square were aiming for, I can explain why I not only accepted the free hug, but also wanted it.

I believe very strongly that there is a lack of physical human connection in our society.

I’ve thought about this a lot but it struck me anew when I was recently in Israel with our eighth graders. After just a day away from school, in a completely different environment, open affection was acceptable and the norm. Even more illuminating, much of this behavior came from the Israeli staff who we met on the first day of our trip. It was perfectly fine to drape an arm over a colleague’s shoulder for no apparent reason. It was fine to say good morning with a kiss on the cheek. A touch to someone’s back was simply a way of saying hello.

We don’t do enough of that in the US.

While in Israel, I read Dacher Keltner’s Born to Be Good, which contains chapters on smile, laughter, touch, and love, among other things. He writes about oxytocin and its effects on our behavior, attitudes, and relationships. Humans need positive physical contact in order to bond, trust others, and feel happy. In more than one place in his book, Keltner blames the Puritans for the lack of lack of physical touch in American culture.

I mentioned the book during a conversation just before walking through Union Square and seeing the free hugs signs. A friend was talking about his frustration with the repressive nature of American society and how we don’t really permit deviating from the prescribed course of action (school, more school, job) to allow for authentic personal growth or exploration. Thinking of Keltner, I suggested use of the word “Puritanical” to describe typical American attitudes towards uncharted paths and lack of conformity to the few molds we have deemed acceptable.

All of this was on my mind when I walked through Union Square a couple days ago. Though the free hugs people don’t know it, they appeared with their signs at just the right time for me to say yes to their hug.

As a rule, I try to be as open with and responsive to others as I can. Accepting and being truly delighted by the free hug was just another way of trying to form a connection, however brief, with someone who was willing to be open, responsive, and vulnerable to those around him. Back in February, I sat down to talk to three men on a bench in Central Park for the same reason. When a college student who started a conversation with me at a nail salon last week asked if she could interview me for a school project, I gave her my phone number with true pleasure. I’m trying to make the world better, one positive interaction at a time.

We are all humans. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together. If we can’t reach out and touch one another, what’s the point in living at all?

Travel Guide: Philadelphia, PA

In all my travel blogging, this is only the second blog post about the US! I’ve been other places, really.

Last week my parents and I turned a wedding in New Jersey into a short vacation that included three days in the City of Brotherly Love. My dad has been there a number of times for conferences, but neither my mum nor I had ever visited. We loved the architecture we saw, the history we learned, and the food we ate.

Philadelphia looks like this:


Anyone who has ever studied American history knows that many discussions about the formation of the US took place here. We visited Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was signed . . .


. . . Congress Hall where the first US Congresses met, way back when Congress actually did anything . . .


. . . and the Liberty Bell, so named because it has been the symbol of liberty for various groups working for freedom and justice in this country. . . .


We spent a while in the National Museum of American Jewish History, too. I particularly liked the section on Judaism in colonial America because that’s what I know the least about. My knowledge of modern Jewish history is much better. As a result, I wasn’t as captivated by the museum’s exhibits as someone new to the topic might be. The museum was really well done, and I’d recommend a visit.

For a dose of local life and fresh vegetables, we visited Reading Terminal Market on three separate occasions, which I absolutely loved:


Philadelphia is also home to Eastern State Penitentiary, which struck me as ironic considering the love infused in so much of Philadelphia’s portrayal of itself. There is a dark side to everything human, a side that reminds us that there is more than one story. Through audio testimony, we learned how prison design and the purpose of prison in the US has changed over time. The exhibits also asked visitors to consider important questions about the prison system today, like whether prison is rehabilitative, whether it is objective, and whether punishments truly fit crimes. That was the most important section for me because it put visitors in uncomfortable positions and asked them to think about humans rather than numbers.


We also spent a good deal of time at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has multiple buildings with a wide variety of exhibits. Tickets are good for the day of purchase and the following day, so we took advantage of that. That’s where the Rocky statue and steps are, too. Yes, I ran up the steps and I’m pretty sure my mum took a video as proof.

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Everything I’ve heard about food in Philadelphia turned out to be true. We enjoyed the following:

Breakfast: Pearl’s Oyster Bar and Dutch Eating Place, both at Reading Terminal Market and both delicious
Lunch: Lucha Cartel and OCF Coffee House
Dinner: VedgeZahav, and Abe Fisher
Coffee: La Colombe Coffee Roasters

The DNC is taking over now and that’s pretty cool, too!


As an added bonus, I got to meet up with my friend Lauren from Singapore! That was the icing on the cake, really.

If you have a couple days, I’d recommend a visit. After all, what’s not to love about a city with a sense of humor?