From the Hidden Tales of Stone

 

Holocaust from holokaustus or holokautus (Gr.) meaning completely burned up, as in an offering in Leviticus, as translated into Septuagint Greek

I had no intention to tell a Holocaust story. I used to think I didn’t feel up to it because I experienced it one generation removed. I don’t feel that way any more.

Trauma, I feel it and the older I get the more the trauma I feel. It was passed to me in a more oblique way.

I come from a generation in which my parents protected me from that story. There were many survivors in my neighborhood when I was growing up; we knew they were different, we knew they had a story but we didn’t know what it was. It would not clarify until much later in life.

There was a seriousness and a sadness about the survivors that I knew in my neighborhood. I felt as if I knew them well, but I didn’t know them well. There were hidden parts to their lives, I knew this. There was a hiddenness in our world that was different from other people.

About two weeks ago I helped a family bury their mother who was a survivor of Auschwitz. I didn’t know her, didn’t know her daughter or any of the family, all who had relocated out of my town in recent years. The mother was to be buried here so I volunteered to help them out.

In telling me about her mother, her daughter described a scene that her mother often talked about. As a young girl her mother had been in the selection line at Auschwitz and she told me how her mother had described the dreaded Mengele standing at the head of the line making the selection. What was most chilling was non-verbal in the description, the daughter made gestures with her hands that were precise and I am sure just as her mother had communicated them.

The gestures were more horrifying than verbal language. They were simple gestures, obscene in simplicity and obdurate judgment. The picture of Mengele making gestures that signified this one lives this one dies was abhorrent. It sowed and planted the ugliest picture in my mind I have revisited many times since I saw it.

In last week’s Torah, the reading just before the events that we schedule around the Nazi horror memorials, after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, Moses refers to the surviving sons Elazar and Itamar (Lev.10:12). That word survivors, I never noticed it before this year, ha-no-ta-rim. It’s used twice in that verse, once to refer to the sons and once to refer to the remains of the offerings made by fire. This is the book of Leviticus.

There is much written about the clumsy application of fire language and offerings’ language associated with the Nazi horror, thus the controversy over the word Holocaust. This year when I heard the story of the woman I buried, how inadequate the word survivor felt to me. It felt too passive for what this woman lived through; sitting with these people these lives these strangers that existed because she went one way the girl next to her the other way and in spite of the burdens laid on her frail life she endured.

She endured and these people her daughter kids grandkids a great grand kid are ha-no-ta-rim, alive they thrive out of the devastation of her early life. It seemed to me that’s more than surviving.

Then there was my beloved teacher who walked out of Berlin just before the War and his response always to the perfunctory: How are you? Sur-vi-ving, in three sing-song syllables that even if you knew nothing about him you recognized a depth of story and triumph and ascent in that three syllabled response. Arbitrary and victorious, sur-vi-ving and if not for this if not for that, I would not have and with a bow to those who didn’t.

Now this Torah, this word applied both to the remnant of the offering burnt by fire, and the two brothers alive ha-no-ta-rim, as against the other two who were not (they brought strange fire in Lev.10:2). Fire and survival, what is that link and what the danger what the aftermath?

And who gets through? Ha-no-ta-rim — we the survivors, the remnant, the rest of us. From the root yud-tav-resh that also gives extra, something from without, something acquired from an unexpected place, something brought in from without so to speak, or something that remains, remnant as if remnant was something inviolable and ascendant.

Ha-no-ta-rim, this year it has a necessity that transcends surviving. It’s a persistence about existence: What continues. What remains. What endures. What thrives.

jsg

 

Four Other Questions Five

Four Other Questions

For prisoners, incorrigibles, activists, shut-ins, singers, students, poets, etc.

  

Every Passover, the Haggadah says, I should feel as if I, personally, were being liberated from Egypt. That is always the point of the liberation saga: it is my story. I am getting free. I ask myself four questions.

First question: Free from what?

The Hebrew for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which is a pun. It means narrow place. Each year at Passover time, I get a little more free, each year I leave that narrow place which is too small for me now. It’s a different place each year, because I’m in a different place each year. Mitzrayim, the narrow place, is also meant to conjure the birth narrows. Freedom is always a birth experience, a re-birth, renewal.

Second question: When does my freedom begin?

Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev asked this question: when does my freedom begin? I might think it begins with leaving Egypt. The koan of the question puts my memory to work on my own life, trying to discern the influences, who said what to me when that gave me strength, that planted a seed, that snuck the message by the guardians of my equanimity, the way the soul eludes the intellect and speaks directly to the heart. Who taught me to resist the easier, softer way, to get up out of complacency, who taught me that I could transform, be transformed, that I could be free? Who was it? What teacher? What voice? Who is part of my freedom chain? Who made it possible for me to get free?

Third question: What is freedom?

It is written that the Torah was given in the third month after leaving Egypt, the Midrash plays with the pun for the word month which in Hebrew is related to the word for something new (chodesh/chidush). That’s the form that my freedom takes every year, I move into something new, a place I haven’t been yet. How do I know I have achieved some measure of freedom? Not because I have crossed the state line and passed out of Egypt into the Wilderness, but because I have learned something new.

Asking the two questions, when does freedom begin, and how do I know I have acquired freedom re-fashions the liberation concept, re-formulating my notion of freedom from something that I have or don’t have, to the process; re-thinking freedom from a matter of arrival to the matter of the journey, re-envisioning the liberation saga from a matter of achievement to a matter of being on the road. It’s not about arrivals, but about process, not about goal but about journey, not about there but all about here. Radically here, on my own freedom trail. A link in my own freedom chain.

Fourth question: What interferes with the freedom journey?

I put out the chometz, all the leavened food, from my life for this journey. What is this chometz that I remove from my life during Pesach? The chometz is anything inflatable, all the inflatable aspects of self that interferes with the presence of God. The inflatable sense of self aggrandizement, the inflatable narcissism of self — this is chometz, and this is what I take out of my life during Passover. There is no room for God in a person too full of self (Baal Shem Tov). I get, in a word, humble.

We call humility bittul which means little, here a suppression of self. Less self, more other, less self more Other–this is the emerging Jewish spirituality. When I eat matzah, that substance of no chometz, I am reminded that chometz takes me away from God.

Fifth Question (in Chassidus, there is a hidden fifth concept): So — what is my response to the gift of freedom?

Gratitude, because it was a gift. Humility, because I didn’t make it happen.

jsg

Night of Conscious Watching 2017

The Night of Conscious Watching

Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in

— L. Cohen

It was some time in the days just before Pesach that year that the Congregation was going broke. Someone said maybe we should pray for sustenance. That was not an unusual idea to me, because I suppose that is what I was doing. I was confident, in some fanciful way, that everything would turn out all right because it just felt so good at the shul. The music, the teachings, the study circles, everything felt so good to me. We did not have two nickels but we had a load of soul. It is no shame to be poor (no honor either), but I did not know what to do about the money problem, so I did nothing. Or maybe I was praying for help.

We did not have a lot of kids in the school, but the ones we did have were learning well. The kids in my class loved Hebrew school so much I actually heard a parent say these words: “if you don’t behave yourself, I won’t take you to Hebrew school next week.” Imagine that.

The music and prayers on Friday night and Saturday morning had continued to grow more beautiful and more poignant. My musical partner Will’s presence had grown into a rich musical and personal association, and was inspiring me to deeper levels of musicianship. The spiritual approach to music that I had pursued was clarifying for me by the week; I felt an accelerated sense of learning and accomplishment in music, in teaching, in writing, in all ways. This is certainly the highest reach of the synagogue and my profession that I have yet experienced, I thought.

Still, we were broke.

At the Board meeting before Pesach, the financial news was so bleak that my paycheck was delayed several weeks because we did not have the cash in hand to cover it. I left the Board meeting early. It made me sad, but I did not know what to do about it, so I did nothing. Or perhaps I prayed about it. Everything was going to be all right, this I often say to myself.

The night after the depressing Board meeting was Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat that falls before Pesach. I went over to the synagogue, there was a small group that night but as usual the feeling was strong.

My friend Todd’s father had passed away in Detroit, and it was on my mind to speak the Kaddish on his behalf.

In the tradition, Shabbat HaGadol is one of the few times a year that the rabbi gives a formal discourse, usually on matters concerning Pesach. I had a hundred wonderful ideas percolating in my head about Pesach, but as soon as Will arrived, I launched into the music and it held me in its arms for several tunes without letting go.

The first tune was the stately melody for Yigdal that I made up, maybe found in a book, I am not sure anymore, the melody that also works so elegantly for Adon Olam. I had been enjoying singing it lately to Yigdal because Yigdal is one of those texts that I find interesting precisely because it is clumsy in its reach for dogma in a culture that resists such efforts, and because the melody is unmatched to the text.

I played through all the early melodies of our minhag with an uncharacteristic lid on. I rarely play this way, I usually play out, beyond my capabilities really, reaching for something I am not quite ready to achieve musically, but not that night. That night, I played within my abilities, tight, disciplined, with better tone and attack than I usually achieve though sacrificing some of my reach. It sounded beautiful to me.

There was something else happening that night that I wanted to share with my friends, the holy fellowship of prayer who accompanied me that night, but I could not speak. I wanted to speak but I could not. I could not stand either, I played with the same steady burn throughout the service, but I could not speak, so I sat and played and sang. I prayed.

My father Harry died during Pesach twelve years before. I thought of him often, talked of him on occasion, but I had never descended into the depth of my sadness over his death. My daughter was in the hospital at the same time that my father was struggling for his life, so I was flying back and forth between hospitals in St. Louis and Detroit, and when Harry died, I was not there.

I miss him most that time of year, but that night, Shabbat HaGadol, I not only felt the ache of his absence, I felt his presence.

As a young man, my father was a wonderful musician. He had an opportunity to study at a conservatory, but for this, but for that, it did not work out. He ended up in another life. Still, he loved music, played beautiful records around the house (Mahler on Sundays), and paid close attention to the many sounds that I brought home.

When he died, I had not yet found my own entirely personal sound. I have it now.

That night, Shabbat Hagadol, twelve years after his death, I felt that I was playing for him, as if I was saying: this is my sound, I found it. I want you to hear it. It was the resolution of something left undone: here, I am sharing my sound with you. It was as if I was unpacking my music and playing for him, discussing it with him, turning it over for him and him alone; an intimate share with Harry over something he loved the most, music. Something of him had returned to me that night, and something I had I was able to give to him. Something that had been undone got done. I honored him with music.

I was playing for him that night, of that much I am sure. The more I played, the more intimate we became. There were times I could hardly sing my voice my breath overwhelmed by emotion, some quiet tears, but beneath it all was his gentle, decent, attentive presence. I felt him listening. He was always such a good listener.

At the first seder, I was telling two friends across the table about this experience. I wondered what your father was like, my friend said to me. A little sad, beautiful, delicate, lofty, a bit distracted, sweet, mysterious, I said. I was never certain I knew the inside person, though when he opened to me, he opened in depth and in beauty.

As I described my experience of Shabbat HaGadol to my friends at the seder, it was a story. I did not sense Harry’s presence at the seder. Later that night, much later, almost morning, I wrote this story.

There is a night described in Torah, the night before we left Egypt, when we paused. We knew we were leaving by morning, but the night before we paused in our preparations. It is called leil shimurim, hard to translate, “the night of conscious watching” I prefer. The word shimurim is used only in this verse, twice, but only here in the entire Hebrew Bible:

“It was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, and it was on that very day that all the legions of God left the land of Egypt. It is a night of conscious watching of God to take them out of the land of Egypt, this was the night for God; a conscious watching for all the children of Israel for their generations” (Exodus 12: 41 – 42).

What did we do the night before we became free? Knowing we were leaving in the morning, what did we do the night before, when we paused, this night of conscious watching, what is it? A conscious watching, reciprocal, for God for us, a spirtual intimacy, something that was left undone, done?

The sense that though there is uncertainty and even danger, everything is going to be all right. We are vigilant and confident.

It is used twice in that verse; maybe this is what happened on Shabbat HaGadol that year, maybe this was my night of conscious watching for Harry, maybe it was Harry’s night of conscious watching for me. In addition to everything else.

jsg

2001

epilog:

In early 2016, baby Harry was born in St. Louis Missouri to my son and daughter in law, the first grandchild to my wife and myself. There is not a sentence I utter that is not poetry when I mention his name.

jsg

2017

I Was A Detective

 

 

I was a Detective

 

It leaked out I mentioned it in passing last night that I once worked for a detective it was a long time ago from a colorful I suppose part of my story I don’t often revisit not a past dweller and I couldn’t remember his name I hadn’t visited that part of my life for so long but I dropped that detail it got everyone’s attention in the room and I felt I should explain but I didn’t like I ought to explain put it in context integrate it talk about it more often so I don’t freak people out who think they know me as the quiet poetry loving shy person I am. Inward, to be kind.

 

It’s also you think you know somebody but you may not know and that is a common thought for me when knowing you. I often wonder what’s underneath the tissue so to speak what do you have there in your story that might be curious to me when I look at you I am thinking that because under the tissue over here might surprise.

 

The way in which the story popped out last night also significant: I was recounting how the day before I followed someone because I thought I was doing someone else a favor and I know how to follow people without being noticed. Uh oh already I am deeper into my own story than I intended to go. You know how to follow people I could read in the eyes who were listening to me in the room. What does that mean emphasis on that.

 

It may be unseemly to think of me creeping around my neighborhood hiding behind a tree (that’s not how) for how long did you follow this person? All that I wasn’t thinking before I kind of hiccupped it out.

 

I worked a year or two for a detective agency and I learned how to follow people. It doesn’t seem creepy to me though it was a long time ago. Already deeper into my tale than I intended to go I saw around the room some were interested some may have not believed me some were just confused not sure they heard me correctly.

 

A little crisis erupted inside at that moment so I shut my mouth. I felt embarrassment also some surprise at my own lack of self awareness, that this detail might elicit surprise to people who thought they knew me never occurred to me before the hiccup.

 

Someone else started talking and I wrote notes to myself, my detective bossman’s name (I blanked), where we met, how long did that episode last, the name of his sidekick (yeah he had a sidekick), the name of the agency (so fanciful it’s not believable), the before and after of the story more believable because it’s unimaginable but too real to feel fictional, and some shame I was feeling in dropping this detail as if it was a high school I attended temporarily then forgotten. It was a part of my life. It lasted for two years at a crossroads time for me; I ultimately chose the path I am still following but just then I could not have.

 

In other words, I’m not typical. In another sense, entirely typical but in a sense hardly anyone knows about, not typical. Who cares. I hardly care and it’s my life.

 

Also at the moment the story slipped out I couldn’t remember some of the details I hadn’t visited this chapter in so long. I hadn’t told this part of my story in a long time even my bossman detective’s name eluded me I knew it would return but last night it flew away. That offered me a way to frame it I hadn’t thought of: maybe it didn’t happen. I could choose that. But I knew the name would come back to me, there are several significant details found in his name and I knew it all would clarify.

 

I could have even continued the story last night but I didn’t, I waited until this morning, the next day. I was talking to myself now. Integrating my own story. Tap tap tapping on the keyboard trying to make sense.

 

I often follow a principle I learned from the book of Exodus (24:3 ff.) about story telling and writing: I tell the story first, in the telling it acquires some shape, then I go home and write it, then I read it (sometimes out loud) or I find a print medium for it, then I rewrite it again. In each step the story shapes itself so to speak and I am always surprised the form it takes.

 

Part of the story as it slipped out last night is that I was making an offering to the person to whom I am closest to, my beloved, I followed someone who was doing something in our back yard that bothered her it didn’t really bother me but it bothered her and I wanted to stop it. So I told her I saw the guy who was doing this thing in our yard (he has a little dog) thinking I could either knock on his door and tell him to stop or make the same deposits in his own garbage can that he leaves in ours. That’s why I followed him home.

 

As I was telling my beloved the story that I had followed this guy and unraveled the mystery that had been bothering her for several years I could see in her eyes something I hadn’t anticipated: you’ve got some thug in you don’t you. Maybe she saw underneath the tissue and I regretted the whole thing.

 

In addition there was the excuse I heard coming out my mouth that I imagine being grilled under oath and opening with: I did it for her. How much suspect behavior opens with the sentiment that I did it for her and I imagined Joseph Cotton as he was led away to the jailhouse muttering to his captors, I did it for her. I did it for her, how many hapless idiot men in the movies of my youth explained their behavior with that excuse that holds in melodrama; this was my life still it felt like a script.

 

Then I had to put the question to myself: did I really do it for her or did I trot out my secret thug, it lingers within waiting for the opportunity to return. I did it because I’m barely a citizen playing a fool’s game and almost always I con everybody.

 

I also recalled how much I enjoyed following people when it was a job. We got wrapped up in dramas that were way deeper than we anticipated and I still enjoyed it, until that night crawling across the desert someone we were following took a shot at me. And I was carrying a gun, full disclosure, another detail I had forgotten until I inadvertently disclosed something of what I have come to see as my secret past. There’s a reason I don’t visit there often, too much explanation.

 

Well I’m not that person anymore. Or if I am it is because I am continuous in body but have traversed space in spirit. Yes, I said to my beloved as I wove the story out to her, I’ve got some thug in me.

 

jsg

 

I Go To Prison a Purim Story

The Secret of Purim or

Profound and Stupid: More Raza de-Purim

From the Prison Stories of jsg

Taanit Esther – The Fast of Esther

The story had become profound and stupid. Profound and stupid, I changed the title of this part of the story as soon as I wrote it: Profound and Stupid, a continuation of the Raza de-Purim, the secret of Purim.

At the end of the fast of Esther that year, 2011, Aristide, former President of Haiti who I wrote about in another piece, returned home to Port-au-Prince after having spent seven years in exile in South Africa. My last encounter with him had been precisely the same day on the Jewish calendar, nineteen years before, at the house where Katherine Dunham was holding a fast on behalf of Haiti in East St. Louis, Illinois.

What does it mean? I asked to no one in particular, I felt it was significant but I was still ill and roiling from yesterday’s experience in the prison and not alert or well enough to think it through. Another chapter: Aristide as part of the Katherine Dunham story, nineteen years later he returns to the Haiti story on the same day – so what. No one knows my part of these stories anyway.

My story is not known primarily because I simply showed up and watched it. Then I wrote it. This figured for me in the realm of “big deal,” partially because I was somewhat depressed and partially because I broke my fast by eating that lousy chicken they advertise on television on the way home from prison and couldn’t sleep the entire night. Still – I knew I was part of a story that needed telling.

Earlier that day, I had made the two hour trip to the prison house where I had been assured [e-mail] that the auxiliary chaplain would meet me at the prison house since I had visited there only one time previously and did not yet know the set-up. I wasn’t entirely sure I was approved to visit this particular prison, though I had e-mailed also the head chaplain in the capital who referred me on to the designated chaplain of this institution.

 I didn’t hear back but I made the trip anyway. When I arrived at the prison, I parked illegally and much closer than I did the first time I visited, having been advised by the heavily tattooed guard who buzzed me in and out. The staff at this prison house were extremely kind to me the first time I visited, there was a chaplain to meet me and he escorted me to the chapel, and the inmates themselves escorted me out and I had the sense they were protecting me (a new feeling but not unpleasant).

This time there was no one to welcome me. The tattooed guard who buzzed me in didn’t recognize the name of the auxiliary chaplain. “There is no auxiliary chaplain,” she said definitively. She buzzed me through anyway. “Go upstairs and get your squawk box [personal alarm gizmo] and some keys. You’re on your own today.”

The prison is built like a camp out of depression era limestone that was mined from the area during the WPA I believe. It has an interesting look from the outside, the textures of the wild limestone set within the formalism of brick, it is quite beautiful from the outside anyway — a series of buildings surrounding a large open perpendicular space which is referred to as the yard.

I walked up the stairs to a window with bars and an opening on the bottom to push through the supplies from the room behind. In that room are alarms and radios and large circles of keys that open, I assumed, the various classic locks that kept muscular control over this depression era structure.

I had my ID card that signified I was qualified to visit four prisons that had Jewish inmates who were eager to welcome me to their institutions. My ID is a plastic card with my picture and a clip that I put on my pocket and take off when I show it to the various gate-guards who must open several very heavy metal doors to get me into the depths of the institutions.

I stuck my head into the opening of the window with the bars and the sets of keys and squawk boxes, radios, etc. and said to the uniformed guard, “I’m going to the chapel.” I recalled that the chapel was at the far end of the yard because I remembered that the accompanied stroll back to the metal doors last visit was a long walk.

“You want keys?” the guard asked me. “Ok,” I said.

“You got tags?” he asked.

“No.” Tags were small metal cut-outs that you left in the barred room in exchange for keys and radios and such.

“Go make a copy of your ID.”

I went walking down the hall until I saw a copy machine in an office and I walked in and made a copy of my ID card.

I returned and passed the copy of my ID card to the uniformed guard behind the bars and I saw him hang it on a hook and he passed through the hole in the bars a whole ring of keys, at least forty keys, and a “squawk box.”

“Thanks,” I walked away with the keys. I was on my own.

I exited out to the yard through one of the doors that moved slowly and opened by showing my ID. I was alone in the yard. I stuffed the keys in one pocket of my jacket and the squawk box in the other.

I strode to the rear of the yard and walked into an open door where a group of men where taking off or putting on their clothes, I think it was a gym.

“Are you looking for the chapel?” How they knew this, I don’t know but I surely did not look like an inmate (they have uniforms and generally wear bright orange knit hats).

“Yes.”

A guy took me outside the locker room and pointed me to the building next door.

It was locked up tight but I had the keys. I started going through them one after another, this was a large door and I began with the largest keys. I opened it.

Inside I found a light. Every single room was locked inside. I found the room I was in the last time, a larger room with some tables and a chalkboard, some instruments and a little stage, obviously a place where several groups share prayer and study privileges. I found the key to that room too. Now I was inside and I was alone.

I had learned at another institution I visit that if I opened the door, people tended to wander in. I made sure the outer door was open and within a few minutes an inmate came in and sat next to me, staring straight ahead at the altar/platform in front of us.

“M,” he said by way of introduction.

“James,” I said.

He asked me who I was and I told him.

“Rabbi.”

He told me how he had discovered the Hebrew Bible in a cell when he was first incarcerated. He told me he read it through, cover to cover.

I asked him if he remembered the story of Esther and he remembered everything. I told him that today was the Fast of Esther and I told him the story of Katherine Dunham and her holy fast and the story no one knows about how she broke her fast.

I told him that G*d’s name is not mentioned in the book of Esther which is curious and crazy and I made the interpretation that it’s a sure sign that G*d is everywhere in the story, so full in the events and the personalities and the choices that we are at the level of all-over-G*d, G*d everywhere.

“I’m with you,” he said.

He knew what a Rabbi was and he then told me his whole story, from the age of sixteen to the present, which I imagine was about fifteen years. It was a tender story, clear and full of details, well parsed for meaning and a good sense of where it would go when he left this institution. He wanted to return to the small town he came from and he planned to go to College and I believed him.

Another guy came in and he greeted me in a rather formal, well rehearsed way. “I won’t ask how you are doing – for that is a question and I may not know you well enough to ask you a question. I will not inquire what’s new as that is empty and meaningless and meant only to break the ice and engage in small talk. I will simply bless you in the way of my tradition. . .” and he switched to Arabic and quoted some of the holy Koran, which I was familiar with. I know some Arabic blessings and introductions, so I responded in kind. His name was E.

He didn’t seem to know M so I introduced them. One of the Jewish inmates saw the door open from across the yard and he joined us, he didn’t know M either or E though he had seen them around. I introduced them.

We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. E left soon, and returned about five minutes later with a few other guys. “You’re the rabbi!” he said, “I should have known!” He must have asked around outside the chapel who is the guy with the not-orange hat in the chapel sitting around waiting for people to arrive.

There were two other individuals affiliated with the Jewish group who were present the first time I was there but absent this time. I asked about them.

“Transferred,” one of the Jewish guys, J, told me.

“Transferred?”

“They were sent to a smaller camp.” It was in part their letters to me that brought me to that camp in the first place.

Now there weren’t enough of them left in this camp to meet on the Sabbath. The prison rule is that a religious group and its rights are defined by half a minyan — five members — since the two had been sent away they only had three by my count.

“The Muslim brothers will join your group,” E said, “we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want.” E knew a lot, it seemed, about working the prison system. “The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together,” E said, “you’ll have a group this Saturday and every Saturday.”

It was getting close to the time that I was supposed to leave. I asked the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers which way was east. E showed me the corner where the Muslim brothers faced east.

“Come with me,” I said, “quick,” because there were some other people starting to come into the room looking as if they were the next group.

We went into the corner facing east and I opened up my hands and sung out pretty and slow the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers (6:23-27):

Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.

May G*d bless you and protect you.

Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.

May G*d’s face shine to you and be gracious to you.

Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.

May G*d’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.

As I was singing, I explained there is no partial, no individual, no incomplete – every single instance opens up onto the universal, and every partial resolves in the whole — everywhere G*d dwells is whole, quoting the Zohar.

I said something about salaam, shalom, or shleimut, wholeness, integration. To bless is to dip below and reach above, the root below and the root above, the b’reikhah the pool of blessings — the wild chute that whisks you into the root above — to the All, shleimut, to be blessed with a sense of everything. Like Abraham our father in Genesis 24:1, to be blessed with everything and to live in a larger space than the separate self — the isolated, the un-integrated, the broken, the incomplete.

By this time the Christian brothers were coming in, they were the next group — a program called IFI I think — the room was filling up behind us and some of them were watching us.

Their leader came over to me and said, “what is that you are singing?”

I told him basically the same things I told the Jewish and the Muslim brothers. He was holding my picture on my ID card that I had copied to get the keys.

“You’re the rabbi,” he said, “you’re supposed to give me the keys.”

So I gave the Christian brother the ring of keys, he seemed to know what he was doing, and I asked him for my picture just in case they inquired on the way out.

The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, on the way E scribbled something on a piece of paper, we talked animatedly until I realized I was alone. There is a certain line they cannot pass and they were standing quietly on the other side until I turned around mid-thought and realized where they were.

I thanked them and told them I would be back in two weeks, “we’ll be here,” said the Muslim brothers, “all of us.” E gave me the paper he was writing on.

This is what was written on the paper E had given me:

Brother, your presence here is engulfed with the love of forgiveness. Please do what you can for all in this community.

Is there something in this story that is not-G*d? I am searching for it, this continuation of the Raza de-Purim, though it began [for me anyway] profound and stupid and I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing, I could have not taken those keys, I could have turned around and gone home. I could have returned the keys when there was no one to meet me, I could have missed the entire drama. Instead, I showed up, watched something profound and stupid unfold into something profound.

At the chicken shack on the way home, I could have passed on that [I should have] because I was up the entire night ruminating with my belly what constitutes G*dlness, what does not – even passing by the macro-question once or twice: why don’t the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers and the Christian brothers always get inside the story together? Thus far the Raza, the secret of Purim.

jsg

 

 

 

 

The Great Olive Oil

It Will Need Some Lift:

 

And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.

— Exodus 27: 20

Of the seven species associated with Israel, land of wheat, barley, grape, fig, and pomegranate, a land of olive oil and honey, I note in passing that it’s olive oil, not olives, one of the seven species.

Here Rashi is specific about the kind of olive oil the Torah is referring to; was Rashi also an olive oiler as well as a vintner? I wondered why Rashi bothered so with the specifics of olive oil, so I asked him.

JSG: I notice in your commentary that you get quite specific about olive oil, its production, the kinds of olives, the sediment, etc.

Rashi: Yes, there are gradations: which oil is used to lift up the light of the menorah, that’s the one without sediment, the one that rises. First squeeze as it were. Cold pressed. Then the one with sediment, that one can be used for meal offerings. Don’t you love the language though? You have to lift up a light in your holy place. It has to have some lift, your spirit life, like your words, without lift you are failing. You know how it feels when your light has no lift, and your words are too heavy?

JSG: I do, I do know.

Rashi: The light will rise by itself, so to speak. I pick this out of the Talmud. You know what I’m talking about? The light rises by itself? It’s natural, get out of the way. Learn listening get quiet find your silence pay attention, the light will rise. Love that image.

JSG: Oh man, I know, I do know. That’s not easy. It’s not so much what you do but how to get out of the way, make room for the light to rise so to speak.

Rashi: Yes, of course. You know I am speaking French, but it’s the same. That lift. Be careful about dull language in your holy places, words with no lift, light that does not rise by itself, but let’s get back to the oil. It’s making me hungry. We all know that the Italians have the finest cuisine. They get the food concept. Way ahead of the French.

JSG: I think so too.

Rashi: In addition to the grape, I am also an aficionado of the olive as you have picked up in my commentary. The olive grows only where winters are temperate, I’m a little far north for a good olive, but I often winter south, what you call Italy, where the oils in the southern provinces are heavy, in the northern areas the oils are milder. Of course, olio extra vergine di oliva in Tuscany is, well, beaucoup beautiful.

JSG: Liquid gold.

Rashi: Exactement.

JSG: I also love the oil from Umbria, especially from around Spello.

Rashi: Not familiar with that. Don’t get to travel much in the eleventh century.

JSG: Fresh fava beans with a soft pecorino cheese, and a crusty bread to sop up the olio.

Rashi: Perfecto.

JSG: I have learned maybe from you that the domestication of the olive comes from our homeland, not Europe, but the Middle East, around 6000 BCE.

Rashi: I have heard that there is a tree in the Maremma near the Tyrrhenian coast that is supposed to be 3500 years old, counting back from your time. That would mean it not only preceded the Greeks, but the Etruscans. It was the Romans who developed the commerce of the olives and created the classification system. Then the Benedictines took over its care after the fall of the Empire.

JSG: Extra vergine, is it purer than vergine?

Rashi: It’s a much abused system of classification. Extra vergine simply means that the oil must be extracted from the first pressing of olives by mechanical means only, cold pressed, no chemicals, and must contain less than 1 percent of oleic acid. Vergine, same means of extraction, less than 2 percent acid. But first pressed oils are often blended with lesser types while staying within the 1 percent limit. In the Torah, no blending. Now we have returned to spiritual subjects. Of course the separations are an illusion, it’s all spirit, all over.

JSG: I suppose you mean that when we are speaking in a physical sense, it has spiritual implications. I get that. It’s the olive oil not the olive that’s one of the seven species. The olive releases its best qualities when squeezed. Don’t you love that?

Rashi: I do. The Italians have a wonderful expression, I will translate for you: the great olive oil must suffer.

JSG: Oh, that’s so Jewish. The physical-spiritual continuum.

Rashi: You know the secret of the Jewish-Italian connection, don’t you?

JSG: Yes, I do.

 

jsg

 

 

 

 

 

Confession

The Problem of Addiction

jsg organizes Shalvah, Outreach on Addiction

 

The deaths of celebrities always bring the secret back into discussion. Those of us who live in and around addiction daily are not mystified by these stories, we are saddened like everybody but we understand it. I know dozens of good, talented people who struggled mightily with an addiction, a dependency of one kind or anther, who did not make it.

It’s hard to watch the news because it’s clear from the information sources that so little is understood about addiction — how a person with a number of years clean time could die that way, why couldn’t he just stop, didn’t she have enough help — all these shadow questions that are the wrong questions.

It could happen, it does happen, because addiction is insidious, patient, when you have it bad you usually have it for life and it likewise requires daily vigilance, every day, and generally never alone. Few go this road to recovery alone, that’s the first truth, you can’t run and you can’t hide.

You can’t run and you can’t hide from a problem — a hunger, a need — that isn’t entirely physical. An addict has an emptiness within, a hole in the soul, a space inside that we stuff with substances; with booze, with drugs, with sex, with food, with – some thing. Drugs become everything, drink becomes everything, something becomes everything to the addict.

The perennial wisdom of the recovery model is we face the real problem of addiction every morning when we gaze into the mirror. The problem is within. You meet the real problem of addiction in the mirror, a kind of idolatry located in the self.

At the deepest level, the only dependable antidote is what we call a program, a plan for living, a deeper dive into the inner world where we fill that emptiness within with something more nutritious and sustaining. We become individuals with lives of value and purpose, we call this a spiritual program, and every recovery model that I know of that helps to change lives changes them from the inside out, so to speak, and we call this kind of thoroughgoing inward transformation a spiritual change. This is old wisdom. Perennial wisdom.

Dr. Carl Jung, an early influence on the treatment of alcoholism and chemical dependency, loved the use of the word spirits to indicate substances. The problem has a physical component and it has a spiritual component. Some people are physically predisposed, as it were, and all of us are spiritually predisposed. We are getting better with new strategies to encounter the physical need; we have the oldest wisdom on the planet to grow the spiritual response.

It begins with a person taking responsibility. This is my problem and I have to do such and such to begin my recovery. There is plenty of help once one realizes that no one can do this for me, and no amount of help will do this for me, and sometimes people who live with and around addicts make this harder for the addict by trying to do for him what she has to do for herself.

You can do too much for the suffering addict, and when you do, you are contributing to the problem by taking away the very thing the addict has to learn: Responsibility. This is my problem, my responsibility, I have to take action. This is my problem, not yours, mine. There is what to do when you live around addicts that will help the addict come to that place; but the person must take action him herself.

I am sorry for every loss through the dizzy decline into drugs and alcohol, especially those I have known, have worked with, have been on that hard road with. Everyone should understand that recovery from a serious drug and alcohol dependency is one of the hardest inner journeys a person takes in life. It is thoroughgoing and demanding; what we say is: All you have to do is not drink, not take drugs and change your entire life.

Change your whole life. Does that help to understand drug and alcohol dependency? To make the hole, whole, so to speak.

I am making a Kaddish in my heart for every loss, in the John Donne sense: Every person’s death diminishes all of us. And my heart aches in the Deuteronomic sense too: Not by bread alone do human beings live, but by Everything do human beings live [see Deut. 8:3].

Only Everything is everything.

 

jsg

 

 

The Mercy of Truth, part 3

Chesed shel Emeth

Is the name of the Cemetery in University City, Missouri, that was desecrated the weekend of February 18, 2017

Part 3: I look at the language

Chesed Shel Emeth, it means something like the mercy of truth, these are hard translations because the terms are fluid in one sense and in another they have depth, nuance. Truth is a harsh standard; standing alone with truth, nothing would qualify. Truth however with a measure of mercy, that’s a recipe we can live by; in the phrase chesed shel emeth the dominating noun in this expression is truth. The mercy within truth, truth modified by mercy.

In the Torah chesed and emet appear differently, as two equal nouns connected by a conjunction “and,” mercy and truth. One does not serve the other, there is no hierarchy as there is in the phrase chesed shel emet, shel indicating possession. In Biblical Hebrew it doesn’t appear at all, only as sh … and in later Mishnaic Hebrew it becomes a preposition shel, as in the mercy of truth, merciful truth, something like that. Mercy and truth is the Torah version, and an implied equality of the two terms.

And not as in hendiadys (from the Greek, “one through two” as in two notions becoming one notion as in flesh and blood for a person etc.) indicating one concept; in the Torah chesed and emet are two separate nouns connected by a conjunctive “and” mercy and truth put them together and you have what Ezra Pound referred to as the ideogrammic method that supposes a fundamental relationship between the two words. Think: mercy and truth. Mercy and truth.

What does it mean, mercy and truth? It might be like what Rashi is referring to at the beginning of Genesis when he cites Chazal that God created the world out of the standard of din, law, and it wouldn’t stand so God added mercy and we have a living breathing organism of Existence. Truth alone too demanding a standard it needed a little flexibility to endure.

Plus there are multiple standards of truth, some may be too demanding for life, so truth needs a diluting, a little cream in its cup so to speak. But the dominating noun in the phrase chesed shel emeth is emeth, the mercy of truth, truth’s mercy a possessive, and it becomes attached to our dealing with death. What I’m thinking is that it’s a worthy phrase to think of in thought, not just about death, about everything.

That’s what I was dreaming at the cemetery as I visited after the crime of desecration, I was feeling myself through the complexity of responses I was experiencing when the holy ceremonial ground was violated — the voices of the ancestors, the respect we give to those who have passed before us, our loyalty to them, to holy — all of this was a complex bundle of feelings and thoughts as I stood waiting for the ceremony at the desecrated site.

Then there was a complexity of responses from those who were or weren’t present, but to me the first response is always silence. I ascended into silence and waited for the truth to rise, this I learned from one of my heroes, ibn Gabirol the greatest of the 11th century Jewish Andalusian poets.

The chesed in the story was the cooperative effort of good-hearted people who showed up in overalls and with rakes and field tools to clean up a cemetery that on its best days needs a good cleaning, who were then delayed by the Secret Service who warned them that many of their tools could not be brought into the cemetery because the Vice President (whose name can be mentioned, Pence) was going to make an appearance.

That to me was the emet in the experience: the news story that this Administration clearly needs in a rush of almost 30 days of negative stories. Was it dominant? Emet, truth, is the dominant noun, I thought, though the mercy or the good intentions that the Governor and the Vice President appropriated was not lost on me. It was not an either-or notion, it was both beautiful in its spirit of cooperation (chesed) and it was also a sell-out in the dominant emet of the appropriation of the event by what I consider to be the voices that contributed to the atmosphere in the land that made room for such criminality.

No one can convince me that there is not much difference now than there was eighteen months ago when the current President (whose name will not be mentioned) announced his candidacy with a negative diatribe against Mexican immigration and a vocabulary of Other-ing that opened the gates in my mind on the kind of ugliness we are now experiencing as minorities in our beloved country.

That’s what I was thinking as I ascended into silence in the desecrated grave-yard of the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery, University City, Missouri. Into that silence was a sound that broke my reverie, a kind of rhythm I have come to recognize in my community. It was the sound of my landsmen patting each other on the back for the good work we were demonstrating there. Pure chesed.

We are good at patting each other on the back so I recognized the sound right away. My community loves to reward itself, each other, for obvious or even sub-standard activities, it makes us feel good. I myself have been rewarded several times the same way (the one I have most earned is Best Dressed Pain In the Ass).

I think I’m done writing about this for now, I have identified my dissatisfaction on that day: On the ritual level, too much blah blah blah, all chesed, that sound of patting each other on the back for a job well done, but the emet the truth in the Chesed Shel Emeth is that the Governor and the Vice President breezed in and out made some standard remarks and took over the event and the rest of us chesed-niks got pooked (I may have made up this word, I mean we were fooled because we had only good intentions), and what hurts is that I believe this officialdom contributes to the atmosphere that made room for this ugliness.

As I was leaving the cemetery, a young girl all chesed came up to me and gave me a lovely round piece of rose quartz. I love rose quartz, my son is a gemologist and he has taught me that rose quartz has a deep healing quality. It’s a love stone, it’s all chesed just like the young lady who gave it to me with tenderness and hope in her eyes, so I left with a good omen and the sense that the notion that may rise from these two nouns – chesed and emet in proximity – may be a matter for the future. Who was she? The future.

What will become of the energy at play in the graveyard that day, from recent months, and into the future? What will we do with what we feel, with what we know? What will rise in our time in our communities in our country that will take shape in weeks months and years to come that will demonstrate the play of these two nouns: The tough dominant standard of truth moderated by the flexibility organic sense of chesed of mercy, the trans-action of the two that will save us, or not.

 

jsg

Satire Writing Itself, pt. 2 about a Cemetery

Satire Writing Itself

 

I heard the repetition of what sounded to me like jargon: first name it. As of this writing, we have been practicing covert talking on the naming theme. What is it? Anti-Semitism. Is it vandalism? Is it a hate crime?

Does it make a difference? It makes a difference when we mark the rise of such events within an eighteenth month or so window that if you’ve been breathing you know corresponds with the rise of Trump in our country and the atmosphere of Other-ing that he with the complicity of his changing co-conspirators capitalized on in our country. And when the Vice President showed up to sweep around a few leaves we have a story more symmetrical than I could have written. It’s satire writing itself.

So we haven’t named it, that for starters. The Republican infatuation with power and its complicit cowardice has now filled in the story, add a glee to proximity to power at the local level and we have the media romp at the desecrated Jewish cemetery the other day. Gogol. Tom Wolfe. Philip Roth.

Standing next to me was a visitor from [what looked like] another planet. He kind of followed the crowd and wandered in because he was hanging out on the street that day and thought something big was going down. What’s happening here? He asked me.

What do you mean? Is it a party? He asked. It was a good question. If you were a visitor from another planet and landed there that afternoon you might not know that a crime had been committed: Almost two hundred graves desecrated, a kick in the stomach of an already vulnerable minority, so far no arrests, several days into the story and it’s beginning to recede from the news.

A crime, I said, he looked confused. Cemetery never looked so good, he mumbled (this was his corner).

We have a name for our enemies. In the tradition, we have a mythic designation: Amalek. What is it about Amalek that the name has punch in every generation? Amalek attacked at our most vulnerable place: the edge of the moving camp, where the infirm and the old and the children tried to keep up. Here Amalek attacked our memories our inviolable story our sacred relations who rest at the foot of the Throne of Glory.

Not here, I said to my new friend thinking out loud, we’re in a new era. New era, old story. We haven’t named it. We should all be crying, ripping our clothes, sitting on the ground.

Stay tuned. More at ten.

jsg

Jewish Cemetery Desecrated in University City

Traditional Jewish Cemetery

Desecrated in University City, Missouri

Clean-up and Ceremony scheduled for Wednesday, February 22, @ 3 PM

More News at 10

Well, it seemed like a media event to me. I was driving home when I saw a thickening of traffic, uh oh if I don’t go now I have a notion I won’t be able to go at all. I was dressed in a tasteful charcoal grey suit and a sandy brown fedora, white shirt Jensen silver cuff links and a gold jacquard cravat which becomes relevant to the story follow me. I walked through security (more than for the governor I was suspicious), busted for excessive obsession by the Secret Service (are these all pens?) I entered the cemetery relatively easily.

The cemetery is holy ground. I feel that. I spend a lot of time in cemeteries and it is always humbling and sacred and quiet and inside beautiful to me. I was standing around leaning against a tombstone when one of my pals introduced me to one of the half a dozen imams who showed up in solidarity.

What can we do together? This is hate and we have to do this together, several of them said to me. Exactly what I was thinking. They were still talking vandalism from the microphone, even in the newspaper this morning, this is another deal I said: this is hate. The Imams agreed.

When the Vice president showed up, that cinched it: Media event. They need some good press. Nobody said much though from the back of a truck like a campaign event was tasteful and accurate I suppose. The governor was expected but the Vice was in town for a visit to a company in Fenton and certainly they need some good news. Today they got it. It’s not a story; it’s a desecration of holy ground.

Nobody said much. The word hate was mentioned, in addition to vandalism, but it was much weighted toward vandalism. How this is vandalism eludes me. As an amateur armchair sleuth (reader of mysteries) and a former private detective (a story told elsewhere) I figured all by myself that toppling over almost 200 gravestones in the middle of the night that weighed way more than the topplers took some muscle, some organization, some equipment.

One imam after another came up to discuss the situation with me. Why me? I was thinking. There’s a dozen rabbis here and I’m dressed for Niemans not clean-up at the cemetery though I believe with my long departed beloved parents that everything is about fashion. They were in the business and I am committed to fine merchandise.

The imams first wanted to compare burial customs. I told them what I knew: Though there seems to be no unanimity about which direction to bury a body in a Jewish cemetery, I did see that the Chatam Sofer cited a custom that in many communities bodies were buried with their feet facing the entrance, in confidence of the ultimate resurrection and the avenue of exit. In some cemeteries, the feet are facing east, toward Jerusalem. This was common in Europe, for the feet to face east, or south. In the Talmud, it seems that graves were placed in a cemetery in many configurations (cf. Baba Batra 102a).

Then the imams wanted to talk about hate, about hate crimes, about the vulnerability we are all feeling as minorities these days, about bringing that vulnerability to the attention of the local, the state, and the Federal government. We need to be working together on this, they said, we all agreed. We exchanged numbers.

Then two guys from the Justice Department came up to me. Why me? I was thinking (suit, silver cufflinks, etc. see the story I Wore a Suit to a Riot). You’re just the guys I wanted to talk to, and we discussed how this could be referred to as vandalism with the climate in the country right now. This is hate.

An interfaith service followed that was as boring as anything I’ve attended and there was a helicopter hovering so hardly anyone’s words could be discerned anyway. There was a prayer for healing that I saw from a hand-out. It was unsatisfying so I wrote my own:

 

A Prayer for Healing

All the accompanying angels appeared for them it takes a squad

A conspiracy of angels

A Mezuzah of the spirit guarding the entrance

To make a complete healing.

 

And later in the night when everyone is asleep

Just as it was desecrated it was restored

The angels parachuting in from the east and west

Angels ascending and descending

They wander in from the coast

Both coasts

Some have satchels slung over their shoulders filled with amulets

All the energies converge for this community

And the others who throw in with them.

 

The desecration restored

And by day

A cleaning.

 

Then a prayer for healing and gratitude

A specially created voice howling in the square

These words suspended between horror and grace

An expression of thankfulness

Why not after grieving

Honoring the dis-respected dead

With our hands clutched to our chests

Right hand buried in the left.

 

The desecration restored.

Sneak away for a chat with God –

 

Come on God

Show up for us and

Bring all your people —

And God said

Sure.

 

I felt better once I wrote the prayer. As of this writing, it is an unsolved crime. There was a little too much tilt toward the celebratory for my taste; a cemetery had been desecrated, it feels to me like a hate crime, the language today wasn’t correct, the balance was off, and the appearance of those who were contributing to the atmosphere of fear and Other-ing in the country had co-opted the event and turned it into a media romp.

I went home and wrote this.

 

jsg