How We Learn

Lernen Zich

First we find our face. Face has an inner sensibility in Hebrew, we find our inside. I prefer Emerson on this: inwardliness. My face I happened to find that particular Shabbes with a Wahl electric razor that was not working.

What would Fred the fixer do?

I inspected the vibrating blades, released them, oiled them, tightened them up again with a little give. The razor worked just fine but by that time I had shaved off all the hair testing it and I found my face. It was, by the way, my grandfather’s face. Art Stone looked back at me out of the mirror and smiled, “Jimmy boy,” he said, “you have become me.”

We then discoursed on the Wahl razor, founded in the second decade of the twentieth century by Leo J. Wahl of Sterling, Illinois, who invented an electromagnetic vibrating motor while still in high school. The company has a manufacturing plant in Windsor, Ontario, across the bridge/tunnel from Detroit [the narrows] where the Shekhinah once dwelled.

We then discoursed on the Wahl-Eversharp company, the relation to the razor company remains at this writing unclear. The Wahl company made adding machines at the turn of the twentieth century. In 1914, they introduced a mechanical pencil. They later made fine pens. I carry one of their mechanical pencils in my pocket as a kind of talisman to fine writing fine tools. It is beautiful in every sense. Ask me to see it.

Dannon yogurt came to mind [somehow]. The Dannon company was founded by Isaac Carasso who brought the cultures from Bulgaria and began making yoghurt as a health food in Barcelona in 1919. Yoghurt was a long time popular food in the Balkans and Middle East. Isaac Carasso named his company after his son Daniel. The company was called Danone until Daniel brought the company to the United States in 1942, changing the name to Dannon. The Carassos were Sephardim.

We then discussed a most significant word in Torah: im, if, im if and I read my piece on the portion Bechukotai that discusses if—im—if. It ends with:

We know the world is cracked

But we don’t know


We then paid homage to Bar Yochai, two days after his holiday. We read my piece on Bar Yochai and discussed what it means to be described as one eye smiling, one eye crying, and how that is so painfully beautiful I can hardly breathe.

We may have concluded with the lost melody of ibn Lavi, I have been instructed not to say too much:

But the one lost melody

The one that restores the soul

Aligns the body

Has been lost —

Until now.

The Lost Song of Ibn Lavi

The Lost Piyyut of Ibn Lavi

I am the lost piyyut of Bar Yochai
Written by Shimon ibn Lavi
It was said I
have the power to restore the soul
and align the body
I have been lost for centuries
I have ten stanzas
each one corresponding to one
of the sefirot, the holy emanations —
activity intra-Divine.

The refrain has been brought down
In all the melodies this way:
Bar Yochai, you are anointed
with joy, the oil of delight
from your sacred companions.

There were ten of them around Bar Yochai,
called the Chevrayya
they left a record of their teachings
they often said, if we had come
into the world only to hear these words
— it would have been enough.

Bar Yochai would be remembered
but not Ibn Lavi
who wrote my ten stanza poem
and other than the poem of ten stanzas
and some verses about his silent son

Ibn Lavi has been forgotten.

There are many melodies
To the piyyut about Bar Yochai
But the one lost melody
The one that restores the soul
Aligns the body

Has been lost.

Until now.

james stone goodman

In Honor of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai

Voice #1

Bar Yochai: a Lag B’Omer celebration in Voices
and a song

Opening: Song “Bar Yochai”

Intro (Voice 1):

Honor Rav Shimon bar Yochai. He is called a tanna, one of the early most authoritative rabbis. He lived in the 2nd century c.e. He was born in the north, in the Galilee, and he died and is buried under Mt. Meron, which you can see from the windows of many of the holiest synagogues of Tsefat.

Bar Yochai is remembered as the author of the Zohar which was given in his name. Many mystical testimonies and events have been connected to him for centuries. He became the paradigm for mystical leaders, the Holy Ari will claim him as a model as will the Baal Shem Tov
and Nachman of Bratzlav
and Moses Hayyim Luzatto
and all of us who
sing in hymns
to enter the gates
of the field of holy apples.

Actually, he was somewhat of a rationalist. He was known in his halakhic pronouncements to seek the logic behind the halakha. There was no contradiction between mysticism and halakha, poetry and law.

It was said about Bar Yochai that his right eye used to smile and his left eye was sad. He combined many qualities that are not
commonly found together.

He was a student of the great Rabbi Akiva, with whom he had a complicated relationship. That is the way of genius, if you are taught by genius the relationship is often complicated and difficult. He studied with the great rabbi Akiva for thirteen years at B’nei B’rak. As with all great master student relations, sometimes you are student sometimes you are master sometimes you are child sometimes you are adult sometimes you are passive and one day you will have to leave your master’s house. Of all of Akiva’s pupils, only Bar Yochai and R. Meir were ordained by him, and Meir was ordained first.

Bar Yochai wanted to be first, he wanted the sign of his approval, he wanted to be known as the first talmid of Rabbi Akiva, not the second, he surely felt that he deserved it over Meir, but Akiva strengthened him by withholding this gift.

Akiva humbled him when he could not humble myself, the necessary humbling, and then Akiva loved him into a higher knowledge
where there is no first or second
there is no success or failure
there is no me and you
there is no R. Meir and R. Shimon
there is no master and student,
there is only love and intimacy and vulnerability and compassion
all are equal in the eyes of God.

It was Akiva who drew Bar Yochai away from himself
and placed him in the eyes of God,
“It is sufficient for you that I
Rabbi Akiva

and your Creator recognize your power.”

-said R. Akiva, about Bar Yochai ( TJ, Sanh. 1:3, 19a).

“It is enough for you to know that I and God know your excellence,”
Akiva told Bar Yochai, is this not enough?

Humility helped to free him to become the independent source of wisdom that he later became in the court of Sidon where he often brought down highly original decisions. He could not have been so independent without the teaching of his Master Rabbi Akiva who put him through the crucible of his own self-fulness and reminded him that

in God’s eyes
it is enough to know
— he is excellent.

Akiva opened him to his own creativity. Bar Yochai thanked him every day for the freedom to have failed, to have not earned the first ordination, to have been placed behind R. Meir especially when he was so certain that he deserved first.

Thank you for my failures, Bar Yochai said. Now is it surely enough for me that my Creator, and my teacher, knows my excellence.

The Additional Soul

Where the Neshamah Yeterah [additional soul] Goes During the Week
Friday Afternoon

I am not in the corner

Not in Cleveland

I do not frequent the narrow places

I am not in Detroit [though I have been there]

I am not in northern California [many think I am]

Not in Montana [been there]

Not in Mexico [too poor]

I am not in eastern Europe [this is a clue]

I am in Italy

I go to Italy during the week

Outside my window is a field of sunflowers

The Italians planted them to replace tobacco

I eat light pasta twice a day, simple tomato sauce [no pesto ever]

In the mornings the best cup of coffee I have ever tasted

[the beans aren’t even Arabica]

I do not forget my native language

There is an English library that follows me around

I am learning Italian as well

When I return on Shabbes

I will teach every one how to cook Italian

Simple, fresh

And love like Italianos [the thrill — never gone]

I am writing this from a coffee house in the piazza

Coming home tonight.

First Lesson

In honor of sixty years of Israel, a story told through the oud, eleven string ancestor to the lute, instrument of peace.

First Lesson

I had come to Israel to study the oud with a Arab master of the instrument. I arrived at Ben Gurion airport with a broken oud and a broken heart. I found someone to repair it, a Russian violin maker, whose name means heart of the strings.

After Heart of the Strings repaired my oud, I reached my teacher on the telephone. He lived quite far away, by Israeli standards, from Jerusalem.

His town was an Arab town northeast of Haifa. That means that in driving to him, I drove through the three largest cities in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.

Israel is a small country, and such a trip is only about 110 miles long. But getting through the cities is difficult, and I had no idea how long it would take to make the journey.

I took directions from my teacher over the phone. It wasn’t until I hung up and reviewed what I had written that I realized that in all his directions, through the three largest cities in Israel, through the several different geographic zones that in Israel are so close upon one another, in all the complexity of his directions that required three free hours of driving and navigating, in all those directions there was not one street name. It was all “right at the bridge. . . left at the garbage dump. . .two o’clock at the rotary. . .” etc. Not one street name.

My teacher lived in Shfaram, there are no Jews there today, it is one of the largest Arab towns in Israel. Today there are Christian Arabs, Moslem Arabs, and Druze living in Shfaram. There is an ancient synagogue there and I was told by an old Arab man on top of a nearby mountain that there were Jews living there as recently as the early Seventies but none since. At one time, not long after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) met there.

I started off on my first journey to Shfaram on Sunday, which is called in Hebrew “yom rishon” (Day One) and is so named from the account of Creation. Six days of creation followed by Shabbat, day one, day two, day three, etc. The Muslims identify their days the same way. Sunday is therefore a full day of activity in Israel, there is no such thing in Israel as a weekend really, there are six days of work (well — Friday a half day), one day of rest, just like in the Bible.

So on Day One, I was hurtling through the Israeli countryside on my way to Tel Aviv and the up the coast to Haifa. When you leave Jerusalem you descend. Jerusalem is relatively high, and you move from the heights of the Judean hills around Jerusalem through the corridor (called the “prozdor”) that has connected Jerusalem to the Sea for millennia, driving down through the forested landscape to the coastal plain that leads to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean.

Tel Aviv is a large, smelly city, very fast and busy. There are always many distractions in Tel Aviv, but I didn’t stop.

I hurtled through Tel Aviv and found my way onto the coastal highway that runs next to the Mediterranean all the way up to Haifa. About half way up the coast toward Haifa, the road relaxed from the tension of Tel Aviv, curved even closer to the Mediterranean, and for the first time I saw the sea. I could smell it in the air.

This is the “new road,” that is how it is known to Israelis. On maps it is designated as number two, but Israelis know it only as the new road. The old road which is marked on the maps by the number four, is parallel to the new road a little inland and often you can see one from the other. The new road is under constant renovation, especially around Tel Aviv, and it would take a few more trips until I realized that the old road is faster, especially when there is traffic.

I came to Haifa. Both the new and the old roads lead to Haifa. I would later discover a road that leads to the north and avoids Haifa altogether, winding around the gentle sweep of Mt. Carmel. Haifa is the port city of Israel. It is built mostly on hills that roll down to the natural port on which Haifa is built. There are beautiful places to go in Haifa, but I didn’t stop.

I passed through the port of Haifa, still hugging the Mediterranean but now I could see the ships docked in Haifa, from Holland, Africa, Kuala Lampur, a dozen exotic addresses. Haifa is also busy, dirty, and smelly especially by the sea, it took me almost an hour to crawl through the center of the city.

Once through Haifa, I headed toward the western Galilee. Just north of Haifa, the scenery once again changed dramatically. I had entered the Galilee, in the distance I saw small villages nestled into the sides and on top of the hills. It was green and unobstructed, less populated compared to the Tel Aviv – Haifa corridor I had just passed through. The air was clean, cool, fresh. I followed the signs to Shfaram where my teacher lived.

I had never been to an Arab town before. Taiseer’s directions were precise but none of the turns were marked with the names that he gave them. I had found my way by intuition and a pretty good road map tucked into my sun visor. I found the town easily, with not one wrong turn, and it was only when I entered the town did I get lost. I would later find out that there are two entrances to the town, I had taken the wrong one.

We had scheduled to meet each other at the gas station; there were several gas stations in the town and I had found the wrong one. I drove out in search of the other. I got hopelessly lost in the dirt roads of the town. Soon I was driving among shepherds with herds of sheep and goats, nothing was paved, the roads were barely wide enough for a single car to pass. Everyone stared at me. I stopped a shepherd and showed him my instrument, thinking he would know where the oud master lived. He sat down on a rock until I played him a tune. I found my way back to a main road. I was an hour late and looking for a phone to call him. I finally found a phone and just at the moment when I was about to exit my car to use it, I saw Taiseer in his car at the very same moment he saw me. He was looking for me. I don’t know which of us was more surprised. He had given up on me and was on his way home; we exchanged stories, and I followed him to his house.

He lived on the edge of the town (the other edge), overlooking a meadow below and the Galilee spread out in the distant east. It was a beautiful view. All the windows were open and the air rustled our papers on the music stand. His wife served me cola and some fresh figs and other fruit. I assumed that she spoke no English, I spoke to her slowly and simply, later I learned that she taught English in a school in Acco.

Taiseer and I went right to work. He began by showing me the basics, how to hold the instrument, how to manipulate the plectrum, called a reeshi which means eagle feather in Arabic, because that was the traditional way to pluck strings. We discussed the intricacies of extracting sound out of the instrument, we talked mostly in metaphor and Taiseer intuitively illustrated his points sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in Arabic (he was delighted that I read and write Arabic), sometimes in English. He showed me the traditional modes, called makamat, of the music.

It was very difficult, a complete re-education for me from the way I had taught myself. It required extreme concentration just to play through all the examples he showed me. Learning to use the reeshi, the plectrum, was difficult because I was accustomed to playing oud with my fingers as I played guitar. We were head to head for two hours. He gave me a reeshi that he no longer used, made of bone.

The reeshi was especially difficult for me to use. I worked it too hard over the strings. Taiseer lifted my hand and taught me an exercise, my hand floating up and down as if lifted by a pillow of air. I practiced the exercise while driving, sitting in a chair, watching television, walking down the street, gently lifting my hand up and down isolating the motion of the hand at the wrist. “Do this everyday,” Taiseer said.

He heard something in my playing that I myself would not hear for months. When I began studying with him, I said to myself, “I’ve taken on too much here. I can’t possibly do this.” Taiseer listened to me and said, “we will accomplish much in the months we have together.” After every lesson, he congratulated me. I felt foolish, I could not even hear the notes at first.

He told me to close my eyes and listen to the notes, to hear them first and then to find them on the fingerboard. I couldn’t find them in the beginning. They are microtones, notes that we do not use much in Western music, notes that are closer together than each adjacent key on the piano, or each fret on the guitar. I could not hear them because I had never played them before, you cannot reach these notes on the guitar (unless you bend the strings), nor can you play them on the piano. They are not ordinarily a part of Western music at all.

“Listen,” Taiseer said and I closed my eyes and heard the note in my head. Then I found it on the fingerboard. It was more mental than physical. I could find the note only when I paused to listen for it. I sat in his living room overlooking the western Galilee with my eyes closed, trying to imagine in my mind the note I was trying to find on the neck of my instrument. Then I plucked the note, and I began to find it the more I listened.

The real work of playing an instrument at this level, I realized, is internal. “You have to listen,” Taiseer said, “then you play.” One time I sat in a master class with a great Spanish classical guitarist. Someone in the audience asked him which finger exercises he used to warm up for a concert. “None,” he said, “is not physical. Is entirely mental.”

Like matter and energy, the relation of which is fixed deep within the structure of things but not perceived, the relation of mental and physical, inner and outer, clarified for me on the fretless fingerboard of my beloved oud.

I realized that in our time together, we exchanged not one sentence of personal information about each other. It would be this way the entire time he taught me: I would show up, we would play for two or three hours, discussing only music. He knew nothing about me, I knew nothing about him. We spoke only music to each other and it was through the music that we became connected.

He gave me my assignments for next time. “Do you have time to practice?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, “that’s what I came for.” He seemed genuinely delighted with me as a student, and he knew how eager I was. “We will do a lot,” he said again. He gave me more directions, and I headed back to Jerusalem just as the sun began to find its way home in the west.

I was back on the road toward Haifa. As the darkness settled over the north, I watched the villages on top of the hills in the distance light up. It was lovely and peaceful, the traffic had diminished, and soon I was smelling the Sea again and heading for Tel Aviv. I did not stop on the way home, I gobbled up a couple of sandwiches in the car, and I was home in Jerusalem just over two hours later.

I was not at all tired, as a matter of fact, I practiced for two more hours that night. By the next day, I had begun to read the pieces he had given me, the world contained for me in holding the reeshi, finding the notes, playing the pieces. I was finding something in the oud that linked me with my teacher. I also felt that somehow through the music we were contacting what was common in our peoplehood, something so deep that we were unaware of having lost it, deeper than the divisiveness of our history. It was a nod to the future as well as a visit to the past – music as a clue to our shared character and a possibility for a peace of self reflection. I realized that through the music we had entered a place deeper than our differences, before the separation of Isaac and Ishmael, the music of Abraham, and all the peacemaking Isaacs and Ishmaels of the future.

The oud had opened my mouth, and it was singing the world.

This is the story of one of the best days of my life.

Peace Above All

Turning 60,
a kabbalistic blessing through the hands

In Hebrew, every letter has a numerical value.
Samekh is sixty.

At sixty we are samekh, its roundness
feeling for the endless cycle
the circle, not linear, round
the wheel within the wheel (Ezekiel).

The end in the beginning
the beginning implied by the end
equal all around
I have set God before me always (Psalm 16:8)
God equally all around me
[I am in the circle
I am also the circle].

Samekh — to support
as in if you fall
I will support you,
supporting the fallen
this is God and all of us
the circle of spiritual aspiration

In grammar, the construct form
smikhut – the connection of two nouns
what we belong to.
As a noun we belong to other nouns
in English the simple apostrophe s
in Hebrew proximity – construct called smikhut.
We belong to each other.

Samekh — Sixty
Sixty letters of the priestly blessing
sixty bones in the two hands of the Kohen who blesses
Samekh is holy blessing through the hands.
At samekh we are a blessing
through us will the world be blessed.

And lastly smikhah
laying on of hands
giving over the power from one vessel to another
to become a teacher
to be a student
the chain of holy teaching has been broken
since the close of the Sanhedrin
over 1500 years ago

until now.
The Sanhedrin, the great Jewish Court
71 rabbis with smikhah who met
in the hall of hewn stones
adjacent to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Now — make a samech with our hands
and receive through it the interrupted connection
from the Sanhedrin to us –
let our hands be a conduit
a repair of the broken chain
let the return of this smikhah pass through
our welcoming hands.

Bless us at sixty
here is our smikhah
through these hands
reconnecting the chain
from the Great Sanhedrin to us
to all of us

We may receive this smikhah now
student becoming teacher
teacher becoming student
from the broken passage of the Sanhedrin
we have permission
to receive
everything we need
peace above all

by being alive.


Jeremiah’s Plan for Peace

Plans for peace in poetry
in honor of Israel at 60

Jeremiah’s Plan for Peace

Behold, the days come says God
— Jeremiah 31:30 ff.

A new agreement
a starting over always
My teachings shall I place
in your abundant soul.

I will be God
you will be human beings
we will each live
up to our dream
of one another,

no one will blame
accuse, intimidate
everyone will know Me
certain knowledge
from the littlest to the
starting now.

The past –
entirely forgiven.
I have forgotten it.
We will cease calling it
it is now
— the future.

Who lights the fires of the future?
Who writes the stories?
The sun by day
The passing of the moon
the lights by night
who stirs up the Sea?

If you can measure heaven above
search out the earth below
— just as likely
I will abandon you.


Speak Hebrew

In honor of sixty years, this week, of the founding of the state of Israel, I will post a couple of my shorter Israel stories. I have written many stories about Israel, placed in Israel, most of them are quite lengthy. When I first started writing them all my stories were one page, two pages. I remember thinking, why so short? My stories became longer. Now they are starting to shrink. I hope you enjoy these, some of the shorter, pieces. jsg

In Israel They Speak Hebrew

We moved into what was formerly an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem. It has a Hebrew name now, but everyone calls it by its old Arabic name Baka. The streets are narrow and even the new building and renovations preserve the style, square houses, decorated with blue ceramic, the courtyards and small gardens of an Arab house. There was a perfect example of one such house at the end of our street. When we first moved in, I noticed an old man sitting on the balcony of the second floor of the house. He sat in the sun, with his hands folded over a cane. He wore a large black hat in the North African style, a long beard on a beautiful dark Mediterranean face.

The next day, I watched him slowly walk up the street to the synagogue in time for the afternoon and evening prayers. And the next day, and the next.

A few days later, we were walking our daughter D to school early in the morning. We met him in the street. He stopped and took D’s little face in his wrinkled hands, he smiled and repeated one word, laughing as he said it, mal-kush, or something like it. I didn’t know the word mal-kush but he stood there in the Jerusalem sun holding D’s face in his wrinkled hands, the perfect symmetry of his wrinkled hands and D’s peanut face, giggling and saying mal-kush, mal-kush.

A few days after that, I ran into him again on our street. This time he was with a younger man, who introduced himself to me as his son. I told his son the story of the encounter of his father and my daughter, and I asked him,
in Hebrew, what language was your father speaking? What was he saying?

His son laughed, much like his father, and said to me, probably Arabic, he was born in Algiers but he has been in the Land for a long time. My father has seen many things in his life, his son said to me, he speaks many languages, and sometimes even I don’t understand him, and he laughed again.

Two weeks after I arrived in Jerusalem, I went into the post office to retrieve a package sent to us from a friend from home. In the post office, an old Russian man was standing at the window next to me trying to mail a large box to the States. An Israeli (a former Russian, I assume) was helping him fill out the form, they came to the part where they have to declare what is in the box and the Russian was explaining to the Israeli who was trying to translate it into English for the form to accompany the package to America. Finally, the post office clerk became frustrated and asked the room, in Hebrew, was there anyone here who could write good English? I said yes, and the Russian told the Israeli who told me that there was a tik g’veret inside, at which time a whole post office full of people announced their interpretation of this Hebrew phrase.

The guy behind me was yelling handbag for ladies! handbag for ladies! and I shouted, with revenge in my voice for all the Israelis who corrected my Hebrew on much subtler points of style, purse! I wrote purse, then chocolate, then coffee, then book, and the last entry stumped everybody in the post office until I realized that the Russian was saying the brand name of a dog food. Dog food! I hollered and inscribed dog food on the form. Everybody in the post office, except ladies handbag, thanked me for the help and I started to leave. Hey — professor, the clerk behind the post office window yelled at me, in Hebrew, you forgot your package and the whole place erupted. I had left the package I came in for at the window.

I was walking away from the post office and a block away a young Russian man with a Solzhenitsyn beard stopped me and said, in English, I eat all morning. . . give me three shekels for food? I said, I haven’t eaten all day myself. Yes, said the Russian, as if to say that’s what I meant. I gave him three shekels (about one dollar then) and he looked at me, touched his chest, touched my chest and said, from my life to yours, from my life to yours and thanked me to which I replied, in Russian, you’re welcome.

Two weeks earlier, I had just arrived in the Land. I hadn’t lived there in eighteen years but I remembered my Hebrew well enough, I thought, to jump in right away. I went shopping at the Hypercol, the local supermarket. Everything was copacetic until check-out. The check-out woman asked me something and I answered her without hesitation. I wasn’t quite sure what she said, but she responded immediately with a little piece of paper and pointed me toward the supermarket office. I took the paper to the office, the clerks behind the counter began to discuss me in an animated fashion, then they shrugged their shoulders, fished into a box and gave me a pair of panty hose.

What question did I answer? Maybe it was whether I preferred men’s or women’s clothes, perhaps if I was married or not, maybe it was if they gave me a pair of panty hose, would I wear them? The fact is, I didn’t know. But I wanted to, I wanted to so badly that every day I was in Israel, I suffered a similar indignity.

About a month later, I was shopping at the Hypercol again. This time the check out person said something to me that I understood perfectly, because my Hebrew had improved, and because I had had this experience before. You’ve won a prize, she said to me in Hebrew, and gave me a slip of paper. I gestured to the office, over there — right? Nachon, she said (right). I went to the office and told the woman behind the counter, in Hebrew, the last time I won a pair of dark panty hose. Ahhh, she said and took the slip and disappeared into the store.

She came back a few minutes later and tossed my prize to me over the counter. It was another pair of panty hose, these are very sheer, she said in Hebrew.

After I was there a while, when Israelis tried to speak to me in English, I told them that I speak no English. What language do you speak? they always asked me — French, Russian, Spanish? Samoan, I said, and we continued in Hebrew.


The Kabbalah of Repair

In honor of the 60th birthday of the state of Israel, I am posting some of my shorter Israel stories. Hope you enjoy these pieces, jsg

The Kabbalah of Repair
or The Breaking of the Vessels and The Gathering of the Sparks

Oud: classical stringed instrument of the Middle East. ancestor to the guitar, generally eleven strings, no frets

I turned it over and over in my mind for months. What was the safest way to carry my oud to Israel? I knew that if I packed it into the hard shell case, the airlines would have the option of checking it through, which they prefer to do. On the other hand, if I carried it by hand I would have to pack it into the soft case, and the soft case has no protection, but when you are carrying the instrument and laying it in the luggage bin above your head, what sort of protection do you need? This is how I figured and that is what I decided to do: carry my beloved oud in my arms, in the soft case, so that there was no chance of the airlines spiriting it away and abandoning it to the handling of the baggage druids, about whom I have heard a hundred cautionary tales from other musicians.

At Kennedy airport, we checked all our luggage and I had my hands free to clutch my instrument to my heart as I stood in the line waiting to board the TWA flight from New York to Tel Aviv. They called for boarding, allowed us to pass into the people who need assistance boarding and small children line, and as we were waiting to enter the plane, someone pushed me and my oud was pinned for a split second between myself and the wall of the terminal. It happened so quickly and innocently that I had to recreate the scene later to understand what had come about, but by the time I entered the airplane, I was holding my beautiful oud in my hands like a duck about to be prepared for a Chinese feast, dead in my arms, neck limp, the headstock snapped at the neck, its carved rosette popped out of the sound hole and crashing about the bowels of the instrument. As I laid my oud to rest in its compartment over my seat, I felt the folly of all my planning, to have arrived before the trip began with the very eventuality I tried most to avoid. We hadn’t even left the United States and my instrument was broken.

By the time we arrived in Jerusalem, I had decided to pack up the pieces and ship it home, to myself, and when I returned, I would take it to my instrument repair man who I was quite sure could fix it. I had no confidence in the ability of Israeli technicians to fix my instrument, so I didn’t bother to inquire. They hadn’t as yet created instruments as fine as mine in the Middle East, why should they be able to repair them? One day, as I went to visit a friend, I passed a violin repair person whose shop was just a short block away from my friend’s office. I stopped in out of curiosity and told the man about my instrument. What kind of instrument is it? he asked. I told him it was a big lute. What kind of lute? An oud, I said. Do you play it? he asked. He had heard of my teacher, and he assured me that he could fix my instrument. I brought it to him.

Two weeks later, I picked up my oud from the violin repair man. It made me sad to see it, because it looked like it had been broken. It was not fixed the way my repair man would have fixed it at home. At home, I wouldn’t see the break, the finish would match perfectly, the filler would be undetectable. The finish the Israeli violin repair man applied was glossy while the rest of the oud is rubbed with a dull finish. I could see the separation of woods and some discoloration. He was trained in the former Soviet Union, and I wondered if he had the products available to him that we had in the United States. But I didn’t ask.

When the instrument was broken, I felt all the notes fly out of it like the letters that flew off the tablets when Moses broke them on the way down the mountain. I told this to the violin repair man, who was always formal in conversation. He called me Mar Goodman (Mr. Goodman) and I called him Adon, which is a little more formal. He bowed slightly from the waist when I came into his studio. When I told him the story of the notes flying out of the oud, he smiled and said (in Hebrew), there is always that danger. Then he asked me to play for him, so I sat down in the middle of a hundred broken violins, I tuned my instrument (he admonished me to always put pressure on both sides of the headstock equally, a technical as well as a metaphysical critique), and I began to play, slowly and gingerly.

Maybe it was the place — a single large room that opens up to the street through an opaque metal curtain that is drawn across the entire front of the studio. Perhaps it was Jerusalem — this the first time I heard my instrument played there. Maybe it was the repair — there is a notion in the Kabbalah that a weakness when repaired is stronger than if there had never been a weakness at all. Perhaps it was the proximity to the source of sound — there is a teaching that when the rope that connects us to the Source is cut and knotted up again, the distance is diminished.

I started to play, he closed his eyes and listened, then he asked me to play louder. Turn it up please he said in Hebrew, and I played a little louder. I heard a sound I had never heard before emerge from my instrument. Do you hear? he asked. Yes, it’s beautiful, I said in Hebrew. Thank you, he said in English. He was smiling an impish smile, as if the secret of the broken oud and its music was something familiar to him, something that we had now shared. I told him that he had gathered the notes back into the instrument and they were fluttering around his studio as if they had wings. Not me, he said, but someone. His name, by the way, is a Russian name that means heart of the strings. Ahhhhh, said heart of the strings.

I left heart of the strings clutching my oud once again to my chest. It was almost dark, the sun just making its way home in the west. I walked slowly up Palmach Street, past the Islamic Museum, past the President’s House, that’s where I saw him, just on the other side of the President’s house, before I came to Wingate Square.

He was walking in front of me, it was now dark, he took advantage of the deep breath that the city exhales just before night and appeared without anyone noticing. But I am sure that I saw him. He walked like an old man but he may have been young, bound up with muscles. He was carrying a notebook with all the stories of Jerusalem under his arm, a hat on his head, he walked slowly and methodically ahead of me. In his notebook were not only the stories, but the interpretations, the obvious and the non-obvious, the known stories and the unknown, and the notes that had returned to my instrument in a way I had never imagined them.

jsg, usa

I Find My Teacher

In honor of the 60th birthday of Israel, I share some of my shorter Israel stories. jsg

I Find My Teacher or My Teacher Finds Me

Oud: classical stringed instrument of the Middle East.
ancestor to the guitar, generally eleven strings, no frets

It was time for me to acquire a decent instrument, a world class oud, even if I couldn’t play it or could play it only in my own indiosyncratic, style. I was visiting in California one summer, a small town between the bustle of Los Angeles and the desert of Palm Springs, where there was a particularly wonderful music store. In Claremont, California, Charles Chase had settled sixty years earlier, a transplant from Massachusetts, and opened a music store that reflected Mr. Chase’s loves: world music, beautiful instruments, poetry. There was a kiosk outside the store where you could post a poem, and Charles’ own self published poetry chapbooks were available at the cash register.

Charles had been warehousing the finest guitar woods for decades – Brazilian rosewood, curly maples – and he found various artists to make instruments for him. He commissioned a small group of ouds from an Armenian oud maker who was then living in Orange County. The problem with the middle eastern oud is always the wood. Wood is a premium in the middle east, and the instrument makers are not accustomed to the finer woods that the western luthiers use.

The combination of good western guitar woods and the eastern oud sensibility produced a dozen magnificent brazilian rosewood and maple instruments. I bought one of them, but I didn’t know how to play it. The educated eye could spot it as a world class instrument from across a room.

Not long after I acquired my instrument, I read that there was an Israeli Arab-Jewish musical group touring the United States led by a great Arab master of the oud. I went to see them thinking I might make a connection with some needed lessons on my instrument. I was still playing in an idiosyncratic style, playing the oud like a classical guitar. I figured that my beautiful instrument might be a good introduction to the oud player in the group, so I came to the concert early, brought my oud with me, and found a seat in the front row my beloved oud nestled in my lap.

I loved the intimate sound of the instrument: the sound of flesh and string, the pure acoustic sound. Oud means wood in Arabic and that’s what I heard in the playing of the oud, the liberation of music lurking in wood, coaxed out by finger, nail, flesh. I approached the oud as I did the classical guitar: I played it with my fingers, no plectrum, like the guitar I preferred the feel of my fingers directly on the strings. I knew I owned an extraordinary instrument, but my style was my own, and I never learned enough to play the instrument in concert.

I hoped that even the sight of my instrument from the stage would be my ticket of introduction to the oud master. I sat quietly through the concert with my oud on my lap. It was a magnificent concert. I could see that the oud master noticed my instrument right away. After the concert he motioned me to approach the stage. He looked at my instrument and invited me backstage where we could talk privately.

He asked about my instrument. I told him the story. He asked me to play for him, which I did in my unconventional style. “That’s interesting,” he said, “but of course all wrong.”

“Teach me right,” I said, knowing in my bones in my blood that this may be the one opportunity in my life to receive proper instruction on my instrument.

He laughed and informed me that he no longer took private students, he was much too busy, and besides, he lived in Israel.

“I’ll come,” I said. I meant it. He laughed more, but he saw my seriousness and relented.

“Come to Israel and I will teach you. But bring your instrument.”

We had been talking about a sabbatical in my family, so we packed up our three kids, moved to Israel for the better part of a school year, and I left for one of the great adventures of my life.