I Go To Prison

Why I Go To Prison

Listen to these words, these noble truths, on the road I am four times a month to visit individuals incarcerated for crimes I know not what, mostly in institutions far from the urban centers I inhabit, sources of employment for uncrossed pathways, tucked away in rural Missouri these jail houses, overflowing with offenders on the holy search for identity, redemption, self.

O prisoners, O incarcerated, O souls in motion, O prisoner violators, O forgotten solace, O pity O compassion, O compassion ascendant.

Identity is central in these institutions. The movement within, the spiritual search for meaningful inwardliness – this is the bread out of which they recreate their existence. Not for bread alone do they live, they live for everything that issues from the mouth of G*d.

We sit around tables at four institutions and study, sometimes ten, twenty, up to thirty participants. There are on-going Jewish study groups at four institutions this way in the Missouri prison system. Why? I ask. “Because we have time. We are hungry,” they say, “starving for this.”

We divide up our sessions into three segments: first hour, basic Hebrew. Second hour, texts that I create (special permission needed for books even pamphlets, not papers), third hour, unscripted open dialogue.

Second session at level 5 institution (highest security): first hour we are studying the holy prayers from a basic Hebrew primer. We are reading around the table, we come to a word with a kamatz katan (Hebraists: an O vowel with the orthography of an ah vowel, related to the O vowel the cholem, non Hebraists: a vowel sound that is not distinguishable from another vowel sound unless you know).

The prisoner to my left puts down his book: “what is the precise relation of the kamatz katan to the cholem?” he asks me. I have not mentioned kamatz katan, cholem, any grammatical point at all, this is at the beginning of our Hebrew studies and I had figured they were basic. This is a question that one does not ordinarily encounter until University Hebrew studies. Tell me reader: what is the relation of the kamatz katan to the cholem?

They pronounce these words as if they were English and not transliterations from Hebrew which tells me they are self educated to a sophistication with gaps in their learning. They do not know how to pronounce the names of many of the letters and vowels with which they are familiar, but they have been educating themselves in a way as sophisticated as any I have encountered in thirty years of teaching these subjects.

Each one of my visits is three hours long, no one gets up even for a bathroom break, we sit nose to nose for three hours. They can wander around if they like but no one leaves the table for the entire time I am there.

The level of discussion in general is on a level as sophisticated as any class I have taught. My expectations are showing. I could have been surprised, I suppose, by a little learning, but this is off the chart. They have been doing their homework, educating themselves in Jewish subjects, developing the necessary Jewish vocabulary, studying Hebrew, reading, learning, praying together in these small groups in currently four institutions in Missouri.

Every time I arrive, someone says to me, “we’ve been waiting for you.”

My name is Rabbi James Stone Goodman, I am the chaplain for Jewish Prison Outreach.

Address to the Class

To the class of 2010

Thank you for the opportunity to address the graduating class of 2010. It is a privilege to be the guest speaker after having spent so many years sitting in the audiences of my own children’s graduations. Every parent is proud of the accomplishments of their children, but every parent is also a citizen with an eye to the future entrusted to the next generation, hopeful for good citizens, good leadership.

I have listened to dozens of these addresses over the years, not only my own children’s graduations but the graduations of friends and family, all eager to witness their seedlings grow into the sprouted and rooted plantings we dream of when preparing them for the future.

Generally the message at these events is basic in a variety of forms and styles: begin with an anecdote, a joke, the best a personal remembrance, follow with the charge which is either change the world or be good human beings in consonance with other human beings, world peace, etc. I am most partial to the change the world scripts.

You probably won’t change the world much. Forget that Margaret Mead quote, it’s prosaic and will one day be disheartening. My generation thought we would change the world too. Save yourselves. Do something honest, gather up a nest egg of money and don’t let the news depress you. All the expressly powerful and most of the famous are nincompoops. Do not pay any attention to them, don’t pay any attention at all.

If you must distinguish yourself, become a good criminal. An old school criminal. The criminals nowadays are generally faceless, nameless, and now untraceable.

Our elections are in the pockets of the secret donors who have planned their future security around the takeover of our beloved political process through privately financed groups, mystery backers — generally the corporations motivated by power and profits and idiot self preservationist fringe philosophies — protected by tax-code provisions that do not require disclosure of donors. Now that our Supreme Court has opened the door to the unabashed manipulation of the democracy through anonymous — that is, secret – funding, our crooks are mostly hidden. That is where we have arrived in our noble country: welcome to your future.

Save yourselves. I want to make a case for a return to honest crime. The kind of crime I grew up with. Now those guys were criminals. They smoked cigars and they insulated themselves with payoffs and graft and they barely bothered to hide it. They enjoyed their work.

Get into drugs, prostitution, smuggle knock-offs over the borders, intimidate business persons to buy your protection, surround yourself with strong, secure, ruthless people. Protect your community from a store front that serves great espresso, do favors for people for favors in return. Create a parallel world where your word rules. Never forget a good turn or don’t miss the opportunities for revenge. Be a good criminal. Let people know what you stand for. Do it publicly and without guile. Smoke a cigar now and again.

Infiltrate honestly. Be a citizen and make the expressed and unexpressed powers answer to you. Don’t let the politicians become so important. Don’t respect their secrecy. Let the corporations know you are not afraid of them. Speak truth to power, as we used to say. Be bold. Reclaim optimism through crime. It will be a great gift.

I would like to close with a prayer that has come to mean much for me as I have witnessed my culture’s slide into irrelevance, consumerism, greed, and cyncisim. It has been a source of strength for me.

God –
Grant me the serenity to accept the persons I cannot change
The courage to change the persons I can
And the wisdom to know it’s me.

Thank you, and congratulations to the class of 2010.

james stone goodman, united states of america

Our Tulsa Adventure

Our Tulsa Adventure

We skipped Chicago and headed for Tulsa. Equidistant we are approximately – Chi or Tulsa – never been to Tulsa and it might be an adventure.

Hurtling on the oblique heart-line through the center of America, the omphalos, the belly button, we traverse our state in five hours. Enter Oklahoma and the air is clean, a horse culture all around, I am wearing a large hat, hope to purchase a larger one to remember our adventure.

We pass through the Cherokee nation, originally settled by the Creek tribes.

I rent two rooms, one for my sidekick Will one for myself, in three and a half stars by Hotline downtown. Downtown is spread horizontally, some old architecture, many empty spaces no doubt from the dis-appearance of old architecture now deceased.
This city built from oil, the bidness of oil having moved to Houston and left this lonesome city once, once, once ascendant.
A port near Tulsa, the most inland river port in the United States that once fed international commerce from intra-national waters. Catoosa.

Some reclamation downtown in a modest way. We dine in the location of former glory no doubt, Blue Dome Diner, empty when we enter at 6 PM. We order: a little fried okra, lentil soup (the vegetables are crisp and lentils al dente, subtle spicing just a touch of kick), Greek salad with a home made balsamic that is one of the best I have had, everything excellent. “I love this place,” I say to the ceiling fans, to my sidekick Will, to marlene our waitress blonde haired with streaking.

Popular spot for travelers, Route 66. Home of Western Swing, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. We walk down Bob Wills Avenue, we pass a small club where there is punk music and kids standing out front. Next door very fine looking violin maker’s shop. Closed.

We see sign Cain’s Ballroom Dancing, 1924, inside a small sign over the stage: the home of Bob Wills. The ballroom spring-loaded wooden floor reclaimed, ballroom outfitted for lights and sound, the pictures of Bob Wills, Kitty Wells, Hank Williams line the walls.

I sit on the wooden bench along the wall. My back hurts so the chairs are not pleasant. I am wearing the largest hat in the place.
Richard Thompson begins precisely at 8 PM. He doesn’t speak much, non-verbal smile and nods to his co-players acknowledging the pleasure and mysticism of playing in this the home of Bob Wills, Oklahoma, “one of two states I have never played” says R.T.
He launches into a stunning set with an engine that does not abate. First set the latest album. Second set selections from over forty years of gigs.

We eat chocolates from a fine chocolatier around the corner. Very fine French chocolates. We talk to the Tulsans.

Hurtling home the next day retracing the oblique heart-line traversing our state. Stopping at Waffle House (currently my second favorite restaurant) in Joplin for the perfect waffle dual eggies and raisin toast (hash browns ‘cuz I’m wearing thin I am), we are listening to R.T. and B.D. on the car box.

I missed the Oklahoma hat having many larger hats at home.

We had a real adventure and in my traveling bag – a sack of fine fine superfine French chocolates.

jsg, usa

The Perfect Wedding

She comes looking for him
He allows himself to be found
She does He She
She She He He
When found —
An integration
Of cosmic signficance.

Every individual unification
Recapitulates a universal unification.

One and many
You and me And G*d
This is the way it works.

When we marry
We have one foot in the particular pool
One foot in the deathless
Universal pool.

When we marry I say to you
You say to me
You are holy to me with this ring.

Something in me will fill you
Something in you will fill me
And we are the only ones
Who can supply each other this way.

This is marriage
We are holy and given to one another
To insinuate ourselves into each other’s deepest —
Into our souls.

We become souls with no space between
We are burrowing into each other’s softest places
We know each other inside
Glued to each other in a way that can never be rescinded
Not separated
[not simply] —

Not by death
Not by anything.

Now we will be searching out each other
For the rest of our lives
To know what cannot be completely known

remember —

Known can become not-known.

Not-known can become

Welcome to the perfect wedding.

jsg, usa

Come Into the Word

Noah staked out the Ark
Ark — teivah
teivah is also word
also the basket teivah
into which Yocheved, Moses’ mother,
placed baby Moses for safekeeping.
Moses was saved by the teivah
Noah was saved by the teivah
but the question is —
would Moses have remained as silent as Noah?

Abraham was never silent
he argued to save us — [Genesis 6:22]
Noah silent.

Noah entered the Word
Come into the teivah [Genesis 7:1]
we always arrive at the the teivah
the Word
the journey is the story.
Noah hiding in the word.

Which word is it?
How many words?
How beautiful or how true were the words
how large enough the words Noah entered?

How does Noah merit the word anyway?
Because he was pressed, G*d loves the pressed, the persecuted,
the partial, the incomplete, the wounded,
this from Midrash. [Vayikra Rabbah, chapter 27]

G*d invited Noah into the word
Noah was pursued by his generation
G*d wanted him
so Noah entered the Word

Make a window for the Ark
a light you shall make to the Ark
the Ark with lower second and third levels you shall make it [6:16]
the soul level of the words
words of the G*dliness level
these are the words that come from your mouth
every word has a universe
a soul and a G*dliness [Baal Shem Tov on theTorah, Noach 17].

I interpret the word
Noah discovered inside the teivah —
come into the Ark, enter the Word
interpret the world.

Become a tzaddik in loshen
a tzaddik in language —

Save everyone.

jsg, usa

O holy Shabbes inspiration Noah
Maqam Sigah tri-chord (weekday prayers and Torah cantillation)
E half-flat F G

Sometimes Bayat (Noach falls on Shabbes before Rosh Chodesh Cheshvan)
D E half-flat F G

Every Shabbat has a maqam associated with it
maqam cognate to Hebrew maqom = Place.