Pure Form

Shabbat Chazon the necessity to read the vision of Isaiah
on the Shabbes before Tisha B’Av
God gives us the remedy before the malady
it’s built in — this curative wisdom is built in before it’s prescribed
the vision before the fall
the hope before the destruction,

I can’t find the blessing in it
someone said to me over a cup of Joe
this always the problem in suffering
or in waiting even or in frustration
I can’t find the blessing in it.

On the Shabbes before the 9th of Av
we recall the destruction of the Temples
even on Tisha B’Av there is a buried holiness and seed for hope.

The name Shabbat Chazon
because the chazon the vision of Isaiah is read as the haftarah
a vision of the future Jerusalem — rebuilt, strong,
built on the resolution of the mistakes of the past.

From R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev
on Shabbes Chazon the vision of rebuilding the Temple
this is the Shabbes of vision of the third Temple
you can see it.

Feel this: always on the Shabbes just before Tisha B’Av
the black fast, the saddest day of the year
always preceded by Shabbat Chazon
a vision of the holy Temple rebuilt with the coming of the Messiah
the redemption we pray for daily.

Feel this: the proximity of what saves and what corrupts

the vision of an ascendant future and the losses of the past

the proximity of ascent and descent

what purifies what defiles.

Something purifying out of exile
something pure emerging out of suffering
Shabbat Chazon: a vision of ascent out of descent.

I found the blessing in it
do you feel it?

R. Gamaliel, R. Eliezer b. Azariah, R. Yehoshua, and R. Akiva
came to the Temple Mount
they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies,
they all burst into tears, except Akiva
Akiva laughed.
[Makkot 24b]

Akiva said, old men and old women shall dwell again
in the streets of Jerusalem
and the streets of the city shall be full of children

— I know the prophecy.
Akiva saw something his friends did not
Akiva saw the future —
how dark the night, he said, how bright the day to come. [the Maharal]

The harder the fall, the higher the return
Akiva laughing.

The tradition tells us that in the future
when it is time
on what day do you suppose the Messiah will be born?

— the ninth of Av.

jsg, jerusalem

O holy Shabbes Devarim

Maqam Hijaz
According to one source, all other instances of maqam hijaz is mixed with maqam bayat.

Only Shabbat Devarim, Shabbat Hazon does hijaz appear in its pure form.

A maqam is a musical figure. Each Shabbat is associated with a particular maqam.

Maqam Hijaz D [1/2] E-flat [1 ½] F# [1/2] G

Tzefat Story

From the Tzefat Stories

Dedicated to Yaacov Kaszmacher z”l

I had first encountered the oud in Tzefat, as a student, on a walk through the old city of Tzefat with my classmates. I was in Israel studying at the yeshiva [house of study] in Jerusalem. It was my first trip to Israel. In the middle of the year, my classmates and I were led around Tzefat on a walking tour of the Old Jewish Quarter.

Tzefat was the center of a form of Jewish mysticism called Lurianic Kabbalah, based on the teachings of the great sixteenth century mystic Rabbi Isaac Luria. It is now known also as an artists’ colony.

We passed through narrow streets, walkways paved with stone and in the middle of the stone an indentation for water to run off, metal shutters on both sides of the walkway opening on homes, studios, shops that face each other from each side of the walkway, the labyrinth of the middle eastern market adapted by the Spanish exiles who settled there in the sixteenth century and built their homes on the other side of the metal shutters around courtyards, in the Spanish style, from their root memory of the land from which they were exiled in 1492.

I stayed close to my group thinking I couldn’t possibly navigate those passageways by myself, it seemed like a great mystery to me, the labyrinth of passageways in the Old City of Tzefat. On one of those streets, we passed a store front, its metal shutters drawn back and I glanced in and noticed some sort of woodwork on the tables. I realized I was looking at musical instruments, a sensual Oriental shape, unfinished wood, shapes like the swirl of Arabic calligraphy given form in wood. It was an oud, I surmised, something I had heard of as a guitar player in the ancestral sense. That was all I knew about the oud, it was an oriental antecedent to the guitar.

I wondered what sort of sound came from such an instrument, how the physics and the senses coalesced to produce sound in such a body.

I walked into the shop, there was no one else present. I stared into the sublime Levantine femininity of the unfinished ouds languishing on the work tables of this workshop. There was no proprietor, this is the middle east and there was no one there. I had walked into the enchanted orchard of oud shapes.

I wandered out the door and read the hand-drawn sign hung above: Elias, 17 generations of oud makers, Tzefat, an address. Nice sign, I thought, small, elegant, unobtrusive, inconspicuous, untelling, drilled into the stone just above the metal shutters that were drawn across the store front to close.

I never did find Mr. Elias on that trip, but the shape and image of the oud had settled into my imagination and when I returned to the States, I found tapes of oud music, I acquired an oud made in Cairo on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, and began to find with my hands the music I heard in my head.

Seventeen years later, my oud interest had inflated into an obsession, I found myself for only the second time in my life in Tzefat, on a different mission entirely than the first visit. I had come on a mission quite different from my first visit, my responsibilities on the second trip included only teaching the fellow travelers in our group the lore and history of Tzefat. I had even forgotten about the meeting in the oud workshop seventeen years earlier, although I had not forgotten the oud, I had misplaced my first encounter with it.

By the second time I visited Tzefat, in 1994, there lived in that small city a mystic, Shalom bar Natan, who was known to be a reader of hands. This is a technique that was practiced by the great mystic, the holy Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria Ashkenazi himself, known by his acronym the Ari. “Ari” also means “lion” and he is one of the great heroes of Jewish mysticism. In the literature it says that the practice of reading hands had not been passed on.

I had never visited before or since anyone like a psychic, but there are powers in the world, and especially in places like Tzefat, and when you need them, I suppose, they find you. There are powers in the world lying deep within reality, a light that permeates within, as the Chassidim say.

I found Shalom bar Natan’s home and arranged a session with him late Saturday night. Eleven people from our tour chose to come with me. None of us discussed casually what happened that night, each experience was quite different it seemed, and I can only tell you about my own encounter.

I was next to last. At about 2:30 in the morning, Shalom invited me in his work room. His eyes were luminous and warm, shimmering coals out of thatch of thick, black beard. He looked first at my left hand, fingers under and on top, he examined the sides of my hands, fingers, between the fingers, then the other hand, the right hand. He concentrated on the right hand.

He began to talk to me, telling me what kind of work I have done in my life. He described my experience as a parent, it has been hard for you, he says. Your children — I see problems in the head and in the heart. He is entirely accurate, but I didn’t say anything. I listened.

One of your children was in danger but is OK now. He used the expression “OK.” You are strong, very strong, he tells me many times how strong I am. I wasn’t feeling so strong in those days but I didn’t say anything. He told me that my suffering has made me both strong and sensitive. He told me I have an unusual mix of logic and intuition, that I am creative and logical, both developed to a high degree, which is very good, he said. You should teach Kabbalah, he told me, Jewish mysticism, because of these qualities of head and heart.

He told me at what age I married, he was correct. He told me when my father died, he was correct. He told me when my mother died, he was correct. He described my brother to me. He told me a few things that no one knows, unless they have been reading my mail. I was ready to leave, he had told me enough, he had my attention, and I assumed that the session was over. Then he told me the purpose of my life.

I realized that all his prognostication was to attract my attention for the true message which was for him to articulate, at about 3 in the morning, in Tzefat, 1994, the purpose of my life. I was transfixed, paralyzed. Our session had nothing to do with fortune telling, that was for lesser imaginations, all the hocus pocus that passes for mysticism these days, but the true message of what I am supposed to do when I get up in the morning and put on my pants. This was much more wonderful, much more ordinary, much more mysterious, much more daily, much more exotic, much more common, than fortune telling. What I am supposed to do. Today. Every day. The purpose of my life.

We moved from fortune telling to the realm of the Chassidic encounter called yechidus, when you spend some time alone with the rebbe, he enters your world, he becomes your heart and you become his, and the rebbe gives you your charge, your purpose, he defines your life. He defines it from a place of knowing, of union, because for the time that you are together, he is your heart, and that is why this encounter is called yechidus, “becoming one.” Only from that perspective can you speak the true purpose, the definitive encounter that derives its truth from being there.

The Swami once told me a story. There are three butterflies. The first one goes out to investigate the fire. “What was it like?”
“It was hot.”
The second goes to investigate the fire. “What was it like?”
“It was hot.”
The third goes and does not return. It was consumed by the fire. That butterfly understands fire, because to know it is to become it.

When the Baal Shem Tov, the originator of Chassidus, was dying, he gathered all his disciples around him and told them, each one, the purpose of his life. I often imagine them, gathered around the Baal Shem Tov, receiving their purpose. This is yechidus, union, becoming one with the rebbe.

I told the story of my encounter with Shalom bar Natan to Sarika, my daughter. “So what did he tell you?” she asked. “What is the purpose of your life?” I told her that I couldn’t tell her, I would have to write it down, or maybe tell her in secret, in some sort of shared ceremony that we had not yet created. Or maybe write it between the lines of a story, in the white fire. But it was too holy to just say it.

There is a famous story in the Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 29b. Moses ascends to heaven, and he comes upon God, who, of all things, is attaching crowns to every letter of Torah. “Why are you busying yourself with such an activity?” Moses asks. “There will come a man in a couple of generations, Akiva ben Yosef, who will weave a hundred tales on each crown,” God says. “Show me,” says Moses. “Turn around,” God says, and Moses finds himself in the academy of the great Rabbi Akiva, in the eighth row, listening to his teaching.

Moses doesn’t understand a thing they are saying. He returns to the Holy One and says, “Master of the Universe, you have such a man as this and You give the Torah to me?” Moses is asking the same question, the answer to which was revealed to me, “what is my purpose?” God says, “be silent, let it rise before Me.” Sometimes this is read as “shut up,” but it isn’t shut up, it’s be silent. Find your silence, clear out the space, and your purpose, what you are seeking, will rise before you as it has risen before Me. But first, you must find your silence, God says, be silent and be found. You probably didn’t even know you were lost.

Later that night, after having heard my purpose articulated to me by Shalom bar Natan of Tzefat, I was the last to leave Shalom’s residence. It was about four AM by now. The lights in the Old Jewish Quarter of Tzefat had gone out entirely, the storefronts are so close to one another that they obstruct the sky, so at night, without lights, it was as dark as anywhere outside I have ever been. I couldn’t see a single thing, I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face. So I placed my shoe in the indentation that runs down the middle of the stone pathway. Like a trolley car I made my way gingerly through the Old Jewish Quarter of Tzefat. I walked this way for what seemed to be fifty yards or so, I was wondering how much farther I had to walk until I would emerge from the density of the Old Jewish Quarter into the moonlight.

Then the street lights came on. I stood there under the lights of the Old Jewish Quarter of Tzefat adjusting my eyes as if I had crawled out of a cave into the sun. I stood there, for a moment, acclimating myself to my surroundings, wondering how far I was from the long stairs that run down the middle of Tzefat and once separated the Jewish from the Arab Quarters of town. I hadn’t yet moved from the spot where I stood, paralyzed since the lights had come on, stuck by my feet to the stone, and then I looked up. I was standing in front of a store front, like so many others with metal shutters drawn across the front, my eyes drifted upward, to a sign, hand lettered, drilled into the stone, which read, Elias, 18 generations of oud makers, Tzefat, an address.

It was the oud shop, the very same address where I first entered the world of the East, the deep world in the ground where I was now rooted and where seventeen years earlier I started to plant myself, tentatively inching into its soil and throwing a few tendrils and shoots. Except that this must have been his son, the eighteenth generation, one generation later than I had first encountered.
At once I was drawn back to that day in 1977 when I first entered that shop, where I met myself in this unexpected place, among the unfinished carcasses of the enchanted oud forest behind these very shutters.

The summer after my meeting with Shalom, I traveled to Tzefat again. On Shabbes, I went to the synagogue of the Holy Ari. I am always delighted to be there, to me it is extra holy to be praying in the same space as the great Ari. A man was sitting next to me, Eastern European, small cap on his head, rugged face, the hands of a working man. I mentioned to him how excited I was to be praying in the Ari’s synagogue. He shrugged. I pointed to the reader’s stand and said, the Holy Ari must have stood right there. He nodded. I’ve come a long way to pray here, I said. Where are you from? I asked. Czechoslovakia. Do you live here? Yes. It must be wonderful to pray here all the time, I said. It’s just a synagogue, he replied, like other synagogues, I happen to come to this one.

Suddenly the luster had diminished for me, I wandered out into the courtyard a few steps below where the Ari’s synagogue is built. The narrow passageways of the Old Jewish Quarter open into a small courtyard just below the synagogue of the Ari. On one side of the courtyard is a private residence where a family was sitting at a dining table talking and singing. On the other side of the courtyard I saw a plain stucco building with several windows and a sign over one of the windows that read, hand lettered in Hebrew, “Kossov.”

I recognized Kossov as a place name in Russia. I heard the sound of praying and singing coming from the windows of the building marked “Kossov” so I went over. I couldn’t see into the windows from ground level because the windows were too high off the ground. I managed to balance a garbage pail upside down and climbed up on my tiptoes to peer into the window.

Even with the pail and on my tiptoes, I was looking into the room at knee level, up through a density of legs, full of dark pants of the men’s section of a synagogue, some of the legs in motion, some dancing, some swaying, all moving because the atmosphere in the prayer space was electrifying, even from my angle. As I stared into the room, all of a sudden my eyes attached themselves to the eyes of someone else deep in the interior of the room, eyes light and blue like the sea, eyes like mine, staring at me from underneath a Chassidic flat hat called a shtreimel and from out of a wild unmanaged beard. Laughing eyes, full of mischief, joy, and hope, eyes that seemed to be staring into my heart. It seemed so unlikely to me, from that angle, from near floor level of the room, from outside a small window, that I should be seen at all. I glanced behind me and looked into the room around my window station to see if perhaps those eyes were looking at someone else. They were looking at me.

He was beautiful in his Chassidic fur hat, his knickers and long dark coat, sitting on a bench toward the other side of the large room which was the Kossov synagogue. He motioned me in, patted the bench next to him where there was just enough space for me to sit, and pointed out the window behind him into the darkness, mouthing something, smiling even broader. He did this several more times, pointing out the window behind him into the darkness at the other side of the room, saying something, smiling knowingly and shaking his head up and down, motioning for me to join him on the bench.

I climbed down off my pail and walked into the doorway to my right. I climbed five or six steps from the doorway up into the room. As I entered the room, dozens of laughing, dancing-eyed, praying faces turned to me as I walked through the synagogue. I felt as if I recognized ten faces as I made my way slowly to the bench on the other side, though I had never been there before. I nodded to faces that I was certain I knew, though I couldn’t imagine from where. When I reached the bench on the other side of the room, the beautiful Chassidic face with the laughing eyes patted the seat next to him and I sat down. He pointed out the window behind us and said, “Bar Yochai.” I looked out the window and realized that he was pointing at the mountain five kilometers northwest of Tzefat, a mountain that you could see from that window, where the paradigmatic hero of Jewish mysticism is buried, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. He pointed out the window to Mt. Meron and said again “Bar Yochai.”

Later, we sat talking. My friend spoke French and Hebrew, and I told him that Bar Yochai was my hero. “Bien sur,” he said. I hadn’t spoken French in years, but we were chattering away in French and Hebrew and I hardly noticed the languages we were speaking in.

I asked him why this place was called “Kossov.” He told me that some Jews had settled in Tzefat from Kossov, that they had owned this building, and that only recently did the community who is now praying there clean it up and turn it into a shul. They found the sign “Kossov” inside the room somewhere as they cleaned it. They decided to honor their mysterious antecedents and kept the name Kossov as was the custom in Jewish prayer circles, to honor those who preceded you.

He asked me if I had ever been to Tzefat before. I told him the story of Shalom bar Natan and asked him if he knew him. He said he knew him, but that he had moved away and didn’t know to where. “Is there anyone else here who reads hands?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said laughing, “this is Tzefat — we all read hands!” And he threw his head back, parting his mighty beard with his laughter, and howled out the window like a lion toward Mt. Meron, silhouetted in the dark distance.

jsg, tzefat

This and This

Everyone’s right
Or everyone’s wrong
These and these are the words of the living God [Eruvin 13b]

For three years Hillel and Shammai argued
Until a Bat Kol – a voice from heaven –
We were eavesdropping on Hashem’s messengers
We heard:
This and also this [eilu v’eilu]

Hillel prevailed because he was either humble
Or polite
Shammai was severe.

Hillel, I am told, led with kindness

Shammai led with potential
What it might be in the future
Far future.

I was thinking —
We need Your wisdom
And we need it now.

The arguments haven’t settled out yet
It’s a someday thing
Someday somebody would get it
But until they do —

Lead with kindness
Both — eilu v’eilu —
Both opinions are Godliness

For the sake of heaven, they used to say
String beads, be compassionate, be humble,
We know they’re right.

There are so many stops on the way
42 to be exact
I can’t be sure any one is more meaningful
Than any other
I do know this:

Every turn necessary
Every stop significant
And if the mountain isn’t mentioned?
It’s not because we weren’t there.

I was there
You bet I was
And I’m going back again.

jsg, s’dot yam

The Thirty-Six Are Hidden, from Legend

The Thirty Six are Hidden

“There are not less than 36 tzaddikim [righteous persons] in the world who receive the Shekhinah [the Divine Presence]” – B.T. Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkot 45b

The notion of the thirty six righteous ones appears in the Talmud, the oral tradition of Judaism, as a teaching of one of the early Babylonian rabbis, Abbaye. In Abbaye’s teaching, the world required a minimum of thirty six righteous individuals in order to exist. The idea may have been suggested by the famous story in the Bible of Sodom, in which Abraham argued with God to save the wicked city (Genesis, chapter 18). God agreed, if ten righteous individuals could be found there. Abraham won the argument but lost the fight; Sodom was destroyed, seemingly because the minimum, ten righteous individuals, could not be found.

That’s the shadow side of the story of the thirty six: it’s a minimum, and sometimes the world may not contain thirty six righteous individuals.

In later Kabbalistic folklore, the thirty six hidden ones have the potential to save the world, they appear when they are needed, and one of them might be the Messiah. They come at times of great peril called out of their anonymity and humility by the necessity to save the world. Because they can, and because we need them.

We began to get familiar with them, referring to them in Yiddish as the “lamed-vov-niks” (lamed vov is Hebrew for thirty six), and seeing them everywhere in the anonymous acts of good people who rise to great acts in difficult circumstances. And because one of the lamed-vov-niks, one of the anonymous thirty six might be the Messiah, we tended to treat strangers with kindness and the possibility that he or she could be the one.

It could be the person we least suspect, because the thirty six, like all the sustaining notions of the world in the Kabbalah, are hidden. They may appear, they may not appear. In each generation, we look for them everywhere.

The Thirty Six are Hidden

“There are not less than 36 righteous persons in the world who receive the Divine Presence” – B.T. Sanhedrin 97b, Sukkot 45b

They may come to the door they may not
They may sit alone outside of the ball park
Selling pencils
They may not speak until spoken to,

They may not know who they are
They may not emerge
Until they are needed,

We need them now.

In one generation
Everyone knew it.

Every once in a while
Since, in a story
Told about one of the anonymous
Thirty six,
Alive or dead
The spirit of the thirty six returned

And the world was sustained.

As if the world deserved its thirty six
As if the world earned its hiddenness
As if the world deserved to be saved,

As if it only takes thirty six,

As if there may come a generation,
Or there was,
In which there was not.

What I was trying to make sense through this entire chapter of the story was the relation between the legend of the thirty six, the notion of teshuvah, the existence of the world, Lillian, Todd, myself, and the telling of the tale.

What brought me to this was the argument in the Talmud between the two Babylonians, Rav and Shmuel: was teshuvah necessary to the redemption of the world, or was it enough to mourn, to stand in our hurt so to speak?

To my surprise, perhaps I knew but I had forgotten, the legend of the thirty six precedes, just precedes, the argument of Rav and Shmuel. In my mind, I went searching for two entirely different subjects in the Talmud and they were placed next to one another. It was so unlikely. Maybe I had known, but if I did, I had forgotten. I was completely surprised by what I found as I dove into the text. I went swimming in the sea of the Talmud and bumped into someone I knew. I learned, again, that for Shmuel, suffering is enough for redemption.

About the thirty six, about teshuvah, neither of them will save the world. Not the thirty six, because it’s a minimum of thirty six according to the Talmud, the implication being that there may come a generation, there may have been, in which there are not thirty six. I started to weep, the thought of a world without thirty six was inexorably sad to me.

I knew, in my blood in my bones, that I had been born into a generation in which there were not thirty six. I knew this from the stories that my parents hid from me. I wept over the Talmud the day I read the text, three days prior to the holiday.

There was a letter in the newspaper quoting a great light of a previous generation. When asked why the holocaust, the precious Rebbe put his head down on his desk and cried.

Teshuvah, too, will not save us. I understood, like Shmuel, that the world will not be saved by this, by that, and what to do is to be in your suffering. Those are actually the words from the Talmud: to stand with your mourning. It sounds so contemporary.

I don’t know how the world is to be saved, unless it is to repair it with tears. To weep the world well.

I met a painter in Italy who occasionally told us stories that were tender. Of the tender stories, there was a softness, sometimes even weeping in his eyes when he told them.

I was talking with J. on Shabbat Shuvah, the Shabbat of teshuvah transformation between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He was telling me about a friend of his son who had died in a car accident. “My heart hurts,” J. said, “I can’t stop crying.”

“You’re saving the world,” I said, “you’re saving the world with your tears.”

It was the weeping of course that attracted me to these stories. When I returned home, I began to wonder why if I told such a story, where were my tears? Then, two months after my return, while playing music with one of my friends, I began to weep, quietly and inwardly.

I realized, too, that the weeping was the center of the story in the Talmud, and the connection between the legend of the thirty six and teshuvah. The world would not be saved in the common, obvious ways; it may not be saved even by the righteous, there may be too few of them, nor by the sincere acts of repentance. It would only be saved by our tears.

jsg, usa

Performance Piece Prague [minus music]

Jewish Stories of Old Prague

Years later I met K in a coffeehouse
he had in his pack pictures of Prague.
Did you take any pictures of the rabbi’s grave?
You know — Yehudah Loew, the rabbi of the Golem.
We call him the Maharal, I told K, meaning
our teacher the rabbi Loew. master of Kabbalah, in old Prague.
The Maharal was buried in the Jewish cemetery
where his gravestone is a holy place of meeting.
Have you seen it? I asked K.
Sure. I have some pictures of his grave, K said,
right here, take a look.

The Maharal

He was a person between worlds,
more than anyone before him, he devoted himself
to the non-legal portions of the Talmud, the story.
He is ancestor to something that would rise,
something quite modern, in generations to come.
He bridged worlds, he was a kabbalist who wrote
like a philosopher. Rav Kook said: he was a father
both to the Chassid and to the Gaon of Vilna,
two faces on the Jewish soul
that would take a long time integrating, if ever.
He became known as a master of Kabbalah.
There are many wonder tales associated with him,
the most famous the story of the Golem.
He died on August 17, 1609.


The Golem legend was not written down until 1838,
though the story was well known throughout Europe.
In the legend of the Golem,
the Maharal met with Emperor Rudolph II
(1552 – 1612) at his palace, what was discussed remains hidden,
perhaps someone had Rudolph’s ear and introduced him to the rabbi
(there is a legend that Rudolph had a Jewish mistress).
The Maharal created a Golem, a humanoid from clay,
out of his knowledge of the Kabbalah. In some versions
the Golem is animated by something written on its forehead,
emet or truth, in other versions a paper placed under its tongue,
in some an amulet. In almost all the legends, the Golem is created
in response to Christian persecution, especially the blood libel.
The Golem loses control, and must be destroyed. There is no controlling
vengeance, even if it is earned. By erasing the alef,
emet – truth becomes met – dead.

At the Intersection of Tales

One late night I received a call:
I am in a library in Old Russia researching
Jesuit history
I am a historian of the early modern period
which is to say roughly the era between the flowering
of the High Renaissance and the onset of the Industrial Revolution.
I keep running into an unusual Jewish story from old Prague.
At the close of the seventeenth century
the story of Shimon Abeles, twelve years old, his mysterious death,
his father Lazar found hanged from a beam in the Prague town hall,
presumably a suicide. In some versions, the father had hung himself
with his tefillin. It is about the time as the celebrated
rabbi of the Golem legend, no?

Just after, I said. That would be Yehudah Loew of Prague, sixteenth century.
Yes, that one, and he told me the sad, bizarre story of the boy, Shimon Abeles.

Shimon Abeles

At the age of twelve, the Jewish boy Shimon Abeles
began receiving instruction from Jesuit priests
in the Clementinum, at the edge of the Prague ghetto.
The boy was found dead in a grave,
Shimon’s father Lazar was questioned,
I AM INNOCENT, said Lazar.
Lazar Abeles was found hanged from a beam
in the Prague town hall. Suicide? In some versions,
he had hung himself with his tefillin, physically almost impossible.
More: a friend of the Abeles family, Loebl Kurtzhandl,
confessed to the crime. He was condemned to death
by being broken on the wheel. During the slow torture, it was claimed
that he converted to Christianity, taking the name Johannes.
He was then put to death, buried in a Christian church, this was 1694.
Meanwhile, in the cellar of the city hall, the body of Shimon Abeles
lay unembalmed. It was reported that the body did not decompose.
Five days without decomposition, then an additional three weeks.
Blood flowed from his wounds, even in death, visitors came to see him,
dabbed at the flowing blood with handkerchiefs.
A miracle, the makings of a martyr, the body was reburied
at the church of Our Lady of Tyn, attended by the aristocracy of Prague,
and a huge crowd of commoners. Shimon Abeles became famous.

The Celebrated Rabbi of Prague

I lived before Shimon Abeles
but it pleases me that you are remembering him
in the future.
Begin with the plain, simple story:
here was a boy, plucked out of his life to become history
for a century, two centuries, remembered by a scholar in searching
a Russian library in the future, the scholar speaks to the rabbi
who is a poet and has a friend who has been to my grave.
The scholar puts young Shimon in the context of the rabbi of Prague,
not so — I lived before him, but there is something in the tale that redeems,
if only to remember the boy, his father, the suffering of a family.
It happened in my city and it would not be soon forgotten,
but what a curious story, the photographer, the rabbi, the scholar,
realize themselves in proximity, living in my story,
for the few months in what you will call the twenty first century

the rabbi will then contact a man in Prague
who knows his friend the piano player
and ask to tell these stories
and bring his songs and tales and poems to the city
the rabbi feels some sense of the circle of stories —

we are all ridiculous when the future becomes the present
and even more absurd when it becomes past.

I am preserved in the sixteenth century imagining redemption,
I too could not predict personal redemption of a particular story
obscured by the loyalist doctrines of the small Church, but let us make this one story all stories. Let us rework this tale so that it refracts all tales,
let this one story
be all stories.
If I could redeem one story, could a million such stories be redeemed in the future?
There will be many millions.
The Church would remember Shimon Abeles, baptized in his own blood,
for its own theology, its history, its service to itself.

For the Jews, one question:
Who killed Shimon Abeles?
From the future, let them speak up.

james stone Goodman, usa

The First Time I Saw Billie Holiday

The First Time I Saw Billie Holiday

Once — a week or so before a big trip to Europe and Israel, to perform music, learn music, unpack some poetry, do some busking on a bridge or outside an historic synagogue or an ancient gate to an old city, to unroll visions that I hold and have held for as long as I can remember – I ran into a series of obstacles.

Lost the passport. Hired an agency to walk through a new passport. Emergency doggie surgery, doggie thrived enough to entrust her care with a regiment of loyal helpers who saw her through the rest of her recovery.

Get that cat clipped, I was told. Don’t you leave before you get that greasy cat groomed. I have never groomed a cat, my entire relationship with that cat is ambiguous. I bought the cat for my daughter on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah, so I figure the cat is eleven, twelve years old. It has always been a greasy and a mean mystery cat that most of the time lives in the basement, especially now that my daughters have moved out of the house. The cat follows me.

Groom the cat, I was told. It has long hair and now that it’s getting older, it’s not caring for its hair I guess it’s fur as well as it used to. The hair on the cat is long and it’s becoming dreadlocks. The cat is my responsibility, which is entirely the cat’s choice.

I allow the cat to slip out the front door when I see it lurking near half hoping it will take its freedom and find its way into the parallel cat world that I am sure exists in my neighborhood. It sits at the door waiting to return inside.

I can walk down the street and the cat will follow me like a dog without a leash.

But it has no interest in petting or touch or that kind of affection from me. It sits near myself and my Hebrew students and stares at me. I stare back at it, and that describes as accurately as anything our relationship.

I teach Hebrew to kids in my house. At every session the cat shows up, occasionally it will plop itself right down on the table that we are learning on. What – are you crazy? I say to the cat. I attribute a certain kind of intelligence to the cat that my dog does not have. My dog is compassion, my cat is some sort of steely clarity that I don’t quite understand but I sense its depth.

Sometimes the cat will lay down on the kitchen table while we are learning in the kitchen, where we are most often through the winter because it’s there we drink tea (the Jewish tea ceremony – a story I have written or will write in another place). Get off the table cat, I say, and it does, moves its bulk onto the floor or on the steps nearby and stares at me.

All the kids I teach are curious about the cat. It loves the sound of Hebrew, I say, guessing. I don’t know what that cat is doing.

My wife when she left the house said to me: get that cat cut. The woman who helps us around the house: clean up that cat, she said, its hair is everywhere. So I took the cat into the car and drove over to the pet emporium hair cutting parlor.

The cat sits on my lap, it will go with me everywhere without any hint of affection. I took the cat into the parlor, do you cut cat hair here?

You mean groom? Yes, groom. Do you groom cats here? Sure, do you have proof of shots? I was ready for that and I did.

What would you like done. Shave the cat, I said. Do you shave cats? Sure, we can give her a lion cut, with a little tuft on her tail and around her neck. That’s perfect, give her a lion cut. She’s an eccentric cat, I said, you might have problems with her. I can’t figure her out at all but . . .We groom a lot of cats here, don’t worry we know how to handle cats.

I came back an hour and a half later. She’s done, the groomer said. She wouldn’t let us dry her and I can’t get her out of the kennel in back, so I’ll have to call the manager and get permission for you to go in the back and retrieve her. The cat groomer had big industrial protective gloves on. I can get her I said.

The manager gave me permission to go into the back and get the cat from the kennel. I looked into the cage and the cat hissed at me. Hey, I said, it’s me, what the hell’s the matter with you. I grabbed her and I looked at her. Oh my God, I said, you’re beautiful. I had never seen the cat without all its greasy hair before.

I was stunned. I put the cat back in the cage and took out my phone and started taking pictures of her. I had never seen such a transformation of a living creature. It’s like she had been a make-over on Oprah. It was a different creature. I was stunned.

Uh, the groomers were watching me, would you like to take the cat home now? I was too transfixed to move, I took a few more pictures, grabbed the cat and took her into the car. In the car I took more pictures as she sat on my lap. Her fur, it was definitely fur now, was mottled in the most beautiful colors, lighter than all that hair, it was streaked with tan and a luminous gold, a crystalline blue and a light gray – she was beautiful in a way I had never seen. I have lived with this cat for eleven years and I have never seen her this way.

At home she languished on the floor the way she does, sometimes on her back posed naughty with her legs stretched out, she walked around the house looking for food and I gave her a few nuggets.

Her name, by the way, is Billie Holiday and for the first time she became Billie Holiday, lollying around the floor, swinging her legs up and out, Lover Come Back to Me and oh Billie, I thought, you are one beautiful creature. I wish someone of your species were near to enjoy your luxuriant beauty in a way that only your own species can. I have never seen such a beautiful cat.

Here is her picture, a few minutes after the first time I saw Billie Holiday.

Phineas T.

Covenant of Peace

We are dreaming peace all the time now
the evidence of that broken vav
in shalom of brit shalom [Numbers 25:12]
— that may be what’s holding it up.

Let’s fix the vav in the brit shalom
the covenant of peace
this reward that is given to your loyalist Pinchas.

You rewarded him the priesthood
for that unseemly act [Numbers 25:7 ff.]
so what is it — this covenant of peace —

the near peace and the far peace [Isaiah 57:19]
with the far peace you have confidence in the future
the near peace is more elusive

but HEY –

The near peace the inward peace
also elusive
the far peace —

they’re negotiating a world away
here we are praying
working our gardens and our abs.

I have to ask Pinchas
son of Eleazar son of Aaron
what kind of peace maker might you be
priest-man you ran them through
— that man and his girlfriend —
killed them both.

You love an argument
your reward the priesthood
what about that diminished yud in your name? [Numbers 25:11]

Something unfinished in you Pinchas [K’sav Sofer & Ha-amek davar]
we need you but we need you

Hey Pinchas
the vav in shalom seems so broken right now
K’TIA!! I holler. [K’tia = broken]

Remember the perfect vav before its brokenness
the sign of connection —
sometimes I feel so hollow and broken too
K’tia! on me.

Restore me because I am not so broken
use your language to integrate —
the power of blessing.

Use your words to make peace out of the pieces
lift up the lower union to join the upper union
that’s vav in its complete form
the connector.

It connects in form
up and down the straight line vav
heaven to earth
the vertical link.

It connects in context
the horizontal, the holy and
vav ha-chibur
the vav meaning and
the most conjunctive humble word.

Pinchas – fix that vav
restore the brokenness between us
within us
the and relational horizontal
the vertical spiritual
this will be your priestliness of the future.

Oh priestliness fix it all
if you can’t I will
I’m* working on it
me and all my pals
we are whole and ready
deputize us.

I’m trying to end this prayer
but I can’t.

I’m waiting for new language
something horizontal
[vertical too]
connective —

the repair of the near and the repair of the far
suggesting something new out of the old might rise
something like –


jsg, usa*

*I am no Pinchas
maybe the son of a Pinchas

O Holy God of Shabbes Inspiration Pinchas
Maqam Saba

**in Sefer haZohar, Pinchas is identified with Eliyahu HaNavi, Elijah the prophet

A maqam is a musical figure.
Each Shabbat is associated with a particular maqam.
Maqam Saba is associated with children, birth, brit. Covenant.

D [1/4] E half-flat [3/4] F [1/2] G flat

The Great Mess

The Great Mess

Hard core advice for New Parents

The great mess of loving continues
With being a parent
The love power of being exploded into sparks by your child’s laugh
And your child’s cry —

To be drawn up to the heights
And thrown off the cliff
Following your kid there.

To stand under a tree
Wondering if you should have let that kid
Shimmy up that beast tree
And you standing there like an idiot
Trying not to let on you are there to catch him
If he falls.

You thought you were a fool for love before children?

The folly of all our planning
And that ridiculous notion:
There is no test to be a parent.

Sure, but you will find that parenting
Is not that neat set of sophisticated strategies
The books you are getting as gifts
Or maybe the ones you are buying yourselves

Will tell you.

It’s a mess being a parent
It’s a mess being a life
A mess being a people of generations
A mess trying to bring down to your kid
Something that you should have discerned

Out of the great mess of your life
And the greater messes of your parents’ lives —

They knew no more than you know
And you know

All wisdom begins with the great nothing
To recognize that the mystery has shattered all sense
Of what you think you know
And now you are cracked open to whatever
God or nature or whatever it is you believe in
Will teach you.

This is the beginning of wisdom: I don’t know a darn thing.
Now begins your education.

Listen to your kid and she will tell you what she requires of you —
Only to be larger than yourself

To move beyond your perimeter
To release what you think you know

To split your skin open
And live in God.

Welcome to the world
Little kid

By the way,
The world’s a mess too
And we all believe you are going to do something about it.

jsg, usa

:Peace on the Edge

Peace on the Edge

Everything has a dual nature
Our hearts are two
Our prayer place is built of two
The meeting of two worlds
Like a city
Drawn together

If we could only make the peace prayers just right
The world would be redeemed

Master of all the worlds
All the prayers are peace
Drip drip dripping
But the words have no lift

The lower worlds are bestirring themselves
The Great Heart of the World longs for peace

We are waiting for the true persons of compassion
You know who they are

With one you get a day
With seven a week
Thirty a month

May great peace flow from the upper worlds
Like a fountain
It will be beautiful
Like our lies

But for now save us
For a few more

jsg, usa

Justice, part 1


I think he was a real prophet, Bilaam [Sifre on Deut. 357]
though I don’t think he spoke God
that is — he didn’t bless
he didn’t curse
he didn’t have the power of either [Meam Loez]
words do not curse
there is no such power
(still — we will defeat ourselves
if left alone).

— Nor did he have the power to bless
we were already blessed! [Meam Loez]

Something missing in his vision don’t you know
he was blind in one eye [Numbers 24:3 and Sanh. 15a]
he was missing the eye that sees his own smallness
with his good eye he saw the greatness of God
— he was that kind of prophet. [Hacohen al HaTorah, v.4, p.115]

jsg, usa