All my Teachers

Eulogia: Eugene B. Mihaly 1918 – 2002

I was dreaming about Mihaly when Frank called,
it was a late dream morning. In the dream
I had asked Mihaly if he would speak at my graduation.
“Certainly, dear boy.”

I picked him up at a hotel,
there was rubble all about. I was in a taxi cab,
I had not seen him in years,
how young he was —
I never knew Mihaly in life that young –
young thin dark, the moustache prominent and already drawn
he jumped over rubble as I approached. I thanked him,
I thanked him again,
“never mind dear boy,” he said.

The event was some sort of passage.
In the rubble of existence that wasn’t my making
there was danger associated with this place, what city I didn’t recognize —
it wasn’t Detroit not Jerusalem —
light bulbs strung over the street,
emergency lighting.
He got into the cab, I gave him my hand
and thanked him again.

It was just after the holidays.
I had worked late into the night on my pieces,
“who shall I read them to?” I asked Mihaly.

“Give them to me dear boy, work them every night
in these broken places, look around –
write them for me. The best things I have written
are sealed in a shoe box in the rear of a closet.
Dear boy, the work is everything. Read me your words,”
he said in the back seat of the taxicab,
moustached, spiced, long before I knew him
he led me to our meeting.

He sat back in the taxi
lit up his pipe, “read me every piece,”
then the phone rang Frank and Mihaly said,
“quit belly-aching, dear boy,
wake up and write about it.”

jsg, usa

Remembering 9/11

Intro: After 9/11

My response is always to write. But I couldn’t write.

I watched television, I listened to the radio, I read the newspapers. I wrote a few prayers and a few poems, but that’s it. I couldn’t write anything else.

I ascended into silence and one song. I sang the plaintive shif-khi kha-mayim li-beikh no-chakh p’nei Hashem from Lamentations pour out your heart like water before the face of G*d (Lamentations 2:19). Whenever I sang it, I cried.

I waited for what came next. I had been writing stories that I later collected into a manuscript called “The Legend of the Thirty Six.”

There is a tradition that in every generation, the world is sustained and maintained by 36 hidden tzaddikim (righteous individuals) — not by the manifestly righteous or the famous or the rich or the beautiful, not by the leaders or the agency heads or the professional class — they too are sustained by the 36 hidden ones, and of the 36 hidden ones who sustain each generation, one may be the Messiah.

Many of the stories in “The Legend of the Thirty Six” had to do with a kind of salvation. It didn’t seem like a theoretical subject to me.

The stories started up again. Many of the stories were about 9/11, some were peace stories, some stories of longing, a yearning for peace and security and the dream of life intact for my children. Something of that dream had been profoundly destabilized with 9/11.

In addition to writing, we began creating music, stories, songs, and prayers around what we called a peace vigil that we were holding in the synagogue, every time we got together, whether for prayer, for study, or for talk.

We included in our peace vigil techniques, prayers, and teachings to bring inner peace. What eluded us in the world was something we could claim in our prayer place, our oasis of peace.

We avoided politics and opinion in our peace vigil; we gave ourselves to the spiritual expression of a peace we could create, the peace of the spirit, the peace that we expressed through prayer, meditation, study, and music. More than ever, I was drawn to Rebbe Nachman’s unfinished story that I sing every Friday night:

At the edge of the world there is a mountain, on this mountain there is a rock and from this rock springs the purest water in the world. And at the opposite edge of the world beats the Great Heart of the World which gazes all day long at the mountain. The Great Heart, filled with love, yearns for the water, but it cannot have it. One move and the Great Heart would lose sight of the mountain and in that instant the world would die. But every evening when the sun goes down, the heart sings to the spring. And all hearts at the same moment sing to each other.

Now there is a righteous person who walks the earth and gathers up all of these threads of songs and weaves them together into time. And it is just enough time to make up another day. The day is given to the Great Heart which then sings again the next evening to the spring. In this way, out of love, out of song, in this way out of beauty, out of poetry, in this way out of an impossible dream, in this way out of yearning, out of waiting, the world continues to exist.

In this way, time is created every day so that every day all hearts can beat, including the Great Heart of the World.

— as quoted in “The Legend of the Thirty Six”

It is presently ten years into the peace vigil.

We also found three songs from one verse that we began to sing the week of 9/11, 2001.

All three are songs from Lamentations 2:19, but one starts with the beginning of the verse, the other picks up the sentiment at the zakeif (trope, pause), the third continues after the et-nach-ta (the resting place).

The first part is dark:

Kumi Roni ba-lai-lah
L’rosh ash-mu-rot

Arise, sing in the night
At the beginning of the watches,

The second part of the verse:

Shif-khi kha-mayim li-beikh
No-khach p’nei Hashem

Pour out your heart like water
Before the face of G*d

We sang a song
In its entirety
Adding the second part of the verse:

Kumi Roni ba-lai-lah
L’rosh ash-mu-rot

Shif-khi kha-mayim li-beikh
No-khach p’nei Hashem

Arise, sing in the night
At the beginning of the watches,

Pour out your heart like water
Before the face of G*d

I made another version that picks it up at the zakeif and begins with:

Shif-khi kha-mayim li-beikh
No-khach p’nei Hashem

— Lamentations 2:19

Pour out your heart like water
Before the face of God

We sang that version.

What’s the difference when we begin with the second part?

The first part takes on the darkness first:
Arise, sing, split the darkness with your song.

The second part moves directly into the heart of suffering:

Pour out your heart, like water, before the face of G*d.

It’s like the difference between Rav and Shmuel, in the famous argurment in the Talmud:

Rav said, all the ends have passed, and the matter [to save the world] depends only on repentance and good deeds. Shmuel said, it is enough for the mourner to stand in mourning.
— b.t. Sanhedrin 97b

How will the world be saved? Isn’t that what they were talking about? Maybe there was a dark question that preceded their argument. If all else fails, how will the world be saved?

Through transformation, getting up, dusting ourselves off, splitting the darkness with our song [Rav], or right through the center, the heart of the matter, through the heart of sadness itself [Shmuel]?

Maybe it’s the same thing, these two versions, a continuum of the reality of deep suffering. Like the verse in Lamentations, the difference is where we begin the song, at the beginning of the verse, or at the zakeif [pause]. Remember: one verse, but where to begin?

First we sing, push the darkness, then we pour out our hearts like water, tears. With the second part of the verse, we go to the center with our tears, pour out the heart, singular by the way, like water before God.

What if we pick up the song at the et-nach-ta [resting place] third part?

S’i ei-lav ka-pa-yikh
al-nefesh ‘o-la-la-yikh
ha-a-tu-fim v’ra-av
b’rosh kol-chu-tzot.

Lift up your hands toward G*d
For the soul [singular] of your young children
That faint for hunger
On the top of every street.

That version we haven’t written yet.

jsg, usa

All the ends have passed

Arguing with the Rabbis

Rav said, all the ends have passed, and the matter [to save the world] depends only on repentance and good deeds. Shmuel said, it is enough for the mourner to stand in mourning.
` — b.t. Sanhedrin 97b

How will the world be saved? Isn’t that what they were talking about? Maybe there was no dark question that preceded their argument. Maybe it was just their tilt toward ultimate questions: how will the world be saved? Maybe it was not a rebound question at all, not a shadow question, but the truth as it rose in their interrogation of existence: how will the world be saved? Through transformation or through the center — the heart of the matter, through the heart of sadness, through all the dark possibilities of danger. It’s not simple and it’s not light this discussion, and it’s not reactive. It’s the way they saw the world, light and dark.

— from “The Legend of the Thirty Six”

I ran into Ruben at the copy store. Ruben, what are you doing here?
The last I heard Ruben had been chasing a girl somewhere in the Carolinas and following a laughing guru. He is always chasing a girl, his father had told me, and he is always following a guru.

My Dad died.

Oh Ruben, no, I didn’t know. I’m sorry.

Don’t be. He lived a good life. We took some time finding each other but I think we did.

We talked about his Dad for a while, and then Ruben talked about himself. He was now chasing a woman in California.

We went back to his father.

You know my father sat on the Kotzker rebbe’s lap, Ruben said.

Ruben, your Dad is the third guy I’ve met since I moved here that sat on the Kotzker’s lap, which is curious since the Kotzker died in 1869. Ruben laughed and his eyes lightened.

It was the Kotzker, wasn’t it? Ruben asked. Now Ruben’s face was full of mischief. My father was the Kotzker. Tell me he wasn’t!

He wasn’t, unless you dreamed it.

When he died, I dreamed that Louis Armstrong came to the funeral and sang What a Wonderful World. Would Louis Armstrong do that for anyone other than the Kotzker?

Maybe your Dad was the Kotzker. Sure — your Dad was the Kotzker and he came to tell us that the truth, above all it’s the truth that sets us free. Always lead with the truth, your father taught. Your father was the Kotzker and he taught one thing: the Emes.

That’s it, said Ruben. I am the Kotzker’s son.

Me too.

How remains hidden, but I am the Kotzker’s son. You certainly are.

I have to go visit Marian now, Ruben. She went into the hospital and we’re not sure she is going to come out, but she is the Kotzker if anyone is, and she is my best friend, and I have to go see her now.

When I saw Marian I reminded her that she was the Kotzker and she agreed. I saw some things, Marian said. There is a man with a round head who only appears when you are going to get out. He is hidden in Intensive Care somewhere, and I saw him. The nurse said you only see him when you are going to – you know — to make it. I saw him. He told me to be real quiet and let God give me what I need.

Is that what you’ve been doing?

What.

Being quiet?

Yes. Want to hear my prayer?

Yes.

God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
The courage to change the person I can,
And the wisdom to know it’s me.

That’s good.

It works for me.

For me too.

It’s the spark that was missing.

What spark.

The spark that gives life to all else. The spark was missing. Don’t you feel it?

Yes.

The spark was missing and my soul was diminished, but not any more. My soul has been elevated. How is a secret of God.

She put her finger to her lips and went to sleep. I kissed her on top of her head and left, knowing that she was going to be all right.

Everything was going to be all right. This I knew.

That night I had a dream. I dreamed that I was making blessings for peace. As if the blessing and the activity were so wedded, that the deed followed the blessing in the natural sequence of intention and action laid deep into reality, like the bless and make holy sequence, the bless and do sequence. I bless this bread, then I eat it.

In my dream, the peace was a necessary consequence of the blessing. In the dream, I was surprised that the blessing brought such power. I know that to say a blessing and not perform the deed is a disruption of the spiritual integrity of intention and action, of prayer and deed, a blessing for nothing. I said the blessing and as I said it, peace happened.

What was the blessing? I couldn’t locate the language. I even tried to return to sleep and continue the dream, I searched for the words between sleeping and waking, but I couldn’t find them.

It was like a formula, secret, lost, unrecoverable. But the feeling state was sustaining: the sense of possibility and resolution that is called peace. I felt it, the possibility of it, the sense that if I could only find the words, the peace would follow.

It was the kind of peace that had worldly, worldwide consequences. It was the kind of peace that made the world safer for children, it was the kind of peace that the generation in which it was made was proud to leave to the next generation.

Here is your world, we have tended it well and we leave it to you as a gift. It was not the kind of prayer that was personal, as if this is what I want — tend my little life in such and such a way — but it was the peace of the world, it was the resolution of old conflicts and the triumph of civilization. It was something both elusive and obvious. It was that kind of peace.

I told Carol about my dream. She opened with an interpretation.

You can’t find the words? You’ve got to find them! You have got to find the elusive peace and ask for everything that you want.

It’s not about me. It’s about the world. It’s like the rabbis arguing about what will sustain the world. I don’t know; it’s elusive but there is something that will save us. Maybe it’s the elusive prayer for peace, maybe it’s the thirty six righteous ones, maybe ten thousand, maybe one. Maybe all of us finding the inner tzaddik.

But don’t you want your personal peace? Aren’t you praying for your children?

Every moment. With every breath. But here is another version: maybe that’s the difference between Rav and Shmuel. Rav is waiting for the world to transform itself with transformative deeds, and Shmuel is waiting, standing in his mourning, in his grief, for what is not, without expectation for what is supposed to be. He is open to whatever God or nature or human beings or whatever it is he believes in to disclose the next chapter; he is always waiting. He is in-between, a beinoni, the in-between person.

But doesn’t he want something special? In between what and what?

He is between his sadness for what has not been, and his expectation for what might be. He is in-between, standing in his grief for what was not, but without expectation for what is next. It is an exceedingly holy place to be, and his argument in the Talmud is himself. His posture. The holy waiting, but it is a waiting without attachments. No expectations. In-between, don’t you think?

I don’t know. Seems like such a difficult path.

Sure it’s difficult. He’s saving the world, not with this not with that, but with waiting. Waiting for — what? God only knows. Maybe not even God.

I am waiting, too, God says. Surprise me.

jsg, usa

Into the Ascent

Into the Ascent now
three weeks I sat in sadness
seven weeks of recovery —
we’re into the Ascent
I’m marking it by honoring
my teachers inspirations and
influences.

Ellis Rivkin z”l


Education

When he was a boy,
He snuck off on Shabbes Afternoons –
“Ball Hawk” his teammates called him
so began his independence
and break from

expectations.

Intellectual Formation

He plotted the hidden ascent of the
British from his office
In the Klau Library
Wrestling his newsletters into light
Pouring over the secret
Sources,

The English are everywhere.

Predicting the fall of the Iron Curtain
Long before it collapsed –
“a society that cannot
produce
a decent electric razor
is no threat,”
he said in falsetto,
“it will collapse like dominoes.”

The Classroom

His voice ascending
His eyes following ideas Up
Lifted
His voice
Into extra-sensory registers –
“tapping the mind of
God.”

Then there was the last session
Of the semester
When he kissed each of us as we left
As if we were second graders.

Then there were the nights he invited us
For hot chocolate

And the days he brought fine
European chocolates to the classroom
For tasting,

And then there were the classes
Rarely history
He was planted in the future
And parsing the secret present –

To which he drove to and from
In his galleon Cadillac.

And then there was the time
He pushed the
Clouds

Away.

Ellis Rivkin,
sweetest teacher –

Good night
Dr. Ball Hawk.

jsg, usa

Eleventh Commandment

Justice Justice

Thou shalt not swallow the unconscious – 11th Commandment

Tzedek tzedek tirdof
righteousness righteousness
twice
you shall pursue it [Deut. 16:20]
what follows:
the bride of God
you shall not plant an asherah [Deut.16:21]
some sort of Canaanite goddess
a cult tree
planted near the altar of G*d.

It took a long time to separate
G*d and his bride
we reunite the bride of G*d with her consort
every Friday night
we are talking justice here
then myth.

Tonight
the holy Shabbes
the King and his consort
the goddess and her beloved
the Queen and her lover
re-united
and it feels good good
the symmetry of return
repairing something broken
separated long ago –

tonight
they are marrying.

jsg, usa

from Bittul Means Little Series

Elul*

First we are not
Then we belong to —
You

Sequence of
Approach

Bittul
We become
Little

We become

Yours
When first
We diminish.

I am Yours
When I am less —

Less first,
Then

More.

jsg, usa

Sources:

*Month of Inward-li-ness [Emerson]

**From Sefas Emes on Shoftim, Psalm 100:3 God made us and not we ourselves
Keri v’Ketiv variants give us the Elul – read V’lo [pronoun] anachnu [we] and V’lo [negative] anachnu[we]

Read them backwards and we get Elul: The intersection –
the more a person negates self-ful-ness [Bittul ha-yesh] — the closer a person draws to G*d-li-ness.

Lo anachnu — we belong to Hashem. These are two parts of avodat HaShem[service]:
First to diminish, then to draw close.

Teachers Inspirations Influences

All Over the World the Sun is Rising

Into the Ascent now
three weeks I sat in sadness
seven weeks of recovery —
we’re into the Ascent
I’m marking it by honoring
my teachers inspirations and
influences.

Later I was remembering Jakob J

asking him How are you?

When he said sur-vi-ving

it was ascendant

He fled Berlin just before the War

a victory for sure

But we were standing on the third floor

so many years after Jakob J

in the United States of America

When the curtain parted

I ascended to the top of the chariot of Ezekiel

It was covered with the dew of light

from there I saw everything

I saw us all into the future

a long queue of hungry souls

praying for some good

A pledge to repair

something fine here

something better left behind

Jakob J taught me to say amen when I agree

and when I promise –

I swear.

jsg, usa

Remembering 9/11

On the End of Monuments, part 2

You shall make an altar on which to bring incense up in smoke
— Exodus 30:1

During December, 2001, workmen began to take down what still stood of the North Tower of the World Trade Center, this last remnant, like a cathedral ruin that New Yorkers called “the potato chip.” In the years since, the debate continues: how shall we as a culture dedicate the site? Remembering it’s a graveyard with almost three thousand graves, what sort of memorial will we build there? Now that it is ten years after, what sort of memorial will we stage?

I had been to the World Trade Center site before it was cleaned up, the sense of dedication preoccupied me too: how could we reclaim something that had been defiled to its core? That would be the task of the monument builders, and the ritual makers.

The monuments are not completed, the rituals uncertain, but the first big movie came to American movie theaters, and the first major docudrama to TV. There was something that had arisen around the World Trade Center site, a kind of popular sanctification that preceded the monuments and the movies, a spontaneous and almost immediate response. The site had been made holy — stories, poems, pictures, and prayers created in the makeshift altars and shrines that decorated the perimeter — the personal art on the temporary walls and fences that were built to separate, contain, and conceal. It was all temporary, beautiful and spontaneous; too personal, too raw, too effective to be permanent. Our monuments and ceremonies and rituals will be committee creations.

When I went to the World Trade Center site, I knelt at the altars that had been created all around. I read the letters and the poems and the prayers and looked at the pictures of the people who died there. The people came alive for me. I realized that these offerings were given to purify and to dedicate. The site was holy not because people died there but because people lived there. The story told is a purifier, and the tale dedicates. Without the story, the spontaneous story that surrounded the site with pictures, poems, letters, gifts, the event would slip into unredeemed defilement. This I knew. Know.

On Thursday, May 30, 2002, they took out the 30 foot beam that had withstood the destruction from Ground Zero, the last one, draped in an American flag, thus officially ending the recovery search. The ritual began with the ringing of a bell, at 10:29 AM Eastern, the time when the last tower finished collapsing. The rubble was gone but the memories remained, as did the remains of more than half of the over 2,800 people who died there, and the next question became how to honor their memory. It remains an open question: how to honor the horror of it, the loss, the dignity of the recovery, the courage of the clean-up — physical and metaphysical — the residual trauma and grief that is the story of 9/11 and its aftermath.

So human it is, noble, this need for ritual, how to remember and honor with integrity, sincerity, vision, and verve the most terrible as well as the most joyous events of our lives.

What I saw at the site of the World Trade Center when I visited there three months after the event was something that soon would be another memory: a simple wood fence with hand written notes and pictures and letters and messages to the dead from those who loved them.

The shrines and altars attached to the wooden fence surrounding the site, the handwritten signs asking sight-seers not to take pictures, the creche dedicated to the police and fire fighters who died there, the cathedral that rose from the ruins, they will be replaced by some sort of permanent memorial. The memorial makers could not do better than to remember the spontaneous makeshift fence memorial of the first few months after the event. The more permanent memorial will no doubt be beautiful and touching but it will not equal the spontaneity of the dedicated fence space that once arose around the site.

We will make rituals and ceremonies.

Whatever is built, whatever we do as memorial to the events of 9/11 will not capture as well as that fence with its stories poems pictures letters our yearning to consecrate something so ruined, the yearning to make something beautiful out of something terrible, something holy out of something defiled.

jsg. usa

Memorializing 9/11

What Do The Amish Know?

October 2, 2006 — West Nickel Mines School, Amish Bart Township of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

The gunman took hostages and eventually shot ten girls (aged 6–13), killing five, before committing suicide in the schoolhouse.

The Amish crime scene brought up so many ideas: monuments, tragedy, memory, honor, integrity, imagination, piety, heartfulness, civilization, closure.

After the terrible crime that took their children, it took ten days for the Amish to make a decision. First they buried their dead, they expressed a sense of forgiveness to the family of the perpetrator, they showed the world what piety in the face of disaster looks like, what it means to be connected, really connected, to a way of life with a heart and a spiritual center.

They constructed by hand that little one room schoolhouse where their children learned and where their five little girls were killed, but ten days after what was the greatest tragedy to ever happen to their community, they tore that building down with a bulldozer. They paid a demolition crew to do it. They built it lovingly by hand and they tore it down by demolition crew. All similarity to the world as we know it ends there.

The Amish, I imagine, did not engage in a lengthy discussion of what to do to memorialize their murdered children. There will be no plaques there, no monuments. “They do not want to make it a tourist attraction,” said a 27-year-old brother of two of the boys the killer released from the schoolhouse before the shooting.

The Amish people even planted the empty space where the building stood, its footprint, with grass seeds so there would be nothing, no visible sign left of that schoolhouse. Soon the footprint of that building will be gone too.

I want you to think about that for a minute. I want you to enter the mind of a member of that community. Be an Amish father, mother, sister, brother, be someone in that community for the ten minutes it takes you to read this article. Be someone who feels deeply about humility and not attracting attention to yourself, feel like someone who has to grieve and then find a way to get on with life, feel like someone for a few minutes who is not shaken from your fundamental belief in the sanctity of life, all life, in practicing forgiveness, in living your life with purity and integrity. Be someone who wants to be left alone by the world to live the way your fathers and mothers lived. Feel like someone who has no polemic to make about another life style. Be someone who just wants the freedom to live the way you know. Be that kind of person for a few minutes.

Then be a person in the middle of deciding what to build, what to sell, what to reclaim, what to monumentalize at the site of the twin towers of the World Trade Center, this continuing symbol now of our shame and our inability as a culture to rise to an authentic expression of sadness for itself. Be confused and mixed up by the mercantile pull of the real estate, be confused by the clash of personalities who have the right idea in conflict with other right ideas. Feel unconnected to what you need to do to honor three thousand dead in a giant graveyard where the bones are still appearing in adjacent manholes, a graveyard that cannot afford to erase its own footprint. Be that person for a while. Consider your own impoverishment.

Now step back and tell me how proud you are to be a twenty first century urbanite trying to paste your world back together with spit and chewing gum but no sense of center. Nothing could be further from your imagination than any sense of closure. Be stuck in the continuing argument over what is right for you for me for you for me – how to feel, what shape to carve your feelings into.

Now tell me – just how proud are you to be you? How strange do those Amish people seem to you now? Tell me — please. Tell me something that makes sense.

jsg, usa

The Ascent part 1

Into the Ascent now
three weeks I sat in sadness
seven weeks of recovery

we’re into the Ascent
I’m marking it by honoring
my teachers
inspirations and
influences.

Tutorial

Will you be my teacher?
Certainly.
How?
Like this —

He threw himself off a cliff.
I went up to the heights
above me sky
below the sea, rocks —

Go, I heard.

Later I bled all over my work
My teacher exploded
Into a thousand sparks —
Also like this, he said.

jsg, usa