Sin Ancia y dolor

Without Anxiety or Pain

Gracie Stories, part 8

We played a gig at the Covenant House last night, old folks home on the campus of the Jewish center here, and the director has an idea to bring people from the community into the center so it’s not isolated. I understand her philosophy now and I realize how wise it is. The room was electric.

The concert was devoted to one of the four stories I tell/sing from the Sarajevo series: this one on the Sarajevo Haggadah.

The mix of the people elevated everyone: residents of the Covenant House, those who came to hear the concert from the community, the Bosnians who showed up, a few others who were equally obsessed with the mystery tale of the Sarajevo Haggadah as I have been.

I brought two copies of the Haggadah with me: facsimile editions prepared in Sarajevo, one in the early Eighties I prefer and one more recent. I pointed out a few features of the Haggadah: the miniature paintings with which it begins, its colors, sienna red, bold blues, bright copper, the wine spills, the signature of the Catholic censor when it passed through Italy, the crests of the Kingdom of Aragon that gives us a clue to its origin in the 14th century, the doodles, the mysterious dark lady who sits at the seder table, Rabban Gamaliel teaching with a whip in his hand, the piyyutim/poems at the end, the beautiful handwritten Sephardic tilt of the script, I tried to show it off in the editions I had brought with me.

Then the Brothers and I started to jam. First we played the holy tunes that this story began for me: a set of maybe six or seven tunes my teacher had taught me that he had picked up from Sarajevo. I knew from the moment I learned these tunes, over thirty years ago, that they were special and the environment from where they arose was something I needed to know about. Now I do, though circumstances have prevented me from ever visiting there.

We then launched into the narrative poem/song I had written in the voice of the Haggadah, singing and scatting and jamming our way through the mysterious tale of the Sarajevo Haggadah. It was delightful.

There is a woman who lives at the Covenant House and comes to all my gigs. She’s a survivor. The first time I met her she said some things that were startling and beautiful, life-changing if one were to truly live them, about the deepest subjects. Every time I see her, she speaks large. How can a person become accustomed to such talk?

Last night the Brothers had their first experience with her. I eavesdropped on her big talk with these young guys who are sensitive and humble enough to hear it. Signs and wonders, it was just what we were singing about: signs and wonders. It’s what she always talks about; living in signs and wonders. She crawled out the pit of the world and this is what she talks about.

My favorite song for Passover is an elevated melody from Sarajevo that matches the most pedestrian midrashic text about numbers and plagues and blood with an incandescent melody. It’s not the melody of this song that has captured me; it’s the melody attached to the text, the text and the melody in the perfect mix like the perfect sauce transformed by the blend of ingredients. You cannot imagine melody and text joined in this way, but when you can, every experience is transformable in this same way.

Gracie unstable on her feet. She has some confusion about outside and inside activities. Still she eats everything placed in front of her and tonight I will sleep sin ancia y dolor, without anxiety or pain, another of the songs we sang last night. Alma vida y Corazon: soul, life, and Heart.