Nowadays the Blue is Hidden

Nowadays the Blue Is Hidden

The blue was taken from a snail found in the Sea.
The snail comes up once every 70 years.
– Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 26a, Menachot 44a

I:
There is a street in Paris* (11th arrondissement) called
“The Street of Tailors.” I visited my friend who
lives near the street of tailors. We went to eat at a café
around the corner. The first day we passed the street of tailors,
I asked him, “What is this street?” “Don’t know,” he said.
The next time we passed it, I asked again,
“Where does the name – street of tailors – come from?”
“It once was a street of tailors,” he said.
We passed it again the next day,
“What is the street of tailors?” I asked.
“I heard that there was a street of tailors working there,
then the Germans took Paris, June 14, 1940,
and they all disappeared.”

II:
A street of tailor artists, fifty years of ghosts, they have not changed
the name of the street. A chasid on the sixth floor
descends and ascends silently
to make the evening prayers.
The street of tailors.

He knows fabrics but is a failure at freedom. Fingering the coat
he peers over his glasses, “Nice merchandise,” he says.
Expert in drapes and Torah. hands stained
with experimental dyes, he mixes a perfect blend
for a priestly tunic. Expatriates tell jokes
in a café, they order intestines all around,
it smells like an insult. Later they fuss
and pass the street of tailors.

III:
The tailors sewed in secrecy
to recover the lost blue thread.
Mystery blue, a deceased mollusk
carried it into the deep
where it gave birth
in salt
to the sea.

Sources
Speak to the Children of Israel and bid them that they make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue (tekhelet).
–Numbers 15:38-39

Tekhelet was taken from the hilazon, a snail found in the Sea between Tyre and Haifa.
— B.T. Shabbat 26a

The hilazon comes up once every 70 years.
— B.T. Menachot 44a

Nowadays we only have the white [fringes], the blue has been hidden.
— Numbers Rabbah 17:5, Midrash Tanhuma Shelakh

Tekhelet [blue] resembles the sea, the sea resembles grass, and grass resembles the heavens.
— TJ Ber. 1:5, 3a

*rue Ternaux

James Stone Goodman

Send Somebody

Send Somebody, part 1

Send him send him send me —

From the narrows I call G-d
G-d answers me with expansiveness —

What did two know
that another ten did not?

Twelve are sent out
Was it safe?
I don’t know.

The other ten were certain
There are giants in the Land –
Scared the hell out of us.

One took a side trip
he went to Hevron
prayed on the graves of his ancestors
and from that drew strength
to be optimistic —
He told his friend.

Now we are optimists, they said
to no one in particular
[but I was there]
What’s an optimist? I asked.

One who fails with enthusiasm
all my negativity flew away.

I told my children this
and instructed them to tell their children
etcetera etcetera —
far into the future
until there came a generation
that spoke only dark words.

Send Somebody, part 2

In the generation of dark words
we started over —
it was not unexpected
but we didn’t prepare enough
to avoid it entirely.

[I didn’t intend to tell a sad story just now
I didn’t intend to tell a sad story]

Later two more were sent out
a lady stuck her head outside the second floor window —
What’re you boys looking for?
The Land fool. . .
It’s yours, the hearts of all the people
have melted.

The story concludes with the mystery blue
within the fringes on our garments —
a thread of blue
[to look and remember]
the blue came up once every seventy years —
until recently.
Nowadays I carry it around in my bag.

A minority story saves us
a thread of blue reminds us now and again
of the essential:

There were twelve
ten of them were full of **it
one of them laid flat down on the graves of the ancestors
got strong there
brought another one in —

From the future
we prefer
the minority report
because
it’s true.

jsg, usa

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

*a maqam is a musical figure, a partial scale,
a modal form, cognate of the Hebrew Makom, signifying place.
Each Shabbat has a maqam associated with it.

Search the Rooms of the Soul

Search the rooms of the soul
Find Everything
All the world
All the Teaching;

Find your letter
Through your letter
All letters;

Fill and return and fill the light
Light without cease
No feeling
No idea
Without flow
No idea without buzz.

All flow from the source of life
Everything alive and
Everything rising;

Everything Spread out and expansive.

jsg, usa

I Was Present for the First Tikkun

shlomo-halevi-alkabetz-01

I Was Present at the First Tikkun Layl Shavuot

Note: all melodies are from Salonica
The tikkun layl Shavuot is a custom to study the entire night of Shavuot

There is only one medieval text that mentions a tikkun layl Shavuot [Historia]
Zohar – book of Illumination — classic text of Jewish mysticism
It is not mentioned by the holy Yosef Caro himself
Not by the Rama
[Yes by the Magen Avraham, citing the Zohar],

Though it could be inferred from the yearning of the Shekhinah [Kabbalistics]
For Tiferet for Hakadosh Barukh Hu
For Kenesset Yisrael, the people of Israel
The anticipated meeting
The longed-for betrothal of G*d and Israel
The integrating notion the marriage of Israel and G*d on Shavuot
The cosmic coupling of Shekhinah and her love
Tiferet and Malkhut
Shekhinah and HaKadosh Barukh Hu —
Amen v’amen.

The first certain tikkun
the first all night session of study in honor of the holy integration
Has been preserved in a secret letter
Iggeret Alkabetz
The letter of Shlomo haLevi Alkabetz.

I wrote the letter [memorat]
I am the word merchant of Lekha Dodi
The wedding song welcoming every Friday night
The Shekinah
Malkhut
The Kallah the bride
As she comes looking for her beloved
HaKadosh Barukh Hu
Tiferet
K’nesset Yisrael/the community of Israel
On the occasions when we allow ourselves to be
Found.

I sing Lekha Dodi

In the secret letter, mid sixteenth century
Circulated through Europe
Written by me, Rabbi Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz
(One of the musical Shlomos)
Recalling a Shavuot night in 1533
Salonica [Salonika, now called Thessaloniki]
In the polyglot Ottomon world –

Salonika: conquered by the Sultan Murad II a century earlier [1430] — [Historia]
It would remain Muslim until 1912
And a good 1/5th Jewish until 1943
When its entire Jewish population was carried off to Auschwitz.
Between the World Wars
Salonica was a port on the Mediterranean
Closed on Shabbat.

Living in Salonica in 1533 were myself – Alkabetz —
And my teacher Rabbi Yosef Caro
(HaMeChaber of the Shulkhan Arukh — the Well Set Table)
Who I refer to as He-Chasid
The Pious one
Caro Spanish for dear the dear one the pious one
He was already known for his first halakhic work Beit Yosef
He came to Salonica in 1530 and indulged his fascination with Chen
Chokhmah nisteret, the hidden wisdom
Kabbalah –
Cagey Yosef Caro.

Caro would be visited for over fifty years
By a maggid
A spirit a voice that spoke through him
He read Mishnahs
Mishnah an anagram for neshamah
And through his being spoke a maggid
It was an angel that spoke through him
Sometimes masculine
Sometimes feminine
Sometimes masculine and feminine —

I sing Shalom Aleikhem

The darshan the kol the dibbur
The mishnah the Ima the Shekhinah
He/she was called all these names
This from the compiler of the central text of organizational halakhah
Masculine halakhist
Feminine kabbalist
Yosef Caro –

Whose ancestor is buried in the Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery [memorat]
White Road, Chesterfield Missouri,
Rabbi Stone Goodman buried him there himself in the year 2000
Mr. Lipschitz of blessed memory.

I sing Shalom Aleikhem

When Yosef Caro spoke
The angels appeared in an invisible ring of fire around him.
Amen.

Yosef Caro imagined himself as Moshe Rabbeinu
Myself — Alkabetz —
was his Aharon.

This is how I described
The preparation for the first Tikkun Leil Shavuot:

We agreed — the Hasid and I — to stay awake [Historia]
The three days before the holiday
We immersed in the mikveh
We purified ourselves properly to accompany the bride.

We agreed not to stop learning for even one second
Thank G*d we were successful.

I prepared verses from the Torah
We chanted aloud in a spirit of great awe
With melody and verve
What happened next will not be believed.

After all the verses
We recited out loud all the Mishnahs of Zeraim
The first of the Six Orders
And then we started again
Learning it in the way of true learning
We completed two tractates.

At midnight
The Creator graced us and we heard a voice coming from Rabbi Caro:

Listen my beloved those who most glorify the Creator
My loved ones shalom aleikhem
Happy are you and happy those that bore you
Happy are you in this world
And happy you will be in the world to come
Because you took upon yourselves to crown Me on this night.

It has been many years since My crown has fallen
There has been no one to comfort Me
I have been cast to the dust embracing filth
But now
You have restored the crown.

I sing Lekha Dodi

Strengthen yourselves my dear ones
Forge ahead my beloved
Be joyous
Know that you are among the exalted
You approach the King’s palace
The voice of your Torah and breath of your mouths
Arose before G*d and pierced through the many firmaments
Until the messenger angels were quieted
And the fire angels hushed
And all G*d’s lofty retinue listened to your voices.

I am the Mishnah that advised humankind.
I have come to speak with you.
If only there were ten of you
You would have ascended even higher
Still you have elevated yourselves and those who bore you
I have been summoned this night through those gathered in this great city
You are not like those sleeping
You cleaved to the One and have pleased G*d
My children, strengthen yourselves and push forth in my love
My Torah
My awe.

With a loud voice as on Yom Kippur
Say with me
Barukh Shem Kevod Malkhuto L’Olam Va’ed.
Sing it again in the melody of our Salonica
Sing it slowly
Close your eyes and sing it in a melody rescued from Our Salonica
Where I sit in 1533 with seven
Seven of the dear ones
Who sat and began the tikkun on this night 2,845 years since Sinai
The repair of our past
Take a deep breath and sing with me now
Barukh Shem Kevod Malkhuto L’Olam Va’ed.

I sing melody from Ir Me Quero Madre

We recited verses until daybreak
In the morning we went to immerse ourselves
As we had on the two previous days
And at the mikveh we met the three others
Who we had been waiting for —
We made the minyan.
They promised to join us on the second night of the chag.

On night two we did the same as the night before
Except this time we were ten
And the voice did not wait to begin at midnight
As it had the night before
But it made itself heard immediately
And it began to teach:
Listen my dear ones, those most glorifying G*d, arise and raise those who are
lying in dust, through the mystical secret of the dust from Above.

Many matters of wisdom were taught
And afterwards the Voice said
Happy are you my dear ones that raise me
How high you have been elevated now that you are ten
As is proper in all matters of holiness.
If permission were granted, your eyes would behold the fire
Surrounding this house.
Strengthen yourselves and do not break the bond with Above
Say aloud with me
Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem Echad.
Barukh Shem Kevod Malkhuto L’olam Va-ed.

We sing Melody Ir Me Quero Madre

After another half an hour, we returned to studying the secrets of Torah
Exactly at midnight the Voice returned a second time
Teaching for over an hour and a half
It praised the learning and said:

See and hear this voice speaking?
Ask your elders and know that for hundreds of years
You are the only ones to merit such an experience
Be alert to help each other and to strengthen the weak
Hold yourselves as leaders
For you are the princes of the King’s palace
And you have merited to enter the hallway
Now come into the inner chamber
But do not forsake the entry
For one who leaves the gate
His blood is on his head/[is a dummy].

Behold the day is coming when men and women will abandon the Exile
And their silver and worldly pleasures their gods of gold and desires of wealth
And they will travel to the Holy Land
It is possible
You have merited what others
For many generations
Have not.

I sing last verse Shalom Aleikhem

On the following Shabbat
The Voice again came to my teacher Rabbi Caro
He again gathered the ten together
Proud I am, Alkabetz, to be one of the originals and to witness
He urged them to enter the inner palace
They agreed to set aside every desire
To refrain from meat and wine
And mourn the Exile of the Shekhinah.

We held the tikkun leyl Shavuot the next year
1534
A few months later plague broke out
Pious Yosef Caro lost his wife, two sons, and a daughter
The angel stopped speaking from his mouth
At the end of the year of mourning
He remarried and moved to Nikopol
On the banks of the Danube in Bulgaria.

Caro became ill
By 1536 he had declined so that I –
Alkabetz, his student,
came from Salonica
— To say goodbye.

When I arrived, Rabbi Yosef Caro revived.
He would live another forty years.

The voice from heaven returned
And on a Sabbath in February, 1536
The angel appeared in my presence
And asked that the two of us keep the oath.
I then wrote my famous letter
Recording the events of the Tikkun Leyl Shavuot in Salonica
That had taken place almost three years earlier.

In 1536, during the Hebrew month Elul,
Caro and myself, Alkabetz, sailed from the port of Constantinople
Ten days later we landed in Eretz Yisrael.
We set up residence in Safed
Rabbi Caro became the chief rabbi of Safed from 1546
To his death in 1575.

Safed — In the north
The holy city on the hill
So began the golden age of Kabbalah in Safed
The ascendance of the imaginative circle who gathered around the holy Ari
I would create Lecha Dodi
Become a teacher to my brother-in-law Cordovero.

Rabbi Yosef Caro and everyone in his circle
Honored the Voice of the maggid the rest of his years
His spirit would move through his ancestors
One whom Rabbi Stone Goodman buried
On an October day in the year 2000 in St. Louis, Missouri
The heartine the omphalos the belly button of America –

I feel the poets of the Diaspora speaking through me now
The halakhists and the kabbalists
The Caros and the Alkabetzes
All the dear pious ones –

When you open your mouth
Whose voice do you hear
When you open your mouth
Who what speaks through you.

Be a mouthpiece for a maggid
Be a poet
A vessel
Be a voice
Be a Torah –

A maggid
A Mishnah
Be a neshamah
An anagram for the soul.

Be a listener
Be nothing —

An empty vessel for God;

Amen.

James Stone Goodman
United States of America

Please

Please

Surprise me, lift me off to somewhere new send me on a roundabout way but make it a common journey one that I know I would have taken if not for this if not for that. Too far out of my perimeter, and I might not go with you but don’t make it too familiar.

Use your own words, the idiosyncratic ones, the ones that tumble in your head and when you speak them in the wrong crowd, they look at you slant. Don’t tell me too much. Every once in a while smuggle in an organizing notion, a re-visioning idea, sneak it past the guardians of my equanimity the first line of defense, then ease past the conversationalists the ones who speak way loftier than I do. They snatch away the lowly, the uninspired, their standard is high: language and gesture only those great tortured Southern drunks in heaven aspire to and the circle of intellectuals from Detroit who sit in my mind and discourse, alert to the cliché, the untoward the inelegant, the symbolically over-fleshed. They guard my perimeter like coyotes on the hunt.

My teachers, the owl-eyed Reines in his work shirt and heavy boots and the others sit in faculty Senate. Dr. Lehman who speaks slowly but draws on four, five civilizations he quotes from memory, Dr. Fish roaming through the texts of a dozen ancient and modern libraries of three continents they are inside me and a tough gang to penetrate.

Be thoughtful and push your ideas the best you can through them won’t you — they are merciless on language. Be a thinker, a word maven, sweet singer of the unconventional soul, and please, remember Mihaly chewing on his pipe will be standing in the final circle of review, he will be saying this, something I might have put in his mouth or he actually said it:

I need meaning.
It completes me.

jsg,usa

The Secret History of the Kabbalah

Red Socks: The Secret History of the Zohar at the Hebrew Union College-Cincinnati, 1977

James Stone Goodman

I sat in the library. I stayed late. I loved the open stacks and the easy access to the oh-so-intriguing kabbalistic texts. I stacked them on my desk, by the window that faced the back parking lot where I studied. I stayed until closing, almost every night, trying to make sense.

One evening I went out for something to eat at Pop’s Lebanese on Calhoun Street. When I returned, there was an older gentleman standing at my desk, paging through the books I had left there. I startled him. If was as if I had caught him going through my dresser.

“Oh, excuse me,” he said, “please, I’m sorry, but – are you interested in these texts?”

“Yes,” I said.”

“They’re beautiful. Come, I’ll show you.”

He took me into the stacks and pulled down text after text, also took me to the reference shelves where he introduced me to resources.

“I have to go back to work now,” he said. He padded quietly in and out of the adjacent wing to the library where the rare books were stored.

“Who is that man?” I asked at the desk.

“Dr. L. He works for the library.”

Dr. L was a manuscripts expert who spent almost all his time cataloging the many manuscripts in the rare book room of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He often worked late into the night.

I sat at my desk in the library opening onto the parking lot. I watched him come quietly through the corridor to and from the rare books. Sometimes he stopped at my desk, said hello, introduced me to other texts and reference resources, helping me to penetrate the texts I had taken to my desk. He always wore a suit, tie, his pants were too short and he often wore bright red socks. In winter, he carried Altoids in his jacket pocket that he offered me. I had never seen Altoids before.

We spoke often. Always about the texts: Zohar, Bahir, Yetzirah, he loved the classical Kabbalah. He often mentioned several names well known to me who were his former students. “I taught these texts for many years,” he said, “in Europe. But not here.”

Dr. L was a student at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin from where he graduated in 1936 and often referred to his teacher Dr. Baeck. Dr. L called himself a Semiticist. He stayed in Germany until the very last he could leave, 1939. From there he went to England where he told us he learned to tend a proper English garden and raised up a few students. He took advanced degrees. He was vague about his English experience but he brought with him to America an English affectation that was laid on top of his more central European roots.

I introduced Dr. L to my girlfriend (we would later marry). She had dinner with him one night and asked him if he would take on students.

The next time I saw him, I asked again. “Would you teach us?”

“Yes, of course, but – I work for the library.”

“Ah.”

I went to the Dean.

“I’ve been speaking with Dr. L. He has some background in kabbalistic texts. I wonder if we could set up a course.”

“Mmm,” the Dean said, “well, you know, he works for the library. No, I don’t think it would be possible.”

I returned to Dr. L. “If I get a room, would you begin teaching us?”

“Certainly.”

My friend’s mother supervised the dorm. “Could I get a key to a room in the dorm where we could hold an, er, informal class? No one needs to know.”

“No problem honey.”

In the beginning, there were four of us. We sat with Dr. L every Tuesday evening and learned. We began with the Zohar. Dr. L pointed out which elements of the text had a Spanish feel and which a Palestinian feel. He moved between languages – Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, Greek – untangling texts that would have been impossible without his background. We learned that a knowledge of some combination of half a dozen languages was often the key in unlocking the texts.

The first piece in the Zohar Dr. L taught us was a midrash on Mishpatim (Exodus 24:18), responding to the question — what did Moses see — when he arrives at a certain place, “so holy we must not speak about it. Up to a certain place – we have arrived at the limits of language,” said Dr. L. Here Moses enjoys the pleroma – a sense of Everything – “about which we can say too much.”

We later went through much of the Zohar, sometimes in the Aramaic, sometimes the Hebrew of the Mishnat HaZohar, and then the Sefer Yetzirah and Sefer Bahir. We sat with him for three years. There were sometimes three, sometimes four, never more than five of us. We read commentaries as well as the texts, Dr. L unlocked all sources for us. He suggested we learn Arabic as some of the commentaries that would be useful to us had not been translated. I took a year of Arabic with Dr. Yerushalmi and soon we were reading Saadya ben Yosef (known in Arabic as Sa’id ‘ibn Yusuf al-Fayyumi, tenth century) commentary on Yetzirah in the original Arabic. Dr. L brought us copies of the texts. We went deep.

Often the pieces were mysterious and lost to interpretation from the various versions of the texts. One of the Mishnahs of the Bahir, for example, was impenetrable until we unraveled the paronomasia from an Arabic cognate to the Hebrew that was the missing element to our understanding. “Paronomasia,” Dr. L explained, drawing out every syllable from a word I was not accustomed to hearing but like that and pleonastic, pleroma, pericope, they entered my vocabulary through my teacher. I often hear myself describing a pericope, a text a word a phrase as pleonastic, or an example of paronomasia and I explain it, citing my teacher. Dr. L was precise and elevated with language.

He was a wonderful teacher. He always began with the text. He prepared the texts carefully for us, sometimes bringing samples from several sources when a critical text of a certain piece had not yet been assembled. He repeated this often: “you have to promise that when you leave here, you will teach what you have learned.” He reminded us that the material we studied should only be approached with the greatest respect.

He was especially keen on the Zoharic sense of interpretation. The pericopes we studied from the Zohar always reflected a careful reading of the source text. He taught us that the imagination of the Zohar began with a clever reading of the Biblical text and a reluctance to reveal too much. It was written in half tones, he called it.

He also taught us from the beginning that the kabbalistic literature was a colorful, lively, visionary literature. This was imaginative material, but not at all unapproachable, and he was certain people would be hungry for it. He reiterated that we were entrusted now to be its teachers.

We all nodded our heads and promised him that we would teach what he had given to us. We met weekly and though I tried to draw other students into our circle, no one was as committed as the core group of four or five and there was something in the secret nature of our meeting that contributed to the enchantment of the lessons.

That’s as much as has been written of the secret history of the Zohar at the Hebrew Union College. I often tell this story, the story of Dr. L and our secret class, when I teach Kabbalah, the classical Kabbalah, as revealed to me by Dr. L.

I have a picture of Dr. L and our little class at ordination. He looks proud.

jsg, usa

I’m Living in New Orleans Now

I’m Living in New Orleans Now

I moved to New Orleans. Didn’t intend to, had never been there until just before I up and moved everything there. I visited there then I moved there.

It was some years after “the storm;” Katrina, 2005. New Orleans was still in an expansion, clean-up mode, and until the proud Times-Picayune retreated to three days a week, I think most New Orleanians were feeling good about their revival. The Times-Picayune downsize was a step back, I could feel that. I was all eyes and ears on my first trip.

I had never been to New Orleans until the end of 2012. Then I visited and then I moved.

Almost all the musicians I met on the street had a similar story: I left after the storm, went to ________ for a few years. I came back. For me, I made one trip, something clarified for me in a week, and I moved.

I was first attracted by the street music. I heard wonderful music on the street, not at all the kind of music I was accustomed to hearing on the streets of our city. I spent three, four hours every day listening to music on the streets of the French Quarter.

All the instruments were suited for such performing, which meant light on the amplification heavy on the brass and simple percussion contraptions. Bass generally covered in brass, intersecting lines woven through other reed and brass configurations. A singer singing in higher registers, generally a woman, over the top. The acoustic guitars were mostly of the gypsy, swing jazz variety or simple electric with battery powered amplifiers, that chordal chunk chunk swing style I first heard articulated by Charlie Christian on records of Benny Goodman’s and Count Basie’s bands.

One afternoon, I took the advice of a friend who had visited New Orleans frequently and suggested, I think somewhat fancifully, that I make a pilgrimage to the park named in honor of Louis Armstrong to a place colloquially called Congo Square, once called Place de Negres, so called because it was the site of a slave trading and a certain celebrational dance and music style that was practiced and continued there after it became a part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

I took my friend’s advice and walked to the park one morning to make my pilgrimage. It is on the edge of the Treme, just on the other side of Rampart Street from the French Quarter. I spent some time in the Square, sang a few tunes there, paid my respects to the statue of Louis Armstrong who hailed from the area and to whom I traced the impact of New Orleans music as it traveled up the rivers of the heartline, United States of America, and into my hands in the river towns where I was born and have lived.

After making my pilgrimage, I continued to walk around the Treme, blissfully unaware of where I was or how far I was wandering away from where I was staying near Bourbon Street, an environment unsuitable for me that I tried to avoid at all costs.

On the edge of the Treme I spied a True Value hardware store that was outfitted as cleanly as well appointed as any hardware store I have ever visited. I am an aficionado of hardware stores. On the second floor of the hardware store a display of utensils and coffee makers bean grinders espresso makers everything outfitted for the tastefully appointed kitchen. I know everything about coffee making and we discussed that. I also sought an eight-dollar water infuser so I could make coffee in my hotel room. They did not have the coil infuser but we began a conversation over coffee and other subjects I know about of no consequence.

Would you like to sample our local brew? They asked me. They had some of the recently ground bean ready and made me an espresso then a cup of regular Joe from the local bean. Both were excellent and I explained to them why I thought so. We were not talking wine; we were talking coffee, though we could have been talking wine. It was a tender meeting over sophisticated irrelevant standards of noblesse oblige, the stuff we love when nothing more pressing is heavy on us.

I continued into the Treme and walked, looking everywhere for the spirits of the iconic stories I knew that were birthed from that place. There was some day activity, some repair, much construction in the entire city and I felt the past speaking to me out of the modest streets I clopped clopped on through my wandering.

I wandered a little too far and began to lose my bearings; back towards the French Quarter, nearer again to Rampart Street, out came a group of four, five men dressed as women just as I was passing their house. They were dressed in the most dramatic fashion, several of them were six inches taller than me, they wore decorated hose and boutique skirts, several with bustier type contraptions around their chest, a couple with long blonde wigs (I think) and very tasty cowboy hats.

I looked at them as they came down the walk from what I imagined was their lodging on a street at the edge of the Treme. I’m sure I looked a little surprised and ambushed. They opened with, “What are you doing here?” as if I was some sort of stranger.

What the heck — I told them. I told them about my pilgrimage to the Louis Armstrong site, that I had never been to New Orleans before, that I was a musician who takes his roots seriously and I made this holy pilgrimage to the Source on that day and now I was exploring semi-lost in the neighborhood of an old dream. That seemed to open everything to them. They got serious with me and expressed their understanding and complete appreciation of my pilgrimage, once they realized I was for real.

I walked with them down the street. Where are you going? I asked them. Honey, we’re going to work. As we walked into the French Quarter chattering away, tourists (I assume) stopped, got out of the their cars or interrupted their strolls, to take their pictures. Does that bother you? I asked them.

Not in the least. It’s part of our job, another added: life, job. We were strolling like old friends. They got a tremendous kick when I told them my profession. For everyone who stopped and snapped their picture, they posed and feigned some silliness but by this time we had developed a seriousness between us. On the corner where they directed me one way and they were off another, one of them asked, will you bless me? Yes, they all chimed in, will you bless me, me too? I’ve never been blessed by a rabbi.

Sure I said, and they all moved closer together into the circle we had made on the corner at the edge of the French Quarter and I sang-chanted slow and mellow the three-fold priestly blessing, pretty and slow the holy blessing from the book of Numbers (6:23-27):

Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.
May G*d bless you and protect you.
Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.
May G*d’s face shine for you and be gracious to you.
Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.
May G*d’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.

First I sang it in Hebrew, then in English, then in Hebrew again. I did not hurry it. The first time I chanted it with my eyes closed, then I opened them and everyone’s eyes in the circle were closed, then they all opened and I chanted the last verse again with all eyes open boring into our interiors.

That was real, somebody said. Thank you thank you went all around and we stood for a moment kind of hushed on the corner of those streets, they then went their way and I went mine, and I’m thinking maybe none of us will forget those moments.

Later that night, I hopped on a streetcar on Canal Street. Most of the streetcars were not operating that day, so it was crowded crowded on the one I caught. I sat down. There was an older woman across from me holding onto a strap and I offered her my seat. She declined.

Next to me was sitting a man in disarray. First he spoke loudly to his girlfriend on his cell phone, to whom he pledged he would go to jail for her just as he had gone to jail for his last woman. He ended his phone conversation and by this time the car was packed.

The man sitting next to me started hollering at I thought the driver. “RT! What you letting so many people on this car. Too crowded. I can’t see where I’m going. RT! You paying attention?” He kept hollering and there was real tension in the car.

The woman standing in front of me watched him and when there was a pause in the noise she said quietly and forcefully: “You need to keep quiet.” He made his way up to the front to get off the car soon thereafter.

When he passed the driver he said to him, “how come you didn’t answer me?”

“You didn’t say my name,” said the driver.

“I don’t know your name!” and he got down out of the car.

The tension had evaporated and everyone within earshot exploded into laughter. I think RT stood for Rapid Transit. It was that moment that the mask that covers New Orleans came off and I saw the every day underneath, the real face, of this beautiful city.

Until that day, New Orleans presented to me as a confused, loud, forbidding place. Many people lingering in doorways, a lot of scams, scammers, hustlers, fraternity boy drunkenness and occasionally a truly sinister seediness. The curtain parted for me that day on New Orleans and I saw the same things I see every day: you don’t know my name, talk to me, I respect your pilgrimage, the desire to know and be known, etc.

It was then I became a resident. That moment, the parting of the curtain.

Just before my visit I had begun a food regimen that kept me from enjoying the fabled New Orleans cuisine. My brother said I’m the only person he knows who went to New Orleans and couldn’t find a decent meal. The best meal I had was a pizza from a place my daughter’s friend owned in a bywater neighborhood that was spectacular. It had kale on it.

Everything seemed to be in motion in this city, swinging, expanding. A stranger myself, I felt welcomed by strangers. No one outside the camp, I thought, who cannot be brought within. No one a stranger, or we are all strangers.

Some of the people in these tales were black some of them white. Some of them old some young. Some were men some were women; some a combination of the two (there are so many more than two possibilities).

It was the turn of a new year. I spent it in a hotel room, I couldn’t bear to navigate the streets in the area I was staying. I can abide sinister but public drunkenness is difficult for me, and when they carried a guy out of the restaurant where I was having a civilized dinner, I opted for a quieter welcome of the New Year.

Then I moved to New Orleans.

jsg, usa