How I Met Mordecai Kaplan

How I Met Mordecai Kaplan

It was 1976-77 my first trip to Israel also first year at Hebrew Union College. I showed up with a suitcase and a guitar and sat on the steps at 13 King David Street in Jerusalem and unpacked my instrument, attracted the attention of an excellent Israeli player-entrepreneur who soon had me on the road in a Rhythm and Blues then a Country and Bluegrass then a Jazz and Blues Review that covered the country. I tried to conceal this part of my life. I was often gone and missed a lot of the tiyulim [trips around the country organized by my school].

My friend and co-player lived on ibn Ezra street I think the corner of Keren Kayemet if I am remembering correctly. He had a nice mirpeset [balcony] and almost every day during the week I would stay late in the library then make my way down Keren Kayemet street where a lone Temeni [Yemenite] restauranteur who stayed open late fed me a spectacular cuisine like he was my mother then on to Moshe’s mirpeset for some late night every night guitar playing.

We did that the entire year. I would sometimes see an elderly man dressed dark shuffling with a cane down the same Keren Kayemet street when I came earlier in the day who paused in front of a mercolet [small notions store] and barked Adon! [sir] and the proprietor would bring out the newspapers.

On Shavuot someone asked if I would like to attend a tikkun [late night teaching] at Mordecai Kaplan’s apartment, a rare occasion I was told during those years. I went with my sweetheart who later became my wife. Mordecai Kaplan was taken with her and gave her a sweet little book.

The tikkun was great. His wife was welcoming and I don’t remember much about what we learned because I realized that he was the man I saw shuffling on the street and moreover it was directly next door to where Moshe and I played guitar every night. Oh no, I thought, I’m keeping this man up at night. I think he was 95 at the time.

I wasn’t going to say anything but after he spoke he retreated into another room and his wife (I assumed it was his wife) was pleasant and social and enjoyed a little conversation before we left. It came up in conversation that my guitar playing friend lived in the building right next door. I grimaced.

You’re the guy who plays guitar on the mirpeset at night?

Yeah, that’s me, I started to apologize.

He loves listening to you. He waits for you every night. When you’re not there, he asks where’s my guitar player?

That’s how I met Mordecai Kaplan. I was his guitar player.

james stone goodman
united states of america

Between the Narrows

Between the Narrows

There is a hilltop in Jerusalem
Where heaven and earth touch
After the destruction the bride began to weep
The ground too
The bride returned as a bird perched at the wall

For three weeks in summer
I sat low in sadness
I planned to bleed
To wash myself clean

This I have been taught
After a river of tears
Expect the messiah

jsg, usa


And he was afraid, and said: how dreadful is this place! This is none other but the house of G*d (Gen. 28:17). From here you learn that anyone who prays in this place, in Jerusalem, it is as though praying before the Throne of Glory. For the gateway to heaven is there and the door is open to hear prayer, as it is said, “And this is the gate of heaven.”

• Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, chapter 35, English Friedlander pp, 265-66.

And so David said, Jerusalem is built like a city joined together (Ps. 122:3), that is, as a city G*d built, and the Targum Yonatan translates: Jerusalem was built as a city in the heavens to be joined with the one on earth. And G*d swore that the Shekhinah would not enter the city on high until one below has been rebuilt.

• Tanhuma Exodus, Pikudei section 1

The main custom is to sit on the floor (until Midnight on Tisha B’Av). One may sit on a cushion or on a low stool.

• Shulchan Aruch w/Mishnah Brurah 559:3, MB 11

My [Elijah] son [R Yosi], what sound did you hear in this ruin? I replied: I heard a divine voice, cooing like a dove.

• BT. Berakhot 3a

There were two types of birds at the wall. The doves nesting quietly in the Wall, and the swifts screeching and careening madly for the minute or so it took to speak the mourner’s prayer.

I told the story to Miri, long time resident of Jerusalem.

She said to me, the swifts were not always here. I know an Arab man in the Old City who told me that before the Jews came back in ’67, there were no swifts here. The swifts returned to the Wall with the Jews.

• Aggadat Miri

Behold the gates of mercy an arbitrary space
And none of us deserving the cruelty or the grace

• Eliezer HaKohen

Though the gates of prayer are closed the gates of weeping are not.

• BT. Berakhot 32b

On the day the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed, Messiah was born.

• Eicha Rabbah 1:51

Prison Journal. July 2013.

July 8, 2013
Clayton, Missouri

Mr. B of the Clayton jail called to tell me he had an inmate requesting kosher food. Mr. B generally interviews those who request kosher and he always asks what’s the most important Jewish festival? I think Mr. B generally doesn’t get much of an answer, but this guy gave him a list of half a dozen. Still, he was suspicious.

Oh yes, I know him I told Mr. B. He used to come by the Thursday night group for recovering addicts and he came to the synagogue too. Then he vanished.

Well he’s here and he’s detoxing off of heroin I think.

I hope you’ll give him some good kosher food while he’s coming down.

You know him?

Yes I know him.

I didn’t know him well but I remembered him and remembered when he came around he came with regularity and I found him a job after a while, an assistant cook in a nice restaurant.

When I went to see him I asked, what happened?

Couldn’t stay with it. I messed up.

He was picked up with drugs and later I found out there was a weapons violation involved uh oh and he was looking at serious time.

I’m often surprised by these guys, many of them are smart and seem sincere and sometimes I can’t figure how they get into the messes they get into. With this guy, he missed a basic lesson. I asked him whether they had meetings in the jail house, he said no just Christian. What do you mean? No Jewish prayers.

No I said, I don’t mean prayer services. I know there’s a lot of Christian prayer meetings in prison, I’m talking about AA meetings, NA meetings.

Oh, I don’t know, he said.

I realized then that for him Judaism was his program. That’s backwards.

Sobriety is your religion now, I said, recovery. AA is your religion NA, get yourself to meetings. Make your sobriety the center of your life. Everything else will follow. I don’t think anyone ever said that to him before, he looked so surprised.

I’ll get you a Hebrew Bible I said, in English, soft cover. I’ll get you a calendar. I’ll put together a book of teachings for you. You get yourself to meetings.

I need a Hebrew name, he said.

His given name had no precise Hebrew equivalent. What is it you love?

I work with my hands. I can build and fix anything. I want to fix up old houses.

I told him about Betzalel, the first artisan, and how without him the Temple could not have been built. G*d showed Moses the pattern floating in the sky but without the artist Betzalel it could not have been built.

Betzalel? He said it with a little difficulty.

Yes, you like it? The artisan. The builder.

Yeah that’s right. Let’s pray with it.

What’s your mother’s name?

She’s gone.

What’s her name?

Her name was Deborah.

That’s a Hebrew name, you know, you’re Betzalel ben Devorah and now I’m going to chant a holy prayer for your healing in your name and the name of your mother through whom your healing comes.

I sat there in the jail house cubicle separated by the thick glass with the phone to my face him a foot away and I chanted some healing prayers naming him and his mother and praying for his complete healing.

Thank you, he said, he thanked me again. Say it again? He asked. I did. Several more times.

The next time I saw him I had given Mr. B a Hebrew Bible in English translation soft cover and asked him to give it to Betzalel. I put a note on the inside with the page number where Betzalel is mention in Exodus 31 and I highlighted the verses.

I went up to the cubicle. We talked some more. He would be at the Clayton jail longer than he thought and he knew he was looking at serious time. I told him that Mr. B had a soft cover Hebrew Bible in English translation for him.

How do you say it, and he tried to say Betzalel but it didn’t come out right.

In the Bible you’ll be getting they call him Bezalel, you can use that if you like and I felt myself beginning to speak easy English to him thinking he’s not going to get this Bezalel easily and in mid-sentence as I was explaining how he could say Bez-a-lel nice and slowly, he said:

It’s a tzaddi — (the Hebrew letter that is more correctly transliterated as tz or ts though there is no exact English equivalent).

Yes, I said, it’s a tzaddi, knowing he has been studying Hebrew and once again I betray my bias and how wrong I am to assume he has not entered deep into his name into this search he is on for meaning and how irrelevant it is that he is a foot away separated by thick glass we are talking by phones through the jail house window he is a black man and when the keepers of the purse ask me who are the people you see in the prison house are they white are they black are they Jewish how completely irrelevant that is on so many levels and how many of them know what a tzaddi is how many?

Forgive me, I think, I smile a big smile shamed by my bias, yes I said it’s a tzaddi just say it slow and in syllables until it becomes comfortable: B’tzal-El. It means in the shadow of G*d.

jsg, usa

Weighty To Take A Vow

Weighty to take a vow to stay away from something that is permitted I take a vow to stay away from meat from saturated fats potato chips how I love potato chips or to take on something I think is right but is not required of me elevating the act to mitzvah status I vow to drive every single person who asks me to the airport any time they want.

Vows are a fence around separation [Avot 3:17] I take a vow in order to help separate from a problem distance or in our lingo abstinence you love those Little Debbie treats? Can’t eat just one? You’re hiding vodka around the house? Cruising the dark streets for white powder? Special problems require special strategies separation willing to go to any lengths with the vow in order to make a fence around the problem separate from it.

It’s serious this vow-taking Maimonides recommends we don’t do it at all let your yes be true and your no be true [Baba Metzia 49a] we are expected to do what we promise if we have to resort to vows something is wrong.

In conversation we say bli neder without a vow used in the sense of without a doubt if I have to take a vow I’m not good on my intention I need a vow to get something done? Do it.

Morning Kook

We call these pieces Morning Kook. They were inspired by material I have been learning from the notebooks of Rav Kook. The notebooks are short entries, often with imagery that is startling and evocative to me. While we learn, I am writing poetry. Some of the imagery from the notebooks appears in my poetry.

I took the poetry and made simple musical accompaniment, enhanced by my friends Brothers Lazaroff, who fleshed out the melodies to accompany the poems.

We then took the images of my friend Todd Weinstein and we put them into short video pieces, to honor the sources, to lift up the inspiration of Source and Collaboration.

Here is the first piece: I hope you enjoy. We will be posting them throughout the week.