Death Row part 1


Death Row part 1

This institution is the location of Death Row in my state. That sentence is an attention-getter but I found out when I visited at that time Death Row was integrated into the rest of the prison. It was not segregated, so to speak.

You mean the guys who are on death row are in your, uh, living area? I asked the inmate sitting across from me in the visiting room. I didn’t have the correct language.

Yeah, the next guy to go is right below me. I saw him this morning. As a matter of fact, he was just outside the door there. He refused a visit this morning.

He refused a visit? Why?

I don’t know. Just now.

Maybe it was his lawyer.

I walked in with a lawyer, he had a carrying case and a rolling file box full of documents and I offered to help him (he was older than me) but he told me he could bench press more than these bags and he does this all the time. In the hallway later as we were walking in together he opened with an irrelevant story about coming into the institution once with [horse] riding boots and how difficult it was to take them off, etc., I suppose his way of trying to roll off the rudeness with which he rejected my offer.

How many on death row would you say? I asked the fellow I was visiting. This was the first time I had met him and the first time I was given entry inside this institution.

About twenty eight, I think. It’s about one a month.

We were well into our conversation when death row came up, and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, etc., was all wrong. Frequently I am all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison.

No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them are of calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I read them through their eyes.

Later I looked it up. There was a challenge to the death penalty in my state in 2006, on the grounds that the lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because the instructions, the protocols around lethal injection were too vague, and were not administered by a qualified anesthesiologist.

The attorney general then, who later became governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and it does seem that the frequency approximated one a month. I don’t know if this was deliberate but it was mentioned by the man I was visiting as if it was.

I could see that executions happened with more frequency than under the previous two governors, but with even more frequency three and four governors ago, during the last decade of the twentieth century. The last decade of the twentieth century: more frequency of executions, anyone could see this with a simple search.

I didn’t want to dwell on the death row aspect of the institution, I had talked to this man several times on the phone but this was our first meeting. He had a lot to say.

He launched into his story though I don’t ask about their stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen, if it doesn’t I’m fine with that too. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit to this particular institution and I wasn’t approved for a class here, I could bring no materials with me. He had plenty to talk about and I listened and we talked a few things through, about the complexity of identities that he was working through, about what goes on inside himself and the institution, what it’s like for him, what he was looking to in the future, there were no silences as we sat head to head for several hours.

The details were rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice, but it is his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it is his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way.

On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains, I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of NO so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep coming back? I run into obstacles of no here and there and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? What sustains?

I was telling someone I know who has been in prison this story and he interpreted it for me. In prison you live in a reduced world, he said, it’s a small space and you came into it sat and listened to someone who gave over his expertise. It’s what he knows about. You listened.




Attentive to Mental Illness-Mental Health


On Suicide

She wrote me a note before we did a community session on suicide. She was not in a place, she said, to come to the session but she wanted to make a contribution.

She gave me permission to use her words as a prompt for the participants to write about their experiences. The following is from the original piece she wrote to me, her words:

I am a survivor I suppose. I have attempted suicide several times in serious ways and I believe I am alive to share a few things I’ve learned. I feel some sort of purpose, I am always looking for that but here goes — I hope this helps someone.

People could listen more with their eyes as well as their ears. When you are contemplating suicide, you don’t conceptualize it. You may not express it.

 Be observant. Don’t ignore anything. Take everything seriously. I wanted someone to hold my hand – I’m not going to leave you, God will not leave you, I’m with you, I will never leave you, that’s what I wanted to hear.

And most importantly: this feeling is going to pass. You don’t think it’s going to pass. You think it’s never going away. It feels permanent.

 I wanted someone to say to me: I wish I could be there with you. Call me. Don’t be alone.

Some time later I met with her at a coffee shop.

I’m starting to feel like I want to get out more, she said, to be of service to others. I often feel a terrible negative energy running through my being, but I think I can offer something. If I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

Version: I love this piece for the wisdom it contains and because it came from such a difficult place in this person’s life. This was not an easy piece to write.

She was at a low enough place in her struggle that she couldn’t make the session, still she felt the necessity to give away some of what she knew. She wanted to help someone else. Where does this kind of compassion come from? All she wanted was to give a little away from what she had learned from her living.

What she wanted most was to be of service to others. And she knew that because of her life, she had some secret wisdom to give away: what it’s like to live with what she lives with, what it feels like from the inside, what she would have liked to hear from others, what someone else could have given her when she needed it most.

It think this is a remarkable document because it has a giving sensibility and because it has real wisdom about what it feels like when a person is struggling to stay alive, to find a way in the world when the inner world goes dark; to come back from the edge and describe what it felt like there.

It has strategies for living that come from the crucible of a person’s life. I think it’s a remarkable piece for all these reasons and every time I see the writer I remind her how much her piece has helped others because as she wrote: if I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

jsg, for No Shanda*

Jews Attentive to Mental Illness-Mental Health

*Shanda means shame, there is none




We were debating how to bring everyone into the camp

when someone said, there is no one outside the camp tonight,

there is no other, no them, only us – all of us – within.

This from J, maximum security prison, Missouri:

I am quite ashamed of my past. There’s no way I can’t be. And, I repent me mightily of the deeds of my past. I was only 18 when I became incarcerated in Illinois. I was young and scared. The Illinois prisons are quite different from Missouri ones. Illinois has hundreds of gangs and is much more violent . . . Probably because of my poor choices in the past, I am strongly committed now. Please accept my apology.


This from P, on parole from Missouri DOC:

Isolation, fear, suicidal –I was giving up on life.

I had no intention to live — once I got out.

I felt very weak, the officers knew I felt weak so they picked on me, the others picked on me too.

I eat slow so — I never got to eat a whole meal. Horrible food.

It was just horrible, did I say that? I never wanted to go back. My only solution: Suicide.

One thing positive – I had a friend. She would visit me. I never saw my family, maybe once, I had lost a family.

We got out on December 30th. My room mate was dead by January 3rd.

She was half my age.



We measure our grief

In years

One year, two years, twenty.

I am softening to my sadness


In a year of days

I remember I don’t remember every minute.

I want the seconds back

I remember and cry for all

I love the most.



I was married a long time ago. Had three kids. My wife took them and left. Been in and out of treatment programs. Been in jail a few times too. I just couldn’t stay clean.

I died on August 4th. The report reads heart failure, but I died of drug addiction. I hope my children remember the better days.


On the wall of the synagogue was written this: do not give in to despair.

I taught that there was no way around the darkness within, there is only the center. There is always the possibility of moving through, but through the center only. Takes courage.



He asked me
Are you sad today or unhappy?

What’s the difference?
If I feel bad sad or bad unhappy.

With unhappy you are attached to Sadness
With sad you are not attached.

Sad may be the condition of your Existence
We all know people like this.

And often they are great Creators
Or they find a way

To redeem the core of sadness

they build a life of beauty or service.

Many of the old Greeks were like this
Aristophanes never told a joke

Though he created many
So too the Hebrews Akiva was always laughing

Though he was as serious as dirt
About his purpose.

Sadness may be a condition
A response to the nature of things to disappoint.

We all imagine the world better
Don’t we?

But with unhappiness
you may be attached to your Version Of Yourself.

Tell a joke

Especially today.

Tell a joke and let me know
You’re pushing through Daily

And you’re neither a fool
Nor are you Numb.












I was called to do a funeral for a young woman who died from an overdose and left an eight year old son. I had never met her but I should have met her. She did eight months at a local treatment-residential facility and someone should have referred her to me, me to her, but I never met her never heard about her and a couple of months out of the facility she died.

I was called to do the funeral because I get this thing, etc., but the frustration for me to come in at the end of a story to make words to remember and explain and try for a little healing is a worthy activity but too late.

Elegist. How much more would I have liked to spend some time with her, to try to get her to the meeting I know has given life to so many.

But the treatment game is like other games, with all the same limitations of professional turf and incompetence and ignorance and carelessness. She was somebody’s mother, somebody’s daughter, not the expert’s mother, not the expert’s daughter, not the referring agency’s kid. Up against all the limitations of everyone’s profession, including my own, when the human need recedes; how many times have my own colleagues neglected to make the right referral. I am stuffed with these stories.

I thought of her when I greeted a man new to the meeting, it was soon after she died. This man I never expected to see again. His story had been public, all over the newspaper, involving crime and weapons and prison time and a lot of years incarcerated. He introduced himself to me at the meeting, asking if I remembered him. Hello, he read the balloon over my head betraying me, of course I remember you and I’m surprised you’re alive it read out above my head.

He had ten days clean after so many years, a long history of treatments and prison and one hell of a mess of life. When he returns and comes for healing, he comes here.

Here. Still. Alive.


For Shalvah, Shalvah means Serenity,

working the borderline between substances and Substance


Profound and Stupid Continued


Profound and Stupid Continued

Or: I Ain’t Goin’ Back

You know me from the prison. I was one of the group when you came to visit. Maybe you’ll know me when you see me. I got out.

Where are you now?

In town. Staying on my brother’s couch.

Do you have a car?

No. A bike. But it’s broke.

Is there a McDonald’s in walking distance?


Meet you there tomorrow at 1:30.

At 1:30 I walked in, he knew me but I didn’t recognize him. We sat down. He looked like eighty years old to me. I read out his shoes, he was wearing someone else’s shoes, cut out the toes so he could walk in them.

I asked him to fill me in. I confessed I didn’t recognize him.

During the course of our conversation, he mentioned he was one of the guys who insisted on walking me out when I visited because there was some dangerous talk among the skinheads targeting me that day [see story Profound and Stupid, skinheads with neo-nazi thought pardon the expression are the major problem in the institutions in my state].

That was me, he said, I was in them who walked you out. It was nothin’ really. They’re punks we know how to handle them.

He was a big man.

How old are you?

Fifty nine.

How long were you in prison?

Thirty years.

When he said thirty years I went quiet. The curtain parted for a moment and I sat staring at him the reality of thirty years of his life in that place penetrated and I struggled for a moment to hold back my tears, this wasn’t my life it was his life and I had no right to cry over his life but I wanted to, I felt myself cracked open to the sadness of that and his voice gentle, pleasant, without a hint of negativity.

Only this: I ain’t going back.

He said that a few times, in the same way: I ain’t goin’ back.

We talked a little more. I asked what I could do for him.

I need medicine. I can get my diabetes medicine but they won’t cover my ED.

Your what?

Erectile dysfunction. They won’t cover my Viagra.

I looked at him again in quiet. Thirty years incarcerated. Maybe he has someone. I wanted him to get that medicine. I was between laughing and crying but what I really wanted for him was that medicine.

Right, I heard myself saying, let’s get that medicine.

I called the free clinic and said, this is Dr. Goodman. I have a patient who needs to be seen and seen right away.

I got an appointment for the next day.

Do you have shoes? I asked him.


Let’s get you some shoes. How about your bike?


I’ll get your bike fixed. Would some food from the jewish food pantry help out where you’re staying?


Come on.

The food at the jewish food pantry wasn’t nearly as easy to obtain as Viagra and after two days waiting in their lobby (it was more disorganized than the bazaars of Kyrgyzstan) they got him registered and he went home with three bags of groceries.

It’s not easy getting help, I thought, unless you’re crooked.




More Raza de-Purim the Secret of Purim or Profound and Stupid



Profound and Stupid: More Raza de-Purim, the Secret of Purim

The story had become profound and stupid. Profound and stupid, I changed the title of this part of the story as soon as I wrote it: Profound and Stupid, a continuation of the Raza de-Purim, the secret of Purim.

At the end of the fast of Esther that year, I had made the two hour trip to the prison house where I had been assured [e-mail] that the auxiliary chaplain would meet me at the gate since I had visited there only one time previously and did not know the set-up. I wasn’t entirely sure I was approved to visit this particular prison, though I had e-mailed also the head chaplain in the capital who referred me on to the individual chaplain. I am trying to be diligent but sometimes I feel like I am visiting the Bastille –I should just sneak in and out.

 I made the trip anyway. When I arrived at the prison, I parked illegally and much closer than I did the first time I visited, having been advised that first time by the heavily tattooed guard who buzzed me in and out. The staff at this prison house was extremely kind to me the first time I visited, there was a chaplain to meet me and he escorted me to the chapel, and the inmates themselves escorted me out and I had the sense they were protecting me (a new feeling but not unpleasant).

This time there was no one to welcome me. The guard who buzzed me in didn’t recognize the name of the auxiliary chaplain. “There is no auxiliary chaplain,” she said definitively. She buzzed me through anyway. “Go upstairs and get your squawk box [personal alarm gizmo] and some keys. You’re on your own today.”

The prison is built like a camp out of depression era limestone that was mined from the area during the WPA, I believe. It has an interesting look from the outside, the textures of the wild limestone set within the formal patterning of brick, it is quite beautiful; within a series of buildings surrounding a large open perpendicular space which is referred to as the yard.

I walked up the stairs once through the gate to a window with bars and an opening on the bottom to push through the supplies from the room behind. In that room are alarms and radios and large circles of keys that open, I assumed, the various classic locks that kept muscular control over this depression era structure.

All I had was an ID which I had gotten from the State, convincing them through two TB tests and a conversation with a retiring prison guard [orientation] that I was qualified to visit four prisons that had Jewish inmates who were eager to welcome me to their institutions.

I stuck my head into the opening of the window with the bars and the sets of keys and squawk boxes, radios, etc. and said to the uniformed guard, “I’m going to the chapel.” That’s all I knew, I’m not sure I remembered exactly where the chapel was but I did recall it was at the far end of the yard because I remembered that the accompanied stroll back to the metal doors last visit was a long walk.

“You want keys?” the guard asked me. “Ok,” I said. I had no idea what to do with them, but they are keys, I thought quickly, and I’ll just figure out how to open the doors that do not open for me.

“You got tags?” he asked.

“No.” I think tags were small metal cut-outs that you leave in the barred room in exchange for keys and radios and such.

“Go make a copy of your ID.”

I went walking down the hall until I saw a copy machine in an office and I walked in and without asking and made a copy of my ID card.

I returned and passed the copy of my ID card to the uniformed guard behind the bars and I saw him hang it on a hook and he passed through the hole in the bars a whole ring of keys, at least forty keys, and a squawk box.

“Thanks.” I walked away with the keys to the whole place having no idea what to do with them, which door opened with which key, etc., only knowing that the inmates are not allowed to touch the keys. I was on my own.

I made a few wrong turns and couldn’t find the yard for a frantic moment or two; I was overwhelmed by holding the keys and became disoriented. I went to the window and there was the yard below me.

I exited out to the yard through one of the doors that move electronically and slowly and opened by showing my ID to a camera. I was alone in the yard. I tried to stuff the keys in one pocket of my jacket and the squawk box in the other but there were too many keys for a pocket.

I strode to the rear of the yard and walked into an open door where a group of men where taking off or putting on their clothes, I think it was a gym.

“Are you looking for the chapel?” How they knew this, I don’t know but I did not look like an inmate, they have uniforms and generally wear bright orange knit hats.


A guy took me outside the locker room and pointed me to the building next door.

It was locked up tight but I had the keys. I started going through them one after another, and it wasn’t too difficult to figure as this was a large door and I began with the largest keys. I opened it.

Inside I found a light. Every single room was locked inside. I found the room I was in the last time, a larger room with some tables and a chalkboard, some instruments and a little stage, obviously a place where several groups share prayer and study privileges. I found the key to that room too. Now I was inside and I was alone.

I had learned at another institution I visited that if I opened the door, people tended to wander in. I made sure the outer door was open and within a few minutes an inmate came in and sat next to me, staring straight ahead at the altar-platform in front of us. This was clearly a room used for prayer rituals.

“Mario,” he said by way of introduction.

“James,” I said.

He asked me who I was and I told him.


He told me how he had discovered the Hebrew Bible in a cell when he was first incarcerated. He told me he read it through, cover to cover.

I asked him if he remembered the story of Esther and he remembered everything. I told him that today was the Fast of Esther and I told him a story of someone whose name he might recognize and her holy fast and a story no one knows about how she broke that fast. A contemporary story.

I told him that God’s name is not mentioned in the book of Esther which is curious and crazy and I made the interpretation that it’s a sure sign that God is everywhere in the story, so full in the events and the personalities and the choices that we are at the level of all-over-God, God everywhere, in everything.

“I’m with you,” he said.

He knew what a Rabbi was and he then told me his whole story, from the age of sixteen to the present, which I imagine was about fifteen years. It was a tender story, clear and full of details, well parsed for meaning and a good sense of where it would go when he left this institution. He wanted to return to the small town he came from and he planned to go to College and I believed him.

Another guy came in and he greeted me in a rather formal, well rehearsed way. “I won’t ask how you are doing – for that is a question and I may not know you well enough to ask you a question. I will not inquire what’s new as that is empty and meaningless and meant only to break ice and engage in small talk. I will simply bless you in the way of my tradition. . .” and he switched to Arabic and quoted some of the holy Koran, which I was familiar with. I know some Arabic blessings and introductions, so I responded in kind. His name I will call him Elyasha.

He didn’t seem to know Mario so I introduced them. One of the Jewish inmates saw the door open from across the yard and he came, he didn’t know Mario either or Elyasha though he had seen them around. I introduced them.

We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. Elyasha left soon, and returned after five minutes with a few other guys. “You’re the rabbi!” he said, “I should have known!” He must have asked around outside the chapel who is the guy with the not-orange hat in the chapel sitting around waiting for people to arrive.

There were two other individuals affiliated with the Jewish group who were present the first time I was there but absent this time. I asked about them.

“Sent away,” one of the Jewish guys, Jacob, told me.

“What do you mean?”

“Too much trouble, they sent them to a smaller camp.” I felt somewhat responsible since it was in part their letters to me that brought me to that camp in the first place.

“They started asking for too much.”

Now there wasn’t enough of them left in this camp to meet on the Sabbath. The prison rule in our state is that a religious group and its rights are defined by five members. In prison a minyan is five, and since the two had been sent away they only had three by my count.

“The Muslim brothers will join your group,” Elyasha said, “we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want.” Elyasha knew a lot it seemed about working the prison system. “The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together,” Elyasha said, “you’ll have a group this Saturday and every Saturday.”

It was getting close to the time that I was supposed to leave. I asked the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers which way was east. Elyasha showed me the corner where the Muslim brothers faced east and made their prayers.

“Come with me,” I said, “quick,” because there were some other people starting to come into the room looking as if they were the next group.

We went into the corner facing east and I opened up my hands and sung out pretty and slow the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers:

Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.

May God bless you and protect you.

Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.

May God’s face shine for you and be gracious for you.

Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.

May God’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.

As I was singing, I explained there is no partial, no individual, no incomplete – every single instance opens up onto the universal, and every partial resolves in the whole — everywhere God dwells is whole, quoting the Zohar.

I said something about salaam, shalom, or shleimut, wholeness, integration. To bless is to dip below and reach above, the root below and the root above, the b’reikhah the pool of blessings, the wild chute that whisks you into the root above, to the All, shleimut, to be blessed with a sense of everything, to live in a larger space than the separate self, the isolated, the un-integrated, the broken, the incomplete.

By this time the Christian brothers were coming in, they were the next group — a program called IFI I think — the room was filling up behind and some of them were watching us.

Their leader came over to me and said, “what is that you are singing?”

I told him basically the same things I told the Jewish and the Muslim brothers. He was holding my picture on my ID card that I had copied to get the keys.

“You’re the rabbi,” he said, “you’re supposed to give me the keys.”

So I gave the Christian brother the ring of keys, he seemed to know what he was doing, and I asked him for my picture just in case they questioned me on the way out.

The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, on the way Elyasha scribbled something on a piece of paper, we were talking animatedly until I realized I was alone. There is a certain line they cannot pass in the prison yard and they were standing quietly on the other side until I turned around mid-thought and realized where they were.

I thanked them and hugged them all, told them I would be back in two weeks. “We’ll be here,” said the Muslim brothers, “all of us.” Elyasha gave me the paper he was writing on.

This is what was written on the paper Elyasha had given me:

Brother, your presence here is engulfed with the love of forgiveness. Please do what you can for all in this community.

Is there something in this story that is not-God? I am searching for it, this continuation of the Raza de-Purim the secret of Purim, though it began for me anyway profound and stupid and I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing, I could have not taken those keys, I could have turned around and gone home. I could have made a complaint about the fictitious auxiliary chaplain, I could have returned the keys telling the truth to the guard that I had no idea what I was doing. I could have missed the entire drama. Instead, I showed up, watched something profound and stupid unfold into something profound.



Heschel King


On the Yahrzeit of Heschel and birthday of King

 Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak
and may the earth hear the words of my mouth.

– Deuteronomy 32:1

Listen, O earth, to these wounds,
We have been pounded on the peaks,
elevated and alone.
Who ascends these holy mountains,
and why?

We have bled all over our back packs,
descended at the penultimate moment.

Snatched away from the precipice,
we descended into the valley
where we sat quietly with our eyes closed,
waiting for a bus, nothing loftier,
and we would have remained there
if not sitting next to us was the prophet Amos
watching for the light to change.

His skepticism, as always,
was an inspiration,
justice rolling down like water
and righteousness like a mighty stream.

All that was holy entered through our wounds,
the last place we expected.

Listen to the wounds, O earth,
pay attention to the bleeding sky,
brother elements, sister flesh,
pay a little attention will you,
at least give ear to these words.

These wounds.


Part 1


There is a picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel,
rabbi, human being, interpreter of inner Judaism and the prophets,
walking with Martin Luther King, jr.,
preacher, prophet, activist, redeemer,
walking together in the front row of the marchers,
Selma, 1965.

King and Heschel and Ralph Bunche walking arm in arm,
Ralph Bunche who received Nobel Peace Prize in 1950
for mediating armistice between Israel and the Arab states.

Look at the picture of Heschel, King and all of them,
this emblem of deep connection
bound at the arms they are, bound by the legs they are
the pictorial story of history and a return to coalition,
good intention, hope, hope, hope.

Our freedom stories have been told
in the same narratives,
we are characters in each other’s freedom story.


Part 2


“The day we marched together out of Selma
was a day of sanctification. That day
I hope will never be past to me—
that day will continue to be to this day”

— Heschel in a letter to King.

In that letter Heschel wrote he felt
“as though my legs were praying.”

Both men read their story into
the freedom narrative of Exodus.

The freedom arc of Exodus
and the prophets
two stories that transformed and guided their lives
for Heschel and King,
the Exile story was not theoretical.

We will not be satisfied, preached King,
quoting the prophet Amos, until justice rolls down like waters
and righteousness like a mighty stream.

This verse is engraved into the King Memorial
Atlanta, Georgia.

Exodus every day.
Freedom the daily struggle.
Justice justice justice.



For Lovers of Peace



Beer Sheva is For Lovers (of Peace)

Beer Sheva Chamber of Commerce


Everybody leaves Beer Sheva. Avraham left. Sarah left. What is it about Beer Sheva that everybody leaves?

Isn’t Beer Sheva a symbol for serenity, for a peaceful life? Isn’t Beer Sheva what we are all reaching for, growing towards, the Beer Sheva of the heart — rooted, peaceful, serenity of place?

Maybe all serenity of place is illusion; it’s not a matter of place at all, maybe we are invested too much in place. Insitutional. Building, all that for lesser imaginations.

Jacob collides with place after he leaves Beer Sheva. Vayifga’ (28:11). Jacob leaves a place of serenity and collides with the place that he comes to; once you leave that one place, all arrivals are collisions with place because you never belong anywhere like you once belonged somewhere. There is only one such somewhere (hello Detroit).

What a difference from grandfather Abraham, his spiritual ancestor (in this section Jacob is referred to as Abraham’s son), his grandfather goes To (lech lecha) jacob Leaves From (vayetze).


Beer Sheva Chamber of Commerce


They built it in the desert. Plenty of room here. Ben Gurion knew that. You can live here, stretch out. It’s hot but beautiful.

Still, what is this story if not suspicious of place, a place is its people. Let’s make our place secure, the heart’s place. Let’s build it strong. Within. Make me a sanctuary, and I will dwell Within Them (Ex.25:8). It’s another Inside Job.

Change vocabulary from going to, leaving from, to Within.

With the first word, vayetze (28:10), Rashi the poet brought down that a tzaddik/righteous person leaves an impression in a place. When a tzaddik leaves a place, the tzaddik leaves a space behind her, an impression, the tzaddik is that place’s grandeur don’t you know.

The place is authenticated by the person. What if there are no tzaddikim in a place? That’s the shadow side, as if it could happen, as if it might have already. As if it’s happening now.

Secret History of the Zohar

The Secret History of the Zohar at the Hebrew Union College

I sat in the library. I stayed late. I loved the open stacks and the easy access to my particular interest the 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. It 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 are beautiful, aren’t they. Come, I’ll show you some things.

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. Lehman. He works for the library.

Dr. Lehman was Israel O. (Otto, he used his middle name only as initial) Lehman, 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. 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. Not here.

Dr. Lehman was a student at the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums founded in Berlin by Abraham Geiger in 1872 and closed down in 1942, from where he graduated in 1936. He often cited his teacher Dr. Baeck. Dr. Lehman called himself a Semiticist. He stayed in Germany until 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 curated the Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He taught liturgy and Medieval Jewish philosophy at the Leo Baeck College in London. He offered to teach Arabic (Arabic was part of the curriculum at the Hochshule) but the College elected not to offer it. 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. Lehman 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.


I went to the Dean.

I’ve been speaking with Dr. Lehman. 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. Lehman. If I can secure a room, would you begin teaching us?


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. Lehman every Tuesday evening and learned. We began with the Zohar. Dr. Lehman 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 these texts.

The first piece in the Zohar Dr. Lehman 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. Lehman. 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. Lehman 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. Lehman 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. Lehman 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. Lehman who was precise and elevated with language.

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, as well as a 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 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. Lehman and our secret class, when I teach Kabbalah, the classical Kabbalah, as revealed to me by Dr. Lehman of blessed memory.

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



A Story of New Orleans


A Story of New Orleans

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans — Louis

I had never been to New Orleans, until recently. Don’t go there, friends told me, you’ll never come back.

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.

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.

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 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 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 heart-line, 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 maybe 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 Priests in the book of Numbers (6:23-27):

Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.

May God bless you and protect you.

Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.

May God’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 God’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.

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.

That was a 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 you’re the only person I know 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.