Two Thanks-giving Stories
There was a contest on the radio. Write or speak your gratitude on this Thanksgiving. What are you grateful for? the radio announcer asked. Send in your story.
I heard the winners. It was a tie. Two women, one from California, one from Massachusetts.
First, the woman from California spoke. She was a sheep rancher, she raised sheep on a ranch in California. Her father before her worked the ranch. The ranch had been in her family for several generations.
She was, I imagine, a woman in her late forties. Her husband now also worked the ranch, along with her eighty year old father. They all lived right there on the ranch.
She spoke of the difficulties in running such an enterprise these days. The cost of harvesting and processing the wool is for the first time greater than what it can be sold for, in addition to which there has been five years of drought in her area. “There’s dust in everything,” she said, “and the grazing land is parched and cracked,” her flocks thin and diminished, her father old and tired, herself and her husband frustrated.
I waited for the punch line. What was she grateful for on this Thanksgiving? I wondered.
The night before telling her story, it rained. It rained an inch and a half. The dust liquified back into the earth, the earth smoothed and healed off some of its cracks, but this was not the source of her gratitude. Certainly all the difficulties of running a sheep ranch in these days were not solved by an inch and a half of rain. This was a bonus, a sign, perhaps, a clue, but not a solution, not even a temporary one, it may have been a joke: God writes straight with crooked lines. Rain, as if that would make a difference.
What was she grateful for had to do with her tired 80 year old father who has seen so many seasons come and go on the ranch, something to do with herself and her husband working the family ranch scouting the sky week after week, month after month, year after year for rain. It had to do with the shared judgment about their business which is fragile, outdated, bound up with the shared destiny of one family, one plot of land, one generation after another, being in that thing together, the tenderness as she described her father waddling into the farmhouse after a long day of work, and the brave possibility that the ranch would yet turn a profit somehow. Another season. The possibility, the hope of a future, measured not only in rain but in the dignity of these human beings who hope, who imagine it working, again, for the sacred possibility of the future, hope, hope, hope. Hope sustains, everything possible when you have hope.
The second woman tied for first prize in the radio contest. She was from Massachusetts, a Jewish woman I imagined, from her name, from her brand of humor. She was very funny. About the same age as the other woman, late forties. This was her story: It has been almost a year since he died, she began, and still she hasn’t set up a tombstone for him. It was a marriage no one thought would work — he had been married 3 times previous, she several times herself. Neither looking to get married ever again, they met. Against all advice, against their own better judgment and plans for living, they married anyway. Out of the chaos of two lives and ex-wives and kids and step kids and recriminations they found deep love, love that outlasted the complexities of their lives, and calmed them, tamed them both.
She spoke her story touching, funny, sad. A year after they married, he became ill, given not much hope for even another year. He lived six, living with dignity and joy and living more deeply than ever before because everything was so precious. Every moment.
Now he was gone. She was broke. Public aid in Massachusetts had all but dried up. She had not been able to find full time work, she was substitute teaching in Boston. What was she grateful for? I was waiting to hear.
This: first, many friends. They called her regularly and invited her to meals, she usually declined but loved the invitations. Someone brought over a load of firewood to heat her wood burning stove as winter came on. She was grateful because she had felt her heart unlock to life so freely that it would never close again, the great gift of love that changed her permanently.
The last thing she said: I’m alone, broke, but not unhappy, not in the least afraid. As a matter of fact, I’m rather content, she said, because I believe something, my little way of thinking about things, that may sound wacky but I really believe this –
I think of him as if he has gone away somewhere ahead of me, as if to find the perfect apartment, you know something near a bookstore, where there is a cafe that serves fresh raspberries all year round. He has gone there ahead of me to find the perfect place for us, she said. I am as certain of this as I am of anything: we will meet again, and because I believe this, I am full of gratitude this Thanksgiving, content and not at all afraid of the future. Everything is possible when you believe in something.
These are the two American stories of gratitude that I heard on the radio just before Thanksgiving.
I listened and then I wrote my own tale of gratitude. It had to do, like the ones I had heard, with health, and loving somebody, with what I believe that gets me through the long nights, with a vague sense of possibility, that everything is going to be all right, of hope, I suppose, that accompanies all our lives like a sense of something fine arriving from the distance, something good, hope, that’s it.
In the distance, it’s God you are discerning, or nature, or whatever it is you believe in that animates your life. This is what you are hearing bearing down on you:
it’s going to be all right.
is going to be just fine.
Have a wonderful holiday.
james stone goodman
united states of america
Kristallnacht Night of Broken Glass
November 9, 1938
Surely this is the beginning of the end
Outside they are howling in the street
Broken glass everywhere
My business destroyed
Humiliated and assaulted
Remember this night
Official beginning of war against the Jews
Goebbels’ pogrom; the threat
Of international Jewry
Synagogues destroyed 101
Businesses destroyed 7,500
Jewish souls arrested 26,000
Sent to camps
What kind of threat are we?
To the Future –
They took our property our livelihood
It began with greed
Emptied out into evil
It has a face
Passive and blank
A hollow nation
Do not respect the darkness
Three days after Kristallnacht, on November 12, Goering called a meeting of the top Nazi leadership to assess the damage and discuss strategy. Goering, Goebbels, Reinhard Heydrich, Walter Funk and other high Nazi officials.
The intent of this meeting: shift responsibility for Kristallnach to the Jews, and to create strategy using the events of Kirstallnacht to promote a series of antisemitic laws designed to remove Jews from the German economy.
An interpretive transcript of this meeting is provided by Robert Conot, Justice at Nuremberg, New York: Harper and Row, 1983:164-172:
“Gentlemen! Today’s meeting is of a decisive nature,’ Goering announced. “I have received a letter written on the Fuehrer’s orders requesting that the Jewish question be now, once and for all, coordinated and solved one way or another. Since the problem is mainly an economic one, it is from the economic angle it shall have to be tackled.”
“[The Holocaust] was not only genocide, but it was also the greatest theft in history.”
– Natan Sharansky, Chairman of Jewish Agency, NY Times, May 3, 2011.
The Maqam Project Book of Healing Stone’s Salon
The holidays early this year. Earliest since 1899 I heard. We did the holidays elegantly at the Covenant House where we meet for special events. This year I was joined by some of my young co-players, members of Brothers Lazaroff rocking roots band with whom I do the Salon at the Kranzberg Arts Center (October 8, Second Tuesdays, see www.neveshalom.org) and the Hanukkah Hullabaloo (this year Wednesday, December 4 at Plush).
After Yom Kippur, fly out to San Diego to help my daughter move. Came back to Louis on Thursday, a gig in the Sukkah Saturday night, off to NYC on Sunday to do the gigs with Zackie.
Sunday afternoon direct to the Brooklyn book festival where my other daughter’s magazine had a booth and I ran into my cousin and listened to one of my favorite poets. What am I doing in New York? Magic. Recording Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus.
That night a rehearsal with some of New York’s finest working musicians in this form we are playing. Flute, violin, hand percussion, oud. We laid down some tracks, did a little recording, a good rehearsal. We rehearsed the book of Genesis.
I am working on a project with friends in New York City called The Maqam Project. My co-conspirators are Zach Fredman, formerly of St. Louis now rabbi of The New Shul in Manhattan, and his band called Epichorus. Zach conceived this project as an offering of his synagogue The New Shul. Each week we will post a piece on a variety of web sites.
We are working the maqams. A maqam is a Jewish-Arabic musical form, a musical figure, similar to a mode, that is played as a kind of structure over which one improvises. Maqam means Place, Hebrew cognate maqom.
In many of our middle eastern Jewish traditions, there is a maqam associated with every Torah portion. I have been writing poetry to the maqams of the Torah for the last four years.
The maqams are patient, inwardly drawn, they are roomy enough for poetry. We worked the concept of the give-and-take between music and poetry. We recorded everything, video and audio. We recorded all over New York City, some in performance at homes in Chelsea, in the Village, some in Washington Square Park, some in a studio in Dumbo near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, some underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, a few in a music store dense with hanging instruments in the West Village.
Generally we grabbed a piece of a tune, demonstrating the maqam with a deconstructed fragment of a longer piece, laid out a few taksim kind of improvisations, found a little groove to accompany me then I rise to give over the poetry.
After some starts and stops, we entered the groove and it felt good, good to live there. The pieces I wrote from Genesis are generally a little longer than the other pieces I’ve prepared, so I divided many of them up into meaning segments. Two at the most, none of the pieces are that long.
I started writing these pieces about four years ago. I posted the more refined pieces two years ago, in November of 2011, on various web sites calling it small alef poetry. There are about 127 pieces on my blog in the small alef poetry category. This is the first one in the series.
Then begin over
Start this time with gratitude
You are alive
This is what I heard
When I stood at the graves
And asked for help
This is what I was given
And this is what
Small alef poetry;In the Beginning
The Maqam Project:
Back to Louis and we begin rehearsing for Stone’s Salon, another collaboration that came out of the Book of Healing.
I recently released a CD, my seventh; this one includes a booklet of poems because the project began as poetry. Healing poetry I call it because the pieces were originally written for friends who were going through a tough vigil with a family member. I put together a chapbook, a small book of poetry and stories, to read to a loved one by bedside.
I had given this piece, Book of Healing, to a friend who plays in the band Brothers Lazaroff. I had done another project with Brothers Lazaroff: during Hanukkah, the last two years, Brothers Lazaroff have hosted a performance art form — live music, poetry, hip hop, latkes prepared on stage, featuring a piece I wrote — a real scene at a music venue in the city called Off Broadway.
It was well attended both years and such a hot performance that we went into the studio and recorded the piece; words, music, electronics, eleven musicians, it’s spectacular. It’s called Eight Nights. Both CDs are available on www.bandcamp.com.
When my friends returned from their sad vigil, Brothers Lazaroff had some musical pieces that somehow matched my written pieces. How that worked I cannot say; if you had asked me before I launched in, I would have said this couldn’t be. I would not have put that music and my words together. For me, it was an unlikely convergence but what the heck.
It feels as if something important is happening: a spectrum of ages, races, backgrounds, something happens around Brothers Lazaroff and these projects I have participated in that is surprising, challenging, and beautiful. I love it when that happens and I know it’s rare.
Once I started working on the music, which were beats, a kind of electronic composition of samples done by two young beat makers one in St. Louis one in Boston, I found it almost effortless. We worked fast and efficiently and I loved the results. Brothers Lazaroff produced the CD, the beats from the beat maker Capo, myself adding a song/spoken word/rap format – a digital book of healing.
Our next project is an evening at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand, called Stone’s Salon, Second Tuesdays at the Kranzberg, on Tuesday, October 10th, 7 PM. It will be an evening of music, poetry, conversation, another mix through the spectrum of arts providers and arts recipients. We are mining the music and poetry mother lode. Our featured poet this session will be my friend Michael Castro.
A third Hanukkah Hullabaloo will take place at Plush, a three-floor venue in the city at 3224 Locust, Wednesday night, December 4.
It feels to me as if we are conjunctions; we are linking together nouns that do not frequently find their way to each other. We meet over music and poetry, story and spoken word, jazz and klezmer and hip hop. We find we belong together.
I Love You With All My Broken Heart
A Blessing for the Chag
I was sitting with the truthful linguist, the Gerer, just before he was nifter, er dead, it must have been ‘04, maybe ‘05.
The Sukkah is a chuppah, he opened with, we wedded G*d on the way out of Egypt. I am the Holy One who marries you, he chanted quoting Vayikra 22, then he chanted the prayer Who spreads out a sukkah of peace over us. The truthful linguist stopped and cocked his head sideways, spreads out means to choose a portion, a part of the whole, he said. G*d is wholeness itself, and part of wholeness. I dwell with the partial, I dwell with the lowly with the humble, he was singing again, quoting Isaiah 57.
Who is a whole person? He was quoting the Book of Splendor now — me, the one with a broken heart. His voice ascended. Wherever G*d dwells there is wholeness. G*d makes whole out of half. Who spreads the sukkah of peace over us? He spread out his arms like he was saying come to poppa.
He was bringing down the idea now to its resting place, his voice settled into a whisper, a low hum heard from one corner of the room to the other.
G*d sets aside the partial, the inner point that is everywhere, the part that is all; a few of us among the many, the wounded, the sick among the well, the partial among the whole.
He closed with this: Everywhere, everywhere G*d dwells — is whole.
James Stone Goodman
• From the Sefat Emet Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter,
the rebbe of Ger (near Warsaw)
Sukkah: temporary booth of the wilderness
chuppah: wedding canopy
In every event of significance, every catastrophe, every jubilation, there are a certain number of stories — thirty six, thirty, one, ten thousand, thirty six stories — that define the catastrophe.
The defining story for me of Nine Eleven is the story of the fire fighters of New York City, and a particular account of those fire fighters given by a Board member of the Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Vena Drennan (sp?). Her husband Capt. John Drennan was killed on the job in 1994.
She was interviewed by Noah Adams on All Things Considered (National Public Radio), this is what I heard listening to it on the radio (pardon mistakes, I transcribed it myself):
Mrs. Drennan: We went down to the firehouse which is below Fourteenth Street. I went to the wake of one of the firefighters. They have a sense of optimism.
They had decided to pray to my husband who they feel still watches over them. And they said, Capt. Drennan — show us where the eleven [missing] members are. And one young one said, I knew just where to put my shovel. Ladder Five is so comforted that they were able to find five of their own and return their bodies to their families and honor their deaths in a proper and magnificent funeral.
ATC: Mrs. Drennan — are you saying that those on the scene believed that the spirit of your late husband helped them to find those who were fallen?
Mrs. Drennan: Yes, you lose your religion after a large crisis but you sure get a spirituality about it.
ATC: There’s a photograph of something you don’t often see in the magazines in the recent US News and World Report, of firemen carrying a dead man, the Reverend Mychal Judge fire department chaplain you know him, sixty eight years old . . .
Mrs. Drennan: He was one of my best friends . . .
ATC: As you know he was administering last rites and was killed by falling debris.
Then she told the story of Mychal Judge and how he had comforted her after the death of her husband, and how he had remembered her on her anniversary every year thereafter.
Mrs. Drennan: When he prayed, it was the most blessed thing,
you felt that his prayers were a direct hotline to God.
ATC: He was a Franciscan priest.
Mrs. Drennan: Mychal was administering last rites to a firefighter that had just been hit by a body of a woman. People were falling out of those towers so they wouldn’t burn.
In the midst of this here he is kneeling and giving last rites. The firefighters when they realized he had perished they carried him up to St. Peters church and they laid out his body on the altar and they put his rosaries in his hand and they pinned on his fire department badge and they prayed over him. Later that night they wouldn’t let his body go to the morgue.
They brought him to their firehouse and they laid him in the back room and the friars across the street of St. Francis of Assisi came and they lit candles and said a vigil.
He was beloved by every firefighter in the city and the fire department will grieve many many years for the loss of his beautiful life.
There are a number of stories that define an event — thirty six, thirty, maybe one, ten thousand — and one of them, one of those stories, may be the one that saves us.
This is the story that is saving me.
Give ear O heavens and I will speak
and let the earth hear the words of my mouth
May my teaching drop like the rain
my utterance flow like the dew
like storm winds upon vegetation
and like raindrops upon blades of grass. [Deut. 32:1ff.]
Remember the days of old.
G*d is a rock
all G*d’s paths are just.
From his hands Moses picked out a lightning bolt
that had burned itself into his flesh
he threw it to the ground
Give ear O heavens
let the earth hear the words of my mouth
he plied a thunderbolt out of his teeth
and buried it in the ground,
he began to teach:
G*d was like an eagle
arousing its nest
hovering over its young
spreading its wings
touching and not touching. [Rashi on 32:11]
returning to the nest
not to disturb its young,
covering in flight [Ibn Ezra on 32:11]
G*d covers us flying flying.
Blessing dwells and awakens the life force within
rooted we are
inwardliness – awakening
heaven and earth
the stories and the written text.
let the teachings drop like rain [Deut. 32:2]
bringing forth fruit,
Remember the days of old.
So you got fat [Deut. 32:15]
G*d would have suckled you with honey from a rock
and oil from a flinty stone
butter of cattle milk of sheep
fat of lambs
but you became thick
and kicked –
Well, you can always come back.
Return, O Israel.
kick and drink the good wine from the grape
unfermented blood of the grape.
Give up your non-G*ds
You’re a generation of reversals. [Deut. 32:20]
Who is a rock
who is perfect
whose paths are just –
what is the climbing vine
the fructifying rain.
Remember the days of old
understand the years of generation to generation.
Return O Israel to your G*d [Hosea 14:2]
I will heal their disloyalty
I will love them freely. [Hosea 14:5]
they can always
Moses spoke all the words of this poem
into the ears of the people
Moses and his successor
Hoshea son of Nun.
Then G*d spoke to Moses on that very day
apply your hearts to all these words [Deut. 32:46-47]
for it is not an empty thing
it is your life.
An angel came to me and brought Torah Haazinu
Maqam* Bayat (D E half-flat F G)
*The Maqam gives a distinct musical character to every Sabbbath.
Oh These Days of Awe a Day at a Time
The transformative days of awe preoccupation
I will turn away from here and approach There [Rashi]
Teshuvah – to be unstuck.
Not arrival but journey
Not destination but pathway
Not there but here
The story is told with the daily transformation in the
The moon is the image [Zohar Emor and Kuntres Uma'ayan Ma'amar 18]
The growth arc this time of year
The moon when it’s hidden at the beginning of the month.
Go outside and watch the dim image of the new moon Tishrei
We draw something new into the world
Something entirely new
On Rosh Hashanah it’s hidden
Like the moon
And not revealed fully understood
Until the full moon of Sukkot the 15th of the month,
Make a tekiah with the shofar awakening something new [Ps.81:4]
It may not clarify right away
Each day it reveals more
Like the moon
From the first to the fifteenth of the month
This is the time of the season
To pay attention
The growth arc this time of year.
This year is the year of the good intention
The year of Iyyun
The year of Ayin and Dalet
Iyyun – focus
This year: the focus on the elusive dalet
The fourth letter
The door the doorway the passage the opening.
You are the door opening the delet
Moving through and into
Opening pausing in the passageway
The words this year are the noble prepositions
To toward through –
The doorway the next
Let all the signs
The stars too
All the angels and energies totems and intentions
Conspire to be the year of the good intention
The focused action
May it be the year –
It is supposed to be.
Ever year A prayer for the future.
We meet the challenge of the future
With more than a wish –
With more than happy new year.
I give to you a gift, an intention, an understanding between us
We are trying to know something –
The transformational images
We share these Days of Awe,
5774 since the creation of the world
A day at a time.
james stone goodman
On Nitzavim You Are Standing
the sedra of 9/11/2001
We are standing today
all of us
the big shots
wives and sweethearts
–and the stranger
that is within
all of us
before Hashem The Name
–from the hewers of wood
to the carriers of water
all of us
To cut a deal with You
So — You will remember the deal
You cut with our ancestors
eager covenant cutters.
But not for us alone
do You keep this agreement
not for us who are here
but for those of us
who are not here
This deal that I set before you this day
(You know which one I mean)
it is not too far from you
that you should say
who shall go for us
nor is it too hard for you
that you should say
who will do this for us.
It is not in heaven
and it is not hidden
and it is not distant
but right here
under your nose
it is in your mouth
and in your heart
it is sitting next to you on the bench
waiting for the bus
it is standing on the corner
in front of Starbuck’s
watching for the light to change.
that you should do it.
I have placed before you
the life and the good
the death and the not-good.
walk like God
do the right things
the simple things and the complex things
figure out what you can for yourself
and be wise together
then you will multiply
and God will grow you
and bless you.
But if you don’t listen
and fly away
I tell you
I surely tell you
you will be lost
and your days will not be lengthened
on the land.
So I call heaven and earth together
to witness for you and against you
I have placed life and death before you
blessing and curse.
glue yourself to God
for God is your life
and the length of your days –
God promised your ancestors
God promised them
Tell ‘em about the dream
Tell ‘em about the dream
Mahalia Jackson yelling at Dr King
That moment he pushed the prepared text away
Took up the language of a speech he had given at Cobo Hall
These people don’t know it, said
Clarence B. Jones
They’re about to go to church.
– March on Washington
August 28 1963
I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime.
The most important thing I learned in my life is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems,
the most urgent the most disgraceful and the most tragic problem is silence.
–Rabbi Joachim Prinz, preceded Dr. King
March on Washington, Aug. 28, 1963
I took my burdens — my self consciousness, my separation, my isolation, my flight, fear, especially my fear — everything that separates me from G*d and all I love the most, and I laid them on the shoulders of the animal. On the back of the beautiful yoked beast I gave up my fear, and I watched as the animal disappeared into the hills.
I lifted up my hands and said, to the trees, to the sky, to the stones, to the dirt, to the dirt especially, to the mud: Is this the way it works? From a distance I heard, Yes, this is precisely the way it works.