I am matzah
Discourse of the prison house
Big Tent #46
We skipped to the most known least mined of R. Gamaliel’s three things: the matzah. Of all the stories of quick release my friend from the former Soviet Union reminding me in the refusenik days preparing the matzah in the middle of the night so they would not be eavesdropped on in other parts of the Soviet concretion of an apartment building it’s the subversive aspect of the matzah that moves for me most now.
It’s the Jungian symbology of this image of inner life (Zohar: bread of faith, better to describe the inscrutable) this image-symbol-metaphor of inner life that in a reverse Kohenic sense (think: Koan) folding back into the Levitical pure-impure dynamic and re-fashioning it as a continuum, a continuum in the sense that matzah becomes chametz, matzah is chametz in arrested development, the ingredients of matzah will become chametz if not for this if not for that and the implication that you are what you are becoming, you are becoming what you are, the thought that you have been that freedom you seek all your life in potential, that within each of us is the source the seed the history of a freedom-becoming person and remember our holy –
R. Levi Y. of Berditchev who posed the koan-kohen question: When does freedom begin? It’s infinitely regressible who taught you what, who was it that gave it to whom who gave it to you that spawned an act a gesture bold or subtle that erupted or evolved into a freedom-taking act, freedom-baking act, who taught whom back before way before any of us became free who planted those seeds through how many generations of retro-vision that in your life on this day this season this year expresses in an act of freedom-taking that you cannot claim as your own why would you want to when you have legions behind you who have contributed to your act of freedom now, and this is what R. Levi Y. of B. is reminding you when he asks you to think, now answer: When does freedom begin? It begins now.
It began then, regressing back to that paradigm act when M. walked out of his complacency and interceded in that scrum of bullying. And who planted what in him that he moved that way, that day? His mother? The midwives? Someone.
Think it through think it back thank them all and when you move out of your complacency this year you are giving something back that you didn’t earn you didn’t ask for you received the bounty of your wonderful-terrible history and the whole of your humanity with their hands at your back pushing in the most gentle way: Go ahead, you can do this you can make this freedom, you can do this thing, we are behind you.
The holy Passover
Passover in the Jail-house
Big Tent Story #44
We pushed on and discussed the three images. With everything that resonated for them they responded with a kind of vibrational hum from within their chests that moved through the room like the foot working the bass pedals on a Hammond B-3 organ like the thrum of locusts when what they heard settled within them a low hum that went through a room suggesting this pertains to me. Hummm.
Pesach, we discussed the Rashi that God jumps in jumps out of our story at least that’s the way it feels and the secret of the Pesach is the secret Moses whispered to us before we left: jumping in jumping out in the God’s eye view of things it’s all the same: I am always with you. Hummm.
Then we turned to maror and the mirror we look into each day a gaze into our personal narrowness I explained the dual form and the hint that what we are looking at is ourselves. In the prison house there isn’t much these guys can do about the external freedom but the inner life is theirs, it belongs to them and whatever it is this year that is no longer large enough to hold them it’s time to leave that narrows and that’s what it means to get free, but these are words and ideas, we make the talk-talk then we go about spending the year getting free. Hummm.
We saved the matzah talk for last. What is matzah I opened with, clean out the inner puffiness that separates us from God and all we love the most. It’s lean and it pure and it’s the experience of clarity and commitment and it’s the emptying out of ideas and behaviors that no longer serve, the bread of faith by the Zohar that we are what we are becoming– we are becoming what we are — we have it within us to be what we are growing toward. Hummm.
We had come a long way in an hour and at the end of the session the guys took some time to reflect on what we said and to make it [more] personal. One guy who has studied but without a teacher so he pronounces everything in his own way said the Hebrew word that means “remember.” Yes I made a quick inner calculation that word goes with another word that means to keep or protect. To protect what we learn, remember and protect, write it down I said let’s take the next week and write down what we talked about today, the implications. Then you’ll remember it better, you will protect it write it down and bring it to the next session.
They are wary about writing anything down it’s a matter of trust. Someone may see it who could use it against them but we are getting over that. We are expressing ourselves more through writing. We are getting over our silence. That’s one of the senses of freedom we discussed: we are getting over what hasn’t worked for us. We are getting over it. We are getting free in the ways we can. Hummm.
The Gangsters of Detroit
Or the Haggadah Pulls It All Together
Some time later I was studying with S but I was dreaming about telling the story and when it’s told the necessity to be understood, from the Aramaic translation of Yonatan, especially the holy telling of the Haggadah and the Maggid section in the Haggadah the telling and the n-g-d root that is lurking within both those words, that sense that there is a story and then there is what the story is about.
Then on Thursday night we were talking about the telling of our own stories and every time we tell it we squeeze it for more what it means. There is the story and there is the telling and with every telling there is more truth, more truth squeezed through the telling, the telling and the thing itself. The more we tell it the more we know of what the story is about, the thing itself, so the root is somewhat dual in that sense of corresponding to: n-g-d, and I am loving this root for its essential correspondence of one thing to another and its hiddenness within every story the thing that the story is about and they are not the same they correspond and we tell it and tell it to coax out the deeper reality(ies).
One night when we were playing music we made that groove where I started talking about my aunt who was married to a gangster and she was the funniest person I had known. Until I met her sister who was living up in the Catskills, and she was the funniest person I knew and by then I was grown up, almost thirty, so my sense of funny had changed I suppose and every time I visited her it was like I was the audience sitting on her divan and she did twenty minutes that was so hysterical I could hardly sit but this was just the way she talked. Maybe she didn’t have anybody to talk to; she lived alone after all in a tiny little place in Monsey.
I told her I thought she was now the funniest person I had every met, funnier than my aunt (she wasn’t my blood aunt but I called her my aunt and she didn’t have much that kind of family) and her sister who I never called my aunt said you think I’m funny wait ‘til you meet my son. I didn’t want to meet her son because he was a professional comedian in what was left of the borscht belt and I figured it was just a lot of shtick and it would be embarrassing.
On one of my trips up that way she made a call and said he’ll be right over. Oh my God, she called her son and he was coming over to meet me and I didn’t look forward to it at all I’m going to have to sit here and listen to his routines and pretend that it’s entertaining that old shtick and he came over nice looking guy a little older than me and he did about twenty minutes that was even funnier than his mother and way funnier than his aunt (who I called my aunt) and I was laughing so hard I could hardly stand it. Maybe this is the way they talk to each other all the time I had never heard such funny stuff in my life.
Some years passed and the gangster (who I took to calling my uncle as he was married to who I called my aunt and he was not connected so well to his own people) died and my aunt moved back to Detroit to be with her son (he wasn’t actually her son) and I had heard that she was ill and in a nursing home of some kind so I went to find her.
It was Detroit and some time in May I think still in the interminable winter that seized Detroit every year in those days cold and dark nothing growing no organic matter at all as far as I could tell but I did find a lone crocus grown in Canada at the corner grocery and I bought it and went searching for my aunt.
She was sharing a room with another lady and I swear I stared at them both and couldn’t tell which one was my aunt she had diminished so. They both were asleep I guess they call it and no doubt full of the drugs of quietude. It was her hair that gave her away to me. I never in my memory identified anybody by their hair this way but she was so different looking that it was her hair that gave her away.
I sat next to her bedside and she woke up and started talking to me in Yiddish. She thought I was my father and she kept calling me Harry and speaking to me in Yiddish and it was delicious being my father for a while as he had passed some years before.
I was my father for as long as she stayed awake and we talked about all the old people that she was remembering from when she was married the first time to Henry and had a store and so did my Dad and when she went back to sleep I left. I stayed somewhere near over night and came back for the last visit and she awakened again and spoke to me as my Dad and the crocus I had left there had bloomed. I kissed her on her head and said goodbye.
I told this story as we settled into the groove when we were playing music because her next husband – who my mother called a gangster — his name was another word for teaching in our language and that made the crazy segue to the last piece that S had taught this year something new that tied everything together and came from Onkelos who translated all the Hebrew into Aramaic and made the translation of the n-g-d verb into the Aramaic for teaching.
It wasn’t enough to tell it you had to tell the story in such a way that taught it so if you told it and it wasn’t understood it was not enough or if you told it in a different language it was not enough it had to be taught it had to be understood it had to be a teaching with real dialogue.
That was new to me and pulled it all together and after I had finished telling the story of visiting my aunt and all of them of so many years ago I felt a great satisfaction pulling it all together as I was about to make my freedom trip so I talked this piece out loud then I wrote it and we settled deeper into the music as throughout all this telling I had not stopped playing quietly on my instrument as if everyone were visiting me in my living room though it wasn’t.
In the end I mentioned that my uncle who was a gangster, his name means teaching, that’s the part that pulls it all together and why I called this piece the story of Passover and it’s important somehow in the deeper sense and I won’t say any more as who knows the Feds may still be interested as they swept down on my aunt after her husband died trying to track his untraceable assets and it took me ten years to tell the story at all much less mention any names. So I won’t. Besides, I’m not so clean myself if you know what I mean.
The holy Passover, 2016 from the Detroit Stories
The Mystery Tale of The Sarajevo Haggadah in Dm — Bb
I am a book a telling
the tale, the story
this, then, the telling of the telling
distinguished I am by illuminations
drawn onto sienna red background
blue foreground, blue borders
I am the tale that begins with Creation
ending with the present
I am called Haggadah
which means a telling
the most celebrated Haggadah in the world
one of the most famous books in the world
I am the Sarajevo Haggadah.
I was created for a wealthy Castilian family in Barcelona
It is assumed I left Spain with the expulsion in 1492
then to Italy.
How I crossed the Adriatic to Bosnia Hercegovina
I am 107 pages long hand written on vellum [calf skin]
similar to a Sefer Torah, the holy Bible
the first 34 pages are miniature paintings
painted on one side only
no bleeding through
my colors are bold blues sienna reds bright copper
the other 58 pages are hand written text
songs, poems, Biblical passages
the story of the story
told on Passover.
From marginal notations added to the text
I reveal that I was sold in northern Italy in August, 1510
then examined by an Italian ecclesiastical censor in 1609.
I crossed the Adriatic some time between then and 1894 —
when I was sold by the Jozef Kohen family
to the Sarajevo National Museum
for $7,000 —
In 1991 it was estimated I am worth $700 million.
In World War II, the Nazis came looking for me.
First they carried off 80 percent of Sarajevo’s 12,000 Jews
then they came looking for its soul.
The Catholic director of the National Museum deceived them
a Croat Jozo Petricevic and a Muslim librarian Dervis Korkut
hid me on a mountain
they buried me under an apple tree
I am I am I am one of the most beautiful books
in the world.
I am beautiful because I am colorful
I am old
I am beautiful because
I am an unlikely survivor.
I survived with part of my story
the telling of the telling is somewhat known.
There is nothing as dear
to me as survival.
I am the tale – without the telling, I am nothing
with the telling – I am everything. I am the secret of survival
the telling of the telling
freedom of freedom in freedom.
I have a hand-drawn quality
my words inscribed in bold Mediterranean posture
I am 650 years old more or less
my story however begins with Genesis
I conclude with the present —
that is, the whole story.
During the Bosnian War of 1990s
I was hidden then too
an explosion flooded a basement next to my hiding place
again I was saved.
I am presently kept in a bank vault in Sarajevo
I am wrapped in white tissue
I am in a sealed blue metal lock box.
In 2003, I was revealed to the public
in a secure climate controlled room
with documents — from the Bosnian Orthodox
from the Muslims from Catholic Bosnia —
a project of hope sponsored by the United Nations.
From Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina
we can live together
we used to live together for centuries
let’s hope we can live together in the centuries ahead of us.
This country is divided in so many ways
only the opening of this room
brought them all together with one idea.
I am a symbol
from the first Golden Age in Spain
I survived into a 2nd Golden Age
the little Jerusalem of Bosnia
I am a much more important story
than the world knows –
With this, I have given you
the telling of the telling
now you know.
Among all the mystery tales of my text
A la una yo naci
I was born at 1 o’clock
a las dos m’engrandeci
at two I grew up
a las tres tomi amante
at three I took a lover
y a las cuatro me cazi
and at 4 I married
alma vida y corazon
soul, life, and heart.
The future belongs to the future
what to make of the past
tearful triumphant romantic
night memory —
a whole life told in hours
an entire world told in stories
and always the great story
every thing contained in some thing
an entire life told in hours
a history in stories.
When the Jews leave a city,
the city is finally dead
The remnant – O God
preserve the remnant
so that no one will ever say
these holy prayers have perished
the ones who spoke them –
james stone goodman
Shomeir Yisrael, O guardian of Israel
Project them, preserve the remnant
Alma Vida y Corazon
A La Una Yo Naci
Just before Passover that year, the holiday changed character for me. I visited with a group of prisoners in an institution about an hour and a half drive from my home. I had been writing to this group for about three years. That’s how it started: I sent teachings to prison.
Who are these people? I had to find out. The prison system is often difficult to penetrate. I made a contact. Can I come visit?
“Oh yes,” the chaplain said, “We have a Jewish group that studies together once a week. They are waiting for you. They’ve been reading your materials.”
There was a load of equipment in the chapel for services and such -– amplifiers, microphones, six or seven decent guitars, a banjo — I grabbed a guitar and waited for my students.
At 1 PM they started coming in from the yard. There were 13 or 14 men, this was the group that studied together every week. They were currently learning a midrash on the book of Proverbs, one of their leaders had a yeshivah background.
Not all of them were Jewish but all were serious and well informed. “It’s prison,” one of them said to me, “we have time.”
We sat around a folding institution type table from 1 to 3:30. Nobody got up, not once, no one went to the bathroom, no one left the table to get a drink of water. Occasionally I added to the groove by picking up the guitar and singing a song, but mostly we sat and learned. We discussed a group of texts that I brought with me. I was allowed to bring papers but not books.
I brought teachings that presented the images of Passover in an almost entirely inward way, as if the freedom celebration was a ceremony of inner liberation, as if the story of Egypt and the Exodus was the story of escape from inner bondage, as if all the freedom lore of Pesach was a story ultimately of inner liberation. It began with Mitzrayim as narrows (Lam.1:3) and as a dual form, embodied, like ears like eyes like lips like hands like ourselves. I played a little Misirlou (Dick Dale version) for spice.
“It pertains to me,” one of the men said wistfully. All the heads wagged in agreement.
When we were done, I realized where we had been the last 2 1/2 hours. We had left our inner limitations, a place too small for us now. Nothing we studied was theoretical and I never felt the words before quite like this: in every generation, each person should feel as if he or she personally were released from Egypt.
We were talking freedom non-theoretical; what obstructs it, how we carry our narrows around with us, how we might go about becoming free in the real sense we can. All of us are prisoners of something. How we become free is an inside job.
Big Tent: the next step is to tell the stories.
I get to know people but I may not know names. Thirty years ago I began taking my little kids to and from their [neighborhood] schools. I often passed a corner where there is a crossing guard, hired by the school district I assume, a man of many jobs it was clear to me because crossing is an hour or two job morning and afternoon and then I observed him hurrying off to his next location.
He drove a bike in those days, in all weather he drove a bike and he did it with abandon. He flew down the road on that bike, always toward the city. I enjoyed watching him sail down the road east-wards.
In recent years, I saw him less often but he was still employed I assume in the neighborhood as I would see him walking through the cut-through in front of my house that leads to the Metro Link. Also toward the city. So he is taking the light rail now but he was working somewhere in the neighborhood, he must have known people in our neighborhood he’s been around here for so long and if you noticed him you noticed as I did that he was dependable. He was crossing kids on that busy corner in all weather then off he zoomed on his bike. If you employ people, you want to employ a guy like him.
He is a black man. I am a white man. We both have emphasized the gesture of mutual acknowledgement all these years in enthusiastic ways, but I am in a car, he is stationary on a corner and though we always exchanged greetings through the rolled down window of my car as I was retrieving or returning my children, we didn’t actually converse. It was always a greeting with verve; I looked for him he looked for me I could tell.
We have never had a conversation because in all these years I have never bumped into him walking. Here I might pursue a distraction and follow the notion how come I am always in a car in a neighborhood not too large too walk around in and especially now that my children are grown this particular vicinity should be my stomping grounds in the sense that the idiom was created I should be stomping around in it who needs a car within this five-six block radius where I hang out, sit in the coffee shop, read and write meet people, etc. My office is a coffee shop I have an office but I prefer the coffee shop.
It’s been thirty years and we have never had a conversation. Until this morning.
On this particular morning, I walked over the cut-through to go to the gym to be tortured by the trainer I pay to keep my knees in shape so I can run up and down the stairs in my palatial estate. I am recently a first-time grandfather and I intend to chase baby Harry around my house as much as he wants but my knees have been in minor rebellion these last years and I thought some serious pump-iron might help me in the future. So far – it’s working.
This morning as I was coming back from torture and approaching the cut-through from the other direction, coming toward me the way he is always walking when I have seen him in recent years (toward the Metro Link) was the man who I have been exchanging sign language with over the last thirty years.
Here I might follow another thread and write about how many black men assume you don’t recognize them I have had this feeling myself I am not that recognizable unless I am dressed up or wearing a silly hat and I can always tell from a distance on approach whether somebody who should recognize me recognizes me at all. I could see on approach he made no gesture probably accustomed to not being recognized by a white man in the neighborhood of course I recognized him right away and hollered out first to let him know I am happy to see him.
I stopped on the sidewalk in the middle of the cut-through and we exchanged the obvious: how are you, good to see you again, don’t see you much anymore, how you doing, are you still riding that bike (he was now and again but not as much as he used to), and then I said: you know, we have known each other for (I made a quick calculation) thirty years but we don’t know each others’ names. That’s wrong. What’s your name? I’m Dan, he said. I’m Jim, I said.
We greeted each other on that bridge like old friends because we are. We didn’t know each others’ names for all the wrong reasons not only the racial divide but the economics of it (he has a bike I have a car) he has a bunch of jobs I have a bunch of jobs too but mine are flexible enough that I spent a lot of time driving my kids to and from school and my jobs (maybe) paid better and he probably doesn’t know that I think of him as my friend I have known him for so long and our greetings have been so mutually effusive (we made grand gestures of greeting at every sighting in all weather during all seasons) this constitutes friendship for me in some contemporary refiguring of the term and I might be distracted here and follow a trail about friendship and I don’t what it means for him but the clue has been we have paid attention to each other for a long time now and to me he is my friend.
If you live long enough, you make friends of all kinds you redefine friend and whatever we are to each other it is something especially to me (I am shy). This morning – we spoke.
On the floor called “the hole” reserved for disciplinary segregation, I can visit and the corrections officers put me in a room where lawyers and psychologists and others who have occasional time with the inmates meet. It’s a small room, open to where the corrections officers sit so they can see me at all times. Sometimes they ask me to sit in the doorway, sometimes they ask the inmate to sit in the doorway. It’s an open door room and there is an official looking computer and a screen and a corner of table between myself and the person I am speaking with so we can lay out some papers or a book.
I asked for the fellow I have been visiting for about six months now and the corrections officer said, sure but he’ll have to be cuffed. He came out with handcuffs on; there had been some disciplinary business with him though I can’t imagine what, he is so well behaved with me. Polite. I didn’t ask.
While we were sitting and talking another fellow was brought out of the same lock-down (the hole) also cuffed but not nearly as compliant. There were ten corrections officers assisting with his transfer from one section of the floor to another and he was hollering. First he went limp on the floor so it was difficult to pick him up. He’s a big man. A few more officers came up from other floors and he became more agitated and let out a soliloquy of intelligible complaints about his treatment and his life behind bars; loud but in complete sentences and well reasoned.
By this time he scurried and was dragged just outside the open door where we were sitting. We continued talking about the material we were discussing from the book between us even though he was making a major fuss less than ten feet away. You get used to this here, said the fellow I was speaking with, then he described in more detail that guy making all the fuss.
He’s mentally ill, he said, and he filled in for me some of the things he did back on the floor. He’s in the hole, which means he is alone in a cell, but he makes a lot of noise. He’s been incarcerated off and on since he was a teen-ager and he looked to be in his late thirties. He had many tattoos, some of which ran up his neck almost onto his face.
A lot of the guys in here are mentally ill, said the fellow I was speaking with, the book of Torah spread on the table between us, the guy hollering on the floor just outside the door, still we continued our conversation. I would say about a third of the guys here are mentally ill, a third are criminals, and a third like me. What do mean like you? I asked him. I could be helped if anyone would really take the time. He laughed.
There’s no help here, he said, if I’m not careful I’ll become a criminal. Or crazy. Like that guy.
I looked at the guy who was now even closer to me. They had picked him up finally and strapped him into some kind of mobile restraining chair. Let me talk to the psychologist he hollered. He assumed I was a psychologist, sitting in that room, and he started to laugh and then he began to holler a mad explosion of sound. I could see him close enough now to read one of his tattoos, the one on his neck.
It read: Hard to kill.
Vision, part 1
R. Gamaliel, R. Eliezer b. Azariah, R. Yehoshua, and R. Akiva came to the Temple Mount they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies, they all burst into tears, except Akiva Akiva laughed. [Makkot 24b]
I saw the foxes on the narrow dirt roads of the upper Galilee inching my way along in a Spanish-built car directioning myself by intuition and finding my way to my destination. I passed near the grave of R. Yonatan ben Uziel. I saw the foxes, it was the week before Tisha B’Av and there was nothing in the obvious associations lost on me. The foxes were small, beautiful, car savvy, easily outrunning me on the car/foot/bike path darting in and out of openings in the foliage at the side of the road where they no doubt lived and thrived. Little foxes.
I felt neither the inclination to burst into tears or to have a particularly optimistic read on the future, though the Akiva laugh is always most meaningful to me as an invocation of neither via postiva or via negativa, just via ambiguosa. Who the hell knows what the foxes prefigure: you may as well laugh. They thought it was desolate, Akiva thought it was funny, George Moon thought it was desolate and funny, I think when presented with the sensory information, one may as well laugh.
I also feel the proximity between the laughing and the tears, to me they are right next to each other on the spectrum of human responses to existence when it is not a linear notion but a circular notion. Tears are sitting in one spot on the circle, right next to the tears the funny man and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and a moment later you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat, laughing. I spend a good deal of every day in both seats as do most of the people I love.
I recall the description of Bar Yochai, Akiva’s student: one eye smiling, one eye crying.
Akiva, I am sure, knew the prophecy from Zechariah 8:4ff, Old men and old women shall sit again in the streets of Jerusalem, each one with his staff in his hand because of great age. The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.
If so, don’t take this prefiguring of the foxes too seriously; better days are coming. Akiva of the long look.
Or perhaps what Akiva had was a real vision. He actually saw into the future and saw what Zechariah described happening; it wasn’t a matter of attitude or posture, it was Akiva gazing into the future and seeing so much restoration that the implication of the ruin brought by the foxes meant nothing to him. He might have been laughing at everyone’s limited imaginations. Behold the story of the foxes, drawn without much imagination, Akiva saw beyond that, eschewed homiletics, had confidence in the future and knew God provides. Relax, said Akiva, I saw it and quit making sermons. You’re boring me with your tears drawn from those cute little foxes.
Secret: every so often — what we have here – is a real vision.
These Are the Stories
Big Tent Series
Got a call to go to the jail-house to visit a particular inmate. Do you know him?
Oh yes, I know him. He used to come by the Thursday night group for recovering addicts. 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, 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.
Whoa, I said, sobriety is your religion now, I said, recovery. Get yourself to meetings. I’m not talking about church. 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, 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. God 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?
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 a foot away from him and I chanted some healing prayers naming him and his mother withholding nothing.
Thank you, he said, he thanked me again. Sing it again? He asked. I did. Several more times.
There was a group of people on my side visiting in their windows with their beloveds on the other side, all through the glass, with phones. Everyone got quiet. Some people had bowed their heads, some had tears in their eyes, all of them thanked me on my way out.
#32a These Are The Stories
These Are The Stories
Big Tent Series
The next time I saw Betzalel [we figured out that name on the first visit see Story #32] I had given him a Hebrew Bible in English translation soft cover. I put a note on the inside with the page number where Betzalel is mentioned in Exodus 31 and I highlighted the verses.
I went up to the cubicle.
How do you say it, and he tried to say Betzalel but it didn’t come out right.
In the Bible I gave you they call him Bezalel, with a z, 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 Betzalel 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, realizing he had been studying Hebrew somehow on his own in there and once again I betrayed my bias and how wrong I was to assume he had not entered deep into his name into this search he is on for meaning and he is a foot away separated by thick glass — we were talking by phones through the jail-house window — he is a black man I am east-west and when the keepers of the purse-strings asked me who are the people you see in the jail house are they white are they black are they jewish how completely irrelevant that is on so many levels and how many of the questioners know what a tzaddi is anyway?
Forgive me, I thought, I smiled 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 God.
james stone goodman
An American in Cuba
The streets are clean. People wore clean clothes. The white shirts, white white, and the blue shirts, not faded. I like to dress up. I was the one who wore a tasteful baby blue seersucker suit to Cuba. I notice things like clean shirts.
I know that in Cuba people do not have a lot of personal possessions. Where I live, if I see that many clean shirts I figure the individual has a lot of shirts. Not in Cuba. The word I heard often to describe the whole notion of personal possessions in Cuba, from Cubans: scarcity.
If I wanted to purchase a shirt in Cuba, for example, there was basically one. It was nice, a linen cotton blend with four pockets, but I saw the same version of the same shirt everywhere. Also with hats. There were a few straw hats for sale in every store, basically the same hat. They were cheap and, well, they looked it.
The shirt has a name. It’s a version of what is known in the region as Guayabera, also known as the wedding shirt. The version I saw most often in Cuba had four patch pockets and a vertical linear design of pleats on both sides of the middle buttons. There are several interesting theories of the origin of the shirt, some that originate in Mexico or Spain or Native peoples in the region, and some which go back several centuries.
There is scarcity in Cuba. Cubans need most everything, except for those items they do quite well making themselves, such as pharmaceuticals for their free health care system. They produce a lot of their own pharmaceuticals, but they still have problems securing the raw materials for some of their drug industry. The Embargo (el bloqueo).
The Embargo is blamed and I’m sure it’s true for much of the scarcity, but not all. In agriculture, for example, Cuba a lush island in the Caribbean that until recently imported 80 percent of its food, cannot blame all that scarcity on others. The Cuban vice minister of the economy and planning ministry reportedly said in February 2007 that 84 percent of the country’s food was imported. I was told they are presently importing about 60 percent of their food.
Their chicken comes from Canada. Frozen. A lot of trade comes from Canada, thus Canadians have a sweet deal on travel to Cuba. A Montrealer can spend a week in Cuba in a decent hotel for $700, flight included, one of the benefits of trading with Cuba.
Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba supplied the Eastern Bloc with all the sugar and rum they could consume in exchange for fertilizers to support Cuban agriculture. When the Iron Curtain came down, such support ended abruptly, starting a period the Cubans refer to as “the Special Period.” This is either irony, a good sense of humor, or a cruel joke on themselves; during the Special Period there was widespread malnutrition and the average Cuban lost twenty pounds between 1990 and 1994.
On the other hand, the scarcity of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides necessitated a kind of agro-ecology developed by something Cuba has no scarcity of: scientists. Cuba is a well educated country, it has 2 percent of Latin America’s population but 11 percent of its scientists. Fidel made education a priority and that is another proud feature of Cuban culture.
Venezuela bailed out Cuba on fertilizers, so there is an industrial agriculture again in exchange for the surplus of doctors that Cuba trains in its medical schools.
A Cuban engineer told me that under Fidel there was also little personal incentive for agriculture so agriculture suffered greatly. For example, he said, we taught the Vietnamese, in a similar condition as ourselves adjusting a Communist ideology, to produce coffee. Now we import our coffee from Vietnam.
The coffee was not great. My brother’s friend who was born in Cuba and left at the Revolution, sends his family living in Cuba Bustelo coffee, the same I buy at Straub’s and my daughter drinks from the bodegas in her neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s packaged in Miami. The best cup of Cuban coffee I had during our trip was in the airport in Miami on the way home. Best Cuban food too.
There is virtually no homelessness, Cubans are proud of that, no hunger, etc. Basic foods are rationed for next to nothing.
There’s a kind of dual economy in Cuba. There are even two currencies, so to speak, one for locals one for visitors. The local currency is supported by perks that is basically a rationing system.
The streets were also clean. There wasn’t a lot of garbage languishing about and I didn’t smell sewage. The streets smelled better in Havana than they do in New York City, for example, and a lot cleaner and I didn’t see people living on them as I do in all the warmer climates in the United States.
I saw few policemen and guns are well controlled. There is still some street scamming, but nothing like you run into if traveling to other Caribbean islands. In Cuba, one has to be careful not to buy ersatz Cuban cigars on the street. People will try to hustle tourists with cigar scams.
I saw little drug or alcohol abuse, and if there is, it is handled in the tiered Cuban health care system that operates through a series of health facilities in ascending complexity beginning in the neighborhood. Every neighborhood has a clinic that handles the basic health care, something more complicated may be referred to a clinic or hospital that specializes in heart, kidneys, digestive system, etc.
There appears to be zero tolerance for illicit drugs, and none were offered to me on the many strolls I took through the streets of Havana. If someone in a family has a problem with alcohol, it is usually handled in the neighborhood clinic and by engaging the whole family. Havana has an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night of the week.
There is a scarcity of affordable housing and it’s often too expensive for young people to live on their own, so there is often several generations living within one apartment or house. Newlyweds even live with their parents. We tend to marry young, one of our guides told us, we also divorce because it’s difficult living with your parents after you’re married (he was recently divorced).
Everyone seemed to have family who have left Cuba. This is a big problem for the future of Cuba; it’s an aging population. The problem from within is to keep its population on the island, its young people at home, the temptation for young people to live elsewhere is great. It’s a problem both from within and without; I heard Cubans blame the Embargo for this many times.
Cubans were quick to make the distinction between American policies and Americans. There seemed to be little animosity toward Americans, I heard this from everyone and it came up often in conversation. I believed it. But the great burden of the Embargo seems to be on everyone’s mind. I think the Cuban people feel the changes coming so quickly that a lifting of the omnipresent Embargo cannot be far behind.
Cuba is eager for the kind of individual incentive that they associate with the United States. There are already private clubs and restaurants and ways to engage in private enterprise that were not known ten, even five years ago. We visited some privately owned restaurants (paladares) and clubs that could have been located in any city of sophistication anywhere in the world.
I think the Cubans can taste the end of the Embargo and the release of Cuba to grow without the obstacles under which it has labored since the Revolution in 1959. It’s an island of startling beauty, history, potential. It longs to be released from the barriers from without. Cuba wants to keep its Cubans.
Everyone on the island seems to be poised to make a better living. There’s a spirit of independent enterprise. I picked up a few good ideas for retirement myself. Looking to hire a chicken.
James Stone Goodman
An American in Cuba