Early 21st Century
Linda showed up at the end of the gig and asked if I wanted to go on an adventure.
The oldest synagogue in New York City, someone bought it and turned it into a foundation and an artist’s studio. [she exaggerates but who cares]
It’s way downtown, way down on the lower East Side, she said, below the letters [Avenues A,B,C]. We took cabs. Jake the bass player came too, and Judah from Brooklyn, and Daniel the artist.
We found the street, carrying all our instruments, in the middle of the block, dark, set back behind a black metal gate. It certainly looks like a synagogue but it reads The Orensanz Foundation. What the heck is Orensanz. . . I mumbled.
The name of the two brothers who bought it, Linda said.
Standing out in front of its dark exterior on Norfolk street, waiting for someone to answer the buzzer, I was as cold as I have ever been in my entire life. No gloves, I hate it when my hands get cold. I felt as if I were standing naked on an ice flow. It was February, New York City, but it felt like February, Rejkavik. The temperature had plummeted forty degrees from afternoon to night that particular day, and my bones froze standing out in front of the Orensanz Foundation, midnight, after the gig on Fourteenth Street. We stood waiting on the street, in the dark, for someone to come from somewhere within the labyrinth of the dark edifice looming above us. Open the door.
There were handwritten notes attached to the gate: ring loud, I am within. Ring ring, no response, climbing he was through a series of ascending palaces of subterranean mist to reach land-level.
Ring ring. A light from within, a door opened and silhouetted in the doorway a man with a natty thin-brim hat. Cardigan sweater. Scarf.
He opened the front door, come into my office, he said. His office was to the right as we entered. I peeped to the left into the large empty room, the synagogue I guessed, it was dark but I could see a shadowy presence and its three story ascent in the darkness. On top a luminescent dome that glowed cerulean blue in the dark.
His accent was a combination of Latino, eastern European, Pee Wee’s Funhouse, I thought it was completely contrived and someone’s private joke. It sounded like one of my accents. In his office, large industrial space heaters hanging from the ceiling. Pictures on the walls of Sarah Jessica Parker’s wedding, who Mr. Orensanz referred to several times as one of his finest moments as landlord. I gathered he rented the space out to parties for New York’s hip elite. Poof Daddy was here last night. Poof Daddy was here last night, he said twice, great party. MTV loves it here.
Joke? I looked at Linda. No joke, Linda looked back at me. Joke? I looked at Judah. I have no idea, Judah looked back at me, shrugging his shoulders. Joke? I looked at Jake the bass player. Good joke, Jake looked back at me, great joke, fabulous joke.
Orensanz was describing his brother’s sculpture, for which the synagogue was purchased in order to house his studio.
Where is your brother now?
Paris. He went back to naming the celebrities who were having parties in his synagogue.
I snuck out of the office and into the dark synagogue to the left. The floors were wood and not refinished, as were the columns that ran the length of the room in two parallel rows. The columns were carved out of small facets in shapes that looked like fine tile-work, but it was not ceramic, it was wood, small carved facets of color carved out of the wood pillars. I realized that the entire ceiling and upper walls were formed out of these colorful miniaturized facets. The colors – magenta, scarlet, purple, yellow, and the dome a shimmering blue like God’s holy eyes.
There was no heat at all in the synagogue space. I unpacked my guitar and sat down on the steps that led up to the bimah. I began to play. First I played a couple of serpentine Ladino melodies, I switched to some oud-inspired improvisations, the notes of my instrument ascending slowly up into the dome space and raising a holy sweet savor to God’s nose, ears, eyes. For the second time that night, I began the love songs that make up the slow-hand Havdalah ceremony that I had recently learned for just these occasions, and by now the group who had been huddling in the office had followed the sound and wandered into the synagogue.
Mr. Orensanz the brother switched on a bank of what looked like make-up lights that ran in a row above the columns along two side walls and the rear wall of the synagogue. Not too much light, but enough to note the floors, the walls, the columns, the facets were original and not reconditioned, original structures, the empty floor a rough parquet unfinished, whose footprints?
Daniel the artist was examining the columns and the collusion of colors in the facets around the room. Everyone was walking slowly examining the shadowy recesses. Jake the bass player unpacked his instrument, sat down next to me, and began to accompany my playing.
I started to sing in Ladino again, a medieval Spanish garnished with Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Arabic. I sang love songs, sad songs of longing, songs of exile, and I noticed that Mr. Orensanz was standing near one of the columns to my right, weeping at the sound of his ancestral language and the music of longing.
Soon everyone stopped wandering around the room and stood stationary, each in place, like players on a big game board, lit not-lit by the light casting shadows, faces dark.
I sang and they listened this way for forty five minutes. No longer did I notice the temperature, it was cold but we raised a fire in our rooted souls, the sound rose through the dome and into the space where the music rested. We sang and played into the shadows for forty five minutes.
When we finished, we quietly filed out into the New York City night, a hush having fallen over all of us, including Mr. Orensanz, who asked if I would like to record in his synagogue. Poof Daddy.
On the street, I began to freeze up again. I had no idea where we were, but several blocks later we came to the celebrated Katz’s delicatessen. We took a ticket and went and sat in the cavernous dining room, next to a table of young musicians recently come in no doubt from their own show, in black leather, studs, chains, tattoos and piercings.
One of them glanced at me carrying my instruments. Gig tonight? he asked.
Yeah, I said, great gig. You?
Me too, he said, nodding his head up and down. We smiled at each other. Later, I watched him walk out the front door and disappear like a raven into the night.
James Stone Goodman
United States of America
Al Orensanz passed away in New York City, on Saturday, July 23, 2016.
In Spite Of: Af Tsu Lokhes
The day I wrote the piece #50 in the series Big Tent, June 20, 2013, describing a slice of the meeting the night before just a moment out of an hour of moments not to say too much respecting confidentiality to the maximum, I think I captured a sense of the life-saving nature of what we discuss when we convene on Thursday evenings. I wrote the piece late Thursday night only several hours after the Shalvah Recovery from Addictions meeting, submitted it to the blog site set up by my community to feature events and ideas etc. of the locals. I have a blog on that site, and I submitted my account of the Thursday night meeting the next day, Friday, the day after another heavy Thursday night session. It was fresh.
On that Thursday I decided to start a journal of the evening session, something written to capture a bit of what we do on Thursday nights that has been so healing for so long. I write about everything, I thought, I ought to write about this too. Besides, I had made a formal request for funding from my community after having been approached by the new CEO of the institutional mechanism asking me for it.
I write a journal of my prison experiences, I write about the mental illness project, I should write about the Shalvah recovery meeting we have been running in one form or another, almost continuously, since I came to this town in 1981. So I started to keep the journal, the first entry was that Thursday, that night, June 20, 2013.
The next day I was scheduled to have a phone conversation, I should note here, with the official CEO who represents my community and who contacted me about ways in which the community mechanism might support the program. I told him I would need him to see the program through the bureaucracy in which he works, make a case for it however that is done I don’t know, and whatever materials I could provide him I would do to the best of my abilities.
Of course they have a right to ask what is it that we do on Thursday nights. I invited them to come and see; I am sure I can get the permission of the participants for you to come because they all know the life-saving significance of the Thursday evening group [note: the group has much expanded since then, is now meeting twice a week, welcoming new people almost every week and we have discussed going to a third night] and I believe the group would compromise its anonymity/confidentiality to further the notion not for the sake of themselves but for the sake of others in our community and beyond whom we could be helping.
And if those who hold the purse strings did not want or could not attend any of our meetings, I could always refer them to my writings, and through the accounts anyone could discern a good sense of what we do on Thursday nights we call Shalvah (serenity).
He had given me a load of directions by which I could provide him for what he called a logic model (I had no idea what a logic model was) that he could then take into the place where he works.
He came back at me with a load of more requests, I had provided the information for the logic model as he requested, now he was asking for a metric (another notion I wasn’t familiar with, I have not been trained in these matters). I thought I included a metric with which to evaluate in the logic model we submitted (love this language), and by then I noticed that the vocabulary had shifted from how can I help you to how can this not happen, an elucidation of all the reasons why it would be impossible for his organization to support my efforts. I have experience with this kind of shift in language. I am sensitive to it; I’ve been at this a long time.
A few days after this conversation, one of the great leaders of our community passed away. He had been in the very position of the individuals I was now dealing with; I knew that his way was the way of activism. If he saw a need, his attitude was how are we going to do this, what I call the af tsu lokhes approach, a great Yiddish phrase that has the sense of in spite of — with an attitude. It’s a useful expression without an exact equivalent in English, a sense of: you think I can’t do what? I’m going to do it in spite of all obstacles and with more punch. Just because. I could feel the difference in the individuals I spoke with on the phone; there was no af tsu lokhes attitude.
The man we would soon be burying was a force in our community, and my experience with him was deep. When we started the addictions outreach, he was as a matter of fact in the same position as the individuals I was now speaking with in the early days of our program. These teachings were not lost on me; a week and a half later at his funeral I felt the need of such individuals now and what a loss to our community such a spirit is. Where are they when we need them?
I am searching everywhere for those af tsu lokhes individuals, who see a problem and all the difficulties attendant to relieving suffering, but enter with the attitude: Let’s do this thing, let’s make this happen, let’s do some good. Obstacles? Let’s go around them.
There’s a story my teacher used to tell. When there’s an obstacle in the road, you don’t sit down, unpack a table, have lunch. You build. Around it.
james stone goodman
From the Legend of the Thirty Six
Rav said, all the ends have passed, and the matter depends only on transformation and good deeds. But Shmuel said, it’s enough for the mourner to stand in mourning.
— Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b
I knew that my heart had opened to all suffering with these pictures, these stories, these dreams, these possible and impossible ideas that had emerged over the course of this study. I had felt the exchange of cliché for deeper notions, like the argument in the Talmud, through the willingness to stand in our grief, to weep the world well, we had moved into a place that released us from the failure of our own wisdom to sustain. I felt the release of inadequate ideas to justify suffering, it was not because of this or because of that that we grieve, we have only to be with our sadness, to sit with our suffering, to weep the world well, in order to survive.
What we do is to stand here, because we are lured to the light by the fancy that we wait for this, we wait for that, we do not give up, and we are sustained by all that is unseen. We yearn for it.
Rabbi R told me that it was said that Bar Yochai’s right eye used to smile and his left eye was sad. He also quoted a passage in the Zohar, one half of my heart is happy and the other half is crying.
I met with H to show her the pictures. “I like the stories,” she said, “especially the last one.” The last one was about the nature of the righteous person, the tzaddik: a person who is the agent for revealing the hidden. Something happens around the tzaddik, whether the tzaddik is conscious of that or not, it doesn’t matter. It only matters that the tzaddik makes something happen.
“The tzaddik is the one who is able to connect with the world the way it is, and to raise something up that is beyond the world,” I said.
Then H looked at the photographs. Afterwards, we sat down at a small table in the gallery space as if we were having coffee in Vienna, and she told me this story:
In 1980, I went back to Europe. I visited the place where my parents were held. It was a small place on the eastern border of France. I was walking just across the road from the camp. They were buried along that road. There were 1200 graves along that road, and I visited them all. I thought: no one else might ever come here.
Just before I left, I looked down and I saw a rock, I felt as if it were calling to me, so I picked it up. I started picking up a rock from every site we visited. I took them all home and I often took them out when I spoke about the trip.
One day I was showing the rock, the first one I picked up, and a girl said, “look – do you see what it is?”
No, I hadn’t noticed. I turned it over and it formed a perfect star of David, etched on the underside, filled with calcium deposits.
I took it to a geologist to see if someone had carved it or whether it was – you know – nature. The geologist told me it was nature. It had been buried deep and a great upheavel had pushed it up, maybe it settled in water, but it’s natural.
It was Shabbat Naso, the three-fold blessing from Bemidbar, culminating in “may God’s face be lifted up to you and give you peace.” The Sefas Emes brings that shalom/peace is shleimut/wholeness; the inner point of truth. A tiny point or a single moment contains the infinite fullness and joy of Godliness. The micro version of Everything, the attention paid to the detail of the individual, the lone tzaddik, the moment, the singular act, the story, through which the whole world passes. It was Bar Yochai believing, after opposing the Romans, after hiding in a cave for thirteen years, after all that he came to believe that if he could only celebrate two Sabbaths properly, the world would be redeemed. Or that he and his son were the two who received the presence of God. Maybe the only two.
I brought my pal Todd to my town to exhibit his show “The Legend of the Thirty Six” and do some concerts and teachings in the room where we hung the show. It was thirty six photographs, inspired by the legend of the lamed-vav-nik and the influence of the artist Ben-Zion on my pal Todd.
We found a way to hang the show in a tasty round room in the shul just as you enter the building that was outfitted with a system we brought from Minnesota that I saw used in museums that does not necessitate pounding into walls to hang framed pictures. On this, the first installation, we hired a fellow who knew the system and had installed it at the Art Museum.
He needed a helper, I was told. I can help him, I said, thinking to minimize the budget. I was told it would take one whole day. Ok, how about next Tuesday? Tuesday is good, he will meet you there.
I showed up Tuesday morning prepared to work. He was thin in overalls some simple tools hanging off a belt long hair tied in a tail angular face baseball cap. He didn’t speak. We went to work, he demonstrating how to help (it took four hands) and we went at it until about 4:00 PM. I’m naturally quiet, he was silent the entire day. Until the end.
We got the exhibit hung. It was like a day mediation, requiring some concentration just enough to pass the time well but not too much that interfered with dreaming. I worked all day respecting the silence and figured this was the deal until just before we were done, within the last hour of the work-day, between four and five PM he turned to me and said, “so – are you going?”
“Ah. Well. I hadn’t thought about it. Where?”
“Cape Girardeau. Good. It’s a small field house. He’s doing small venues.”
He told me a date in April. April! It was February when we had the conversation.
“I’ve never seen him,” I said.
That was all the conversation we had. So I went home and bought some tickets. I bought four, thinking I would take my daughter and a couple of her friends. What the heck, I had never seen Bob Dylan live, though I used to sneak away from Detroit when I was fourteen, fifteen years old and steal off to New York City to inhale the music of the Village scene. I didn’t tell anybody where I was going and I went several times. In those days, I saw Dylan hanging around the Village, wearing a Mad Hatter’s hat he was known for, someone squiring him around in a convertible Corvette (from Detroit, I know cars). It was 1963, 64, I didn’t know much but I loved music and saw some great things in the clubs at the time: Gerde’s Folk City, Dave Van Ronk, Richie Havens, Dylan on the street but not in the club. It was time.
I Go To See Bob Dylan
I went to see Bob Dylan for the first time in 2001. Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I pronounced it the French way. It was in a field house, seven thousand seats. All my friends said, why do you want to go see Dylan? Someone told me he mumbles and can’t remember his songs.
I had never seen him, never saw him perform anyway, I saw him a long time before when I was hanging out in Greenwich Village. I was a kid.
In 2001 I took my daughter and two of her friends. We got seats on the second level. The concert was called for seven thirty. I had no idea how far away Cape Girardeau was, but we arrived at seven fifteen, made the will call window by seven twenty, in our seats by seven thirty, the concert begun at seven thirty two.
Nice stage, a small field house, we were on the second level, first row, good lighting, simple stage.
They began with amplified acoustic instruments, and switched back and forth during the evening between Stratocasters and amplified acoustic Gibsons and Martins. The bass player too alternated between the double bass and the electric bass. The lead guitarist doubled on mandolin, pedal steel guitar, and violin.
It was a basic rock and roll configuration: Dylan plus two guitars, bass, drums. Good guitar players, adequate not fancy bass, same with drums. Everyone solid, not fancy. The big surprise was that Dylan played most of the leads. Not flashy but adequate. The lead guitar was a good multi-instrumentalist: guitars, mandolin, pedal steel guitar, violin, everything he played tastefully. Still, Dylan was out front in every tune with his guitar, swiveling his legs in an Oklahoma oilman suit black with a white stripe down the side, black T-shape string tie, and a great pair of extravagant two-tone (black and white) cowboy boots. He played the leads in every song, picking out his small melodies carefully with the neck of the guitar pointed toward the ground, the expression on his face unmoved.
I was mesmerized that he dominated the music of his band. I had to get a look at him, I wanted to see his face and see exactly what he was doing on the guitar. “I’ll be right back,” I said to Sarika, and bounded down the bleachers to the ground floor. There was no separation between the second level and the ground level, as there is in the field house in my town. You can just walk down.
I ran down. Then once on the main floor I walked down the aisle next to the center section of the floor seats right up to the stage. I stood next to a guy who was sitting quietly, intently watching the show that was happening not ten feet from him. It was a pleasant place to watch, not directly in front of the speakers so the sound was not overwhelming. I crouched down so I would not obstruct anyone’s view, and I gazed up at the holy man, now so close I felt as if I could reach up and touch his guitar.
He was indeed playing all the leads, adequately, but not at all like the flashy standard that is set for the common rock and roll screaming lead. His leads were more rhythmic, a little labored, not very interesting harmonically, but always within the simple chord changes. He had been practicing.
He had a look of concentration on his face. He was not making contact, eye or otherwise, with his audience, but he was focused on the music.
He looked to me like a holy man. Small, a little grizzled, unsmiling but not unfriendly, concentrating on the material and the new role that he was taking in his own music: soloist, lead player, improvisational instrumentalist, with a stylized singing that made sense, lower registers than his former rasp, with more authority and confidence in his vocals than I had ever heard before. It was a much higher musical standard than I had expected.
After watching him for about three tunes in the place by the stage where I didn’t belong, the man sitting quietly next to me, a plain looking fellow dressed in casual golf clothes, short sandy hair, looked at me and said over the crowd, “I’ve been following him around for thirty five years. This is the best concert I’ve ever seen.”
Why he chose me to tell that to, I don’t know. It was clear that he needed to say it to somebody. I watched him for much of the rest of the show. He was alone, he didn’t move, he didn’t talk to anyone, he sat and watched as if he was observing science.
I went back to get Sarika and her friends. I wanted her to see what I was seeing. “Follow me,” I said to them, “don’t look back and don’t talk to anybody,” and I went bounding down the bleachers again to the main floor.
We ended up in the same place. The girls huddled next to my confidant, and I found a liberated seat across the aisle where I sat quietly, like him, and watched the rest of the concert. The standard did not altar, the entire concert was clean and straight ahead and competent and the only words the holy man spoke was “this is my band, the best in the land” and introduced them one by one as they were playing.
I don’t like concerts in large public places. I never have, so I have not seen many musical shows in arenas and theaters where great concerts have been staged. I like music in small rooms, living rooms even, theaters at the largest.
But this night was beautiful and important for me. I couldn’t avoid some sense of pride in a hero of my generation having made the transition to the next generation with authority, creativity, and confidence. Also, there was something of the original lyricism of Bob Dylan still in this 2001 version. I recalled all the impossible dreams and lyrical seduction of his music and folk poetry, and a measure of the original promise of his form of critique and commitment returned to me as I sat there listening to the songs. I suppose every generation has a music that takes you back to your youth. I sat there in the field house, Cape Girardeau, 2001, understanding the words even of the songs I didn’t know but more importantly I remembered what they were about.
I could not avoid also the lift that watching Bob Dylan gave to my own small but serious musical aspirations. At the turn of 2001, I had made a vow to play more music, make more concerts, produce a series of CDs, and tour with my music, stories, and teachings. I was not at all sure why this had become important to me, but it had, and I was doing it.
Sometimes late at night, after a gig, and I am dragging my equipment back to my car, I laugh at myself. Now I have the picture of the holy man, working out on Tangled Up In Blue, in that great suit and swiveling cowboy boots and that will help me not look back.
The last thing that was wonderful about the concert was to share this with my daughter and her friends. In the car on the way home, we talked about the concert, about Bob Dylan, about what he was for me and what he is for them, what we each heard in his music, and it was the same thing. I told them the stories of how I came to hear Bob Dylan when I was their age. They told me the same stories, different time, different characters, and then they fell asleep.
We sailed through the clear, fresh Missouri night on a journey of secret destinations, the next stop also wonderful.
Next: Truck Stop.
The Continental Divide
Gigs pt. 3
Ft. Collins, Colorado
For my Mother
Barbara told me to check out the Continental Divide. “David wanted to see it, after he got sick. So we did. We got there any way we could — we begged, borrowed — we got there.”
She told me the story on the phone. I was a silent for a while.
“When I see it?” I said like a teen-ager. “When I see it, I’ll stop and remember when you saw it, you and David, I’ll pause for a moment, and remember your story.”
“That’s perfect,” said Barbara, “that’s just the right thing.”
A couple of days later I was sitting in Denver, behind a floor to ceiling window view of the Rocky Mountains in the distance.
“Is that the Continental Divide?” I asked my host.
“Over that way, but that’s not it. Those are the foothills.”
“What is the Continental Divide anyway.”
“You’ll have to ask Harold,” Harold was out.
I sent an e-mail to my friend Josh, eleven years old, asking him to find out what the Continental Divide is. I had a sense that it was a matter of the highest seriousness.
I left Denver late in the afternoon for the drive up to Fort Collins and the first gig of three nights. This was to be the biggest gig of my newly launched career, three consecutive nights in front of large crowds at the big Jewish conference, a scoodle of other performers occupying the same niche that I was wiggling into, maybe some old friends from school days twenty years ago.
I was looking forward to making the joke that only I understand and is no joke: when asked “where have you been?” I can say, “I’ve been practicing.” Very funny.
Daughter D. wasn’t feeling well so I left her in Denver with her aunt and drove up the highway towards Fort Collins. I saw on the map that Fort Collins looked to be about an hour north, straight shot.
Once outside of Denver, the road straightened out, completely straight, 75 miles an hour all the way to Fort Collins on the way to Wyoming. Never been to Wyoming. On my left was the Rocky Mountains, the foothills anyway, on my right the Great Plains of the United States of America. I was sailing up the borderline.
I reached the cutoff to Fort Collins and I was expecting a single intersection, a marquis with my name on it. Fort Collins is much larger than I expected. I drove around the University a bit and realized that I had no idea where the gig was. I had no contact person, no phone number, no location; I knew nothing about where the gig was to take place. I had an abbreviation of a small theater somewhere on the campus of the University, that’s it.
I found someone who worked maintenance for the University (he was wearing a uniform) I asked him about the abbreviation and he had no idea what I was talking about. I found a map of the campus and I searched the map for something that resembled the abbreviation of the room and I found nothing.
I drove around the campus some more and contemplated the notion that I may have come all this way to drive around Fort Collins Colorado never to find the location of the gig. I was there and not there. It was a predicament that I had to share.
My mother would have gotten such a kick out of this, I thought. I imagined calling her and she laughing her deep belly laugh at how ridiculous my life had become to be driving around the campus in Fort Collins Colorado looking for the location of the biggest gig in my new career.
What a good plan I have made to follow my dream to Colorado, forgetting to take with me the location of the event. God we could laugh at this, but my mother had been gone ten years now still I heard her voice laughing with me as I went over what I would have told her in my head. How I missed her, driving around the campus in Fort Collins Colorado; I ached to talk to her and it felt so good.
I kept driving until I saw something familiar. I saw a truck, a truck with a large rear compartment, what we used to call a bread truck, sitting in a big parking lot somewhere within the campus. On the truck was written “mikveh” advertising the mitzvah of mikveh and inviting all to come into the truck and purify. Apparently the truck had been outfitted for a ritual bath; the license plates were from New York.
At least it was familiar. I knocked on the back door of the truck and a slight older man with payes and black hat, white shirt, black pants opened the door and looked at me with eyes light and soft like my own.
“I’m supposed to perform for the Jewish conference tonight but I don’t know where it is. Music in a theater I think. Can you help me?”
“To play music?” he said also like a teen-ager his voice drifting up to a higher register at the end of each sentence, “to play music you must have the proper intention,” he said eyes to eyes. “Of course I can help you, come in.”
I entered the truck and he spoke of the purifying living waters of the mikveh and invited me in. What the heck, I was ruined. I took off my clothes and dunked myself in the waters, said the holy prayers, and spent a time in silence forgetting my predicament. When I was through, he took me outside the truck and pointed to the building in front of us. He brushed my wet hair back with his hands. “In there,” he said.
I thanked him and went into the building and found the location of the gig in no time.
It would be after midnight until it was time for me to perform; they had scheduled way too many people on the show. Before me were three girls from Florida who sang songs with spiritual themes and bare midriffs. Most of the music sounded trivial and treacly sentimental to me, bubbies and zaydies, and an occasional ba ba bom. I felt out of place.
I played the oud and sang a holy song of the eastern Mediterranean. The twenty or so people left in the audience looked confused or asleep. On the way home, two AM, zooming down the borderline with the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to my right, the great plains of the United States of America to my left, I felt several degrees of ridiculousness over my new life.
I stopped at the truck stop to get a cup of coffee. “Hey,” I said to a few fellas hanging around the cash register, “where’s the continental divide?”
“Over there,” one of them said, pointing toward the Rocky Mountains.
“What is the continental divide anyway,” I asked.
“Separates west from east,” an old timer said, “on that side the water drains west, on this side the water drains east. It’s the separation between east and west.”
Yes, that’s it. The Divide. I called Barbara on my cell phone, hurtling down the borderline, looking at the Rocky Mountains in the distance:
“Barbara, I’m there. The continental divide. I’m there. It’s exactly where I live.”
Next: I perform with the Spice Girls
James Stone Goodman
United States of America
Fort Collins Day Two
Gigs pt. 4
The first gigs were disappointing. Too many people on the show; by the time they got to me, it was past midnight and everyone had left. It was two AM before I hit the road for the return ride from Fort Collins to Denver.
Loved the ride nonetheless. To the right, the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, to the left the Great Plains of the United States of America. Straight shot, seventy five miles per hour, top down on the rented convertible, cup of dark coffee from the truck stop, all the way back to Denver.
D. was sleeping when I returned. I whispered to her, “it wasn’t so good tonight D. Came a long way for a lousy show in front of twenty people. Show business. But I found the Continental Divide.” I explained to her its significance as I now knew it.
Next night, D. was not feeling well so I started for Fort Collins before the afternoon traffic rush to prepare myself for night two of disappointment. I had two shows that night.
Top down, the Rocky Mountain foothills to my left now, the Great Plains of the United States of America to my right. I am in love with America. As I drove north up the Interstate, straight shot zoom seventy five miles per hour top down, I saw a billboard for the Brighton Feed and Hat Store. The right hat, that’s exactly what I needed to redeem these gigs.
I got off the Interstate and drove about five miles toward Brighton Colorado where I found the Brighton Hat and Feed Store on the other side of the main street, downtown sleepy sleepy Brighton the great American West.
I entered and announced to the sales clerk my mission: I am a spiritual pilgrim come from far-away to the seam of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains of America with my songs of holy waiting en route to Fort Collins Colorado where last night at one AM myself and my audience were lulled to sleep by my own and other uninspired offerings.
I need a hat, I told them. The right hat.
They went to work with earnestness. There were five, six sales clerks opening every hat box in the store and dressing me up in front of the head and shoulders mirror as if I was Waylon Jennings off the road on a coffee stop for the great northern tour.
“Yep, that’s it,” announced the hat clerk. “This is the one.”
I stood in front of the mirror with a large rolled Western straw hat on my head like I had been transformed. I looked at myself for a minute, two minutes, and I knew that this was the one. This was exactly the hat I needed.
I placed the hat on my head and everyone in the store came out in front, waving goodbye to me as I sailed off into the Colorado sun, towards the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide.
I stopped at Wendy’s for a hot coffee black and with the top still down I returned to the straight shot borderline north 75 miles per hour the Rocky Mountains to my left the Great Plains of the United States of America to my right, my big straw hat down around my ears so it wouldn’t fly off, I felt good, good in the car with my hat on the way to my two gigs, the Continental Divide, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, I am in love with America all of it.
I arrived at the gig parking lot. No mikveh. I spied Jeff, who was organizing both shows for the night. “Jeff!” I jumped in with Jeff and we went together in his car to the two rehearsals for the evening shows.
Jeff worked hard to bring these two gigs off nicely and I helped him as much as I could. Jeff recorded a tune that I had given him some years ago, an Adon Olam the story of which I have written in another piece (“the story of Akbar and Adon Olam”) and he promised me a copy of the recording. I had never heard him do it and Jeff loved the piece.
He loved it so much that he had placed it as the closing tune of the first gig. Everyone was going to sing it. We set up the first gig with enough time to sit back in the audience and wait for evening.
Consuelo showed up with brochures and CDs. Consuelo came down from New Mexico, she sang Ladino songs that she learned from a rabbi in the mountains of northern New Mexico. She was descended from Spanish conversos, Jews who hid their identities after the threat of the Spanish Inquisition, came to the New World and rediscovered their Jewish roots centuries later. “There are many like me,” Consuelo said.
Consuelo had some fabulous songs, which she claimed were from the defunct Jewish community of Cairo. I was familiar with the texts of the songs but not the tunes. The tunes were stunning. I was mesmerized by Consuelo’s tunes. They were killing me softly.
We all sat in a circle on the stage area and planned the order of our performances, one after another. There was a teen-aged girl group from south Florida, they were arguing with their parents who seemed to be their managers. They sang show tunes with spiritual themes. There were a few cantors, myself, Consuelo and a hand drummer that belonged to her community in New Mexico who played like an angel.
I ended with the Adon Olam and everybody joined in behind me. Soon I was singing without playing at all there was so much backup, I was singing the holy Adon Olam that Jeff loved so much with my hands my body and Consuelo and her drummer had jumped up and grabbed an adjacent microphone.
Consuelo howled into the microphone like a flamenco cantare gone mad, everyone entered the holy Adon Olam in their own way and I saw the room come to life. The audience was singing, some were crying, everyone got up and on their feet and when the concert was over I got to make the joke again, several times, “who are you? Where have you been?”
“I’ve been practicing. I am no one.”
A rabbi came up to me with a blank piece of paper. “My daughter wants your autograph.”
“My daughter, she wants your autograph.”
I wrote my name on the paper, not sure whether he was making a joke out of me or what, and I added in Hebrew “I love you with all my broken heart.”
The entire audience followed me across campus to the second gig. I was leading a group of strangers across the Colorado State University campus to my next gig. “I’m going with him,” they said.
The room was stacked for me so the second gig was equally wonderful. The audience howled and cheered as I sang a holy song of peace from deep within my source. If prayer and song could make peace it would have happened that night.
I stood outside in the parking lot at midnight as I was loading my instruments into my car for the ride back to Denver, my rolled straw still on my head, talking to one of my pals from school twenty years ago who had come to see me perform.
“I’ve been practicing,” I said to him, to the moon, to the stars.
I rolled down the top of the convertible, pulled the straw down around my ears for the ride home. I stopped at the Quick Stop for a hot black cup of mud and headed down the straight shot Interstate towards Denver, on my right the Rocky Mountains, the Continental Divide, to my left the Great Plains how I love the United States of America though I myself live on the borderline I live on the elusive divide between East and West I was wondering on the ride down whether it exists at all this place where I think I live. Just then I know it does, it does exist, I am living there.
On the CD player I fired up Consuelo’s CD with a very tasty oud player, I unpacked my cellular phone and called everyone I knew to describe, the best I could, one of the greatest working nights of my life. Not show business, ceremony.
I couldn’t wait to get back to Denver hoping D. was up so I could tell her the whole story.
“D.” I whispered,
“D. . .”
“I was a hit.”
James Stone Goodman
United States of America
Eavesdropping at the Imaginary Yeshiva
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17).
You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am Hashem (Lev. 19:18).
Two friends are learning in chevrusa (traditional form of yeshiva learning, based on studying in cells of two).
One says to the other, what do you make of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” in context?
They look at each other. You shall not hate your brother in your heart, one of them says, that’s where we begin, cleansing the heart of hatred.
Of course, that’s obvious. Brother!
Brother! Like us.
You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor.
Now that you take it in context, it’s unusual isn’t it, this progression from you shall not hate to you shall surely rebuke, why would you rebuke your neighbor? What has your neighbor done?
Say your neighbor is a drug addict.
Oh my God.
Stay with me, your neighbor is taking drugs. You don’t approve. You see it, you have evidence, you may have even witnessed it yourself. It’s not a theoretical problem. You remember Maxie don’t you?
Poor Maxie. Nobody knew what to do for him, so we did nothing.
Yeah, well that’s what we got going here. You don’t approve, you know something is wrong but you may not even know what it is, but something is not ay-yi-yi so you rebuke your neighbor.
You rebuke him?
Yeah, you do something. You tell the truth, even at the expense of relationship, you approach him and say hey, I’m worried about you, you do this, you do that, you don’t put him down but you have got to do something. It’s not a theoretical problem.
You got that right.
You rebuke him, because to have that knowledge and do nothing? That’s contributing to the problem. I’m not using rebuke here in the sense of shaming him but in the sense of saying: stop. Drawing a line. Maybe even getting in his face. Hey – stop this. Get some help. Or maybe even going to somebody else.
Wow. What a concept. Just like with Maxie. We did nothing, and you know what? When it came down, I felt kind of. . .you know. . .responsible. I really did!
Yeah, so did I. You know why? Because we didn’t rebuke him. But the verse continues, don’t think that I came with just this one word to rattle in a bottle like a coin. . .
Oh stop with that stuff.
Sorry. Let’s continue with the verse, you shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ). Not bear sin because of your neighbor, that means, like with Maxie, it was our responsibility to rebuke him, but not to bear his sin. With Maxie, sin means sickness. Because it was, after all, his problem. But there’s the rub: it’s his problem, still we are called to rebuke him, but not to carry responsibility for his sin. It’s his sickness, but still, we are called to do something.
Yeah, wow, I remember how it was with Maxie. When Yudi did say something, Yudi rebuked him, he turned it against Yudi. Who are you, Maxie said to Yudi, to get in my face? It’s my business, what’s wrong with you? he said to Yudi. So Yudi ended up feeling bad, bearing Maxie’s sin, but you know what? That was part of Maxie’s problem: place the responsibility everywhere but himself. Wow, I really see it now.
Yes, now let’s finish with our verse. Leviticus 19:18, You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am Hashem.
We rebuke, but we don’t hate, nor do we bear the sin — it’s Maxie’s problem, not ours — and when he Maxie plays us like he did? We don’t get vengeful. The guy is, after all, sick. Not only do we not get vengeful, but we bear no grudge, we are clean about Maxie, we don’t judge him. That’s the hardest part. As a matter of fact, we love him. We love Maxie because only out of love will come the right action. Only through love will the healing happen.
You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am Hashem. That’s the way of Hashem, to know that if healing is to happen, it has to happen through love. No matter what our history is with each other, we cannot be a source of healing or help or truth or transformation for each other — because that’s what it takes with someone like Maxie, with someone like me, I’m no different from Maxie! — that’s what it takes to be a healing force in another person’s life. No expectations, no blaming, no shifting of responsibility, no avoidance, no revenge, no judgment, only the truth. And love. It has to come out of love. Only love has that kind of power to heal.
That’s what we could have done with Maxie. Here’s the principle: lead with love, always. It seems so simple, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t obvious.
Maybe that’s the deal with these two verses. Notice that we don’t lead with love, but we come to love, after having moved through don’t hate, surely rebuke, don’t bear sin, don’t take vengeance, don’t bear a grudge, but — love. I am Hashem: the way of love, the true course of transformation.
Phew. You got that right.
Yeah, thanks. Be here tomorrow?
For sure. Sometimes I feel if I had come into the world only to hear these words, it would have been enough.
You’re not going to fall on your face are you?
I might. You got a problem with that?
Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom, and the Central Reform Congregation, in St. Louis, Missouri.
Favorite Stories I Can’t Use
There’s an Ark at my school, it is set against the west wall of the Chapel. It’s an old room, part of the original building which dates from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the stained glass windows its most prominent feature before my teacher insisted they be covered with retractable drapes. By the time my teacher got to it, the original stained glass windows were no longer prized, too Churchy I suppose. But the rest of the room was to his design.
This was about the time of the Centennial of the College, 1975, which was several years before I got there.
He researched everything. He was one of the few in those days who thought about the esthetics of the synagogue, how it looked, what was the optimal environment for prayer, what kind of lights, what shape of seats, what sort of flow of movement, colors, venue: everything in the environment either contributed or detracted from prayer.
First, he researched the chairs. He wanted moveable chairs, nothing fixed, so the room could be changed into a variety of shapes. He found an interlocking chair made in England, simple light wood support in the back, nice light cushion for the rear end. The chairs slipped into each other so you could make rows (or not by detaching) anywhere.
He placed a raised bima in the middle of the room, in the style of the old synagogue, that could be turned around to either face the room which is not traditional or face the Ark the traditional way. Except the Ark would have been on the eastern wall, so that when you faced it, everyone would have been facing east. In that room, we were mostly facing west, which I bet he did purposely since he believed in a new Judaism of the West. He came from Hungary, and he was not fixed on a Judaism of the Old World. Many of my teachers were of the Old World, and their relation to that was complex and varied. It held no romance for them, only for their suburban born and bred mostly American students.
On the western wall of our chapel was the piece that he designed the room around, it was an Ark fifteen feet tall, the wood had been restored in that kind of rubbed pickled look that later became popular in old house restorations, light and dark woods, some shades of graying as if to say yes it’s old but not crummy old.
The Ark was tall and ornate. The story that we were all told, I remember being told this story but not by whom, it seemed that everyone in generations of students knew the story and I imagine it was useful for fund raising. It also had a mythic sensibility that is irresistible even to a cynic.
I imagine this story is familiar to every student of my school who spent their four years of training there, five years before the year in Israel program began, between the years 1955 and just several years ago.
Here’s the story, in brief: The Ark appeared after the War on a dock in New York City, having been dug up, boxed, and shipped to the United States with this address: To the Jews of America. Someone had buried the Ark during the Nazi atrocities, presumably the dearest object in an European synagogue, buried before the Nazis could either get to it for one of their museums or destroy it, and after the War survivors who knew the story dug it up and in those chaotic first months or years after the War’s end, shipped it where someone thought it would find a home, addressed to the Jews of America.
So the Ark sat on a wharf in New York for several years while the courts decided its outcome. The Hebrew Union College made a bid for it and it was awarded to them. My teacher saw it, had it restored, and designed the chapel in Cincinnati at the Hebrew Union College around that Ark.
The Ark addressed to the Jews of America. What a wonderful story of destruction and hope, of old world past and new world future, of denigration and reclamation. Except it wasn’t true.
One year I wrote a piece about my school and I included the story. I received a note from another of my teachers (edited):
Sorry I missed you last week, etc.
My wife shared with me your poem (very moving!) and your query about the Polish wooden ark (from Posen, 1720) in the College synagogue. Unfortunately, that nice little maiseh about the ark having been buried during the war and shipped “to the Jews of America” is just that, a Jewish urban legend (and I have no idea who started it!). The ark wasn’t even in Europe during the Nazi era; It was already part of the HUC Museum collection in Cincinnati in 1925!
The true story (researched by Judy Lucas, former curator of the Skirball Museum collection here in Cinti) is as follows: the ark originated in a wooden synagogue in Posen in 1720. Sometime in the late 19th century (or, at least, by the early 20th) it had passed into the private collection of a Berlin Jewish Judaica collector by the name of Solli Kirschstein (I don’t know how it peregrenated from Posen to Berlin). Kirschstein’s Judaica collection was acquired for the College by Adolph Oko, then Librarian of the College, in 1925, and became the core of the HUC Museum (now the College Skirball Museum collection, mostly in LA). So the ark was in the Museum for almost 50 years, from 1925 until 1974-75, when it became the centerpiece of Gene Mihaly’s rebuilt HUC Chapel in time for the College Centennial. When I was a senior rabbinical student in 1973-74, we sometimes chose to conduct daily services in the Museum Gallery, in front of this ark, instead of in the Chapel. (As I recall, this began when some work was being done in the Chapel and we had to move elsewhere for a few weeks. After that, we just preferred to stay in the Gallery!) At any rate, the power and poignancy of this ark (even without the urban legend, it’s still one of the very few surviving arks–if not the only one–from pre-war Polish wooden synagogues, and was so documented by Joseph Guttman, the late former professor of Jewish art at HUC) made a sufficient impression on all of us—and I think that Gene’s decision to rebuild the Chapel around that ark probably resulted from the experience of those morning services in the Gallery in 1973-74. So that’s the true story. The poem has an artistic integrity of its own, but if you choose to revise it, it is still the case that that ark remains in all significant ways a “brand plucked from the burning.”
Kol tuv, R.
So I couldn’t tell that story, or I had to make the corrections. I turned it into a story about the students praying around the Ark that had a history and a fanciful story grafted onto it and that became the story. A story of inspiration that eclipsed the myth of the mystery relation between Old World and unlikely survival in New World. The Ark became a kind of totem, the power to attract spirit that way, fire up prayers – that too was a good story but not the same category of mythos. The movement from that world to this world remains a story intact, without the sentimental details, more mystery.
I had written a poem but I revised it and learned it new. Maybe it’s better and more relevant, it’s less of a maiseh now and more a story of redemption. What’s the power in that Ark? The power to renew, to inspire, to create something in proximity of the physical object that transcends the object itself, if nothing else, to generate more story. And the truth of the last: in Zechariah’s prophecy it’s a question (3:2). No question here: it’s a brand plucked from the burning.
That image alone, out of a bundle of images of burnt burning and the inelegant associations of Holo-kaustus from the Greek for the Hebrew olah of the offering burned up, offered up, the brute sense of an ember snatched out of the conflagration. In Hebrew ‘ud with an alef, set against the other images of burning that the Holocaust in English conjures, this one with the sense of survival, an ember, and for a few of us a strange homonym with the classical stringed instrument of the eastern Mediterranean (‘ud with an ayin) and its place in the foundational creativity of the Middle East.
These two silent letters, the alef and the ayin, the homonym bearing quiet witness to the swirl of ideas associated with history underneath myth, the rising of new story out of old story, a conflation of images that continues to generate when story is organic when it is alive, throwing another chapter another tale another shoot another version looking forward and back, something new something alive something arrives something survives.
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