Well I did ask. Not when I was sitting with him, there was a power outage and I had to leave mid-conversation. It was frustrating but not for the usual reasons. In prison I have learned there are no usual reasons. It was frustrating not because the power went out — I was told this happens frequently (emergency generator kicked on) — it was frustrating because I was about to ask what sustains you with so much no and I didn’t get the chance. So I went home, wrote the story, and later scribbled out a note and I asked him. I stuck the note in the mail.
Three weeks later I got a letter back. His handwriting, script, is meticulous, small and precise. At first it looks likes a form of micro-orthography, but it’s just a fastidious handwriting style. His language is similar. There is no economy to the language he writes in, but I’m not teaching him writing so I haven’t mentioned that.
Almost all the guys I teach in prison are hesitant to write at all. They are reluctant to commit anything to paper. Several times when I have brought it up, they told me why. Prison is an extreme environment and it manifests in no-trust, so they do not like to leave a written trail.
On the other hand, they love to be written about. They feel as if they are the forgotten people. They encourage me to write their stories. When a journalist offered to accompany me inside, I checked with them first and they were unanimously enthusiastic. They even wanted pictures included in her article.
In his letter back to me, in answer to my question about what sustains was a long and intricate narrative about himself and some of the others he is incarcerated with, but he did answer my question and basically it was simple: I stay in the day. I try to keep it here, in front of me, I try not to drift too far away and over-think the moment. Now is everything inside here, and to keep my sanity I try to live in the present. That was his response, it took him some pages coming there, but that is where he arrived.
From the Prison Journal of jsg
We were well into our conversation when death row came up, but I was fascinated by the subject and in my head the picture from the movies I had of a separate unit, somber and isolated, etc., was all wrong. Everything is all wrong when it comes to my expectations about prison.
No, they are right here with the rest of us, he told me. You can see it behind their eyes, if you know what I mean. Every person is different, but most of them have a calm demeanor. I look behind the calm demeanor and I can read through their eyes.
I looked it up. There was a challenge to the death penalty in my state in 2006, on the grounds that the lethal injection protocol violated the Eighth Amendment (cruel and unusual punishment) because the instructions, the protocols around lethal injection were too vague, and were not administered by a qualified anesthesiologist.
The attorney general then, who is now governor, challenged and executions were resumed in 2007, and the frequency approximates one person a month. I don’t know if this is deliberate but it was mentioned by the man I was visiting as if it was.
I could see that executions happen with more frequency than under the last two governors, but more frequency three and four governors ago, during the last decade of the twentieth century. The last decade of the twentieth century: more frequency of executions, anyone could see this with a simple search.
I didn’t want to dwell on the death row aspect of the institution, I had talked to this man several times on the phone but this was our first meeting. He had a lot to say.
He launched into his story though I don’t ask about stories. I come to teach and listen and teach and talk and teach mostly and if the story rises I listen, if it doesn’t it doesn’t. It usually doesn’t. There is always what to do for me when I come to prison, but since this was my first visit to this institution and I wasn’t approved for a class here, I could bring no materials with me. He had plenty to talk about and I listened and we talked a few things through — about the complexity of identities that he is working through, about what goes on inside himself and the institution, what it’s like for him, what he is looking to for the future — there were no silences and we sat head to head for several hours.
The details are rich in this man’s story but I am reluctant to reveal too much though it is interesting and relevant and right in the middle of the review of prison life and societal approaches to incarceration and justice, justice, justice, but it’s his story – though there is much in his story that is all story – still it’s his story and I’ll keep it to myself unless there comes a time I can be of service to him and others like him who are living within walls this way.
On the drive back I was thinking about what sustains, I often go there in my mind when I come out of the prison. The guys I speak to run into the wall of no so often I think: could I run into the wall of no that often and keep coming back? I run into small obstacles of no and I can barely manage that, could I run into the wall of no as consistently as they do and still manage to sit with quiet and hope and possibility? Not sure. What sustains?
I was telling someone I know who has been in prison and he said, in prison you live in a reduced world, it’s a small space and you come into it sit and listen to someone who gives over his expertise, it’s what he knows about. You listened.
The next night I went to a meeting and there was a speaker who told a difficult story without any details. Everyone in the room understood where this guy was going but there were no hooks in his story, there wasn’t a place to hang sentimentality onto so at first the tale rolled out raw and abrupt and unapproachable. It wasn’t a story. It was something else, like an algebra of truth-telling. It was not a familiar approach.
It was a confrontation without the expectation of entertainment. This was no TED talk. It was raw, without details, no entertainment value, it was not rehearsed. It was delivered in a room with about thirty people and everyone was uncomfortable at first because it felt as if the speaker was looking into your eyes and saying: listen to this, I hope you get it because it’s as real as I can be but I will not carry you. You know what I’m talking about you’ve been there you recognize what I’m saying and if you don’t – so what? It’s not about me it’s not about you it’s about these set of ideas I’m am plucking out of the space over our heads where we meet if we rise to it.
I get up in the morning in prayer, he said, I have breakfast in prayer. I got to work I prayer. I spend the day working in prayer. I go home in prayer. That’s my day, every day.
It was a challenge listening to him at first. I rose to it. So did the people on either side of me. I was talking about it later and someone said to me, yeah we’re all looking for a new voice. We love the crap coming out of our own mouths. You were intrigued by that — we all are — and you advanced along the full of sh** scale because this guy broke all the rules and it worked for you. We are all seduced by our own stories.
Now – I didn’t expect to write about this evening’s event in proximity to the prison visit the day before, didn’t connect them not even in time — so much happened that day and the day before since I had been to the prison house — but here I am with my hands my heart and my head following with the story of this guy in the prison house where he derives his resolve to push on and this guy speaking a story without details no entertainment value unless the truth as it is plucked out of the air is kicks for you, for me there is no relation outside of time. Or so I thought before I started writing.
One day next day I am writing on a third day and the glue is there: it’s true it’s uncomfortable it’s hard as hell. It’s life inside and out. I was telling a friend of mine about it. That guy in the jail house? Ask him what sustains him. I bet he’ll tell you. I think I know but I’ll ask. Maybe I should call this piece: All that sustains is unseen.
I’m going to tell you what
And I want you to
Everyone you know.
First stop and listen.
Do not assume.
Don’t get all your information
From common sources
Figure it out yourself
Go and listen
Write through the most difficult stuff.
Be more thoughtful.
Respect the differences you have
What they call these days a
Someone else has a different
Look for hooks on which
You can hang
Can’t find any hooks?
Go somewhere else.
You will recognize the hooks
On which you may hang
You must make
When you don’t know what to say
Find your quiet
The harder it is
The more it is
Always close with optimism
Don’t toss around in bed at night
Never relinquish your
Of a better future
Take this Note To Self
Put it in your pocket and
Until it is
The Mystery Tale of The Sarajevo Haggadah in Dm — Bb
I am a book a telling
I am called the 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 known as the Sarajevo Haggadah.
I was created for a wealthy Castilian family in Barcelona
It is assumed I left Spain with the expulsion in 1492
and went to Italy.
How I crossed the Adriatic to Bosnia Hercegovina
is a mystery.
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
to prevent 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 the story
that we tell 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 also
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 a bold Mediterranean posture
I am 650 years old more or less
my story however begins with Genesis
I conclude with the present —
I am everything
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 for the first time
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.
Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina
in Sarajevo said this:
we can live together
we used to live together
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.
Now you have the story of the telling
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
at 4 I married
alma vida y carason
soul, life, and heart
alma vida y carason
soul, life, and heart
alma vida y carason
soul, life, and heart
The future belongs to the future
what to make of the past
tearful triumphant romantic
a whole life told in hours
an entire world told in stories
and always the great story
told in this story
every thing contained in some thing
an entire life told in hours
an entire culture in stories.
One thousand Jews today in Bosnia
When the Jews leave a city,
the city is finally dead
— Bosnian proverb.
The remnant – O God
preserve the remnant
so that no one will ever say
these holy prayers have perished
the ones who spoke them
Songs [at beginning]:
Shomeir Yisrael, O guardian of Israel
Project them, preserve the remnant
Alma Vida y Corazon
A La Una Yo Naci
The Story of Passover
I learned something new this year something to add to what I had already learned years before. We were discussing the mystery root in Torah n-g-d when those two guys walked down the outer walkway on Saturday morning. They were speaking Aramaic; who speaks Aramaic anymore.
They had been parsing the name of the place we could hear them as they were walking up: neve in Hebrew, from the couple of verses in Isaiah where it appears, a place for animals a kind of sanctuary like an oasis.
Then when we were studying inside later that morning we went on about that n-g-d root. We were in the book of Exodus, Yitro, they mentioned one of the visitors did that when we are eating together in verse 12 — before G*d — that when we are eating with heavies the glow of the Shekhinah is present. He was quoting a story from the Talmud, I looked it up it’s Brakhot 64a that Rashi was referring to and I was getting a little suspicious of these guys how they knew so much Rashi.
Don’t you love the changes that are happening in this story he asked to no one in particular because one listens to the other, hears something right, takes it home takes it inside and changes everything? I do, I do love that, I said.
And look the other one said, we have these verbs in chapter 19, verse two, the root n-g-d for the word in the next verse: this is what you will tell to the rest of them. The same root in Haggadah, n-g-d, from to be across from, or corresponding to, as if in the telling is always the correspondence between language and the thing itself, but it’s the story, it’s the word it’s not the thing itself so the root is n-g-d in the telling making the correspondence between what you say and what it is.
There is always that space that distance between language — all language — and symbol and the thing itself what is symbol-ed we are trying to make that correspondence and that’s why our language is so elastic. Don’t you love it? I said I do, I do love it.
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, 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 up there 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 about twenty years 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.
Addendum on Suicide and Other Difficult Subjects:
I wrote a longer piece just after the death of Robin Williams. I think it was a good piece, it led to a lot of conversation. It appeared in the newspaper. In it I made no great claim to understand what happened to him, only I knew this for certain: he died alone. From that came a strategy: basically, talk talk more talk.
Not long after I wrote that piece, we did a community teaching on suicide. In that teaching, I offered up this pledge:
What to do, that’s always the question. Start with talk and more talk, real talk about real problems. We did that with drug addiction starting over thirty years ago, we need to do that with depression and suicide and the other challenges to life that dwell within, the inner world when it goes dark. Take up a candle, light it, give that light to someone else. Don’t let nobody go dark on our watch.
I wrote this pledge, and I took it:
1) I pledge to bring someone in. If I light a candle, I will share the light.
2) I will be a reminder in every way I can to my family, friends, and community: we have these problems, they are difficult, but there is no shame attached to them and we live in a Big Tent.
3) We can live with our problems.
4) I pledge to break the *shanda* barrier, which means:
5) Talk, talk, and more talk.
6) I pledge to remind my community that we are working our problems, that being secret may be part of the problem, therefore:
7) I will not practice aloneness. I will talk with somebody. I will pick up the telephone.
*shanda* means shame
there is none
Then there was this piece, from a sad talk I gave some years ago. All these pieces increase in relevance.
From Eulogy for a Young Man
And then sometimes he went only within. He didn’t go outside, he went inside and you have to have been there, you have to have gone into a darkness within, you have to have spent some time there to know that when you visit there, even briefly, something can happen.
It is not a well-understood place and it is not well lit. It can happen in twenty minutes of a swing down¬ward, the overwhelming sense of futility and pain and helplessness that you have to have been there to understand this least understood part of the most private world of especially creative people, you have to have been there to understand that you can visit there and not come back so easily.
You may not come back at all.
Sometimes even with the best help, the best family, the most supportive friends, the most understanding community, you may not touch that darkness, sometimes it is something that cannot be penetrated and not easily dissipated and you have to have been there to really understand that but that’s the way it is. It happens.
For those of us who do understand, we have to start telling people what it’s like, help other people understand, let everyone know so we can treat each other with kindness, above all, kindness and gentleness and understanding and respect and without judgment, without judgment for the problem, and be easy on ourselves for not knowing, for not having known, for having done this or done that, we have to treat ourselves with kindness and with mercy because it’s right and we need to heal. And we will only heal with mercy.
james stone goodman
Remembering Prime Minister Rabin
Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995
I was a student in Jerusalem during his last year as Prime Minister of Israel. He was succeeded by Menachem Begin in 1977. I am going to write this without looking these dates up, because — I was there.
It was my first year as a student. I had never been to Israel before. I was green, as they say. I arrived in Israel with a guitar and a bag. I have since given the guitar to my old pal in Detroit; it is in no doubt in his basement.
During that year, I made a good living with that guitar. I wasn’t supposed to be working but I worked, almost every night as a matter of fact. I was discovered by a Rumanian guitar player in love with American guitar music. Almost from the moment of my arrival, I played out my plaintive loneliness on the steps of 13 King David Street, my school address. I was singing blues, rhythm and blues, at the time.
My soon to be handler heard about me and came looking: who’s the guitar player here? Thus began my so-called expatriate career. Through a convergence of forces we took over an old house from the Mandate period converted into an avant garde theater space and a nice performance stage where I held court five nights a week. My handler was an excellent manager, and there was a load of international talent in the country then to join me.
Years after it became a very chi-chi Italiano restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem. There is enough information here to figure out what the venue was, famous enough to have an entry in Wikipedia. Many of the details of this story I must disguise for a variety of reasons, some personal, some meta-personal.
I studied in the green room (they called it a green room it was the former kitchen of the house) until it was time for my set. When done, I returned to my studies. Many of the performers were Israelis so I had plenty of help with my homework. To my co-students, I was absent from social scenes as soon as school was over. I had to keep my secret life under the table so to speak, for a variety of (benign) reasons.
I rented a corner un-insulated room with inadequate heat down the hill in Rechavia toward the Valley of the Cross. In winter, it was almost uninhabitable. The stone house was built on stilts, the Jerusalem stone, I was as cold as I have ever been in my life for almost the entire mild (by American standards) Jerusalem winter. I felt I was living in a stone box. Of course the year I was there it snowed vociferously.
There were several mornings I prowled the city looking for a warm lobby of a hotel that would not kick me out if I sat there wrapped in sweaters and coat until the chill came off my bones. I was like an animal on the prowl for carrion. Heat. All this figures in the story in a much more romantic way that is silly to enter because of personal sensibilities and even after so many years the softness of the heart when speaking of old romances.
On my trek from my corner room of icy solitude to the school I had discovered a shortcut walk – a one block connecting street named Balfour — undistinguished by the style of limestone apartments buildings that lined the street, every one with a mirpeset, a balcony, opening onto or over the street. Except for one.
The neighborhood is built in the European style, having been purchased from the Greek Orthodox Church during the Mandate period by the Palestine Land Development Company. The streets were purposely built narrow, preserving a quieter garden neighborhood feel. Jerusalem is a bustling driving city. If you know your way around on foot, the best way to get around Jerusalem, there are many fine short cuts through this neighborhood.
I knew the street because it was the same street where one of my teachers lived who held a Monday night salon, a story I have told in another place.
It was also the place of the prime minister’s residence. This I didn’t know at first. I did notice there was a kind of blockhouse above the street a floor or so up with dark thin windows gazing onto the street connected to a gate which led to the house. I couldn’t see into the block house but I blissfully walked past it every morning on my way to school. I was curious, always paused to look in but I saw nothing, could not see into the darkened skinny windows staring at me like a sinister watchman as I passed.
One day I was carrying my guitar with me to school, in its nice case built for international traveling, and as I passed the sinister blockhouse before I got to the gate there were several soldiers in uniform blocking my way and asking me who I was and what I had in the case. Guitar, I said in Hebrew: guitara. They realized I was American and switched to English. Open it please. I did. They asked me to take it out. I did and they peeked around and asked a few questions. Why I walked past there every day, etc., I explained I was a student at the school, what I was studying, I could see they were entertained by the baby Hebrew I was speaking and never once exited speaking English which they spoke of course much better than I spoke Hebrew. They had enough of me, ok, ok, they said. What’s this about? I asked. They didn’t answer and returned to their position inside the blockhouse.
This was the prime minister’s official residence. It wasn’t marked and it wasn’t fancy, and except for that little guardhouse, one might pay no attention to it. This is Israel, everything informal.
I began to pay attention to the little guardhouse on my daily stroll, would always pause and wave to whomever might be inside those eye-windows, and made my way.
I acquired a first in the morning class and began to make the walk earlier. One day soon thereafter the gate opened as I passed and out came a car and then a man walking into the car waiting for him at the curb. The man was Yitzchak Rabin. He looked at me, I looked at him, I waved. He was not a waver. Even walking into a car Rabin had a dour kind of I’m not really paying attention to you look about him. He didn’t wave back but he looked at me.
This happened I would guess three or four times a week. We were on the same schedule. As often as not, I passed him on the street as we were both on our way to work, he to work me to school. I always waved and smiled, he always looked at me and got into the car.
About half way through our relationship, he began to wave back. The first wave was either a wave or a dismissal. That kind of hand motion. So for weeks I waved, smiled, he dismissed me.
Then one morning he waved back. I remember it because it was a wave from a person who was not accustomed to waving. Maybe it’s an American thing – waving – but one morning his wave was much like my wave, an acknowledgement of relation, light and reciprocal. It was not a completely American wave, there was still a little hook at the end that recalled the hand to the body with a suspicion of dismissal. Enough. I see you. Hello. Still it was plenty for me to anticipate every day on my way to school, wondering if I was going to see my new friend, the Prime Minister, with whom I had earned this unwritten relation, mutual acknowledgement, I see you I know you hello I greet you goodbye.
Years later, after I had returned to the States, he came to my town to give a big lecture, between roles as Prime Minister. I sat two seats away from him on a dais I wrangled an invitation to. I eavesdropped on him speaking in Hebrew with others, he didn’t say much, he spoke economically and without much emotion, very deep basso profundo voice, and I considered asking him if he remembered me but how would I describe the curiosity of a relationship that had no words attached, of less than one year duration, consisting of a hand gesture on a street in the morning?
I asked him anyway, willing to be foolish. He paused and looked at me. You — of course I remember you, he said in Hebrew — how are you?
Memorat: a tale with supernatural or mystical qualities
Dov Noy died on September 29, 2013 at the age of 92
Rose Bilbool, the rose of Jericho, died in 2012 at the age of 102
I was sitting next to her on the divan at Dov Noy’s salon, Monday nights, a few buildings down from the Prime Minister’s house on Balfour Street (Eric Mendelsohn had a house there). She was almost ninety then and elegant, spoke with a delicious central European accent, dripping every syllable like soup.
Dov Noy’s salon was a Monday evening event in Jerusalem; if you received an invitation, you were one of the most privileged people in the country at the time. I was introduced to Professor Noy by my friend Howard. “He loves music,” Howard said, “go there and sing, you’ll be a regular.” That’s just the way it happened.
An invitation to Dov Noy’s Monday evening salon was the most interesting evening in an interesting country. It was a simple sharing of interests, obsessions, talents; we went around the room, Dov Noy often commenting, elucidating, and filing in the background of each person’s work or interest.
Dov Noy, winner of the Jerusalem Prize and founder of the Israel Folklore Archives, long time resident of Jerusalem, held court every Monday night when he was in the country.
He invited people working on various projects to sit in his large living room and discuss their work. I often went; I taped a few of the sessions. I met many wonderful people there and heard remarkable stories. I always sang a song or two.
People referred to it as a Salon. It came from a custom of one of Dov Noy’s teachers, the world renowned folklorist Stith Thompson (1885-1976), who held a similar event where he lived and taught at the University of Indiana in Bloomington. Stith Thompson raised several generations of students, as did Dov Noy.
Professor Dov Noy was chair of Folklore and Hebrew literature at the Hebrew University, founder of Israel Folklore Archives, and student of Stith Thompson at Indiana University, a world class scholar in the field of folklore in a country perfect for the discipline, a small country with a hundred different cultures in proximity.
At the first salon I attended, Rose Bilbool was sitting next to me. I think I drove her home that night. She was the most interesting, to me, of a roomful of interesting people. Dov Noy had introduced her as the Rose of Jericho (Vered Yericho); she was one of the few Jews still visiting Jericho on a regular basis. She had papaya groves there, and a laboratory, and a small manufacturing business creating cosmetics and stomach medicines out of the active ingredient of papaya fruit papain.
Bilbool is a funny name in Hebrew (it means confused). “Where did you acquire that name?” I asked her. “I married a Bagdadi nobleman,” she said. “His family were great Talmudists – skilled in pilpul. But you know there is no p sound in Arabic. They became Bilbool,” which she found very funny.
Her husband was working in business for the brother of the nuclear scientist Oppenheimer. Rose told me they were posted to Beirut. “Then came the War in ’67,” said Rose, “we had many friends in Beirut, and my husband many accounts. So we thought. But after ’67, no one was paying their debts to Jews any more so we had to leave.” Rose resumed her life with papayas in Jericho.
I had to get the whole story, so I asked Rose if I could go with her to Jericho some time.
“Of course,” she said, “whenever you like. I always like a driver.” I became her driver.
I picked Rose up at her apartment and drove down the winding road toward Jericho and the Dead Sea. In Jericho, she worked in what looked like a clinic surrounding by fields of papaya trees. These were not her only trees. She had several workers that kept the lab/clinic open and in order when she was not there. There was great devotion to Rose among the people of Jericho.
Beginning from early in the day until she left for home, local residents of Jericho lined up to see her. They called her Doctor Rose and they came with a host of health ailments and requests. Rose spent much of the time on the phone, and she often carried medicines and such from her friends at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem back to the residents of Jericho. When necessary, she made appointments at Hadassah for them. She was an one person all purpose clinic.
Rose herself was not an MD, she was a Ph.D. bio-chemist as she later explained to me. So in her clinic, she made many a shiduch/connection between the patient in Jericho and the far more sophisticated health system in Jerusalem. She seemed to know everyone in Jerusalem.
She was born Rozsika Perl on December 9, 1909, in Sziget, Hungary (same town Elie Wiesel’s family is from). She is a descendant of the Kalever Rebbe (R. Isaac Taub), which is important to her. On her wall in her apartment is a depiction of the famous Rebbe, and the words of a song brought down in his name, in Hungarian, called Szol A Kakas Mar.
Her sister was the well known gynecologist Dr. Gisella Perl, who published her story as I Was A Doctor In Auschwitz (a film came out in 2003 based on her story called “Out of the Ashes”) and Dr. Gisella served as the gynecologist in the horror of the camp. She died in Israel in 1988. Their parents and four brothers did not survive.
Rose earned an advanced degree in pharmacology from the Bucharest College of Pharmacology. In 1938, she fled Romania for Palestine, joined the Haganah, and began studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. She studied biochemistry, I believe, and eventually earned her doctorate there.
In 1940, she and some friends were visiting Jericho where they bought some exotic fruit from one of the merchants. On the way back to Jerusalem, Rose noticed a British jeep had run off the road and there was an injured officer lying in the sand. He had a bleeding gash on his hip and Rose knew she had to bind it to get him to a hospital in Jerusalem. She had nothing sterile; what she had was a papaya, so she sliced one in half and bound it to his wound and drove the officer (he smelled like a distillery, she told me) to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem. It was an hour and a half ride, Rose was sure he would bleed to death.
When she arrived there and they unwrapped the wound, everyone was surprised to see that the wound had begun to heal. What is this? Thus began her interest in papaya.
She began isolating the enzyme in papaya and experimenting with its healing and cosmetic properties. It was particularly good for stomach ailments, and fine women’s cosmetics. She bought some papaya groves in Jericho where the papaya grew particularly well in the low altitude and high heat and her reputation spread throughout the area. Dr. Rose became the agent of person-to-person peace-making in an area where such stories are not common. She knew everyone in Jericho and served whomever she could for as long as she was active.
On the way home from Jericho, we stopped at a not well-marked well. Rose turned on the water and drew out large empty jerry cans from her old Volvo and filled them with water. “The well of Elisha,” said Rose, “people believe the water has healing powers and I have some friends in Jerusalem who request it.” The well is known in Arabic as ‘Ein es-Sultan, and is identified with the story of Elisha purifying the water of Jericho by adding salt.
The people of the city [Jericho] told Elisha, Behold living in this city is pleasant, as my master can see, but the water is bad, making the land deadly. Elisha said, get me a new jar and put salt in it, and they brought it to him. He went out to the source of the water and threw salt there, and he said, “Thus said Hashem: I have cured this water; there shall no longer be from it death and bereavement. So the water became cured, until this day, like the word of Elisha that he had spoken.
— 2 Kings 2:19-22
The Rose of Jericho was the Elisha of Jericho. She brought healing to that ancient, desolate place – modern healing and traditional healing. She probably did more for peace between Israel and the PA [Palestine Authority] than years of diplomacy.
On the way to and from Jericho, Rose would often sing the song for me that she had from her ancestor, the Kalever Rebbe. “It’s a famous song,” Rose said, “very holy to many people.” Every time I heard the song I said to myself, “don’t forget this song. . .don’t forget this song” — but it didn’t have an easy tunefulness. I am good with melodies but this one eluded me.
Until a couple of years ago, I found it on YouTube and a Hungarian friend of mine helped me translate it. I sang it on the High Holidays 5772, 2012. Rose was 102 years old when she died, in March of 2012, just about the time I recovered her song. Her ancestor was known as the sweet singer of Israel, and Szol a Kakas Mar his most celebrated melody.
Honoring Sister Antona Ebo and Rabbi Bernard Lipnick z”l
Note: these events have become legend. I have chosen to write them in epic form, because they seem to me epic events, mythic. They happened, for many of us, in our life times.
It seems to me these events have earned this form. James Stone Goodman
Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965
A peak in the civil rights movement
The March in Selma
the right to vote
taken to the television set
For everyone to see
Six hundred civil rights marchers
Heading to state capitol in Montgomery
They came only six blocks to the Edmund Pettus Bridge
There 500 state and local lawmen
Billy clubs tear gas
Driven back into Selma
Trampled by horses
Marchers seen bloodied and beaten
Around the world
The call went out to join the struggle
A second march Tuesday March 9th
King led White and Black supporters
To the Edmund Pettus Bridge
Prayed and suddenly — turned around
Civil rights leaders sought court protection
For a third full-scale march
From Selma to Montgomery
King called out for clergy support
President Johnson called
the Alabama National Guard
into federal service
regular Army attachments too
Wednesday, March 10, 1965
Departing for Selma, Alabama
A group of 54 ministers, rabbis, priests, nuns in habits, laypersons
Left for fabled Selma Alabama
On two chartered planes
From St. Louis
The Archbishop of St. Louis
Joseph Elmer Ritter
Heard the cry from King
After the events of Bloody Sunday
From St. Louis the largest group
After Martin Luther King’s call
For clergy support
We support Negroes’ voter registration drive
We walk in sympathy
We plan to march from Selma to the capital
Rabbi Bernard Lipnick
Rabbi Lawrence Siegel
Rabbi Abraham Perlberg
Six nuns in habits
Two Sisters of St. Joseph
Two Sisters of Loretto
Two Sisters of St. Mary’s Infirmary [now Franciscan Sisters of Mary]
Including Sister Mary Antona Ebo
Raised Betty Ebo
A picture appeared in the newspapers
Wednesday, March 10, 1965
The rabbis and nuns boarding a plane
Ozark Airlines charter
Rabbis holding brown sacs
With their kosher
Rabbi Lipnick: No one told the nuns
That kosher food had been prepared for us
The Sisters in Selma also made me a meal
I was the best fed rabbi in Alabama that day
I saw the face of violence close up
Halted by troopers with Confederate flags
On their helmets
There was danger
Rabbi Lipnick: We went to Selma because
Blacks were pushing for voter registration
They put every obstacle
To Black voter registration
They flew onto a dirt landing field
Civil Rights workers picked them up in cars
Driven by renegade priests forbidden
By Archbishop Toolen of Mobile – Birmingham to participate
Taken first to a small Catholic Church
Sister Ebo: Then we walked to Brown AME Chapel
We cut through the yards of the projects
A little Black girl came running up to me
Gave me a hug
There was no greater affirmation for me that day
Than a hug from that child
At Brown Chapel
We were ushered into the Sanctuary
They sat me in the pastor’s chair
The other Sisters on both sides of me
The rest of the clergy
And several laymen
In what would have been the choir loft
The Service itself
Was a grounding in non-violence
I knew the songs
And their significance
Throughout it all
Was an affirmation
A trusting in God
Then the question came up
Do we honor non-violence?
That was the question
Martin was not present that day
I never met him
Or do they resist?
There were two schools of thought
An older and a younger element
They decided to honor what they were told
Obey the law
Don’t push through the barricades
What if they beat them?
If attacked they agreed to shield the nuns
Rabbi Lipnick: Sister Ebo was my nun
But it never came to that
In Brown’s Chapel people everywhere
In the aisles on the windowsills
Sister Ebo: There were young people
Sitting in the front, bandaged, beaten from Sunday
Would we push through?
Or would we stand down?
People began to murmur
They brought the nuns
They brought the nuns
The Sisters given the place of honor
Singing the Baptist hymns
A minister asked her name
The chapel filled
With spontaneous applause
Started the service
This is the first time in my life
I have ever seen a Negro nun
He told the crowd Sister Ebo had come to Selma
With a message for Sheriff Jim Clark
Mayor Smitherman Bull Connor
And Governor George Wallace:
You don’t have to be white
To be good and holy
We want to introduce
Sister Mary Antona
Sister Ebo had not prepared anything to say
Sister Ebo: Oh mister please be quiet
In St. Louis they told me not to say anything
This is the South
She began speaking the microphone went out
You can’t hear her turn it up!
A young Black minister of the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference Andy Young stood up and said
If you want to hear
What she has to say
The room still.
My name is Sister Mary Antona I am a Negro
A Catholic nun and I am here to witness
Your rights to register to vote
Just yesterday in the city of St. Louis
I voted without having to go through what you
Are going through and on Monday morning
Just a couple of days ago I made a statement
That If I had not this habit on
I would be in your midst
Here I am
I believe this is God’s way
Of calling my bluff
Andy Young made the suggestion
Let the St. Louis nuns
Lead the way
In the street demonstration
Young: I had never been sure
Of the commitment
Of the Catholic Church
In the field of human rights
This was the first time
Coming forward this publicly
On the matter of civil rights
From the Church
they walked downtown
Sister Ebo: I heard, put the Sisters in front
I understand the effect they were after
But it was not exactly where I wanted to be
Once we got out to the street
Mr. Collins government agent suggested
Put a man on each side of every Sister
He also suggested I take off my glasses
My first thought
We’re not down here
To play pick up sticks
The old habit had some deep pockets
I put my glasses in a notebook
In one of the pockets
Inside my habit
Rabbi Lipnick: When the march started
They asked me to speak
It was right before Pesach
I spoke about the Exodus
I tried to talk to Wilson Baker
Director of Public Safety in Selma
He’s the one who stopped
The march Baker turned his back
Baker: We are not here to negotiate
I have nothing further to say to you
Go ahead and talk to the press
I am not interested in listening to you
Rabbi Lipnick: There were white cars
Blue cars brown cars brown shirts
Blocking the street
Cops and soldiers three rows deep
The march halted less than a block
From its starting point
Marchers turned around
Orders from Selma mayor Joe Smitherman
Sister Ebo: We agreed that Sister Ernest Marie [now Sister Roberta, C.S.J.]
Would speak in the street
Reverend Anderson said the first person to speak
Will be one of our own he meant me
No, God, that’s not the way we agreed
I said about the same words
That I spoke
At Brown’s Chapel
I am here because
I am a Negro
A nun a Catholic
And because I want to bear witness
On the day they went from St. Louis to Selma
Sister Ebo led the march
Broadcasted all over the world on television
They walked a hundred yards and stopped
Three hundred state troopers and local police officers
Standing three deep
Ready to go to war
Blocked their path
Sister Ebo: I realized
I would not be kept
With the other Sisters
Wilson Baker: there will be no march today
Mayor Smitherman cited a local ordinance
Against walking to the courthouse
Without a permit
Thirty four others spoke
Then they knelt and prayed
From there to the Good Samaritan Hospital
Met some of the wounded from Bloody Sunday
They had sandwiches and drinks
Then to the airport
They left Selma for St. Louis at 4:30 PM
Wednesday, March 10, 1965, 4:30 PM
Returning to St. Louis from Selma Alabama
A Unitarian minister
Attacked on Tuesday March 9
Working the march from Washington D. C.
Struggling for his life on a respirator
Died on Thursday one day after the visit
Of the St. Louis mission to Selma
Beaten on the streets of Selma
Graduate of Princeton
A Quaker working
In a Boston housing project
Reverend James J. Reeb
Thirty eight years old dead in Selma
On the evening of Monday March 15th
President Lyndon Johnson introduced the Voting Rights Act
A joint session of Congress
He called the events in Selma “an American tragedy”
President Johnson: It’s all of us
who must overcome the crippling legacy
of bigotry and injustice.
And we – shall – overcome.
When the Sisters returned to St. Louis
Commotion at the airport
Sister Ebo: We went to several
TV stations that night
Told our story
Important about the Sisters
Who went to Selma
Sister Ebo met Mayor Smitherman once again
Twenty years later he still mayor
Smitherman escorted her
Through City Hall in Selma
Sister Ebo: I looked into his eyes
And saw he had changed
The hate was gone
This from Mayor Smitherman —
I always wondered what happened
To that little Colored lady
They dressed up
Like a nun
Sister Ebo said to him
Honey you didn’t
I was for Real?
God sent me
To the poet:
I never thought
That 40 years later
About the nuns
Who went to Selma.
It just seemed
The right thing to do.
God blessed us
And I’m still alive.
At the beginning of this exercise, everyone should put on a mask. Let us spend a time looking at each other with masks on. Let us spend a time behind our masks, in silence. This will be an exercise in reality with a mask, the unmasking of reality, the deep reality that lies at essences, beneath surfaces and underneath the mask.
Purim is the holiday of masks. Question: what does it mean to wear a mask, or what does it mean to be the master of the mask, or discuss the progression from one whose mask is the master to one who is the master of the mask?
It may also be instructive to think of the year as an inner journey, a spiral of inner development, so that each holiday is related to each other one in some significant way. If we are thinking about Pesach, coming soon, as the celebration of our freedom, both the freedom of a people and the inner freedom of the individual, then we might want to think about Purim as the last stop in the inner spiral of awareness before we celebrate release and freedom.
Now let us reconsider what it means to be master of our masks, as a penultimate stop along the way to freedom. Master of the mask, demonstrating what? Why is that necessary for the freedom story? What does it signify to be master of the mask and why is it necessary before Pesach?
To the story:
Let us note that the book of Esther, the story of the Megillah, has one glaring omission: there is no expressed mention of G*d, not once, in the entire story. What is the significance of that?
How is it to unmask the G*d story in Esther, where is the G*d-story in the Book of Esther? Think about the God-story in the book of Esther as unmasking, like unmasking the G*d-story in the world, in existence. So is the G*d-story in existence — somewhere deep beneath the mask –the deep story, the really real.
Let’s take some time speaking about that. Or – thinking it. Feeling it. The G*d-story, the deep story that is lurking within, the search for it, the attachment to it, this a part of the Purim unmasked story.
It’s all there, unmask it.