Just before Passover that year, the holiday changed character for me. I visited with a group of prisoners in an institution about an hour and a half drive from my home. I had been writing to this group for about three years. That’s how it started: I sent teachings to prison.
Who are these people? I had to find out. The prison system is often difficult to penetrate. I made a contact. Can I come visit?
“Oh yes,” the chaplain said, “We have a Jewish group that studies together once a week. They are waiting for you. They’ve been reading your materials.”
There was a load of equipment in the chapel for services and such -– amplifiers, microphones, six or seven decent guitars, a banjo — I grabbed a guitar and waited for my students.
At 1 PM they started coming in from the yard. There were 13 or 14 men, this was the group that studied together every week. They were currently learning a midrash on the book of Proverbs, one of their leaders had a yeshivah background.
Not all of them were Jewish but all were serious and well informed. “It’s prison,” one of them said to me, “we have time.”
We sat around a folding institution type table from 1 to 3:30. Nobody got up, not once, no one went to the bathroom, no one left the table to get a drink of water. Occasionally I added to the groove by picking up the guitar and singing a song, but mostly we sat and learned. We discussed a group of texts that I brought with me. I was allowed to bring papers but not books.
I brought teachings that presented the images of Passover in an almost entirely inward way, as if the freedom celebration was a ceremony of inner liberation, as if the story of Egypt and the Exodus was the story of escape from inner bondage, as if all the freedom lore of Pesach was a story ultimately of inner liberation. It began with Mitzrayim as narrows (Lam.1:3) and as a dual form, embodied, like ears like eyes like lips like hands like ourselves. I played a little Misirlou (Dick Dale version) for spice.
“It pertains to me,” one of the men said wistfully. All the heads wagged in agreement.
When we were done, I realized where we had been the last 2 1/2 hours. We had left our inner limitations, a place too small for us now. Nothing we studied was theoretical and I never felt the words before quite like this: in every generation, each person should feel as if he or she personally were released from Egypt.
We were talking freedom non-theoretical; what obstructs it, how we carry our narrows around with us, how we might go about becoming free in the real sense we can. All of us are prisoners of something. How we become free is an inside job.
Big Tent: the next step is to tell the stories.
I get to know people but I may not know names. Thirty years ago I began taking my little kids to and from their [neighborhood] schools. I often passed a corner where there is a crossing guard, hired by the school district I assume, a man of many jobs it was clear to me because crossing is an hour or two job morning and afternoon and then I observed him hurrying off to his next location.
He drove a bike in those days, in all weather he drove a bike and he did it with abandon. He flew down the road on that bike, always toward the city. I enjoyed watching him sail down the road east-wards.
In recent years, I saw him less often but he was still employed I assume in the neighborhood as I would see him walking through the cut-through in front of my house that leads to the Metro Link. Also toward the city. So he is taking the light rail now but he was working somewhere in the neighborhood, he must have known people in our neighborhood he’s been around here for so long and if you noticed him you noticed as I did that he was dependable. He was crossing kids on that busy corner in all weather then off he zoomed on his bike. If you employ people, you want to employ a guy like him.
He is a black man. I am a white man. We both have emphasized the gesture of mutual acknowledgement all these years in enthusiastic ways, but I am in a car, he is stationary on a corner and though we always exchanged greetings through the rolled down window of my car as I was retrieving or returning my children, we didn’t actually converse. It was always a greeting with verve; I looked for him he looked for me I could tell.
We have never had a conversation because in all these years I have never bumped into him walking. Here I might pursue a distraction and follow the notion how come I am always in a car in a neighborhood not too large too walk around in and especially now that my children are grown this particular vicinity should be my stomping grounds in the sense that the idiom was created I should be stomping around in it who needs a car within this five-six block radius where I hang out, sit in the coffee shop, read and write meet people, etc. My office is a coffee shop I have an office but I prefer the coffee shop.
It’s been thirty years and we have never had a conversation. Until this morning.
On this particular morning, I walked over the cut-through to go to the gym to be tortured by the trainer I pay to keep my knees in shape so I can run up and down the stairs in my palatial estate. I am recently a first-time grandfather and I intend to chase baby Harry around my house as much as he wants but my knees have been in minor rebellion these last years and I thought some serious pump-iron might help me in the future. So far – it’s working.
This morning as I was coming back from torture and approaching the cut-through from the other direction, coming toward me the way he is always walking when I have seen him in recent years (toward the Metro Link) was the man who I have been exchanging sign language with over the last thirty years.
Here I might follow another thread and write about how many black men assume you don’t recognize them I have had this feeling myself I am not that recognizable unless I am dressed up or wearing a silly hat and I can always tell from a distance on approach whether somebody who should recognize me recognizes me at all. I could see on approach he made no gesture probably accustomed to not being recognized by a white man in the neighborhood of course I recognized him right away and hollered out first to let him know I am happy to see him.
I stopped on the sidewalk in the middle of the cut-through and we exchanged the obvious: how are you, good to see you again, don’t see you much anymore, how you doing, are you still riding that bike (he was now and again but not as much as he used to), and then I said: you know, we have known each other for (I made a quick calculation) thirty years but we don’t know each others’ names. That’s wrong. What’s your name? I’m Dan, he said. I’m Jim, I said.
We greeted each other on that bridge like old friends because we are. We didn’t know each others’ names for all the wrong reasons not only the racial divide but the economics of it (he has a bike I have a car) he has a bunch of jobs I have a bunch of jobs too but mine are flexible enough that I spent a lot of time driving my kids to and from school and my jobs (maybe) paid better and he probably doesn’t know that I think of him as my friend I have known him for so long and our greetings have been so mutually effusive (we made grand gestures of greeting at every sighting in all weather during all seasons) this constitutes friendship for me in some contemporary refiguring of the term and I might be distracted here and follow a trail about friendship and I don’t what it means for him but the clue has been we have paid attention to each other for a long time now and to me he is my friend.
If you live long enough, you make friends of all kinds you redefine friend and whatever we are to each other it is something especially to me (I am shy). This morning – we spoke.
On the floor called “the hole” reserved for disciplinary segregation, I can visit and the corrections officers put me in a room where lawyers and psychologists and others who have occasional time with the inmates meet. It’s a small room, open to where the corrections officers sit so they can see me at all times. Sometimes they ask me to sit in the doorway, sometimes they ask the inmate to sit in the doorway. It’s an open door room and there is an official looking computer and a screen and a corner of table between myself and the person I am speaking with so we can lay out some papers or a book.
I asked for the fellow I have been visiting for about six months now and the corrections officer said, sure but he’ll have to be cuffed. He came out with handcuffs on; there had been some disciplinary business with him though I can’t imagine what, he is so well behaved with me. Polite. I didn’t ask.
While we were sitting and talking another fellow was brought out of the same lock-down (the hole) also cuffed but not nearly as compliant. There were ten corrections officers assisting with his transfer from one section of the floor to another and he was hollering. First he went limp on the floor so it was difficult to pick him up. He’s a big man. A few more officers came up from other floors and he became more agitated and let out a soliloquy of intelligible complaints about his treatment and his life behind bars; loud but in complete sentences and well reasoned.
By this time he scurried and was dragged just outside the open door where we were sitting. We continued talking about the material we were discussing from the book between us even though he was making a major fuss less than ten feet away. You get used to this here, said the fellow I was speaking with, then he described in more detail that guy making all the fuss.
He’s mentally ill, he said, and he filled in for me some of the things he did back on the floor. He’s in the hole, which means he is alone in a cell, but he makes a lot of noise. He’s been incarcerated off and on since he was a teen-ager and he looked to be in his late thirties. He had many tattoos, some of which ran up his neck almost onto his face.
A lot of the guys in here are mentally ill, said the fellow I was speaking with, the book of Torah spread on the table between us, the guy hollering on the floor just outside the door, still we continued our conversation. I would say about a third of the guys here are mentally ill, a third are criminals, and a third like me. What do mean like you? I asked him. I could be helped if anyone would really take the time. He laughed.
There’s no help here, he said, if I’m not careful I’ll become a criminal. Or crazy. Like that guy.
I looked at the guy who was now even closer to me. They had picked him up finally and strapped him into some kind of mobile restraining chair. Let me talk to the psychologist he hollered. He assumed I was a psychologist, sitting in that room, and he started to laugh and then he began to holler a mad explosion of sound. I could see him close enough now to read one of his tattoos, the one on his neck.
It read: Hard to kill.
Vision, part 1
R. Gamaliel, R. Eliezer b. Azariah, R. Yehoshua, and R. Akiva came to the Temple Mount they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies, they all burst into tears, except Akiva Akiva laughed. [Makkot 24b]
I saw the foxes on the narrow dirt roads of the upper Galilee inching my way along in a Spanish-built car directioning myself by intuition and finding my way to my destination. I passed near the grave of R. Yonatan ben Uziel. I saw the foxes, it was the week before Tisha B’Av and there was nothing in the obvious associations lost on me. The foxes were small, beautiful, car savvy, easily outrunning me on the car/foot/bike path darting in and out of openings in the foliage at the side of the road where they no doubt lived and thrived. Little foxes.
I felt neither the inclination to burst into tears or to have a particularly optimistic read on the future, though the Akiva laugh is always most meaningful to me as an invocation of neither via postiva or via negativa, just via ambiguosa. Who the hell knows what the foxes prefigure: you may as well laugh. They thought it was desolate, Akiva thought it was funny, George Moon thought it was desolate and funny, I think when presented with the sensory information, one may as well laugh.
I also feel the proximity between the laughing and the tears, to me they are right next to each other on the spectrum of human responses to existence when it is not a linear notion but a circular notion. Tears are sitting in one spot on the circle, right next to the tears the funny man and the distinction between the two is subtle. You might think you’re sitting in the tears spot and a moment later you’re cracking up and you realize you are in the next seat, laughing. I spend a good deal of every day in both seats as do most of the people I love.
I recall the description of Bar Yochai, Akiva’s student: one eye smiling, one eye crying.
Akiva, I am sure, knew the prophecy from Zechariah 8:4ff, Old men and old women shall sit again in the streets of Jerusalem, each one with his staff in his hand because of great age. The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets.
If so, don’t take this prefiguring of the foxes too seriously; better days are coming. Akiva of the long look.
Or perhaps what Akiva had was a real vision. He actually saw into the future and saw what Zechariah described happening; it wasn’t a matter of attitude or posture, it was Akiva gazing into the future and seeing so much restoration that the implication of the ruin brought by the foxes meant nothing to him. He might have been laughing at everyone’s limited imaginations. Behold the story of the foxes, drawn without much imagination, Akiva saw beyond that, eschewed homiletics, had confidence in the future and knew God provides. Relax, said Akiva, I saw it and quit making sermons. You’re boring me with your tears drawn from those cute little foxes.
Secret: every so often — what we have here – is a real vision.
These Are the Stories
Big Tent Series
Got a call to go to the jail-house to visit a particular inmate. Do you know him?
Oh yes, I know him. He used to come by the Thursday night group for recovering addicts. I didn’t know him well but I remembered him and remembered when he came around he came with regularity and I found him a job, an assistant cook in a nice restaurant.
When I went to see him I asked, what happened?
Couldn’t stay with it. I messed up.
He was picked up with drugs and later I found out there was a weapons violation involved uh oh and he was looking at serious time.
I’m often surprised by these guys, many of them are smart and seem sincere and sometimes I can’t figure how they get into the messes they get into. With this guy, he missed a basic lesson. I asked him whether they had meetings in the jail-house, he said no, just Christian.
Whoa, I said, sobriety is your religion now, I said, recovery. Get yourself to meetings. I’m not talking about church. Make your sobriety the center of your life. Everything else will follow. I don’t think anyone ever said that to him before, he looked so surprised.
I’ll get you a Hebrew Bible I said, soft cover. I’ll get you a calendar. I’ll put together a book of teachings for you. You get yourself to meetings.
I need a Hebrew name, he said.
His given name had no precise Hebrew equivalent. What is it you love?
I work with my hands. I can build and fix anything. I want to fix up old houses.
I told him about Betzalel, the first artisan, and how without him the Temple could not have been built. God showed Moses the pattern floating in the sky but without the artist Betzalel it could not have been built.
Betzalel? He said it with a little difficulty.
Yes, you like it? The artisan. The builder.
Yeah that’s right. Let’s pray with it.
What’s your mother’s name?
What’s her name?
Her name was Deborah.
That’s a Hebrew name, you know, you’re Betzalel ben Devorah and now I’m going to chant a holy prayer for your healing in your name and the name of your mother through whom your healing comes.
I sat there in the jail-house cubicle separated by the thick glass with the phone to my face a foot away from him and I chanted some healing prayers naming him and his mother withholding nothing.
Thank you, he said, he thanked me again. Sing it again? He asked. I did. Several more times.
There was a group of people on my side visiting in their windows with their beloveds on the other side, all through the glass, with phones. Everyone got quiet. Some people had bowed their heads, some had tears in their eyes, all of them thanked me on my way out.
#32a These Are The Stories
These Are The Stories
Big Tent Series
The next time I saw Betzalel [we figured out that name on the first visit see Story #32] I had given him a Hebrew Bible in English translation soft cover. I put a note on the inside with the page number where Betzalel is mentioned in Exodus 31 and I highlighted the verses.
I went up to the cubicle.
How do you say it, and he tried to say Betzalel but it didn’t come out right.
In the Bible I gave you they call him Bezalel, with a z, you can use that if you like and I felt myself beginning to speak easy English to him thinking he’s not going to get this Betzalel easily and in mid-sentence as I was explaining how he could say Bez-a-lel nice and slowly, he said:
It’s a tzaddi — [the Hebrew letter that is more correctly transliterated as tz or ts though there is no exact English equivalent].
Yes, I said, it’s a tzaddi, realizing he had been studying Hebrew somehow on his own in there and once again I betrayed my bias and how wrong I was to assume he had not entered deep into his name into this search he is on for meaning and he is a foot away separated by thick glass — we were talking by phones through the jail-house window — he is a black man I am east-west and when the keepers of the purse-strings asked me who are the people you see in the jail house are they white are they black are they jewish how completely irrelevant that is on so many levels and how many of the questioners know what a tzaddi is anyway?
Forgive me, I thought, I smiled a big smile shamed by my bias, yes I said it’s a tzaddi just say it slow and in syllables until it becomes comfortable: B’tzal-El. It means in the shadow of God.
james stone goodman
An American in Cuba
The streets are clean. People wore clean clothes. The white shirts, white white, and the blue shirts, not faded. I like to dress up. I was the one who wore a tasteful baby blue seersucker suit to Cuba. I notice things like clean shirts.
I know that in Cuba people do not have a lot of personal possessions. Where I live, if I see that many clean shirts I figure the individual has a lot of shirts. Not in Cuba. The word I heard often to describe the whole notion of personal possessions in Cuba, from Cubans: scarcity.
If I wanted to purchase a shirt in Cuba, for example, there was basically one. It was nice, a linen cotton blend with four pockets, but I saw the same version of the same shirt everywhere. Also with hats. There were a few straw hats for sale in every store, basically the same hat. They were cheap and, well, they looked it.
The shirt has a name. It’s a version of what is known in the region as Guayabera, also known as the wedding shirt. The version I saw most often in Cuba had four patch pockets and a vertical linear design of pleats on both sides of the middle buttons. There are several interesting theories of the origin of the shirt, some that originate in Mexico or Spain or Native peoples in the region, and some which go back several centuries.
There is scarcity in Cuba. Cubans need most everything, except for those items they do quite well making themselves, such as pharmaceuticals for their free health care system. They produce a lot of their own pharmaceuticals, but they still have problems securing the raw materials for some of their drug industry. The Embargo (el bloqueo).
The Embargo is blamed and I’m sure it’s true for much of the scarcity, but not all. In agriculture, for example, Cuba a lush island in the Caribbean that until recently imported 80 percent of its food, cannot blame all that scarcity on others. The Cuban vice minister of the economy and planning ministry reportedly said in February 2007 that 84 percent of the country’s food was imported. I was told they are presently importing about 60 percent of their food.
Their chicken comes from Canada. Frozen. A lot of trade comes from Canada, thus Canadians have a sweet deal on travel to Cuba. A Montrealer can spend a week in Cuba in a decent hotel for $700, flight included, one of the benefits of trading with Cuba.
Until the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba supplied the Eastern Bloc with all the sugar and rum they could consume in exchange for fertilizers to support Cuban agriculture. When the Iron Curtain came down, such support ended abruptly, starting a period the Cubans refer to as “the Special Period.” This is either irony, a good sense of humor, or a cruel joke on themselves; during the Special Period there was widespread malnutrition and the average Cuban lost twenty pounds between 1990 and 1994.
On the other hand, the scarcity of fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides necessitated a kind of agro-ecology developed by something Cuba has no scarcity of: scientists. Cuba is a well educated country, it has 2 percent of Latin America’s population but 11 percent of its scientists. Fidel made education a priority and that is another proud feature of Cuban culture.
Venezuela bailed out Cuba on fertilizers, so there is an industrial agriculture again in exchange for the surplus of doctors that Cuba trains in its medical schools.
A Cuban engineer told me that under Fidel there was also little personal incentive for agriculture so agriculture suffered greatly. For example, he said, we taught the Vietnamese, in a similar condition as ourselves adjusting a Communist ideology, to produce coffee. Now we import our coffee from Vietnam.
The coffee was not great. My brother’s friend who was born in Cuba and left at the Revolution, sends his family living in Cuba Bustelo coffee, the same I buy at Straub’s and my daughter drinks from the bodegas in her neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s packaged in Miami. The best cup of Cuban coffee I had during our trip was in the airport in Miami on the way home. Best Cuban food too.
There is virtually no homelessness, Cubans are proud of that, no hunger, etc. Basic foods are rationed for next to nothing.
There’s a kind of dual economy in Cuba. There are even two currencies, so to speak, one for locals one for visitors. The local currency is supported by perks that is basically a rationing system.
The streets were also clean. There wasn’t a lot of garbage languishing about and I didn’t smell sewage. The streets smelled better in Havana than they do in New York City, for example, and a lot cleaner and I didn’t see people living on them as I do in all the warmer climates in the United States.
I saw few policemen and guns are well controlled. There is still some street scamming, but nothing like you run into if traveling to other Caribbean islands. In Cuba, one has to be careful not to buy ersatz Cuban cigars on the street. People will try to hustle tourists with cigar scams.
I saw little drug or alcohol abuse, and if there is, it is handled in the tiered Cuban health care system that operates through a series of health facilities in ascending complexity beginning in the neighborhood. Every neighborhood has a clinic that handles the basic health care, something more complicated may be referred to a clinic or hospital that specializes in heart, kidneys, digestive system, etc.
There appears to be zero tolerance for illicit drugs, and none were offered to me on the many strolls I took through the streets of Havana. If someone in a family has a problem with alcohol, it is usually handled in the neighborhood clinic and by engaging the whole family. Havana has an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every night of the week.
There is a scarcity of affordable housing and it’s often too expensive for young people to live on their own, so there is often several generations living within one apartment or house. Newlyweds even live with their parents. We tend to marry young, one of our guides told us, we also divorce because it’s difficult living with your parents after you’re married (he was recently divorced).
Everyone seemed to have family who have left Cuba. This is a big problem for the future of Cuba; it’s an aging population. The problem from within is to keep its population on the island, its young people at home, the temptation for young people to live elsewhere is great. It’s a problem both from within and without; I heard Cubans blame the Embargo for this many times.
Cubans were quick to make the distinction between American policies and Americans. There seemed to be little animosity toward Americans, I heard this from everyone and it came up often in conversation. I believed it. But the great burden of the Embargo seems to be on everyone’s mind. I think the Cuban people feel the changes coming so quickly that a lifting of the omnipresent Embargo cannot be far behind.
Cuba is eager for the kind of individual incentive that they associate with the United States. There are already private clubs and restaurants and ways to engage in private enterprise that were not known ten, even five years ago. We visited some privately owned restaurants (paladares) and clubs that could have been located in any city of sophistication anywhere in the world.
I think the Cubans can taste the end of the Embargo and the release of Cuba to grow without the obstacles under which it has labored since the Revolution in 1959. It’s an island of startling beauty, history, potential. It longs to be released from the barriers from without. Cuba wants to keep its Cubans.
Everyone on the island seems to be poised to make a better living. There’s a spirit of independent enterprise. I picked up a few good ideas for retirement myself. Looking to hire a chicken.
James Stone Goodman
An American in Cuba
The Stories Were Over
By this time it was dark on the road from Havana to Trinidad. Almost pitch dark, the last vestige of a long day slipping away, the road had narrowed and we were all tired and hungry, a bit weary from the hours of bus travel. Quiet on the bus.
Staring out into the countryside of former tobacco farms, sugar plantations, modest country houses, I was dreaming into near-sleep bumping along after what seemed a long ride on the Chinese-made Yutong bus (the wa-wa).
I was dreaming out onto the road into the gathering night in whatever country we were moving through, I had reached a road weariness enough to require a pause and a calculation: where am I?
Cuba. Small road from Cienfuegos, the largest city in the province of Cienfuegos on the southern coast of Cuba, founded by the French in the early nineteenth century, to Trinidad, the World Heritage site founded in the sixteenth century, in the Sancti Spiritus province.
It was also the dissonance of being so close to home and so far, ninety miles from the Florida Keys did not make sense in the isolation of this island that had been this remote for this long in our imaginations. A dozen times a day I reminded myself of the proximity of this island to our land mass to the north; it made no intuitive sense to be that close to the United States and to have the history that we have with each other.
The possibility now for the geography and the politics to conform to geographical reality signifies an especially wondrous time to be here; there is the opening, for the first time in my adult life-time anyway, to a narrowing of the ocean of ideology that separates Cuba form the United States. Ninety miles at its narrowest point to Key West makes no intuitive sense, Havana to Miami 230 miles. It’s 230 miles from where I live in St Louis to Indianapolis.
I was dreaming something like this when Reb Shlomo intruded into what I call my mind and drew me into another reality entirely: it’s the 16th day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, are you going to remember my yahrzeit [anniversary of passing] this year? You’ve marked my yahrzeit with a story and a concert for at least ten years, it is now winding out on my 21st yahrzeit and no mention of me?
I checked my phone calendar and sure enough whatever spiritus-sancti clock ticks away in the soul had rung and awakened me to the notion that in a few minutes his yahrzeit would pass and I had not marked the event in the respectful way.
But I was on a bus in the gathering dark of rural Cuba. What the heck. I grabbed the microphone and launched, evoking the minority opinion: when you don’t know what to do, launch anyway. I asked permission. Permission granted.
I told a [brief] version of the story that had expanded over the years into at least ten chapters, the story I call: How Shlomo Gave Me My Name. The story in all its forms has been published in a small journal in Israel for at least ten years, every year I think the stories are over and every year another chapter erupts. Irrupts.
I had written another chapter for this year’s journal and though it had been published, I had not received my copies from Israel and it slipped my mind, the Shlomo saga, besides I am in Cuba and in the gathering gloom of whatever rural roadway I was traveling lulled me to dull on this the 16th of Heshvan, 5776 since the creation of the world as we reckon time, that ticked away when I realized sitting in the wa-wa next to my ya-ya that Shlomo’s twenty first yahrzeit had passed without a thought a mention a word a melody an acknowledgement of any kind.
I launched and with the help of the Chinese microphone in the dark told the [abbreviated] story of how Shlomo gave me my name, a story of truth with miraculous qualities called a memorat as defined for me by my teacher Dov Noy.
The only part of the story I laid out on was the romance aspect of the tale, as it is the locus of meeting between my beloved and myself in our early days as students in Jerusalem occupying the very place where Shlomo lived years before she and I met.
I also mentioned the difficult parallel story of the light-dark nature of the tale. The story is not all light all over, but my beloved and I were joined into the Shlomo story in a unique and sentimental way that I mentioned in passing but did not dwell on.
Many of the chapters of the story as it would play out over the years since retained those qualities of tale told and tale hidden, text and sub-text, what we call the hidden and the revealed. I told the revealed story with a nod to the hidden story for the careful listener.
Over the days after the telling, several people took me aside and shared with me features of the story that touched them the most, and some even with additions onto the Shlomo motif that added something to my own understanding of his living and his dying and the impact he has had on generations who survive him.
A feeling began to stir within me that had stirred several times before, one I recognize from being a repository and a contributor to the art of Story: I had thought the Shlomo stories were over. I felt another chapter rising from giving over the most recent version.
Several months ago I had told my editor in Israel, I think the Shlomo stories are over. Maybe not.
The Remnant, part 2
We visited the synagogues of Havana. First Adath Israel, the Ashkenazi Sinogoga of Habana, presided over by Jacob the shochet [ritual butcher] trained in practical matters by Rabbi Riskin in Israel. The meat comes from other locations in Latin America. They serve breakfast and lunch every day to their aging community, most of the youth that Jacob trained gone off to Israel. In shul they get a minyan but not much more. They also have a pharmacy in the building. This is what remains of the Orthodox community of Havana.
We visited El Patronata and Adela Dworin, Vice President of Casa de la Comunidad Hebrea de Cuba. She showed us a map of the remnant of Jews living in Cuba. None of the Jews we met in Cuba have ever experienced any anti-Semitism, every one said that. Their challenges come from a different set of obstacles.
We visited the Sephardic synagogue of Havana, Centro Hebreo Sefaradi de Cuba and Templo Beth-Shalom, Gran Sinagoga De La Commundad Hebrea de Cuba, next to a theater space featuring Brecht. There was also a gym on the ground floor. Upstairs there a small Holocaust memorial with quotations from Jose Marti. Simon Goldstein oversaw the Holocaust memorial. I’m seventy eight years old, he told me, a retired engineer, but who else? The Holocaust memorial is next to a performance space rented to a dance troupe.
There are obstacles both internal and external to the remnant Jewish community in Cuba. Externally, there is the continuing squeeze of the Embargo, or Blockade (el bloqueo). Internally, there is the drain of younger people to Israel and the US, and the lure of private enterprise that pays more than the State pays many of its professionals. Though education is provided for by the State, one can make more money these days in a variety of other ways that does not require the rigors of higher education.
We were talking with Dr. Mayra Levy of the Sephardic center. Someone asked: What’s your greatest need? First of all, we need more Jews, she said, and she added, Jews always live in hope. We had twenty four weddings underneath the chuppah in one night, she told us, this is the only way to increase our numbers [conversion of non-Jewish spouse]. The community is served by visiting rabbis from Argentina.
Twenty percent of their members are seniors, they too have a pharmacy and they serve meals. How many Jews in the country? They always ask, said Mayra. One hears 1500. I think about 1300. Before the revolution, 15,000.
We visited the two cemeteries, in Guanabacoa southeast of Havana, within sight of each other, one Ashkenazi one Sephardi. Founded in 1906, they are not well maintained and full of familiar names and stories rising from every tomb.
I noticed that the gravesites seemed not only in disarray, but it looked to me as if they had been looted. When I returned home, I did some research and I found an article in the Forward about these particular graves called “Grave-Robbers Target Cuba’s Jewish Cemeteries in Search of Bones for Rituals,” by Ilan Stavans (Jewish Forward, June 2, 2013).
The area of the cemeteries, Guanabacoa, is known as a center for Santeria, combining West African elements and Christian ritual, and a lesser known religion with African roots called Regla de Palo Monte or simply Palo Monte. “One of the rituals of Palo Monte requires the use of bones from nonbaptized people. These bones come from Jewish and Chinese graveyards. The Jewish bones are the only ones used to ward off the evil eye.” Whoa.
I found names of Syrian and Turkish Jews from the end of the Ottoman Empire, later Ashkenazi Jews fleeing Europe before the Second World War who made their homes in Cuba, all buried in the mix of cemeteries. I found a genizah, where the books and holy objects are buried, in both cemeteries.
Written on the entry-way: Beit HeChayim, the House of the Living. We call this language sagi nahor, the language full of light. Sagi Nahor is Aramaic actually, we use the expression — full of light — to describe blindness. We call the cemetery the house of life.
It’s the nature of reality to be and not be a certain way, something may be precisely what it seems not to be, not be precisely what it is. This is the language full of light. Full of light we are when we realize the road we thought was straight – is round.
Here are the stories, the remnant of the past, in the cemeteries — the places where we came from, those who remained, those who are remembered, the stones present on the graves placed by those who remember. The future of the remnant, as always, is unknown. We always live in hope.
The Remnant, part 1
It’s a remnant. The notion of the remnant figures large in our story. We have a name for it: Shear Yashuv. It is the symbolic name of one of Isaiah’s sons (see Isaiah 7:3).
It’s a name with a promise, the remnant will return, it’s part of the prophetic guarantee by Isaiah. Isaiah gave his children the symbolic names of return; in his time, the message was don’t worry King Ahaz, the southern kingdom of Judah is safe.
Of course it wasn’t safe. Assyria threatened from the north. Still, the names of Isaiah’s children carried the belief that a remnant will be restored. Sometimes that’s all we have, a remnant, but a remnant may flourish again. The Hebrew Bible teaches never to give up on the remnant.
Noah and his family survived the flood, only Lot and his daughters survived the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Elijah thought he was the only one left who had not submitted to idolatry. Get over yourself, God said, there is a remnant of 7,000, and furthermore I’m going to have to replace you with Elisha for talking like that.
I felt that in Cuba: the remnant. The temptation toward pessimism must be strong, but we met no pessimists. We were visiting a community on that part of its arc: a remnant, aging and diminished, its youth gone and continuing to leave. We didn’t meet a people giving up but a community of vitality and stick-to-it-tive-ness. Much like the rest of Cuba. Survivors.
They survived their history and a series of conquerors, they survived the dictators and the Soviets, they survived the departure of the Soviets when during the Special Period (the Special Period in Time of Peace, Spanish: Período especial something lost in the translation for sure) there was mass malnutrition, people were keeping pigs in their apartments, eating cats, living with blackouts.
These and all the other challenges from within and without that has troubled Cuba for the last twenty five years has not conquered hope. Now they are trying to climb out from under the pressure of the embargo, the blockade (el bloqueo) that seems antiquated and cruel now that the island is opening up to the rest of the world, the rest of the world opening to the island.
Raul Castro has instituted a new openness and a series of reforms and everyone in Cuba feels something new in the air and everyone cites the embargo as the largest next impediment to Cuban progress.
I am convinced: time to end the embargo.
I exited out to the yard through one of the doors that opened by control after showing my ID. The chaplain who was supposed to accompany me had not showed up. They gave me a whole ring of skeleton keys to open the muscular depression era doors. I felt stupid; had the keys to the doors and no idea where to go. I was alone in the yard. I stuffed the keys into one pocket of my jacket and the squawk box into the other.
I strode to the rear of the yard and walked into an open door where a group of men where taking off or putting on their clothes, I think it was a gym.
Are you looking for the chapel? How they knew this, I can’t imagine but I did not look like an inmate (they have uniforms and generally wear bright orange knit hats).
A guy took me outside the locker room and pointed me to the building next door.
It was locked up tight but I had the keys. I started going through them one after another, this was a large door and I began with the largest keys. I opened it.
Inside I found a light. Every single room was locked inside. I found the room I was in the last time, a larger room with some tables and a chalkboard, some instruments and a little stage, obviously a place where several groups share prayer and study privileges. I found the key to that room too. Now I was inside and I was alone.
I had learned at another institution I visit that if I opened the door, people tended to wander in. I made sure the outer door was open and within a few minutes an inmate came in and sat next to me, staring straight ahead at the altar/platform in front of us.
Mario [all the names have been changed], he said by way of introduction.
James, I said.
He asked me who I was and I told him.
He told me how he had discovered the Hebrew Bible in a cell when he was first incarcerated. He had read through it, cover to cover.
I asked him if he remembered the story of Esther and he remembered everything. I told him that today was the Fast of Esther and I told him the story in a way he was not familiar.
I told him that God’s name is not mentioned in the book of Esther which is curious and crazy and I made the interpretation that it’s a sure sign that God is everywhere in the story, so full in the events and the personalities and the choices that we are at the level of all-over-God, God everywhere.
I’m with you, he said.
He knew what a Rabbi was and he then told me his whole story, from the age of sixteen to the present, which I imagine was about fifteen years. It was a tender story, clear and full of details, well parsed for meaning and a good sense of where it would go when he left this institution. He wanted to return to the small town he came from and he planned to go to College and I believed him.
Another guy came in and he greeted me in a rather formal, well-rehearsed way.
I won’t ask how you are doing – for that is a question and I may not know you well enough to ask you a question. I will not inquire what’s new as that is empty and meaningless and meant only to engage in small talk. I will simply bless you in the way of my tradition . . . and he switched to Arabic and quoted some of the holy Koran, a portion I was familiar with. I know some Arabic blessings and introductions, so I responded in kind. His name was Alim. He had not asked mine.
He didn’t seem to know Mario so I introduced them. One of the Jewish inmates saw the door open from across the yard and he joined us, he didn’t know Mario either or Alim though he had seen them around. I introduced them.
We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. Alim had missed my introduction to Mario and left soon, returned about five minutes later with a few other guys.
You’re the rabbi! He said, I should have known! He must have asked around outside the chapel who is the guy with the not-orange hat in the chapel sitting around waiting for people to arrive.
There were two other individuals I visited the first time I was there but absent this time. I asked about them.
Transferred, one of the Jewish guys, Samuel, told me.
They were sent to a smaller camp. It was in part their letters to me that brought me to that camp in the first place.
Now there weren’t enough of them left in this camp to meet on the Sabbath. The prison rule in my state is that a religious group and its rights are defined by half a minyan — five members — since the two had been sent away they only had three by my count.
The Muslim brothers will join your group, Alim said, we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want. Alim knew a lot, it seemed, about working the prison system.
The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together, Alim proclaimed, you’ll have a group this Saturday and every Saturday.
It was getting close to the time that I was supposed to leave. I asked the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers which way was east. Alim showed me the corner where the Muslim brothers made their prayers.
Come with me, I said, quick, because there were some other people starting to come into the room looking as if they were the next group.
We went into the corner facing east and I opened up my hands and sung out pretty and slow the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers (6:23-27):
Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.
May God bless you and protect you.
Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.
May God’s face shine to you and be gracious to you.
Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.
May God’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.
As I was singing, I explained there is no partial, no individual, no incomplete – every single instance opens up onto the universal, and every partial resolves in the whole — everywhere God dwells is whole, quoting the holy Zohar.
I said something about salaam, shalom, or shleimut — the cognate root in Arabic and Hebrew — wholeness, integration. To bless is to dip below and reach above, the root below and the root above, the All, shleimut, to be blessed with a sense of everything. Like Abraham our father in Genesis 24:1, to be blessed with everything and to live in a larger space than the separate self when it feels isolated, un-integrated, broken, incomplete. In this sense, there is no isolated, broken, separate, incomplete. There is Everything and each particular than opens onto Everything.
By this time the Christian brothers were coming in, they were the next group, the room was filling up behind us and some of them were watching us.
Their leader came over to me and asked, what is that you are singing?
I told him basically the same things I told the Jewish and the Muslim brothers. He was holding my picture on my ID card that I had copied to get the keys.
You’re the rabbi, he said, they told me up front that you’re supposed to give me the keys.
So I gave the Christian brother the ring of keys, he seemed to know what he was doing, and I asked him for my picture just in case they inquired on my way out.
The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, the skinheads had heard I was around and had threatened, and on the way Alim scribbled something on a piece of paper. We talked with animation until I realized I was alone. There is a certain line in the yard they cannot pass and they were standing quietly on the other side until I turned around mid-thought and realized where they were standing, ten feet behind me.
I walked back to them and thanked them and told them I would be back in two weeks, we’ll be here, said the Muslim brothers, all of us. Alim gave me the paper he was writing on.
This is what was written on the paper Alim had given me:
Brother, your presence here is engulfed with the love of forgiveness. Please do what you can for all in this community.
Is there something in this story that is not-God? I am searching for it, this continuation of the Purim story, though I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing. I could have not taken those keys when the chaplain didn’t show up, I could have turned around and gone home. I could have returned the keys when there was no one to meet me, I could have missed the opening.
Instead, I showed up, watched something profound and stupid unfold into something profound.
james stone goodman