Peace Vigil: Story 1
As it heats up, I am thinking-doing what I can. Write. Sing. These are the pieces.
I am feeling ourselves spinning into the events of our time and their significance is elusive but perhaps it will clarify, just as Rashi the poet predicted, one day we will come to see that it was as it is supposed to be, the deep significance of events will clarify and the events will release their deep significance just as Rashi the poet described the emek of Hevron, the valley of Hevron — it’s not a valley it’s the depth of events in the Torah Vayeshev — the depth of the story.
Do I understand the obstacles to peace making? No. But I have spent some time there, I have some experiences on the ground, I have sat with artists mostly and musicians and I have even been their student. I apprenticed myself to the world sounds. I went there to learn at the source.
Everybody I met in Israel wanted to know what I was doing there. I told whoever asked that I had returned to Israel to study and to play the oud. When I first came to Israel, in 1976, I was part of a rhythm and blues show that toured the country. I appeared all over Israel playing exclusively American music.
To most Israelis I met, that made sense, but my mission to learn the oud did not. “Why don’t you play the guitar?” one asked me. “”I do play the guitar,” I said. “The oud. . .” she said, “it has such a whiny sound. Is that racist?” she said to me. We concluded that it was just uninformed. At least she asked.
The Israelis I hung out with were exceedingly aware of racism and were working at the deepest levels of self reflection to work themselves clean of that corruption. I felt this everywhere. I feel that eroding now, and I am wondering whether we are in the it will have to get worse before it gets better phase.
The Israelis I met when I was studying there were curious about me, I am sure they thought maybe I was a little crazy, most wondering why the heck I was interested in learning this instrument from an Arab in the western Galilee. It seemed like such an unlikely pursuit.
One night, I was having dinner in Jerusalem with a group of Israelis. It was Shavuot, as a matter of fact, we were getting together and then we were all going to hear Aviva guide us to Ruth, learning until dawn, walk to the Wall, and say the morning prayers as the sun came up. It was the thing to do in Jerusalem on Shavuot.
At the table, there was an Israeli academic sitting next to me who had just returned to Israel after having spent half a dozen years getting his Ph.D. at Penn in Indian Vedic philosophy. “So,” he asked me, “what are you doing in Israel?”
I began to tell him about the instrument, about the music I had come to learn, and half way through my exposition, I stopped and asked him, “how interested are you in this story?”
He said something beautiful and true to me. “When you love something, when you know it in depth, at its essence, every something becomes Everything. Every part of the story becomes the whole story, every part the Whole.” I told him everything.
But that is not why I am telling this story now. This story is being written as a reminder, a purely personal reminder, to me because I need it now. I need the memory of a time when I moved across the borders that now separate and isolate, when I wandered fearlessly between cultures that are now warring with each other, when I entered the mind of my estranged relations in the East, without knowing anything at all about them, them about me, but connected through something greater than our differences.
We met beneath our differences, before the exile from each other, we met at the intersection of the common sound we made, the music in our hands, and if we could find our way to each other through music, could peace be far behind?
How far? How long?
An American Dream of Life
James Stone Goodman
Celebrating July 4th as I write this with a tasty American lunch, walking distance from the confluence of the Big Muddy Missouri and the Mighty Mississippi rivers, where two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark set out to discover the Northwest Passage. It wasn’t the Northwest Passage but it was 1804, Lewis and Clark took off from here on their way to the Pacific, actually less than two miles from here, two hundred years altered the geography only two miles. In other ways we are more altered, more cynical for sure, the evidence is in, we are diminished.
I am also celebrating the birthday of a great American, my grandfather, who was born on July 4th, so proud a day for immigrant families that they often tried to talk, cajole, even buy their way onto the official record with a birthday of July 4th. My friend telling me about her husband’s immigrant origins: he was born twenty minutes to midnight, July 3rd, they tried to talk the doctor into altering the documents, he wouldn’t, even though he was a brother-in-law!. It mattered, because the immigrant loved the American dream of freedom, it drew millions of immigrant parents to new lives. What of their children? Could it take only a generation to forget the dream?
Every July 4th I renew the dream, in some bone-headed way I am a patriot, I feel something of what my generations felt, how their eyes filled up when they talked about sailing past the lady in the harbor, looking up at the dream advertised by her torch, and into Ellis Island, where our names changed, and we scurried into the unknown American night looking for opportunity. Tailors, seamstresses, butchers, barbers, smiths, artisans, dreamers all of us, none of us educated into America, but soon we would be because we knew that education would lift us up, on eagles wings, into the American dream of life.
The American dream of life. It renews for me every July 4th when I honor in a quiet way my grandfather on his birthday (was it really – or did he fudge the date, having been born on a kitchen table anyway, who would know?) What it was that he loved about this country was given to me when I was too little to evaluate it. Freedom, not theoretical, nor was it a cliché; it was the antidote to the Cossacks who came looking for us, later the Fascists who wiped up the rest of us.
Yeah, I’m a patriot. I believe the dream that he shared with me. I am lunching, spitting distance away from the confluence of the rivers, it’s July 4th, and looking off toward the west the way Lewis and Clark did before my people even got here, there are clouds in the air and birds singing American freedom songs. I take off my shoes and walk into the wet because I am too far away from their dreams right now, the explorers, too far away even from my own inherited dreams, the ones given to me by my generations, my grandfather whose birthday I celebrate every year with the conflation of the birthday of the country, this year at the confluence of the great rivers, great rivers, great conflations I am thinking of today, the lining of large ideas that I am wearing over my soul like a cloak.
Heck it’s only lunch, July 4th, but I am sitting here dreaming at the confluence of rivers and the conflation of ideas, I am Lewis and Clark wading through the loam on the great adventure of the American West that begins here, right here, I am my generations sailing by the statue with my arms around my family breathing deep these words I might or might not be able to read –
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
I am Emma Lazarus, the poet of that piece, descended from Portuguese-Spanish Jews, intoning her words carved on the pedestal of the statue, I am pre-cynical, not diminished, I am some kind of patriot thanks to my grandfather who I remember was born on the Fourth of July, maybe so maybe not, who cares — I remember him and what he believed, I believe. What he knew, I know.
And the Day And Night Are For You And Me And All
The first edition was only 12 poems
He kept expanding it throughout his life
A caution here to poets
Even the greatest can work it too much
Whitman designed and published it himself
Out of a printing shop in Brooklyn, Fulton Street
First in 795 copies about 200 extant today
Handset press no plates so the first edition
After a page printed
The type was redistributed on the hand-inked
Iron bed press
Whitman stopped the press a few times during publication
Once to fix a typo another to change a line
And the night is for you and me and all
And the day and night are for you and me and all
Some of the versions have the typo and some have the uncorrected line
For a long time critics thought it significant that what became known as
“Song of Myself” concluded with no period
a clue that the process continues
but we came to understand that the period broke off during printing
The cover dark green has vines and tendrils growing out of the
Leaves of Grass a pun leaf as in page also as in organic growth
Organic leaves one sprouts another
The book begins in ten pages of prose
Then twelve poems in eighty five pages
The soul third person present in the preface
The “I” emerging later in the poems
The preface with its origins in Emerson’s essay
“The Poet” the need for the American voice in poetry
The soul and the I circling each other
Articulating each other
Nourishing defining integrating sustaining
The complete manuscript of the first book is lost
Wish I could find it
Whitman worked out of a green notebook
Dated as early as 1847 [that I have]
Whitman said he left the manuscript with the printer
Who used it to kindle the fire or feed the rag man
On the frontispiece a bearded young man
Rakish tilt to the hat open collar
One hand in his pocket one hand on his hip
In some versions a bulge in his pants
I’m not kidding look it up
It’s an engraving based on a daguerreotype
The picture is not identified
And Whitman’s name doesn’t appear on the title page
This confused Emerson a little
But contributed to the sense that the personality of the poet
Emerges throughout the poems
The sense that the person and America and its language
Are growing out together off the page
Through the book
Out of the book and into the mind of the reader
The conscious unconscious of America
The voice in “Song of Myself” introduces himself as
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos
He is Walt Whitman he is America he is a dynamic
Integrating organic I am something Everything as is America
He is a fulcrum the mythic Whitman and the historic Walt
That barbaric yawp through the entire sweep of America
What came before
What he experienced
And what has come after
It all arises around and through Whitman
And his poetry his life when he lived
And that America teetering between what came before
And what after
The after we are still held in its arc
And this is one reason I think about him
And his Leaves of Grass on the birthday of America
And the publication date of his first edition
July 4, 1855
More the mythic America than the historic America
Though when I read him and think about his work
The myth and history are not so divergent
I learn and re-learn America in Leaves of Grass
Here’s a period I’m done.
July 4, 2014
159 years since publication of Leaves of Grass
I met the Baal Shem Tov Today
Or: Clever and Kind
It was said that the Baal Shem Tov before he emerged and began to teach
was a crossing guard — he took students to and from the Study house.
A humble occupation but none more important: to protect kids on their way to and from School.
Today I was driving down Big Bend Boulevard. Big Bend Boulevard is four lanes
two each way the road so named because it once led to a big bend in the Meramec River.
It is a large road for a walking street. In front of me a bumped up car —
white what was left of the paint — the rear lights extinguished I believe
(they had tape all over them).
The man driving I saw his hand go up inside his car — lucky I was to see it at all
we were all traveling pretty fast down Big Bend Boulevard — he pulled up and stopped with his hand up in the air and I saw a duck and six, seven little ducklings following crossing that big road in the middle where there are no stops and this man pulled up short right in front of them so all the cars behind him had to stop, me first and then he did something clever in addition to kind:
He pulled over into the next lane as they entered it and barreling down that lane was a big truck it had to stop too and that man angled his car so the truck could not pass the duck momma and the little ducklings they made their way to the other side the ducklings so little they had to jump up to make the curb but they made the curb.
Not only did this man do a kind thing he did a clever thing and it’s that combination of clever and kind — If we were all clever and kind we would triumph over the other side and the unprotected would make their way and jump that curb to safety on the other side – I think so.
Now: was this a black man a white man was he going to a job did he need a job had he come onto hard times was he an immigrant man trying to figure out how to get by was he hustling to make a living was he looking for a break in a hard hard life could he not afford to fix that dent of a car he was driving?
It makes no difference to this story because I caught up with him and I know.
I told him I saw the whole drama and how lovely it was and I know the answers to the above questions but those pictures in your mind make no difference as they make no difference to me.
It makes no difference what kind of man he was other than he was a human being who on Monday, May 12, did something clever and kind and that is what it takes to make a difference in this way: be clever and kind.
I have been everything in this story: I have been that mamma duck I have been those babies vulnerable jumping the curb —
Today I was that man driving the car clever and kind I have also been that truck
traveling the road too too fast to slow down safely.
I am every part of this Story.
How the Eggplant Got its Name
I named it
In ‘06 I was on loan to the Court Of the Ottomans
From Prince Ali the last of the Levantine kings of Hejaz
From the Court came the request
The love meal bint Abdullah
The daughter of Abdullah and her beloved
I had sent for the marriage tea with gold flecks
From the tea master
To accompany the meal
I was asked to create something
It was one of the holidays of the full moon
The full moon signifying the complete
Appearance of the newness drawn down during days of awe
And no challenge was too great.
There was a field of aubergines just beyond my rooms
We called them then nightshades
Or binjal in our dialect
al-badinjan in the tongue of my father
from the Persian badin-gan
my cousins in India where it originated the Sanskrit vatin-ganah.
I went and picked the finest of the field
Soaked them in salt to absorb the bitterness
From the nicotinoid alkaloids (related to tobacco plant of course),
I sliced the succulent aubergines
Stuffed them with a delicate tomato sauce spiced lightly
With fresh garlic and a perfect maltese basil
And drizzled it all with the finest olio vergine I have found
(the great olive oil must suffer)
Which at that time was the DiGregorio from the other side of the mountains
Where San Francesco once walked.
In the kitchen the aubergines were cooking
the Imam came for a taste (always a pest)
He stuck his finger into the tender aubergines
And fell out in a full faint right there.
The first words the Imam uttered as he returned to us were,
This is the most delicious dish I have ever tasted
Thus the name that has accompanied the dish
I created that night
The Imam fainted.
I thought it an indignity
I was flamboyant with olio that night
The delicate aubergines remembered by the transmissions of false histories
The oil was too expensive and the Imam fainted dead away!
That’s not the way it was.
Later that night I served the delicious aubergine
To the bint Abdullah and her beloved Ovadia
Followed by the wedding tea from the tea master
With the gold flecks
They drank the tea under a canopy of linen created for just this occasion.
In the morning she sent me the following message:
The eggs have been planted.
I took that to mean that the wedding meal was successful
In every way
And from that moment on the beloved aubergines
Were known in our court
Sunday, June 8, 2014, Pope Francis, President Shimon Peres and President Mahmoud Abbas gather in the Vatican to pray for the gift of peace in the Middle East, #weprayforpeace. For the first time Jewish, Christian and Islamic prayers will be held together in the Vatican. Italian, English, Hebrew, Arabic. We are watching 1 Henry IV 2 Henry IV in St. Louis, Missouri. English.
Pay attention to this day
Why not peace through prayer
Why not in the Vatican
With its conflicted history
Why not President Peres and President Abbas
And all the histories of violence and recrimination:
History-less-ness declare at the beginning of peace-making
Forgiveness and the absence of history.
Why not here in Shakespeare’s sequence
Its terrible history
Insult and shame and lust and vengeance and
On this day can we let it pass without
Acknowledging the intersection of events of small and great
Intersecting right here right now
This resting place in an oasis of one century 21
Here the United States of America
In this noble heart-line city
Named for the Louis who himself brought two Crusades:
Louis IX 13th c.
Captured by Egyptians in his first Crusade
Settling Aco Caesarea and Yafo
Building defenses for future Crusades.
He would go on two of them dying at the eighth crusade
Known as the only Canonized King of France
Responsible for mass burnings of the Talmud
Expanding the Inquisition in France, the nobility of his titular:
“the lieutenant of God on earth.”
Louis — I live in your city of the future and am speaking
Peace and forgiveness
On a day that happens this way
Like/Unlike all other days.
In this set of histories we are watching
Crusades are in the future
On this meadow in a park
They are the past.
How this intersects Here Now
Without a pause and a breath and a
Feeling for the past and a prayer for the future
And an Intention for Something
Out of something Old —
This is the Story.
Oh St. Louis person of the past
Lieutenant of God on earth
Turn over your dominion to the peace-makers
The peace-making that will arise out of uncertainty.
Oh past: One day you will Give up your certainty
And Inevitable peace will be made face to face
The peace-makers will have to put our histories in our pockets
Isn’t it worth a temporary
Let us all take our histories when we are making peace
And put them in a notebook
For peace-making we have to begin and we have to begin
For now we will put our histories away
Peace starts now
With a prayer
With an intentioned history-less-ness
We may trot our stories out later but for now —
We are listening.
Let the peace start now
We will earn each other’s stories
When we sit and eat together
When our children come to know each other
When we listen to each other’s music
When we recite our poetry to each other —
When we come to know we are more similar
Than we are separate
Then we will unpack our histories
And tell them like a story redeemed for sacred rite from
Let the peace start now.
O St. Louis
O lieutenant of God on earth
Give up your title
Turn your acquisitions over to the peace-makers
This prayer for peace —
O St. Louis
The heart-line of a new country
In this place named for you
We are listening to each other
We have our stories in our pockets
Let the peace begin in the most unlikely places
The most unlikely ways.
Let it emanate outward from every known and unknown place
Why not St. Louis.
Why not the great river cities
Plant an olive tree
Why not Rome in prayer
Italian, English, Hebrew, Arabic
Italian, English, Hebrew, Arabic
Italian, English, Hebrew, Arabic
Why not every place human being turning to human being and speaking
I am you and
You are me
And we are all
It was Naso, the longest parashah in the Torah, always read on the Shabbat before Shavuot, before the great wedding celebrating the enduring wisdom given to us because we had prepared in one version and because we did not in another.
Was it a complete gift this wisdom or did we turn ourselves inside out and twisted ourselves into a posture of acceptance some crazy yoga that we submitted to methodically and daily in order to gain the gift: here is your wisdom, nicely packaged it’s now in book form first it came as thunder and lightning but some time into the future after you are done with the telling you will begin the writing then it will be a book then it will return to lightning in digital form and you will return to telling because the words are on the wind in the rain maybe once in a while you’ll project them on a wall or write them in a journal to remind you that the word has shape and also to remind you that the word does not have shape it has sound. The return to thunder.
What a week. Great ascent tempered by a plummet back to reality, ta-da ta-da little sleep and much wrestle with the dreaded mind-slip and the question mark associated with the mysterium: what to do, and the great vulnerability of being a human being alive but fearful of the drift downward. Fear full. Reminder: drift Up.
Then the blessing in its three parts from the book of Numbers, Naso, and great stories from several years ago from this same Shabbos. The way Rashi reads the blessing: material. Blessed will you be with possessions, this from the Medrash.
The way the Mesillat Yesharim reads it: everything is a test. You get good: a test. You get bad: a test. Everything is a test. Mesillat Yesharim, also known as R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, eighteenth century, his story and his writings speak to me and I think I ran into him at the house of study that bears his family name in Venice. He is another who had a maggid that spoke to him – through him invoking the teachings that came from Elijah the prophet, the poor guy was hounded out of Venice to Amsterdam and eventually to Aco where he died in a plague.
From the Sefas Emes the sense of shleimut, wholeness, to be blessed with shalom is to be blessed with wholeness, some sort of inner point of blessing that opens from the one the individual the instance to the many the All the Universal. The Sefas Emes calls this the inner point of truth. The inner point of truth: When you have that you have everything. Peace is a vessel. It contains blessing.
In the Sefas Emes version, the three fold blessing is given in the singular opening onto the plural, one and many, the individual as it opens onto the universal the universal always sheleimut/shalom/l’seim lekha shalom — to bring the blessing from the individual instance to the universal application, the conduit from the one to the many – to break through your skin and live in G*d.
The inner point of truth this is shleimut/shalom the inner is experienced as the universal. Wherever G*d dwells there is blessing, wherever there is blessing there is shalom. I am you and you are me and we are all together.
I love the partial the broken individual incomplete, the fragment the wounded. I love the separate because it integrates and even if not it is whole. I am stunned by this teaching each time I revisit it.
This year Shabbat Naso always the thought of the blessing as we enter the last leg of transformative-gift getting that is the durable wisdom soon soon and sitting in the minyan that night a guy from Thursday night meeting fresh off of heroin and tonight he is fresh on I can generally tell from looking at him. Later that night quietly he lets me know: I used today. I gotta stay close to this, he says. I want this so bad.
You are here with nothing I am thinking Rashi – but your dearest possession right now is your sobriety. Get clean and that one possession will open onto all other blessings, without that blessing – nothing. He knows this. Yeah yeah he says. We are talking in code a language so abbreviated only Rashi and his band of deconstructivists would understand. They spoke in grunts and hand signs, shakes of the head and so do we, they left only a one or two phrase resting place in language for the future.
It’s a test man, all of it, you will be tested daily. Today a test, tomorrow a test, each day a deadly quiz and if you fail it today you can make it tomorrow. One day at a time. Luzzatto. Go home to your Mom’s house tonight and take tomorrow fresh. Do-over, every day new. That’s not a blessing?
With the Sefas Emes we are entirely at home stoned or sober: the trip is internal, find your peace the inner point of truth within don’t forget the generosity of this: each part is a whole, each instance opens onto the All. Only Everything is everything. Find your peace, from the Sefas Emes, the inner point of truth: shalom, shleimut. Humble and opening Up.
Every day new. Every year another chapter on the story as it winds Up.
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ).
You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God (Lev. 19:18).
Two friends are learning in the house of study.
One: what do you make of “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” in context?
Two: You shall not hate your brother in your heart, hmmm, that’s where we begin, cleansing the heart of hatred.
One: Of course, that’s obvious. Brother!
Two: Brother! Like us.
One: You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor. Now that we understand it in context, it’s unusual isn’t it, this progression from you shall not hate to you shall surely rebuke, why would you rebuke your neighbor? What has your neighbor done? Say your neighbor is a drug addict.
Two: Oh my God.
One: Stay with me, your neighbor is taking drugs. You don’t approve. You see it, you have evidence, you may have even witnessed it yourself. It’s not a theoretical problem. You remember Benjy don’t you?
Two: Poor Benjy. Nobody knew what to do for him, so we did nothing.
One: Yeah, well that’s what we got going here. You don’t approve, you know something is wrong but you may not even know what it is, but something is not ay-yai-yai so you rebuke your neighbor.
Two: You rebuke him?
One: Yeah, you do something. You tell the truth, even at the expense of relationship, you approach him and say hey, I’m worried about you, you do this, you do that, you don’t put him down but you have got to do something. It’s not a theoretical problem.
Two: You got that right.
One: You rebuke him, because to have that knowledge and do nothing? I’m not using rebuke here in the sense of shaming him but in the sense of saying: stop. Drawing a line. Maybe even getting in his face. Hey – get some help. Or maybe even going to somebody else.
Two: Wow. What a concept. Just like with Benjy. We did nothing, and you know what? When it came down, I felt kind of. . .you know. . .responsible. I really did!
One: Yeah, so did I. You know why? Because we didn’t rebuke him. But the verse continues, don’t think that I came with just this one word to rattle in a bottle like a coin. . .
Two: Oh stop with that stuff.
One: Let’s continue with the verse, you shall not hate your brother in your heart, you shall surely rebuke your neighbor, and not bear sin because of your neighbor (Lev. 19:17 ). Not bear sin because of your neighbor, that means, like with Benjy, it was our responsibility to rebuke him, but not to bear his sin. With Benjy, sin means sickness. Because it was, after all, his problem. But there’s the rub: it’s his problem, still we are called to rebuke him, but not to carry responsibility for his sin. It’s his sickness, but still, we are called to do something.
Two: Yeah, wow, I remember with Benjy. When Judy did say something, Judy rebuked him, he turned it against Judy. Who are you, Benjy said to Judy, to get in my face? It’s my business, what’s wrong with you? he said to Judy. So Judy ended up feeling bad, bearing Benjy’s sin, but you know what? That was part of Benjy’s problem: place the responsibility everywhere but himself. I really see it now.
One: Yes, now let’s finish with our verse. Leviticus 19:18, You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God.
Two: We rebuke, but we don’t hate, nor do we bear the sin — it’s Benjy’s problem, not ours — and when he Benjy plays us like he did? We don’t get vengeful. The guy is, after all, sick. Not only do we not get vengeful, but we bear no grudge, we don’t judge him. That’s the hardest part. As a matter of fact, we love him. We love Benjy because only out of love will come the right action. Only through love will the healing happen.
One: You shall not take vengeance, not bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself, I am God. That’s the way of God, to know that if healing is to happen, it has to happen through love. No matter what our history is with each other, we cannot be a source of healing or help or truth or transformation for each other — because that’s what it takes with someone like Benjy, with someone like me, I’m no different from Benjy! — that’s what it takes to be a healing force in another person’s life. No expectations, no blaming, no shifting of responsibility, no avoidance, no revenge, no judgment, only the truth. And love. It has to come out of love. Only love has that kind of power to heal.
Two: That’s what we could have done with Benjy. Here’s the principle: lead with love, always. It seems so simple, but it isn’t easy, and it isn’t obvious.
One: Maybe that’s the deal with these two verses. Notice that we don’t lead with love, but we come to love, after having moved through don’t hate, surely rebuke, don’t bear sin, don’t take vengeance, don’t bear a grudge, but — love. I am God: the way of love, the true course of transformation.
One: Good session.
Two: Yeah, thanks. Be here tomorrow?
Rabbi James Stone Goodman serves Congregation Neve Shalom, and the Central Reform Congregation, in St. Louis, Missouri.