The Mercy of Truth, part 3

Chesed shel Emeth

Is the name of the Cemetery in University City, Missouri, that was desecrated the weekend of February 18, 2017

Part 3: I look at the language

Chesed Shel Emeth, it means something like the mercy of truth, these are hard translations because the terms are fluid in one sense and in another they have depth, nuance. Truth is a harsh standard; standing alone with truth, nothing would qualify. Truth however with a measure of mercy, that’s a recipe we can live by; in the phrase chesed shel emeth the dominating noun in this expression is truth. The mercy within truth, truth modified by mercy.

In the Torah chesed and emet appear differently, as two equal nouns connected by a conjunction “and,” mercy and truth. One does not serve the other, there is no hierarchy as there is in the phrase chesed shel emet, shel indicating possession. In Biblical Hebrew it doesn’t appear at all, only as sh … and in later Mishnaic Hebrew it becomes a preposition shel, as in the mercy of truth, merciful truth, something like that. Mercy and truth is the Torah version, and an implied equality of the two terms.

And not as in hendiadys (from the Greek, “one through two” as in two notions becoming one notion as in flesh and blood for a person etc.) indicating one concept; in the Torah chesed and emet are two separate nouns connected by a conjunctive “and” mercy and truth put them together and you have what Ezra Pound referred to as the ideogrammic method that supposes a fundamental relationship between the two words. Think: mercy and truth. Mercy and truth.

What does it mean, mercy and truth? It might be like what Rashi is referring to at the beginning of Genesis when he cites Chazal that God created the world out of the standard of din, law, and it wouldn’t stand so God added mercy and we have a living breathing organism of Existence. Truth alone too demanding a standard it needed a little flexibility to endure.

Plus there are multiple standards of truth, some may be too demanding for life, so truth needs a diluting, a little cream in its cup so to speak. But the dominating noun in the phrase chesed shel emeth is emeth, the mercy of truth, truth’s mercy a possessive, and it becomes attached to our dealing with death. What I’m thinking is that it’s a worthy phrase to think of in thought, not just about death, about everything.

That’s what I was dreaming at the cemetery as I visited after the crime of desecration, I was feeling myself through the complexity of responses I was experiencing when the holy ceremonial ground was violated — the voices of the ancestors, the respect we give to those who have passed before us, our loyalty to them, to holy — all of this was a complex bundle of feelings and thoughts as I stood waiting for the ceremony at the desecrated site.

Then there was a complexity of responses from those who were or weren’t present, but to me the first response is always silence. I ascended into silence and waited for the truth to rise, this I learned from one of my heroes, ibn Gabirol the greatest of the 11th century Jewish Andalusian poets.

The chesed in the story was the cooperative effort of good-hearted people who showed up in overalls and with rakes and field tools to clean up a cemetery that on its best days needs a good cleaning, who were then delayed by the Secret Service who warned them that many of their tools could not be brought into the cemetery because the Vice President (whose name can be mentioned, Pence) was going to make an appearance.

That to me was the emet in the experience: the news story that this Administration clearly needs in a rush of almost 30 days of negative stories. Was it dominant? Emet, truth, is the dominant noun, I thought, though the mercy or the good intentions that the Governor and the Vice President appropriated was not lost on me. It was not an either-or notion, it was both beautiful in its spirit of cooperation (chesed) and it was also a sell-out in the dominant emet of the appropriation of the event by what I consider to be the voices that contributed to the atmosphere in the land that made room for such criminality.

No one can convince me that there is not much difference now than there was eighteen months ago when the current President (whose name will not be mentioned) announced his candidacy with a negative diatribe against Mexican immigration and a vocabulary of Other-ing that opened the gates in my mind on the kind of ugliness we are now experiencing as minorities in our beloved country.

That’s what I was thinking as I ascended into silence in the desecrated grave-yard of the Chesed Shel Emeth cemetery, University City, Missouri. Into that silence was a sound that broke my reverie, a kind of rhythm I have come to recognize in my community. It was the sound of my landsmen patting each other on the back for the good work we were demonstrating there. Pure chesed.

We are good at patting each other on the back so I recognized the sound right away. My community loves to reward itself, each other, for obvious or even sub-standard activities, it makes us feel good. I myself have been rewarded several times the same way (the one I have most earned is Best Dressed Pain In the Ass).

I think I’m done writing about this for now, I have identified my dissatisfaction on that day: On the ritual level, too much blah blah blah, all chesed, that sound of patting each other on the back for a job well done, but the emet the truth in the Chesed Shel Emeth is that the Governor and the Vice President breezed in and out made some standard remarks and took over the event and the rest of us chesed-niks got pooked (I may have made up this word, I mean we were fooled because we had only good intentions), and what hurts is that I believe this officialdom contributes to the atmosphere that made room for this ugliness.

As I was leaving the cemetery, a young girl all chesed came up to me and gave me a lovely round piece of rose quartz. I love rose quartz, my son is a gemologist and he has taught me that rose quartz has a deep healing quality. It’s a love stone, it’s all chesed just like the young lady who gave it to me with tenderness and hope in her eyes, so I left with a good omen and the sense that the notion that may rise from these two nouns – chesed and emet in proximity – may be a matter for the future. Who was she? The future.

What will become of the energy at play in the graveyard that day, from recent months, and into the future? What will we do with what we feel, with what we know? What will rise in our time in our communities in our country that will take shape in weeks months and years to come that will demonstrate the play of these two nouns: The tough dominant standard of truth moderated by the flexibility organic sense of chesed of mercy, the trans-action of the two that will save us, or not.

 

jsg

Satire Writing Itself, pt. 2 about a Cemetery

Satire Writing Itself

 

I heard the repetition of what sounded to me like jargon: first name it. As of this writing, we have been practicing covert talking on the naming theme. What is it? Anti-Semitism. Is it vandalism? Is it a hate crime?

Does it make a difference? It makes a difference when we mark the rise of such events within an eighteenth month or so window that if you’ve been breathing you know corresponds with the rise of Trump in our country and the atmosphere of Other-ing that he with the complicity of his changing co-conspirators capitalized on in our country. And when the Vice President showed up to sweep around a few leaves we have a story more symmetrical than I could have written. It’s satire writing itself.

So we haven’t named it, that for starters. The Republican infatuation with power and its complicit cowardice has now filled in the story, add a glee to proximity to power at the local level and we have the media romp at the desecrated Jewish cemetery the other day. Gogol. Tom Wolfe. Philip Roth.

Standing next to me was a visitor from [what looked like] another planet. He kind of followed the crowd and wandered in because he was hanging out on the street that day and thought something big was going down. What’s happening here? He asked me.

What do you mean? Is it a party? He asked. It was a good question. If you were a visitor from another planet and landed there that afternoon you might not know that a crime had been committed: Almost two hundred graves desecrated, a kick in the stomach of an already vulnerable minority, so far no arrests, several days into the story and it’s beginning to recede from the news.

A crime, I said, he looked confused. Cemetery never looked so good, he mumbled (this was his corner).

We have a name for our enemies. In the tradition, we have a mythic designation: Amalek. What is it about Amalek that the name has punch in every generation? Amalek attacked at our most vulnerable place: the edge of the moving camp, where the infirm and the old and the children tried to keep up. Here Amalek attacked our memories our inviolable story our sacred relations who rest at the foot of the Throne of Glory.

Not here, I said to my new friend thinking out loud, we’re in a new era. New era, old story. We haven’t named it. We should all be crying, ripping our clothes, sitting on the ground.

Stay tuned. More at ten.

jsg

Jewish Cemetery Desecrated in University City

Traditional Jewish Cemetery

Desecrated in University City, Missouri

Clean-up and Ceremony scheduled for Wednesday, February 22, @ 3 PM

More News at 10

Well, it seemed like a media event to me. I was driving home when I saw a thickening of traffic, uh oh if I don’t go now I have a notion I won’t be able to go at all. I was dressed in a tasteful charcoal grey suit and a sandy brown fedora, white shirt Jensen silver cuff links and a gold jacquard cravat which becomes relevant to the story follow me. I walked through security (more than for the governor I was suspicious), busted for excessive obsession by the Secret Service (are these all pens?) I entered the cemetery relatively easily.

The cemetery is holy ground. I feel that. I spend a lot of time in cemeteries and it is always humbling and sacred and quiet and inside beautiful to me. I was standing around leaning against a tombstone when one of my pals introduced me to one of the half a dozen imams who showed up in solidarity.

What can we do together? This is hate and we have to do this together, several of them said to me. Exactly what I was thinking. They were still talking vandalism from the microphone, even in the newspaper this morning, this is another deal I said: this is hate. The Imams agreed.

When the Vice president showed up, that cinched it: Media event. They need some good press. Nobody said much though from the back of a truck like a campaign event was tasteful and accurate I suppose. The governor was expected but the Vice was in town for a visit to a company in Fenton and certainly they need some good news. Today they got it. It’s not a story; it’s a desecration of holy ground.

Nobody said much. The word hate was mentioned, in addition to vandalism, but it was much weighted toward vandalism. How this is vandalism eludes me. As an amateur armchair sleuth (reader of mysteries) and a former private detective (a story told elsewhere) I figured all by myself that toppling over almost 200 gravestones in the middle of the night that weighed way more than the topplers took some muscle, some organization, some equipment.

One imam after another came up to discuss the situation with me. Why me? I was thinking. There’s a dozen rabbis here and I’m dressed for Niemans not clean-up at the cemetery though I believe with my long departed beloved parents that everything is about fashion. They were in the business and I am committed to fine merchandise.

The imams first wanted to compare burial customs. I told them what I knew: Though there seems to be no unanimity about which direction to bury a body in a Jewish cemetery, I did see that the Chatam Sofer cited a custom that in many communities bodies were buried with their feet facing the entrance, in confidence of the ultimate resurrection and the avenue of exit. In some cemeteries, the feet are facing east, toward Jerusalem. This was common in Europe, for the feet to face east, or south. In the Talmud, it seems that graves were placed in a cemetery in many configurations (cf. Baba Batra 102a).

Then the imams wanted to talk about hate, about hate crimes, about the vulnerability we are all feeling as minorities these days, about bringing that vulnerability to the attention of the local, the state, and the Federal government. We need to be working together on this, they said, we all agreed. We exchanged numbers.

Then two guys from the Justice Department came up to me. Why me? I was thinking (suit, silver cufflinks, etc. see the story I Wore a Suit to a Riot). You’re just the guys I wanted to talk to, and we discussed how this could be referred to as vandalism with the climate in the country right now. This is hate.

An interfaith service followed that was as boring as anything I’ve attended and there was a helicopter hovering so hardly anyone’s words could be discerned anyway. There was a prayer for healing that I saw from a hand-out. It was unsatisfying so I wrote my own:

 

A Prayer for Healing

All the accompanying angels appeared for them it takes a squad

A conspiracy of angels

A Mezuzah of the spirit guarding the entrance

To make a complete healing.

 

And later in the night when everyone is asleep

Just as it was desecrated it was restored

The angels parachuting in from the east and west

Angels ascending and descending

They wander in from the coast

Both coasts

Some have satchels slung over their shoulders filled with amulets

All the energies converge for this community

And the others who throw in with them.

 

The desecration restored

And by day

A cleaning.

 

Then a prayer for healing and gratitude

A specially created voice howling in the square

These words suspended between horror and grace

An expression of thankfulness

Why not after grieving

Honoring the dis-respected dead

With our hands clutched to our chests

Right hand buried in the left.

 

The desecration restored.

Sneak away for a chat with God –

 

Come on God

Show up for us and

Bring all your people —

And God said

Sure.

 

I felt better once I wrote the prayer. As of this writing, it is an unsolved crime. There was a little too much tilt toward the celebratory for my taste; a cemetery had been desecrated, it feels to me like a hate crime, the language today wasn’t correct, the balance was off, and the appearance of those who were contributing to the atmosphere of fear and Other-ing in the country had co-opted the event and turned it into a media romp.

I went home and wrote this.

 

jsg

Mental Illness on the Fringe

Mental Illness On The Fringe

 

I call this the mental health-mental illness effort a beginning because we are square one on this subject. I thought we were further along. We are not. We are schooled by the anecdotal increase in tragedies associated with mental illness; by we I mean those of us who are working the front lines. The statistics that we care about are people.

 

We all know individuals who went down suffering with depression, other forms of challenges — the inner world when it goes dark. And the increase in use of heroin and other dangerous drugs in our neighborhoods and communities have multiplied; we know those stories too, we don’t have to cite figures from the NIMH.
We are under-prepared, under-educated, under-equipped. We are still laboring under the shanda curtain of shame. Some of us took on the shame barrier with drug and alcohol abuse starting in 1981 (see SLICHA, now called Shalvah), we are turning our attention to the next hurdle which I believe is mental illness. We all have the experience in our families, some of us more hidden than others. We begin by talking about it; let’s talk about mental illness.

 
What to do, that’s always the question. Start with talk and more talk, real talk about real problems. 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 anybody go dark on our watch.

 
I wrote this pledge, and I took it:
The Pledge
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 phone.
*Shanda* means shame. There is none.

 
I’ve been using this pledge at all our sessions. It’s not sloganeering; It’s a raising of the curtain that hides our shame. Our shame is deadly when it keeps us from asking for help. The more we lift that curtain the more likely our most vulnerable ones will find their way to some help at least to some relief.

 
Our problems are serious, deep, numerous. Our problems are lucky to have us; our devotion to them endless. Let’s get to work. Spend some time listening and talking, tell your leadership and your intimates and your trust-ables that we are suffering and we need to crack our best effort to split the darkness. We need to be a community.

 
Don’t respect the silence. Then push.

 

jsg

Secrecy is Part of the Problem

Head_of_a_woman_with_Her_Hair_Loose.1885.VGM..see_Hecht_2006,_p.7_copy

I am searching for the engine or the nudge to bring the community into focus on an integrated strategy to meet the challenges of mental illness-mental health. But we have been difficult to move.

Many of us feel the limitation of isolated responses to the rootlessness and hopelessness that characterizes so much of contemporary life. We could do better by putting our best resources to work on a community response that maximizes already limited resources and create new and more imaginative strategies. We should be a nudge. We should be telling everyone we know.

We all know tragic stories. We are on the front line so to speak. We are trying to seize the opportunity to assume a community mind on our tragedies so we can deal with them better than in the isolation of our socially gated communities.

We begin by telling the stories. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem.

rabbi james stone goodman, st. louis

She wrote me a note before we did a community session on suicide. She was not in a place, she said, to come to the session but she wanted to make a contribution.

She gave me permission to use her words as a prompt for the participants to write about their experiences. The following is from the original piece she wrote to me, her words:

I am a survivor I suppose. I have attempted suicide several times in serious ways and I believe I am alive to share a few things I’ve learned. I feel some sort of purpose, I am always looking for that but here goes — I hope this helps someone.

People could listen more with their eyes as well as their ears. When you are contemplating suicide, you don’t conceptualize it. You may not express it.

Be observant. Don’t ignore anything. Take everything seriously. I wanted someone to hold my hand – I’m not going to leave you, God will not leave you, I’m with you, I will never leave you, that’s what I wanted to hear.

And most importantly: This feeling is going to pass. You don’t think it’s going to pass. You think it’s never going away. It feels permanent.

I wanted someone to say to me: I wish I could be there with you. Call me. Don’t be alone.

Addendum

Some time later I met with her at a coffee shop.

I’m starting to feel like I want to get out more, she said, to be of service to others. I often feel a terrible negative energy running through my being, but I think I can offer something. If I could help someone else, it would mean so much. Use my words, use them any way you can.

Commentary: I love this piece for the wisdom it contains and because it came from such a difficult place in this person’s life. This was not an easy piece to write.

She was at a low enough place in her struggle that she couldn’t make the session, still she felt the necessity to give away some of what she knew. She wanted to help someone else. Where does this kind of compassion come from? All she wanted was to give a little away what she had learned from her experience.

What she wanted most: to be of service to others. And she knew that because of her life she had some secret wisdom to give away: What it’s like to live with what she lives with, what it feels like from the inside, what she would have liked to hear from others, what someone else could have given her when she needed it most.

It think this is a remarkable document because it has a giving sensibility and because it has real wisdom about what it feels like when a person is struggling to stay alive, to find a way in the world when the inner world goes dark. To come back from the edge and describe what it felt like there.

It has strategies for living that come from the crucible of a person’s life. I think it’s a remarkable piece for all these reasons and every time I see the writer I remind her how much her piece has helped others because as she wrote: if I could help someone else, it would mean so much.

jsg

Vaudeville Kabbalah

Vision, part 1

yonatan ben uziel

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.

jsg

Vigil: In Spain With the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

West Eastern Divan Orchestra

In Spain With the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
August, 2006

It’s past midnight and we are trying to decide on a plan
some of us ready for tonight’s rehearsal
some withholding —
Beethoven’s Ninth.
Most of us haven’t the strength for it just now.

We have brought our politics with us into the practice tent
the original dream of our collaboration corrupted for now
we don‘t have to agree — on that we all agree —
still we are stuck, unsure how long.

Our project is called Divan in Arabic Diwan
a compilation of music or poetry.
Our ensemble takes its name from Goethe’s West-Eastern Divan*
his last great cycle of poetry —
Goethe himself inspired by the divan of the Persian poet Hafiz.

*The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said in 1999. We are not generals or politicians, we are musicians. We are not solving even our own problems, much less the world’s problems.

We are hosted in Spain, Andalusia,
the president of Andalusia* remembers the Jews, Muslims, and Christians
who lived in his part of Spain
one thousand years ago
a kind of Golden Age.

*The president of Andalusia and maestro remind us of our history and our vision. We are musicians from different sides of the wall, we might not have gotten to Beethoven’s Ninth this year, nor the Leonore Overture No. 3, nor Mozart’s sinfonia concertante for winds, Bottesini’s Fantasia on Themes by Rossini, nor Brahm’s First Symphony.

There are 92 of us in the orchestra
we have written a statement* that we break out
every concert: there is no military solution
our destinies are inextricably linked
our project stands in sharp contrast to the cruelty and savagery of the present war.

*Still – seven of us voted against it but it stands, our little declaration of principle.
It stands for the peace we seek through music – one of our violinists said,
you don’t have to agree on everything to be friends. We live on different planets –
this has opened my eyes.

Said maestro,
if there were no conflict
there would be no need for our project.

I hear the strings warming up —
here in Andalusia the night is stale.
Past midnight
are we going to play?

james stone goodman
Vigil

Peace

mansa musa mali holyman

What is Marabout?
I think it has to do with cement.
Cement?
Yeah. He is here on business. Cement I think is what he said.
Is that his business suit?
I laughed. Jake was referring to his long golden patterned robe that the almost seven foot tall African man was wearing, that attracted our attention in the first place. Jake and I were sitting in the airport. The tall man was with another man. The other man had brought him to the check-in, airport New York, but was not accompanying him on the trip.
The tall African man, shaved head, did not speak English. The other man was translating for him and walking him through the check-in ritual at the gate.
That’s when I stepped up.
Look, I said to the English speaking man, I am on the same flight to Baltimore. If I can be of any help, I speak French. I thought I had heard them speaking French, in addition to another language I didn’t recognize.
As I was leaving, I found a small Pakistani man to escort the tall African man to the baggage to retrieve his luggage and find his way out of the airport once he reached Chicago, which was his destination, not mine. We were on a one-stop, through Baltimore to St. Louis. The African man – through Baltimore to Chicago.
As we got on the airplane, we sat near each other but the roar of the plane was too loud to talk. I helped him get an apple juice and I watched him go through the ninety nine names of God with a string of silver prayer beads he had in his briefcase.

We arrived in Baltimore and my son and I got bumped from our plane to St. Louis and onto the same Chicago flight that our African friend was on. We explained this to him and to our Pakistani helper, who did not seem to understand much more English than the African man.
We checked in and sat down near the gate. I introduced myself to the African man, using a familiar form of my name that seems to register easier with non-English speakers. We had a few minutes until the next flight. He introduced himself to me, Idrissa.
Idrissa. I wrote it out. No, he said, I write in Arabic. I wrote it out in Arabic, and he corrected a mistake. Good, he said, you write Arabic?
Yes.
Write your name, he asked me.
I wrote out my name in Arabic, and he looked at it for a while. Then he took out a piece of paper from his briefcase, wrote his name and my name in proximity, and made a series of jottings, pictures and calculations with lines and numbers underneath our names.
What is this? I asked.
Marabout.
What is Marabout?
Maybe your wife has left you. She has gone away somewhere. You have a problem. You come to me. I give you certain sacrifices and do certain calculations, your wife, she comes back to you.
I was wondering whether I understood him correctly, particularly the part about sacrifices.
Sacrifices?
Sacrifices.
My son was watching all this from a seat across the aisle from us.
Marabout is not about cement, I said to him.
Sacrifices, I said slowly, is it something psychological?
No.
Sacrifices, I said, is it something spiritual?
No. Sacrifices. Offerings.
My son strung some beads for Idrissa. Do you have a wife, I asked Idrissa?
Yes.
Does she have holes in her ears?
Yes.
Here, these are a gift.
Thank you, he said, and he put the earrings into his briefcase. He had a high pitched cartoon laugh that did not match his appearance.
He had finished his calculations and he began to tell me my future. Some of it I can repeat, some I cannot. I am about to change professions. I will make a load of money. My son will marry and raise up many children. He also will have a lot of money. Maybe my money, I forgot to ask that.
Then he described the sacrifices that my son and I are required to make in order for these things to happen. They must be made soon. Mine will be rough.

What is he saying, my son asked.
You are going to have a bunch of kids. I am about to change professions. Lots of money all around.
That’s good, Jake said.
One other thing, good news — your sacrifice does not involve animals.
Sacrifice? What is my sacrifice?
Too holy to tell you now, I will tell you later when I can give it some respect.
Sacrifice?
Yes, that is what he prescribes. Sacrifices. It has something to do with Marabout.
Idrissa gave me his card, it read clearly, marabout.
Later I looked up Marabout.

It comes from the Arabic, Murabit, which means “one who is garrisoned,” because it referred originally to a member of a Muslim religious community that lived in a ribat, a fortified holy place. Marabout is a Muslim holy man. When Islam came to western Africa in the 12th century, its proponents became known as al-Murabitum (Almoravids), and every missionary who organized a community was known as a murabit. In the 14th century, when the Sufis came to the Maghreb, northern Africa, any organizer of a Sufi fraternity became known as a murabit, or a marabout. A marabout is a Muslim holy man, a mystic, a Sufi.

Who is this priest, this Kohen who was prescribing sacrifices for me in an airport waiting room in Baltimore? I realized who I was meeting here: Myself. My Levitical progenitors. The sons of Aaron, the priests and Levites of the Holy Temple, dealing in sacrifices though we did not call them sacrifices, they were not something psychological or something spiritual, they were what they were, the avenue of approach, korbanot, coming closer to God. They were not like anything, they were what they were.

Be like the sons of Aaron, seek peace and pursue it (Avot 1:12). Is this what he was doing? Seeking peace in the Levitical way, the prescribed peace offerings? He seemed so certain about their efficacy.

Are you Muslim? he asked.
Jew. Yahud.
Ah. So close he said. I never met you before.
We are close and far, I said.
Yes, we will both have to make sacrifices. We will each have to give away something we think is dear. I am working on it. Truth and justice, peace, he said, and he winked.

We began to discuss the names of God that are cognates in our holy languages: Rachman, Rahim, Rahmana, HaRahaman, for example, the Compassionate One, giving, without restraint, and those that are not. We sat there in the waiting room, moving through the beads, praying the names of God that are common in our holy languages.
We got on the plane and flew to Chicago with Idrissa. I found the Pakistani guy and in Chicago they went off together towards the baggage claim.
Before he left, Idrissa held me, asked me to write down my phone number and address. “I will be calling you,” he said to me in French, I think, I am not sure which language he was speaking.

Dad, what is the deal with your new friend? Jake asked.
Muslim holy man, I said. He knows the future, and as far as I can tell, we’re going to be ok.
We left Idrissa in Chicago and during the short leg from Chicago to St. Louis, Jake and I got to frame the story in a way it should be remembered.
You know, Jake, I said, we were praying together. When we were going through his beads? We were speaking a common language. It was the one language we truly shared, the names of God. That’s a good sign for the future.
Jake and I agreed that we had experienced a secret glimpse into the future, like Abraham, we ascended to the top of the chariot of Ezekiel, from which place we saw and understood everything. We received a glimpse into the future and we saw the possibility of peace, real peace, deep peace, holy peace. Maybe through us, maybe through our children, maybe that’s why it was Jake and me meeting Idrissa, making our sacrifices.
There was something broken in the generation of the parents that only their children could repair, this from the Zohar. Something broken in the generation of Abraham that only the children of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, and all the Isaac and Ishmaels of the future, could repair.

Several days later, I came home from work and my daughter said, somebody called for you. No English. I couldn’t understand him.
Did he say anything about sacrifices?
Sacrifices? Yeah, I think he did.
He has been calling frequently, every few days, chattering away with me about sacrifices, about the future, about the necessity to give your overflow away, because when you have as much as I am going to have, you have to give it away in order to keep it. I think that is what he said, I’m not sure because the truth is he wasn’t speaking French, I’m not sure what language he was speaking but I have made a friend and if I understand anything of what we have been talking about, I will receive just what I am willing to give away.

Great sacrifices will be required of us all, but if we have the courage to let loose of what we think we own, what we think we are, we will receive whatever it is we want, even peace. Peace above all.

Seek peace, he said (I think), pursue it.

James Stone Goodman
St. Louis, MO.

He Died Alone

robin-williams
He Died Alone
On the one year anniversary of the death of Robin Williams

There’s a lot of news these days. Where I live, trauma is a part of the story, substance abuse is a part of the story, mental health and illness a big part of the story. The story is difficult, subtle and nuanced, many layered.

In the group that I lead on Monday and Thursday nights, Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew) outreach on addictions, we are familiar with these subjects in an intensely personal way, especially suicide and other self-defeating behaviors, and whenever it comes up it tends to take over the meeting.

The meeting is basically a teaching and a sharing, support in the simple sense that we show up for each other. We listen, we understand, we are understood. We get why we need each other. Also true: we need each other because we get each other. The first thing we learn in the group is to listen. From there we come to understand – to know and to be known — and that may be the most important element of our success.

I feel the proximity of laughter and tears at our meetings, they are right next to each other at our table of human responses to the challenges of living. Tears are sitting in one seat at the table, right next to tears is laughter 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. We are alternately serious and silly, sometimes at the same time, one eye laughing one eye crying.

Every suicide is a trigger for the discussion of the group, a kind of wrinkle in the cosmic order for all, because everyone around the table has stood at the crossroads of life and death and every person at the table has chosen life. And we all know people who have chosen otherwise.

But taking one’s own life is always a challenge around our tables, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table is vigilant. Daily. We call it a daily reprieve.

I suppose it’s well known that drugs and alcohol were part of Robin Williams’ story, depression was part of his story, and celebrity was part of his story. Depression is present in almost all addiction, and celebrity is an added obstacle to working oneself well.

I didn’t know him but I knew him. I bet his interior was painfully soft and vulnerable, sometimes hidden and unknown.

Our group has heart for the stranger because we are all strangers. We do not judge. We show up for each other.

I really don’t know what was in that poor man’s heart but I do believe he died alone. At the moment before it became irreversible, he didn’t call someone. His beloveds will suffer from that for a long time.

We don’t have an antidote. We have a program. We have each other. I think lives are saved around our tables but we have no certainty. We have the group. We do not practice aloneness, and we talk about a higher power. It’s a spiritual thing, not a religious thing. We have a daily reprieve based on our spiritual condition. We have today, and that becomes enough.

Addendum

I wrote the above piece in another form just after the death of Robin Williams. I think it was a good piece, it led to much conversation. 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 mental illness, mental health, suicide and other difficult subjects that we may not talk about easily. 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 trauma 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:

The Pledge

I pledge to bring someone in. If I light a candle, I will share the light.

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. 

We can live with our problems.

I pledge to break the *shanda* barrier, which means:

Talk, talk, and more talk.

I pledge to remind my community that we are working our problems, that being secret may be part of the problem, therefore:

I will not practice aloneness. I will talk with somebody. I will pick up the phone.

I’ve been using this pledge at all our sessions. It’s not sloganeering; It’s a raising of the curtain that hides our shame. Our shame is deadly when it keeps us from asking for help. The more we lift that curtain the more likely our most vulnerable ones will find their way to some help and some relief.

Let’s get to work. Spend some time listening and talking, tell your leadership and your intimates and your trustables about this kind of suffering and we need to crack our best effort to split the darkness. We need to be a community. I’m starting with my little community, we are devoted to breaking the shanda barrier.

Next session: Sunday, August 16.

The 1 PM session is dedicated to strategies for professionals and organizers, amateurs and activists. We’ll begin the discussion: what to do. As a community.

At 2 PM, we offer up some preparation for the Days of Awe.

Don’t respect the silence. Then push.


*shanda* means shame. 
There is none.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

Remembering Reuven Gold

Organ grinder large

Remembering Reuven Gold

I met Reuven in a boys’ school of the Old South, among rickety wooden dormitories in the hills of East Tennessee. I write stories, I had gone there to hear stories spoken. It was a storytellers’ conference, early Eighties.

I flew into the Tri-cities airport, not one city of which I recognized, so all three at one airport was no insight. I took a bus to the nearest town. I felt far away from home. I found someone to give me a lift to the conference site.

It was May, and already warm.

I arrived late in the registration day. I expected the luck of the draw for a roommate, but what was to happen was not luck, it was what we call beshert. Behsert is what is meant to be. The invisible fibers of relationship that are not seen but when you bump up against them, your recognize beshert. This was meant to be.

When I registered, a girl from the environs looked at her sheet and said, there is only one room left. You can share it with Roo-vane. I felt the tug of invisible fibers. Reuven is a name my people have been giving their children since Jacob and Leah gave it to their firstborn son in Genesis 29:32.

Reuven? my eyebrows went up. Perhaps I had misunderstood her.

She directed me to a dormitory at the rear of the campus. I found my way, climbed up a wide staircase into a big porch, past the porch and through a tattered screen door and into the stale smell of closed rooms.

I stood in the doorway and adjusted to the dimness of the light within. I walked through and I passed into a bedroom with two beds, and on one of the beds I looked onto the following topography:

The souls of large, bare, white, veiny feet. In the distance the swell of a round belly in a dashiki style blouse, in the far distance an exuberant furry gray beard – that is what I saw as I stared into the room. Boys school. East Tennessee.

This, I assumed, was Reuven. And in that moment in the doorway, I knew that this was indeed the variety of Reuven I had anticipated, and as automatically as if I had passed similar feet, beard, and belly on a gravel road in Minsk, I said sholom aleichem a traditional greeting among Jews.

And just as immediately I heard a scratchy Yiddish-inflected voice say, who speaks loshon koidesh [the holy language] in Tennessee? Aleichem sholom! he roared and he leaped from the bed. Reuven, in a shirt someone sewed out of paisley prints, an aging hippie Chassid with a large Yemenite kipah on his head, a beautiful unmanageable beard: Reuven Gold, storyteller from Chicago, who had also traveled to East Tennessee to share stories. Here we were, bound up together by the invisible fibers of beshert.

We became friends that weekend. He was troubled by asthma, and a hot weekend in non air-conditioned Tennessee was difficult for him. I helped him around the campus, as did many others. I helped him get his food in the cafeteria line, I made sure he took his medicine.

Every morning he stood in the cafeteria line with the rest of us for breakfast. He moved up and down the line giving everyone a hug. It’s my morning mitzvah, he cackled. Some of these people haven’t been hugged in years! He hugged deeply, making a meditative noise like ummmmmmmm. Some people liked it, some didn’t.

Then came Saturday night. Saturday night was performance night. Reuven was introduced about time half through the program and he came walking in from the back of the room, waiving his hands in an open gesture of acceptance as if he were passing through rows of admiring chassidim. People began to clap. Even before he began to speak, they began to clap.

Spontaneously, to the rhythm of his slow stroll through the room, erupted the sound of people clapping. His presence, his gestures, his face, his smile, his shirt, the great unmanageability of his beard, they began to clap for Reuven even before he opened up on stories and he walked through the room in a silent dance. They loved him just looking at him.

I have been in the Chassidic shtiebeles [small synagogues] where the tale erupts spontaneously from one of the Masters. I have been in the small shuls where the holy tales were spoken on a Saturday night around a tisch [table] with the songs and the stories that so delighted the Sabbath bride that she delayed her departure. We call this melaveh malkah, accompanyng the Queen, the Queen is the presence of the Sabbath, imagined as the bride or queen or the inner presence of Godliness.

The old gym in the boys’ school in East Tennessee bloomed into a shtiebele and Reuven began to spin what is called the mayseh, the story. The mayseh is a spiritual tale, an elevation of the story to a place of holy consequence, designed to teach to delight to preserve to inspire to transform. That’s what Reuven delighted in telling, the mayseh.

I sat in East Tennessee, Ukraine, listening to Reuven tell the stories of the great Chassidic masters. When Reuven told a story, he often began to cry during the telling, sometimes a quaking cry. At first it frightened people. Or he would begin to laugh loudly, looking around to see if anyone shared the joke with him. But most often he would cry.

He was a big hit at the storytelling conference. People loved him that night in the gym shtiebele. I felt myself again in the presence of the God-intoxicated masters of Chassidus, spirits and ghosts, an experience I have had enough times during the telling of the authentic mayseh to recognize it when I see it.

One of the traditions of such stories is that they are always given in the name of the person who may have originated them. We give the teaching or sing the song in the name of the ones who have passed it down, because to tell a story of a master or to sing a song of a master is to invoke his or her presence.

I remember many of the stories that Reuven told, perhaps the best tribute to him, and every once in a while I unpack one and tell it. Whenever I tell one of Reuven’s stories, the introduction, the chain of transmission, overpowers the story itself. I always begin by describing my meeting with Reuven and our time together. I came to understand Reuven’s story as the hidden tale within the tale, the place where the laughter came from, the tears.

Reuven came to my town several times after the Spring we met. Once he told stories at the coffee house I ran, another time for a conference at one of the Universities. He always stayed at our house. He opened to us the inside Reuven, and I came to know the place where the tears came from.

One Sunday morning early in March, 1989, I came across a small journal and was glancing through it when I saw mentioned that Reuven had passed away. The person memorializing Reuven knew only that he died some time over the winter.

I am sorry that I did not know the time or place or circumstances of Reuven’s death. Our tradition teaches that one may rescind the invisible fibers of connection that bind lives together, but one cannot rescind the fibers of connection that bind souls together. His soul is bound up with the souls of the living. Forever.

I offer this memory as a tribute to Reuven Gold, storyteller, human being, whose memory is a blessing. Now that he has been gathered to the bosom of his ancestors, I pray that his rest is a rest of peace.

James Stone Goodman
St. Louis, MO.