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.

From a Eulogy for Frank at Two Years

From: a Eulogy for Frank
Tuesday, July 9, 2013

We love a good story. How is it that there’s a funeral today and there are people pouring out of this place and onto the street to honor Frank and tell Frank’s story? Some of the story anyway.

We love a good tale. We love life and we love a person who lived his life and squeezed it for a little more, maybe someone who got more than a life maybe a life and a half. We love it that someone touched that/this many people and — started off a little naughty in life. That’s how his sisters described him, a mischievous little boy.

He learned better things through the course of his abbreviated life.

We love stories of transformation, to begin this way to move into that way, to become another way.

We are that person we were, but we are not only that. We are more than who we were, we are who we become, some of us, and some of us become more than how we started. We move way beyond our skin, so to speak.

So it was with Frank.

Frank’s story is a short story, he was too young, we will celebrate the victories of his life but everyone knows it was too short and he had a lot more to do in his life, but you know what is known about a good short story, don’t you, you can pack a novel into it.

His sister said another beautiful thing about Frank: he was always a good person, but he became a much better person. He taught me a lot about how to live, she said, especially in how he died.

I know a lot of people who make life-changing transformations and about their life before there is generally not a lot to say. That’s not so with Frank; but if you knew Frank before and after you were privileged to witness the blooming of a human flower. He had a life before; he had more life after.

Something happened for Frank; he moved beyond his skin and came to understand what it means to live a life of service and honesty and integrity.

He knew a lot of people. He knew how to connect with people, people from his childhood, people he met along the way, people who fixed his cars or people he went to bat for – he went to bat for a lot of people — or people he helped out along the way. It was hard to go to the grocery store with him, he knew someone in every aisle. And he knew how to work a room.

Frank became an integrated person. And he knew it. I had a good ride, he said, even in his illness.

There was nothing he regretted more through this illness than the interruption of his life with his family. But I want to say it and say it again: there is always sadness associated with death but there is also a relation that we make when we love someone so deeply that the bond of love is never broken never rescinded never interrupted, even by death, it is a permanent relation and that is what you will have all the days of your life and beyond, it’s a permanent energy this love and it survives all of us like other energies survive and in the prayers I will chant in a few minutes I will lift up that relation at the level of the deepest love the kind that we all live for it animates our life it is what we live for and Frank lived a load of it with you and you will keep that and give it to those who will survive you.

In years to come you will tell your children who Frank was and the beautiful glorious victory story of his life and you will cry and be proud and grateful that you are not just his kid his wife his family his friend you are him — and you will tell your beloveds in the future just how that works.

And Debbie. Blessed is Frank to have Debbie in his life. I heard this beautiful poem more than once in the last several days: Everyone should have a Debbie in their life.

No one here will forget the lighter side of Frank. Smirk, his smile, humor, how he told a story (don’t rush him) he had a whole way of telling a tale or presiding over a family dinner.

Frank also knew how to show up and not say anything. He knew that being there for someone was the highest privilege, he knew how to be present. To sit and not say anything, he knew how to do that too.

He did a lot for a lot of people. If he would have lived, he would done a lot more for a lot more people and it is a huge loss to be deprived of all the good that Frank was able and would have been able to accomplish.

But he did not feel cheated and he did not feel ungrateful and he was wildly accomplished in his life. Don’t let anybody say I’m not a lucky guy, he said. He made the most of every single day, a day at a time he lived life until he died.

I have buried many people in the years I have lived here who have been accompanied into death by the caring community of similarly experienced souls who grew beyond their own limitations and learned how to give without cease to fellow travelers on the road to happy destiny. This secret conventicle of hearts purified in the crucible of fire to earn honestly a life of service and gratitude and humility. We are all, every one of us, miracles of the highest order and we express that by living right, quiet and loyal to the few basic principles that guide our lives. That’s the way Frank lived.

Here’s how it works. Listen to these words human beings and love life, squeeze it for every ounce of meaning and significance and joy, as Frank did. We were created to be happy joyous and free. Frank, we honor you with these words. You have honored us with your life.

jsg

crucifixion_0136

Mother Emanuel

Mother Emanuel-EmanuelAMEdrawing

June 24.15

Mother Emanuel
If I were standing there with you
In the physical sense
I wouldn’t speak a word
I would sit in the dirt
I would cry in that inside silent way
Before tears.

I would leave the spigot onto tears
Open —

I would sit there and make the holiest prayer of the heart.
I would offer it up.

I would not speak to a single news person
I would wear a big Bucharan kipah* on my head
Indicating humility in the presence of G*d
And respect respect respect.
I would wrap myself in an oversize talit with the proper fringes.**
I would clutch the fringes to my heart-line.

I would repeat the name of your beautiful church
Like a mantra of grief for the lives lost there
And the lives found there:

Emanu-El
Emanu-El
G*d is among us
G*d is among us —

I would say it and say it
Until I believed it
Until I felt it,

Then I would say it to the persons
Sitting next to me
On the right side
On the left side
Just that one complex word
(Sometimes two):

Emanu-El
I would say it until I felt it the way
Isaiah used it
With confidence and trust —

Emanu-El.
Emanu-El.

jsg.usa

*Jewish headdress, colorful, large
**prayer shawl

On Suicide and other Difficult Subjects

On Suicide and Other Difficult Subjects

Next Community Forum: Shanda [shame]: there is none. Sunday, June 7th, 1 PM, Kopolow Jewish Federation Building.

Written after the death of Robin Williams

In the group that I lead on Monday and Thursday nights, Shalvah (serenity in Hebrew) outreach on addictions, we are familiar with the subject of suicide 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 each other – 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. We know that the descent into drug or alcohol abuse is a trip toward death.
But taking one’s own life is always a challenge, the breath of the beast rarely if ever that far behind us that we are immune. Everyone at the table, no matter how much sobriety a person has, 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. I look at his sweet face and I see his soul.

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. Yes, 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.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Congregation Neve Shalom and Shalvah

Addendum:
Not long after I wrote this piece, we did a community teaching on suicide. In that teaching, I offered up this pledge.

What to do, that’s always the question. Start with talk and more talk, real talk about real problems. We did that with drug addiction starting over thirty years ago, we need to do that with depression and suicide and the other challenges to life that dwell within, the inner world when it goes dark. Take up a candle, light it, give that light to someone else. Don’t let nobody go dark on our watch.
I wrote this pledge, and I took it:

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 telephone. I will try and detach from outcomes.

jsg.usa
*shanda* means shame
there is none

Addendum on Suicide and Other Difficult Subjects

Sufi in boat

Addendum on Suicide and Other Difficult Subjects:

I wrote a longer piece just after the death of Robin Williams. I think it was a good piece, it led to a lot of conversation. It appeared in the newspaper. In it I made no great claim to understand what happened to him, only I knew this for certain: he died alone. From that came a strategy: basically, talk talk more talk.

Not long after I wrote that piece, we did a community teaching on suicide. In that teaching, I offered up this pledge:

What to do, that’s always the question. Start with talk and more talk, real talk about real problems. We did that with drug addiction starting over thirty years ago, we need to do that with depression and suicide and the other challenges to life that dwell within, the inner world when it goes dark. Take up a candle, light it, give that light to someone else. Don’t let nobody go dark on our watch.

I wrote this pledge, and I took it:

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 telephone.

jsg.usa
*shanda* means shame
there is none

Then there was this piece, from a sad talk I gave some years ago. All these pieces increase in relevance.

From Eulogy for a Young Man

And then sometimes he went only within. He didn’t go outside, he went inside and you have to have been there, you have to have gone into a darkness within, you have to have spent some time there to know that when you visit there, even briefly, something can happen.

It is not a well-understood place and it is not well lit. It can happen in twenty minutes of a swing down¬ward, the overwhelming sense of futility and pain and helplessness that you have to have been there to understand this least understood part of the most private world of especially creative people, you have to have been there to understand that you can visit there and not come back so easily.

You may not come back at all.

Sometimes even with the best help, the best family, the most supportive friends, the most understanding community, you may not touch that darkness, sometimes it is something that cannot be penetrated and not easily dissipated and you have to have been there to really understand that but that’s the way it is. It happens.

For those of us who do understand, we have to start telling people what it’s like, help other people understand, let everyone know so we can treat each other with kindness, above all, kindness and gentleness and understanding and respect and without judgment, without judgment for the problem, and be easy on ourselves for not knowing, for not having known, for having done this or done that, we have to treat ourselves with kindness and with mercy because it’s right and we need to heal. And we will only heal with mercy.

james stone goodman

Sometimes You Need A Story

Remembering Prime Minister Rabin
Yitzchak Rabin was assassinated on November 4, 1995

Rabin

I was a student in Jerusalem during his last year as Prime Minister of Israel. He was succeeded by Menachem Begin in 1977. I am going to write this without looking these dates up, because — I was there.

It was my first year as a student. I had never been to Israel before. I was green, as they say. I arrived in Israel with a guitar and a bag. I have since given the guitar to my old pal in Detroit; it is in no doubt in his basement.

During that year, I made a good living with that guitar. I wasn’t supposed to be working but I worked, almost every night as a matter of fact. I was discovered by an Israeli guitar player in love with American guitar music. Almost from the moment of my arrival, I played out my plaintive loneliness on the steps of 13 King David Street, my school address. I was singing blues, rhythm and blues, at the time.

My soon to be handler heard about me and came looking: who’s the guitar player here? Thus began my so-called expatriate career. Through a convergence of forces we took over an old house from the Mandate period converted into an avant garde theater space and a nice performance stage where I held court five nights a week. My handler was an excellent manager, and there was a load of international talent in the country then to join me.

Years after it became a very chi-chi Italiano restaurant in the heart of Jerusalem. There is enough information here to figure out what the venue was, famous enough to have an entry in Wikipedia. Many of the details of this story I must disguise for a variety of reasons, some personal, some meta-personal.

I studied in the green room (they called it a green room it was the former kitchen of the house) until it was time for my set. When done, I returned to my studies. Many of the performers were Israelis so I had plenty of help with my homework. To my co-students, I was absent from social scenes as soon as school was over. I had to keep my secret life under the table so to speak, for a variety of (benign) reasons.

I rented a non-insulated corner room with inadequate heat down the hill in Rechavia toward the Valley of the Cross. In winter, it was almost uninhabitable. The stone house was built on stilts, the Jerusalem stone, I was as cold as I have ever been in my life for almost the entire mild (by American standards) Jerusalem winter. I felt I was living in a stone box. Of course the year I was there it snowed vociferously for several delightful days.

There were several mornings I prowled the city looking for a warm lobby of a hotel that would not kick me out if I sat there wrapped in sweaters and coat until the chill came off my bones. I was like an animal on the prowl for carrion. Heat. All this figures in the story in a much more romantic way that is silly to enter because of personal sensibilities and even after so many years the softness of the heart when speaking of old romances.

On my trek from my corner room of icy solitude to the school I had discovered a shortcut walk – a one block connecting street — undistinguished by the style of limestone apartments buildings that lined the street, every one with a mirpeset, a balcony, opening onto or over the street. Except for one.

The neighborhood is built in the European style, having been purchased from the Greek Orthodox Church during the Mandate period by the Palestine Land Development Company. The streets were purposely built narrow, preserving a quieter garden neighborhood feel. Jerusalem is a bustling driving city. If you know your way around on foot, the best way to get around Jerusalem, there are many fine short cuts through this neighborhood.

I knew the street because it was the same street where one of my teachers lived who held a Monday night salon, a story I have told in another place.

It was also the place of the prime minister’s residence. This I didn’t know at first. I did notice there was a kind of blockhouse above the street a floor or so up with dark thin windows gazing onto the street connected to a gate which led to the house. I couldn’t see into the block house but I blissfully walked past it every morning on my way to school. I was curious, always paused to look in but I saw nothing, could not see into the darkened skinny windows staring at me like a sinister watchman as I passed.

One day I was carrying my guitar with me to school, in its nice case built for international traveling, and as I passed the sinister blockhouse before I got to the gate there were several soldiers in uniform blocking my way and asking me who I was and what I had in the case. Guitar, I said in Hebrew: guitara. They realized I was American and switched to English. Open it please. I did. They asked me to take it out. I did and they peeked around and asked a few questions. Why I walked past there every day, etc., I explained I was a student at the school, what I was studying, I could see they were entertained by the baby Hebrew I was speaking and never once exited speaking English which they spoke of course much better than I spoke Hebrew. They had enough of me, ok, ok, they said. What’s this about? I asked. They didn’t answer and returned to their position inside the blockhouse.

This was the prime minister’s official residence. It wasn’t marked and it wasn’t fancy, and except for that little guardhouse, one might pay no attention to it. This was Israel, everything cautious but informal.

I began to pay attention to the little guardhouse on my daily stroll, would always pause and wave to whomever might be inside those eye-windows, and made my way.

I acquired an early-in-the-morning class and began to make the walk earlier. One day soon thereafter the gate opened as I passed and out came a car and then a man walking into the car waiting for him at the curb. The man was Yitzchak Rabin. He looked at me, I looked at him, I waved. He was not a waver. Even walking into a car Rabin had a dour kind of I’m-not-really-paying-attention to you look about him. He didn’t wave back but he looked at me.

This happened I would guess three or four times a week. We were on the same schedule. As often as not, I passed him on the street as we were both on our way to work, he to work me to school. I always waved and smiled, he always looked at me and got into the car.

About half way through our relationship, he began to wave back. The first wave was either a wave or a dismissal. That kind of hand motion. So for weeks I waved, smiled, he dismissed me.

Then one morning he waved back. I remember it because it was a wave from a person who was not accustomed to waving. Maybe it’s an American thing – waving – but one morning his wave was much like my wave, an acknowledgement of relation, light and reciprocal. It was not a completely American wave, there was still a little hook at the end that recalled the hand to the body with a suspicion of dismissal. Enough. I see you. Hello. Still it was plenty for me to anticipate every day on my way to school, wondering if I was going to see my new friend, the Prime Minister, with whom I had earned this unwritten relation, mutual acknowledgement, I see you I know you hello I greet you goodbye.

Years later, after I had returned to the States, he came to my town to give a lecture at a fancy event, between roles as Prime Minister. I sat two seats away from him on a dais (I wrangled an invitation). I eavesdropped on him speaking in Hebrew with others, he didn’t say much, he spoke economically and without much emotion, very deep basso profondo voice, and I considered asking him if he remembered me but how would I describe the curiosity of a relationship that had no words attached, of less than one year duration, consisting of a hand gesture on a street in the morning?

I asked him anyway, willing to be foolish. He paused and looked at me. You — of course I remember you, he said in Hebrew — how are you?

jsg.usa