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.