Remembering Reuven Gold

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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.



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:

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):

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



*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

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.

*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.

*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


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?


So I Made My Own

Ferguson Journal: New Normal
Clayton station
Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Do not be distracted by Discourse on Pumping Iron and Viagra I get Somewhere

I forget now there is a new normal and I started Wednesday the same way I start every Wednesday when I’m well. I did my Wednesday morning pump-up with a trainer and when I was about dead I walked over to my city of sanctuary on Wednesday mornings one of two Starbucky’s within walking distance from my training gym in my fashionable suburban neighborhood that houses the County government center where the grand jury is meeting [met – ed.] and now is known all over the world and has been one of the sites of demonstrations: code Clayton, Missouri.

My routine is I walk to one of the two cities of sanctuary and sit and write until it’s time for me to visit the jailhouse which is also in the vicinity of homeland Clayton Missouri and in the same complex where the grand jury is meeting.

I am a transplant here. You have to be born here to belong here, it’s a feature of this region I find both charming and chauvinistic.

Charming is that I am not much a joiner so I appreciate the permanent outsider status. It gives me a certain edge when the truth is elusive and that term of new normal: nuanced. Also the heart of the other, the outsider, etc., it is permanently mine whether I went to high school around here or not. I appreciate not being landed here. It helps me in the realm of independence of thought, attentiveness to details and telling something somewhat true. Who writes history? I have re-thought that entirely.

Chauvinistic here means cheer-leading. There’s a lot of that: my team, my team. Sides. We’re the best we’re the best kind of thing that goes around everywhere I suppose but I have felt it keenly here, maybe because when I arrived thirty plus years ago, the area was in serious decline and teetering to revive.

The recent events code name Ferguson cannot possibly help with that, we are still in that phase teetering as far as I can tell, though there are signs of stabilization and growth in recent years — the development of corridors, a more serious effort at downtown development/re-development that I don’t understand why it takes so long with excellent sporting atmosphere here, good teams, serious hostage taking to share expenses of support, the promise from gambling to pour the miserable gains of those who can’t afford it into the community — a potential for development in a city well placed on an historic riverfront. So much story floated up and down this river.

It’s a riverfront Mississippi River waterfront downtown location and I bet if you sat a few visionaries down at a table and asked them to draw a plan they could do so in a couple of hours. Ask them to design from downtown out as a showplace for the rich history of this node on the mighty Mississippi a couple of miles away from the convergence of the Missouri and Mississippi where Lewis and Clark pushed off to explore the West, and you would get something.

The local newspaper did just that a few years ago, sat a few visionaries down, and they drew a plan for downtown that I see the deciders are starting to implement after planning commissions and visits to other cities, etc. It’s a riverfront a nine year old child could figure out how to develop, run out and find a nine year old child, we can’t seem to make heads or tails of it here.

Of course one of great problems is race. Race and class, that’s one of the biggest problems that’s holding this region back and so it erupts in code: Ferguson.

I walked to the Starbucky’s nearest to the jailhouse and the place was packed. Who are all these people? I thought as I sat down on a hard table and unpacked my machine to write a story. I plugged in and started to tap tap when a man and a woman sat in front of me asking permission to sit down in an accent I couldn’t identify. Of course, I said. They unpacked a load of sophisticated equipment with their own modem, etc., and started sending pictures and stories and stuff somewhere I could see they were consulting cards and addresses and names from local sources, mostly in Ferguson, to their homeland newspapers I surmised.

The guy sitting in front of me had a tag on his machine that read photojournalist and a western European address. So you’re a photographer? I asked. Yes. I opened a conversation. He asked me about television. Where he could get news from the world. CNN is on your television I said. He then said something about Niagra. There was terrible weather up around Buffalo and I had just talked to my friend near Rochester and said to him oh no you don’t have to worry about that weather (I assumed he was talking weather, Niagra Falls) it’s far away from here and the storm came in over Lake Erie my friend lives off Lake Ontario and I was just talking to him and I began to explain a little geography of the Great Lakes since I’m from those parts.

His girlfriend and/or colleague sitting next to him was writing stories about the Ferguson animal clinic (she had the card on the table) and she looked up at me just then and said: he’s asking about Viagra.

Oh Viagra. Yes, she said, he wants to know why on television when he is watching the news they are selling so much Viagra.

Oh, well, that’s their market you know the generation that buys Viagra and the television is basically a retail notion here. Buyers. Ah, he said, satisfied though he was perfectly willing to listen to me discourse about the Great Lakes. His English was not so ay yai yai and I might not have been listening closely enough either.

But why on the news? He asked, as if the news were something sacrosanct.

The news is selling too, I said, selling story selling Viagra. Everybody is selling something.

At that moment we experienced an international incident of the highest significance: we each said the same thing at the same time, real slow: strange world, and a meta-personal cross cultural understanding passed between us.

I looked around and the whole room was full of foreign journalists this Wednesday at Starbucky’s and I imagine all of them were perplexed by this oddity and a hundred others about the United States of America but they were here to cover the story of Ferguson and from this station they were dispatching their missives to their hungry public.

Do you live near? The photographer asked.
Do you know where the justice center is?
Yes. I’m going over there in a few minutes.
Why do you go there?

I go there every Wednesday and without filling in details I told them I visit the jailhouse. I then realized they perked up when I said I go over to the justice center, the woman companion lifted up her head and looked at me closer and I saw she was wondering if she had the good fortune of bumping into somebody who knew something.

I assured her I knew nothing, surely she knew that from my inability to understand the foreign correspondent sitting next to her and the discourse on Niagra and Viagra. She asked me a few questions anyway which I evaded because I had to go and how interested might she be about the side of the story I did know about, those who have fallen out of the tale entirely and end up in the jailhouse waiting for transfer to one of the institutions that will be their home for the next number of years.

But she wanted story. Every correspondent in that room wanted story. They were traffickers in story. Not the part of the story I know, the story I know has no voice. She wasn’t interested what happens once someone enters that part of the system I visit.

The guys I see in the jailhouse know all about every side of the story code name Ferguson they are experts on it and they are the most forgotten sources and I often wonder what they are thinking as they gaze out the obscured windows up above the street where the demonstrations are taking place, what must they be thinking about all this as they watch from their perch in the sky.

So I asked them.

Each of them had of course an adversarial story having to do with the justice system, every form of it, from the police on the street to the court room experience, to the corrections arm once incarcerated. They knew who they could get a fair shake from and who they could not trust, weighed heavily in the latter category.

They were powerless once caught in the web of the system, they all knew that, nevertheless they seemed to make the best of it, and the worst of it meant they spent time in the hole, in seclusion, segregated from the rest of the prison population.

I have written elsewhere about the nature of the hole, it was an eye-opening experience when I visited there, I will post that next, and seclusion is rank enough to serve as a deterrent, unless a person cannot manage anger or frustration or hopelessness. Which is frequent.

The inmates I teach are all aware of the problems frustration, anger, poor impulse control has caused them in their lives. They do not avoid that responsibility. When down (in prison), it becomes worse. They are trying to manage a raging beast and every trip to the hole feeds it. With every passing year, they become more hardened. Institutionalized.

On the news now is the latest chapter in the continuing tale of grand juries and death and failure to indict. The news people are using the wrong language. In their questions are the words restore confidence, return to trust. Restore and return is the wrong language. Restore and return to what?

There has been little trust in the entire system for a long time among the people I am dealing with, return and restore as vocabulary seems remote and out of touch. We have to start over. Use words like earn and demonstrate and create.


Ferguson Journal

Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Ferguson, Missouri

Don’t be distracted by the introduction; it begins with a discourse on the advantages of wearing a suit in a riot. Or a rebellion.

I came from work and even if I hadn’t I wear a suit almost every day every night. I feel good when I dress well. I admit the externals help me.

I also find people treat me differently. I have ideas outside the perimeter of the circles I belong to and I get away with a lot more when I am wearing a nice suit.

I buy all my suits in a boutique elegantine in Detroit, my homeland. They have my size and preferences on file. My size has also changed since I entered this phase. It has diminished.

Wearing a suit also simplifies my problem with colors. There are certain zones of the color spectrum I do not see well. I don’t have to think about that and now that my daughters have left home, I am less embarrassed by uninformed tie and shirt selections. So for me, a suit means a simplified life. In some situations, a suit draws attention to me in an advantageous way.

I went down to the police station in Ferguson last night in response to a call for clergy. Nine PM. Our purpose was to be a presence between the youthful protestations and the Ferguson police, who have been unpredictable and not measured in their responses since the shooting of Michael Brown. The night before there had been conflict and arrests.

I made sure I had a dramatic head covering, kipah (yarmulke), in addition to my nice suit so I could be identified as a clergy person, rabbi. My wife, also a rabbi, is in the thick of this story and has demonstrated sensitive leadership and other attentive skills, she was also present and suggested a prayer shawl but I thought that might be excessive and ungainly.

I showed up. I stood on the street in front of the Ferguson police station.

We stood on South Florissant Road which is the nice part of Ferguson I suppose one would say with a celebrated open air market on Saturday mornings and some restaurants that are not fast food and even a brew house, unsure what a brew house is but I saw one there. And a corner bar. Next to the police station is a charming looking Italian restaurant that the proprietors I am sure thought they were getting a privileged spot right next to the police station. I don’t think so.

Every night this week there have been demonstrations up and down South Florissant Road this is old town Ferguson a semi-cute stretch of thoroughfare a different environment from the Canfield Green area where the shooting of Michael Brown occurred and the West Florissant Road where the burning and looting took place during the difficult days after Michael Brown’s death.

The protesting has moved to the police station, a newish building on South Florissant Road next to the Italiano restaurant, etc. down the street from the open air market location. Across the street is Andy Wurm’s Tire and Wheel store with a large black top parking lot where most people have gathered.

The police station looks new, I was told that the jailhouse part of the jail was still under construction. One of the fellows arrested the night before (Sunday night) was taken to the St. Ann jailhouse he later told me.

The protestors made chants and marched up and down South Florissant, pausing at the market grounds to drum and dance and chant. There was good use made of a bass drum that worked well to punctuate the chanting which was musical and youthful and a nice groove from a purely musical point of view, a good use of a single bass drum it was working except for the puppy dog that one of the young women was holding who was scared of the booming drum and thus doggie and her handler withdrew to the perimeter.

There was some smell of weed in the air, not a lot, and a great measure of youthful enthusiasm. Once we returned to the police station on South Florissant some of the young people approached the Police Department building, after the 11 PM noise ordinance that the protestors were violating. The police also suggested in the most vociferous manner that the protestors vacate the street and go to the sidewalk on the other side. They did not.

They moved into the middle of the street and sat down. By then there were about twenty five people sitting in the middle of South Florissant street right in front of the police station and a gathering of uniformed police officers in the parking lot of the police station, about the same number. It was 11:30 and I wondered why there weren’t more police officers. There were about the same number of police as there were protestors sitting and making chants in the middle of the street.

A masculine voice from a loud speaker from somewhere on the police parking lot demanded protestors move out of the street and onto the sidewalks. I noticed that at about midnight the voice changed to a female voice.

The protestors didn’t move. They sat down in the street and there was still some traffic moving through with the help of protestors guiding cars and trucks through the small crowd on the street, some of the cars and trucks moving a little fast compromising for sure the safety of those on the street.

One of my pals who was taking pictures went over to the Lieutenant of the Ferguson police across the street and suggested that they close the street off to keep the safety of the protestors. I thought that was a great idea, then the protestors could make the chants, etc., and no one need get hurt or arrested.

The Lieutenant was rude and said to my friend, we’ve thought through all the possibilities and dismissed him. The police lined up against the protestors and began to converge on the people sitting and making the chants in the middle of the street, telling them to disperse.

Some of the clergy knelt down with the protestors and they spent some time together in prayer. That changed the rhythm of the evening; what seemed to me to be moving toward a youth riot became quiet. There was quiet for fifteen, twenty minutes and though the group returned to chanting and hollering in defiance of the police, the tension had been broken and the rhythm changed. We were now in the realm of rebellion, not riot.

A half an hour later the police closed off the street, just as my friend suggested. A minute later Captain Ron Johnson, the celebrated Captain of the Highway Patrol who the Governor had appointed during the most difficult days after Michael Brown’s death, showed up and moved right up into the crowd on the street. The protestors got up off the street and gathered around him. He had come to talk.

Everyone gathered around Captain Johnson and shushed those who were bent on discord and said let him speak let the man speak. He began to talk with the protestors. He told them he was not in charge of the Ferguson police but if they wanted to continue their protests they could and they would be left alone if they just moved back. They were free to make all the protests they wanted. He tried to empathize without making promises, he was after all not in charge there. He had seen the confrontation emerging on television and came over to see if there was anything he could do.

The Ferguson police (and a few other uniforms) began to disperse behind him into the parking lot of the police station. Captain Johnson was alone with the protestors and there was a few minutes of civil conversation and more lessening of tensions. The police presence began to disappear and another night of confrontation was averted.

I stood across the street in conversation with one after another of young people who showed up for the protest. A lot of people wanted to know who I was; I was probably the oldest person there, and as mentioned above, I was dressed to notice. I wanted to be noticed, I wanted to engage people in conversation, I wanted to know who these people were, what they were thinking.

When I arrived, it felt as if a youth riot was brewing. I walked up and down the street with people and when we returned to the police station, I stood and waited and one after another of the young people who were chanting and protesting and hollering came up to me and with genuine kindness and respect, always referring to me as sir and many even commenting how dignified I looked (their word) asked me in the gentlest way: who are you? Why are you here?

I told them I was here to learn and listen. I want to know people. Every person I met, and I met many, were kind and communicative and respectful. There was one fellow who had been arrested the night before, spent the night in the St. Ann jail, he was familiar with all the places a person could go with mental illness kinds of problems in our area (there aren’t many) and he seemed to be a street person. Why he was there was unclear to me though the longer we talked the clearer he spoke and soon he was making more sense. He was kind of along for the ride. He brought me carrots and water and made sure I had somewhere to sit if I got tired. I was not tired.

Others I spoke to lived nearby and gave me an earful about how the community works, Ferguson and environs, the nature of these fiefdoms in our area. There are many of them in what is called North and West County. These were people who lived there and knew what they were talking about. Some white, some black, all of them had a take on the complexity of the story in Ferguson and all its implications, the history before the death of Michael Brown and the implications of the action since the death of Michael Brown. I learned a lot that night.

By then it was past one AM and the confrontation had risen and receded in front of my eyes. I’m familiar with police and jailhouses, etc. and there wasn’t enough policemen out that night in the incipient confrontation to be scary but there was some wildness in the street and real tension. Also a stirring and a hollering, a message of resistance and purpose, an expression of social critique and intelligent vocalization of perceived wrongs.

I’m glad I went and I’m going back again. Every person I spoke with that night thanked me for being there. This is what democracy looks like.


Stone’s Journal. Wednesday. August 20.14

Stone’s Journal
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
There’s a Starbuck’s in Ferguson

Hey, we need jobs. The mayor of the city of St. Louis sent an aid to the site where a 25 year old man brandishing a knife at police was shot and the young men hanging around there said: we need some jobs. So he offered them job training and signed up a bunch of young men right there at the scene. I’m going to take this as a sign for things to come, a clue that something good can come out of this terrible chapter in America’s history.

But why did that man have to die? I would have thrown a bucket at him and jumped him. Look at the video. That man did not have to die. Everybody is tense here. The mayor of St. Louis has the benefit of mistakes made before him he practiced transparency and the police chief was better trained and they all made the case for shooting. It’s only four miles from Ferguson.

The thing about Ferguson is of course it’s America. One America. We’ve been forgetting that for a long time now. We’ve been safe in Two Americas. One America now. This may be the enduring legacy of this shameful, tragic chapter.

Because Ferguson is a nice little town. I know a bunch of people who live there. Of course there are two Fergusons also. I wonder: does everybody get that, watching the events on television, popping corn?

Ferguson has a Target. And a Schnuck’s. And a kind of Target plaza or whatever the hell you call it you know standard sandy brown strip mall construction with a Gigantic parking lot.

In the Target is a Starbuck’s. Now there is not an urban environment on earth that is in social collapse that has a Starbuck’s. I grew up in Detroit. I guarantee if there was an equivalent event in Detroit these days it would not be in a neighborhood that has a Starbuck’s.

But Ferguson is not really urban. It’s down in the mouth suburban. The city of St. Louis encroached onto Ferguson and brought all the attendant problems of urban life. It’s a story of race, race and class, as are so many of our stories.

Race and class. We need a job. We need a living wage. We need to be known. We need to be listened to, We need to be heard. We need to be treated with respect. We are America too, one America, hey we want some America too.

Hold on. There’s a guy on television that says he’s a physician and an attorney. And he’s advertising as “a semi-truck lawyer.” I couldn’t make this stuff up. Plus his name is poetic, it’s almost the same first name, last name. Dickens! Are you listening? You would love this. Nabakov. Vonnegut. David Foster Wallace. You guys must be cracking up. Semi-truck lawyer. He wants clients who got hit by trucks.

Anyway, tonight I marched with a line of clergy to the County government center to ask the Prosecutor to recuse himself. Love this language. So Franz and Fyodor. They would be laughing too except they didn’t laugh though they totally got irony got everything they just didn’t laugh. Too serious too sad.

We marched to the County Government Center. In addition to the Prosecutor’s office the jailhouse is there. I do a prison project and visit the jailhouse right there every Wednesday afternoon. I couldn’t go today. They closed it up tight to outsiders. There I was on the street right under the side with the obscured windows. I know the prisoners are up above.

That’s another side of this story. Up above as as we stood hollering on the street are the forgotten ones who have fallen out of the system entirely, hidden away behind those windows. I’m down below thinking about them up above, wondering if they’re watching us. Hey there’s the rabbi! He’s preaching!

Well I wasn’t preaching, I was praying for peace. Up above the angels behind the windows received my prayers and relayed them straight to heaven. People think there’s a hardening of the hearts out here, they should only know what happens up there.

Tonight I made a prayer at the march, and it seems as if the Prosecutor and the Governor are at war and well — who needs that mess. This is too important. Why not let someone else do it? Maybe that physician and lawyer on television I just saw. He’s so qualified for everything.

I think qualified people should do what they know. I can’t stand it when CNN is trying the case on television, though I have to admit that Lawrence O’Donnell just dissembled entirely the New York Times reportage on MSNBC and he’s not even chasing anybody around the streets of Ferguson. He’s sitting there behind a desk thinking. I kind of like that. Everybody else; let the qualified people try the case.

On the other hand, if you’re quiet and sensitive and deliberative, you can figure some things out. I mean the long term systemic social adjustments we will have to make to become one America. We can figure that out together.

Heck the top law enforcement official in the country came to Ferguson today to meet the family of Mike Brown and hug the Highway Patrol. That was beautiful.

I can’t think so big because what I call my mind has limitations when it comes to organizing the Universe so I have to keep it simple. This is what I’m going to do, I swear, I’m taking an oath.


I don’t go out much. I don’t go out to dinner and all that stuff, don’t go shopping, etc. (except grocery stores), my perfect day is the coffee house and the library reading and writing but from now on when I do go out, I’m going to Ferguson. People are always asking to meet with me and I’m not a sit behind the desk kind of guy so I meet people in coffee houses and such. If people want to meet with me, I’ll be at that Starbuck’s in Ferguson (as soon as the French video team departs, they leave their junk everywhere and wear a fragrance that makes me gag).

When my beloved wants to go out to dinner, or lunch, or maybe even an occasional breakfast, we’re going to Ferguson. I was there in the daytime yesterday and there are plenty of restaurants in Ferguson. I’ll go to those places and I’ll get to know the other people who go there too.

Getting to know people there. I’m taking a vow to do that. This is a harder one. I’m a shy person. I score introvert on that test I’m sorry I took, the one with the boxes. The mother of Mike Brown works at a store where I shop for groceries, I found out that she worked there and I go there a couple of times a week and I don’t know her. There is so much wrong with that.

I wonder how this loss will change her life so I don’t know if I’ll have the opportunity to know her in the future, but I will never again make a shop twice a week anywhere, take my laundry in, go to a coffee shop, use the library, without knowing the people who are working there, helping me, living with me in my world. One world. One America. This is what I’m going to do, I swear.

It’s small, but it’s do-able. And I think if we can help Ferguson, we can help all of it. Ferguson is a microcosm, the nature of the microcosm is that people learn from it. Also there’s always some mysticism between the microcosm and the macrocosm, what happens in one instance impacts Everything. What if Ferguson became the almost perfect garden. Why not Detroit?



Feverish working of the media a call for the cessation of fervor would have been right, solutions immediate and long range systemic both, always reason together.

What was not part of the Story: it wasn’t hot that summer. Still we were tinder ignited, the news making news, banter filling up time between sales spots selling eyeglasses and automobiles.

I heard the street groan cracking open with lava. History politics and psychology converged at the intersection it was summer time and all dramas were heating up by tweets and the war for faces, there were truces now and again all parties rolled into un-safe places.

Good-hearted people with solutions handed out their business cards. Believe me, they said, salvific fervor all around.

Nature is the symbol of spirit — Emerson talking. It’s raining today.

Sunday, August 17.14