From the Hidden Tales of Stone

 

Holocaust from holokaustus or holokautus (Gr.) meaning completely burned up, as in an offering in Leviticus, as translated into Septuagint Greek

I had no intention to tell a Holocaust story. I used to think I didn’t feel up to it because I experienced it one generation removed. I don’t feel that way any more.

Trauma, I feel it and the older I get the more the trauma I feel. It was passed to me in a more oblique way.

I come from a generation in which my parents protected me from that story. There were many survivors in my neighborhood when I was growing up; we knew they were different, we knew they had a story but we didn’t know what it was. It would not clarify until much later in life.

There was a seriousness and a sadness about the survivors that I knew in my neighborhood. I felt as if I knew them well, but I didn’t know them well. There were hidden parts to their lives, I knew this. There was a hiddenness in our world that was different from other people.

About two weeks ago I helped a family bury their mother who was a survivor of Auschwitz. I didn’t know her, didn’t know her daughter or any of the family, all who had relocated out of my town in recent years. The mother was to be buried here so I volunteered to help them out.

In telling me about her mother, her daughter described a scene that her mother often talked about. As a young girl her mother had been in the selection line at Auschwitz and she told me how her mother had described the dreaded Mengele standing at the head of the line making the selection. What was most chilling was non-verbal in the description, the daughter made gestures with her hands that were precise and I am sure just as her mother had communicated them.

The gestures were more horrifying than verbal language. They were simple gestures, obscene in simplicity and obdurate judgment. The picture of Mengele making gestures that signified this one lives this one dies was abhorrent. It sowed and planted the ugliest picture in my mind I have revisited many times since I saw it.

In last week’s Torah, the reading just before the events that we schedule around the Nazi horror memorials, after the death of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu, Moses refers to the surviving sons Elazar and Itamar (Lev.10:12). That word survivors, I never noticed it before this year, ha-no-ta-rim. It’s used twice in that verse, once to refer to the sons and once to refer to the remains of the offerings made by fire. This is the book of Leviticus.

There is much written about the clumsy application of fire language and offerings’ language associated with the Nazi horror, thus the controversy over the word Holocaust. This year when I heard the story of the woman I buried, how inadequate the word survivor felt to me. It felt too passive for what this woman lived through; sitting with these people these lives these strangers that existed because she went one way the girl next to her the other way and in spite of the burdens laid on her frail life she endured.

She endured and these people her daughter kids grandkids a great grand kid are ha-no-ta-rim, alive they thrive out of the devastation of her early life. It seemed to me that’s more than surviving.

Then there was my beloved teacher who walked out of Berlin just before the War and his response always to the perfunctory: How are you? Sur-vi-ving, in three sing-song syllables that even if you knew nothing about him you recognized a depth of story and triumph and ascent in that three syllabled response. Arbitrary and victorious, sur-vi-ving and if not for this if not for that, I would not have and with a bow to those who didn’t.

Now this Torah, this word applied both to the remnant of the offering burnt by fire, and the two brothers alive ha-no-ta-rim, as against the other two who were not (they brought strange fire in Lev.10:2). Fire and survival, what is that link and what the danger what the aftermath?

And who gets through? Ha-no-ta-rim — we the survivors, the remnant, the rest of us. From the root yud-tav-resh that also gives extra, something from without, something acquired from an unexpected place, something brought in from without so to speak, or something that remains, remnant as if remnant was something inviolable and ascendant.

Ha-no-ta-rim, this year it has a necessity that transcends surviving. It’s a persistence about existence: What continues. What remains. What endures. What thrives.

jsg

 

Four Other Questions Five

Four Other Questions

For prisoners, incorrigibles, activists, shut-ins, singers, students, poets, etc.

  

Every Passover, the Haggadah says, I should feel as if I, personally, were being liberated from Egypt. That is always the point of the liberation saga: it is my story. I am getting free. I ask myself four questions.

First question: Free from what?

The Hebrew for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which is a pun. It means narrow place. Each year at Passover time, I get a little more free, each year I leave that narrow place which is too small for me now. It’s a different place each year, because I’m in a different place each year. Mitzrayim, the narrow place, is also meant to conjure the birth narrows. Freedom is always a birth experience, a re-birth, renewal.

Second question: When does my freedom begin?

Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev asked this question: when does my freedom begin? I might think it begins with leaving Egypt. The koan of the question puts my memory to work on my own life, trying to discern the influences, who said what to me when that gave me strength, that planted a seed, that snuck the message by the guardians of my equanimity, the way the soul eludes the intellect and speaks directly to the heart. Who taught me to resist the easier, softer way, to get up out of complacency, who taught me that I could transform, be transformed, that I could be free? Who was it? What teacher? What voice? Who is part of my freedom chain? Who made it possible for me to get free?

Third question: What is freedom?

It is written that the Torah was given in the third month after leaving Egypt, the Midrash plays with the pun for the word month which in Hebrew is related to the word for something new (chodesh/chidush). That’s the form that my freedom takes every year, I move into something new, a place I haven’t been yet. How do I know I have achieved some measure of freedom? Not because I have crossed the state line and passed out of Egypt into the Wilderness, but because I have learned something new.

Asking the two questions, when does freedom begin, and how do I know I have acquired freedom re-fashions the liberation concept, re-formulating my notion of freedom from something that I have or don’t have, to the process; re-thinking freedom from a matter of arrival to the matter of the journey, re-envisioning the liberation saga from a matter of achievement to a matter of being on the road. It’s not about arrivals, but about process, not about goal but about journey, not about there but all about here. Radically here, on my own freedom trail. A link in my own freedom chain.

Fourth question: What interferes with the freedom journey?

I put out the chometz, all the leavened food, from my life for this journey. What is this chometz that I remove from my life during Pesach? The chometz is anything inflatable, all the inflatable aspects of self that interferes with the presence of God. The inflatable sense of self aggrandizement, the inflatable narcissism of self — this is chometz, and this is what I take out of my life during Passover. There is no room for God in a person too full of self (Baal Shem Tov). I get, in a word, humble.

We call humility bittul which means little, here a suppression of self. Less self, more other, less self more Other–this is the emerging Jewish spirituality. When I eat matzah, that substance of no chometz, I am reminded that chometz takes me away from God.

Fifth Question (in Chassidus, there is a hidden fifth concept): So — what is my response to the gift of freedom?

Gratitude, because it was a gift. Humility, because I didn’t make it happen.

jsg

Night of Conscious Watching 2017

The Night of Conscious Watching

Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in

— L. Cohen

It was some time in the days just before Pesach that year that the Congregation was going broke. Someone said maybe we should pray for sustenance. That was not an unusual idea to me, because I suppose that is what I was doing. I was confident, in some fanciful way, that everything would turn out all right because it just felt so good at the shul. The music, the teachings, the study circles, everything felt so good to me. We did not have two nickels but we had a load of soul. It is no shame to be poor (no honor either), but I did not know what to do about the money problem, so I did nothing. Or maybe I was praying for help.

We did not have a lot of kids in the school, but the ones we did have were learning well. The kids in my class loved Hebrew school so much I actually heard a parent say these words: “if you don’t behave yourself, I won’t take you to Hebrew school next week.” Imagine that.

The music and prayers on Friday night and Saturday morning had continued to grow more beautiful and more poignant. My musical partner Will’s presence had grown into a rich musical and personal association, and was inspiring me to deeper levels of musicianship. The spiritual approach to music that I had pursued was clarifying for me by the week; I felt an accelerated sense of learning and accomplishment in music, in teaching, in writing, in all ways. This is certainly the highest reach of the synagogue and my profession that I have yet experienced, I thought.

Still, we were broke.

At the Board meeting before Pesach, the financial news was so bleak that my paycheck was delayed several weeks because we did not have the cash in hand to cover it. I left the Board meeting early. It made me sad, but I did not know what to do about it, so I did nothing. Or perhaps I prayed about it. Everything was going to be all right, this I often say to myself.

The night after the depressing Board meeting was Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat that falls before Pesach. I went over to the synagogue, there was a small group that night but as usual the feeling was strong.

My friend Todd’s father had passed away in Detroit, and it was on my mind to speak the Kaddish on his behalf.

In the tradition, Shabbat HaGadol is one of the few times a year that the rabbi gives a formal discourse, usually on matters concerning Pesach. I had a hundred wonderful ideas percolating in my head about Pesach, but as soon as Will arrived, I launched into the music and it held me in its arms for several tunes without letting go.

The first tune was the stately melody for Yigdal that I made up, maybe found in a book, I am not sure anymore, the melody that also works so elegantly for Adon Olam. I had been enjoying singing it lately to Yigdal because Yigdal is one of those texts that I find interesting precisely because it is clumsy in its reach for dogma in a culture that resists such efforts, and because the melody is unmatched to the text.

I played through all the early melodies of our minhag with an uncharacteristic lid on. I rarely play this way, I usually play out, beyond my capabilities really, reaching for something I am not quite ready to achieve musically, but not that night. That night, I played within my abilities, tight, disciplined, with better tone and attack than I usually achieve though sacrificing some of my reach. It sounded beautiful to me.

There was something else happening that night that I wanted to share with my friends, the holy fellowship of prayer who accompanied me that night, but I could not speak. I wanted to speak but I could not. I could not stand either, I played with the same steady burn throughout the service, but I could not speak, so I sat and played and sang. I prayed.

My father Harry died during Pesach twelve years before. I thought of him often, talked of him on occasion, but I had never descended into the depth of my sadness over his death. My daughter was in the hospital at the same time that my father was struggling for his life, so I was flying back and forth between hospitals in St. Louis and Detroit, and when Harry died, I was not there.

I miss him most that time of year, but that night, Shabbat HaGadol, I not only felt the ache of his absence, I felt his presence.

As a young man, my father was a wonderful musician. He had an opportunity to study at a conservatory, but for this, but for that, it did not work out. He ended up in another life. Still, he loved music, played beautiful records around the house (Mahler on Sundays), and paid close attention to the many sounds that I brought home.

When he died, I had not yet found my own entirely personal sound. I have it now.

That night, Shabbat Hagadol, twelve years after his death, I felt that I was playing for him, as if I was saying: this is my sound, I found it. I want you to hear it. It was the resolution of something left undone: here, I am sharing my sound with you. It was as if I was unpacking my music and playing for him, discussing it with him, turning it over for him and him alone; an intimate share with Harry over something he loved the most, music. Something of him had returned to me that night, and something I had I was able to give to him. Something that had been undone got done. I honored him with music.

I was playing for him that night, of that much I am sure. The more I played, the more intimate we became. There were times I could hardly sing my voice my breath overwhelmed by emotion, some quiet tears, but beneath it all was his gentle, decent, attentive presence. I felt him listening. He was always such a good listener.

At the first seder, I was telling two friends across the table about this experience. I wondered what your father was like, my friend said to me. A little sad, beautiful, delicate, lofty, a bit distracted, sweet, mysterious, I said. I was never certain I knew the inside person, though when he opened to me, he opened in depth and in beauty.

As I described my experience of Shabbat HaGadol to my friends at the seder, it was a story. I did not sense Harry’s presence at the seder. Later that night, much later, almost morning, I wrote this story.

There is a night described in Torah, the night before we left Egypt, when we paused. We knew we were leaving by morning, but the night before we paused in our preparations. It is called leil shimurim, hard to translate, “the night of conscious watching” I prefer. The word shimurim is used only in this verse, twice, but only here in the entire Hebrew Bible:

“It was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, and it was on that very day that all the legions of God left the land of Egypt. It is a night of conscious watching of God to take them out of the land of Egypt, this was the night for God; a conscious watching for all the children of Israel for their generations” (Exodus 12: 41 – 42).

What did we do the night before we became free? Knowing we were leaving in the morning, what did we do the night before, when we paused, this night of conscious watching, what is it? A conscious watching, reciprocal, for God for us, a spirtual intimacy, something that was left undone, done?

The sense that though there is uncertainty and even danger, everything is going to be all right. We are vigilant and confident.

It is used twice in that verse; maybe this is what happened on Shabbat HaGadol that year, maybe this was my night of conscious watching for Harry, maybe it was Harry’s night of conscious watching for me. In addition to everything else.

jsg

2001

epilog:

In early 2016, baby Harry was born in St. Louis Missouri to my son and daughter in law, the first grandchild to my wife and myself. There is not a sentence I utter that is not poetry when I mention his name.

jsg

2017

I Was A Detective

 

 

I was a Detective

 

It leaked out I mentioned it in passing last night that I once worked for a detective it was a long time ago from a colorful I suppose part of my story I don’t often revisit not a past dweller and I couldn’t remember his name I hadn’t visited that part of my life for so long but I dropped that detail it got everyone’s attention in the room and I felt I should explain but I didn’t like I ought to explain put it in context integrate it talk about it more often so I don’t freak people out who think they know me as the quiet poetry loving shy person I am. Inward, to be kind.

 

It’s also you think you know somebody but you may not know and that is a common thought for me when knowing you. I often wonder what’s underneath the tissue so to speak what do you have there in your story that might be curious to me when I look at you I am thinking that because under the tissue over here might surprise.

 

The way in which the story popped out last night also significant: I was recounting how the day before I followed someone because I thought I was doing someone else a favor and I know how to follow people without being noticed. Uh oh already I am deeper into my own story than I intended to go. You know how to follow people I could read in the eyes who were listening to me in the room. What does that mean emphasis on that.

 

It may be unseemly to think of me creeping around my neighborhood hiding behind a tree (that’s not how) for how long did you follow this person? All that I wasn’t thinking before I kind of hiccupped it out.

 

I worked a year or two for a detective agency and I learned how to follow people. It doesn’t seem creepy to me though it was a long time ago. Already deeper into my tale than I intended to go I saw around the room some were interested some may have not believed me some were just confused not sure they heard me correctly.

 

A little crisis erupted inside at that moment so I shut my mouth. I felt embarrassment also some surprise at my own lack of self awareness, that this detail might elicit surprise to people who thought they knew me never occurred to me before the hiccup.

 

Someone else started talking and I wrote notes to myself, my detective bossman’s name (I blanked), where we met, how long did that episode last, the name of his sidekick (yeah he had a sidekick), the name of the agency (so fanciful it’s not believable), the before and after of the story more believable because it’s unimaginable but too real to feel fictional, and some shame I was feeling in dropping this detail as if it was a high school I attended temporarily then forgotten. It was a part of my life. It lasted for two years at a crossroads time for me; I ultimately chose the path I am still following but just then I could not have.

 

In other words, I’m not typical. In another sense, entirely typical but in a sense hardly anyone knows about, not typical. Who cares. I hardly care and it’s my life.

 

Also at the moment the story slipped out I couldn’t remember some of the details I hadn’t visited this chapter in so long. I hadn’t told this part of my story in a long time even my bossman detective’s name eluded me I knew it would return but last night it flew away. That offered me a way to frame it I hadn’t thought of: maybe it didn’t happen. I could choose that. But I knew the name would come back to me, there are several significant details found in his name and I knew it all would clarify.

 

I could have even continued the story last night but I didn’t, I waited until this morning, the next day. I was talking to myself now. Integrating my own story. Tap tap tapping on the keyboard trying to make sense.

 

I often follow a principle I learned from the book of Exodus (24:3 ff.) about story telling and writing: I tell the story first, in the telling it acquires some shape, then I go home and write it, then I read it (sometimes out loud) or I find a print medium for it, then I rewrite it again. In each step the story shapes itself so to speak and I am always surprised the form it takes.

 

Part of the story as it slipped out last night is that I was making an offering to the person to whom I am closest to, my beloved, I followed someone who was doing something in our back yard that bothered her it didn’t really bother me but it bothered her and I wanted to stop it. So I told her I saw the guy who was doing this thing in our yard (he has a little dog) thinking I could either knock on his door and tell him to stop or make the same deposits in his own garbage can that he leaves in ours. That’s why I followed him home.

 

As I was telling my beloved the story that I had followed this guy and unraveled the mystery that had been bothering her for several years I could see in her eyes something I hadn’t anticipated: you’ve got some thug in you don’t you. Maybe she saw underneath the tissue and I regretted the whole thing.

 

In addition there was the excuse I heard coming out my mouth that I imagine being grilled under oath and opening with: I did it for her. How much suspect behavior opens with the sentiment that I did it for her and I imagined Joseph Cotton as he was led away to the jailhouse muttering to his captors, I did it for her. I did it for her, how many hapless idiot men in the movies of my youth explained their behavior with that excuse that holds in melodrama; this was my life still it felt like a script.

 

Then I had to put the question to myself: did I really do it for her or did I trot out my secret thug, it lingers within waiting for the opportunity to return. I did it because I’m barely a citizen playing a fool’s game and almost always I con everybody.

 

I also recalled how much I enjoyed following people when it was a job. We got wrapped up in dramas that were way deeper than we anticipated and I still enjoyed it, until that night crawling across the desert someone we were following took a shot at me. And I was carrying a gun, full disclosure, another detail I had forgotten until I inadvertently disclosed something of what I have come to see as my secret past. There’s a reason I don’t visit there often, too much explanation.

 

Well I’m not that person anymore. Or if I am it is because I am continuous in body but have traversed space in spirit. Yes, I said to my beloved as I wove the story out to her, I’ve got some thug in me.

 

jsg

 

The Great Olive Oil

It Will Need Some Lift:

 

And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually.

— Exodus 27: 20

Of the seven species associated with Israel, land of wheat, barley, grape, fig, and pomegranate, a land of olive oil and honey, I note in passing that it’s olive oil, not olives, one of the seven species.

Here Rashi is specific about the kind of olive oil the Torah is referring to; was Rashi also an olive oiler as well as a vintner? I wondered why Rashi bothered so with the specifics of olive oil, so I asked him.

JSG: I notice in your commentary that you get quite specific about olive oil, its production, the kinds of olives, the sediment, etc.

Rashi: Yes, there are gradations: which oil is used to lift up the light of the menorah, that’s the one without sediment, the one that rises. First squeeze as it were. Cold pressed. Then the one with sediment, that one can be used for meal offerings. Don’t you love the language though? You have to lift up a light in your holy place. It has to have some lift, your spirit life, like your words, without lift you are failing. You know how it feels when your light has no lift, and your words are too heavy?

JSG: I do, I do know.

Rashi: The light will rise by itself, so to speak. I pick this out of the Talmud. You know what I’m talking about? The light rises by itself? It’s natural, get out of the way. Learn listening get quiet find your silence pay attention, the light will rise. Love that image.

JSG: Oh man, I know, I do know. That’s not easy. It’s not so much what you do but how to get out of the way, make room for the light to rise so to speak.

Rashi: Yes, of course. You know I am speaking French, but it’s the same. That lift. Be careful about dull language in your holy places, words with no lift, light that does not rise by itself, but let’s get back to the oil. It’s making me hungry. We all know that the Italians have the finest cuisine. They get the food concept. Way ahead of the French.

JSG: I think so too.

Rashi: In addition to the grape, I am also an aficionado of the olive as you have picked up in my commentary. The olive grows only where winters are temperate, I’m a little far north for a good olive, but I often winter south, what you call Italy, where the oils in the southern provinces are heavy, in the northern areas the oils are milder. Of course, olio extra vergine di oliva in Tuscany is, well, beaucoup beautiful.

JSG: Liquid gold.

Rashi: Exactement.

JSG: I also love the oil from Umbria, especially from around Spello.

Rashi: Not familiar with that. Don’t get to travel much in the eleventh century.

JSG: Fresh fava beans with a soft pecorino cheese, and a crusty bread to sop up the olio.

Rashi: Perfecto.

JSG: I have learned maybe from you that the domestication of the olive comes from our homeland, not Europe, but the Middle East, around 6000 BCE.

Rashi: I have heard that there is a tree in the Maremma near the Tyrrhenian coast that is supposed to be 3500 years old, counting back from your time. That would mean it not only preceded the Greeks, but the Etruscans. It was the Romans who developed the commerce of the olives and created the classification system. Then the Benedictines took over its care after the fall of the Empire.

JSG: Extra vergine, is it purer than vergine?

Rashi: It’s a much abused system of classification. Extra vergine simply means that the oil must be extracted from the first pressing of olives by mechanical means only, cold pressed, no chemicals, and must contain less than 1 percent of oleic acid. Vergine, same means of extraction, less than 2 percent acid. But first pressed oils are often blended with lesser types while staying within the 1 percent limit. In the Torah, no blending. Now we have returned to spiritual subjects. Of course the separations are an illusion, it’s all spirit, all over.

JSG: I suppose you mean that when we are speaking in a physical sense, it has spiritual implications. I get that. It’s the olive oil not the olive that’s one of the seven species. The olive releases its best qualities when squeezed. Don’t you love that?

Rashi: I do. The Italians have a wonderful expression, I will translate for you: the great olive oil must suffer.

JSG: Oh, that’s so Jewish. The physical-spiritual continuum.

Rashi: You know the secret of the Jewish-Italian connection, don’t you?

JSG: Yes, I do.

 

jsg

 

 

 

 

 

Confession

The Problem of Addiction

jsg organizes Shalvah, Outreach on Addiction

 

The deaths of celebrities always bring the secret back into discussion. Those of us who live in and around addiction daily are not mystified by these stories, we are saddened like everybody but we understand it. I know dozens of good, talented people who struggled mightily with an addiction, a dependency of one kind or anther, who did not make it.

It’s hard to watch the news because it’s clear from the information sources that so little is understood about addiction — how a person with a number of years clean time could die that way, why couldn’t he just stop, didn’t she have enough help — all these shadow questions that are the wrong questions.

It could happen, it does happen, because addiction is insidious, patient, when you have it bad you usually have it for life and it likewise requires daily vigilance, every day, and generally never alone. Few go this road to recovery alone, that’s the first truth, you can’t run and you can’t hide.

You can’t run and you can’t hide from a problem — a hunger, a need — that isn’t entirely physical. An addict has an emptiness within, a hole in the soul, a space inside that we stuff with substances; with booze, with drugs, with sex, with food, with – some thing. Drugs become everything, drink becomes everything, something becomes everything to the addict.

The perennial wisdom of the recovery model is we face the real problem of addiction every morning when we gaze into the mirror. The problem is within. You meet the real problem of addiction in the mirror, a kind of idolatry located in the self.

At the deepest level, the only dependable antidote is what we call a program, a plan for living, a deeper dive into the inner world where we fill that emptiness within with something more nutritious and sustaining. We become individuals with lives of value and purpose, we call this a spiritual program, and every recovery model that I know of that helps to change lives changes them from the inside out, so to speak, and we call this kind of thoroughgoing inward transformation a spiritual change. This is old wisdom. Perennial wisdom.

Dr. Carl Jung, an early influence on the treatment of alcoholism and chemical dependency, loved the use of the word spirits to indicate substances. The problem has a physical component and it has a spiritual component. Some people are physically predisposed, as it were, and all of us are spiritually predisposed. We are getting better with new strategies to encounter the physical need; we have the oldest wisdom on the planet to grow the spiritual response.

It begins with a person taking responsibility. This is my problem and I have to do such and such to begin my recovery. There is plenty of help once one realizes that no one can do this for me, and no amount of help will do this for me, and sometimes people who live with and around addicts make this harder for the addict by trying to do for him what she has to do for herself.

You can do too much for the suffering addict, and when you do, you are contributing to the problem by taking away the very thing the addict has to learn: Responsibility. This is my problem, my responsibility, I have to take action. This is my problem, not yours, mine. There is what to do when you live around addicts that will help the addict come to that place; but the person must take action him herself.

I am sorry for every loss through the dizzy decline into drugs and alcohol, especially those I have known, have worked with, have been on that hard road with. Everyone should understand that recovery from a serious drug and alcohol dependency is one of the hardest inner journeys a person takes in life. It is thoroughgoing and demanding; what we say is: All you have to do is not drink, not take drugs and change your entire life.

Change your whole life. Does that help to understand drug and alcohol dependency? To make the hole, whole, so to speak.

I am making a Kaddish in my heart for every loss, in the John Donne sense: Every person’s death diminishes all of us. And my heart aches in the Deuteronomic sense too: Not by bread alone do human beings live, but by Everything do human beings live [see Deut. 8:3].

Only Everything is everything.

 

jsg

 

 

From Black Fire on White Fire

tiferet

Lotus Torah

I let it be known in the cyber-circles I frequent that I was in the market for a Torah. Start-up synagogue, fledgling, stressing excellence serious study of languages the deep story and good music, the kind of institution that will retain standards but never fashionable, we received a secret grant from two couldn’t-be-more-different quiet sources to purchase a Torah. The synagogue also teaches the healing arts to suffering individuals: addicts, alcoholics, those living in and around mental illness, prisoners in-and-out of jailhouses.

One gift came from the mother of a son struggling with at that time a crack cocaine habit, she had a little family money and quietly whispered in my ear: buy a Torah. Another source from a family clear-headed about values and without need for recognition, neither source cited then or now.

I received a message back through the Internet: We have a dozen Torahs. From my home town, pursuing the message a phone number in return (it was the era of beepers): call this number when in Detroit and we can arrange a meeting.

Such a connection in Detroit was not unknown to me and it was as good a lead as any. I went to Detroit.

In Detroit I punched in my number, a phone call returned, and a rendezvous arranged at a warehouse space in a small strip mall next to a discount carpet center.

I was met at the warehouse by a man with a beeper. The Torahs were from a synagogue near my boyhood home that I recognized, the symmetry of finding a Torah from a synagogue not a mile from where I grew up stirred something in me approximating trust.

Maybe it marked some sort of spiritual reconciliation with my past, that would be nice, but I don’t think so. The place I came from is far away, nothing like the place I landed. It was tugging at me to think-feel it through but I was on a mission and I had money in my pocket for one purpose: Torah. A legitimate Torah.

He opened the warehouse and took me into the back where there was a table full of Torahs. It was summer and a little close in the room but the room had high ceilings and the climate was right.

The strip mall location was the last stop of a synagogue that had been in decline for years. It was now time to close up.

At the warehouse, I eye-balled a table full of Torahs. I was drawn to one that needed some repair, the Torah staves were broken and the cover was seriously discolored. I opened it up anyway, and it unrolled to me with an unusual style of scribal art, unfamiliar to me, not too big, not too small, exceedingly clear and clean but different from the style of Torah scribal art I was familiar with.

It didn’t look like the borrowed Torah we had been using. But there was something beautiful, more Mizrachi (eastern) in the swirl, in the movement in the letters that I felt as I stared into this particular Torah, and somewhat intuitively I picked that one, the one that looked from first inspection a little funky with its broken wood and faded cover.

There were other Torahs that were larger, with script more like the common Torah scribal art that I was familiar with, wood intact, covers in better shape. They were also about a thousand dollars more than the smaller Torah I picked, with the uncommon scribal art, with the broken wood, the faded Torah cover. It wasn’t about the money.

I picked out that Torah, pinned my name to the cover, left a deposit, returned to St. Louis to gather the money. I sent the chazzan of the shul in Detroit a check, waited for shipment.

It came boxed up. When I opened it, I realized that I had not been in good light when I rolled through it in the back room of the warehouse in Detroit. Perhaps I just didn’t look closely enough the first time I saw it, but this time, under good natural light, the rare beauty of this particular Torah was overwhelming.

It was perfect, better than perfect, it was beautiful, the way the sefirah [one of the ten energies] of tiferet [beauty] is at the middle of the sefirotic diagram, the way all the paths of connectivity pass through tiferet, the way all roads pass through beauty. It read, by the way, on the faded Torah cover, tiferet Tzion [the beauty of Zion].

I put it back in the box and brought it to a ceremony we were holding that night [Slichot]. I unpacked it and unrolled it on the table and showed it to everyone at the synagogue. Again, I was dazzled by the beauty of this particular Torah, coming from Detroit, out of the same loam I arose.

One of the Torah staves that was broken crumbled into several more pieces in the handling of it, we sent the cover off to the cleaners, and I wondered how we were going to fix the wooden parts. I took the Torah home. The next day I rehearsed with the band, I attended a master class with an excellent guitarist from LA (he played before Segovia when Segovia was in his Nineties, it was like playing before Grandpa, he said, as long as you didn’t come on too haughty, then he took you down), I came home trying to imagine who could fix the Lotus Torah the Tiferet Torah this week and have it ready for Rosh Hashanah.

About six o’clock I went temporarily insane and drove over to Home Depot, bought a little attachment to go into a drill to sand a delicate piece of wood, some stain, shellac, came home and set about the fixing of the Torah myself.

Ordinarily I can’t fix much. I sanded it, glued it, sanded it again, stained it, shellacked it, found some nice chunky Yemenite looking beads to decorate the wood on Ebay, I think I fixed the Torah.

There is a principle in the midrash, that something you love changes your nature, (something you hate can also change your nature by the way), it changes you, what you think you are, your definition, your limitations I suppose. Love changes nature, it reads in the midrash.

Maybe that’s what happened.

Epilog

A year later, one of my Aunties was visiting from Detroit. So you are in a new location? She asked me. Yes. Can I see it?

My work life had never been the focus of our relationship, though we are close, her request to see the synagogue surprised me.

I drove out there, showed her around, we had a small ark we had commissioned a nice carpenter across the river to build for us.

Do you have a Torah? My Auntie asked.

Yes, again surprised by the question, and I told her the story of the mystery purchase from our homeland.

Can I see it? More surprise. Sure.

I took out the Torah and opened it up, showing her the qualities of the scribal art I prized, and she looked at the end of one of the staves where there was writing, a place name, the date of its dedication, who the scroll was dedicated to, all details I had not paid much attention to.

Jimmy, she said, that’s the synagogue where your parents were married. I was there.

I then calculated the date from the Hebrew. It was the same year. One year before I was born.

My parents had been gone for over ten years. There was no one else to ask. She was the last person I know who had this information.

We stared at each other and at the Torah for a long time before we rolled it up and returned the scroll to its Ark.

jsg.usa

Fifteen Years Later 9.11

remnant-world-trade-center

Ground Zero
December 11, 2001

I was invited to a conference in New York City to discuss the mental health implications of long term recovery from acts of terrorism. We were called together to discuss how to prepare, how to respond, how to plan for the unthinkable, convened by the Department of Health and Human Services.

I sat for two days listening and discussing a psychological and spiritual response plan for the state I represented. It was not a part of the conference to visit the World Trade Center site, it was only three months out and the site was still restricted, and although I was a subway ride away from Ground Zero I felt as if I could not miss seeing it.

Late on the last night I spent in New York City, I called my friend Todd who lived near the site, asking him if he would take me downtown to see it. It was almost midnight.

We took the subway to Fulton Street. They were still cleaning out the subway and fortifying its walls. It was dusty in the subway corridors and overhead I could discern the reinforcements in the ceiling and on the walls.

We walked up out onto Fulton Street and a short distance to the site. An opaque wooden fence concealed the site from view and approach. Though it was just past midnight, there were quite a few people in the area. On the site itself we could see the iron workers in the distance finishing up their welding for the night. The lumbering trucks did not cease moving the mountain of debris that remained of the World Trade Center and once in a while a gate in the wooden fence opened and out rolled a truck.

From a distance I could see the crude natural memorial of the terrible disaster: the piece left of the above-ground skeleton of the towers that I had heard New Yorkers call “the potato chip.” It didn’t look anything like a potato chip to me; it was two hundred feet tall and looked like the ruin of a holy place, stately and dignified, ruined and demeaned.

It reached out of the ruins and up towards the sky like a sign of both the horrific destruction and the heroic aftermath of inspiration and courage. It embodied both ruin and reach.

I was drawn to get a clearer look at this beautiful terrible remnant. We walked 360 degrees around the site, and on the west side, facing New Jersey, we stopped in front of one of the spontaneous shrines that appeared all around what once was the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

There was an old man kneeling in front of this particular shrine, reading the notes and pictures and stories that made up the altar on the wooden fence. We stood there next to him for a while, all of us reading the stories given in pictures and words, prayers from children to their parents, letters from parents to their children, lovers to lovers, friend to friend, each story an entire world.

It was then, that moment, in front of one of many spontaneous shrines that decorated the fence, that the tragedy of the World Trade Center ceased to be theoretical for me. I felt the weight of thousands of broken worlds times the number of intimates who do not forget, a circle of multiple thousands sitting in a circle around God.

Suddenly next to the shrine where we stood opened a section of the wooden fence, and out rolled one of the trucks laden with debris from the site. The gates remained open and we were granted one of the few clear visions into the Ground Zero site. We were all standing now, looking past the shrine, the stories, the pictures, the prayers, into the site of the ruins of the World Trade Center, Ground Zero, watching the dump trucks lumbering out loaded with debris. We sat in silence watching for ten minutes, then the old man said, “so began the age of fear.”

We continued to circle the site walking around it, from every angle entranced by the monument both heroic and horrific that loomed over us, reflecting the stadium lights that shined after dark, the truest symbol I had seen of the now altered sense of the world, the Age of Fear, a remnant in metal of what it felt like in the aftermath of disaster.

There was still a good number of people walking with us. No one was sightseeing. I felt like we were all on a holy pilgrimage, praying with our feet, circling the ruin that rose in the distance, the last remnant of the skeleton, a totem in the massive graveyard that the World Trade Center had become. It stuck in the site like a tombstone, a monument inspiring in me not vengeance, but awe, respect, quietude, determination, endurance, and hope.

It was close to three AM by the time we headed back. We had spent three hours in walking meditation, the smell that everyone talked about in the air. What was that smell? Was it acrid, was it sweet, was it something burning, but burning sweetly, a mix of Levitical incense? Was it the kabbalah of ruin and redemption, descent and ascent, the grotesque and the beautiful bound up, interpenetrated, the unholy and the holy, symbolized by the cathedral that had risen out of the ruins where there once was a building?

Addendum, September 11, 2016

I recall these feelings of mourning fifteen years later. I am familiar with the quality of brokenness when what is released from the ruins of the heart is something quiet and beautiful, strong and sure, the deep knowledge of both impermanence and permanence, to be drawn to the core and know that something good there endures.

James Stone Goodman
United States of America

Remembering 9.11

Remembering Nine Eleven
Thirty Six Stories

judge-16

Abbaye said, “there is not less than thirty six righteous persons in each
generation who receive the Shekhinah [the inner presence of Godliness].”
— Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b

In every generation, there are a finite number of stories that authenticate, define
the generation. In every event of significance, every catastrophe, every jubilation,
there are a certain number of stories — thirty six, thirty, one, ten thousand, thirty
six stories — that define the catastrophe.

The defining story for me of 9/11 is the story of the fire fighters of New York
City, and a particular account of those fire fighters given by a Board member of
the Fallen Firefighters Foundation, Vena Drennan (sp?). Her husband Capt. John
Drennan was killed on the job in 1994.

She was interviewed by Noah Adams on All Things Considered just after 9/11, this is what I
heard listening to it on the radio (pardon mistakes, I transcribed it myself):

Mrs. Drennan: We went down to the firehouse which is below Fourteenth Street.
I went to the wake of one of the firefighters. They have a sense of optimism.
They had decided to pray to my husband who they feel still watches over them.
And they said, Capt. Drennan — show us where the eleven [missing] members
are. And one young one said, I knew just where to put my shovel. Ladder Five is
so comforted that they were able to find five of their own and return their bodies
to their families and honor their deaths in a proper and magnificent funeral.

ATC: Mrs. Drennan — are you saying that those on the scene believed that the
spirit of your late husband helped them to find those who were fallen?

Mrs. Drennan: Yes, you lose your religion after a large crisis but you sure get a
spirituality about it.

ATC: There’s a photograph of something you don’t often see in the magazines in
the recent US News and World Report, of firemen carrying a dead man, the
Reverend Mychal Judge fire department chaplain you know him, sixty eight
years old . . .

Mrs. Drennan: He was one of my best friends . . .

ATC: As you know he was administering last rites and was killed by falling
debris.

Then she told the story of Mychal Judge and how he had comforted her after the
death of her husband, and how he had remembered her on her anniversary
every year thereafter.

Mrs. Drennan: When he prayed, it was the most blessed thing,
you felt that his prayers were a direct hotline to God.

ATC: He was a Franciscan priest.

Mrs. Drennan: Mychal was administering last rites to a firefighter that had just
been hit by a body of a woman. People were falling out of those towers so they
wouldn’t burn.

In the midst of this here he is kneeling and giving last rites. The firefighters when
they realized he had perished they carried him up to St. Peters church and they
laid out his body on the altar and they put his rosaries in his hand and they
pinned on his fire department badge and they prayed over him. Later that night
they wouldn’t let his body go to the morgue.

They brought him to their firehouse and they laid him in the back room and the
friars across the street of St. Francis of Assisi came and they lit candles and said a
vigil.

He was beloved by every firefighter in the city and the fire department will
grieve many many years for the loss of his beautiful life.

There are a number of stories that define an event — thirty six, thirty, maybe one,
ten thousand — and one of them, one of those stories, may be the one that saves
us.

This is the story that is saving me.

rabbi james stone goodman

Orensanz

Gig Tonight
Early 21st Century

Al-2011-IMAG1035-600x371

Linda showed up at the end of the gig and asked if I wanted to go on an adventure.

Where to?

The oldest synagogue in New York City, someone bought it and turned it into a foundation and an artist’s studio. [she exaggerates but who cares]

Sounds great.

It’s way downtown, way down on the lower East Side, she said, below the letters [Avenues A,B,C]. We took cabs. Jake the bass player came too, and Judah from Brooklyn, and Daniel the artist.

We found the street, carrying all our instruments, in the middle of the block, dark, set back behind a black metal gate. It certainly looks like a synagogue but it reads The Orensanz Foundation. What the heck is Orensanz. . . I mumbled.

The name of the two brothers who bought it, Linda said.

Standing out in front of its dark exterior on Norfolk street, waiting for someone to answer the buzzer, I was as cold as I have ever been in my entire life. No gloves, I hate it when my hands get cold. I felt as if I were standing naked on an ice flow. It was February, New York City, but it felt like February, Rejkavik. The temperature had plummeted forty degrees from afternoon to night that particular day, and my bones froze standing out in front of the Orensanz Foundation, midnight, after the gig on Fourteenth Street. We stood waiting on the street, in the dark, for someone to come from somewhere within the labyrinth of the dark edifice looming above us. Open the door.

There were handwritten notes attached to the gate: ring loud, I am within. Ring ring, no response, climbing he was through a series of ascending palaces of subterranean mist to reach land-level.

Ring ring. A light from within, a door opened and silhouetted in the doorway a man with a natty thin-brim hat. Cardigan sweater. Scarf.

He opened the front door, come into my office, he said. His office was to the right as we entered. I peeped to the left into the large empty room, the synagogue I guessed, it was dark but I could see a shadowy presence and its three story ascent in the darkness. On top a luminescent dome that glowed cerulean blue in the dark.

His accent was a combination of Latino, eastern European, Pee Wee’s Funhouse, I thought it was completely contrived and someone’s private joke. It sounded like one of my accents. In his office, large industrial space heaters hanging from the ceiling. Pictures on the walls of Sarah Jessica Parker’s wedding, who Mr. Orensanz referred to several times as one of his finest moments as landlord. I gathered he rented the space out to parties for New York’s hip elite. Poof Daddy was here last night. Poof Daddy was here last night, he said twice, great party. MTV loves it here.

Joke? I looked at Linda. No joke, Linda looked back at me. Joke? I looked at Judah. I have no idea, Judah looked back at me, shrugging his shoulders. Joke? I looked at Jake the bass player. Good joke, Jake looked back at me, great joke, fabulous joke.

Orensanz was describing his brother’s sculpture, for which the synagogue was purchased in order to house his studio.

Where is your brother now?

Paris. He went back to naming the celebrities who were having parties in his synagogue.

I snuck out of the office and into the dark synagogue to the left. The floors were wood and not refinished, as were the columns that ran the length of the room in two parallel rows. The columns were carved out of small facets in shapes that looked like fine tile-work, but it was not ceramic, it was wood, small carved facets of color carved out of the wood pillars. I realized that the entire ceiling and upper walls were formed out of these colorful miniaturized facets. The colors – magenta, scarlet, purple, yellow, and the dome a shimmering blue like God’s holy eyes.

There was no heat at all in the synagogue space. I unpacked my guitar and sat down on the steps that led up to the bimah. I began to play. First I played a couple of serpentine Ladino melodies, I switched to some oud-inspired improvisations, the notes of my instrument ascending slowly up into the dome space and raising a holy sweet savor to God’s nose, ears, eyes. For the second time that night, I began the love songs that make up the slow-hand Havdalah ceremony that I had recently learned for just these occasions, and by now the group who had been huddling in the office had followed the sound and wandered into the synagogue.

Mr. Orensanz the brother switched on a bank of what looked like make-up lights that ran in a row above the columns along two side walls and the rear wall of the synagogue. Not too much light, but enough to note the floors, the walls, the columns, the facets were original and not reconditioned, original structures, the empty floor a rough parquet unfinished, whose footprints?

Daniel the artist was examining the columns and the collusion of colors in the facets around the room. Everyone was walking slowly examining the shadowy recesses. Jake the bass player unpacked his instrument, sat down next to me, and began to accompany my playing.

I started to sing in Ladino again, a medieval Spanish garnished with Hebrew, Turkish, Greek, Arabic. I sang love songs, sad songs of longing, songs of exile, and I noticed that Mr. Orensanz was standing near one of the columns to my right, weeping at the sound of his ancestral language and the music of longing.

Soon everyone stopped wandering around the room and stood stationary, each in place, like players on a big game board, lit not-lit by the light casting shadows, faces dark.

I sang and they listened this way for forty five minutes. No longer did I notice the temperature, it was cold but we raised a fire in our rooted souls, the sound rose through the dome and into the space where the music rested. We sang and played into the shadows for forty five minutes.

When we finished, we quietly filed out into the New York City night, a hush having fallen over all of us, including Mr. Orensanz, who asked if I would like to record in his synagogue. Poof Daddy.

On the street, I began to freeze up again. I had no idea where we were, but several blocks later we came to the celebrated Katz’s delicatessen. We took a ticket and went and sat in the cavernous dining room, next to a table of young musicians recently come in no doubt from their own show, in black leather, studs, chains, tattoos and piercings.

One of them glanced at me carrying my instruments. Gig tonight? he asked.

Yeah, I said, great gig. You?

Me too, he said, nodding his head up and down. We smiled at each other. Later, I watched him walk out the front door and disappear like a raven into the night.

James Stone Goodman
United States of America

Al Orensanz passed away in New York City, on Saturday, July 23, 2016.