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.

Inner Point of Truth

star of david gemstone

From the Legend of the Thirty Six

Rav said, all the ends have passed, and the matter depends only on transformation and good deeds. But Shmuel said, it’s enough for the mourner to stand in mourning.

— Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 97b

I knew that my heart had opened to all suffering with these pictures, these stories, these dreams, these possible and impossible ideas that had emerged over the course of this study. I had felt the exchange of cliché for deeper notions, like the argument in the Talmud, through the willingness to stand in our grief, to weep the world well, we had moved into a place that released us from the failure of our own wisdom to sustain. I felt the release of inadequate ideas to justify suffering, it was not because of this or because of that that we grieve, we have only to be with our sadness, to sit with our suffering, to weep the world well, in order to survive.

What we do is to stand here, because we are lured to the light by the fancy that we wait for this, we wait for that, we do not give up, and we are sustained by all that is unseen. We yearn for it.

Rabbi R told me that it was said that Bar Yochai’s right eye used to smile and his left eye was sad. He also quoted a passage in the Zohar, one half of my heart is happy and the other half is crying.

I met with H to show her the pictures. “I like the stories,” she said, “especially the last one.” The last one was about the nature of the righteous person, the tzaddik: a person who is the agent for revealing the hidden. Something happens around the tzaddik, whether the tzaddik is conscious of that or not, it doesn’t matter. It only matters that the tzaddik makes something happen.

“The tzaddik is the one who is able to connect with the world the way it is, and to raise something up that is beyond the world,” I said.

Then H looked at the photographs. Afterwards, we sat down at a small table in the gallery space as if we were having coffee in Vienna, and she told me this story:

In 1980, I went back to Europe. I visited the place where my parents were held. It was a small place on the eastern border of France. I was walking just across the road from the camp. They were buried along that road. There were 1200 graves along that road, and I visited them all. I thought: no one else might ever come here.

Just before I left, I looked down and I saw a rock, I felt as if it were calling to me, so I picked it up. I started picking up a rock from every site we visited. I took them all home and I often took them out when I spoke about the trip.

One day I was showing the rock, the first one I picked up, and a girl said, “look – do you see what it is?”

No, I hadn’t noticed. I turned it over and it formed a perfect star of David, etched on the underside, filled with calcium deposits.

I took it to a geologist to see if someone had carved it or whether it was – you know – nature. The geologist told me it was nature. It had been buried deep and a great upheavel had pushed it up, maybe it settled in water, but it’s natural.

It was Shabbat Naso, the three-fold blessing from Bemidbar, culminating in “may God’s face be lifted up to you and give you peace.” The Sefas Emes brings that shalom/peace is shleimut/wholeness; the inner point of truth. A tiny point or a single moment contains the infinite fullness and joy of Godliness. The micro version of Everything, the attention paid to the detail of the individual, the lone tzaddik, the moment, the singular act, the story, through which the whole world passes. It was Bar Yochai believing, after opposing the Romans, after hiding in a cave for thirteen years, after all that he came to believe that if he could only celebrate two Sabbaths properly, the world would be redeemed. Or that he and his son were the two who received the presence of God. Maybe the only two.

jsg.usa

Happy Birthday Bob

Highway 61

Prelude:

I brought my pal Todd to my town to exhibit his show “The Legend of the Thirty Six” and do some concerts and teachings in the room where we hung the show. It was thirty six photographs, inspired by the legend of the lamed-vav-nik and the influence of the artist Ben-Zion on my pal Todd.

We found a way to hang the show in a tasty round room in the shul just as you enter the building that was outfitted with a system we brought from Minnesota that I saw used in museums that does not necessitate pounding into walls to hang framed pictures. On this, the first installation, we hired a fellow who knew the system and had installed it at the Art Museum.

He needed a helper, I was told. I can help him, I said, thinking to minimize the budget. I was told it would take one whole day. Ok, how about next Tuesday? Tuesday is good, he will meet you there.

I showed up Tuesday morning prepared to work. He was thin in overalls some simple tools hanging off a belt long hair tied in a tail angular face baseball cap. He didn’t speak. We went to work, he demonstrating how to help (it took four hands) and we went at it until about 4:00 PM. I’m naturally quiet, he was silent the entire day. Until the end.

We got the exhibit hung. It was like a day mediation, requiring some concentration just enough to pass the time well but not too much that interfered with dreaming. I worked all day respecting the silence and figured this was the deal until just before we were done, within the last hour of the work-day, between four and five PM he turned to me and said, “so – are you going?”

“Going where?”

“Dylan.”

“Ah. Well. I hadn’t thought about it. Where?”

“Cape Girardeau. Good. It’s a small field house. He’s doing small venues.”

“When?”

He told me a date in April. April! It was February when we had the conversation.

“I’ve never seen him,” I said.

“Gotta go.”

That was all the conversation we had. So I went home and bought some tickets. I bought four, thinking I would take my daughter and a couple of her friends. What the heck, I had never seen Bob Dylan live, though I used to sneak away from Detroit when I was fourteen, fifteen years old and steal off to New York City to inhale the music of the Village scene. I didn’t tell anybody where I was going and I went several times. In those days, I saw Dylan hanging around the Village, wearing a Mad Hatter’s hat he was known for, someone squiring him around in a convertible Corvette (from Detroit, I know cars). It was 1963, 64, I didn’t know much but I loved music and saw some great things in the clubs at the time: Gerde’s Folk City, Dave Van Ronk, Richie Havens, Dylan on the street but not in the club. It was time.

I Go To See Bob Dylan

I went to see Bob Dylan for the first time in 2001. Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I pronounced it the French way. It was in a field house, seven thousand seats. All my friends said, why do you want to go see Dylan? Someone told me he mumbles and can’t remember his songs.

I had never seen him, never saw him perform anyway, I saw him a long time before when I was hanging out in Greenwich Village. I was a kid.

In 2001 I took my daughter and two of her friends. We got seats on the second level. The concert was called for seven thirty. I had no idea how far away Cape Girardeau was, but we arrived at seven fifteen, made the will call window by seven twenty, in our seats by seven thirty, the concert begun at seven thirty two.

Nice stage, a small field house, we were on the second level, first row, good lighting, simple stage.

They began with amplified acoustic instruments, and switched back and forth during the evening between Stratocasters and amplified acoustic Gibsons and Martins. The bass player too alternated between the double bass and the electric bass. The lead guitarist doubled on mandolin, pedal steel guitar, and violin.

It was a basic rock and roll configuration: Dylan plus two guitars, bass, drums. Good guitar players, adequate not fancy bass, same with drums. Everyone solid, not fancy. The big surprise was that Dylan played most of the leads. Not flashy but adequate. The lead guitar was a good multi-instrumentalist: guitars, mandolin, pedal steel guitar, violin, everything he played tastefully. Still, Dylan was out front in every tune with his guitar, swiveling his legs in an Oklahoma oilman suit black with a white stripe down the side, black T-shape string tie, and a great pair of extravagant two-tone (black and white) cowboy boots. He played the leads in every song, picking out his small melodies carefully with the neck of the guitar pointed toward the ground, the expression on his face unmoved.

I was mesmerized that he dominated the music of his band. I had to get a look at him, I wanted to see his face and see exactly what he was doing on the guitar. “I’ll be right back,” I said to Sarika, and bounded down the bleachers to the ground floor. There was no separation between the second level and the ground level, as there is in the field house in my town. You can just walk down.

I ran down. Then once on the main floor I walked down the aisle next to the center section of the floor seats right up to the stage. I stood next to a guy who was sitting quietly, intently watching the show that was happening not ten feet from him. It was a pleasant place to watch, not directly in front of the speakers so the sound was not overwhelming. I crouched down so I would not obstruct anyone’s view, and I gazed up at the holy man, now so close I felt as if I could reach up and touch his guitar.

He was indeed playing all the leads, adequately, but not at all like the flashy standard that is set for the common rock and roll screaming lead. His leads were more rhythmic, a little labored, not very interesting harmonically, but always within the simple chord changes. He had been practicing.

He had a look of concentration on his face. He was not making contact, eye or otherwise, with his audience, but he was focused on the music.

He looked to me like a holy man. Small, a little grizzled, unsmiling but not unfriendly, concentrating on the material and the new role that he was taking in his own music: soloist, lead player, improvisational instrumentalist, with a stylized singing that made sense, lower registers than his former rasp, with more authority and confidence in his vocals than I had ever heard before. It was a much higher musical standard than I had expected.

After watching him for about three tunes in the place by the stage where I didn’t belong, the man sitting quietly next to me, a plain looking fellow dressed in casual golf clothes, short sandy hair, looked at me and said over the crowd, “I’ve been following him around for thirty five years. This is the best concert I’ve ever seen.”

Why he chose me to tell that to, I don’t know. It was clear that he needed to say it to somebody. I watched him for much of the rest of the show. He was alone, he didn’t move, he didn’t talk to anyone, he sat and watched as if he was observing science.

I went back to get Sarika and her friends. I wanted her to see what I was seeing. “Follow me,” I said to them, “don’t look back and don’t talk to anybody,” and I went bounding down the bleachers again to the main floor.

We ended up in the same place. The girls huddled next to my confidant, and I found a liberated seat across the aisle where I sat quietly, like him, and watched the rest of the concert. The standard did not altar, the entire concert was clean and straight ahead and competent and the only words the holy man spoke was “this is my band, the best in the land” and introduced them one by one as they were playing.

I don’t like concerts in large public places. I never have, so I have not seen many musical shows in arenas and theaters where great concerts have been staged. I like music in small rooms, living rooms even, theaters at the largest.

But this night was beautiful and important for me. I couldn’t avoid some sense of pride in a hero of my generation having made the transition to the next generation with authority, creativity, and confidence. Also, there was something of the original lyricism of Bob Dylan still in this 2001 version. I recalled all the impossible dreams and lyrical seduction of his music and folk poetry, and a measure of the original promise of his form of critique and commitment returned to me as I sat there listening to the songs. I suppose every generation has a music that takes you back to your youth. I sat there in the field house, Cape Girardeau, 2001, understanding the words even of the songs I didn’t know but more importantly I remembered what they were about.

I could not avoid also the lift that watching Bob Dylan gave to my own small but serious musical aspirations. At the turn of 2001, I had made a vow to play more music, make more concerts, produce a series of CDs, and tour with my music, stories, and teachings. I was not at all sure why this had become important to me, but it had, and I was doing it.

Sometimes late at night, after a gig, and I am dragging my equipment back to my car, I laugh at myself. Now I have the picture of the holy man, working out on Tangled Up In Blue, in that great suit and swiveling cowboy boots and that will help me not look back.

The last thing that was wonderful about the concert was to share this with my daughter and her friends. In the car on the way home, we talked about the concert, about Bob Dylan, about what he was for me and what he is for them, what we each heard in his music, and it was the same thing. I told them the stories of how I came to hear Bob Dylan when I was their age. They told me the same stories, different time, different characters, and then they fell asleep.

We sailed through the clear, fresh Missouri night on a journey of secret destinations, the next stop also wonderful.

Next: Truck Stop.

The Divide or Not Show Business

Momma

The Continental Divide
Gigs pt. 3

Ft. Collins, Colorado

For my Mother

Barbara told me to check out the Continental Divide. “David wanted to see it, after he got sick. So we did. We got there any way we could — we begged, borrowed — we got there.”

She told me the story on the phone. I was a silent for a while.

“When I see it?” I said like a teen-ager. “When I see it, I’ll stop and remember when you saw it, you and David, I’ll pause for a moment, and remember your story.”

“That’s perfect,” said Barbara, “that’s just the right thing.”

A couple of days later I was sitting in Denver, behind a floor to ceiling window view of the Rocky Mountains in the distance.

“Is that the Continental Divide?” I asked my host.

“Over that way, but that’s not it. Those are the foothills.”

“What is the Continental Divide anyway.”

“You’ll have to ask Harold,” Harold was out.

I sent an e-mail to my friend Josh, eleven years old, asking him to find out what the Continental Divide is. I had a sense that it was a matter of the highest seriousness.

I left Denver late in the afternoon for the drive up to Fort Collins and the first gig of three nights. This was to be the biggest gig of my newly launched career, three consecutive nights in front of large crowds at the big Jewish conference, a scoodle of other performers occupying the same niche that I was wiggling into, maybe some old friends from school days twenty years ago.

I was looking forward to making the joke that only I understand and is no joke: when asked “where have you been?” I can say, “I’ve been practicing.” Very funny.

Daughter D. wasn’t feeling well so I left her in Denver with her aunt and drove up the highway towards Fort Collins. I saw on the map that Fort Collins looked to be about an hour north, straight shot.

Once outside of Denver, the road straightened out, completely straight, 75 miles an hour all the way to Fort Collins on the way to Wyoming. Never been to Wyoming. On my left was the Rocky Mountains, the foothills anyway, on my right the Great Plains of the United States of America. I was sailing up the borderline.

I reached the cutoff to Fort Collins and I was expecting a single intersection, a marquis with my name on it. Fort Collins is much larger than I expected. I drove around the University a bit and realized that I had no idea where the gig was. I had no contact person, no phone number, no location; I knew nothing about where the gig was to take place. I had an abbreviation of a small theater somewhere on the campus of the University, that’s it.

I found someone who worked maintenance for the University (he was wearing a uniform) I asked him about the abbreviation and he had no idea what I was talking about. I found a map of the campus and I searched the map for something that resembled the abbreviation of the room and I found nothing.

I drove around the campus some more and contemplated the notion that I may have come all this way to drive around Fort Collins Colorado never to find the location of the gig. I was there and not there. It was a predicament that I had to share.

My mother would have gotten such a kick out of this, I thought. I imagined calling her and she laughing her deep belly laugh at how ridiculous my life had become to be driving around the campus in Fort Collins Colorado looking for the location of the biggest gig in my new career.

What a good plan I have made to follow my dream to Colorado, forgetting to take with me the location of the event. God we could laugh at this, but my mother had been gone ten years now still I heard her voice laughing with me as I went over what I would have told her in my head. How I missed her, driving around the campus in Fort Collins Colorado; I ached to talk to her and it felt so good.

I kept driving until I saw something familiar. I saw a truck, a truck with a large rear compartment, what we used to call a bread truck, sitting in a big parking lot somewhere within the campus. On the truck was written “mikveh” advertising the mitzvah of mikveh and inviting all to come into the truck and purify. Apparently the truck had been outfitted for a ritual bath; the license plates were from New York.

At least it was familiar. I knocked on the back door of the truck and a slight older man with payes and black hat, white shirt, black pants opened the door and looked at me with eyes light and soft like my own.

“I’m supposed to perform for the Jewish conference tonight but I don’t know where it is. Music in a theater I think. Can you help me?”

“To play music?” he said also like a teen-ager his voice drifting up to a higher register at the end of each sentence, “to play music you must have the proper intention,” he said eyes to eyes. “Of course I can help you, come in.”

I entered the truck and he spoke of the purifying living waters of the mikveh and invited me in. What the heck, I was ruined. I took off my clothes and dunked myself in the waters, said the holy prayers, and spent a time in silence forgetting my predicament. When I was through, he took me outside the truck and pointed to the building in front of us. He brushed my wet hair back with his hands. “In there,” he said.

I thanked him and went into the building and found the location of the gig in no time.

It would be after midnight until it was time for me to perform; they had scheduled way too many people on the show. Before me were three girls from Florida who sang songs with spiritual themes and bare midriffs. Most of the music sounded trivial and treacly sentimental to me, bubbies and zaydies, and an occasional ba ba bom. I felt out of place.

I played the oud and sang a holy song of the eastern Mediterranean. The twenty or so people left in the audience looked confused or asleep. On the way home, two AM, zooming down the borderline with the foothills of the Rocky Mountains to my right, the great plains of the United States of America to my left, I felt several degrees of ridiculousness over my new life.

I stopped at the truck stop to get a cup of coffee. “Hey,” I said to a few fellas hanging around the cash register, “where’s the continental divide?”

“Over there,” one of them said, pointing toward the Rocky Mountains.

“What is the continental divide anyway,” I asked.

“Separates west from east,” an old timer said, “on that side the water drains west, on this side the water drains east. It’s the separation between east and west.”

Yes, that’s it. The Divide. I called Barbara on my cell phone, hurtling down the borderline, looking at the Rocky Mountains in the distance:

“Barbara, I’m there. The continental divide. I’m there. It’s exactly where I live.”

Next: I perform with the Spice Girls

James Stone Goodman
United States of America

Fort Collins Day Two
Gigs pt. 4

The first gigs were disappointing. Too many people on the show; by the time they got to me, it was past midnight and everyone had left. It was two AM before I hit the road for the return ride from Fort Collins to Denver.

Loved the ride nonetheless. To the right, the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, to the left the Great Plains of the United States of America. Straight shot, seventy five miles per hour, top down on the rented convertible, cup of dark coffee from the truck stop, all the way back to Denver.

D. was sleeping when I returned. I whispered to her, “it wasn’t so good tonight D. Came a long way for a lousy show in front of twenty people. Show business. But I found the Continental Divide.” I explained to her its significance as I now knew it.

Next night, D. was not feeling well so I started for Fort Collins before the afternoon traffic rush to prepare myself for night two of disappointment. I had two shows that night.

Top down, the Rocky Mountain foothills to my left now, the Great Plains of the United States of America to my right. I am in love with America. As I drove north up the Interstate, straight shot zoom seventy five miles per hour top down, I saw a billboard for the Brighton Feed and Hat Store. The right hat, that’s exactly what I needed to redeem these gigs.

I got off the Interstate and drove about five miles toward Brighton Colorado where I found the Brighton Hat and Feed Store on the other side of the main street, downtown sleepy sleepy Brighton the great American West.

I entered and announced to the sales clerk my mission: I am a spiritual pilgrim come from far-away to the seam of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains of America with my songs of holy waiting en route to Fort Collins Colorado where last night at one AM myself and my audience were lulled to sleep by my own and other uninspired offerings.

I need a hat, I told them. The right hat.

They went to work with earnestness. There were five, six sales clerks opening every hat box in the store and dressing me up in front of the head and shoulders mirror as if I was Waylon Jennings off the road on a coffee stop for the great northern tour.

“Yep, that’s it,” announced the hat clerk. “This is the one.”

I stood in front of the mirror with a large rolled Western straw hat on my head like I had been transformed. I looked at myself for a minute, two minutes, and I knew that this was the one. This was exactly the hat I needed.

I placed the hat on my head and everyone in the store came out in front, waving goodbye to me as I sailed off into the Colorado sun, towards the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide.

I stopped at Wendy’s for a hot coffee black and with the top still down I returned to the straight shot borderline north 75 miles per hour the Rocky Mountains to my left the Great Plains of the United States of America to my right, my big straw hat down around my ears so it wouldn’t fly off, I felt good, good in the car with my hat on the way to my two gigs, the Continental Divide, the Rocky Mountains, the Great Plains, I am in love with America all of it.

I arrived at the gig parking lot. No mikveh. I spied Jeff, who was organizing both shows for the night. “Jeff!” I jumped in with Jeff and we went together in his car to the two rehearsals for the evening shows.

Jeff worked hard to bring these two gigs off nicely and I helped him as much as I could. Jeff recorded a tune that I had given him some years ago, an Adon Olam the story of which I have written in another piece (“the story of Akbar and Adon Olam”) and he promised me a copy of the recording. I had never heard him do it and Jeff loved the piece.

He loved it so much that he had placed it as the closing tune of the first gig. Everyone was going to sing it. We set up the first gig with enough time to sit back in the audience and wait for evening.

Consuelo showed up with brochures and CDs. Consuelo came down from New Mexico, she sang Ladino songs that she learned from a rabbi in the mountains of northern New Mexico. She was descended from Spanish conversos, Jews who hid their identities after the threat of the Spanish Inquisition, came to the New World and rediscovered their Jewish roots centuries later. “There are many like me,” Consuelo said.

Consuelo had some fabulous songs, which she claimed were from the defunct Jewish community of Cairo. I was familiar with the texts of the songs but not the tunes. The tunes were stunning. I was mesmerized by Consuelo’s tunes. They were killing me softly.

We all sat in a circle on the stage area and planned the order of our performances, one after another. There was a teen-aged girl group from south Florida, they were arguing with their parents who seemed to be their managers. They sang show tunes with spiritual themes. There were a few cantors, myself, Consuelo and a hand drummer that belonged to her community in New Mexico who played like an angel.

I ended with the Adon Olam and everybody joined in behind me. Soon I was singing without playing at all there was so much backup, I was singing the holy Adon Olam that Jeff loved so much with my hands my body and Consuelo and her drummer had jumped up and grabbed an adjacent microphone.

Consuelo howled into the microphone like a flamenco cantare gone mad, everyone entered the holy Adon Olam in their own way and I saw the room come to life. The audience was singing, some were crying, everyone got up and on their feet and when the concert was over I got to make the joke again, several times, “who are you? Where have you been?”

“I’ve been practicing. I am no one.”

A rabbi came up to me with a blank piece of paper. “My daughter wants your autograph.”

“Excuse me?”

“My daughter, she wants your autograph.”

I wrote my name on the paper, not sure whether he was making a joke out of me or what, and I added in Hebrew “I love you with all my broken heart.”

The entire audience followed me across campus to the second gig. I was leading a group of strangers across the Colorado State University campus to my next gig. “I’m going with him,” they said.

The room was stacked for me so the second gig was equally wonderful. The audience howled and cheered as I sang a holy song of peace from deep within my source. If prayer and song could make peace it would have happened that night.

I stood outside in the parking lot at midnight as I was loading my instruments into my car for the ride back to Denver, my rolled straw still on my head, talking to one of my pals from school twenty years ago who had come to see me perform.

“I’ve been practicing,” I said to him, to the moon, to the stars.

I rolled down the top of the convertible, pulled the straw down around my ears for the ride home. I stopped at the Quick Stop for a hot black cup of mud and headed down the straight shot Interstate towards Denver, on my right the Rocky Mountains, the Continental Divide, to my left the Great Plains how I love the United States of America though I myself live on the borderline I live on the elusive divide between East and West I was wondering on the ride down whether it exists at all this place where I think I live. Just then I know it does, it does exist, I am living there.

On the CD player I fired up Consuelo’s CD with a very tasty oud player, I unpacked my cellular phone and called everyone I knew to describe, the best I could, one of the greatest working nights of my life. Not show business, ceremony.

I couldn’t wait to get back to Denver hoping D. was up so I could tell her the whole story.

She’s up.

“D.” I whispered,

“D. . .”

“I was a hit.”

close up with hat

James Stone Goodman
United States of America

Favorite Stories I Can’t Use

Ark Cinti

Favorite Stories I Can’t Use

There’s an Ark at my school, it is set against the west wall of the Chapel. It’s an old room, part of the original building which dates from the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the stained glass windows its most prominent feature before my teacher insisted they be covered with retractable drapes. By the time my teacher got to it, the original stained glass windows were no longer prized, too Churchy I suppose. But the rest of the room was to his design.

This was about the time of the Centennial of the College, 1975, which was several years before I got there.

He researched everything. He was one of the few in those days who thought about the esthetics of the synagogue, how it looked, what was the optimal environment for prayer, what kind of lights, what shape of seats, what sort of flow of movement, colors, venue: everything in the environment either contributed or detracted from prayer.

First, he researched the chairs. He wanted moveable chairs, nothing fixed, so the room could be changed into a variety of shapes. He found an interlocking chair made in England, simple light wood support in the back, nice light cushion for the rear end. The chairs slipped into each other so you could make rows (or not by detaching) anywhere.

He placed a raised bima in the middle of the room, in the style of the old synagogue, that could be turned around to either face the room which is not traditional or face the Ark the traditional way. Except the Ark would have been on the eastern wall, so that when you faced it, everyone would have been facing east. In that room, we were mostly facing west, which I bet he did purposely since he believed in a new Judaism of the West. He came from Hungary, and he was not fixed on a Judaism of the Old World. Many of my teachers were of the Old World, and their relation to that was complex and varied. It held no romance for them, only for their suburban born and bred mostly American students.

On the western wall of our chapel was the piece that he designed the room around, it was an Ark fifteen feet tall, the wood had been restored in that kind of rubbed pickled look that later became popular in old house restorations, light and dark woods, some shades of graying as if to say yes it’s old but not crummy old.

The Ark was tall and ornate. The story that we were all told, I remember being told this story but not by whom, it seemed that everyone in generations of students knew the story and I imagine it was useful for fund raising. It also had a mythic sensibility that is irresistible even to a cynic.

I imagine this story is familiar to every student of my school who spent their four years of training there, five years before the year in Israel program began, between the years 1955 and just several years ago.

Here’s the story, in brief: The Ark appeared after the War on a dock in New York City, having been dug up, boxed, and shipped to the United States with this address: To the Jews of America. Someone had buried the Ark during the Nazi atrocities, presumably the dearest object in an European synagogue, buried before the Nazis could either get to it for one of their museums or destroy it, and after the War survivors who knew the story dug it up and in those chaotic first months or years after the War’s end, shipped it where someone thought it would find a home, addressed to the Jews of America.

So the Ark sat on a wharf in New York for several years while the courts decided its outcome. The Hebrew Union College made a bid for it and it was awarded to them. My teacher saw it, had it restored, and designed the chapel in Cincinnati at the Hebrew Union College around that Ark.

The Ark addressed to the Jews of America. What a wonderful story of destruction and hope, of old world past and new world future, of denigration and reclamation. Except it wasn’t true.

One year I wrote a piece about my school and I included the story. I received a note from another of my teachers (edited):

Hi, Jim!

Sorry I missed you last week, etc.

My wife shared with me your poem (very moving!) and your query about the Polish wooden ark (from Posen, 1720) in the College synagogue. Unfortunately, that nice little maiseh about the ark having been buried during the war and shipped “to the Jews of America” is just that, a Jewish urban legend (and I have no idea who started it!). The ark wasn’t even in Europe during the Nazi era; It was already part of the HUC Museum collection in Cincinnati in 1925!

The true story (researched by Judy Lucas, former curator of the Skirball Museum collection here in Cinti) is as follows: the ark originated in a wooden synagogue in Posen in 1720. Sometime in the late 19th century (or, at least, by the early 20th) it had passed into the private collection of a Berlin Jewish Judaica collector by the name of Solli Kirschstein (I don’t know how it peregrenated from Posen to Berlin). Kirschstein’s Judaica collection was acquired for the College by Adolph Oko, then Librarian of the College, in 1925, and became the core of the HUC Museum (now the College Skirball Museum collection, mostly in LA). So the ark was in the Museum for almost 50 years, from 1925 until 1974-75, when it became the centerpiece of Gene Mihaly’s rebuilt HUC Chapel in time for the College Centennial. When I was a senior rabbinical student in 1973-74, we sometimes chose to conduct daily services in the Museum Gallery, in front of this ark, instead of in the Chapel. (As I recall, this began when some work was being done in the Chapel and we had to move elsewhere for a few weeks. After that, we just preferred to stay in the Gallery!) At any rate, the power and poignancy of this ark (even without the urban legend, it’s still one of the very few surviving arks–if not the only one–from pre-war Polish wooden synagogues, and was so documented by Joseph Guttman, the late former professor of Jewish art at HUC) made a sufficient impression on all of us—and I think that Gene’s decision to rebuild the Chapel around that ark probably resulted from the experience of those morning services in the Gallery in 1973-74. So that’s the true story. The poem has an artistic integrity of its own, but if you choose to revise it, it is still the case that that ark remains in all significant ways a “brand plucked from the burning.”

Kol tuv, R.

So I couldn’t tell that story, or I had to make the corrections. I turned it into a story about the students praying around the Ark that had a history and a fanciful story grafted onto it and that became the story. A story of inspiration that eclipsed the myth of the mystery relation between Old World and unlikely survival in New World. The Ark became a kind of totem, the power to attract spirit that way, fire up prayers – that too was a good story but not the same category of mythos. The movement from that world to this world remains a story intact, without the sentimental details, more mystery.

I had written a poem but I revised it and learned it new. Maybe it’s better and more relevant, it’s less of a maiseh now and more a story of redemption. What’s the power in that Ark? The power to renew, to inspire, to create something in proximity of the physical object that transcends the object itself, if nothing else, to generate more story. And the truth of the last: in Zechariah’s prophecy it’s a question (3:2). No question here: it’s a brand plucked from the burning.

That image alone, out of a bundle of images of burnt burning and the inelegant associations of Holo-kaustus from the Greek for the Hebrew olah of the offering burned up, offered up, the brute sense of an ember snatched out of the conflagration. In Hebrew ‘ud with an alef, set against the other images of burning that the Holocaust in English conjures, this one with the sense of survival, an ember, and for a few of us a strange homonym with the classical stringed instrument of the eastern Mediterranean (‘ud with an ayin) and its place in the foundational creativity of the Middle East.

These two silent letters, the alef and the ayin, the homonym bearing quiet witness to the swirl of ideas associated with history underneath myth, the rising of new story out of old story, a conflation of images that continues to generate when story is organic when it is alive, throwing another chapter another tale another shoot another version looking forward and back, something new something alive something arrives something survives.

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