#3 Yoel Street

Behold a Rebbe Nachman story for the days of awe.

#3 Yoel Street

In 1995, I took a sabbatical and went to Israel. I wanted to study with the Chassidim in Jerusalem, but I didn’t know how to get in with the real deal. I got involved at the New Age yeshivah, it was nourishing but not entirely satisfying for me. I wanted to go to Meah Shearim.

Meah Shearim is one of the oldest Jewish settlements outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Meah Shearim was also walled off. In the nineteenth century, it was dangerous for Jews to live outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. They came to live in Meah Shearim beginning in 1875, and for many years Meah Shearim was protected by a wall that could only be entered through a series of gates. Tradition has it that the gates numbered one hundred, and that is what the name Meah Shearim means, one hundred gates. The name also refers to a verse in Genesis 26:12, “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and received in the same year a hundredfold (in Hebrew meah shearim), and God blessed him.” There are many Chassidic yeshivot, places of learning, shtiebelach, places of prayer, and thousands of Chassidic families living behind the walls of Meah Shearim.

Meah Shearim is always teeming. The streets are narrow and pedestrians dodge the buses. There are cars parked on the streets of Meah Shearim, but people fill the streets, the sidewalks, the middle of the streets, mostly black hat Orthodox, Chassidim in long kapotehs, black coats, their wives, their children. The language of the street is Yiddish. If you follow Meah Shearim street south, towards the Old City, you will notice many Chassidim wearing knickers, long white socks, striped coats, and white knit yarmulkes. These are the Breslov Chassidim, and their yeshivah is on the southern end of Meah Shearim street, near the Russian Compound.

During the time I spent in Jerusalem, I would inquire of people who I thought would know where I could learn in Meah Shearim. There was sometimes a shiur [lesson] here, a Melaveh Malkah [Saturday night celebration of stories and songs] there, I heard that the Munkaczers chanted their mournful niggunim [songs without words] late Saturday nights, but I didn’t have anyone to go with, and I was too shy to go alone. I was preoccupied with music and other studies, so I tried to push it out of my mind. But I couldn’t push it out of my mind.

I didn’t go to Meah Shearim. Until one summer. I was alone much of that time staying in my friend’s apartment in Jerusalem. I spent much of my days practicing music and studying. The New Age yeshivah where I learned was a block away, so I made many sessions there.

They had a series of lectures at the New Age yeshivah on teachings from Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav, taught by a Breslov writer-teacher from Meah Shearim. I went to the second installment. It was wonderful listening to one of the true Breslovers from Meah Shearim give the shiur [lesson] on the Rebbe. I had always been enchanted by Rebbe Nachman the great story master.

I sat in the front row. After the session, I went up to the teacher from Meah Shearim and I said, “all my life I have wanted to study at the source, do you learn in the Breslov yeshivah?”
“Sure,” he said.
“Could I come and learn there?”
“Of course,” he said. “We learn near there every afternoon, from two to five, you are welcome to come.” He gave me the address and directions.

It wasn’t the main Breslov yeshivah but a tiny yeshivah right off of Meah Shearim street. I went the next day. I took a bus through the center of Jerusalem, it turned off down Strauss street and headed east toward East Jerusalem. I got off in front of Lichtenstein’s book store, and walked another block down the hill to a four crossing intersection known as Kikar Shabbat though it was nowhere marked that way on any sign that I could discern.

It was a center of combustion. To the left, the west, were streets of small storefronts, candy stores, baby stores, many book stores, fleishig [meat] markets, fleishig restaurants, milchig [dairy] markets, milchig restaurants, a bank on the corner, men’s hat stores, women’s hat stores, wig stores, women’s dress stores, one after another little shops. Everyone was walking fast.

Across the street from Meah Shearim was a labyrinth of more streets with many synagogues, yeshivot [houses of study], kollels [houses of advanced study], book stalls, sellers, scribes, religious objects, everywhere. I took the first side street off of Meah Shearim street, across from the walls of the Meah Shearim compound, and three doors down I passed through a gate that connected to a low lying brick wall and into #3 Yoel Street, Yeshivat Shuvah Yisrael, Return O Israel, the text that is read in the synagogue from Hosea on Shabbes Shuvah, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

I walked into a hallway with a kitchen on the left, next to the kitchen was an Israeli style bathroom with the sinks outside and the toilets in small rooms within. Everything was dirty. The hallway led to a large room in the rear which was the synagogue and where there were always individuals studying in chevrusa, in groups usually of two, chanting the texts out loud to each other.

I passed a smaller room in front which had a long wobbly table, the unstable table, and some industrial shelving where the holy books were stacked. This was the room in which we studied. The unstable table had two long benches, one on each long side of the table, and we shuttled the table up and down the length of the room with the benches with it to make the teacher comfortable. He liked to sit at the western end of the table. I arrived there early and helped to prepare the table for our teacher.

Our teacher showed up at precisely two o’clock. He unpacked his water bottle and a bag full of sophisticated recording devices which he set up on the table in front of him. He recorded all of our sessions studying the Rebbe’s texts. He wore a white shirt, a white knit kepah [yarmulkeh] and sometimes over it one of those long fur lined Russian caps. His eyes were always soft and searching. He greeted us warmly and we began to study.

There were six or seven other men around the table. No one talked much to anyone else. Everyone was dressed differently. It was an interesting looking group and I was curious to know the stories of everyone around the table, but it never came up. In a month of studying every day, except Shabbat, we barely talked to each other. We arrived at two o’clock, set the room up and put our noses into the texts and didn’t come up for air until five o’clock and everyone scattered.

We talked but always about the texts. We became quite familiar with each other, but always in the context of the sefer, the book we were studying. We knew each other’s names, we often cited each other’s comments days and weeks later, but we never exchanged a morsel of personal information.

Toward the end of my time there, my thirteen year old son Jacob asked me “where are you going today?”
“Meah Shearim.”
“Can I go with you?” I thought for a second, “sure. . .why not. I’ll tell you what, you come with me to the yeshivah, leave me there, I’ll study for the first hour and then meet you out front, and we’ll go into town.” Town meant the Midrachov, the commercial part of West Jerusalem where kids hung out.

We drove down to Meah Shearim, by this time I knew the place like it was my neighborhood, I knew just where to leave my car, where to eat, where to buy books. We parked the car and walked down to Kikar Shabbat, turned the corner and stood on Meah Shearim street, next to the Hundred Gates and the high walls and the teeming throngs of Meah Shearim and a dozen Chassidic dynasties. “This is it,” I said to Jake, “watch carefully where we are. I’ll take you to where I am studying.”

Meah Shearim street was completely torn up by street workers, you could hardly walk on it in some places, they were repaving the street and replacing much of the stone sidewalks. It was even more of a balagan [confusion] than usual but we made our way over the rocks and turmoil to Yoel Street. “Watch carefully,” I said to Jake.

I went to #3 Yoel street, through the gate, and stood there just before the open door of the yeshivah. “You know where we are? That’s Meah Shearim Street over there, this is a little side street, Yoel, #3, don’t forget. Come get me right here in one hour. Meet me here, by the gate, on the stone wall.” We sat down on the stone wall to make sure he had his bearings, I asked him twice, three times, and sent him off.

Before he left me, he turned to me and asked in a completely uncharacteristic Jake way, “is it safe here?” “Yes, it’s safe here,” I said, “but be careful.”

I walked inside the yeshivah and prepared the table for our teacher. I moved the unstable table away from the wall just the way I knew he preferred, sat down, and waited. Everybody arrived and we began.

I couldn’t concentrate on the texts that day. As I was sitting there staring into the texts, I realized that I had just sent my son off into a world with which he had no familiarity.

I stared into the text and realized that we had all just moved into an apartment on a street in Jerusalem I myself was not familiar with. I had the address and the phone number in a notebook in my pocket. I hadn’t given it to my son. What if he gets lost? How will he find us? How will I find him? What if he gets into something here? What if I can’t find him?

It’s a labyrinth out there, a maze of mystery, I myself could easily get lost any day. What if he doesn’t find his way back? I was beginning to panic, I couldn’t wait until the hour was up, and when it was, I bolted out of the room and into the street in front of #3 Yoel street.

No Jake. I looked up and down the street, I sat down on the wall next to the gate where I told him to meet me. I waited one minute, two minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, no Jake. I went to the corner of Meah Shearim street and Yoel street and looked up and down for him. By this time, the work crew had torn up the street even more and you could barely walk though that didn’t deter the Egged buses from careening down the middle of the streets in their customarily fearsome way. No Jake.

I went back to #3 Yoel, the stone wall, sat down on it, no Jake. Fifteen minutes after the hour, twenty minutes after the hour. I went back to Meah Shearim street, hopping over the upturned stones like a mine field, up and down, looking for Jake, no Jake, a half hour, I wondered where the nearest police station was and began to prepare my best Hebrew for the police.

I returned to #3 Yoel. No Jake. I stood in the courtyard and hollered as loud as I could “Ja-a-a-a-a-a-a-ke!” I turned around and there was Jake, sitting on the stone wall in front of the Shuvah Yisrael yeshivah, next to the gate just as I had instructed him, eating candy from a bag.

“Jake! Where’ve you been?”
Jake has many expressions in his eyes. Sometimes his eyes are soft and engaging, sometimes they are full of mischief, sometimes his eyes are teasing, sometimes they are deep pools, attentive, penetrating, this time they were all of these. I looked into his eyes and he stared straight back into mine, mischievous, attentive, serious, kind, soft, loving, teasing, and calm. Steady. He said, “I was here. The whole time. Where were you?”
“You weren’t here. I looked everywhere for you.”
“I was right here the whole time,” Jake said. “Sitting right here, that’s the truth.”
“You weren’t here. I looked.”
“I was right here. The whole time.”
“No,” I said.
“Yes,” he said softly, his eyes opening wider and burrowing deeper into mine.
“Jake,” I said, “I was here.”
“So was I,” Jake said, “the whole time. I was here.”
He was holding a white knit yarmulke in his hand, similar to the one my teacher wore. “Here,” he said, “it’s for you. The Breslovers wear them.”

Confused, I looked around, there was no other place like this one. “Is that what really happened?” I asked out loud, not to Jake in particular but to the stones, to the wind, to the Chassidim, to my own Chassidic progenitors, to the stories, the songs, the beautiful texts and dirty yeshivahs. To those here, and those not here. “Is that the truth?” I said, my hands stretched out in front of me, looking up into the sky.

“Yes, Dad,” said Jacob, “that’s the truth. That’s really the truth. I was right here the whole time.”


Every Saturday night, we sing a song which repeats the chorus “do not be afraid, my servant Jacob. Al tira avdi Yaakov.” What might Jacob be afraid of?

There is a story in the midrash about Jacob, who is also known as Israel, on his deathbed. All his children are surrounding him. Jacob is afraid that he had not fulfilled his responsibility as a father. He is wondering whether he gave his children the most fundamental thing, the most essential teaching. His children are looking down at him and smiling, they say, “shema Yisraeil, listen Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, God is in our hearts, Adonai echad, God alone.” Jacob’s children tell him that the most essential teaching is in their hearts, and they got it from him, their father Jacob. Don’t be afraid, they tell him. In an expression of profound gratitude and relief, Jacob/Israel says “Baruch shem kevod malchuto l’olam va-ed,” thank God.

I told the story of my son Jacob, the Breslov Chassidim, Meah Shearim, on the evening of Yom Kippur one year, and there was something missing in the telling for me. I was up the entire night, something pulling at me from without, something pulling at me from within. The next morning I realized that I had written a Rebbe Nachman story, with lost princes, exile, return, but who was the lost prince, my son? Or me.

Contractions and Concealment

Another story from the days of awe series.

On the phone with Andy

Tzimtzum: the contraction or concealment of God

“I was reading last night about the holy Ari and tzimtzum,” Andy said.

God is withdrawing. It’s a tzimtzum, for sure. I knew it, Andy said.

It’s God in conflict with Itself, Andy said. Tzimtzum — it comes from that duality, Gnosticism, that God could be in conflict with Itself. God withdraws in the sense that God is still surrounding, but there are places where God isn’t, in an inner way, like a bagel.

This was Andy’s new take on tzimtzum, Andy’s chidush [newness]. If you write about this, Andy said, make sure you mention the bagel. There’s this space where God isn’t, deep in the center, where God allows us to free-fall. We reach out, or in, or not.

Hakadosh Barukh Hu [the Holy Blessed One] is withdrawing, Andy said, but the Shekhinah [the inner Presence] is entirely accessible. But She is the subtext. The Shekhinah. She’s subtle. We have not made her overt. Except for Shabbes.

That’s what happened at shul the Shabbes after 9/11, I said, the Shekhinah, what was hidden become known, what was subtle, unloosed. Overt.

We went to the center and I think we were not afraid. We went to the center, where even if God had accomplished a tzimtzum there, a contraction, an emptiness, it was quiet, comforting strangely comforting, was it because it was the center or was it because we had all arrived there together?

Maybe that is what happened to us at shul that Shabbat, 9/11, I said, we went to the center where it was empty but quiet, and because when we sat in the center emptiness, we knew that all around us, or perhaps underneath us, in the deep story, or around us in your imagery, was God. Still. Waiting.

God waiting for us to redeem the world. I am always waiting, God speaking. I am always waiting, God says.

The Shekhinah is always entirely accessible. On Shabbat she comes out of hiding, and that is why we welcome her so eagerly.

It happens, in spite of ourselves, and no one has the power to interrupt that flow, the process. It happened to us that Shabbat, and we all sat there when the prayers were over, we sat there looking inward, and we sat there looking into the center of this disaster where God had exited, but we felt the presence everywhere around us, underneath us, enveloping us, waiting, waiting.

I am always waiting, God says.

Then Andy spoke again. Tzimtzum is a choosing to not be there. Not a choosing without conflict, it opens up the world to tremendous conflict. But something has to die for something new to be reborn. And the redemption when there is such a great destruction is dangerous and difficult. One has to ascend into the darkness in order to redeem the world, to make the Great Tikkun.

The Ari opens that up for us, Andy said.

All we have to do is to be, because God is waiting for us to redeem the world.

Andy kept speaking. The notion of Kabbalah is passive, an act of receptivity, it’s not active. It’s Kabbalah, it’s received. It’s not what I’m giving, it’s what I’m getting.

That’s what we are doing, we are engaged in the struggle for the heart of the world. There is a struggle in the world, different forces, that’s what makes the world move, Andy said. Carry on, it is precisely the separations and the differences and the necessity to enter into conflict with what opposes you that drives the world.

We are readying ourselves the best we can for the Great Tikkun [adjustment]. God too is in exile. God is waiting to be redeemed. That’s our part. Let God be God, with all the attendant struggles, and don’t you know that God is in conflict? You do know, you are feeling it now in your blood in your bones God in conflict, God turning in on Itself. That’s God in tzimtzum.

Let God be God, what about us? asked Andy.

The Rosh Hashanah prayer says Hayom Harat Olam, usually translated as “today is the birthday of the world.” Harat means both tremble and birth. Today the world trembles, today the world is born. We are the midwives, every day we are giving birth.

What are we doing? Standing here. Today. All of us. We are saying the kaddish from the center of our hurt, ground zero, where it’s empty and quiet and dark. All around us: God. In the middle, emptied out, God’s tzimtzum, God waiting somewhere, God in exile from Itself, in conflict with Itself, God waiting.

We are saying the kaddish. We didn’t choose the Kaddish [memorial prayer for the dead], the Kaddish chose us. God choosing us is stronger than we choosing God.

Remember how you taught The Kaddish, Andy said.

Remind me.

We are standing in the crucible. We are “tzvishn [between].” That’s the kaddish, the prayer we howl into the darkness that ignores the dark, it’s the belief in the power that saves and comes from the most wondrous place imaginable and unimaginable, not just peace we are praying for, but great peace, and life, for us and for everyone, and say it: amen.

Now I remember, I do remember, I said, the kaddish and how we poise ourselves between acknowledging the hurt yet praying for the coming of God’s kingdom, not death, not one mention of death, only great peace, God’s kingdom, peace everywhere all the time, and say it: AMEN.

May there be great peace, unbelievable peace, unimaginable peace, unity, wholeness, inconceivable wholeness, for us, for all the world, and say it: amen.

We are praying for peace, with every breath, every word, every song, all the silences, all the sounds, from the emptiness deep deep within, from the quiet place, from the center, all around us — God, but at ground zero — we are praying with everything we have. God is waiting for us to redeem the world, we are always waiting, patient, quiet, present.

God says, I am waiting too.

jsg, usa

Arguing With The Rabbis

I’ve prepared a series of stories with days of awe themes. I’m going to post them over the next several weeks.

Arguing with the Rabbis

Rav said, all the ends have passed, and the matter [to save the world] depends only on repentance and good deeds. Shmuel said, it is enough for the mourner to stand in mourning.
— b.t. Sanhedrin 97b

I ran into Max at the copy store. Max, what are you doing here?

The last I heard Max had been chasing a girl somewhere in the Carolinas and following a laughing guru. He is always chasing a girl, his father had told me, and he is always following a guru.

My Dad died.

Oh Max, no, I didn’t know. I’m sorry.

Don’t be. He lived a good life. We took some time finding each other but I think we did.

We talked about his Dad for a while, and then Max talked about himself. He was now chasing a woman in California.

We went back to his father.

You know my father sat on the Kotzker rebbe’s lap, Max said.

Max, your Dad is the third guy I’ve met since I moved here that sat on the Kotzker’s lap, which is curious since the Kotzker died in 1859. Max laughed and his eyes lightened.

When he died, I dreamed that Louis Armstrong came to the funeral and sang What a Wonderful World. Would Louis Armstrong do that for anyone other than the Kotzker? For sure, said Max, I am the Kotzker’s son. How remains hidden, but I am the Kotzker’s son.

I have to go visit Barbara now Max. She went into the hospital and we’re not sure she is going to come out, but she is the Kotzker if anyone is, you remind me I have to go see her now.

When I saw Barbara I reminded her that she was the Kotzker and she agreed. I saw some things, Barbara said. There is a man with a round head who only appears when, you know, you are going to get out of here. He is hidden in Intensive Care somewhere, and I saw him. The nurse said you only see him when you are going to make it. I saw him. He told me to be real quiet and let God give me what I need. Want to hear my prayer?


God grant me the serenity to accept the people I cannot change,
The courage to change the person I can,
And the wisdom to know it’s me.

That’s good.

It works for me.

For me too.

It’s the spark that was missing.

What spark.

The spark that gives life to all else. The spark was missing. Don’t you feel it?


The spark was missing and my soul was diminished, but not any more. My soul has been elevated. How is a secret of God.

She put her finger to her lips and went to sleep. I kissed her on top of her head and left, knowing that she was going to be all right.

Everything was going to be all right. This I knew.

That night I had a dream. I dreamed that I was making blessings for peace. As if the blessing and the activity were so wedded that the deed followed the blessing in the natural sequence of intention and action laid deep into reality, like the bless and make holy sequence, the bless and do sequence.

In my dream, the peace was a necessary consequence of the blessing. I was surprised that the blessing brought such power. I know that to say a blessing and not perform the deed is a disruption of the spiritual integrity of intention and action, of prayer and deed, a blessing for nothing. I said the blessing and as I said it, peace happened. It was the new year, Rosh Hashanah, and when I said the blessing, something entirely new, an unimagined peace, was drawn into the world.

What was the blessing? I couldn’t locate the language. I even tried to return to sleep and continue the dream, I searched for the words between sleeping and waking, but I couldn’t find them.

It was like a formula, secret, lost, unrecoverable. But the feeling state was sustaining: the sense of possibility and resolution that is called peace. I felt it, the possibility of it, the sense that if I could only find the words, the peace would follow.

It was the kind of peace that had worldly, worldwide consequences. It was that kind of peace.

I told Dina about my dream. You can’t find the words? she asked. You’ve got to find them and ask for everything that you want.

It’s not about me. It’s about the world. It’s like the rabbis arguing about what will sustain the world. I don’t know; it’s elusive but there is something that will save us. Maybe it’s the lost prayer for peace, maybe it’s the thirty six righteous ones, maybe ten thousand, maybe one. Maybe all of us finding the inner tzaddik.

But don’t you want your personal peace? Aren’t you praying for your children?

Every moment. With every breath. But here is another version: maybe that’s the difference between Rav and Shmuel. Rav is waiting for the world to transform itself with transformative deeds, and Shmuel is waiting, standing in his mourning, in his grief, for what is not, without expectation for what is supposed to be. He is open to whatever God or nature or human beings or whatever it is he believes in to disclose the next chapter; he is always waiting. He is in-between, a beinoni, the in-between person.

But doesn’t he want something special? In between what and what?

He is between his sadness for what has not been, and his expectation for what might be. He is in-between, standing in his grief for what was not, but without expectation for what is next. It is an exceedingly holy place to be, and his argument in the Talmud is himself. His posture. The holy waiting, but it is a waiting without attachments. No expectations. In-between, don’t you think?

I don’t know. Seems like such a difficult way.

Sure it’s difficult. He’s saving the world, not with this not with that, but with waiting. Waiting for — what? God only knows. Maybe not even God.

I am waiting, too, God says. Surprise me.

jsg, usa

Mencachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787 –1859) was a legendary Chassidic leader of Russia and Poland whose teachings stressed the emes/the truth. He is called the Kotzker.

Rav and Shmuel were two famous rabbis, founders of the Babylonian Talmud, of the second and third centuries CE, who were leaders of great study centers in Babylonia.

In Italy, the Sun and the Moon

Italy, the Sun and the Moon

The Sun

On the first drive into Umbria, the sun was setting. We saw fields of sunflowers, large squares of bright yellow from a distance, sunflowers turning their heads towards the sun.

From the window of the place where we stayed, we overlooked a valley and the sunflowers down below were often a subject of conversation.

The artist next door explained to us that the sunflowers were a replacement crop, planted where once there were tobacco fields. There were not nearly as many tobacco fields as there once had been in this area; as in the United States, there was some government subsidy to the tobacco field farmer, support for a crop that is not as profitable as it once had been.

The artist explained to us, “the sunflower now is proud and tall, but you will see, before you leave, their heads begin to droop. They look so sad before they are harvested.”

The name for sunflower in Italian is girasole, which is not sunflower, as in English, but the flower that spins with the sun. The sunflower spins for the sun, acres of them. It seeks the sun, spins around to face it, proud and defiant in the early cycle of its growth, but we saw it, not long before we left, the sunflowers dropping over with the weight of their own fullness, fields of them uniform in their sadness. Like the face that appears in a cloud or in the swirl of oil in water, like a chair seen from a distance on the lawn of a house in the moonlight, it was unavoidable interpreting the sunflowers.

There was surely something sad in the flowers drooping in the yellows, facing east in their unmoving expectation of renewal. But by the time we left, the sunflowers had humbled themselves into a new posture, the anthropomorphic sadness was unavoidable, but they could have been read as patient, prayerful even. They were about to be harvested. For all their growing throughout the long days of the summer, this their goal: to give up their seeds, arc towards the ground as the summer days shortened and loaded them up with seeds. They drooped with the weight of their crop, their purpose to produce seeds, the heft of the seeds drawing them down towards the ground. To be bowed with their own fecundity — how is that sad? Still it looked sad, maybe this the harder idea: not sad looks sad, to be stuck with appearances this way playing the heart when the head knows better.

The Moon

One night we watched the sun set from the balcony of the artist, where he often sat at the end of day, with friends and supper. After the sunset, he jumped up and led us to a small park on the upper reaches of the town to watch the moon rise.

“Oh wait,” he said, after he had locked his door,” he rushed back inside and brought out a large pair of binoculars that he strung around his neck. “My parents asked me what I would like as a gift, so I dragged them to Perugia and found the biggest pair of binoculars I could find,” he said chuckling.

We looked at the moon from the edge of the little park, then we walked down into the piazza for a late cappuccino, glass of wine, gelato for the kids.

To everyone he greeted, I heard the artist chattering in Italian about “la luna” and motioning to his binoculars. It was an event that night, la luna, we went to watch it the next night but it was cloudy, or we missed it, or we went to the wrong place.

The next night was the full moon, and I snuck up to the park at the top of the village for a late night sighting. Someone was there before me, standing next to the stone ledge that runs around the park on the top of the walled town, eleventh century, the best spot in town for moon viewing. I watched from behind, the person at the edge silhouetted against the moon, so large and full and present, myself in the shadows at the other end of the park, we both silently watching, perfectly still, then the person standing at the edge reached out, grabbed the moon, and rolled it across the universe.

On a Mountain

We settled for three weeks on the top of a mountain in Umbria, in a city built in the eleventh century surrounded by a wall. There was stone and brick walkways that all led down to the piazza in the center, where there were several bars and chairs and tables to sit in the evening.

There was a film festival when we first arrived. The directors of the films were often invited and occasionally they showed up. They were given keys to the city, they ate in the nice restaurant with the Sardinian chef, they took their picture there and left it with their autograph at the desk.

Last year, someone received the key to the city and cried. His picture was also displayed at the Sardinian restaurant.

When we arrived, the film festival was in full swing. The films were shown on a giant white screen that had been set up in the piazza. I watched a beautiful Italian film one night. I figured that I would understand the action of the film. The director was there and his style was tight shots of beautiful faces. I watched the entire film and realized that all I understood was that it was about two brothers. That’s all I knew. Maybe it was about two brothers, I wasn’t sure.

Another night, they showed the film East is East which appeared in my home town not long before we arrived in Umbria. It was also a wonderful film, and the director appeared. He received the key to the city. The film was dubbed in Italian, but they also showed two of his shorter films, which showed a great sense of humor and a tender sympathy for the point of view of children.

My friend who travels often to Italy sent me a small Italian cellular phone. I sent the phone number to Ellis, another pal from home. I rarely speak to Ellis when I am home, but when I travel, he calls me almost everyday.

Ellis called and I popped my head out the window of the mountain fortress where we were staying, I looked up at the moon and sent a clear message to the satellite overhead. The sound of our voices shot to the stars above, and surely someone on the other side of the valley was watching me, hung out the window, dangling in the moonlight out the wall of this protected town under the canopy of stars, one of which is the satellite that bounced my voice off its metal and sent it back to Ellis, half way around the world, in an instant.


My wife encouraged me to have a reading of the story, part of which is this story minus the epilogue. I wasn’t ready but I read the story anyway, to my wife, my daughters, and the artist who lived next door and had come to visit.

In the reading, I realized that the story had ended too soon.

I didn’t know you wrote stories, the artist said. I didn’t realize you were so observant.

I was embarrassed, so much of the story was about him, but I realized in the reading that it was about art, I suppose, the making of it, thinking it, performing it, living it. There was more of that in Italy than where I come from.

One day we sat looking at the mountains where walked the saints and mystics of Assisi, San Francesco and his comrades. We sat with new friends in a grove of olive trees from which fine olive oil is made. The mistress of the olive grove pointed up toward the ridge of the mountains, where Francesco walked, and said, “sometimes I sit here and I imagine I see him up there. Is that crazy?”

No, I said, and I told her the story of the Sabbath Queen and how we welcome her every Friday night. “We all stand and turn to the door and bow in the last verse. It’s a love song that sings her to her lover. Do we imagine her? Yes, that is always the point.”

“What is it about San Francesco. . .” she asked.

“Nothing. What San Francesco had was nothing and it’s the very thing everybody wants. His power was the power of nothing.”

We had lunch and discussed literature and art. There was an architect, a singer, a painter, all of them knew a great deal about American writers in addition to their own artists.

My wife mentioned that I write. “Oh yes?” They all said. “What do you write?”

“Stories,” I said.

“How wonderful, what kind of stories?”

They wanted me to read one of my stories and I realized that I spend a month, sometimes a year where I come from, and no one asks, not once, for one of my stories. At home I am often shy about bringing up a passage from a story that I have written, though I think of them often.

Still, I missed my home, and I felt a little like an expatriot story writer in Italy, and though I didn’t miss the secrecy of writing stories at home, I missed the collusion with the few people I know with whom I talk nothing but stories.

To one of those people, I sent a note care of the cafe where we frequent in my home town. In the note I described a coffee house I visited in Rome, where Keats, Lizst, Shelley, Byron sat and drank coffee, not far from their famous house, a pink house, near the Spanish steps. Now the coffee house is mostly a tourist place, but I could still feel the presence there of something beautiful, and exciting, and risky.

When I visited the famous coffee house in Rome there was a man sitting by the door, with a pink tie and a pink kerchief in his pocket that was much too large for his cream jacket, posing next to another gentleman who sat at a table and painted. It may have been all that is left of the former glory of this wondrous place, but I enjoyed it anyway. I loved it. I wrote about it.

james stone goodman
umbria, italy
luglio, 20__

Alma vida y Corazon: Tall John pt.1

Preparing for the Days of Awe

Tall John, part 1
It’s about forgiveness

I fell asleep on the couch. Didn’t feel too good the entire night. Tired out. Fell asleep in my clothes on the top of my bed, boots and all. Ordinarily I love falling asleep with my boots on, like sleeping on the prairie, but Saturday night I just fell asleep. Unreconciled. Unforgiven. Disappointed. Vague but present feelings of inadequacy. Unreconciled is the word. Unreconciled is the world.

I dreamed that I couldn’t find my way, missed all my connections, alone and wandering, lost in a strange location, adrift on a dangerous sea in a rudderless boat. Woke up Sunday morning early, same feelings. Like my boots, I awoke with the same feelings I had on when I went to sleep. Unreconciled. Unforgiven. Disappointed. Had a meeting at nine A.M. was running the track at eight A.M. writing the residue that the dream had left in me. Unsettling unreconciled abandoned even.

Running the track at eight A.M. a little pocket notebook and a pen around my neck. Stop and write. It’s about forgiveness I write. Sure a little angst this time of year is entirely appropriate I am thinking (summertime, just before the holidays, Elul to be precise). It’s about forgiveness. That’s right. Forgiveness? I am searching my memory for something I have done that begs forgiveness.*

Some time earlier, I was asked to perform a wedding in a park. Dancing and storytelling, a little music. A tall man with an interesting face hovering over the rest of the crowd riveted by the ceremony totally present. I am introduced to him, tall John, we exchange pleasantries. He withholds his wisdom but I see it on his face. I knew he had something to say, something important, but we never got to it. I regretted it standing there against a metal rail, staring at the crowd, silent. Too shy, I.

Two years later I am performing another ceremony. I am granted the rare second chance. Tall John present again, hovering over the crowd, completely present, beautifully engaged. This time I intend to mine his wisdom. I know he has it. I wander over to him after the ceremony. Everyone else is congratulating bride and groom, tall John and I snatch a few moments of conversation. He is a poet and is telling me about one of the most powerful religious experiences of his life. “It’s about forgiveness,” he said to me. “It’s all about forgiveness. I asked for it. I prayed for it. I felt it. What a ceremony. . .”

I had not forgotten tall John nor his message. So Sunday morning I’m running the track at eight A.M. after being abandoned in my dream, I am writing in my little notebook to make sense of the dream residue. It’s about forgiveness I write. It’s the cargo of forgiveness rolling through me that I am feeling, bad dream, lousy sleep, I am unreconciled, unforgiven, disappointed.

Whose forgiving whom? There’s one other runner on the track. He’s walking the track, earphones, black socks. I pass him. It’s tall John.

“Remember me?” I say to him. “Sure I remember you,” tall John says. “How are you?”

“I’m fine,” I say.
“Some dream you had last night,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say, feeling invaded.
“You know,” he says, “it’s all about forgiveness. Forgiveness is at the center.”
“Yeah,” I say, “but who’s forgiving whom, who’s being forgiven? Am I forgiving? Am I forgiven? Do I forgive myself?” Tell me, tall John, you’re the one who brought it to me in the first place, I am thinking, more annoyed than awe-struck.
“I wish I could tell you,” tall John says. “But I’ve been sworn to secrecy.”
“By whom?”
“By the society of poets. They sent me. It’s not a God thing, it’s a poetry thing. People often call the poetry thing a God thing, people confuse us with angels which delights us poets to no end but the society of poets is a secret society. If I were an angel instead of a poet, I would tell you what to do. Poets will never tell you. It takes a lot of discipline to remain secret,” he says.
“Discipline,” he says. “There’s so many temptations to go public. Our meeting, for example, at the wedding is as public as we get.”

I’m trying to sort all the things I thought were God things that were actually poetry things, all the poetry things that were actually God things, understanding now the source of most theological confusion.

“Find someone you want to ask forgiveness from, something unfinished, something unsaid, some hurt something intentional or unintentional,” tall John says. “Ask them for forgiveness,” tall John says. “Say — ‘I am sorry please forgive me for anything I have done to hurt you,’ ” tall John says. “We are not reconciled, with ourselves or with God, until we have made peace with one another.”

“When you have done that,” said tall John, smiling, “then you speak to God, to the God of your understanding. Say it out loud ‘I screwed up — forgive me.’ Just say it, with your moon roof open driving down Ladue Road at night, in the shower with the hot water splashing on your face, say it. Out loud. ‘I messed up, forgive me.’ And you are forgiven, when you have spoken. Isn’t it wonderful?”

Was it an angel speaking to me, or a poet?

Boom boom boom boom I’m running the track again.

jsg, usa


Alma vida y Corazon: Tall John pt.2

Preparing for the Days of Awe

Tall John 2
It’s about forgiveness

“It’s about forgiveness” the poet said, forgiveness of whom?

“Say a prayer to the God of your understanding,” I heard a voice saying, is it the poet, is it an angel? “Say it in whatever form is necessary. Say it in whatever form is helpful,” I heard.

Jazzy the chinchilla died two days before Yom Kippur. It lived in D’s room. She fell apart. “I should have looked at her this morning,” she said wailing, “I didn’t even look at her. If only I would have looked at her, maybe I would have seen she was sick, I could have taken her to the vet earlier. . .”

“D,” I said, “it’s not your fault. You took care of Jazzy like a mother. It’s not your fault.”

“No,” wailing, “I could have done better.”

Her friend Lizzie in the car with her after burying Jazzie turns to her and says, “D, that’s teshuvah. It’s not your fault. You’re forgiven. It’s teshuvah, say a prayer and you’re forgiven. That’s how it works.”

We are taught by the sages and by ten year olds that God is forgiving, it’s the heart of God to forgive. Am I forgiving? My inner poet is asking: have you forgiven yourself? For all the lost trails, for the journey that calls me back to itself, for the roads that have gone into mourning every time I’ve neglected my way, for the errors of omission for the sins of commission for the sin that I have committed in deed, in thought, in speech, for the sin committed willingly, for the error done unaware, for all these things, I forgive, for the sins done to me by omission or commission, aware, unaware, in thought, deed, speech, I forgive, I forgive them all, I forgive, I forgive them all.

“God,” I say, “forgive me for my sins, my errors, my shortcomings what I have done what I didn’t do, forgive me for not forgiving myself, forgive me for the sins against you the sin of not loving you the sin of not loving life the sin of not loving myself created in your image. . .” and from somewhere on the track I hear “you are forgiven, as you have spoken.” Is it a God thing or a poetry thing?

Like my ancestor Jacob (Genesis 32:30), the experience is not enough for me, I have to know. “Tell me your name,” I say in an ultimate kind of mind.

“Yah — who is it?” I hear. Is this the holy name of God, is it God answering the door, is it the poet answering my question with another question, is it God calling to me like to Adam (Genesis 3:9)?

Are you poet are you angel are you God — is this the voice of the secret society of poets, “Yah who is it?” Is it my friend Marlon being silly hugging a tree in a field? Of course I want to know. I want to believe this is God’s holy name. I want to fall on my face and say blessed is God’s most secret unknowable most holy glorious name forever and ever, but no, it is surely the secret society of poets calling me to respond. Yah — who is it? Hello?

james stone goodman
united states of america

Alma vida y Corazon

Preparing for the Days of Awe

Yalla means Let’s Get On With It

I had a dream. God was sitting in front of the Big Book, figuring who was to be inscribed for a good year, etc., chewing on the end of a pencil. I heard a voice, a specially created voice, unlike other voices yet the words clear. God asked me one and only one question: “what * are * you * going * to * do?”
“About what?” I said.
“About everything,” God said.
“What can I do?” I said.
In my dream, I was laying on my couch in front of the television. I switched on the tube. I was expecting Charlie Rose, but it was Rabbi Tarphon, in robes and sandals. He was sitting at Charlie Rose’s big table and he explained to me: you do not have to do everything, but you do have to do something.
“What can I possibly do by myself?”
The great Hillel was now staring at me from channel nine; he was nineteen inches long and he answered, “in a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a human being.”
“Leave me alone,” I muttered and I headed for the all-night grocery store for a little late night shop. The lot was almost full, as usual, only this time the doors of the store did not open. This store is never closed.
In the cars I saw all the great teachers, looking at me, smiling and waving.
“All right already,” I said to them. “So what am I supposed to do?” Hillel got out of a tan Mitsubishi and said, “love peace, pursue peace. Love human beings, and draw them near. . .” He was holding a basketball and wearing pump Nikes. Rabbi Tarphon stuck his head out of a Ford 4 X 4 and said “the day is short, the work is great, the laborers are sluggish, the reward is much, and the Master is pressing. Yalla, let’s get on with it.”
“Sha!” Hillel said. He looked so funny holding a basketball. “Sha! Don’t separate yourself from your community.”
Sitting in the car with Tarphon was my daughter D as a little girl, she got out of a Jeep Cherokee and Rabbi Tarphon gently helped her to the ground. She came over to me. She was holding a turquoise blue bubble gum cigar that had written on it “it’s a boy.”
“Where did you get that cigar?” I asked D.
“One of the guys gave it to me,” D said. “He gave me a message for you, if you can’t do everything, do something. A good something.”
“Yalla,” she said, “do you know what that means Daddy?”
“Yes,” I said. They all started their engines and raced off, heading east.
We went home. I was thinking about something is worth everything when we believe in it. Hope.
“Daddy, are you afraid of the future?” D asked me. “Do you have hope?”
“No, and yes.”
“Then, yalla, let’s get on with it.”
Having picked up a little street Arabic from Rabbi Tarphon, we headed home.

I awoke with a feeling of clarity — hopeful, confident. We assume hope is about the future. We are, all of us, the hope of the past.

Rabbi James Stone Goodman
United States of America

Alma vida y Corazon

Boom Boom Boom

Rake the muck this way, that way it will always be muck. In the time I am brooding, I could be stringing pearls for the delight of heaven
— The Rebbe of Ger

A friend of mine came to me with a story. It was a difficult story, with many years of hurt in it. It was summertime some years ago. I listened and when he was done I told him it was my story, too. He even spoke a sentence that I remember saying myself, but several months before our meeting. He said, “I couldn’t find the blessing in it.” He was talking about his suffering, his hurt, he couldn’t find the blessing in it.

I’ve been there, I said untheoretically. As a matter of fact, I entered that place that summer, the summer of our meeting, and I was still crawling out I told him. I spent that summer boom boom boom bouncing the basketball on the black top near my house, shooting baskets. All my common activities, the ones I loved, I couldn’t apply myself to. I could hardly practice the guitar, I couldn’t write, I couldn’t read. I couldn’t sleep much, I couldn’t eat.

What I could do was exercise. Early in the morning and late at night, I was present on the black top near my house, boom boom boom bouncing the ball, shooting baskets and trying to find the blessing in it.

I had gotten trapped, my thoughts spiraling into negativity. I had always been attached to the notion that a change is gonna come, a change could happen in a moment, as it says in the Zohar b’shaita chada, in a single moment. I thought I had the facility to steel myself against circumstance and rise above whatever challenges faced me. That summer I couldn’t find that place, I couldn’t get there. My mojo wasn’t working for me anymore; I got stuck for a while and I couldn’t find the blessing in it.

All I had was boom boom boom the basketball on the blacktop and then another song, “a change is gonna come, oh yes it will,” over and over, all summer long, eight in the morning and eight later at night, boom boom boom and that song. All summer long. Where’s the blessing in it? I asked myself.

One day I found the blessing, I found a little piece of it anyway, I found enough to attach myself to. It may have been a phone call or a call for help in the hospital or somebody sick on the phone — it was someone else’s suffering that I remember — and I listened quietly sharing the heart of suffering with that person. I became the heart of suffering. This is what I remember: I had nowhere to go, I didn’t care when I had to get home, how long the person wanted to talk, how hot it was outside, how hungry I was, what I had to do, what I wanted to do, I didn’t want to do anything but be there in the heart of suffering. I found the blessing in it.

That is what I shared with my friend at lunch that day. He is a guy who likes answers, wanted my wisdom, what did I have? Nothing: boom boom boom and a bit of the blessing that had eluded him. I was finding it, a little at a time and I gave him that, and listened, and joined him there in the heart of suffering, not judging him, not wondering why he can’t get up and out, just the boom boom boom of the ball beginning to quiet in my ears and the willingness to be nowhere else at that moment but there, his black top. Can’t find the blessing? I threw him the ball. His ball now. Boom boom boom.

jsg, usa

In Jail

We have a program through the synagogue called Shalvah. Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew. It’s a support group for people whose lives have been altered by alcoholism and/or drug addiction. We meet weekly. It’s an inspirational meeting, that’s the right word, inspirational. It’s what we need to overcome our complacency: inspiration. Just that, to hear or see or learn something that moves us off our seat, out of our skin a little bit, something that strikes deep deep. Inspiration — a dip into the well of blessing.

At our most recent meeting, I read the following story. It had appeared in our town’s newspaper several years ago. It inspired a wonderful meeting, both from people who had been in jail, whose lives had been altered in an unexpected way by the prison experience, from those whose children were in jail, from those who have never been in jail but who know what it means to carry jail around with them. Jail, freedom, prison, recovery — it’s an inside job.

In Jail

I went to the jail to visit someone. A former drug user, recalled to jail for a warrant from another state. In jail, you wait and you wait and you wait. Even when you are visiting, you wait. The people who work at the jail, I noticed, move very slowly. What’s the hurry? It’s jail.

The rooms are unpleasant, even for guests. Everything is dirty, half the light fixtures are out and unreplaced. The chairs are all loose at the joints. They have all kinds of stuff stuck to them. Every surface has a filmy coating. It’s jail.

As I moved through the labyrinth of the jail to make my supervised visit, I glanced through the window of one of the doors and I saw the lock-up. There was a man in an orange suit standing in it. It was the same orange that the Buddhist monks of southeast Asia wear.

As I looked into the cell, I felt myself gulp a breath. How could you breathe in there, I thought, caged up that way?

I waited in a room with a half a dozen partitions, heavy glass, and phones like you see in the movies. I waited another twenty minutes. The person I was visiting came and sat down at the other side of the thick glass. He picked up the phone. He was also wearing an orange Buddhist monk costume.

I hope you’re not here to help me like every other hypocrite #%&*$* I’ve met, he said by way of introduction.

I didn’t know what he meant. The hypocrites I have known have never tried to help anyone. We started to talk about the difference between ceasing to drug or drink and sobriety. I told him I believed that addiction is not about substances, it’s about personalities that become attached to substances. It’s about the emptiness within, it’s about the space into which we drink, it’s about the emptiness into which we stuff drugs.

When we stop drinking, when we stop taking drugs, then we encounter the problem staring back at us in the mirror that we are now free to repair. It’s about the personality that became attached to drugs and alcohol. That’s the big difference between not taking drugs and being sober. Sobriety you have to work for, it’s hard work, because it’s about the personality that became attached to the substance.

It’s about attachment. We talked about attachment and the freedom of the personality liberated from such attachments, the freedom to work ourselves well, and sure enough, we began to sound like two Buddhists although only one of us was dressed appropriately. There in jail we began to hover over the thick glass which separated us. Somewhere above the dirt we met and spoke the truth clearly and unjudgmentally to each other. I liked him, he liked me, but he’s in there and I’m out here.

What’s it like to be in there? I asked.

He began to tell me. Not so bad. . .really, you get used to it. You carry your jail around with you, right?

That’s what we had been talking about all along, some of us are out here but we carry our prison with us wherever we go, and likewise our freedom, because it’s an inside job, jail, freedom, like sobriety, the work is inner. It’s an inside job — sobriety, freedom, prison — we get what we work, we are our struggles. We are the freedom we seek. Or we are not.