The Thirty Six Are Hidden

I pulled out this story for my man Jeff, the master blaster, who just returned from Jerusalem. I dispatched him on an adventure: oud picks and mystical books from Lichtenstein’s. He brought me two oud picks, one he can’t find, and a very tasty Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer.

Master of Tales and Tunes

or The Kabbalah of Repair

Oud: eleven or twelve stringed instrument
ancestor to the lute

I turned it over in my mind for months. What was the safest way to carry my oud to Israel? I knew that if I packed it into the hard shell case, the airlines would have the option of checking it through, which they prefer to do. On the other hand, if I carried it by hand I would have to pack it into the soft case, and the soft case has no protection, but when you are carrying the instrument and laying it in the luggage bin above your head, what sort of protection do you need? This is how I figured and that is what I decided to do: carry my beloved oud in my arms, in the soft case, so that there was no chance of the airlines spiriting it away and abandoning it to the handling of the baggage druids, about whom I have heard a hundred cautionary tales from other musicians.

At Kennedy airport, we checked all our luggage and I had my hands free to clutch my instrument to my heart as I stood in the line waiting to board the TWA flight from New York to Tel Aviv. They called for boarding, allowed us to pass into the “people who need assistance boarding and small children” line, and as we were waiting to enter the plane, someone pushed me and my oud was pinned for a split second between myself and the wall of the terminal. It happened so quickly and innocently that I had to recreate the scene later to understand what had come about, but by the time I entered the airplane, I was holding my beautiful oud in my hands like a duck prepared for a Chinese feast, dead in my arms, limp neck, the headstock snapped, its carved rosette popped out of the sound hole and crashing about the bowels of the instrument. As I laid my oud to rest in its compartment over my seat, I felt the folly of all my planning, to have arrived before the trip began with the very eventuality I tried most to avoid. We hadn’t even left the United States and my instrument was broken.

By the time we arrived in Jerusalem, I had decided to pack up the pieces and ship it home to myself, and when I returned six or eight months later, I would take it to my instrument repair man who I was quite sure could fix it. I had no confidence in the ability of Israeli technicians to fix my instrument, so I didn’t bother to inquire. They hadn’t as yet created instruments as fine as mine in the Middle East, how could they repair them? One day, as I went to visit a friend in a quiet neighborhood in Jerusalem, I passed a violin repair person whose shop was just a short block away from my friend’s office. I stopped in out of curiosity and told the man about my instrument. What kind of instrument is it? he asked. I told him it was a big lute. What kind of lute? An oud, I said. Do you play it? he asked. He had heard of my teacher, and he assured me that he could fix my instrument. I brought it to him.

Two weeks later, I picked up my oud from the violin repair man. I was sad to see it, because it looked like it had been broken. It was not fixed the way my repair man would have fixed it at home. At home, I would not have seen the break, the finish would have matched perfectly, the filler undetectable. The finish the Israeli violin repair man applied was glossy while the rest of the oud was rubbed with a dull finish. I saw the separation of woods and some discoloration. He was trained in the former Soviet Union, and I wondered if he had the products available to him that we had in the United States, but I didn’t ask.

When the instrument was broken, I felt all the notes fly out of it like the letters that flew off the tablets when Moses broke them on the way down the mountain. I told this to the violin repair man, who was formal in conversation. He called me Mar Goodman (Mr. Goodman) and I called him Adon, which is a little more formal. He bowed slightly from the waist when I came into his studio. When I told him the story of the notes flying out of the oud, he smiled and said (in Hebrew), there is always that danger. Then he asked me to play for him, so I sat down in the middle of dozens of broken violins, I tuned it (he admonished me to always put pressure on both sides of the headstock equally, a technical as well as a metaphysical critique), and I began to play, slowly, tentatively.

Maybe it was the place, a single large room that opened up to the street through an opaque metal curtain that was drawn across the entire front of the studio. Perhaps it was Jerusalem, and this the first time I heard my instrument played there. Maybe it was the repair, there is a notion in the Kabbalah that a weakness when repaired is stronger than if there had never been a weakness at all. Perhaps it was the proximity to the source of sound, there is a teaching that when the rope that connects us all to the Source is cut and knotted up again, the distance is diminished.

I started to play, he closed his eyes and listened, then he asked me to play louder, turn it up please he said in Hebrew, and I played a little louder. I heard a sound I had never heard before emerge from my instrument. Do you hear? he said. Yes, it’s beautiful, I said, in Hebrew. Thank you, he said, in English. He was smiling an impish smile, as if the secret of the broken oud and its music was something familiar to him, something that we had now shared. He had gathered the notes back into the instrument after fluttering around his studio. His name, by the way, was a Russian name that means heart of the strings. Heart of the strings had returned the notes to my oud. Ahhhhh, he said.

I left heart of the strings, and I walked out into the darkening Jerusalem evening clutching my oud to my chest. It was almost night, the sun making its way home in the west. I walked slowly up Palmach Street, past the Islamic Museum, past the President’s House, that’s where I saw him, just on the other side of the President’s house, before I came to Wingate Square.

He was walking in front of me, it was now dark dark, he took advantage of the deep breath that the city exhales at nightfall and appeared without anyone noticing. But I am sure that I saw him. He walked like an old man but he may have been young, bound up with muscles. He was carrying a notebook with the stories and songs of Jerusalem under his arm, a hat on his head, he walked slowly and methodically ahead of me. In his notebook were not only the stories, but the interpretations, the obvious and the non-obvious, the known stories and the unknown, and the notes that had returned to my instrument in a way I had never imagined them.

james stone goodman
united states of america

Gigs: The Oldest Synagogue in the World

Dear Marian showed up to learn and told a story about a synagogue she visited in NYC.
Hey I’ve been there, but lately only from the third floor. I wrote a story about it.
It turned out to be a different place.

Gig Tonight

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, but deep 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 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 Somebody’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 tile, 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 the post-exilic longing of his predecessors.

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 into the night like a raven.

James Stone Goodman
United States of America

Nurturing the Oud Obsession: First Lesson

Precious Velvel sent me a note notifying me of a concert to take place next Spring in Wisconsin. Velvel’s daughter is a cellist currently studying with an Israeli master of the cello at the University of Wisconsin. The cello master will be performing with a great master of the oud in Madison next Spring, Velvel informed me.

The oud master is my teacher. He is the one I went to study with. Here is the story of our first meeting, one of many I have written about the beloved oud.

I hope you enjoy it.

jsg

First Lesson
Nurturing the Oud Obsession

Oud: eleven or twelve strings, a middle eastern lute,
without frets

The oud had erupted as an obsession in me. I first heard the sound of the oud in Israel. On my return to the United States, my wife’s aunt often danced to its music. She knew the oud players around New York, and several times at family parties, someone would hire an oud player and Clarissa would dance.

I loved the dancing, the sinewy, snake-like movements of the oriental dance, I especially loved it without the distraction of the cheap costumes in which the movements are usually clothed. But the pure movement, the rhythm of the movement, the swirl of the body like the flow of the letters of the script in which the oud music was sung — it was purely the movement that attracted me to the dance, not the clothes, not even the flesh. It was the body moving like the swirl of Arabic calligraphy.

I loved the intimate sound of the instrument: the sound of flesh and string, the pure acoustic sound. Oud means wood in Arabic and that’s what I heard in the playing of the oud, the liberation of the music lurking in the wood coaxed out by finger, nail, flesh.

I tried to find an instrument in the United States. On a visit to a small town just east of Los Angeles, I met Charles Chase, wonderful poet-proprietor of the Folk Music Center in Claremont, California who also had an appreciation for the music and the culture of the oud. He had been warehousing the finest guitar woods for decades – Brazilian rosewood, curly maples – and he found various artisans to make instruments for him. He commissioned a small group of ouds from an Armenian oud maker with great skills, Viken Najarian [see http://www.oud.net/]. The problem with the middle eastern oud is always the wood. Wood is a premium in the middle east, and the instrument makers are not accustomed to the finer woods that the western luthiers use.

The combination of good western guitar woods and the eastern oud sensate form produced ten magnificent brazilian rosewood and maple instruments. I bought one of them, but I didn’t know how to play it.

I approached the oud as I did the classical guitar: I played it with my fingers, no plectrum, like the guitar I prefer the feel of my fingers directly on the strings. I knew I owned an extraordinary instrument, but my style was idiosyncratic and I never learned enough to play the instrument in concert.

I heard that one of the great oud players was coming to my town on a cultural exchange tour of the United States. I took my instrument, arrived early enough to secure a front row seat, and sat there waiting for the concert to begin with my oud across my lap. I knew that even the sight of my instrument from the stage would be my ticket of introduction to the oud master.

I sat quietly through the concert with my oud on my lap. It was a magnificent concert. The oud player noticed my instrument. What’s that guy doing sitting there with an oud on his lap? After the concert he motioned me to approach the stage. He looked at my instrument and invited me backstage where we could talk privately.

He asked about my instrument. I told him the story of its origin. He asked me to play for him, which I did in my completely unconventional style. That’s interesting, he said, but of course all wrong.

Teach me, I said, knowing in my bones in my blood that this may be the one opportunity in my life to receive professional instruction on my instrument.

He laughed and informed me that he no longer took private students (he was much too busy), and besides, he lived in Israel.

I’ll come, I said. I meant it. He laughed more, but he saw my seriousness and relented.

Come to Israel and I will teach you. But you have to bring your instrument.

I took a sabbatical three months later and went to Israel to sit at his feet and learn the playing of my instrument from the source.

I arrived at Ben Gurion airport with a broken oud and a broken heart. I found someone to repair it, a Russian violin maker called heart of the strings [see the story called The Kabbalah of Repair at www.stonegoodman.com under Words].

After heart of the strings repaired my oud, I reached my teacher on the telephone. He lived quite far away, by Israeli standards, from Jerusalem.

His town was a large Arab town northeast of Haifa. That means that in driving to him, I drove through the three largest cities in Israel: Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Haifa.

Israel is a small country, and such a trip is only about 110 miles long. But getting through the cities is difficult, and I had no idea how long it would take me to make the journey.

I took directions from my teacher over the phone. It wasn’t until I hung up and reviewed what I had written that I realized that in all his directions, through the three largest cities in Israel, through the several different geographic zones that in Israel are so close upon one another, in all the complexity of his directions that required three free hours of driving and navigating, in all those directions there was not one street name. It was all right at the bridge. . . left at the garbage dump. . .two o’clock at the rotary. . . etc. Not one street name.

The town is named Shfaram. There are no Jews there today, it is one of the largest Arab towns in Israel. Today there are Christian Arabs, Moslem Arabs, and Druze living in Shfaram. In Shfaram is an ancient synagogue and I was told by an old Arab man on top of a nearby mountain that there were Jews living there as recently as the early Seventies, but none since. At one time, not long after the destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin (Jewish court) met there.

I started off on my first journey to Shfaram on Sunday, which is called in Hebrew yom rishon [day one] and is so named from the account of Creation. Six days of creation followed by Shabbat, day one, day two, day three, etc. The Muslims identify their days the same way. Sunday is a full day of activity in Israel, there is no such thing in Israel as a weekend, there is just six days of work one day of rest, just like in the Bible.

So on day one, I was hurtling through the Israeli countryside on my way to Tel Aviv and the up the coast to Haifa. When you leave Jerusalem you descend. Jerusalem is relatively high, and you move from the heights of the Judean hills around Jerusalem through the corridor (called the prozdor) that has connected Jerusalem to the Sea for millennia, driving down through the forested landscape to the coastal plain that leads to Tel Aviv and the Mediterranean.

Tel Aviv is a large, smelly city, very fast and busy. There are always many distractions in Tel Aviv, but I didn’t stop.

I hurtled through Tel Aviv and found my way onto the coastal highway that runs next to the Mediterranean all the way up to Haifa. About half way up the coast toward Haifa, the road relaxed from the tension of Tel Aviv, curved even closer to the Mediterranean, and for the first time I saw the Sea. I could smell it in the air.

This is the new road, that is how it is known to Israelis. On maps it is designated by a number — two — but Israelis know it only as the new road. The old road which is marked on the maps by the number four, it is parallel to the new road a little inland and often you can see one road from the other. The new road is under constant renovation, especially around Tel Aviv, and it would take a few more trips until I realized that the old road is much faster especially when there is traffic.

I came to Haifa. Both the new and the old roads lead to Haifa. I would later discover a road that leads to the north and avoids Haifa altogether, winding around the gentle sweep of Mt. Carmel. Haifa is the port city of Israel. It is built mostly on hills that roll down to the natural port on which Haifa is built. There are beautiful places to go in Haifa, but I didn’t stop.

I passed through the port of Haifa, hugging the Mediterranean but now I could see the ships docked in Haifa, from Holland, Africa, Kuala Lampur, a dozen exotic addresses. Haifa is also busy, dirty, and smelly when near the Sea. It took me almost an hour to crawl through the center of the city.

Once through Haifa, I headed toward the western Galilee. Just north of Haifa, the scenery once again changed dramatically. In the distance I saw small villages nestled into the sides and on top of the hills. It was green and beautiful, open, unpopulated compared to the Tel Aviv – Haifa corridor I had just passed through, the air was clean, cool, fresh. I followed the signs to Shfaram where my teacher lived.

I had never been to an Arab town before. My teacher’s directions were precise but none of the turns were marked with the names that he gave them. I had found my way by intuition and a pretty good road map tucked into my sun visor. I found the town easily, with not one wrong turn, and it was only when I entered the town itself did I get lost. I would later find out that there are two entrances to the town. I had taken the wrong one.

We had scheduled to meet each other at the gas station. There were several gas stations in the town and I had found the wrong one. I drove out in search of the other. I got hopelessly lost in the dirt roads of the town. Soon I was driving among shepherds with herds of sheep and goats, nothing was paved, the roads were barely wide enough for a single car to pass. Everyone stared at me as I passed. I was an hour late and looking for a phone to call him. I finally found a phone and just at the moment when I was about to exit my car to use it, I saw him in his car at the very same moment he saw me. I don’t know which of us was more surprised. He had given up on me and was on his way home. We exchanged stories, and I followed him to his house.

He lived on the edge of the town (the other edge), overlooking a meadow below and the Galilee spread out in the distant east. It was a beautiful view. All the windows were open and the air rustled our papers on the music stand. His wife served me cola and some fresh figs and other fruit. I assumed that she spoke no English so I spoke to her in halting child’s English. Later I learned that she taught English in a school in Acco.

We went right to work. He began by showing me the basics: how to hold the instrument, how to manipulate the plectrum, called a reeshi which means eagle feather in Arabic because that was the traditional way to pluck strings. We discussed the intricacies of extracting sound out of the instrument. We talked mostly in metaphor and he intuitively illustrated his points sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in Arabic (he was delighted that I read and wrote Arabic), sometimes in English. He showed me the traditional modes, called makamat, of the music.

It was very difficult, a complete re-education for me from the way I had taught myself. It required a tremendous amount of concentration just to play through all the examples he was showing me. Learning to use the reeshi, the plectrum, was difficult because I was accustomed to playing oud with my fingers as I played guitar. We were head to head for about two hours. He gave me a reeshi that he no longer used, made of bone.

The reeshi was especially difficult for me to use. I worked it too hard over the strings. He lifted my hand and taught me an exercise, my hand floating up and down as if lifted by a pillow of air. I practiced the exercise while driving, sitting in a chair, watching television, walking down the street, gently lifting my hand up and down isolating the motion of the hand at the wrist. Do this everyday, he said.

He heard something in my playing that I myself would not hear for months. When I began studying with him, I said to myself, I’ve taken on too much here. I can’t possibly do this. He listened to me and said, we will accomplish much in the months we have together. After every lesson, he congratulated me. I felt foolish — I could not even hear the notes at first.

He told me to close my eyes and listen, to hear the notes first and then to find them on the fingerboard. I couldn’t find them in the beginning. They are microtones, notes that we do not ordinarily have in Western music, notes that are closer together than each adjacent key on the piano or each fret on the guitar. I couldn’t hear them because I had never played them before, you cannot reach these notes on the guitar (unless you bend the strings), nor can you play them on the piano. They are not commonly a part of Western music at all.

Listen, he said and I closed my eyes and heard the note in my head. Then I found it on the fingerboard. It was more mental than physical. I could only find the note when I paused to listen for it. I sat there in his living room overlooking the western Galilee with my eyes closed, trying to imagine in my mind the note I was trying to find on the neck of my instrument. Then I plucked the note. The more I listened the more I began to find the notes.

The real work of playing an instrument at this level, I realized, is internal. You have to listen, he said, then you play. One time I sat in a master class with a great Spanish classical guitarist. Someone in the audience asked him which finger exercises he used to warm up for a concert. None, he said, is not physical. Is entirely mental.

Like matter and energy, the relation of which is fixed deep within the structure of things but not perceived, the relation of mental and physical, inner and outer, clarified for me on the fretless fingerboard of my beloved oud.

I realized that in all our time together, we exchanged not one sentence of personal information about each other. It would be this way the entire time he taught me: I would show up, we would play for two or three hours, discussing only music. He knew nothing about me, I knew little about him. We spoke only music to each other and it was through the music that we were bound up together, soul to soul.

He gave me my assignments for next time. Do you have time to practice? he asked. Yes, I said, every day. He seemed genuinely delighted with me as a student. He saw that I learned quickly, and he knew how eager I was. We will accomplish a lot, he said again and I began to believe him. He gave me more directions, and I headed back to Jerusalem just as the sun began to find its way home in the west.

I was back on the road toward Haifa, as the darkness settled over the north, I watched the villages on top of the hills in the distance light up. It was quiet and peaceful in my car, the traffic had diminished, and soon I was smelling the Sea again and heading for Tel Aviv. I didn’t stop on the way home. I gobbled up a couple of sandwiches I had brought with me in the car, and I was home in Jerusalem just over two hours later.

I was not at all tired, as a matter of fact, I practiced for two more hours that night. By the next day, I had begun to read the pieces he had given me. I realized that through the music we had entered a place deeper than our differences, before the separation of Isaac and Ishmael, the music of Abraham. The oud had opened my mouth, and it was singing the world.

This is the story of one of the best days of my life.

james stone goodman
united states of america