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From Black Fire on White Fire


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.


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.


Secrecy is Part of the Problem


I am searching for the engine or the nudge to bring the community into focus on an integrated strategy to meet the challenges of mental illness-mental health. But we have been difficult to move.

Many of us feel the limitation of isolated responses to the rootlessness and hopelessness that characterizes so much of contemporary life. We could do better by putting our best resources to work on a community response that maximizes already limited resources and create new and more imaginative strategies. We should be a nudge. We should be telling everyone we know.

We all know tragic stories. We are on the front line so to speak. We are trying to seize the opportunity to assume a community mind on our tragedies so we can deal with them better than in the isolation of our socially gated communities.

We begin by telling the stories. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem.

rabbi james stone goodman, st. louis

She wrote me a note before we did a community session on suicide. She was not in a place, she said, to come to the session but she wanted to make a contribution.

She gave me permission to use her words as a prompt for the participants to write about their experiences. The following is from the original piece she wrote to me, her words:

I am a survivor I suppose. I have attempted suicide several times in serious ways and I believe I am alive to share a few things I’ve learned. I feel some sort of purpose, I am always looking for that but here goes — I hope this helps someone.

People could listen more with their eyes as well as their ears. When you are contemplating suicide, you don’t conceptualize it. You may not express it.

Be observant. Don’t ignore anything. Take everything seriously. I wanted someone to hold my hand – I’m not going to leave you, God will not leave you, I’m with you, I will never leave you, that’s what I wanted to hear.

And most importantly: This feeling is going to pass. You don’t think it’s going to pass. You think it’s never going away. It feels permanent.

I wanted someone to say to me: I wish I could be there with you. Call me. Don’t be alone.


Some time later I met with her at a coffee shop.

I’m starting to feel like I want to get out more, she said, to be of service to others. I often feel a terrible negative energy running through my being, but I think I can offer something. If I could help someone else, it would mean so much. Use my words, use them any way you can.

Commentary: I love this piece for the wisdom it contains and because it came from such a difficult place in this person’s life. This was not an easy piece to write.

She was at a low enough place in her struggle that she couldn’t make the session, still she felt the necessity to give away some of what she knew. She wanted to help someone else. Where does this kind of compassion come from? All she wanted was to give a little away what she had learned from her experience.

What she wanted most: to be of service to others. And she knew that because of her life she had some secret wisdom to give away: What it’s like to live with what she lives with, what it feels like from the inside, what she would have liked to hear from others, what someone else could have given her when she needed it most.

It think this is a remarkable document because it has a giving sensibility and because it has real wisdom about what it feels like when a person is struggling to stay alive, to find a way in the world when the inner world goes dark. To come back from the edge and describe what it felt like there.

It has strategies for living that come from the crucible of a person’s life. I think it’s a remarkable piece for all these reasons and every time I see the writer I remind her how much her piece has helped others because as she wrote: if I could help someone else, it would mean so much.


Extreme Gratitude, part 3


That year he picked gratitude as the midah* to write about. Because in his walk he felt heavy in his feet, a slog through the mud. Because sometimes he got stuck in Sad.

Extreme Gratitude*
Part 3

Last summer on a visit to one of the high security institutions, one of the regulars was missing. Where’s S? I asked. In the hole.

The hole. I had never seen the hole, it’s a twenty four hour lock-up used to contain trouble within the institution.

I asked the chaplain if I could see S in the hole.

He deliberated for a moment, then: Sure, come on. Quick. We walked into the only building within the complex that was surrounded by an extra barrier of wire, the windows wired, we had to be buzzed in again through a metal door as we entered the complex referred to as the hole, a prison within a prison.

It looked like Alcatraz, what I’ve seen from the movies anyway. Two floors, one down one up, big heavy metal unpainted doors with one small window, two guys in a cell, a lot of yelling from behind the doors but I could not see faces until I stood right in front of the cell.

S was on the ground floor, I saw him through the window. He was delighted to see me. A lot of the guys I visit spend a good deal of time in the hole.

We talked through the window, hard to hear, a lot of hand signs and hollering.

I could see S’s work through the window behind him. He draws. He had been drawing. His work was displayed leaning against the bed in his room.

As I was leaving, he pounded on his window before I walked out of earshot. He was mouthing something.

I looked back and stood by the doorway just as the metal door slid open to let me out.

Rabbi, he was mouthing. Rabbi – I’m alive.

*Midah means virtue or value
Turning 5777

Fifteen Years Later 9.11


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


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

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

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

This is the story that is saving me.

rabbi james stone goodman

The Day You Had To Be In The Jail-house To Be Free


Profound and Stupid

Or: the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers make the prayers together

The trip to the jail-house is a profound and stupid activity that I had devoted myself to though I had received almost no support and felt entirely on my own. I had no idea what I was doing but what I was learning cracked me open and brought me close to the reasons I was in this whole thing from the beginning.

I had made the two hour trip to the prison house where I had been assured [e-mail] that the auxiliary chaplain would meet me at the prison house since I had visited there only one time previously and did not yet know the set-up. I wasn’t sure I was approved to visit this particular prison, though I had e-mailed also the head chaplain in the capital.

I didn’t hear back but I made the trip anyway. When I arrived at the prison, I parked illegally and much closer than I did the first time I visited, having been advised by the heavily tattooed guard who buzzed me in and out. The staff at this prison house were extremely kind to me the first time I visited, there was a chaplain to meet me and he escorted me to the chapel, and the inmates themselves escorted me out and I had the sense they were protecting me, the reasons for which would clarify several years later.

This time there was no one to welcome me. The tattooed guard who buzzed me in didn’t recognize the name of the auxiliary chaplain. “There is no auxiliary chaplain,” she said definitively. “What is it with the Jews?” she asked me. “Used to be everyone wanted Islam, now they’re into Jews.” She buzzed me through. “Go upstairs and get your squawk box [personal alarm gizmo] and some keys. You’re on your own today.”

The prison is built like a camp out of depression era limestone that was mined from the area during the WPA, I believe. It has an interesting look from the outside, the textures of the wild limestone set within the formalism of brick, it is really quite beautiful from the outside anyway — a series of buildings surrounding a large open perpendicular space which is referred to as the yard.

I walked up the stairs to a window with bars and an opening on the bottom to push through the supplies from the room behind. In that room are alarms and radios and large circles of keys that open, I assumed, the various classic locks that kept muscular control over the structure.

I had my ID card that signified I was qualified to visit four prisons that had Jewish inmates who were eager to welcome me to their institutions. My ID is a plastic card with my picture and a clip that I put on my pocket and take off when I show it to the various gate-guards who must open several very heavy metal doors to get me into the depths of the institutions.

I stuck my head into the opening of the window with the bars and the sets of keys and squawk boxes, radios, etc. and said to the uniformed guard, “I’m going to the chapel.” I recalled that the chapel was at the far end of the yard because I remembered that the accompanied stroll back to the metal doors last visit was a long walk.

“You want keys?” the guard asked me. “Ok,” I said.

“You got tags?” he asked.

“No.” Tags were small metal cut-outs that you leave in the barred room in exchange for keys and radios and such.

“Go make a copy of your ID.”

I went walking down the hall until I saw a copy machine in an office and I walked in and made a copy of my ID card.

I returned and passed the copy of my ID card to the uniformed guard behind the bars and I saw him hang it on a hook and he passed through the hole in the bars a whole ring of keys, at least forty keys, and a squawk box.

“Thanks,” I walked away with the keys. I was on my own.

I exited out to the yard through one of the doors that move slowly and opened by showing my ID. I was alone in the yard. I stuffed the keys in one pocket of my jacket and the squawk box in the other.

I strode to the rear of the yard and walked into an open door where a group of men where taking off or putting on their clothes, I think it was a gym.

“Are you looking for the chapel?” I surely did not look like an inmate (they have uniforms and generally wear bright orange knit hats).


A guy took me outside the locker room and pointed me to the building next door.

It was locked up tight but I had the keys. I started going through them one after another, this was a large door and I began with the largest keys. I opened it.

Inside I found a light. Every single room was locked inside. I found the room I was in the last time, a larger room with some tables and a chalkboard, some instruments and a little stage, obviously a place where several groups share prayer and study privileges. I found the key to that room too. Now I was inside and I was alone.

I had learned at another institution I visit that if I opened the door, people tended to wander in. I made sure the outer door was open and within a few minutes an inmate came in and sat next to me, staring straight ahead at the altar/platform in front of us.

“Mario,” he said by way of introduction.

“James,” I said.

He asked me who I was and I told him.


He told me how he had discovered the Hebrew Bible in a cell when he was first incarcerated. He told me he read it through, cover to cover.

We talked some about that and I told him a story at the level of all-over-God, God everywhere.

“I’m with you,” he said.

He knew what a Rabbi was and he then told me his whole story, from the age of sixteen to the present, which I imagine was about fifteen years. It was a tender story, clear and full of details, well parsed for meaning and a good sense of where it would go when he left this institution. He wanted to return to the small town he came from and he planned to go to College and I believed him.

Another guy came in and he greeted me in a rather formal, well rehearsed way. “I won’t ask how you are doing – for that is a question and I may not know you well enough to ask you a question. I will not inquire what’s new as that is empty and meaningless and meant only to break the ice and engage in small talk. I will simply bless you in the way of my tradition. . .” and he switched to Arabic and quoted some of the holy Koran, which I was familiar with. I know some Arabic blessings and introductions, so I responded in kind. I will call him Yasin.

He didn’t seem to know Mario so I introduced them. One of the Jewish inmates saw the door open from across the yard and he joined us, he didn’t know Mario either or Yasin though he had seen them around. I introduced them.

We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. Yasin left soon, and returned about five minutes later with a few other guys. “You’re the rabbi!” he said, “I should have known!” He must have asked around outside the chapel who is the guy with the not-orange hat in the chapel waiting for people to arrive.

There were two other individuals affiliated with the Jewish group who were present the first time I was there but absent this time. I asked about them.

“Transferred,” one of the Jewish guys, Jacob, told me.


“They were sent to a smaller camp.” It was in part their letters to me that brought me to that camp in the first place.

Now there weren’t enough of them left in this camp to meet on the Sabbath. The prison rule is that a religious group and its rights are defined by half a minyan — five members — since the two had been sent away they only had three by my count.

“The Muslim brothers will join your group,” Yasin said, “we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want.” Yasin knew a lot, it seemed, about working the prison system. “The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together,” Yasin said, “you’ll have a group this Saturday and every Saturday.”

It was getting close to the time that I was supposed to leave. I asked the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers which way was east. Yasin showed me the corner where the Muslim brothers faced east.

“Come with me,” I said, “quick,” because there were some other people starting to come into the room looking as if they were the next group.

We went into the corner facing east and I opened up my hands and sung out pretty and slow the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers (6:23-27):

Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.
May God bless you and protect you.
Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.
May God’s face shine to you and be gracious to you.
Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.
May God’s face always be lifted to you and give you peace.

As I was singing, I explained there is no partial, no individual, no incomplete – every single instance opens up onto the universal, and every partial resolves in the whole — everywhere God dwells is whole, quoting the Zohar.

I said something about salaam, shalom, or shleimut, wholeness, integration. To bless is to dip below and reach above, the root below and the root above, the b’reikhah the pool of blessings — the wild chute that whisks you into the root above — to the All, shleimut, to be blessed with a sense of everything. Like Abraham our father in Genesis 24:1, to be blessed with everything and to live in a larger space than the separate self — the isolated, the un-integrated, the broken, the incomplete.

By this time the Christian brothers were coming in, they were the next group, the room was filling up behind us and some of them were watching us.

Their leader came over to me and asked, “what is that you are singing?”

I told him basically the same things I told the Jewish and the Muslim brothers. He was holding my picture on my ID card that I had copied to get the keys.

“You’re the rabbi,” he said, “you’re supposed to give me the keys.”

So I gave the Christian brother the ring of keys, he seemed to know what he was doing, and I asked him for my picture just in case they inquired on the way out.

The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, on the way Yasin scribbled something on a piece of paper, we talked animatedly until I realized I was alone. There is a certain line they cannot pass and they were standing quietly on the other side until I turned around mid-thought and realized where they were.

I thanked them and told them I would be back in two weeks. “We’ll be here,” said the Muslim brothers, “all of us.” Yasin gave me the paper he was writing on.

This is what was written on the paper Yasin had given me:

Brother, your presence here is engulfed with the love of forgiveness. Please do what you can for all in this community.

It’s always a hard trip to the jail-house, profound and stupid and I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing. When no one would support the project, I could have pulled out. When I got to the jail-house I could have not taken those keys, I could have turned around and gone home. I could have returned the keys when there was no one to meet me, I could have missed the entire drama. Instead, I showed up, watched something profound and stupid unfold into something profound.

rabbi james stone goodman

Hard and Easy

7394A_21 -- Sylvester on "Bugs Bunny" -- 8/9/73 Tracking #7394 A sleeping Sylvester. Must Credit: ABC Photo Archives/1960 Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.]

Shalvah Journal
Big Tent #53
So Hard It’s Easy

Rabbi James Goodman organizes a recovery support group called Shalvah (Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew) that emerged out of an earlier effort started by Rose Mass and Rabbi G in 1981. Shalvah presently meets twice a week. It is bundled with two other programs, Positive Jewish Attention to Mental Illness-Mental Health and Jewish Prison Outreach because the borders are elusive.

He thinks it’s time to tell the stories. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is part of the problem. He’s asking everyone he knows for help, because it’s time. He feels like his community is asleep and the stakes are too high to be quiet.


A room full of difficult stories almost none polite most of them protected in their freedom to disclose by the principle of confidentiality. Confidentiality does not mean secrecy. Secrecy is now part of the problem. What to do. It’s the same principle that applies to the discourse at the meetings: Tell your truth but be discreet. It’s a civilized discourse about unsavory pasts and alterable experiences. Regrets and falling down and getting up and on with it. I am transforming by being present.

Breath, air, let it move through, share, be economical with language, above all — listen. In our space a roomful of stories if articulated too much might scare the beejeezus out of someone. Don’t be scared, this is the safest room in town. Everyone says that.

In this room are stories of degradation and pain, descent and most often the hidden movement of ascent present in every story in some hidden or expressed way. We stay with our experience, strength, and hope. If it sounds hard, it is and it’s do-able. It’s life saving and healing and revealing and a release from the confines of what has become too narrow for us: Our former selves. Too small for us now. We do not cure, we transcend.

Our response to the challenges of our lives: We grow.

Thus the spiritual basis of our discourse, it’s not so much about God as it is about the ascendance of this or that over Self-full-ness. It’s not-god. There is a God, it is not-me. That’s as close as we get to a God concept. It’s not theology, it’s story telling for adults. This is my story, it has features of descent, it has features of ascent. It leaves the residue of hope. Jakob J my teacher of theology — you would be proud. I often quote you from one of our first classes: Think of theology as story-telling for adults.

We tell stories. A lot of the stories are gruesome. Most of them are funny. If we haven’t had one when we came in, we all acquire a sense of humor. We learn to laugh. This may one of the most important lessons of the group: Tell the truth but find the funny in it. I suppose funny is a form of detachment, some sort of Buddhistic disengagement with the heaviness of our own tales.

Yeah it’s heavy and true and brutal and we carried around a lot of weight for probably a long time, how good it feels to free it up with laughter. Accept and release. How is it that what might have killed us now makes us laugh? Exactly.

The strange algebra of what we do with talk and experience and breath and communication and truth-telling and real life responses to real life challenges.

We grow. We laugh. We tell some cautious truth. We disengage. We are serious and happy. We glimpse the possibility of a better life and we work toward it. Toward: Another good description of our process. A lot of Toward and How, less What. People do not generally give advice. No one will solve your life for you.

We have lost people, we have found people. We have found more people than we have lost but we do not forget that we lose people too. Beneath the laughter is serious business. I think of it this way: We are sitting in a circle around God. Sitting next to each other on the circle are tears and laughter. They are always in proximity. All of us sitting attentive, one eye laughing one eye crying.

That’s the easy part. We meet twice a week. Drama erupts, lives change, the eclipsing of former ways of being present in every meeting. Every meeting like a chapter in a drama of ascent and descent, the systole and diastole of hyper-awareness. It’s a wonder to witness.

The hard part is outside the room. How to take what we learn in our safety and make it real in the expanded circles of our lives. How to live in community. We talk about that. The goal is not talk, the goal is to live.


What to do with those who want to help? What to do about those who are reluctant to help? Example: We get a couple of bucks from the Jewish Federation of St. Louis that we mostly give back to advertising to the St. Louis Jewish Light. This year, the Jewish Federation trimmed down that money. Are they serious? Read the newspapers. We’re living an epidemic. Time to wake up.

I Prefer the Spelling Pewk Or: Pukes and Wolverines and War Over

I Prefer The Spelling Pewk
Or: Pukes and Wolverines and the War Over Toledo
Puke: Etymology: 1600, probably of imitative origin (cf. German spucken to spit, Latin spuere); first recorded in the Seven Ages of Man speech in Shakespeare’s As You Like It.
At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
— As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7
U.S. colloquial meaning native of Missouri (1835) might be a different word, of unknown origin.
Bartlett (1859) has: A nickname for a native of Missouri as the second sense of puke (n.), the first being: A mean, contemptible fellow. The association of the state nickname with the vomit word is at least from 1858, and folk etymology talks of the old state literally vomiting forth immigrants to California. A Biblical syntax.

That the land not vomit you out when you defile it as it vomited out the nation before you. –Lev.18:28

I was not born here but I live in the puke. I’m a puke. I was a Wolverine. Once a Wolverine I suppose always a Wolverine.

But a puke — not a proud moniker however construed.

I don’t know what a Wolverine is. Hold on I’m calling the New York Public Library
where librarians still answer the phone in the Reference Room.

She asked first if I was asking about the comic book character, Wolverine.
No I said, the animal, a person born in Michigan, Ah she said, I went to the University of Michigan so I guess I’m a Wolverine though I was not born in the State.

I went to the University of Michigan also! I said with too much Excitement, and I was BORN in Michigan so I am a Wolverine. What the hell is it?

Hold on, she said, don’t go away. We can get at this chick chock.

She came back. Wolverines in the wild haven’t been sighted in Michigan since the early 1800s she said. Until recently. Ohio-ans started calling people from Michigan wolverines around the time of the State’s war over Toledo. In 1835. The Ohio-ans thought the people of Michigan were fierce fighters.

Whoa. There was a war over Toledo? Have you ever been to Toledo?

No, she said. Hold again please?

Back. It gets better. There’s a science teacher up in the thumb of Michigan that claimed he spotted the first wolverine in the wild since the early 1800s, that was 2004, tracked it, and he wrote a book about it! There was someone else speaking behind her in the room where she sat on Fifth Avenue in New York City, where the two lions are named Patience and Fortitude.

He’s a Wolverine too, she said, referring to the guy in on the story now in the background, the College connection.

She continued. The teacher’s name is Jeff Ford, the book The Lone Wolverine and he spotted the Wolverine in this kind of bog called the Minden City Swamp he set up a camera and after 371 days he got a picture of the animal. Wow. It took him over a year to get a picture. He worked so hard at tracking the animal he developed a heart condition but he got the picture and continued to track the animal until it was found dead in 2010. Obsession. The Department of Natural Resources determined the wolverine (a she wolverine) died of natural causes, probably a heart attack.

There’s something deep in this story about obsession and an over-the-divide mysticism between human and animal, I mused. Inwardly. She told me the wolverine was stuffed and shown around the state. The theory is she came in over a frozen Great Lake from Canada. Jeff Ford never gave her a name. Purposely.

What was the war over Toledo? I had her attention.

Hold on, she said. Back. Also called the Michigan-Ohio War, 1835-1836. They were arguing over a strip of land between Michigan and Ohio when Michigan was about to become a State. There was one battle where the two state militias lined up on opposite sides of the Maumee River and somebody fired up into the air, there was a compromise and Michigan ceded the Toledo strip of land to Ohio. Michigan got most of the Upper Peninsula. Michigan thought it was a bad deal until copper and iron were discovered up there.

Wow. Thanks. What a story. I did puppet shows in Toledo I said where I met a coven of witches it scared the hell out of me. Didn’t know the state story.

Ha, I think we all live in the state of curiosity, said the reference librarian. Thank you for calling. Anything else I can do for you?

What We Do


What We Do

Shalvah Journal
Thursday, Aug. 18

We have a schedule of speakers for three weeks out of the month. The first week of the month we practice a form of meditation or prayer or do some inner work with music and poetry. The other weeks we begin with a speaker, the speaker speaks for twenty minutes or so, and the rest of the hour is given to spontaneous sharing from the group.

This is the first time she has spoken in our group. She was urged to do so by her sister who also attends the group and it’s clear she has more experience with such groups than does her (older) sister who signed up to speak tonight.

The speaker tonight has been a loyal attendee to the group but has not spoken much, she comes and listens, and I think everyone in the room recognizes the look of someone searching and not sure whether this is the correct location for her search. Does she belong — this is the question that appears on her face at every meeting though she has not spoken much about it.

She went bold and signed up to speak. It was not an easy gesture for her. She came to the meeting this night wearing the drama of vulnerability on her face, she had a small sheaf of notes she pulled out, I had to write it out she said by way of explanation, it’s the only way for me. That’s fine, I said, you know the meeting is an hour long. I’ll stay within the limits, she said, maybe missing maybe not missing the joke. She was nervous.

I sat next to her and there were some announcements and discussion, I moved to her talk as soon as I could as I imagined it was agonizing for her to wait. She launched, reading her notes clearly and with good voice, articulating what she had written that was carefully thought through.

It was a rough story, she opened with a sense of herself she was taught from her parents that was brutal and devastating for a little girl to have heard early on in her life. It was a theme that continued throughout her talk with the details of failed and failing relationships, bad choices, disappointments, and also the sense of the few joys of her life easier to remember partially because they were in the minority of her experience.

Five, ten minutes into her talk I admit I was thinking uh oh, this could be a difficult thing for her and for many of those in the room, some who might not relate to some of the particular details of her life that she emphasized. It wasn’t what we usually talked about when we talked in our group. She knew this and prefaced her talk with I’m not sure I belong here and I don’t know how familiar this will be to anyone else in the room. Ten minutes into her talk I wasn’t sure myself. Plus there were four or five new people that night and they had no sense that this was not our usual meeting. There is no usual meeting; sometimes I forget that and we’ve been doing this a long time.

Then she came to the denouement I’ll call it, of what she gave over that evening. The last chapter. In the last chapter, the last eight nine ten minutes of her talk she went right to the heart of the matter.

She spoke about the emptiness within that she felt was behind many of her poor choices in life, her responsibility for missing some of the elusive happiness or meaning she pursued in her story, she talked about that space within that drove her that brought her to this meeting that she feels she is touching is touched when she comes to the group.

She spent the last seven, eight, ten minutes of her talk sitting in front of that need within that space into which we stuff substances food people love success whatever it is we are chasing that is in partial recompense for the inner strength or prosperity the inner life we feel is deficient, wounded, absent, emptied out; this the center of the deal we do at the meeting.

I felt the room spring to life. When she was done, every comment was right to the heart of the matter where she had landed, confirming her presence in exactly the right place, everyone who spoke sat in that inside place with her. I live there too they said and thanked her or congratulated her or embraced her for the courage of taking us all with her because we are all familiar with that place and when she visits there we all visit there and it helps us make the trip and make it home in a more whole-some way than the old journey of defeatism and negativity sadness and despair. Everyone who spoke was familiar with that place. Everyone seemed to be switched on by her talk.

The other quality of the comments was the complete generosity of spirit that erupted from the group that night. The comments were true and personal and perceptive and they were also generous. I was moved by both her courage to be that vulnerable and the generosity of the group to intuitively give over a truth to her that was so profound it could make a significant change in her life. That night. That one night. It felt that large to me.

There were also some difficult comments going around the room, necessary and no surprise to many of us in the group, but the hard material of truth-telling and getting up and on with it, full disclosure, vulnerability in the extreme, we’re all doing the best we can and for many of us it starts with truth-telling stark and painful but better than the alternative. There was that too.

Real life. Every meeting real life. People often ask me what do you do at those meetings? We don’t talk about drugs or alcohol or other substances that much; we talk about inside things. Difficult things. The meeting is called Shalvah. Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew. There is no formula, few rules, just a couple of guidelines. You want to know what we talk about? Read these pieces. It’s time to tell the stories.

james stone goodman