Small Alef Poetry

Building of the Mishkan completed [sanctuary]
seven days of installation
Moses presiding,

— the Shekhinah
had not yet appeared [Lev.R.11:6]
until Aaron
slipped into his robes.

God the King
Moses the King’s attendant
Israel the Queen
Aaron the Queen’s attendant —

working from the lower world
so to speak.

Aaron lighting the candles
take hold the flame
upward the fire flying.

See Aaron standing on the limestone
raise high the flame
the flame of guardianship.

Aaron tender of the flame
which is like the soul
the lamp of God the soul
of a human being, [Prov.20:27]

Aaron the tender of souls on fire
he loved all creatures
and drew them near to Torah — [Avot 1:12]

so it was
Moses knew it would be through Aaron
that the Shekhinah would come to rest
in our Sanctuary, saying —

my brother is more excellent than I
through his sacrifices
and his service
the Shekhinah will rest among you.
[Rashi on Lev.9:4, JT, Yoma 1:1]

See the blue around the flame
the space that may —
may not be physically present,

the blue that represents Shekhinah
sky blue
which is like lapis
like the color of the sea
which is like the sky
something like the color of the Throne of Glory —

like a vision.

jsg, usa

Maqam Hoseini
D [1/2] E-flat [1] F [1] G
Every Shabbat has a musical firgure associated with it
A maqam
Hebrew cognate maqom
Signifying Place.

Profound and Stupid

Profound and Stupid: Raza de-Purim, the Secret of Purim, part 3

March 17, 2011

Taanit Esther – The Fast of Esther

The story had become profound and stupid. Profound and stupid, I changed the title of this part of the story as soon as I wrote it: Profound and Stupid, a continuation of the Raza de-Purim, the secret of Purim.

At the end of the fast of Esther this year, 2011, Aristide, former President of Haiti who I wrote about in another piece, returned home to Port-au-Prince after having spent seven years in exile in South Africa. My last encounter with him had been precisely the same day on the Jewish calendar, nineteen years ago, at the house where Katherine Dunham was holding a fast on behalf of Haiti in East St. Louis, Illinois. What does it mean? I asked to no one in particular, I felt it was significant but I was still ill and rebounding from yesterday’s experience in the prison and not alert or well enough to think it through. Another chapter: Aristide as part of the Katherine Dunham story, nineteen years later he returns to the Haiti story on the same day – so what. No one knows my part of these stories anyway.

My story is not known primarily because I simply showed up and watched it. Then I wrote it. This figured for me in the realm of “big deal,” partially because I was somewhat depressed and partially because I broke my fast by eating that lousy chicken they advertise on television to break my fast on the way home from prison and couldn’t sleep the entire night. Still – I knew I was part of a story that needed telling.

Earlier that day, 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 entirely sure I was approved to visit this particular prison, though I had e-mailed also the head chaplain in the capital.

I made the trip. When I arrived at the prison, I parked much closer than I did the first time I visited, having been advised by the 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 (a new feeling but not unpleasant).

This time there was no one to welcome me. The guard who buzzed me in didn’t recognize the name of the auxiliary chaplain. “There is no auxiliary chaplain,” she said definitively. She buzzed me through anyway. “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 this depression era structure.

I had my ID card which 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 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 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.

I asked him if he remembered the story of Esther and he remembered everything. I told him that today was the Fast of Esther and I told him the story of Katherine Dunham and her holy fast and the story no one knows about how she broke her fast.

I told him that G*d’s name is not mentioned in the book of Esther which is curious and crazy and I made the interpretation that it’s a sure sign that G*d is everywhere in the story, so full in the events and the personalities and the choices that we are at the level of all-over-G*d, G*d 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. His name was Elyasha.

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 came, he didn’t know Mario either or Elyasha though he had seen them around. I introduced them.

We began to engage in a little circle of dialogue. Elyasha 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 sitting around waiting, 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 this camp in the first place.

Now there weren’t enough of them left in this camp to meet officially 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,” Elyasha said, “we’ll be here every Saturday and we’ll show you how to go about getting what you want.” Elyasha knew a lot, it seemed, about working the prison system. “The Muslim brothers and the Jewish brothers will make the prayers together,” Elyasha 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. Elyasha 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 G*d bless you and protect you.

Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.

May G*d’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 G*d’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 G*d 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, 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.

By this time the Christian brothers were coming in, they were the next group — a program called IFI I think — the room was filling up behind us and some of them were watching us.

Their leader came over to me and said, “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 asked me on the way out.

The Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers escorted me through the yard, on the way Elyasha scribbled something on a piece of paper, we talking 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.” Elyasha gave me the paper he was writing on.

This is what was written on the paper Elyasha gave me:

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

Is there something in this story that is not-G*d? I am searching for it, this continuation of the Raza de-Purim, though it began [for me anyway] profound and stupid and I could have missed it, I could have missed the whole thing, 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.

At the chicken shack on the way home, I could have passed on that [I should have] because I was up the entire night ruminating with my belly what constitutes G*dlness, what does not – even passing by the macro-question once or twice: why don’t the Jewish brothers and the Muslim brothers and the Christian brothers always get inside the story together? Why isn’t that always the Raza, the secret of Purim.


Here’s a story nobody Knows

Katherine Dunham
East St. Louis
Queen Esther

The Raza de-Purim, the Secret of Purim, part 2

East St. Louis —
Susie and I sat with Katherine Dunham
Through her hunger strike
The boat people from Haiti
Turned back to their
Distressed island.

“Haiti is a tragedy
Waiting to happen,”

Miss Dunham said.

Aristide came to visit
Jesse Jackson
Louis Farrakhan
We stood in the room
Susie and I
With the Nation of Islam.

We sat in her bedroom with Miss Dunham
She played with the crystals and geodes
She kept on a large ceramic dish on her bed —

It was 1992
Miss Dunham was determined
To turn world attention
To Haiti.

“This isn’t just about Haiti,” she said.
“It’s about America.
This country doesn’t feel that Haitians are human.
And America treats East St. Louis the way it does Haitians.”

We were all worried she was going to die —
She was 82 years old.

We met many people at her house
In East St. Louis —
We went there often
And prayed on the front steps
At nightfall.

Several days before the end of her
Hunger strike
— It was coming on Purim
Susie told her
The story of Queen Esther

And how Esther ended her hunger strike
The day before Purim,

And so Miss Dunham
Asked Susie to prepare her
Some chicken soup —

And at the end of the fast of Esther
The day before Purim
Wednesday, March 18, 1992
Miss Dunham drank the soup.

They had established for themselves
and their descendants
the matters of the fasts
and their cry
(Esther 9:31).

And though it was not reported
In the newspapers
Nor on TV —

That is how Katherine Dunham
Ended her hunger strike
After 47 days,

And turned the attention of the world
To Haiti —

Before Haiti
a Tragedy.

jsg, usa

We long for a pure act of worship

Small Alef Poetry

Lift up the remains of yesterday
put them next to the holy altar
the fire shall not go out
we long for a pure act of worship. [Sefat Emet on Tzav]

The fire burning throughout
the camp moving
the altar traveling [Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 4:6]
we long for a pure act of worship.

The offering burnt
nothing of the ‘Olah remains
only ashes
nothing of it can be eaten or sold or turned into anything else

[lift up the remains of yesterday] –

Except for the hides
we might make a nice jacket out of the hides
be ruthlessly precise
in the mystery ways,

the future –


jsg, usa

Maqam Nawa
C [1] D [1/2] E flat [1 1/2] F sharp [1/2] G

Every Shabbat a maqam, a musical figure, associated with it.
Hebrew cognate maqom, signifying “place.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge Goes To Vienna

Samuel Taylor Coleridge Goes to Vienna

I went to Vienna. I got dressed up for it, I wore a dark suit
With grey stripes, A white shirt with stays,
A fluffy orange cravat, sheer,
tucked into my waistcoat
secured nicely with a carnelian

On my head, I wore three sides cocked
A hatmaker in Somerset
made it for me.

The carriage left me at the station
And I was thinking:

How do I look?

I got on the short carriage
to The train.
I was feeling unsettled.

There was one other man on the shuttle, A black man.
He was wearing a dark suit With light stripes
And a hat Like mine.

He wore it cocked, Just as I was.

He had a graying beard Cut close to his face,
just as I did that day.

We stared at each other For a long moment.

Just as I was thinking do you feel unsettled
— he broke the silence:
“you look fine, sir,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said, “you also.”

I later saw him in the station and he nodded to me, I nodded to him. Iʼm sure he is telling this story to someone. Maybe heʼll read it one day and recognize

Iʼm sure he didnʼt think he looked like Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I swear to God. Donʼt go to Vienna, it will make you

Small Alef poetry

Small Alef Poetry

When You call me
speak louder than you did with Moses
I may not hear the diminished alef*

the sound of affection
You used with him.

I am listening with everything I have
I am listening for the right word
the true story.

Let the pure come and occupy themselves
with the pure —

so said the wondrous Rav Assi [Lev.R.7:3]
3rd – 4th century
student of Rav Shmuel in Nehardea (al-Anbar)
companion of Rav Ammi
what they talked about —

And G*d called to Moses
And G*d spoke to him
From the tent of meeting
Saying —

*The Alef is the vav and two yuds
human-being-li-ness and G*d-li-ness
the Alef suspended between
the foundational lower world
and the reach to the upper world
hand above
underneath everlasting arm
connected by the sitting

We are connected
above and below
the Alef is diagrammatic — the human being
planted in the lower world
reaching for the upper world.

jsg, usa

Our Teacher is Smart

The attention to details
as they were given according to the command
of our teacher.

But our teacher didn’t know what to do
he needed the artist
who was born with his sleeves rolled up
bearer of tools.

God imagined the design
all the aspects of the Upper World created in the Lower World
God showed it to our teacher
who couldn’t see the pattern.

And see that you make it after the pattern,
God said,
which is being shown you in the mountain. [Ex.25:40].

Oh the pattern,
our teacher said.

The Holy One took him by the hand
showed him every detail from the Upper form
after which our teacher built it in the earthly form.

He was shown through a dark glass
as it were
a reflection of all the parts of the Sanctuary
as it existed in the Highest Form.

Our teacher was again confused
so God said,

trust your intuition.
Follow your inclinations here,
and I will follow Mine.

Our teacher, lured by perfectability
created the Sanctuary out of all his humanly imperfections —

God, as they say, gave him the permission he needed
to make it imperfect but with the right supernal pattern in mind.

The two Houses were destroyed
but the Sanctuary always


so he built it
off a wooded area
someone carved a sign out of heavy wood
beads were strung to make an archway
for the Bride

music was brought in from North Africa
and Detroit,

and the empty spaces,
cakes and challahs were imported from
the tribe of superior people
over the River,

the mysterious thirty-six
were typically present
[well attended]:

the Holy One present always
and our teacher
his family
the artist always
the ancestors

the ancestors especially —

and all the holy and pure ones
who shine like the highest shining of heaven
whose presence was acknowledged
at every meeting.

Maqam Nawa
C [1] D [1/2] E-flat [1 1/2] F-sharp
Every week signified by a musical form
maqam place cognate Makom.