Small alef; poetry Beshallach

After the Sea of Reeds —
first time in a long time
Egyptians: no longer a threat.

Ahead of us — Wilderness,
and on the way to the mountain —
four more crises.

Three days into the wilderness of Shur
no water. [15:22 ff.]
Marah, cannot drink the water, bitter.
Ma Nishteh — what do we drink?

He turned around and cried out
God showed him a piece of wood
it is a tree of life to those who hold on to it.

He threw the piece of wood into the water
the water turned sweet.

I am Hashem, your healer —
drink me.

Small alef; poetry Beshallach
Maqam Ajam

Prison Journal

Prison Journal, January

I am called to the jail. Heroin. The jail is new so I do not know the protocol. I am new at this too. My name is supposed to be at the desk for visitors.

At one o’clock I show up at the jail. “Empty your pockets, please,” I am asked as I am about to walk through the metal detector.

I empty my pockets in the plastic tray.

“You have a weapon in your pocket,” a large female guard says, “didn’t you read the sign ‘no weapons’ no exceptions, take that weapon out of here.”

Weapon? Oh my God, I forgot, I am carrying a knife, a pocket knife, but not a civilized Swiss army knife but, well, it’s a real knife. I grew up in Detroit.

The guard is practically yelling at me. I feel, of course, ridiculous. I had forgotten about that knife. I take the knife outside the jail and there is a large planter with dead flowers in it, I hide the knife in the planter. Now it is a concealed weapon I suppose.

I come back into the jail, again up to the metal detector, the big guard says, “I saw you stash that weapon.”

“I planted it,” I said, “It’s not a weapon.”

“That’s beautiful,” she said, not smiling, I think maybe she is making fun of me.

I go up to the visitors desk. “Too late,” said the guard behind the desk.

“I was here on time.”

“Too late now.” I think he saw me plant the knife.

“Wait a second,” I said, my voice rising, “that’s not fair.”

“It’s jail,” he said.

On my way to my car, I wondered why I didn’t tell him I am the rabbi. I can visit any time if I just told him I am the rabbi.

In the car and down Wydown Boulevard. Too fast, uh oh, cop.

Cop pulls me over and gives me a ticket for ten over. I sit there with my mouth shut, inside I am howling “tell him you work with the police, tell him you created a chaplaincy program for the city PD, open your mouth and tell him!”

I didn’t tell him. I was speeding. Ten over.

I went back to the jail the next day. No weapons.

“You’re not on the list,” said the guard.

“I’m the rabbi.”

“Oh. What church?”

“No church. Synagogue.”

He sends me upstairs to get approval from Mr. D.

“I’m the rabbi.”

“Do you have any proof?”

“Got Torah –”

We both laugh. He takes me into his office.

He is a Christian man he tells me. We talk soulfully in his office about jail, freedom, God, holiness, the doors that open to me because of my profession. I love these conversations. He asks me if he can call on me to come and visit when he needs a rabbi.

“I will come to see anybody, any time.”

I visit with the prisoner. We talk about jail, freedom, drugs, narrow places, freedom stories, the truth that we carry our jail around with us, or we don’t.

Later, my son asks me to take his car in for service. I drive it over to the dealer, I sit in the waiting room and read the sedrah from the Torah, Beshallach, the Song of the Sea.

Soon I am the only one in the room. There is a TV in the room, Jeopardy. I love Jeopardy. I haven’t seen Jeopardy in years and I remember how much I love Jeopardy. It’s celebrity Jeopardy from Las Vegas, not as good.

I try to concentrate on the holy Torah. Oprah comes on. Female sexual dysfunction. Oh God. The TV is loud and way up high on the wall, couldn’t turn it down if I wanted to.

I stand up and watch. I am watching because there is no one else in the room. In walks a young woman with a large text book and a notebook, she sits down in the room, starts reading, I pretend I am not watching the TV though I am standing in front of it looking up as if to a mountain and sit down in my seat by the door. I feel, of course, ridiculous.

TV. Vaginal dryness. Self stimulation. Oh God. I bury my head in my book. Oprah.

I take out a pad of paper and begin to scribble. I am writing this piece, actually, to try and keep my eyes away from the television. Do not look at the girl sitting across from me. Lubricants. Vibrators. I am writing feverishly. Oh jeez.

I keep my head in my pad, scribbling away. Does the testosterone cream work? Oprah. Oh God. Don’t look up.

How large? What can Leticia do to improve her sex life? Be right back. Oh God.

Finally, I can’t stand it. I glance up, I pick up my head, just a glimpse to see what she is doing, big book, notebook, sitting across from me in the room waiting for the cars. Oh my God. Our eyes lock. Just that moment, in that same second she lifts her head too and our eyes lock.

“I’m the rabbi.”

Silence. She nods. Jeez, do I feel stupid. She goes back to her book.

I’m the rabbi, God, finally I have it integrated. Hey Oprah, hey you two sisters on TV who opened a clinic for female sexual dysfunction. I got it now, let me practice saying it so I’m not caught off guard.

I’m the rabbi.

United States of America

Dr. Herbert Paper his memory a blessing

Dr. Herbert Paper, z”l

Expert in Persian Jewish texts
A Yiddishist
He sat towards the rear of the shul
Quick mind
Quick talker
Great schmoozer
Familiar because he was like
An Uncle.

A herring eater
Big smile
A delicious presence
This academic avuncular linguist
Lover of language
And Jews —

I never had him for a class —
How’s your family
How many children
How’s your wife —

Tell me about your life.

One of the friendliest teachers
I never had.

Emeser mensch
Olov ha-sholem.

jsg, usa

Small alef; poetry Come In

Why We Had to Leave Pharaoh

The locusts begin,
brought in by an east wind (Ex. 10:13)
carried away by a west wind (10:19).

The wind blows both east and west for us.
East wind: the silent heart of wisdom
unreflective, the seamless embrace —

Before language
chochmah; aha —
the heart’s deep wisdom.

West wind: self conscious spirit of inquiry
conceptualization language

West wind
conscious, linear

East wind
Intuitive, lateral

Chochmah and binah
right and left sides —
both winds blow through our camp.

Western branches eastern roots –
a tree of life.

Union sheleimut; shalom
the integrating dream —
every shabbat a cosmic union.

Par’oh; to rend, to split —
the separator

Separate from the Other Side
the side of separation
and that’s why

we had to leave Pharaoh —
to become one
with ourselves.

jsg, usa
maqam sigah
parshat Bo

Teachers, inspirations, influences

Moshe ben Raphael
Spoken at Ira Kaufman Chapel
Burial at Workman’s Circle Cemetery
Friday, January 13, 2012

He grew up here. We all grew up here. We grew up in large measure because of him, Mickey, Dad, whatever you called him. I’m here because I grew up because of him.

This is what he taught me: as it is written in the tributes given to him when he reflected on his efforts for PFLAG and the ACLU and the Triangle Foundation: justice. Justice. I want to see justice, is what he said.

Mickey was a quiet firm steady reliable presence in my life. I suppose in yours too. I have him in my mind’s eye sitting on that couch on Kenosha street, in the uniform he wore to work every day, I imagine he put a good day of work in when he went to work. He came home and he looked as if he had been to work.

Harriet held court on the other couch, smoking Kents and opening the house to all of us who hung around because of her. That laugh, I hear it as I am speaking. Their house was a welcoming place — if you were hungry you went into the refrigerator, if you were tired you found a bed and went to sleep.

When Burt built his den of unmentionable activities in the rear of the house, you could go there for sin and other preoccupations of adolescents.

In the front room however, you went for education. There was an educating function of their living room. Mickey was a holy man in training long before he became a holy man by virtue of age and experience.

Once when I visited him the hospital here in Detroit, all he wanted to talk was Torah. He had a Chumash, a book of Torah that he was studying. He had a dozen questions about Torah, good questions, serious.

Then he was sprung from the hospital and spirited across country. I imagine he was given up for dead here, but he was not dead. He was given life by what I hear is a loving group of caring friends and family in the community that Burt and Joyce and Zakai and all of you created in California. Mickey became everybody’s Zayde and he as much as everyone around him was grateful every day of the life he was given after he left here. How many years – four years, five years, this is what love grows. Love grows life.

Burt and I were talking on the phone the other night. “What happened to my Dad?” Burt asked me. What he was asking is: how did he become such a holy man, how is it that his teaching became “We are all children of G*d.”

Yes we are all children of G*d and Mickey wasn’t just a schlepper who toward the end of his life transformed into a child of G*d that breathed and taught G*dliness and kindness and zayde-hood to whoever he met, we are all in training in life for death, we are all growing into the people we already are and Mickey always was a teacher of justice and a partner to his wife in her politics and a teacher of virtue and steadfastness and when the place he lived in needed a voice and a hand and a commitment Mickey always stepped up because he wanted to see justice. He lived it, he always lived it, he was always the person he became and he became a serious holy man and I’ve learned so much from him that I can hardly cry at his death — I just want to thank him for being in our lives.

As he wanted it, no tears, don’t be sad when I’m gone, celebrate my life, I’ve had one good ride.

And you here who were privileged to live with him and grow up with him and love him you are Mickey. Roseanne you always had your mother’s face and her glance and her spark and you boys all of you: you are your Daddy you are all your Daddy and we are all who we came from and for some of us it is a privilege to come from people to whom we can aspire to be as large as they were in our own little lives —

G*d bless that beautiful man Moshe ben Raphael, we are all blessed to know him.

jsg, usa

Small alef; poetry Va-era 2

Release us —
I push harder.

I am not a gifted speaker
I have stones in my mouth
my lips are covered —

Lead with gentleness
be patient
and to everyone
speak with respect.

Balance —
strength confidence and courage
on the left side.

Add patience and kindness
on the right side.

on the right side
gentleness and compassion
on the left side.

Now draw a line
down the middle of your body with your thumb
move your hand up and down
this is your heart line
your balance —

Between the left side and the right side
this is your strength.

Lead with patience and understanding
speak with respect
even to your detractors

especially to your detractors.

jsg, usa

Small alef; poetry Vaera
Maqam Hoseini

Small alef; poetry Va-era

I heard you groaning
Your stoned

I returned to your story.

First your pain
then your freedom —

I will free you
I will deliver you
I will redeem you
I will take you to Me —

I will bring you into the Land —

But don’t be a schmoozer,
you know how I hate to be schmoozed.

jsg, usa
Maqam Hoseini

On the occasion of ML King jr. Day

On the Yahrzeit of Heschel and birthday of King

Listen, O earth, to these wounds,
We have been pounded on the peaks,
elevated and alone.
Who ascends these holy mountains,
and why?

We have bled all over our back packs,
descended at the penultimate moment.
Snatched away from the precipice,
we descended into the valley
where we sat quietly with our eyes closed,
waiting for a bus, nothing loftier,
and we would have remained there
if not sitting next to us was the prophet Amos,
watching for the light to change.
His skepticism, as always,
was an inspiration —
justice rolling down like water,
and righteousness like a mighty stream.

Listen to the wounds, O earth,
pay attention to the bleeding sky,
brother elements, sister flesh,
pay a little attention will you —
at least give ear to these words.
These wounds.

Part 1

There is a famous picture of Abraham Joshua Heschel,
rabbi, human being, interpreter of inner and prophetic Judaism,
walking with Martin Luther King, jr.,
preacher, prophet, activist, redeemer,
walking together in the front row of the marchers,
Selma, 1965.
King and Heschel walking arm in arm,
the famous commentary by Heschel —
I felt as if I was praying with my feet.

Look at the picture of Heschel and King again,
this emblem of deep connection
bound at the arms they are, bound by the legs they are
the pictorial story of Black Jewish history together,
a chronicle of what was
and hope for a return to coalition,
good intention, hope.

Our freedom stories have been told
in the same story,
King and Heschel claimed the Exodus as the freedom story,
the prophets as the freedom agents,
we are characters in each other’s freedom story.

Part 2

“The day we marched together out of Selma
was a day of sanctification. That day
I hope will never be past to me—
that day will continue to be to this day”
— Heschel in a letter to King.
In that letter Heschel wrote he felt
“as though my legs were praying.”

Both men read their story into
the freedom narrative of Exodus
and the Prophets of Israel —
two stories that transformed and inspired their lives.

For Heschel and King,
the Exile story was not theoretical.

“We will not be satisfied,” preached King,
quoting the prophet Amos 5:24, “until justice rolls down like waters
and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

This verse is engraved into the King Memorial
Atlanta, Georgia.


Small alef; poetry

I Give You My Soul

I have returned to the story
I heard their groaning,

God said,
and remembered

I am a turning soul, M said,
I give it to you
it’s all I have
I give you my soul
and that always saves me.

God said,
I will be with you for the whole story
restore you
take you out from here —
I give you my soul.

We are saving each other with nothing
giving up our separate selves
handing over our souls
the enduring offering —

jsg, usa

Small alef poetry; Shemot
Maqam Rast


They were publishers as well in Venice
All of them literate and eager to share their literacy
After the exile from Spain
they dispersed East
What they brought:

Daniel Bomberg —
I moved from Antwerp to Venice sixteenth century
I am Christian but I hired Jews to work my publishing house
Jews understand publishing –

We published their first Mikraot Gedolot in 1525
The holy Hebrew Bible with its commentaries.

David ben Shlomo Altaras, known as the Devash [honey] —
I wrote a sweet grammar
K’lalei HaDikduk bundled with Bomberg’s
Volume of the commentaries in 1715.

My family came from Castile
Exiled from Spain
To Italy and Syria and throughout the Levant

My name known
One of us a great poet
Mentioned by Najara in his diwan

Dikduk (grammar)

The librarian will hold in his hands
Far into the future
One of the books celebrating beginnings —


They will sit around a table and
Discover Altaras

On the road to Adria
They were burning our books
[By Order of The Curia]
I carried my collection in a sack
Hid them under the wagon


We will out-wait them.

jsg, usa