First Lesson

First Lesson

I took a sabbatical and went to Israel to sit at the feet of a great master and learn the playing of my instrument from the source. It’s the voice of Arabic music, though there have been many great Jewish players, the instrument today is typically identified with the Arab world. The oud, ancestor to the lute; without frets one can reach the micro-tones that distinguishes eastern Mediterranean, north African, middle Eastern music.

I had made an unlikely connection with the teacher in the States and he invited me to learn with him where he lived, in one of the largest Arab towns in the Galilee.

His town is 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.

After I settled into Jerusalem, 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.

I would spend three or hours with him one day a week. The rest of the week: practice in my little room in Jerusalem.

The town is named Shfaram, there are no Jews there today. Today there are Christian Arabs, Moslem Arabs, and Druze living in Shfaram. There is an ancient synagogue there and I was told by an elderly 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 therefore a full day of activity in Israel, there is no such thing in Israel as a weekend, there is six days of work, one day of rest, just like in the Bible.

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 as the new road. The old road which is marked on the maps by the number four, is parallel to the new road a little inland and often you can see one 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 faster, more interesting for sure, 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.

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, less populated 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 of course 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.

I was contemplating how to turn around on the gravel path in the foothills where I ran out of road. I got out of my car to reconnoiter whether I could make a turn in the grass or just retrace my way in reverse.

I saw a man in robes with some sheep, and the thought: oh my God, a shepherd. He came up to me and we gesticulated; my Arabic not so hot, his Hebrew likewise. I showed him my instrument thinking that would lead to directions to the oud teacher I was hoping he knew, and he sat down on a rock as if he were an audience. So I played for him.

This is great, I thought. This is terrible. It was beautiful in a field with the shepherd sitting on a rock, myself leaning against the car playing some oud, he started singing with me, sheep bleating (?) nearby, where in the world am I and what’s next.

I asked directions back to Shfaram and he guided me into a U turn and a jaunty farewell as if we have been bonded in a familiar way; I could not have dreamt such a scene.

My teacher and I had scheduled to meet each other at the gas station; there were several gas stations in the town and I came to the wrong one. I drove out in search of another. Then I got hopelessly lost again in the dirt roads of the town. Everyone stared at me as I passed

I was an hour late and looking for a phone to call him (pre-cell phone era). 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. He lived on a road with the rest of his family as is the Arab custom. 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. 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 maqamat, 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 cannot 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. Micro-tones. Half-flats.

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. Microtones are notes that we do not have in Western music, notes that are closer together than adjacent keys on the piano, or frets on the guitar. I could not 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 ordinarily 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, and I began to find it the more I listened.

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 instrument.

I realized that in 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 came to know as much as we came to know about each other.

He gave me my assignments for next time. He seemed genuinely delighted with me as a student, he saw that I learned quickly, and he knew how eager I was. We will do a lot, he said again. 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. I didn’t stop on the way home, I gobbled up a couple of sandwiches 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.

I ask myself now, what brought me to him? At first, it was something organic. Physical. It was love of the music. I heard these sounds for the first time in a park in Jerusalem in 1976. It was the first time I visited there. The sound I heard that day I took back with me to the States, and it eventually replaced whatever it was that I had come with.

When I returned to study music, Shfaram seemed far away from the Israel I knew. I spent three or four hours there once a week. I bounced all over town, sat in the cafes, went to the souks, hung out on the street. People stared at me at first, I’m sure wondering what was I doing there. Then I became familiar and everyone I guess assumed I was doing something for real otherwise – why? My Israeli friends mostly thought I was nuts.

Music opened all doors. After music was the relation I formed with my teacher that was meta-personal. We only spoke music but music was enough. I felt the music, a common grounding in the forms I was learning. It felt entirely familiar to me. Music. What does it mean that we met there? I am still working that question. What are the implications and – how to communicate that to others? It seemed to me that this experience should not be secret.

I was coming to know something deep within me that was deep within him, though we lived far away from each other. Within this little country, we lived far away from each other. Until music.

Peace Vigil these are the pieces

Plan B

Plan B

When Nachman’s first plan failed, he began to tell stories. Nachman had a theory of story: story was a method for the soul to side-step the heart and speak directly to the mind. The soul, Susan said, what is this thing called the soul? It’s deeper than the heart. Maybe that’s what sustains us when our hearts are broken. Our souls.

On the phone she said, my husband is dying, can you come? I drove out to her apartment, she was sitting in her front room and she wanted to plan her husband’s funeral. Her husband was lying in the other room in a hospital bed. Two sons came in.

She wanted to know what the order of prayers and events were at the funeral. I suggested that the first thing was to accompany him properly through his passage. What do you mean passage she said innocently. The passage of his soul. His soul, she said, she said it again, his soul, and again. His soul, yes, she said. There was a moment of good silence.

Then we gathered around her husband’s bed and I sang prayers quietly into his ear and his sons kissed his forehead and rubbed his hands.

The father’s eyes fluttered as his sons kissed him. Later we were talking back in the other room.

Tell me about the soul, one son asked. Many names for the soul in Hebrew, I told him five, the last of which was yechidah. All are beautiful words, each referring to a deeper sense of personal essence culminating in yechidah, unity. This is the goal of the soul’s journey, one of the sons said, to return from where we came. Maybe that’s God, he said. There was silence in the room, all of us floating on our thoughts, and the soft whirring of a fan coming from the other room.

I feel his soul reaching for God, one of the sons said. Yes, I said, I feel it too. He has a big soul, his other son said. I feel his soul in a circle of great souls, he said. His soul is making its journey home. Yes, they all said enthusiastically. As I left they returned to his bedside, they kissed his head, read him psalms and poetry. I stopped and listened for a while to the breath of poetry rising from his bedside.

Peace Vigil these are the pieces

Peace Vigil Story 1

Peace Vigil: Story 1

As it heats up, I am thinking-doing what I can. Write. Sing. These are the pieces.

I am feeling ourselves spinning into the events of our time and their significance is elusive but perhaps it will clarify, just as Rashi the poet predicted, one day we will come to see that it was as it is supposed to be, the deep significance of events will clarify and the events will release their deep significance just as Rashi the poet described the emek of Hevron, the valley of Hevron — it’s not a valley it’s the depth of events in the Torah Vayeshev — the depth of the story.

Do I understand the obstacles to peace making? No. But I have spent some time there, I have some experiences on the ground, I have sat with artists mostly and musicians and I have even been their student. I apprenticed myself to the world sounds. I went there to learn at the source.

Everybody I met in Israel wanted to know what I was doing there. I told whoever asked that I had returned to Israel to study and to play the oud. When I first came to Israel, in 1976, I was part of a rhythm and blues show that toured the country. I appeared all over Israel playing exclusively American music.

To most Israelis I met, that made sense, but my mission to learn the oud did not. “Why don’t you play the guitar?” one asked me. “”I do play the guitar,” I said. “The oud. . .” she said, “it has such a whiny sound. Is that racist?” she said to me. We concluded that it was just uninformed. At least she asked.

The Israelis I hung out with were exceedingly aware of racism and were working at the deepest levels of self reflection to work themselves clean of that corruption. I felt this everywhere. I feel that eroding now, and I am wondering whether we are in the it will have to get worse before it gets better phase.

The Israelis I met when I was studying there were curious about me, I am sure they thought maybe I was a little crazy, most wondering why the heck I was interested in learning this instrument from an Arab in the western Galilee. It seemed like such an unlikely pursuit.

One night, I was having dinner in Jerusalem with a group of Israelis. It was Shavuot, as a matter of fact, we were getting together and then we were all going to hear Aviva guide us to Ruth, learning until dawn, walk to the Wall, and say the morning prayers as the sun came up. It was the thing to do in Jerusalem on Shavuot.

At the table, there was an Israeli academic sitting next to me who had just returned to Israel after having spent half a dozen years getting his Ph.D. at Penn in Indian Vedic philosophy. “So,” he asked me, “what are you doing in Israel?”

I began to tell him about the instrument, about the music I had come to learn, and half way through my exposition, I stopped and asked him, “how interested are you in this story?”

He said something beautiful and true to me. “When you love something, when you know it in depth, at its essence, every something becomes Everything. Every part of the story becomes the whole story, every part the Whole.” I told him everything.

But that is not why I am telling this story now. This story is being written as a reminder, a purely personal reminder, to me because I need it now. I need the memory of a time when I moved across the borders that now separate and isolate, when I wandered fearlessly between cultures that are now warring with each other, when I entered the mind of my estranged relations in the East, without knowing anything at all about them, them about me, but connected through something greater than our differences.

We met beneath our differences, before the exile from each other, we met at the intersection of the common sound we made, the music in our hands, and if we could find our way to each other through music, could peace be far behind?

How far? How long?


American Dream of Life

An American Dream of Life
July 4

James Stone Goodman

Celebrating July 4th as I write this with a tasty American lunch, walking distance from the confluence of the Big Muddy Missouri and the Mighty Mississippi rivers, where two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark set out to discover the Northwest Passage. It wasn’t the Northwest Passage but it was 1804, Lewis and Clark took off from here on their way to the Pacific, actually less than two miles from here, two hundred years altered the geography only two miles. In other ways we are more altered, more cynical for sure, the evidence is in, we are diminished.

I am also celebrating the birthday of a great American, my grandfather, who was born on July 4th, so proud a day for immigrant families that they often tried to talk, cajole, even buy their way onto the official record with a birthday of July 4th. My friend telling me about her husband’s immigrant origins: he was born twenty minutes to midnight, July 3rd, they tried to talk the doctor into altering the documents, he wouldn’t, even though he was a brother-in-law!. It mattered, because the immigrant loved the American dream of freedom, it drew millions of immigrant parents to new lives. What of their children? Could it take only a generation to forget the dream?

Every July 4th I renew the dream, in some bone-headed way I am a patriot, I feel something of what my generations felt, how their eyes filled up when they talked about sailing past the lady in the harbor, looking up at the dream advertised by her torch, and into Ellis Island, where our names changed, and we scurried into the unknown American night looking for opportunity. Tailors, seamstresses, butchers, barbers, smiths, artisans, dreamers all of us, none of us educated into America, but soon we would be because we knew that education would lift us up, on eagles wings, into the American dream of life.

The American dream of life. It renews for me every July 4th when I honor in a quiet way my grandfather on his birthday (was it really – or did he fudge the date, having been born on a kitchen table anyway, who would know?) What it was that he loved about this country was given to me when I was too little to evaluate it. Freedom, not theoretical, nor was it a cliché; it was the antidote to the Cossacks who came looking for us, later the Fascists who wiped up the rest of us.

Yeah, I’m a patriot. I believe the dream that he shared with me. I am lunching, spitting distance away from the confluence of the rivers, it’s July 4th, and looking off toward the west the way Lewis and Clark did before my people even got here, there are clouds in the air and birds singing American freedom songs. I take off my shoes and walk into the wet because I am too far away from their dreams right now, the explorers, too far away even from my own inherited dreams, the ones given to me by my generations, my grandfather whose birthday I celebrate every year with the conflation of the birthday of the country, this year at the confluence of the great rivers, great rivers, great conflations I am thinking of today, the lining of large ideas that I am wearing over my soul like a cloak.

Heck it’s only lunch, July 4th, but I am sitting here dreaming at the confluence of rivers and the conflation of ideas, I am Lewis and Clark wading through the loam on the great adventure of the American West that begins here, right here, I am my generations sailing by the statue with my arms around my family breathing deep these words I might or might not be able to read –

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

I am Emma Lazarus, the poet of that piece, descended from Portuguese-Spanish Jews, intoning her words carved on the pedestal of the statue, I am pre-cynical, not diminished, I am some kind of patriot thanks to my grandfather who I remember was born on the Fourth of July, maybe so maybe not, who cares — I remember him and what he believed, I believe. What he knew, I know.

Leaves of Grass

And the Day And Night Are For You And Me And All

The first edition was only 12 poems
He kept expanding it throughout his life
A caution here to poets
Even the greatest can work it too much

Whitman designed and published it himself
Out of a printing shop in Brooklyn, Fulton Street
First in 795 copies about 200 extant today
Handset press no plates so the first edition
Never reprinted

After a page printed
The type was redistributed on the hand-inked
Iron bed press
Whitman stopped the press a few times during publication
Once to fix a typo another to change a line

And the night is for you and me and all
And the day and night are for you and me and all

Some of the versions have the typo and some have the uncorrected line

For a long time critics thought it significant that what became known as
“Song of Myself” concluded with no period
a clue that the process continues
but we came to understand that the period broke off during printing

The cover dark green has vines and tendrils growing out of the
Leaves of Grass a pun leaf as in page also as in organic growth
Organic leaves one sprouts another

The book begins in ten pages of prose
Then twelve poems in eighty five pages
The soul third person present in the preface
The “I” emerging later in the poems

The preface with its origins in Emerson’s essay
“The Poet” the need for the American voice in poetry

The soul and the I circling each other
Articulating each other
Nourishing defining integrating sustaining

The complete manuscript of the first book is lost
Wish I could find it
Whitman worked out of a green notebook
Dated as early as 1847 [that I have]

Whitman said he left the manuscript with the printer
Andrew Rome
Who used it to kindle the fire or feed the rag man

On the frontispiece a bearded young man
Rakish tilt to the hat open collar
One hand in his pocket one hand on his hip
In some versions a bulge in his pants
I’m not kidding look it up
It’s an engraving based on a daguerreotype

The picture is not identified
And Whitman’s name doesn’t appear on the title page
This confused Emerson a little
But contributed to the sense that the personality of the poet
Emerges throughout the poems

The sense that the person and America and its language
Are growing out together off the page
Through the book
Out of the book and into the mind of the reader
The conscious unconscious of America

The voice in “Song of Myself” introduces himself as
Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos

He is Walt Whitman he is America he is a dynamic
Integrating organic I am something Everything as is America
He is a fulcrum the mythic Whitman and the historic Walt
That barbaric yawp through the entire sweep of America

What came before
What he experienced
And what has come after

It all arises around and through Whitman
And his poetry his life when he lived
And that America teetering between what came before
And what after

The after we are still held in its arc
And this is one reason I think about him
And his Leaves of Grass on the birthday of America
And the publication date of his first edition
July 4, 1855

More the mythic America than the historic America
Though when I read him and think about his work
The myth and history are not so divergent
I learn and re-learn America in Leaves of Grass

Here’s a period I’m done.

July 4, 2014
159 years since publication of Leaves of Grass