The Artisan

These Are the Stories
Big Tent Series

jail with padlock

Got a call to go to the jail-house to visit a particular inmate. Do you know him?

Oh yes, I know him. He used to come by the Thursday night group for recovering addicts. I didn’t know him well but I remembered him and remembered when he came around he came with regularity and I found him a job, an assistant cook in a nice restaurant.

When I went to see him I asked, what happened?

Couldn’t stay with it. I messed up.

He was picked up with drugs and later I found out there was a weapons violation involved uh oh and he was looking at serious time.

I’m often surprised by these guys, many of them are smart and seem sincere and sometimes I can’t figure how they get into the messes they get into. With this guy, he missed a basic lesson. I asked him whether they had meetings in the jail-house, he said no, just Christian.

Whoa, I said, sobriety is your religion now, I said, recovery. Get yourself to meetings. I’m not talking about church. Make your sobriety the center of your life. Everything else will follow. I don’t think anyone ever said that to him before, he looked so surprised.

I’ll get you a Hebrew Bible I said, soft cover. I’ll get you a calendar. I’ll put together a book of teachings for you. You get yourself to meetings.

I need a Hebrew name, he said.

His given name had no precise Hebrew equivalent. What is it you love?

I work with my hands. I can build and fix anything. I want to fix up old houses.

I told him about Betzalel, the first artisan, and how without him the Temple could not have been built. God showed Moses the pattern floating in the sky but without the artist Betzalel it could not have been built.

Betzalel? He said it with a little difficulty.

Yes, you like it? The artisan. The builder.

Yeah that’s right. Let’s pray with it.

What’s your mother’s name?

She’s gone.

What’s her name?

Her name was Deborah.

That’s a Hebrew name, you know, you’re Betzalel ben Devorah and now I’m going to chant a holy prayer for your healing in your name and the name of your mother through whom your healing comes.
I sat there in the jail-house cubicle separated by the thick glass with the phone to my face a foot away from him and I chanted some healing prayers naming him and his mother withholding nothing.

Thank you, he said, he thanked me again. Sing it again? He asked. I did. Several more times.

There was a group of people on my side visiting in their windows with their beloveds on the other side, all through the glass, with phones. Everyone got quiet. Some people had bowed their heads, some had tears in their eyes, all of them thanked me on my way out.

#32a These Are The Stories

These Are The Stories
Big Tent Series

The next time I saw Betzalel [we figured out that name on the first visit see Story #32] I had given him a Hebrew Bible in English translation soft cover. I put a note on the inside with the page number where Betzalel is mentioned in Exodus 31 and I highlighted the verses.

I went up to the cubicle.

How do you say it, and he tried to say Betzalel but it didn’t come out right.

In the Bible I gave you they call him Bezalel, with a z, you can use that if you like and I felt myself beginning to speak easy English to him thinking he’s not going to get this Betzalel easily and in mid-sentence as I was explaining how he could say Bez-a-lel nice and slowly, he said:

It’s a tzaddi — [the Hebrew letter that is more correctly transliterated as tz or ts though there is no exact English equivalent].

Yes, I said, it’s a tzaddi, realizing he had been studying Hebrew somehow on his own in there and once again I betrayed my bias and how wrong I was to assume he had not entered deep into his name into this search he is on for meaning and he is a foot away separated by thick glass — we were talking by phones through the jail-house window — he is a black man I am east-west and when the keepers of the purse-strings asked me who are the people you see in the jail house are they white are they black are they jewish how completely irrelevant that is on so many levels and how many of the questioners know what a tzaddi is anyway?

Forgive me, I thought, I smiled a big smile shamed by my bias, yes I said it’s a tzaddi just say it slow and in syllables until it becomes comfortable: B’tzal-El. It means in the shadow of God.

james stone goodman