I Am Matzah

rabban gamaliel sarajevo

I am matzah
Discourse of the prison house
Big Tent #46

We skipped to the most known least mined of R. Gamaliel’s three things: the matzah. Of all the stories of quick release my friend from the former Soviet Union reminding me in the refusenik days preparing the matzah in the middle of the night so they would not be eavesdropped on in other parts of the Soviet concretion of an apartment building it’s the subversive aspect of the matzah that moves for me most now.

It’s the Jungian symbology of this image of inner life (Zohar: bread of faith, better to describe the inscrutable) this image-symbol-metaphor of inner life that in a reverse Kohenic sense (think: Koan) folding back into the Levitical pure-impure dynamic and re-fashioning it as a continuum, a continuum in the sense that matzah becomes chametz, matzah is chametz in arrested development, the ingredients of matzah will become chametz if not for this if not for that and the implication that you are what you are becoming, you are becoming what you are, the thought that you have been that freedom you seek all your life in potential, that within each of us is the source the seed the history of a freedom-becoming person and remember our holy –

R. Levi Y. of Berditchev who posed the koan-kohen question: When does freedom begin? It’s infinitely regressible who taught you what, who was it that gave it to whom who gave it to you that spawned an act a gesture bold or subtle that erupted or evolved into a freedom-taking act, freedom-baking act, who taught whom back before way before any of us became free who planted those seeds through how many generations of retro-vision that in your life on this day this season this year expresses in an act of freedom-taking that you cannot claim as your own why would you want to when you have legions behind you who have contributed to your act of freedom now, and this is what R. Levi Y. of B. is reminding you when he asks you to think, now answer: When does freedom begin? It begins now.

It began then, regressing back to that paradigm act when M. walked out of his complacency and interceded in that scrum of bullying. And who planted what in him that he moved that way, that day? His mother? The midwives? Someone.

Think it through think it back thank them all and when you move out of your complacency this year you are giving something back that you didn’t earn you didn’t ask for you received the bounty of your wonderful-terrible history and the whole of your humanity with their hands at your back pushing in the most gentle way: Go ahead, you can do this you can make this freedom, you can do this thing, we are behind you.

The holy Passover
Jail-house, 2016

Passover in the Jail-house

rabban gamaliel sarajevo

Passover in the Jail-house
Big Tent Story #44

We pushed on and discussed the three images. With everything that resonated for them they responded with a kind of vibrational hum from within their chests that moved through the room like the foot working the bass pedals on a Hammond B-3 organ like the thrum of locusts when what they heard settled within them a low hum that went through a room suggesting this pertains to me. Hummm.

Pesach, we discussed the Rashi that God jumps in jumps out of our story at least that’s the way it feels and the secret of the Pesach is the secret Moses whispered to us before we left: jumping in jumping out in the God’s eye view of things it’s all the same: I am always with you. Hummm.

Then we turned to maror and the mirror we look into each day a gaze into our personal narrowness I explained the dual form and the hint that what we are looking at is ourselves. In the prison house there isn’t much these guys can do about the external freedom but the inner life is theirs, it belongs to them and whatever it is this year that is no longer large enough to hold them it’s time to leave that narrows and that’s what it means to get free, but these are words and ideas, we make the talk-talk then we go about spending the year getting free. Hummm.

We saved the matzah talk for last. What is matzah I opened with, clean out the inner puffiness that separates us from God and all we love the most. It’s lean and it pure and it’s the experience of clarity and commitment and it’s the emptying out of ideas and behaviors that no longer serve, the bread of faith by the Zohar that we are what we are becoming– we are becoming what we are — we have it within us to be what we are growing toward. Hummm.

We had come a long way in an hour and at the end of the session the guys took some time to reflect on what we said and to make it [more] personal. One guy who has studied but without a teacher so he pronounces everything in his own way said the Hebrew word that means “remember.” Yes I made a quick inner calculation that word goes with another word that means to keep or protect. To protect what we learn, remember and protect, write it down I said let’s take the next week and write down what we talked about today, the implications. Then you’ll remember it better, you will protect it write it down and bring it to the next session.

They are wary about writing anything down it’s a matter of trust. Someone may see it who could use it against them but we are getting over that. We are expressing ourselves more through writing. We are getting over our silence. That’s one of the senses of freedom we discussed: we are getting over what hasn’t worked for us. We are getting over it. We are getting free in the ways we can. Hummm.

Big Tent

Sarajevo maggid

The Gangsters of Detroit
Or the Haggadah Pulls It All Together

Some time later I was studying with S but I was dreaming about telling the story and when it’s told the necessity to be understood, from the Aramaic translation of Yonatan, especially the holy telling of the Haggadah and the Maggid section in the Haggadah the telling and the n-g-d root that is lurking within both those words, that sense that there is a story and then there is what the story is about.

Then on Thursday night we were talking about the telling of our own stories and every time we tell it we squeeze it for more what it means. There is the story and there is the telling and with every telling there is more truth, more truth squeezed through the telling, the telling and the thing itself. The more we tell it the more we know of what the story is about, the thing itself, so the root is somewhat dual in that sense of corresponding to: n-g-d, and I am loving this root for its essential correspondence of one thing to another and its hiddenness within every story the thing that the story is about and they are not the same they correspond and we tell it and tell it to coax out the deeper reality(ies).

One night when we were playing music we made that groove where I started talking about my aunt who was married to a gangster and she was the funniest person I had known. Until I met her sister who was living up in the Catskills, and she was the funniest person I knew and by then I was grown up, almost thirty, so my sense of funny had changed I suppose and every time I visited her it was like I was the audience sitting on her divan and she did twenty minutes that was so hysterical I could hardly sit but this was just the way she talked. Maybe she didn’t have anybody to talk to; she lived alone after all in a tiny little place in Monsey.

I told her I thought she was now the funniest person I had every met, funnier than my aunt (she wasn’t my blood aunt but I called her my aunt and she didn’t have much that kind of family) and her sister who I never called my aunt said you think I’m funny wait ‘til you meet my son. I didn’t want to meet her son because he was a professional comedian in what was left of the borscht belt and I figured it was just a lot of shtick and it would be embarrassing.

On one of my trips up that way she made a call and said he’ll be right over. Oh my God, she called her son and he was coming over to meet me and I didn’t look forward to it at all I’m going to have to sit here and listen to his routines and pretend that it’s entertaining that old shtick and he came over nice looking guy a little older than me and he did about twenty minutes that was even funnier than his mother and way funnier than his aunt (who I called my aunt) and I was laughing so hard I could hardly stand it. Maybe this is the way they talk to each other all the time I had never heard such funny stuff in my life.
Some years passed and the gangster (who I took to calling my uncle as he was married to who I called my aunt and he was not connected so well to his own people) died and my aunt moved back to Detroit to be with her son (he wasn’t actually her son) and I had heard that she was ill and in a nursing home of some kind so I went to find her.

It was Detroit and some time in May I think still in the interminable winter that seized Detroit every year in those days cold and dark nothing growing no organic matter at all as far as I could tell but I did find a lone crocus grown in Canada at the corner grocery and I bought it and went searching for my aunt.

She was sharing a room with another lady and I swear I stared at them both and couldn’t tell which one was my aunt she had diminished so. They both were asleep I guess they call it and no doubt full of the drugs of quietude. It was her hair that gave her away to me. I never in my memory identified anybody by their hair this way but she was so different looking that it was her hair that gave her away.

I sat next to her bedside and she woke up and started talking to me in Yiddish. She thought I was my father and she kept calling me Harry and speaking to me in Yiddish and it was delicious being my father for a while as he had passed some years before.

I was my father for as long as she stayed awake and we talked about all the old people that she was remembering from when she was married the first time to Henry and had a store and so did my Dad and when she went back to sleep I left. I stayed somewhere near over night and came back for the last visit and she awakened again and spoke to me as my Dad and the crocus I had left there had bloomed. I kissed her on her head and said goodbye.

I told this story as we settled into the groove when we were playing music because her next husband – who my mother called a gangster — his name was another word for teaching in our language and that made the crazy segue to the last piece that S had taught this year something new that tied everything together and came from Onkelos who translated all the Hebrew into Aramaic and made the translation of the n-g-d verb into the Aramaic for teaching.

It wasn’t enough to tell it you had to tell the story in such a way that taught it so if you told it and it wasn’t understood it was not enough or if you told it in a different language it was not enough it had to be taught it had to be understood it had to be a teaching with real dialogue.

That was new to me and pulled it all together and after I had finished telling the story of visiting my aunt and all of them of so many years ago I felt a great satisfaction pulling it all together as I was about to make my freedom trip so I talked this piece out loud then I wrote it and we settled deeper into the music as throughout all this telling I had not stopped playing quietly on my instrument as if everyone were visiting me in my living room though it wasn’t.

In the end I mentioned that my uncle who was a gangster, his name means teaching, that’s the part that pulls it all together and why I called this piece the story of Passover and it’s important somehow in the deeper sense and I won’t say any more as who knows the Feds may still be interested as they swept down on my aunt after her husband died trying to track his untraceable assets and it took me ten years to tell the story at all much less mention any names. So I won’t. Besides, I’m not so clean myself if you know what I mean.

The holy Passover, 2016 from the Detroit Stories

Mystery Tale of the Sarajevo Haggadah

rabban gamaliel sarajevo

The Mystery Tale of The Sarajevo Haggadah in Dm — Bb

I am a book a telling
the tale, the story
this, then, the telling of the telling
distinguished I am by illuminations
drawn onto sienna red background
blue foreground, blue borders
I am the tale that begins with Creation
ending with the present
I am called Haggadah
which means a telling
the most celebrated Haggadah in the world
one of the most famous books in the world
I am the Sarajevo Haggadah.

I was created for a wealthy Castilian family in Barcelona
about 1350.
It is assumed I left Spain with the expulsion in 1492
then to Italy.
How I crossed the Adriatic to Bosnia Hercegovina
a mystery.
Mystery tale
and wonders
and signs.

I am 107 pages long hand written on vellum [calf skin]
similar to a Sefer Torah, the holy Bible
the first 34 pages are miniature paintings
painted on one side only
no bleeding through
my colors are bold blues sienna reds bright copper
the other 58 pages are hand written text
songs, poems, Biblical passages
the story of the story
told on Passover.

From marginal notations added to the text
I reveal that I was sold in northern Italy in August, 1510
then examined by an Italian ecclesiastical censor in 1609.
I crossed the Adriatic some time between then and 1894 —
when I was sold by the Jozef Kohen family
to the Sarajevo National Museum
for $7,000 —
In 1991 it was estimated I am worth $700 million.

In World War II, the Nazis came looking for me.
First they carried off 80 percent of Sarajevo’s 12,000 Jews
then they came looking for its soul.

The Catholic director of the National Museum deceived them
a Croat Jozo Petricevic and a Muslim librarian Dervis Korkut
hid me on a mountain
they buried me under an apple tree
Mount Bjelasnica.

I am I am I am one of the most beautiful books
in the world.
I am beautiful because I am colorful
I am old
I am beautiful because
I am an unlikely survivor.

I survived with part of my story
the telling of the telling is somewhat known.
There is nothing as dear
to me as survival.

I am the tale – without the telling, I am nothing
with the telling – I am everything. 
I am the secret of survival
the telling of the telling
freedom of freedom in freedom.

I have a hand-drawn quality
my words inscribed in bold Mediterranean posture
I am 650 years old more or less
my story however begins with Genesis
I conclude with the present —
that is, the whole story.

During the Bosnian War of 1990s
I was hidden then too
an explosion flooded a basement next to my hiding place
again I was saved.

I am presently kept in a bank vault in Sarajevo
I am wrapped in white tissue
I am in a sealed blue metal lock box.

In 2003, I was revealed to the public
in a secure climate controlled room
with documents — from the Bosnian Orthodox
from the Muslims from Catholic Bosnia —
a project of hope sponsored by the United Nations.

From Jakob Finci, president of the Jewish community of Bosnia-Herzegovina
in Sarajevo:
we can live together
we used to live together for centuries
let’s hope we can live together in the centuries ahead of us.
This country is divided in so many ways
only the opening of this room
brought them all together with one idea.

I am a symbol
a survivor
from the first Golden Age in Spain
I survived into a 2nd Golden Age
Yerushalayim chica
the little Jerusalem of Bosnia
I am a much more important story
than the world knows –

With this, I have given you
the telling of the telling
now you know.

Among all the mystery tales of my text
I survived:

A la una yo naci
I was born at 1 o’clock

a las dos m’engrandeci
at two I grew up

a las tres tomi amante
at three I took a lover

y a las cuatro me cazi
and at 4 I married

alma vida y corazon
soul, life, and heart.

The future belongs to the future
what to make of the past
memory ascending
exile descending
tearful triumphant romantic

night memory —

a whole life told in hours
an entire world told in stories
and always the great story
every thing contained in some thing
an entire life told in hours
a history in stories.

When the Jews leave a city,
the city is finally dead

Bosnian proverb.

The remnant – O God
preserve the remnant
so that no one will ever say
these holy prayers have perished
the ones who spoke them –

perished too.

james stone goodman


Shomeir Yisrael, O guardian of Israel
Project them, preserve the remnant
Alma Vida y Corazon
A La Una Yo Naci

Big Tent

Sarjevo haggadah

Story #41b

Just before Passover that year, the holiday changed character for me. I visited with a group of prisoners in an institution about an hour and a half drive from my home. I had been writing to this group for about three years. That’s how it started: I sent teachings to prison.

Who are these people? I had to find out. The prison system is often difficult to penetrate. I made a contact. Can I come visit?

“Oh yes,” the chaplain said, “We have a Jewish group that studies together once a week. They are waiting for you. They’ve been reading your materials.”

There was a load of equipment in the chapel for services and such -–
 amplifiers, microphones, six or seven decent guitars, a banjo — I grabbed a guitar and waited for my students.

At 1 PM they started coming in from the yard. There were 13 or 14 men, this was the group that studied together every week. They were currently learning a midrash on the book of Proverbs, one of their leaders had a yeshivah background.

Not all of them were Jewish but all were serious and well informed. “It’s prison,” one of them said to me, “we have time.”

We sat around a folding institution type table from 1 to 3:30. Nobody got up, not once, no one went to the bathroom, no one left the table to get a drink of water. Occasionally I added to the groove by picking up the guitar and singing a song, but mostly we sat and learned. We discussed a group of texts that I brought with me. I was allowed to bring papers but not books.

I brought teachings that presented the images of Passover in an almost entirely inward way, as if the freedom celebration was a ceremony of inner liberation, as if the story of Egypt and the Exodus was the story of escape from inner bondage, as if all the freedom lore of Pesach was a story ultimately of inner liberation. It began with Mitzrayim as narrows (Lam.1:3) and as a dual form, embodied, like ears like eyes like lips like hands like ourselves. I played a little Misirlou (Dick Dale version) for spice.

“It pertains to me,” one of the men said wistfully. All the heads wagged in agreement.

When we were done, I realized where we had been the last 2 1/2 hours. We had left our inner limitations, a place too small for us now. Nothing we studied was theoretical and I never felt the words before quite like this: in every generation, each person should feel as if he or she personally were released from Egypt.

We were talking freedom non-theoretical; what obstructs it, how we carry our narrows around with us, how we might go about becoming free in the real sense we can. All of us are prisoners of something. How we become free is an inside job.


Big Tent: the next step is to tell the stories.