I Remember

The week I am writing this we are remembering the 19th yahrzeit of Rav Shlomo Carlebach, who passed away the sixteenth of Cheshvan. For the last ten years or so, we have been celebrating his Yahrzeit with a Shlomuna, a concert remembering Reb Shlomo with his stories and songs. Reb Shlomo started out in St. Louis. He came here, I believe, in 1959, taught at the Hebrew Academy and did youth work for Young Israel. I think his first album was cut in St. Louis. When we do a concert in his honor, there is often someone in the audience who remembers being there with Shlomo in those early days. I learned the tunes from many sources. They were not the peppy, aiy bah bah cute tunes but the languorous inner tunes. I loved them more than the peppier ones because they left space for the singer to emerge, the heart of the singer to emerge, and sometimes the neshamah/soul. At the concert we dedicate to Reb Shlomo, I tell part of a story that I reserve for this event, a story called “How Shlomo Gave me My Name.” The story has evolved over the years into multiple chapters. It is a story that seems to be writing itself, from the center out. Someone in Israel who publishes a book of stories about Reb Shlomo picked up my stories and publishes another chapter of it every year now. The story sprouted another chapter this past year. I realized that the story has resisted entering the written tradition, it insists on remaining oral. I realized that when telling the story about the publishing of “How Shlomo Gave Me My Name,” the first one of my stories to be published. The story was published with a mistake in the names that the entire story turns on, an irony that I did not understand until the telling of the story one Saturday night some years ago, when I realized that my first story, the story I was telling, the story I love, How Shlomo Gave me My Name, would not pass from the oral to the written tradition. Because of an editorial error, the story was published in a virtually unintelligible form. It makes no sense in its written form.  Imagine: one of the first stories I had written that found a publisher, published with a mistake that makes it (almost) unintelligible. The story demanded that I tell it; it would not be written. What does this mean? I thought at first it was mocking me, my desire to be published at all, the necessity that the story should be anything other than a story that appears only when it is told. I asked myself: Is this a lesson about publishing, about control, about poor proof reading, ultimately about acceptance and release? There was nothing I could do about it, my work was published, it was published in such a way that it made so sense whatsoever, and there was not a single thing I could do about it. Maybe one thing. I could tell the story, which is what the story demanded in the first place. The story had now grown over the years into a complex tale with chapters, including the story of a street addict, the telling of tales,...

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The Maqam Project

The holidays early this year. Earliest since 1899 I heard. We did the holidays elegantly at the Covenant House where we meet for special events. This year I was joined by some of my young co-players, members of Brothers Lazaroff rocking roots band with whom I do the Salon at the Kranzberg Arts Center (October 8, Second Tuesdays, see www.neveshalom.org) and the Hanukkah Hullabaloo (this year Wednesday, December 4 at Plush). After Yom Kippur, fly out to San Diego to help my daughter move. Came back to Louis on Thursday, a gig in the Sukkah Saturday night, off to NYC on Sunday to do the gigs with Zackie. Sunday afternoon direct to the Brooklyn book festival where my other daughter’s magazine had a booth and I ran into my cousin and listened to one of my favorite poets. What am I doing in New York? Magic. Recording Genesis. That night a rehearsal with some of New York’s finest working musicians in this form we are playing. Flute, violin, hand percussion, oud. We laid down some tracks, did a little recording, a good rehearsal. We rehearsed the book of Genesis. I am working on a project with friends in New York City called The Maqam Project. My co-conspirators are Zach Fredman, formerly of St. Louis now rabbi of The New Shul in Manhattan, and his band called Epichorus. Zach conceived this project as an offering of his synagogue The New Shul. Each week we will post a piece on a variety of web sites. We are working the maqams. A maqam is a Jewish-Arabic musical form, a musical figure, similar to a mode, that is played as a kind of structure over which one improvises. Maqam means Place, Hebrew cognate maqom. In many of our middle eastern Jewish traditions, there is a maqam associated with every Torah portion. I have been writing poetry to the maqams of the Torah for the last four years. The maqams are patient, inwardly drawn, they are roomy enough for poetry. We worked the concept of the give-and-take between the music and the poetry. We recorded everything, video and audio. We recorded all over New York City, some in performance at homes in Chelsea, in the Village, some in Washington Square Park, some in a studio in Dumbo near the Brooklyn Navy Yard, some underneath the Brooklyn Bridge, a few in a music store dense with hanging instruments in the West Village. Generally we grabbed a piece of a tune, demonstrating the maqam with a deconstructed fragment of a longer piece, laid out a few taksim kind of improvisations, found a little groove to accompany me then I rise to give over the poetry. After some starts and stops, we entered the groove and it felt good, good to live there. The pieces I wrote from Genesis are generally a little longer than the other pieces I’ve prepared, so I divided many of them up into meaning segments. Two at the most, none of the pieces are that long. I started writing these pieces about four years ago. I posted the more refined pieces two years ago, in November of 2011, on various web sites calling it small alef poetry. There are about 127 pieces on my blog in the small alef poetry category.  This...

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Strategies for Living with Difficulties

JAMI – StL [Jewish Attention to Mental Illness/Mental Health] is a group founded in 2009 by myself and few other friends right after the High Holidays that year. Our first meeting was an open forum called Falling Through the Cracks about the place of mental health in the Jewish community agenda. We didn’t have a name yet; we called it the Jewish Mental Health Initiative. The first meeting took place at Congregation Neve Shalom on September 14, 2009. The purpose of the meeting was to keep mental health services and support central to the Jewish community agenda. We’re working at it. We had a nice group of attendees. I opened the meeting by articulating the following strategy: We are after a bottom up approach rather than a top down approach, intending for this initiative to be a creation of individual efforts, one at a time, a series of nexts. What’s next, then what’s next, etc. That’s what we’ve been doing. We now have two on-going support group meetings and a series of seminars for the community, the sixth one we just finished. This one was devoted to the subject of stress and unstress. I have a notion that stress and an organic way of releasing or lowering that threshold goes a long way to diminish the trigger that anxiety has on mental health. We taught strategies for letting go of the difficult drain on our equanimity that many situations draw out of our lives; equanimity — evenness of mind –especially under stress. We used a fanciful version of the serenity prayer to open the session, what I call the sanity prayer:             G*d, grant me the sanity             To accept the persons I cannot change             The courage to change the persons I can             And the rhythm to know it’s me. We then taught a variety of deep strategies, and we practiced some simple practices of accept and release based on nothing loftier than breath. We studied some of the deeper notions that will enable attendees to derive more from their days of Awe experience this year. This is the year 5774 since the creation of the world as we reckon time, signified by an attention to less preoccupations but with more depth, the four signifying the door through which we are passing into something new and individual. What is it for you? Identify that passageway, name it, move through. We taught a three or four simple meditation styles based on traditional Jewish spiritual resources. Many of the world’s great traditions have meditative techniques based on simple breathing. Through nothing loftier than our own breath, we are centered in the moment, for it is the virtue of breathing that sustains living moment to moment and brings us into the holy Present. We taught awakening to our living souls through the holiness of breath.  We practiced the breath techniques in order to bring the scattered mind home, with these techniques we begin to hear more, see more, and feel more. We begin to let loose of negativity. We come to feel acceptance and release, a letting go from the soul. It can be a great healing. We use healing in the context of repair and restoration, integration and wholeness. Healing is not necessarily curing. Healing is opening, integrating, reaching...

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In the House of G*d

Mr. B of the Clayton jail called to tell me he had an inmate requesting kosher food. Mr. B generally interviews those who request kosher generally he is suspicious. Oh yes, I know him I told Mr. B. He used to come by the Thursday night group for recovering addicts and he came to the synagogue too. Then he vanished. Well he’s here and he’s detoxing off of heroin I think. I hope you’ll give him some good kosher food while he’s coming down. You know him? Yes I know him. 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. 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 jailhouse, he said no just Christian. What do you mean? No Jewish prayers. No I said, I don’t mean prayer services. I know there are a lot of Christian prayer meetings in prison; I’m talking about AA meetings, NA meetings. Oh, I don’t know, he said. I realized then that for him Judaism was his program. That’s backwards. Sobriety is your religion now, I said, recovery. AA is your religion NA, get yourself to meetings. 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, in English, 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. G*d 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 him a foot away and I chanted some healing prayers naming him and his mother and praying for his complete healing. Thank you, he said, he thanked me again. Say it again? He asked. I did. Several more times. The next time I saw him...

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Saving Lives

This Is What We Do When We Are Saving Lives We opened with the preamble written for the group, in part this: Welcome to The Shalvah Program of Congregation Neve Shalom. Shalvah means “serenity” in Hebrew.   Shalvah is dedicated to teaching the strategies to help individuals, their families, friends, and communities, work themselves free of the problems associated with addiction. Shalvah teaches an integrated approach, combining spiritual and psychological resources, acting as a bridge between the recovery model and the daily spiritual remedies of Judaism and other traditions. Shalvah was organized in 1998 as a project of Congregation Neve Shalom, to claim the healing work of recovery for the synagogue.   The purpose of this meeting is to connect traditional spiritual resources with the Twelve Step model.   There are no rules, only guidelines. We try to allow participants to do their own work and talk through their stories in their own ways. We are not here to give advice, we believe if we trust the process, the room we create for the truth to rise is always helpful.   We have an hour for speakers, teachings, sharing, and let us also welcome silence. We will consider silence a form of meditation or prayer.   We will use only first names here, and as always, we respect confidentiality. What we say here will need to stay here.   Our speaker that night was N who in a week will celebrate thirty two years of sobriety.  I first met him when I was working at the hospital where he went for treatment. He told a fearsome story; low bottom, many serious suicide attempts, complete physical and spiritual dissolution. He came to the crossroads: life or death. He chose life, went into treatment and next week he will celebrate thirty two years.   It was the dance with suicide that many in the group picked up on. There was much to say about suicidal thoughts that night.   N said in his lead: I committed suicide incrementally by booze and drugs for years. One night I went into the bath tub, thought I would just lay me down into the water, take a few gulps and breaths, a peaceful death. It wasn’t like that. My body fought me and I couldn’t do it.   I even asked this guy I knew to borrow his gun, N said. Yeah, imagine, with my history of drugs and alcohol; do you mind if I borrow your gun for a night?   A sister of someone in the group did get a gun and she’s gone. I wondered how this was playing in his mind. When he spoke: not a good day for me. Thoughts of suicide. Depression. Couldn’t get myself up and going. Didn’t make my appointments today. That’s today. Tomorrow another day. Glad I’m here.   Many in the group talked about the hope in N’s story. So low, thirty two years later he has a life. I have a great life, N said, a wonderful wife, good work, many friends, and I put my sobriety before everything. The program is first for me. Everything follows from that. Service. That’s the first thing for me now: to help somebody else. I do a lot of that, I think.   He closed with...

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I Love You and Nothing You Do Can Change That

Rabbi Akiva told me, this is a major rule in the Torah: love your friend as [you love] yourself.     — Leviticus19:18 Rashi added, of course the person has to be worthy. Menachem Mendel of Vorki, added, go beyond the love of others, extend it to yourself, love yourself more. Ramban contributed this: it’s exaggerated language. So exaggerate it to yourself. Love yourself. If you can’t, let the group love you. Let the group love you until you can love yourself.Behold another teaching that pertains to the group that meets every Thursday night and in the group are mostly recovering drug addicts and alcoholics. The group has been meeting, with some interruptions, since 1981. In 1981, I came to St. Louis and waiting for me was Rose Mass, who was putting together a program to help Jews get sober and stay sober. We called it SLICHA, the St. Louis Information Committee and Hotline on Addiction. It was a radical effort in those days. Rose hung out a shingle and began seeing families as a therapist. She knew that our people were way behind on recovery, we were about even with incidence of alcoholism. Our obstacle was the shonda factor, the great shame associated with alcohol and other substance abuse among Jews. A social control that may once have protected us from the problem became an obstacle to accessing proven paths of recovery. All we had to do was start talking about it. I spoke about it from the pulpit. Rose and I convened a monthly informational meeting that we advertised and held in the Chai building where the program, now called Shalvah, presently meets. Denial, the shonda factor, was a great hindrance to asking for help. We had to be patient. We met for about a year, Rose and I, perfecting our presentation by giving it to each other. After about a year, the gates opened and a flood of people started coming, asking for help and they’re coming still. I imagine a thousand people have been through our doors over the years. What is it we offer? A community of understanding, support I guess it’s called, from people who have been there who really understand the problem and are driven to return something of what they have been given. Who supports us? We support ourselves. That’s always the point. It works like any of the Anonymous groups, we practice acceptance and surrender and we love each other well. We also don’t take any stuff; it’s hard to kid the kidders. We know better. We teach responsibility and the necessity to get well one step at a time, one day at a time. We teach a spiritual healing, from the inside out, a personal transformation that eclipses the problem. We do not judge. Shalvah means serenity in Hebrew and that’s what we teach. We teach recovery, repair, restoration, from the inside out. We teach a personal relationship with G*d of individual understanding. I love you, says your G*d, and nothing can change that. Shalvah meets every Thursday night, 7 – 8 PM, at Congregation Neve Shalom, in the Chai Building, #6 Millstone Campus Drive, Suite 3050, 63146. As always, confidentiality will be well...

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