Plain in the city

A plain Quaker folk singer with a Juris Doctorate in his back pocket, salt in his blood, and a set of currach oars in the closet, Ulleann Pipes under his arm, guitar on his back, Anglo Irish baggage, wandering through New York City ... in constant amaze. Statement of Faithfulness. As a member of the Quaker Bloggers Ad Hoc Committee I affirm that I will be faithful to the Book of Discipline of my Meeting 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Art inside and out

There are two kinds of artists ... in one way to look at the world. There is the insider artist, Rembrant (when he was young) Ansel Adams, Edward Stiechen, they made pictures that the insider community understood right off and bought in their life time. Then there is the outsider artist. Diane Arbus, Vincent Van Gogh, Jackson Pollack, Phil Ochs. They told their story of the margin from the outside. They got their voice by the pain that was caused them ... from so many sources. It takes a lot to see in the special hard to see light of the margins. Sometimes you need to be really hated by family, need to be alone, and be able to love the way only the unloved can. Then, just as Rembrant knew what to sell and when, you have to know when your work is done. When you have shown enough pain, and joy and wonder, and also know that you are not meant to benefit from your work, as those who might see something in it, will not see what you saw ... this is why so many like Diana Arbus became known after their death. They did not know how to get those who did not get them in life, to get them until they knew their work was done and gave it to the folks how hated them in life.

Allan and Joyce

Amy cleaning the ink off Jewels

Crane v Cab Assitant Chief



Young gentlemen of Williamsburg

The trick for those of us on the outside, is not in knowing what to say, but in knowing when to go.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Walking with Hillel and Yeshua on a journey to divide commentary from Torah

Crossing the Williamsburg Bridge

I've not been writing much these days. More than the struggle to get the computer to work... I have been looking and listening ... and walking. An email from my dear dear fFriend Pam made me feel I have neglected fFriends in not writing for a while, and I know how I worry about some friends when they are not writing...

I've been working on my journalistic photographs, street fights, arrests, overdoses, and gentle young people living in the park. But, I am also drawn away, drawn to a peaceful place, a walk often of almost eight miles round trip, to another world, another pace at which people live and work, I am drawn to Williamsburg ... where I am finding Satmar Hassidim.

Coming to Lee Avenue is like, in many ways, spending time among the old order Amish and Plain Mennonites ... but not quite. There is a huge difference. In one of my many conversations in Williamsburg, on finding that my mother's mother was a nonobservant Jew, he asked me what my Hebrew name was.

"Oh, I haven't got one." I told him. We had been speaking about Jewish and Satmar history.

"Sure you do. You read the bible ... what is the first name that comes to mind?"

Without a moment's hesitation I said, "Hillel."

"There you are. Your Hebrew name is Hillel."

Naming is a powerful thing. Naming is claiming, and in this, without meaning to, I had claimed a little bit of my mother's tribe, and had been claimed by that tribe. But more, in that moment of asking who do I think of when I think of my relation to the Bible, I found I was claiming some of my self.

Why Hill el? Hillel said, "Do nothing to another, that which is abhorrent to thyself, that is the Torah and all the rest is commentary." All the rest is commentary is what makes the difference between sojourning among deeply observant Jews and most other people. All the rest is commentary accepts thee and me as equal in the sight of God, something other faiths sometimes do not do.

In these times of the fourth wave of Christian fundamentalism, when some in the Religious Society of Friends speak of the need to again split, I think of Hillel saying, the rest is commentary. We are living in times which can weigh heavy on the soul. The Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, my wife's church, has allowed for a prayer abandoned after Vatican II calling for the Jewish people to convert. I have heard Quaker pastors speak of Judaism as an unfinished faith. I have heard Friends question if we Quakers all can worship together if some worship a God complete without a unique relationship to Jesus Christ and some worship the "truth that Jesus is the salvation of humanity."

This is a profound difference. I have not ever heard a Satmar Hassid say that God has made heaven for the Satmars, or Jews alone. Rather, well, be righteous, love God with all your heart, be humble, and do nothing to another that is abhorrent to thee ... the commentary does not get you into heaven anymore than wearing our dark clothes and broad brimmed hats...

I think there is more than wisdom in this, there is truth. We approach that of God within us, when we are complete in acceptance of God in others. This does not mean that all religions are true. Rather, when we deny the truth in others, we loose the truth in ourselves.

Some point to miracles to prove their faith. Some say, "I know" ( on the basis of human art, books which have been copied, edited, fought over), "that Jesus literally raised the dead, and this proves he alone can show me the road to heaven."

The miracles which speak to me are gentler, and for me, at least, more easy to prove. God, one day, seemed to break the covenant, and factories of death were built in Europe in the middle of the last century. And as they did, in the face of thousands of years of being the object of genocide, Jewish people did not loose their faith. They loved God with all their hearts and hold as the central statement of their faith to do to others nothing that is abhorrent to themselves. Such is the miracle of Mary Dyer walking with confidence to her execution, or Tom Fox saying that he would not want to be rescued by violent actions.

This is not to say that any of us live our faith to perfection. Today, as I sat with my cousin and a friend of his in a cafe in Williamsburg, Jacob, a Hassid and funny force of nature of a man, sat down with us, and introduced himself by saying, "So, you have come to see the Hassids! Well, we are some of us good people, some of us crooks, some of us crazy ... just like everyone else." He proceeded to take us around, in and out of shops showing us wonderful things. He asked me if I had ever seen a Kosher hardware store. I had not, and could not imagine what he meant.

He breezed us past the cashier, "They are on a tour!" he called to the fellow ... and took us through the shop showing us candles, and other things to make a home ready for worship. This, he explained did not make the shop Kosher. He took us to the back of the store, where to my amazement, there was a bath, like some I had seen in photographs of archeological digs in the middle east. It was deep, and fed by rain water from the roof, and kept circulating like a natural stream. "When you buy dishes or eating utensils," he explained, "they are dipped into the water to wash them, to make them kosher."

As you keep the little laws, you keep the big ones. It is not my plain clothes that keep me on a path to a righteous life, it is that they remind me of where the path is found.


For me, the path to being a Quaker Quaker, as a fFriend says on his blog... is to not have to deny the completeness of the path of others. It is not to fortress ourselves in the conclusions of past Friends, but rather learn and seek new light which leads us to the true worship of God, that worship which accepts God's work and God's light in others.

In these days of new fundamentalism, I sometimes see evangelists trailing along next to Hassids, who are politely, but firmly not wishing to be evangelized to... One I heard saying, "But what if you are wrong?" I felt a deep sense of emptiness for that woman. I felt I should say to her, "Stop speaking at these people and listen awhile! They might well show thee ways THEE has been blind to God, blind to the God who speaks to us the same message in many languages ... do nothing to another ... the rest is commentary."

In the park with Papa - Shabbat in Williamsburg

I have nothing to teach this child about God. I have much to learn by accepting that God speaks the complete truth to her and her people as much as he spoke to George Fox, and to me in the moments of my convincement.

Dear love to all the fFriends I have neglected in my sojourning.