By Roshi Grover Genro Gauntt
A talk given at Upaya Zen Center on September 28, 2015
Transcribed by Scott Harris, Photos by Jesse Jiryu Davis
Genro: Good evening everybody. It’s lovely to be here, lovely to be here with you. And this room, the energy during zazen—good work. It feels great.
Joshin mentioned that I’m here because we’re doing a Bearing Witness retreat tomorrow in Albuquerque. And the whole idea of bearing witness came out of Bernie Tetsugen Glassman Roshi’s practice. Back when he was in college—he did his graduate work at UCLA, in Los Angeles, got a doctorate in mathematics. And when he was there, before he dreamed of Zen practice, he realized that he wanted to do three things. He wanted to start a monastery, somewhere. I’m not sure he knew what tradition he wanted to be in, but he wanted to start a monastery. And he wanted to be a clown. And he wanted to live on the streets as a homeless person. And he’s managed to do all of them.
His early practice at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, which started in about 1967 with Maezumi Roshi . . . His doctorate at UCLA was in mathematics. And the Zen Center wasn’t up to full speed yet. It was still growing. And so he would work during the day. And during the day he was in charge of the manned mission to Mars project at McDonnell-Douglas. So they say you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to be a Zen person, but he was.
When he left the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1980 or so, he came to New York, started a Zen community, and quickly sort of revolutionized Zen practice. Because it became clear to him rather quickly that Zen shouldn’t be practiced only in a meditation hall, only in the temple—that in order to really manifest it, we need to really manifest it in our daily lives, in service to all beings.
If our practice is to realize the oneness and the wholeness of life, and that we’re really one with all beings, then we have to take care of them. We have to serve them—that’s everybody, including our self.
So, he quickly started engaged practice there. Started a bakery employing formerly unemployed persons, people that were actually coming out of jails. And that model is now a major model being studied in business schools in the United States, around the world—a model called open hiring. Where when somebody comes to your company, and they want a job, you don’t say, “Well, where’s your résumé? What’s your history of work?” They say, “Sure. If we’ve got a position, you can work for us.” That’s open hiring. It just means you can begin right now, if you’ve got the most minimal qualifications, like you’re physically able to do it. And they were taking people right out of jail, a lot of homeless people who had never had jobs before. Those are the people that are making the fudge in Ben and Jerry’s Fudge Brownies. They’re now making four million pounds a year, and increasing.
And then in 1994, it was going to be his 55th birthday—something like that, and he decided he wanted to change his practice. Bernie’s always great, one of the most dedicated practitioners I’ve ever known, and one of the most dedicated people to forms I’ve ever seen. But he loves to blow them up, and blow them away, and change them. And he realized he wanted to change his practice. So he thought the best way to do that would be to go to Washington, DC in January, for his birthday, which was the 18th of January, and live on the streets for four days, and see what happened, see what ideas came up. So there were about fifteen people with him, maybe twenty, and they did that. And at the end of that retreat he decided he wanted to start the Zen Peacemaker Order, an organization based on Zen practice and service of all beings, social service. That wasn’t the first Street Retreat. Actually he’d done one in New York.
And then very quickly, we did an Auschwitz retreat in 1996. And that retreat has been going on since 1996. And this year will be the twentieth, which will also coincide with the seventy-fifth anniversary of the liberation of the camp, which was in January of 1945.
So what’s bearing witness really about?
Dogen Zenji, his famous quote is, “To study Buddhism is to study the self. And to study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things. And to be enlightened by all things is to remove all barriers between your self and everything else.” That’s our practice.
But Bernie was trying to figure out how to do it faster than thirty years of meditation in the zendo. So he came up with bearing witness. And bearing witness, whether they be Street Retreats, or Bearing Witness Retreats that we do in Auschwitz, or Rwanda, or we’re going to be in Croatia in May, I’ll be in Greece in May also, in the Black Hills . . . wherever, and however, in the Congo probably coming up . . . Wherever and however we do it, it’s an upaya. It’s an upaya. And of course all of you from Upaya know what that means. It’s a skillful means to raise the bodhi mind, to raise the enlightened mind.
And so one of the ways a Bearing Witness Retreat is called is a plunge. So when you plunge into the water, you don’t put your feet in just a little bit, and test it, and see “Is it warm enough? Can I really get my feet in there? Do I want to go in as far as my knee or my hip?” No, you just PFFFF! You just go in.
So at Auschwitz . . . How many have been on the Auschwitz Retreat? Let’s see all your hands. Good, that’s good. So come this year. There’s still places. And we’ll be there from November 2nd to November 6th. So Auschwitz—everybody’s got some sort of gut-feel for what Auschwitz is, some deep psychic buzz about what that is. And when we go to Auschwitz, the first day is sort of doing museum kind of things. But this museum is not built to shock you out of your normal consciousness, but that’s what it does. You see a couple movies that are just awful—about how the camps were operating, and what they found when they liberated them. There were film crews. So you could see the bodies, and the people absolutely emaciated, hundreds of little children no bigger than this <gestures> who were leaving their barracks because they were to be experimented on by Dr. Mengele. Horrible things. And of course if anybody knows anything about Auschwitz, they have these places where you can see tons of human hair that was collected, and suitcases, and all the human things that people brought with them because they thought this was just simply a transport camp—where they would be moved to some place where they would have farms, and their homes and communities again.
I’ve been there more than twenty times. And whenever I do that walk through these archives of human suffering, I find myself in a state where my mind doesn’t work anymore. I can’t grasp anything. The thought process sort of breaks down because it’s impossible for any of us as human beings to imagine even one person being killed. Really. Although we hear it on the news all the time, that’s not real for us. We’ve allowed ourselves to be immune to that. But if we really know somebody who is killed, or it happens closely, or we’re in an area where that happened, it breaks us down. We can’t take it. And then multiply that by a million and a half, and the mind doesn’t work anymore.
That’s where we get to the place that’s the first of the three tenets of the Zen Peacemakers, and of Bearing Witness Retreats—that’s not knowing. Not knowing. You don’t have to work at not knowing. In these places not knowing happens to you.
Then from that place of not knowing—that means a clear mind in a sense, it’s not cloudy because there’s so much pain. It’s just sort of cleared up. It’s like wiping your screen of all the dust and stain, and suddenly there’s a new faculty that can see clearly. From that place of not knowing, then we can bear witness. That means that we can see what is. See things as they actually are.
I was talking to friends last night. And I said you know, every day as we’re getting ready to go to work, or school, or whatever it is we’re doing to be residents and practitioners here at Upaya, we’re standing in front of the mirror, washing our face, combing our hair, doing all that, and we’re looking in the mirror. And make faces, you know, whatever we do. Clean out teeth and we walk away from the mirror thinking we know what we look like. But the truth is, that’s not how we look. Nobody sees us that way. They don’t see that person making faces in the mirror that we think we are every day. We’re a total mystery as to what we look like. We cover our perception with all kinds of assumptions and judgments, conclusions, and we just can’t see anything as it is. What is everything as it is?
There’s a line in the Jewish Kaddish, the memorial poem that says, “This is the divine presence here and now.” This is the divine presence here and now.
That’s our life. That’s our life, moment to moment. Our life is nothing but the life of the divinity, however you call it. You call it Krishna, or Rama, or Buddha, or Christ, or God, or the Creator, or Tunkashila Wakan Tanka—they’re all the divine presence here and now. That’s what we see when our minds are clear.
Then seeing life as it is, seeing things happening as they’re happening—our compassionate mind, which is the function of wisdom (Wisdom does not exist apart from compassion. They’re not two things. They’re only one thing.), wisdom is knowing that everything is me. Everything is you.
If you know that, then you have to be compassionate, to take good care of yourself. How often do you say to people, “Take good care of yourself”? What are you really saying? Take good care of the entire universe. Take good care of everything you see, and everything you can’t.
That happens, and that results as loving actions, or actions that come up out of bearing witness. Our whole lives moment to moment, one way or another are not knowing, bearing witness, and loving action. That’s just the way we live.
Now what we notice is the mind going, and going, “Man, I didn’t do that right. I should have helped that person, but I didn’t.” That’s what we’re hearing. But it’s all happening all the time.
You chant the En Mei Jukku Kannon Gyo here, probably daily. Is that right?
Namu Butsu Yo
En Yo Butsu U
En Bu Po So En
Jo Raku Ga
Jo Cho Nen Kanzeon Bo Nen
Kanzeon Nen Nen
Ju Shin Ki Nen Nen
Fu Ri Shin
What does that say? It say’s everything is nothing but the divine presence here and now. That’s what it says. Everything is the functioning of compassion.
So we chant these things in zendos, and in monasteries, in churches and temples all the time. What are they trying to tell us? This is it. This is it. Let’s live like that.
Let’s live like that. Let’s have enormous compassion and love for everything around us, because you are my life. You are my life.
So Street Retreats, which a few of you have on your mind right now a little more than others . . . Who’s going on the Street Retreat? Good. Let me just see. Keep ’em up. Yay! Good. Good. OK, Thank you. So bearing witness on the streets is a plunge into the life on the streets. But it’s really not a problem. I know people if they’ve never done this before—even some who have—are kind of frightened. What’s it gonna be like out there with those crazy homeless people? Right? What’s it gonna be like with no money, no credit card, no toothbrush, none of my normal conveniences, sleeping outside? Oh my God.
It’s really not a problem. And here’s the key— have no expectations. And that’s it. If you have no expectations, there’s no problem. You can’t be disappointed. You can’t be surprised. You can walk on with this mind of “Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” Compassion.
That’s the compassionate mind. It’s tranquil. It doesn’t care about what’s happening next. Nothing’s happening next. This is it. Right? Moment to moment—this is it. There’s nothing next. What happens next? Nothing really, this is it.
So if we could really just—getting ready for this retreat—just be where we are, take care of our life as it is, right where we are, it all just rolls out by itself without our worry, or without our anticipation. And you’ll find that to be true. It’s actually a real experience of the divine presence here and now.
It’s so much fun, I can’t tell you. If people really knew how much fun it was—seriously—we’d have to like do them in every city twenty times a year. Because there would be so many people who want to come. This, it’s really fabulous. I love it. I love it.
Yeah. No cellphones, no telephones, no computers. It’s all gone. Nobody trying to find us, because they can’t. People say, “Well, where do we meet you out there?” I don’t know where we’re gonna be. We’re just gonna be where we are.
Time to see where we are, and actually look around. We’re not walking down the street to something. We’re just walking. And when you do that, you can look and like, “Wow, look at that light! It’s so beautiful. How did they decide how to do that?” And you can just . . . Details everywhere are just, ah, everything looks fabulous because you can see it. You’re not thinking about something else. You’re just where you are.
It’s giving yourself a chance to live like the Buddha, or like an enlightened lady. People are terrified that the homeless people are gonna go, “Oh, you’re not really homeless. You’re just masquerading.” Because we think, “Is this a charade? I’m not homeless.” Yes you are. When you’re out there, you are homeless.
We don’t know what’s going to happen in the next moment. So we’ve taken on this homeless identity. What if everything changes when we’re out there tomorrow? What if the government comes down, and nobody has any possessions, or any property anymore, the state just like takes it all? Nobody has homes anymore. That could happen. We don’t know.
That would be OK too, because one of the things that we find out when we’re on the streets is that you don’t have to kill yourself when all your stuff is gone. You can lose all your money, your home, your possessions, everything. And it’s OK, because I can survive out here. There’s actually food. There’s actually shelter if you need it. Everything you need, doctors, nurses, dentists, toothbrushes, it’s all there.
But in our normal life we’ve got all this stuff, and all these defenses, and all this money that gets between us and anybody we’re transacting with. Right? You don’t have to have a relationship with anybody when you’ve got money, because they’ve got to take your money and be nice to you.
When you don’t have money, it’s a whole different thing. You have to be nice to everybody so they’ll be nice to you. But it just happens that way.
Oh, and I wanted to finish the point about masquerading. So the homeless people go, “What are you doing?” You know, if they do. They’ve usually got so many of their own problems, they don’t care about yours. Seriously, so you don’t have to worry about that. But you just say, “I’m on a homeless retreat. We’re out here with a spiritual group, and we’re out here for four days experiencing homelessness.” And what do they say? “Wow. That’s so nice.” They’re totally grateful that we take the time, and the opportunity to be with them, to honor them as human beings, to walk a few miles in their shoes, to talk to them, to look in their eyes and acknowledge them as human beings—which nobody does, because what if you look in the eyes of a homeless person when you’re walking by? They’re gonna ask you for money, man. And you’re gonna have to go, “Oh, sorry.” Right? Or whatever you do.
So, we don’t have that block, because we don’t have any money to give them. So we have to say, “Hi. Sorry man, I don’t have any money,” or whatever it is, and actually maybe get in a relationship. And what do we find out? They’re human beings just like us, with stories that got them there. And everyone is different.
There’s no such thing as the homeless. No such thing as the homeless. Everyone is a beautiful individual just like us. All have their stories. All absolutely should be honored with our love and presence, as we find out.
(To be continued with questions and answers from the audience in Part 2)
Zen Peacemakers Street Retreats are planned in many cities around the world. JOIN A STREET RETREAT IN 2016
The next time you pass a panhandler on the street that looks like Richard Gere, pause and take a closer look because it may actuallybe Richard Gere. Earlier this year, the 65-year-old actor spent several weeks on the New York streets shooting Time Out of Mind, in which he plays an elderly alcoholic who becomes part of the city’s homeless population. Wearing a black-knit winter hat and clutching an empty coffee cup, Gere approached actual passers-by and asked for spare change while director Oren Moverman (Rampart, The Messenger) filmed the interactions, often from a block away. And, amazingly enough, nobody recognized him.
Well…almost nobody. “There were two or three times where someone talked to me on the street,” Gere remarked at a press conference following a New York Film Festival screening of Time Out of Mind on Thursday. “One was a French tourist, a woman, who totally thought I was a homeless guy and gave me some food. The other two times were African-Americans and they just passed me and went, ‘Hey Rich, how you doin’ man?’ No question about what I was doing there or ‘Have you fallen on hard times?’ and ‘What happened to your career?’ Just “Hey Rich, how you doin’ man,” and they just continued on.”
For the most part, though, people barely looked at Gere, and that was precisely the non-reaction he needed to get into character. “I think we all have a yearning to be known and be seen,” he explains. “I come here and you want to hear what I want to say. But I’m the same guy that I was on the street and no one wanted to hear his story. I could see how quickly we can all descend into [scary] territory when we’re totally cut loose from all of our connections to people.” Here are five other things we learned about Time Out of Mind — which is currently without a distributor — from Gere and Moverman’s press conference.
The movie has been almost 30 years in the making
Gere remembers receiving the script for what became Time Out of Mind a decade ago, but it apparently had been kicking around Hollywood a long while before that. “It was written in the late ’80s, but a lot of it was still relevant ten years ago,” says the actor, who has been a longtime supporter of the New York organization, Coalition For the Homeless. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind and I bought it.” After befriending Moverman on the set of Todd Haynes’s 2007 Bob Dylan non-biopic, I’m Not There (which Moverman cowrote), Gere decided he had found the right collaborator to finally make the project a reality. “There was a book [Land of Lost Souls] by a guy named the Cadillac Man, a homeless man. It was a very unschooled autobiography, but it was by someone who was able to communicate his world. I knew this was the way it should feel, so Oren and I started talking about this film with that point-of-view…. What wasn’t clocking with me until I read Oren’s first draft is the sense of process being the movie. The process of [this character] going through the bureaucracy is enough plot — you don’t need to pump it up. Life itself, without any dramaturgy, is enough.”
There was no plan B
Because the entire production hinged on its star being able to panhandle on the street without attracting a crowd, he and Moverman did a test shoot before production began, with Gere wandering around the Astor Place section of Manhattan while his director filmed him from inside a Starbucks. “I’m out there and I was a little scared and anxious,” Gere recalled. “And nobody saw me! I started approaching people and asking, ‘Can you help me out, spare some change.’ There was no eye contact, even when someone gave me a dollar bill. That was the first time I really felt what that [experience] is.” As nerve-wracking as that trial run was, it gave both the director and his lead actor the confidence to proceed. “The whole thing was predicated on the idea that, for a lot of this, I would be on the streets and New York would be passing me by. If that didn’t work, I don’t know what we would have done.”
From the blog of Uri Ayalon
translated by Ruth Bar-Eden
My father thinks I’m crazy. That’s nothing new. Only a crazy person could claim that capitalism is not a directive from heaven; that giving and sharing are man’s basic instincts; and that a life of self-examination, study, and change are better than a life of habit and comfort.
On Yom Kippur I went on a journey in the southern part of Tel-Aviv with no money, no mobile, and no sleeping bag, and with a group of twenty other crazy people (led by Rabbi Ohad Ezrachi and Zen teacher Bernie Glassman, may they each live long years for the magic they bring to this world with courage and humility), who gathered for three days of homelessness–by–choice. What a strange choice: Those with a home, food and money are playing a game of poverty and begging? Les miserables de-shmates.
Yes, how important it is to let go of privilege once in a while. How important to let go in general, to reveal the abundance that lies just beyond the mountains of fear. I already knew that the detritus from our culture of excess feeds different lifestyles, but what I learned about in this journey is the texture of the garbage, walking in it barefoot, being touched by it to the very core. Smelling it, drinking it, and not running away.
On the first evening I went to get French fries in the restaurants of the Central Bus Station. There I met Sharon: born in Georgia, formerly of the USSR, studied medicine, and found herself on the streets due to a combination of schizophrenia, drug and alcohol addiction, and a love story that turned into a war. Her daughter was taken from her by child protective services at the age of four. Now she’s pregnant again, carrying the child of a Sudanese. She accompanied us throughout the days with captivating humor and intelligence, taught us the location of the fountain with the best water and where we would find cartons to use as mattresses.
Yasser from Sudan joined us, completely drunk. Shachar is an Ethiopian who hates all whites and therefore feels at home only in Lewinski Park [center of the area occupied by African migrants]. Yael was raped by her brother when she was 12 and then thrown out of her home by her shamefaced family. On a night tour I saw the prostitutes in the street. Shriveled due to heroin, they looked so old and snuffed out that my heart went out to them and their lost clients.
How does my work, my life’s mission, answer Sharon’s needs, Yasser’s, Yael’s? My friend Omer, a lawyer, used to ask me this question, emphasizing that his work at least brings about the release from custody of about two Africans on average each week. And what do I do? Play at building models? Hope or believe that thirty people living in peace, truth and trust can change this world?
During this weekend I saw the end of the road: the dead-end of the age of capitalism and the nationalist country. I am delusional and crazy and naïve and pathetic, but I’m also really curious to understand the logic that transformed southern Tel-Aviv into Little Africa. What are our social, health and cultural services that brought them here? What is the resolution to this complex situation other than rebuilding from scratch the entire system—borders, values, social structures? You who are corrupt, you’ve become abhorrent! It’s time for a total change.
Together with Sharon, we were the only whites in a radius of miles. On the eve of Yom Kippur, this most holy and sanctified day, I walked into a neighborhood synagogue in Lewinski Park, which has become a home for me (in fact, going to the fancy Rothschild Boulevard was a real challenge), and in that synagogue, of all places, I again witnessed verbal violence (editor note: an altercation occurred when the cantor arrived 30 minutes after the service started. The man substituting for the cantor yelled at the cantor for coming late. The cantor yelled at the man for starting the service too early. This continued for about 15 minutes.) surrounding rules and formalities between the cantor and the other congregants. I felt much less welcome there than in the Park’s corner.
On this Yom Kippur I found myself broken, crying, shattered. And this is one of the gifts I take with me from this journey—not only a renewed faith in the mandate to create a socio-economic model for a new kind of society, a viable alternative to our current drowning one; not only an improved awareness that I can live without the addictions and fears that have previously attached themselves to me; not only the ever-deepening love of the community and the magic it offers (the courage to cross boundaries, together)—I remain with this gift of the broken heart.
I suspend the rage and befriend the pain. I remain in the place of not-knowing which contains the suffering, pain, and injustice.
And I continue on.
Together with them.
To read a more detailed view of this street retreat, link here.Learn More
This Yom Kippur I won’t be in synagogue.
The day before the holiday a group of people, invited by Rabbi Ohad Ezrachi, a friend and teacher, and the Zen teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman, gathered in the streets of south Tel-Aviv, in Lewinski Park. We stayed there without phones, money, identification papers or possessions save the clothes we wore.
People dear to me asked if I was crazy: What are you doing this for? Be careful not to catch polio. Are you normal? It’s dangerous out there … I asked myself the same questions, and more. It was called a retreat, a time for practice. What do you practice in the streets?
Thirty years ago, Bernie Glassman decided that teaching Zen in a monastery was not enough. He went out with several of his students to the streets of New York to meet the homeless and bear witness to their lives. Later they developed a project, including a bakery that employed homeless persons and homes where they could live. The project was a big success.
Bernie teaches his students three principles:
1. Not Knowing: the willingness to leave behind all the ideas you had about a situation and approaching it as an empty vessel.
2. Bearing Witness: being in the moment, place, or situation as a witness who experiences, feels and absorbs as much as possible on all levels: What is happening in me and around me, what is happening in the interactive space between my surroundings and myself? At some point the question comes up: Is there a difference between me and the other, and who is the other inside me, the parts which I push aside, ignore, refuse to see or relate to, etc.
3. Loving action, or right action, which arises naturally from bearing witness, from experiencing, feeling and understanding in depth that which is happening. And maybe it does not arise.
Ohad timed this retreat for Yom Kippur because the situation in south Tel-Aviv reminds him of the ritual scapegoat used in this holiday. On this day in the distant past, all the sins of the people of Israel were thrust upon a single goat that would then be sent into the desert, where it would die. That is how our forefathers symbolically got rid of their sins on Yom Kippur. The scapegoats of Israeli society, those who remind us of the sins of not caring, ignoring, and lack of compassion, are around the Central Bus Station of today’s Tel-Aviv. Coincidently or not, most of them are also black.
I arrive with 7 shekels change. Strangely, I’ve been inside the station maybe once or twice in my whole life, and then just for a few minutes. This time, I have time. I feel like a tourist watching how everything is now out of my reach. Coffee costs 7 shekels, a much yearned-for bathroom costs 1, guarded by a terrifying iron gate. Later we find out that there are also free bathrooms, not as clean and more crowded.
I give away my last shekels and join the group gathering outside. A summer afternoon in Tel-Aviv. Hot. Very. We compare what each one has brought along: a warm scarf for the night, a kaffiya. There’s joy at seeing faces of familiar people and at the opportunity to spend time with others I hardly know. Curiosity, excitement, and a sense of adventure …
We leave for Lewinski Park close to the station, walk a bit, and suddenly notice that the great majority of the people in the street are black. Sitting in the opening circle, we are given our instructions, which are to go out in pairs or threes, preferably with people we don’t know, watch and observe everything around us, and come back after a few hours with food for dinner.
I walk together with a lovely young woman and a man, feeling how important a male presence is for my sense of safety. There are mixed feelings. On one hand, there’s a sense of wonderful freedom: no handbag, purse, mobile phone, car key, or anything else that can be lost or taken in a moment. What freedom and lightness! On the other hand, the Lewinski market is tempting with its stalls of fresh and dried fruits, bakeries and cafés, all out of reach. Quickly I discover survival skills. I take an empty bottle from the plastic recycling container and fill it with water from the water fountain. It’s hot. I search for fruit that may have fallen from the stalls. Is there fresh food in the garbage bins?
Bernie said to ask everyone for a handout instead of trying to figure out ahead of time who will or won’t give. I walk into an electrical appliance store and an employee asks if he can help me. I tell him I will be sleeping in the park tonight; would he give me some money for dinner? He looks doubtfully at me: You don’t look like it. I tell him it’s true, it’s just how things happened and tonight I’m on the street. He walks over to his tzedakka box [charity] and spills out all the money. Wow! 13.80 shekels. He wishes me well; I thank him and wish him a good year.
I continue to ask for money and contributions of food in food stores. Some give; others tell me to come back later, before the store closes. A group of young people in a café moves uncomfortably, but after one of them gives me a few shekels the others join in. At the end I have over 40 shekels in my pocket. We use some of it to on a half-price pastry and bananas. Some restaurants give us leftovers. When I first ask a man at a fresh fruit stand for something he sends me away and I thank him with a blessing. Now, on the way back, I say Hello, Happy New Year, and he calls me over and tells me I remind him of his mother-in-law: Come, I’ll give you now whatever you want. I ask for pomegranate juice. He squeezes fresh cold pomegranates and hands me the glass. The juice is cold and fresh; suddenly I feel so wealthy.
On the way back to the park we stop to rest near a furniture store and I ask Rena, an employee, if she’d prepare us a cup of coffee. She agrees. We talk and she laments the changes that have come over the neighborhood, warning the women not to wander in that area after dark. Later that night, Sharon will take us to that very spot on a guided tour of the nooks and crannies used by the prostitutes, the porn shops and the junkies. For now we move on, passing Neve Sha’anan Street with a second-hand store and a hairdresser who styles complex hairdos for the African women.
Back in the park a great deal of food has been collected. There are lots of people on the grass around us. It is already dark and strobe lights light up the entire space; there are many surveillance cameras and someone says it reminds him of Big Brother. Someone else thinks it’s good that the city council cares enough to try to create a sense of safety.
We invite those sitting nearby to join our meal. Carin and Sharon join our group. We sing a bit with Ohad’s guitar and the music draws more onlookers, some coming close, others peeking from afar. Carin, who looks about 50, my age, talks in fluent English about the park and its denizens, relations with the city agencies, the shelter opened by one of the monasteries and the services it provides to the regulars. She sounds like a neighborhood mother; later she will bring us a few sheets to help us get through the night.
Sharon, in white clothes with a 5-month pregnant belly, giggles once in a while, with or without reason, enjoying the attention. When an African approaches the food by her side she shoves him away rudely, protecting her bag that holds all her possessions. Later that night she tells us she passed all her matriculation tests in a prestigious high school, and when she was 20 her mother sent her to her homeland, Georgia, to get married. On the day of her wedding her groom was killed, leaving her alone and pregnant. She describes bouts of epilepsy, mental illness and roaming the streets. Social services took away her daughter. She’s pregnant again and hopes the father dies; she hates him. Her teeth desperately need treatment.
We get ready to sleep, gathering cartons, nylons, bags and shredded paper which, when shoved into a plastic bag, becomes a pillow. Some of us will sleep in the park. Others are happy to leave the rats behind and spend the night in a different park close by, but not so well lit. We give a rat some food, hoping that during the night it won’t covet someone’s nose, and bundle ourselves up on the cartons, trying to sleep. The light is strong and the place is teeming though it’s past midnight. I fall asleep pretty quickly, blessed with the presence of my loved one who has also joined the retreat and now holds me, warming my back. It gets cold. The kaffiya protects my body and head from the rats and cockroaches while the green postal bag, acting as a blanket, warms me quite well.
Shortly after sunrise I wake up. The park is now quiet and the weather pleasant; the summer heat won’t come till later. Around me figures lie on a sea of cartons, some covered by Carin’s sheets, others by bags or more cartons.
Writing this now, it seems surreal. In that moment that morning it seems perfectly normal. I’m here, focusing on basic existence needs. I walk over to the Central Bus Station to find a free bathroom. A moment’s apprehension when I see the dark and secluded stairwell, then I go in. There’s water and even toilet paper. I put some in my pocket just in case, leave through a different exit and sit on a bench. The station is waking up. There are many for whom this is a daily routine, with nowhere to make coffee or tea. Women are waiting in the station to get to cleaning work, sitting quietly and patiently.
Returning to the park, I see men waiting for vans. Rifat, a young Sudanese, explains that some of them work in restaurants and shops cleaning, washing dishes or stocking goods, and their employers arrange for them to be driven to and from work. Some look around for any random job. They sit quietly and wait, talking, a long line of them on the benches and the sidewalk. Rifat just returned from a night shift in a restaurant open till morning, happy that he has a job. He came to Israel through Egypt, paying $800 to Bedouins to cross the border. They kept him locked in a closed van for days, without food or water, and threatened to kill him if his family didn’t pay ransom. He begged, and for some reason they let him go. Others have not been so lucky. Some have died from heat stroke and dehydration, others injured or killed by the Bedouins.
I watch and listen. Listen inwards too. What happens inside when I hear these stories, see these sights, this human pain? My body still aches a bit from having slept on the carton, the sun is still pleasant. I choose to let go of the self-protecting cringing in my stomach that can create a barrier, and become a quiet, listening presence. There is a deep and profound sorrow for this suffering, for the pain that we inflict on others. Rifat is a young man about the same age as Tamar, my daughter. When he speaks, for a few moments I am him. I think of Tamar and the women who have come here from Africa, many of whom, Rifat says, have been raped on the way. My heart breaks.
Morning circle. There are leftovers from last night’s meal. A soldier from the IDF radio station is looking for a story. He met us last night and returns this morning, asking if he can interview and record some of us. Last night he asked me if he should change out of his military uniform, but now he says that’s illegal so he kept it on. In the circle he expresses his respect for what we are doing but also says that at as a soldier he may not share his personal opinions. I look at the soldier inside me who refrains from getting involved or expressing an opinion that is forbidden by some institution of which I am a part. The kibbutz, or perhaps its comfort or conformity—different names for fear and indifference—often run my life. More cringing in the stomach, more sorrow.
We go again to the streets. The instructions this time: just meander. There’s a sense of adventure, no given purpose. Again, there’s a sense that this is an exotic, new city, and a sense of freedom. Time becomes different, calm; you can just sit and talk. In the streets you can feel the approach of Yom Kippur. Stores close early; there’s the bustle of holiday eve.
This area is more white. We sit at the door of Moshe’s store (after again asking for and receiving coffee) and talk about Torah. When Moshe, of Persian descent wearing a skullcap on his head, hears what we’re doing here he explains that the problems of the Africans can’t be resolved until the Messiah comes. According to Rashi the commentator, when Noah was intoxicated, his son Ham (ancestor of the African nation) “saw his father naked,” apparently raped him, and was then cursed to be his brothers’ slave forever. However, Moshe doesn’t argue against helping the Africans who are here.
Here’s the issue of the stranger, turning the other into the stranger being punished for an age-old sin. I don’t know. The ever-growing experience of not-knowing, the opportunity to see everything from so many different perspectives, the awareness that nothing really exists on its own but only through the eyes of the beholder. This abstraction of a human being creates so much suffering and pain. Was this how infinity felt when it was reduced and brought into this world?
Further along the way we find a young tree broken in its middle and bent to the ground. Allyn, from Germany, feels pain for the life that ended here as well. She leads us in prayer and a blessing for the tree and all who have been broken.
Near the sea we find a homeless shelter operated by Gagon (Rooftop). Boris, a Russian living there on and off for a year and a half, tells us of his daily routine. There are strict rules you must abide by: No drugs or alcohol, respect for others, lights-out, etc. One gets a bed, a meal, clothes, laundry and a shower. He openly shares with us his drinking problem, which gets bad when he is stressed, and then he has to leave the shelter until the next time he can return. Good people on the journey. The place looks clean, organized and quiet—it’s lunch time now.
We go down to the sea where a Moslem family is bathing. Two women in black dresses play in the water with a few small children splashing each other. Nearby someone in a white bikini is sunbathing. It’s very hot. I can see the terrace of the restaurant Monterey. On other days, I am on that terrace. Today, for the price of one appetizer I could get so many other things.
The sea is free to all. Immersion before Yom Kippur arouses a heartfelt prayer in me to connect with all those who are far-flung and remote, within and without. Afterwards I use the handheld beach shower. Wow, to be clean! What fun.
It’s late afternoon and the hunger is getting to me. Stores continue to close. One small restaurant is cleaning up and the chairs are piled high. We ask if there’s any food left and receive fresh warm burekas [pastries]. Tasty! Once again, the realization that there is food, though much less choice of what to eat and when. We take what is given us. A few more places give food and we’re on our way to eat the meal before the fast.
There’s a nice variety when we sit in the park around the food that’s been collected. There’s also a group called Sheaves of Israel, which brings food to the people in the park every Sabbath and holiday eve. This time the volunteers (from a Christian church nearby) bring the food earlier than usual because of Yom Kippur. They spread a table with very large quantities of different cooked foods and offer anyone a plate, spoon, and cold water, and they even pack the food to take home or give to others. We are eating and admiring the volunteer work and large amounts of food when Carin, whom we met yesterday, comes straight up to the table, spits in the food and curses the volunteers. She seems crazy, spaced out and angry. Spitting and cursing, she explains that people who ate this food got sick and that this group is actually a money-laundering front. One of the volunteers tries to move her away and they nearly come to blows. I am shocked to see the change that’s come over her and realize that one has to be here a long time to really understand what is happening and figure out how to help. Our glimpse is just a tiny drop.
The start of Yom Kippur finds me on the grass with friends and Ohad playing guitar for three women from the Congo, who clap to the rhythm. We discover that there is a synagogue next to the park congregated by people from the Caucasus Mountains and some of us go there for Kol Nidre. The women’s section is completely empty; it’s hot inside. The caretaker, who earlier threw out one of us who doesn’t speak Hebrew, returns our greetings of Gmar Hatima Tova and turns on the air conditioner. I belong to the right color, the right language; my clothes haven’t gotten really dirty yet so I look okay. I can also use their bathrooms.
Later in the park we sing some songs and Ohad leads us in fervent prayer. Most of us move our cartons over to a playground nearby and sleep there. Sharon joins us. I’m exhausted and fall asleep.
The morning light starts early. Avi and I and a friend, a German who arrived just to participate in this retreat, go off to the streets of Tel-Aviv. It’s Yom Kippur and everything is very quiet. There is no bustle of motorbikes, just a few people outside. Once again a synagogue on our way lets us use the bathrooms. Someone says this is the meaning of Jewish services: running water and even scented soap, and paper for our hands and faces.
The border between the black and white areas stands out. When we return to the park we find a large number of Ethiopians and Eritreans sitting silently on the benches and the grass in one corner. On another bench adjacent to a synagogue wall is a line of men and some women crying loudly. It seems this is a mourners’ gathering honoring three people who died in their countries of origin. They leave after several hours.
Around us, another morning. People who slept on the benches and inside the slides of the jungle gym wash their faces in the fountain. I think about a toothbrush. Sitting on a bench, Sharon asks if someone would play an Eric Clapton tune she loves. My heart swells when I see her singing with Avi quietly accompanying her on the guitar.
In our late-morning gathering we spread out on the grass and have heart-to-heart talks with friends. I feel my heart warm with gratitude for the people with whom I have had the privilege to share these days and a growing curiosity to know them better. We are all part of this web.
At the end of the afternoon we leave the park and walk towards the sea, stopping to pray and sing in a park in Neve Tzedek. We join one of our members in an emotional Kaddish for his father who passed away and meet a young girl from London who sings with a clear voice and joins us on our way to the sea. Bernie, who throughout the retreat amazes me with his quiet and humble manner, sits on a bench. His knee hurts. At some point Ohad says to him gently, Bernie, you are sitting in the sun. Bernie looks at him with some surprise and says: Yes, it really is very hot, and moves. I see this Zen teacher sitting right near me, and inside I bow.
We stop on the grass near the Carmel market. Avi and I walk away from the group and enter the abandoned market. Our eyes are by now accustomed to looking for cartons, fruits that might have been left behind, and a comfortable corner in which to sit. We settle down at the other end of the market. Near us are two people with a plastic bottle of wine discussing their preference for vodka, with or without orange juice. A few feet away an Asian family shares lunch. When they leave I notice there are many children with bicycles in the street and on the sidewalk. When we get up, an 8 or 9 year-old boy on a bike grabs us and begs us for help, pointing to a few Filipino children on bicycles who, he says, won’t let him ride home. I rush in to find out what is happening and ask them to let the child pass. The child, under my own protection, curses the Filipino children and their mothers, and they curse back.
In the final circle on the grass each one says what touched her or him. Assif names Ohad. Shachar is an Ethiopian who served in the army, missed the last bus home and stayed with us in the park. Last night he said he hated all of us: the Israelis, the prejudice, the lack of caring. Avner spoke with him for a long time and something between them clicked. Shachar slept next to Avner and stayed with us the whole day. Now in the circle we listen as Avner translates for him.
We go to the Dolphin beach for the end. The sun opposite us is orange and large and already touching the water. Yael and I open the palms of our hands and run to the sea crying out, Open for us the Gate at the time of its closing, for the day is ending [end of the Yom Kippur liturgy]. For us, for all of us, regardless of color, religion, gender and origin. The sun sets.
In the sea we remove our clothes and again immerse ourselves in water to end this day. We look up and see stars, signifying the end of Yom Kippur. I think of the home that awaits me and of those who will remain in Lewinski Park tonight.
And what now? Don’t know. All these sights and sensations are still fresh. The heart is raw.
Gratitude for the shower, running water, the toothbrush, flicking on the kettle for coffee whenever I want, choosing what I eat. Being safe under a roof. Gratitude for so many things, including the opportunity to go out on the streets, get out of my self and encounter … The words of the prayer book still ring in my mind: Pray for the poor so that he will be covered. Before God he will pour out his heart. God, listen to my prayer and may my supplications reach You. Do not hide Your face from me on this terrible day.
May we all be blessed with a good year of life and peace. Amen.Learn More