essays tzaddik stories

the concealed one, blessed be he

When Malkah (an incarnation of the Shekhinah herself — and why not?) was a little girl, the tzaddik used to tell her ‘Bobo Stories’ (of all things) at bedtime to calm her to sleep. And this was long before his journeys with Rav Gavriel rescuing artifacts in India.

As the tzaddik told it, the Prince and Bobo journeyed through the villages of central India, and through the fields outside the villages, and through the jungles outside the fields. And each night the Prince would encounter another mystery that needed solving, another treasure, another rescued child, a princess about to be burnt alive upon the funeral pyre of her young but very dead new husband. You get the idea. The Prince was tall and linear, with good posture. He was a handsome fellow, young and well-intentioned. Bobo, on the other hand was old, and gray and very very wrinkled. He had little eyes and enormous ears, more beard than he ought, and of course he had that enormous trunk that was the main feature anyone really saw when they looked at him — apart from his sheer size. The Prince discovered the problem, but it was Bobo who uncovered the solution each night. Although Malkah may well have fallen asleep before hearing how the case was solved.

One day, when the tzaddik declared that he was off to India for real, Mrs. Tzaddik had a little shit fit of her own but, in truth, was happy to let him go. He was going, he said, to keep an eye on Rav Gavriel, and keep him out of trouble. Mrs. Tzaddik and Malkah had heard this one before. Malkah loved the tales the tzaddik brought home from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and more. Rav Gavriel was always in one kind of trouble or another. The tzaddik managed to get him back safe and sound each journey — with rescued brittle manuscripts and other Judaica galore. A miracle!

This time, it was the aron kodesh itself that they were after. A community on the coast was disappearing fast, and there were only elders left. No young ones to keep the thousand year old community alive. They had written Rav Gavriel begging him to save their ark. This was the mission, so could the tzaddik refuse?

In truth, I think Rav Gavriel made at least half of it up just to lure the holy man off on another misadventure. But I think I’m not an objective observer in this regard.

To Malkah, this adventure conjured up no more and no less than Bobo and the Prince. In her young mind, surely the tzaddik’s main goal would be to track down the sleuthing pair in order to get anything done at all. Surely only they could save the Aron Kodesh!

In India, (so the story goes) Rav Gavriel was a real hero. He was adorned with hallowed raiments and a golden turban that set off the pointy black beard upon his chin just right. He looked glorious! He bellowed and pontificated, he commanded and was obeyed — and they just gobbled it all up. The tzaddik stood in the background in his rumpled dark gray (unmatching) jacket and pants, pulled on his wise chin, and patted his big belly, and he kept an eye out. Rav Gavriel was in his element! He was proclaimed a sadhu and accepted the title (if not the role itself) with relish.

The community packed up all their treasures, and with joy in their hearts shipped the whole kit and kaboodle off to America to be saved.

Malkah always did find it strange that her poppa told Bobo stories. I mean, it’s not like he told her midrashic stories, right? No lessons from the sages, no Rabbi Akiva as the hero, no Maccabees, no Queen Esther. Just Bobo and the Prince. In India.

Recently, I asked Mrs. Tzaddik about the Bobo Stories, now that I can’t ask the tzaddik himself. She had no idea what I was talking about. But she was pretty clear that it must have been a secret transmission. I mean, what else could it be?

Bo” she said, “means ‘come here,’ right?”  Bobo would be the emphatic form.

But there was really nowhere to go with it. She worked on the possible Hebrew letters for a while. Shifted the vowels. Nothing.

“Who is the Prince?”

Nothing. And more nothing. The only thing she was sure of was that the tzaddik was no prince.

All we learned was that there was not another living person on Earth who had ever heard the adventures of Bobo and the Prince. This was a transmission to Malkah alone and to no one else in the world. She was struck with awe at receiving such a gift. After all, anyone could study a normal midrash, right?

So this one was hers to figure it out.

And there it was, right before her eyes. That her old rumpled poppa the tzaddik had in this way taught her the secrets of shape-shifting!  Had given her lessons, night after night, year after year, in the art of concealment.

It was not until the Shekhinah had long disappeared from the world and was fully ensconced inside her own practiced occultation that she remembered Bobo himself. His largeness, his big belly, his long proboscis, his deeply wrinkled dark gray suit. And there was the tzaddik, mystery solved.

For if you’ve studied your phonology, you know that in the places of their travels — from Morocco to India — the voiceless is transformed to voiced. Mrs. Tzaddik was on the right track after all.  Inmost of those lands, the letter /p/ is replaced by /b/. It took Malkah half a century to make the connection!

Bobo is baba — father — with a cholem.  /o/ instead of /a/.  And the cholem, as you will remember, is the dreamer.  My favorite vowel in Hebrew, for it sits above rather than below, and allows the mind to wander far.

My baba (aka abba) never said a word about the transmutation.  I think he was confident that one day (when I really needed to) I’d figure it out for myself.

So the silence of the tzaddik was heard there loud and clear. Every word he had not uttered. Rav Gavriel, the trickster and Baba, the shape-shifter journeyed side by side across the wilds of everywhere. The unvoiced teachings of my poppa.

And if you’ve studied your Indology, Gajthar and Ganesh you’ll remember.

He remains adorned with flowers. There is no silence like my father’s.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

4 replies on “the concealed one, blessed be he”

Davar acher (& therefor not a challenge to your nimshal, just another bit of play: I went directly to “the place” to which you alluded: Po. Po. Not only in India/sham, but po, here, wIth you, all the time. Like the two kinds of dreydls, on this day after Chanukah.

And the transformation from “o” to “ah” is easily made through kamatz katan, not shapeshifter but soundshifter.

Thanks for that! Funny, but I’m more comfortable with baba than abba, having spent more time in the so-called Arab world than in the land currently occupied by the Hebrews. But now I wonder if the tzaddik did not predispose me to the babba of it all — not just with his Bobo tales, but also with his real-life travels. Figuring this one out (if that’s what I did, and it’s not just a big projection) made the loss just a little bit less…

I was thinking of whoever you wrote that said “don’t go to the cemetery, he’s not there.” And if not there, then where? Po. Po.

That would be John T, the voudon priest in New Orleans who said it. And yes, you’re right! Po! I’m surrounded by him. I have what some would call an altar to him — photos of him in ecstatic examination of artifacts. Surrounded by bits of things he collected, that don’t ‘belong’ anywhere particular at this point. A piece of the Berlin wall. an exquisite 19th C Austrian mezuzah, amulets of bone, silver and wood. Even an Afghani samovar, that stands almost 4 feet high. And books, of course. Lots and lots of books. Oh, and his … well, you get the idea. Po. It’s all po.

Thank you. That’s pretty funny. It’s also why my house is ridiculously overstuffed!

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