essays tzaddik stories

epitaph for a tzaddik

New Orleans.

With the voudon priest. Again. He gives me a reading. And one of the things he says is:

“Don’t go to the cemetery. He’s not there. Go to the place where he still resides. The place where he still lives.”

And all I can think of is well, where is that? Where is he alive? Where can I hold this conversation?

And with that reading, I fear that something just washed right out of me. I’m not sure if it was joy or sorrow. I sat there just crying my eyes out, for some reason. And then it was all gone. It just plain washed away.

But I still need to construct a stone. And write something on it.

What if we wrote what we really wanted to say — and set it in stone? (Though I’ve noticed that it’s not stone anymore. It’s these metal plaques that lie flat on the ground). I can’t stand that the tzaddik is still left unmarked. Unvisited. But there’s John T, saying don’t bother going — ’cause that’s not where he’s at.

Where is he?

He’s in half the books I own. He resides in Turkish brass trays. Mamluk Revival pitchers. He’s in drawings. Paintings. Amulets. In an incredible amount of just plain junk. In every fragment of shredded textile that he gave me and that I haven’t thrown out. All this stuff. He’s there. He’s not just in the museum. He’s every unsolved mystery, unplaced artifact. He’s in every job well done.

But all I want to write:

Pappa! Why have you forsaken me! and on and on like that … Very very whiney. Overdramatic. Yah. I know. Pathetic.

Here lies the tzaddik… Yah. That doesn’t work either. It’s pure conceit.

Founder and Director of bla bla bla … as if he’s an institution. As if no blood ran through his veins.

How ’bout a picture? How ’bout a name. With dates.

How ’bout a tree?

And maybe it’s that unmarked grave that makes his death feel so unfinished. And this is me dragging it on and on. Holding on to unfinished business. Or maybe just holding on. What right do I have to write his epitaph? He’s still alive for me.

I pick up the phone to call, to ask him a question. I go to New Orleans and feel that I’m still supposed to collect that stuff for him? Am I supposed to take it on? Or just look, and let it go?

Do you feel it in these words? Something’s gone. Something’s really washed away. There is no power in these words. Is that the magic a yahrtzeit supplies?

Cultures prescribe a mourning time. But they proscribe it as well. They circumscribe the time of mourning. Start it now. Do it this way. And now, stop. Desist. And cease. Be done. Lest you fall into self-indulgent wallowing. Self-absorption. Decay. Decline. Just cut this out already.

Even the Tzaddik would say now, enough is enough. Now let it go. Go live.

And so, I turned to Precious Daughter. And we talked of China. Of infrastructure falling. Of going down with the ship. Or not. Of shape-shifting. Dogs. Cats. Brooklyn apartments. Crappy impressionists. Screenwriters who surprise us. Unfinished novels. Of choosing rationality. Of those we know who don’t. Family recipes for borekas. Color. Sound. Upholstery. Mandarin. Business divinations. Those who succeed through malice. Those who succeed with humility. Travel. Bravery points.

We do not speak of failure, I notice. Only of being on the path.

And then his voice arises. He applauds. The tzaddik is back inside the conversation.

“Anyone can do it with money,” the tzaddik says. “Remember, you can do it without.”

There were no excuses with him. No judgements. No admonitions. Just a little nudge. No expectations. And maybe a phone number. “Talk to so-and-so…” And either you do, or you don’t. Either it works, or it doesn’t. You follow through. Or you don’t. We make our choices.

Here lies the Director.
Collector. Protector.
Tzaddik, rest in peace

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.

8 replies on “epitaph for a tzaddik”


Mira, your writings about the tzaddik bring you most to life, too. This and the yahrzeit entry are what I’ve read. So far!

What you wrote makes an inscription for a matsevah, but truly — I suspect that these your words are the actual (while being doubly virtual at the moment) matsevah.

Yasher Koach.

Thank you! I’ve been writing a longer piece about his/our travels. It’s a couple hundred pages at this point (in more of a ‘novel’ form, so it’s easier to tell the truth). And what I like best of all is that he’s read what I’ve written in that piece — which at the moment is called Alternate Teachings — and he thought I was right on target. I’ve been thinking of how to incorporate that material into what I’m writing here, but it just doesn’t work, partly because the tale is too long. It’s funny that there’s no overlap so far at all. As for the matsevah, I have very good reason to wait at this point. Koach, indeed.

OK, clearly (there’s that word again!) it’s time for me to begin a crash course in Hebrew. The Googles are an unsatisfying way to keep up. The Barrons/Foreign Service Institute book I began plowing through back in 1991 is still a no-starter, if for no better reason than I cannot spend over 500 pages looking at Courier with handwritten diacritical marks.

What do you recommend?

Well, when we’re ready to face-to-face, I think you’ll be due a Beit Malkhut tutorial. I’ve got four week, six week, eight week, semester long, Esalen weekend, on up to forever for your studying pleasure. I’m an option-junkie. Oh. Not to mention the quickies…

Oh, and as for the texts — I recommend the Gesenius Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon along with Aryeh Kaplan’s bilingual Torah, with all the footnotes. And one of those 5-million verbs books. And a really fine teacher to show you what to do with them…

Teaching Hebrew School is the reason I never ended up with any student loans while going to college!

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