Ricochet is the best place on the internet to discuss the issues of the day, either through commenting on posts or writing your own for our active and dynamic community in a fully moderated environment. In addition, the Ricochet Audio Network offers over 50 original podcasts with new episodes released every day.
No one knew much about Herschel. He was a shabby older man with long untidy grey hair and beard, who always carried a stout pole and walked with a pronounced limp. He lived in one of the cheap hotels somewhere downtown, and he would come to the House of Love and Prayer whenever Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach was around. Most people found him rather annoying, but he was accepted as yet another of our eccentrics.
Sometime in the 1970s, American television showed a film made by an Israeli kibbutznik about the longing for peace after the Yom Kippur War. The opening shot was of a Jewish festival in Golden Gate Park, and there, as that scene closed, was Herschel, in an old Army jacket with a shoulder patch of Israeli and American flags, dancing in a kind of awkward stomp.
I have no idea where or how Rebbe Shlomo and Herschel met, but Shlomo always greeted everyone with respect, and Herschel, who probably got little respect, became completely attached to our rabbi. Someone told me that Herschel was part Indian, but I never learned which tribe. On Shabbat he attended synagogue, and on Sunday, a Pentecostal church. As far as I know, he was not Jewish. I never learned his family name, or where he came from.
Shlomo Carlebach, the “singing rabbi” who revived Jewish music in the 1960s, came to the San Francisco area a few times each year, where he would give concerts and in the evenings we would all sit around him in our small synagogue on Ninth Avenue while he told hasidic stories and learned Torah with us. In the pauses, he would take his guitar and we would get up to dance as he sang in his deep, rich voice. At nearly all these informal gatherings, Herschel would show up, and of course, he would be there for the Shabbat prayers and every wedding.
One morning after Shlomo had gone back to New York, I came downstairs from the women’s apartment at the House, and found Herschel sitting at the long table in our little Beit Midrash (the study hall). I didn’t disturb him because he was reading aloud from the King James Bible he always carried. He got up after finishing a Psalm, and walked out to the back yard where he stood and addressed God. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but I was awed and fascinated by this rough man, pouring his heart out to the Lord.
After the House of Love and Prayer closed, we didn’t see Herschel for quite awhile. My family moved to an apartment on 16th Avenue, where my late husband held his own little “hasidic” court. He used to pick up stray Jews when walking across Golden Gate Park to the synagogues in other neighborhoods, and I never knew how many people I might be feeding at a Shabbat or Yom Tov or Rosh Chodesh meal.
But one year, on Thanksgiving, David ran into Herschel somewhere and invited him to come to our Thanksgiving feast. We had a pleasant meal, and afterwards, Herschel walked into our living room, and suddenly, standing there, began to speak in tongues. Our daughter, then two years old, fled into the bedroom and closed the door behind her.
I had never seen anyone speaking in tongues before, but after a minute or so, Herschel thanked us and went on his way. I never saw him again, since we moved to Israel shortly afterwards, and he has probably long since passed on to the reward that God grants to his faithful.
In the last couple of weeks, I keep puzzling over why Herschel came to mind so strongly. I had been thinking of writing this essay about the Buddhist concept of “emptiness” which is not nothing, not a “void,” but rather the ground on which all our material sense is laid. I thought also about all the different ways we pray: formal and poetic words in published prayer books, silent contemplation, short invocations like the “Jesus prayer,” prayer tools like rosaries, japamalas, masbehas; and the crazy screaming outpourings of the heart that the Bratslav hasidim practice; the daily recitation of Psalms, and simply contemplating a Bible passage.
None of it is meaningless. It is like the Jewish teaching that as we accumulate the words, the thoughts, the profound ideas, they sit upon the heart, until one day, the heart opens and it all falls in and falls into place.
Be at peace, Herschel, wherever you may be.Published in