Missing Someone You’ve Never Met

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Selma Heschel March
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (2nd from right) in the Selma Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King, Jr.

After a recent work-in-progress screening of the documentary “Praying With My Legs” at the Washington Heights Film Club in New York City this past September, a member of the audience approached filmmaker Steve Brand. The feature-length documentary by Mr. Brand examines the life of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “scholar, mystic, devout Jew, human rights activist and one of the most powerful and inspiring voices of the religious left in the 20th Century.”

“I never knew him, and now I miss him,” the stranger told Mr. Brand. I recognized the sentiment — perfectly worded — from the time I first saw an early cut of “Praying With My Legs” and was introduced to Rabbi Heschel’s legacy.

Steve Brand. Photo- Michael Labbe
Filmmaker Steve Brand. Photo by Michael Labbe

I recently asked Steve Brand — a good friend of mine, I’ll say at the outset, in the interest of full disclosure — if he remembered when he first heard of Joshua Heschel?

No, but I first “encountered” him when I saw the Carl Stern interview with him on NBC’s “The Eternal Light” in early 1973.  It was unplanned, just switching channels, and this remarkable presence showed up and I became glued to the TV.  The interview aired very shortly after Heschel’s death.

I also discovered this passage written by Mr. Brand about the extraordinary man at the center of his film project:

I discovered what an amazing life he’d led: marching with Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma, protesting the Vietnam War (at risk to his livelihood), making a difference at Vatican II, even meeting with the Pope to address age-old enmities and misperceptions. And the way he would speak truth to power!, whether to presidents, the Pope, McNamara, Kissinger, doctors, rabbis, evangelists; you name it. What an appealing, funny and charismatic character Heschel was — with his impossible white beard and long hair, which led people in Selma to talk about a rabbi who looked just like God.

A “series of cosmic coincidences” compelled the filmmaker to make a documentary about the life of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. To Mr. Brand’s “shock and amazement,” he discovered that no one had ever made a film about the Rabbi. So he decided that it would be his “privilege to rectify that.”

One of the questions I posed to Steve Brand was what attracted him to the teachings of Heschel. Here’s his four-part answer:

His concern about having a real spiritual life, not prayer by rote, but a true engagement and cultivation of an awareness of how miraculous what we consider ordinary hum-drum existence actually is; that even the “ordinary” is infused with an ineffable quality that can lead us into radical amazement; his attention to that which leads to faith, that makes it possible; that is universal in humankind.

His belief that no religion is an island; that we must strive to work together and respect — even honor — the differences that divide us, as opposed to demonizing the other.

His teaching that with every new life, an expectation enters the world, that God is in search of man/humankind to live a life consistent with being created in the image of God, however we choose to interpret that (for him it very much tied in to a life of human rights activism).

His idea that life consists of polarity,  a constant struggle to live in the tension between two seeming opposites, whether it’s justice and mercy, structure and spontaneity, temporality and abidingness, good and evil.

I also asked what has been the most revelatory or moving discovery he had made since embarking on the Praying With My Legsproject.
The continuing experience of people being incredibly moved and inspired when encountering him for the first time.  The discovery that, even 40 years after the original event, someone can be brought to tears by recounting the deep impression that Heschel made on him, being “touched in a place where we all find our center.”
The same deep impression made by Heschel — and Mr. Brand’s documentary of him — on the audience member at the Washington Heights Film Club in New York City this past September.
Editor’s Note: You can support the documentary Praying With My Legsat America’s Giving Challenge through November 6th. Here’s the link to the Facebook Cause Page.

A Modern Ancient Home

Ziggy's cob home is now completed and occupied. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia
After nine months of full time labor, Ziggy's cob home is now completed and occupied. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia

The first thing that attracted me to this cottage was the way it seemed to grow out of the earth.

The walls of the home in northeastern Missouri, recently featured on TreeHugger, are built out of cob, “a building material consisting of clay, sand, straw, water, and earth, similar to adobe,” according to Wikipedia. “Cob is an ancient building material, that may have been used for construction since prehistoric times.” The roof is of the living, breathing and growing variety — called reciprocal — capable of producing juicy strawberries.

So my first impression wasn’t that far off.

The second thing that I found appealing was the almost exclusive use of natural, recycled or donated building materials in an off-the grid setting. Not much new material went into the 360 square feet cottage, affectionately called GOBCOBATRON by owner Brian Liloia. Mr. Liloia, in turn, is affectionately called Ziggy by his friends.

Third in the list of favorite features was the per-square-foot cost: under $9.00 or about $3,000.00 for the one-room dwelling. This is not a typo. The actual cost was Three Thousand Dollars. The owner accomplished this by working himself full time (“I stomped 219 batches of cob for the walls of my house by foot…”) on the project for approximately nine months. Ziggy also secured the assistance of over 75 work exchangers, visitors, and friends. Here’s a list of materials and their costs:

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“A Woman Most Curious of Natural Things”

Fossil. Mixed Media. Copyright (c) 2009 Sarah Heller. All Rights Reserved. Photo by David Fischer
Fossil. Mixed Media. Copyright © 2009 Sarah Heller. All Rights Reserved. Photo by David Fischer

I’ve never met Sarah Heller. Until a few weeks ago, I hadn’t even heard of her.

A blogger I often read — and sometimes link to — mentioned her name and recommended her website. I visited and became a fan of her artwork. I later discovered that there was a 6th degree of separation-thing going on between us. A past employer of hers is the cousin of a cousin of mine out in a LA. We also share a love for bluegrass music.

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Andy Marino Never Made it to Woodstock

andy marino didn't make it to woodstock

Andy’s first guitar he found in the garbage. It had a hole in the back, like someone had kicked it in disgust, and all of the strings were missing. He brought it home and used different weight fishing line to re-string it. That reclaimed guitar — even if it had to be tuned often — was good enough for Andy to teach himself some songs. The old acoustic kept Andy company for a good part of his teenage years. On most summer nights you could find the two of them hanging out and making music with their friends on the corner of Troy Avenue & Avenue D in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, just outside of Olga’s German Delicatessen.

The love of music led Andy to join a couple of local bands. Saxophone and guitar were his instruments. He bought his first guitar around that time and began playing weekend gigs, covering the rocking soundtrack of the Sixties. For music lovers and practitioners, that decade was the Garden of Plenty, musically speaking. And the 3 Days of Peace and Music festival in Bethel closing the decade, was the banquet at the end of the harvest.

“I was working all weekend. Never made it!” Andy told me recently. “I was working in the Taystee Bread Bakery in the heart of Bed Sty. I worked my way through college (School of Visual Arts). I worked side by side with lots of pretty colorful characters, a few of them on parole. That weekend I was on the “make up-shift” 4:00 am to 2:30 pm. Mandatory 2 hours of overtime. This is where the dough gets plopped into 1000’s of greased baking pans. It’s then wheeled into steam rooms where it rises up to a fat bubble. Then, carefully, by hand (and lots of sweat), it’s slid into huge (fuckin’ hot) mechanized ovens.

“I remember going to the lunch room on Sunday morning at about 8 am for my 1/2 hour lunch break and thinking of how it must be to be at Woodstock today. I had two friends who were there and I thought of them, never quite comprehending what I would be missing.”

Neither did most of our generation. Even some of those at the festival didn’t understand, at the time, the mythical place that Woodstock would come to occupy in our collective consciousness.

After my conversation with Andy, I imagined him that Sunday night — the last night of music and peace in upstate New York – meeting up with his friends on the corner of Troy Avenue & Avenue D. I pictured them sitting in a circle, on empty milk crates, talking about rock-and-roll and girls and the upstate festival. And playing music in the Brooklyn night.

Andy Marino’s eyes light up when the subject turns to music. He becomes that teenager when playing with friends still. He’s composing and recording and making music, through the good times and the trying ones. He still owns, and treasures, that guitar he bought back then.

Some really wonderful things were born in — and managed to survive — the Sixties. Among them, music and friends and sometimes peace.

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Thrice Mad in Greenwich Village

This Sunday, August 2nd through Tuesday, August 4th, Tulis McCall will be presenting the THRICE MAD FESTIVAL, Three Evenings of Monologues and Madness at Cornelia Street Cafe in beautiful Greenwich Village, NYC. 

Mike Trupiano will be appearing this weekend at Monologues and Madness in the Village.
Mike Trupiano will be appearing this weekend at Monologues and Madness in the Village.

Mike Trupiano, a New York based writer, actor and comedian will be performing at the Festival. We talked to Mike about comedy, philosophy and artistic collaborations. He assured me that all of his answers had been “cleared with legal.”

JM: Was comedy a life long pursuit or did you come to it accidentally? 

MT: From the youngest age, I heard I should be a comedian. In grade school, there were empty seats around me. No one wanted to sit near me because I would make them laugh and they would get in trouble.

JM: One of my editors tells me that you majored in philosophy. what’s your philosophical take on the value of comedy in the human drama? (I lied on that question — I don’t have any editors yet. Sorry)

MT: Personally, comedy is the only thing that keeps me sane in the midst of human absurdity–the ephemerality of our endeavors, the powerlessness in the universe, our lack of control over even our own minds and desires, the inevitability of our physical demise, etc. To me, comedy acknowledges all this but affirms it anyway. Is that the opposite of tragedy? My ancient Greek escapes me right now. 

JM: Who cracks you up? It doesn’t have to be a professional comedian.

MT: Who’s cracking me up now are Mitchell and Webb, the British comedy duo. They’ve been around for years but I’ve only discovered them recently. Their homepathic emergency room sketch sketch got me hooked.

My friend and comedy partner Mike Kramer cracks me up. All I have to do is look at him. He’s a professional clown. We met on the standup scene. 

JM: What projects are you working on right now?

MT: I’m starting to perform with Mike Kramer as a comedy duo. We have similar auras of lostness in our visages. Whenever people, even strangers, see us together, on stage or off, they are mesmerized by the spectacle. I’m also doing more solo characters and monologues and leaving standup far, far behind. Not in my dust but behind it. 

JM: What is Monologues & Madness and how did you connect with them.

MT: After years of standup, and being very pigheaded and an incredibly slow learner, I realized that standup was an arduous, unrewarding, soul-crushing grind. I’ve had friends who could somehow realize this about standup after one week. 

After a break from performing, Carl Kissin, a friend and fellow improviser, invited me to watch him at Monologues & Madness perform a comic monologue he had written. I loved the entire scene down there and was inspired to write my own piece, which I did. My first show was March of this year. I’ve been in four shows so far, one per month. 

Monologues & Madness is a show of 10-12 actors and/or writers reading monologues that either they have written or someone else has written for them. Only new writing is allowed. You can’t read Pinter or Mamet. The founder and MC, Tulis McCall, encourages the writers to take chances. M & M is a phenomenal place to try out new stuff before a real audience.

JM: Tell me when you’ll be on and where it will be etc… (I’ll post a link, but this is for the lazy who don’t like to click).

MT: Sunday night, August 2nd, is a greatest hits show from the years 2006 to the present. Past performers and writers voted on their favorites. Two of my monologues garnered a lot of votes: One of my fear of heights, one of my fear of the woods at night. Maybe you can sense my themes. Alas, I can only perform one piece in the show. Please come on down to find out which one I went with.

Also, I’ll be reading a brand new monologue in Monday night’s show. Either something about fear or maybe something about anxiety. Not sure yet. 

The show is at the gorgeous Cornelia Street Cafe at, coincidentally, 29 Cornelia Street. Showtimes are 6-8 p.m. A great venue to perform at and also to see a show.

JM: Anything else that you want to add?

MT: Speaking for those in the lineup, we are so glad you will not be in the Hamptons on those nights and will be coming down to see us! The Hamptons will always be there. We won’t.

Here’s the line-up:

Sunday August 2

MONOLOGUES MOST MEMORABLE

A Rich Sampling of Past Performers 2006-2009

Monday August 3

MONOLOGUE MAYHEM 

Just the way you like ‘em – Fresh out of the box!

Tuesday August 4

MAXIMUM MONOLOGUES

Mighty Two-Minute Monologues

At The Cornelia Street Cafe, 29 Cornelia Street, NYC ~ Tel. 212.989.9319  (There’s a $7.00 cover which includes one drink).