On the Streets

Rabbi David Cooper

On the Streets

By David Cooper

Just before Pesach, I entered Mitzrayyim — or perhaps I escaped from it. What I entered was a "Street Retreat," a walkabout on the streets of New York with no money, few clothes, no home. What I left — briefly — was comfortable America. I was led into this practice by Roshi Bernie Glassman.

The retreat began at 2 PM on the steps of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Amsterdam and 112th St. There were twelve retreatants, plus our fearless leader Bernie. Thirteen in all (at the start), which in esoteric terms is One (Ehad in Hebrew). And that is how we felt. I realized early on that we would be able to rely on one another and could look out for each other. This, I thought, was different from most homeless folks, who in many ways are really alone. I discovered that this was not completely true. The homeless themselves in many ways look out for each other, share information, and when necessary share their meager goods.

We were a well educated group and obviously not homeless. This was an issue we discussed regularly, covering a spectrum — on the one end feeling that we could never experience what homeless people go through, while on the other realizing that no two experiences are alike and we could fairly quickly develolp a sensitivity and deeper understanding of what it means to be penniless on the streets.

Both are true. We were never in jeopardy of being far from the safety and security of our middle-class lives, while at the same time we were all pushed on various edges that sharpen the senses and deepen one's wisdom.

Examples of these edges: sleeping (sleepless) on and under cardboard boxes in Riverside Park by the Hudson, surrounded by a large number of scurrying water rats on a cold night; walking ten to fifteen miles each day (which meant for me blisters, and reccuring reminders of ancient pains in neck, shoulders, hips and knees); sitting in the middle of the night on a park bench, ostensibly alone (as others slept hidden), not far from Harlem, feeling like a target at 2 AM for any deranged Mr. Hyde looking for fresh meat; going through trash barrels in search of aluminum cans and plastic jugs, each of which can be redeemed for 5 cents (and getting our hands covered with whatever liquid garbage one had to get through to reach the cans); looking in the gutters for abandonned coins, mostly pennies; encountering truly deranged people while waiting to get into a soup kitchen, all of whom acted out in mostly non-harmful ways, but it was clear that the fuse was short and they could easily go into more dangerous moods; being soaked all day in a downpour with nowhere to go; being so exhaused one could easily sleep for an hour sitting up in a church pew simply by resting one's head on the pew in front....

The list could go on. Although each of the retreatants had beforehand been criticized for essentially "play-acting" for no good reason, and were told we could do much more by serving the homeless in some "responsible" way (which is partially true), there is also another truth:

Our direct experience informs and motivates us in many ways that can never be seen before they happen. So I have no idea what will be the outcome of this experience, but the witnessing, which is part of Bernie's program, was an extraordinary opportunity to immerse in an experience I would certainly not normally choose to do.

The thirteen of us ranged in age from mid-twenties to late sixties, ten men and two women (Bernie wants to be more pro-active in getting women), mostly American, one from Holland, one from Slovenia (northern provence of ex-Yugoslavia). We experienced a lot of Christianity through services and soup kitchens, Judaism through seders, Sufism by doing prayers and zikr (chanting names of Allah), and revival fire and brimstone salvation street religion, bless the lord.

We hung out a lot, especially in Tompkins Park a few blocks from the Bowery, and eventually in a Sufi building in Soho, built by Lex Hixon, who passed away a few years ago. It was there that we spent the secnd night, after chanting a zikr and being fed. The third night we had planned to be on the Staten Island ferry, which is now free, going back and forth, or sleeping in the ferry terminal from midnight til 5 AM, but as we had all been soaked to the bone that day and had a late night at the Bowery mission eating and being shown around, we opted to return to the Sufi place to avoid probable illness for at least a few who were starting to show early signs of impending sickness.

On the other side of the hardships of being on the streets, are the miracles. For me, personally, was the result of a willingness to surrender to what I call Kosmic Wisdom, the response of the unfolding moment to the intrinsic needs that arise. Hard to describe, not a response of a wise entity, not a conscious pre-ordained manifestation under the category of fate, but a natural flow of the universe that results from all that has preceeded it, the culmination of causality (karma) which includes not only physical but emotional and intellectual input (like prayer, for example). This means, that we get what we "need" when we need it. It means that every encounter, every thought that arises, has a teaching. In kabbalistic terms, it means that every aspect of creation and every moment has divine sparks if we have the eyes to see.

So, one of my issues (of many) was to deal with the fact that this retreat was beginning on the eve of Passover. I already have serious concerns regarding food. I am esseentially a kosher vegetarian, who has strong reactions to fat (weak gall-bladder), and also has recently discovered a lactose intolerance and cannot digest milk/cheese products. Add to this the dietary restrictions of Pessach—particularly no leavened wheat products like ordinary baked goods, bread, spagetti, or noodles—and there is hardly anywhere to go.

I did give myself permission to hedge on a couple of rules. As I have done in the past, I allowed myself rice, peas, beans and other legumes, leaning more to my mother's Sefardi roots than my father's Ashkenazi roots; and I allow myself a degree of distance from requiring Pesadik vessels—- pots, pans, dishes and cutlery — which, if strictly observed, would clearly have made it impossible to eat anything warm. This, however, was as far as I wanted to go.

For close to twenty years, I have been quite careful during Passover. It has been important to me. It caused me to reconsider the retreat a number of times before going on the streets, and it was a major concern for a number of my friends. But I wanted to surrender to Kosmic Wisdom to see how it would unfold. I did carry with me three matzas in a cardboard container, and a small container of grape juice. I figured I could do a pro-forma seder the first night, on my own if necessary. But I had no idea of how I would be eating for the four days, including the very first night.

While we were wandering around in small groups the first afternoon after our initial meeting, experiencing can and bottle collection before regrouping to seek out dinner, I pondered how I possibly could have a kosher Passover seder meal—what would it look like. Frankly I could not imagine any possibility except going to a local shul and asking to be placed in a congregant's home.

This was my suggestion when we regrouped and set off to find hopefully one of three shuls we knew about on the upper West Side. However, I had told Bernie that the most likely option would require our having to split up between a number of homes and it was unlikely anyone could feed all thirteen of us together. His view was that we needed to stay together. I felt chances for this were slim.

En route, we noticed a number of large trailers on the street indicating that a nearby location for a movie being made. One of the retreatants was the actress Ellen Burstyn (Acadamy Award for Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore) and she immediately had the brilliant idea that we should check to see if they had a caterer who might have food. Making a long story short, we did in fact find the caterer who was just about to wrap up for the day, with a huge spread of leftovers that were made available to us. These leftovers included boxes of matza (!), sealed cans of kosher tuna, drinks, fruit, raw veggies, and vegetarian sushi rolls—all of which provided for not only a fantastic kosher seder, but I was able to stuff many things my bag to back me up for the next few days whenever there was absolutely nothing kosher to eat. This was my personal miracle. As I say, there were many like this for all of us.

Later that evening, in the park next to the river, my friend Dov who was also a kosher retreatant, provided some hand baked shmura (guarded) matza, the highest quality "holiest" matza one can eat, I pulled out my grape juice, and the entire group celebrated an abbreviated ritual seder discussing the meaning of freedom for each of us. It was one of my most moving seder experiences. Then we slept with the rats.

Dov and I the next morning were able to skip the soup kitchen breakfast, the only food available to the others on retreat—ham and cheese sandwiches—as we had matza and tuna for ourselves. During the rest of the retreat, I never had to use the matza I was carrying as we keep encountering rice or pea soup or other dishes that were o.k., and plenty more matza at the Sufi establishment.

Indeed of the four things that concerned me the most on this retreat — food, fatigue, wetness, and cold—food generally was in abundance as we structured our days around meal times at soup kitchens. Although there was plenty of wetness and cold to go around, we were not on the streets long enough for these to be too much of a bother. The biggest problem was fatigue, having to walk everywhere, learning that many places were off limits for sleeping even in the daytime, having very few options for sleeping in flop houses, etc.

Bernie said that larger flop houses were too dangerous, and the smaller places were out because we would deprive someone of a bed. So fatigue becomes the primary problem. We resolved it this time by using an option that frankly is not open to most homeless; we had "connections." Without our refuge with the Sufis, our experience would have been far more challenging—that's the simple truth of the matter.

All in all, if I had to pick the most outstanding things that I am now carrying with me from the retreat experience, they are:

1) a far deeper appreciation of a willingness to trust in the wisdom of the unfolding moment, to be o.k. "out-of-control," to allow spontaniety to rule, to yield to the greater will, to have faith.

2) a much greater sensitivity to the small things that are big deals in perspective, the many things we take for granted that could cause someone on the streets to miss a meal, or not be able to read, or bathe, or sleep.

3) a switch in my personal awareness of my fear that has in the past kept me from engaging "marginal" people. I gave, but never engaged. I now find myself not only looking at street people (and others) more directly, but more willing to be present, more willing to listen, and more comfortable sharing whatever comes up. This is a big deal for me.

4) the recognition that while many on the streets of NYC are crackheads or mentally ill people, many are not—and they are not only streetwise, they are teachers on many other levels. There is a great deal to learn more in simple wisdom teachings than in many traditional academic or spiritual settings.

5) one of our essential rules was to redistribute any money or food we collected on the streets to others. This stripping away of one's selfness and the willingness to be part of a larger community was quite significant on a deep level. Sharing was not so much a sense of "I am giving to you," as it was a feeling of "We are in this together," whether between us as a group on retreat, or as a larger group hanging in the park, standing in the bread line, listening to the gospel, or sharing warm soup on a cold rainy day.

I've only been back "home" for less than two days. These are the headlines. This is not the complete experience. There is too much to talk about, and even more than cannot be put into words. In any case, I want to express my ongoing gratitude to all of you who have been part of my life on so many levels. I cannot come close to telling of the love that arises in one's heart—as I sit here the tears are flowing—when in the fullness of appreciation it becomes clear that one's home goes far beyond walls and a roof. Rather it is in the sharing of each other's joys and sorrows, in simply the contact that rests in the heart, the memories, the concerns, the touchpoints.

It seems we only really get this when we are about to lose it, when diagnosed with a terminal illness, or the like. And being on the streets opened me up in a similar way. I can't explain it. It's brings the big "What if?" up on the inner screen and opens the floodgates of compassion.

The biggest teacher for many us was a fellow named Michael. He was half drunk when he wandered up to eight of us standing in the rain deciding what to do next. He asked for spare change. Most of us had empty pockets. Bernie had one penny which he gave to the guy. Right away I noticed he took the penny graciously and gratefully. I would have been embarassed to offer a penny. I would have thought it an insult. My experience in other situations is having beggars sneer at virtually any amount received and asking for more. Not Michael. He simply accepted the penny; this was amazing to me.

Then Bernie said to him, "I gave you everything I've got. What can you give me?" Michael said, "I can only give you friendship." One of the others asked him. "Do you have many friends?" He said no. The other asked, "But you could have friends?" He said that he couldn't really have friends, and mentioned something about being a Vietnam vet. And then Bernie asked why he couldn't have friends, and Michael stopped for a minute or two, clearly being overwhelmed by emotion. He then said, "I can't have friends. What if they die?" and he burst into tears and turned walked away.

Michael is on the streets, alone, because the fear and losses he experienced in that war burned out something at his core. He became homeless in Vietnam because he could not bear another loss; so he was a loner on the streets. Even when the three of our group went after him to just hang out, he soon separated himself from them to be alone. This is what it means to be truly homeless—without friends or family.

So, may we all appreciate our true blessings, our extended families, and the nature of our homes on every level. I send you lots of love with an overflowing heart. — David

Rabbi Cooper is, along with Shoshana Cooper, a teacher of Jewish meditation. He is the author of God Is a Verb and other works.