The letters of our thoughts are the ideas present in our mind before they come to realization . . . Thoughts that are, yet not felt . . . The words of the subconscious . . . of the soul . . .


Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In a Ward on a Hill

From a recent trip to the Brooklyn Bridge

[A reworking of this post]

On an overcast morning one Fourth of July, sullen clouds hinting to the imminent fall of rain, I came to a Forensic Psychiatric Ward in Northern Connecticut.

Nestled on a hill and bordered on the side by a dilapidated red brick factory, the gray walls of the building were nearly camouflaged -wedged between brown grass and a turbulent heaven.

“Some Fourth of July this will be,” I mused to myself, “stuck with the criminally ill on a stormy day . . .”

Entering with my friend Mendel, we after passed through a relatively posh waiting room and came to the security clearance.

In the narrow hall that separated the outside world from the one within all pretenses of fancy and beauty, the paintings and flower vases that had lined the waiting room, are dropped -here everything is for a purpose; an x-ray machine, a both for the security guard, cubbies to place items not permitted to enter the ward . . .

We go through the check list with guard: our cell-phones must be left outside, the Jewish Art Calendar can come in and be given to the patient, our Tefillin must stay outside - the leather straps could theoretically pose a danger to the patient . . . or to us. Knots begin to form in my stomach. The hats must also stay behind.

We're ready to go.

A thick metal door slides open revealing a vestibule. Entering, we now hang in limbo between the two worlds. The door slams behind us with an electronic click and a new door in front of us opens, ushering us into the ward proper.

Following the guard we walk briefly down a long hallway towards the visitor room. He opens the door, watches us in, and then returns to his office.

Inside a room that could have been the reading room of some local branch of the public library sits a lone Jew. He's dressed in baggy jeans and a blue polo-shirt. I notice that his shoes are Velcro – laces meaningfully absent.

We shake hands. His are large and fleshy, and the one shaking mine easily engulfs it. Chancing a glance into his eyes, they seem to have a medicated glaze to them, partially concealed behind large, scratched glasses.

I think how every Jew is a Jew, and try very hard not to think about his crime.

Mendel and I sit on a well-used tweed coach, which, in other circumstances I would even have ventured to call it comfy . . . Our friend returns to his own chair

We speak.

Nervous introductions give way, to small talk, and then finally to meaningful discourse.

He's interested in learning Torah, in performing all the mitzvos he can . . . He has a collection of Jewish books, and reads avidly - despite the paucity of material available to him.

"The local Chabad rabbi tells me that I have the soul of a chossid,"

he says with a grin.

"I've read the Tanya, but I considers myself more of a mussar'nik -a follower of the works Nineteenth Century ethicists."

He mentions several times his guilt, how he won't get out. When he does his eyes turn down, revealing a deeper character then I had first noticed . . . Failed to notice I chide myself.

"Here they keep you for a very long time, but at least it’s safe." He says with a sigh, caught somewhere between remorse and a sense of security.

I tell him that every Jew is connected to Above on two levels: one revealed, one hidden.

On the revealed level we connect to G-d via mitzvos, if we miss out on a mitzva, we miss out on a connection. If we go against the Torah, we have separated ourselves from our source -G-d.

But on a deeper level, every Jew, no matter where he is or what he has done, has a connection to G-d that transcends the connection through Torah. Therefore, even if by Torah law he is guilty, Teshuvah (returning to G-d) can bring forgiveness. It reforges the bond that was destroyed by tapping into the internal and eternal bond that everyone possess.

Torah is the infinite will and wisdom of the Creator, but our souls stem from the very essence of the Supernal King of Kings. It is bond so strong that it is deeper then the Torah. After all, our Sages teach that the very Torah that G-d consulted before creating the world, speaks of the children of Israel.

Once this bond has been reforged, the person continues to connect via the normal path of Mitzvos.

Suddenly an awful cackle - the maniacal kind that one would think could only come from a psychiatric ward - is heard over the intercom.

The words cling to the inside of my throat.

"What was that?” I finally ask.

"Oh,” our friend says, “Just someone having fun with the intercom.”

Right . . . fun.

The conversation goes on.

We focus on which mitzvos can be done practically in place where wearing tzitzis is forbidden for the same reason as wearing shoelaces.

We decide that saying the 'Modeh Ani', the prayer of thanks said upon rising in the morning, is fitting.

It requires no physical precepts to perform nor lengthy tomes from which to read, it can even be said with unwashed hands.

What is more, it expresses the inner connection of the soul . . . Other prayers must be said in a place of purity and cleanliness. Like the essence of the soul that can never be defiled or lost, a beacon of G-dliness in even the darkest places, the Modeh Ani, however, can always be said. Simple, pure, untouched.

The guard taps on the window. Our time is up.

We leave with a second, more personal handshake.

As I walk through the long hall, I look out the window to the inner courtyard set aside for patient exercise. The grass outside is almost as gray as the sky . . .

But I'm no longer looking out, I'm looking in.

For I know there's a ward on a hill, bordered on the side by a dilapidated red brick factory, and surrounded by gray walls. Look deeper still and I will find that through layer upon layer, door behind door, and room within room is found a room that could be the reading room of some local branch of a public library. Within that room on a tweed couch that could otherwise be called comfy sits a lone Jew. He looks out to the world from behind a large pair of scratched glasses with two large eyes, and within those eyes can be seen a soul.

The eternal soul of the Jew that is always aflame with the Creator.

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Anonymous said...


Years ago when visiting Montreal for Rosh Hashanah, I volunteered to do mivtza shofar in a large hospital that included a renowned psychiatric wing, the "Creedmoor of Montreal" if you will. Since my friend and I both have majorly sick senses of humor, we decided to start our mivtzoim route in the psychiatric wing (even though we knew that al pi halacha the patients there were probably exempt from hearing the shofar).

The "joke was on us". We met a young man who clearly was in control of his faculties as he was being treated for a B"H controllable form of mental illness, and he had had connections with Chabad in the past. We ended up rekindling those connections for him as well as being mezake him to hearing the shofar.

And we did such a good job the hospital offered us free room and board for six months - no, wait, that was after the following Purim in Montreal when my alcohol consumption during mivtza tefillin would have landed a lesser man - I mean a man of lesser weight - straight into a padded cell!

Mottel said...

You never know who you'll bump into . . . and even if the ear does not hear, the soul does.
As to the drinking, do you mean the padded cell or the stomach pump?

redsneakz said...

Rabbi Deitsch, here in Virginia, speaks about his trips to various prisons; one was to a Florida prison, where he was actually able to get a minyan. This statement literally brought me to tears.

Mottel said...

Redsneakz -great to hear from you again! We often tend to not want to think about those Jews in jail -especially those that aren't in for "Jewish" (white-collar)crimes - they're there, they exist (I agree, there are far too many of them), and they have the same rights to Yiddishkiet as us.