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Shana Tova, y'all, from Clancy Sigal

This Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, is the 50th anniversary of my one and only confrontation with G…d.  Jehovah, the Almighty, the Judge on the Throne who, according to the Mishna, the first written-down document of the “oral Torah”, inscibes the names of the righteous, the not so righteous and the wicked.  Being secular and more than a little ignorant of my Judaism, I’m sure I have some of this wrong but not the drift.

You never know when “recovered” or repressed memory will bite you in the bum when least expected.  I wish Oliver Sacks was still around so I could ask him.

On Erev Roshanah, the evening before the day, I was on nurse-guard patrol duty in Kingsley Hall a halfway house in East London devoted to the care and feeding of middle class schizophrenics rejected as incurable by their doctors.  This was the fabulous 1960s when boundaries were like rubber bands, infinitely elastic.  Patients were not called patients, doctors not called doctors, therapy a bad word.   A druggie scene.  Acid (LSD), weed, DMT (dimeltryptamine) a Brazilian jungle herb intensely more powerful (and illegal) than acid, what have you.

The place was a godsend to the rejected mad.  On they came, in slews and droves, any hour of the day or night, the crazy, lonely, homeless, given-up-on-themselves, psychotic and neurotic. the lost and wanting-to-be-found finding a haven with no locked doors or coercive medical jargon: seeking what in life is absent, compassion,  pity, kindness, decency, mercy and tolerance for mood swings and odd behaviors.  Almost without exception our first guests breathed a sigh of relief,  “At last, someone actually understands.”

I’d gone cold turkey on dope preparing for my “Ecstastic Voyage”, a shamanic transition into and through madness to…it was hoped…a higher form of sanity.  Don’t laugh.  This was the common currency of a prevailing “anti-psychiatry” and, well, what can I say?, it was the psychedelic Sixties.

Having helped others through their crisis which sometimes took a religious form I felt confident of my amateur powers.

But I’d not reckoned on the halfway house’s contagious atmosphere.

Suddenly, this Other Person, me, leaped on a table, donned an imaginary Jewish prayer shawl, muttered Hebrew-sounding prayers (like speaking in tongues) that came out of nowhere and started to dance like Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof.  The Hall’s residents stared agog, some in wonder some (the doctors mostly) anxious.  Even as I was Hasid-dancing and “praying” in this strange and incomprehensible language, I half-thought, Where is this coming from?  That’s what comes of growing up in a heavily Jewish neighborhood with Yiddish signs on store fronts and a synagogue not a tavern on every corner to which I was blind and deaf.  But something of the Eastern European culture must have seeped in.

The “vision”, when it came, was emphatically secular.  Memory plays tricks, and since then it’s changed form but alas, never a woman or a New Yorker cartoon version of a white bearded old gent at the pearly gates.  Originally God, or whatever it was, showed up in dirty overalls and a railroad worker’s cap – and, I swear, a union button.  What remains constant is the voice: not at all like Charlton Heston as Moses in The Ten Commandments, bossy and all-powerful.  More conversational and down to earth.  The voice spoke clearly words I recall to this day: “Get your bony ass out of this joint and go back to work and a normal life.”  Nothing very spiritual about that.

I was just sane enough to understand that a sensible part of me was speaking to myself through a trance-like, visionary experience.  And to take the advice.

Shana tova, y’all.