At the end of summer, I met a man at a community party pig roast. I might not have noticed him at all had he not been chanting a Hebrew blessing over the forbidden slab of meat just before he ate it. It was clear to me from his strange behavior that he had one foot in the secular world and the other in the religious. For the next several hours I listened as he told me his story. He was raised Chassidic. His father is a well-known Chassidic scholar and rabbi. When he turned 20, his marriage was arranged. Within the next few years, he had several children. Then he abandoned all the teachings of his past, left his family and community to discover the larger world which he said was full of pitfalls, riches and darkness. “To find God, whose face is hidden from us, we must be like a candle in a dark place…In daylight a lit candle is not seen, but in the outside world where there is often a lack of light, a candle can burn brightly,” he said.
On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Bill Strongin also spoke of a God who is hidden when he quoted Albert Einstein, who said, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
Years ago, I taught dance in a youth prison to boys from 12 to 18 years of age. It was then that I understood what it meant to bring light into a dark place. After five years, my program was dropped. Actually, I was booted out. My transgression was asking an employee to change some light bulbs. It was the evening of the performance and we were expecting 200 guests. There was no light on the stage. “It’s not my job,” the employee said. “It’s not in my union contract. You have to call maintenance.”
“Okay,” I said. “Where are they?”
“They’re not here on the weekend,” he replied. So I strong-armed and guilt-tripped him into climbing up a ladder and changing the light bulbs on the stage. That was curtains for me.
Six months later I was riding the Trailways bus into New York City when a nun sat down behind me. I noticed the man sitting next to her give her a disdainful look, so I turned around and invited her to sit next to me. Coincidently, as it turned out, I knew her. Several years earlier, a priest from Mt. Saint Alphonsus in Esopus asked me to teach him to dance. Although I tried to discourage him, thinking I was an inappropriate teacher for a Catholic priest, he insisted, “I asked you, and you didn’t ask me,” he said. We became inseparable friends and he took me on a Peace and Justice mission to the Caribbean. That’s where I met the Catholic sister.
As often happens with strangers on a train or a bus, the nun and I spent the hour-and-half ride into New York City sharing our life stories. What she found most interesting about my story was that I had taught boys in prison to dance. “We are a contemplative order, only 12 of us, we are all retired and our service is prayer. Could you come to our convent and talk to us about your prison ministry?” she asked. The word “ministry” fell on my Jewish ears rather uncomfortably, but I agreed anyway.
I was told by my priest friend that it was customary to bring a small gift offering to the nuns, so several weeks later, armed with a bunch of organic tomatoes and squash from the garden, I went to the convent to talk about the prison dance program. “What is your biggest wish for your prison ministry, so we will know what to pray for?” one of the sisters asked.
“I would like to go back into prison, teach dance, technically train the boys, choreograph dances about their lives, and then take them to prisons all over the world to show what the boys are capable of when they are their very best selves.”
Just in case their prayers were answered I thought I would ask for something totally unrealistic. You never know.
“Someone did that already, well, not exactly like that,” one of the nuns said. “There is a woman who teaches theater at Sing-Sing prison and her production went to Broadway with actors who had been in prison and are now released. You should get in contact with her and see if she can help you restart your prison dance company.”
I called her. She was polite, but was discouraging. “This might have worked in a boy’s facility, but I doubt you will get men in an adult prison to learn modern dance.”
“Just let me go in once and try,” I asked.
“I will ask the board of directors, but I do not want you to get your hopes up,” she replied.
I invited her to lunch. We talked some more. I pushed.
“I don’t think so,” she said.
The very next day when I went to the mailbox, I found a letter from Ann Rodman who had left New Paltz and was living in Florida. Inside the letter was a short article from a small Florida publication about a woman who taught theater at Sing-Sing and brought her actors, once released, to Broadway.
I thought this was a coincidence, staggeringly beyond ordinary probability.
“Do you know what the Yiddish word ‘ Beshert’ means?” I asked the theater director after I told her about Ann’s letter.
“It means something pre-ordained, destiny, arranged by providence, heaven, or possibly by God.
“Okay,” she said. “You can come teach dance only once and we will see how it goes.”
That was five years ago. I have been in the prison every Sunday ever since. Currently, we are in rehearsal for our fourth modem dance concert “Inside The Walls.” Coincidently, the exact date of the next concert turns out to be the five-year anniversary of the first time I entered the facility and inspired the men to dance. They have asked me to tell this story to the audience before the show.
Who arranged these coincidences? I guess I will just have to trust Albert Einstein’s theory on this one…