So you think he’s just another Ashland street-scene scrounger, making music of sorts and a buck or two, more stale than fresh off the dusty trail from the Rainbow Gathering in Washington State, slipping southward to points unknown.
Yeah, he would have fooled me if I didn’t know him.
They look like gold-dipped Rasta dreads dangling around his bearded face. And his chanting sounds like a kirtan. And that white cloth turban he winds around his head makes him look like a mullah, the kind of guy the TSA might profile at the airport, if they did that sort of thing. But I know this fella sitting cross-legged behind a beat up harmonium on a threadbare spit of lawn at the Ashland Plaza on a Saturday afternoon.
His name is Raphael Jacob Towers. And he’s a friend of mine. And I love him. For one glorious stretch of early mornings a few years ago, we prayed alone together at the Havurah, in ecstasy singing as the sun sent holy sparks, splinters of blues and greens and reds and yellows shooting through the stain glass tree of life above the ark to dance upon our shawls, to etch deep into our souls.
I wasn’t expecting to write about Raphael today. I was trolling for stories of street musicians and performers who define downtown in summer, as much as the tourists, as much as the Shakespeare Festival. In fact, my notebook was already sufficiently stuffed with stories to share, like the one about the kid with the homemade hickory-neck tambourine banjo who just lost a school bus he’d bought back in Tampa as headquarters for a sustainable skateboard company. And the one about Mike, the middle-aged actor making his own hours while managing minimum wage as a living statue of a crusty gold miner. Mike, who’s still mourning for the death of his partner, a ring neck dove named Pierre who used to perch on his hand while he posed.
So yeah, I already had my material when I came upon Raphael. But this wasn’t just a Saturday. It was Shabbos too, a holy day, a holiday, the one day each week I try being some kind of spiritual sponge, which meant I couldn’t pass him by with just a hug and a mere hello, not a guy who never failed to teach me something. Besides, my pen still had ink to spare and my notebook pages left to fill.
I had questions too, as I always did with Raphael, questions I hadn’t had the chance to ask since he returned a while back from a year or so in Israel. Questions I might not ask without my pad in hand and my reporter’s license to be nosy.
Like about those dreadlocks. “Rasta?” I ask.
Nope, he says. Old time Jewish. From the Good Book. Authentic as you can get. Mahlephoth, he calls them, a transliteration of the Hebrew found in the Book of Judges, a reference to “the seven locks [of hair] on Samson’s head.”
Now Samson, Raphael reminds me, was a nazir, dedicated from birth, in his case, to a life of abstention from alcohol, contact with corpses and, from ever cutting his hair, hair that becomes, famously, his source of spiritual—and physical—strength.
“He couldn’t even risk running a comb through it because a few hairs would inevitably rip out in the process.” The dreads, says Raphael, are simply what happens when you don’t come or brush.
“So what about the wrap-around turban?”
From the old country, he says. No, not my parents’ old country, of Eastern Europe or mine of Brooklyn. The style, he says, is sourced in the traditions of Afghani Jews, and a metaphor of the crown, symbolic of God’s protection.”
“And the kirtan-like music you’re singing?”
“Hebrew qawwall,” says Raphael, referring to a traditional sufi devotional music popular in South Asia that spread to the Jews of the region by osmosis. (Os-Moses?)
“You could call me a Judeo-sufi,” he says. In fact, he cites the son of the 13th Century Jewish sage Maimonides, who considered the Moslem sufi practice a kosher preparation for biblical prophecy.
For the record, Raphael, who hails from Seneca Falls, N.Y. and just turned 30, refreshes me how he appeared in Ashland six years ago. Plucking himself from a hitchhiker’s nightmare—he’d been heading south to catch a flight from somewhere to Hawaii—he bailed out of a high-risk ride; the vibes were bad and the driver was running on high-octane vodka.
“I thought I’d spend a day here playing music,” he says. “A day became a week and amazing things started happening.”
He found a home and a succession of gigs at the Havurah Shir Hadash, playing music for the Sunday School, teaching adult classes in chanting Torah and running sound for services and events. An appreciative member of the congregation even gave him a rent-free place to live. He’s tried leaving town a few times, once for half a year to attend a Hasidic yeshiva in Brooklyn, and then the year in Israel, but he keeps on coming back.
“One of my friends called me a Jew-merang.”
For the record, Raphael did just return from a week at the Rainbow Gathering where he might have run into 24-year-old Nicholas Alexander, the sustainable skateboard fellow who lost his school bus on the way. Look for more on Nick and Mike, the living statue guy, and other street performers in my September column.
Don’t miss Raphael and friends in a special concert at the Havurah on Thursday, Aug. 18 at 7 p.m. I’ll see you there. In the meantime, you can sample Raphael’s extraordinary performances on his YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/raphaelyaakov. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.