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A righteous man 

Jewish wisdom texts refer to "the 36" righteous persons, or "tzaddiks," hidden among us, quietly doing good deeds. The text portentously mentions that if there are not at least 36 of these saintly people living on earth at any one time, the world itself will perish.

A local tzaddik came close to perishing last month. Mark Malachi, spiritual leader of the Unity Center for Peace, is one of our righteous people (though he doesn't walk quietly). I describe Mark as the tattooed, gay, blues-singing, belly-dancing cantor because he's all that. Last month, this apparently healthy 40-year-old holy man was felled by a massive heart attack and ensuing brain damage from which he's now recovering.

Mark's recovery got some help last Friday night in the form of a fine musical benefit show and auction featuring the local talent of a cappella world music singers, Jewelsong; acoustic rockers the Transcenders; new arrival from across the pond Tim Carless; and the fabulous fiddler A.C. Bushnell and his old-timey outfit Cluckin' A. It was a fitting tribute to a man with more than 15 self-produced albums running the gamut from blues to gospel to temple dance. It's all his own stuff, even when he draws from the words and melodies of the ancestors. Mark's lyrics from his most recent CD Opti-Mystic summed up the evening: "The power of community makes us a family as we co-create heaven on earth."

I first met Mark Malachi, whose self-adopted last name means "my messenger" in Hebrew, in the summer of 2000, shortly after he returned here from Santa Fe. Mark was invited by the Chapel Hill Kehillah synagogue to preach a Friday night Sabbath service as a kind of tryout for the young congregation. About 30 of us packed into a warm, cramped room at the Chapel Hill Senior Center. He, his guitar and deep, rich voice brought a spiritual feeling to a weekly ritual that can easily feel stale, rote and disconnected.

The tattoos of a yin yang and Holy Sanskrit OM decorating his bare arms drew some notice that night. After the service, he and I engaged in some spirited talk about the rightness of Jews getting tattooed. I immediately invoked the image of all those Jews tattooed involuntarily by the Nazis. Mark viewed his ink as holy decoration. His upper arm, I later found out, also sports a sunburst surrounding a four-pronged "Shin," the holy 23rd letter of the 22-character Hebrew alphabet, also called "the letter of the world to come."

Tats and all, Mark became prayer leader of a monthly Friday night creative service at the Kehillah, Chapel Hill's first synagogue. With his resonant ceramic dumbek drum, guitar, meditative chanting, infectious smile and beaming presence, Mark drew a good crowd one Friday each month for a year. Carol Land, the Kehillah member who co-created that special service with Mark, told me, "He's channeler, that's what's magical and spiritual about him."

Mark moved on from the Kehillah to eventually become spiritual leader at Unity including not only weekly Sunday services, but continuing monthly Friday night Shabbat services. He also tutored individual bar mitzvah students, performed and recorded music, and taught a unique style of belly dance incorporating ballet, yoga and modern dance. Unity's Web site says, "The core of Mark's teaching is the understanding that God is One, that nothing is excluded from this Oneness, and therefore ... it is incumbent upon all people to demonstrate compassion, acceptance, mutual understanding and love."

Sue Anne Solem, a member of Unity, singer with Jewelsong, and local diva in her own right, told me after Mark's heart attack, "He is the best preacher man I've ever heard in my life. He talks in the most fluent, articulate way I've ever heard.... He has an ability to create a rich, insightful talk and deliver it in the most dramatically vivid and personally touching way. His capacity for compassion and giving you support when you need it is amazing. Plus, he's funny as hell with a playful sense of humor. He's very talented and a great belly dancer. He calls it sacred dance. He's one of the most remarkable people I've ever met."

Mark's spirituality casts a broad net and refuses to be contained or defined by a single tradition. His constant quest and exploration of the mystical elements of faith made me think of the early 19th-century Chasidic mystic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, about whom it was said: "He accepted all types at his table." Rabbi Nachman didn't have health insurance and neither does Mark Malachi. His medical treatment has cost an estimated $100,000 so far. The next benefit concert is Saturday, March 25, at Durham's Eno River Unitarian Fellowship at 7:30 p.m. For more about Mark's condition and recovery contact care team member Dan Hutchins (Dan.hutchins@gmail.com) and for information about future fund-raisers and concerts, call Mariposa Linen at 960-9052.

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