Minor League Jewish Holidays

May 10th, 2015

by Sam Glaser

A summary of every Jewish holiday:

 “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!

-Alan King

“I got a job on Madison Avenue in New York…and they fired me cause I took off too many Jewish holidays!”

-Woody Allen

 As soon as the Passover seders have passed, most are happy to NOT celebrate so much for a while.  And yet, there are another six days of matzah munching and another dozen holidays in the space of a month and a half.  Who needs to work?  Several important commemorations dot the calendar during the seven weeks leading up to the anniversary of receiving the Torah, Shavuot. I felt that any description of the Jewish festive cycle must make mention of these milestones that are typically left out of the holiday hall of fame.  Therefore, for this chapter I’m cramming in all of the lesser blips on the radar so that you don’t miss out on any of the fun.

The 15/16th of Nissan:

The Passover Seders…it’s matzah time!

The 16th of Nissan:
As soon as the first day of Pesach is over we start a special period called S’firat Ha’omer, where we count the forty-nine days until Shavuot, which occurs on the fiftieth day.  Forty-nine is a crucial number in Judaism; since the number seven runs throughout the fabric of reality, logically seven squared is also significant.

In the days of the Temple a certain measurement known as an “omer” of barley was offered on the second day of Pesach. Then we would start the countdown, building up our excitement for the climactic event of human history in the year 2448, the first Shavuot at Mount Sinai. Eventually this period became associated with the various permutations of the seven kabbalistic s’firot (Godly emanations through which God interacts with the world.)  This daily roadmap of spiritual growth opportunities allows us to refine our character traits to prepare for the ultimate “kabbalah,” personally receiving the Torah.  These days we commemorate this count with a simple blessing and then a counting of our own each night.  It’s a tremendous burden to remember to count every single day…if we miss even one, we can no longer make the blessing the rest of the nights!  God forbid I miss out on a chance to make a blessing!  I’m very grateful for technology to keep me in the mix: I get an email every day to remind me and my iphone siddur concludes the ma’ariv service with a listing of the proper day.

During Rabbi Akiva’s time, the Talmud tells us that 12,000 pairs of his students died during S’firat Ha’omer since they didn’t treat each other with proper respect.  Therefore this period became associated with an awareness of the importance of achdut (Jewish unity) and a state of semi-mourning.  Celebrations like weddings, bar/bat mitzvah parties, concerts or even niceties like the joy of a shave or haircut are prohibited.  The bottom line is that what should have been a time of joyous anticipation is now subdued.  I must admit that these restrictions are somewhat of a bummer, especially for frum musicians.  With no parties or events in need of live music, many hunker down in the studio or take extended vacations, wondering how they will pay the rent come June.  The one exception to the rule is singing without instruments and thanks to this leniency, grateful a capella groups sell lots of albums this time of year.

The 17th of Nissan:

The intermediate days of Passover begin as soon as the second day (or the first day in Israel) of the holiday has ended.  Yes, it’s still officially Pesach!  The status of these four intermediate “Chol Hamo’ed” days is one of festive nature but most types of work can be done.  Our prayers are of the weekday variety with special holiday insertions, plus the addition of a celebratory Hallel, Torah reading and Mussaf.  That means that the whole week one is spending a lot of time in shul!  FYI: Chol Hamo’ed also takes place during the week of Sukkot in the fall.  Many in the working world attempt to keep their jobs intact by showing up in the office normally, or as normal as one can appear when munching matzah at the lunch break.  I think it’s best (and the rabbis agree,) if at all possible to take the time off, to relax and enjoy day trips with friends and family.  We love the fact that the amusement parks, hiking spots and beaches are empty, unless of course Passover coincides with Spring Break.  There are certain restrictions in place to keep a sense of the sacred…check with your favorite rabbi for details.  The Shabbat of Chol Hamoed is a unique collision of holiday joy and Sabbath sanctity.  The services are usually particularly sweet and are enhanced with the public reading of the evocative love poetry of Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs.

21st/22nd of Nissan:

The last two days of the week of Pesach:  These days are treated with the same restrictions as any Jewish holiday.  There are no special observances other than the pleasure of hearing the Torah portion featuring the splitting of the Red Sea read on the anniversary of our crossing.  The eighth day of the holiday is one of a few times per year that we stop to remember those loved ones who have left the earth in a short memorial ceremony called Yizkor.  Since I’m typically leading Passover programs around the country, these extra two days after a busy week of concerts for Chol Hamo’ed offer much needed r&r.  If you have the opportunity to share the final meal of the eighth day with Chassidim you will be treated to another four cups of wine and plenty of song and spirit during their annual “Mashiach Seudah.” This festive meal echoes the themes of the Haftorah reading of the day, which heralds the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

 The 26th of Nissan:

The first of the many commemorations on the heels of Pesach is Yom HaShoah.  This date was chosen by the Israeli government to memorialize the six million since it is close to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, representing the indomitable Jewish spirit, even though the uprising was doomed.  Whereas the Orthodox world maintains that Tisha B’av covers all the maladies throughout history, I think it is appropriate that the Holocaust has it’s own milestone to keep the memory fresh.  While it is much more of an event in the Holy Land, Diaspora organizations typically hold memorials featuring survivor testimonials, and it is also the day that over 10,000 participants on the annual March of the Living meet in Auschwitz. I am often asked to perform songs like my Born To Remember or One Hand, One Heart songs at ceremonial gatherings and I appreciate the opportunity to help my fellow Jews connect both to the vast destruction and the miracle of our survival.

 The 1st and 2nd of Iyar:

The next special day is actually one that occurs every month.  Rosh Chodesh (head of the month) and is the celebration of the new moon/new month.  This mitzvah is the very first commandment given to the Jews as a free people in Egypt.  In other words, now that we are no longer slaves, not only are we accountable for how we spend our time, but we also have the opportunity to sanctify it.  The first month we had the chance to commemorate in Egypt was Nissan, and knowing when Rosh Chodesh occurred gave us the chronological awareness of when to take the lamb for the Passover sacrifice and then which day the seder (and exodus) would occur.  Two weeks after the full moon on Nissan ushers in Pesach it’s time for the next Rosh Chodesh, this time for the month of Iyar.

Rosh Chodesh is formally announced during the Torah service on the prior Shabbat.  Leading that “Shabbat Mevarchim” service is one of my favorite pieces of chazzanut and is always a happy moment for the community, not only for the optimism with which we greet the new month, but also because in many synagogues in our neighborhood it means that there will be a sumptuous free lunch.  One of the beautiful aspects of Rosh Chodesh is that determining the precise day was the job of the Sanhedrin; in other words, it was up to mankind to determine exactly when our sacred holidays take place.  The Sabbath comes every week but the holidays are a powerful sign of man’s partnership in the destiny of the universe.

 Rosh Chodesh prayer service includes Hallel and a special Mussaf.  Hallel is a series of King David’s Psalms that describe our national redemption, God’s love for the Jewish People and how we reciprocate with dutiful partnership and gratitude. Yes, you should buy my Hallel album to get into the feeling and memorize the words!  These poetic verses are typically sung with abandon and have served as a beacon of hope in our long exile.

The primary theme of Rosh Chodesh is the

miracle of the eternal Jewish People, how like the moon we wax and wane over the millennia but keep on shining.  Chodesh is also closely related to the word for newness, chadash.  The fact that we follow a lunar-based calendar demonstrates that we emphasize the importance of welcoming newness in our lives.  New insights, fresh inspiration, renewed hope and of course, new music.  Rosh Chodesh is also known as the women’s holiday; according to the Talmud it is a special day of the spirit given to women as a reward for their unwavering faith throughout the ages.

The 3rd of Iyar:

Yom Hazikaron is Israel’s official Memorial Day for the remembrance of those who fell in war or in acts of terrorism. Back in 1951 the Israel government declared that it was best to separate the ecstatic celebration of Independence Day from the mourning and memory, so Yom Hazikaron was moved to the day before.  One-minute sirens are sounded at the start of the day at 8pm and then again the following morning at 11am when the official ceremonies begin.  This practice of solemnity before jubilation heightens the awareness of the price paid for Jewish independence.   For Modern Orthodox in the Diaspora the two are juxtaposed at large scale public gatherings in most cities during the early evening of the third of Iyar.  Typically the events consist of an array of sweet but poorly rehearsed school choirs singing memorial dirges that segue into songs of victory.  The requisite theme colors are blue and white, local dignitaries utter sound bites of support and then everyone sings a very moving Hatikvah together.

The 4th of Iyar:

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day is a serious party throughout the Land of Israel.  Crowds gather for concerts and dancing and proudly display Israeli flags on their apartments, cars and bodies.  BBQ’s abound and an interesting custom of bashing strangers on the head with squeaky plastic hammers has evolved.  Since we usually don’t have that day off in the Diaspora the commemorations are typically moved to the Sunday before or after with gala concerts taking place in large outdoor settings.  Yom Ha’atzmaut is an amazing time of Jewish unity since love for Israel is one thing upon which all Jews can agree.  I love seeing all my holy brothers and sisters from the four corners of the earth rejoicing together and that experience alone is worth braving the traffic and heat at the local events. Most synagogues have special morning services to commemorate the day and include Hallel to acknowledge the miraculous nature of Israel’s founding.

The 14th of Iyar:

Pesach Sheni is perhaps the dimmest blip on the annual holiday radar.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach called it the “capitol of second chances” since its initiation came as a result of spiritually impure individuals arguing to Moses that they too had a right to a Passover celebration.  God established that the month after the official seder would be the designated time when such individuals could bring the offering to the Temple.  Nowadays most forget about the holiday until it’s time to utter the penitential Tachanun prayers in the morning service and the rabbi reminds everyone, to their immense relief, that thanks to Pesach Sheni they can be skipped.

The 18th of Iyar:

Lag B’omer is an acronym of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel, signifying the 33rd day of the counting of the omer.  The day commemorates the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great mystic who popularized the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah in his text, the Zohar.  He commanded his disciples to rejoice on this day and therefore parties replete with bonfires, concerts and dancing erupt throughout the world in celebration of his life and the revelation of the hidden secrets of Torah.  Also, according to tradition the aforementioned tragedy with Rabbi Akiva’s students ended on this day so most Jews welcome the end of the mourning aspect of the S’firat Ha’omer period.

My brother Yom Tov makes an annual pilgrimage to the site of Rabbi Shimon’s grave in Meron where hundreds of thousands of Chassidim dance in an all night bacchanalian frenzy.  Many save the official third birthday first haircut of their boys for this event.  Here in the States I am usually leading a citywide jam session sponsored by Chabad, attended mostly by young adults.  These outdoor gigs are always rowdy and amusing. One local LA rabbi who hired me to do his event on the beach insisted that I bring my full PA system.  I wasn’t excited about the combination of my expensive electronics, drunken revelers and sand, but I acquiesced.  Sure enough he had dragged hundreds of feet of extension cords across the bike path so that I could properly crank it up. Of course before the first note sounded the local authorities promptly put an end to this negligent behavior.  I then had to scramble to find a local friend with a guitar and endeavored to make hundreds of people happy without the help of amplification.

The 28th of Iyar:

Yom Yerushalayim commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem following the 1967 Six Day War.  Many remember this time as the apex of international Jewish pride and unity.  For all of us who have spent time in the holy city and feel so connected and at home while wandering it’s golden pathways, we relish in this day to dwell upon her triumphs.  Religious Zionists insist that the recitation of Hallel is even more pertinent on this day than Israel Independence Day.  While not widely celebrated outside of Israel it is often occasion for public gatherings and concerts, especially on the milestone years.

The 1st of Sivan:

Rosh Chodesh once again!  That makes for a total of a dozen “holidays” for your enjoyment between the seders and Shavuot on the 6th/7th of Sivan.  Welcome to the Minor Leagues!  Whoever said “it is hard to be a Jew” clearly missed the point; being Jewish is a PARTY!  I hope to celebrate with all of you together in Jerusalem, speedily in our day.

It’s a Woman’s World: An Inside View of “Women’s” Mitzvot.

February 12th, 2015

By Sam and Shira Glaser

At the risk of sounding sexist (too late!,) there are certain rituals in Judaism that are considered the territory of women.  Rather than pontificating from this man’s point of view, I thought I would interview my wife Shira to obtain her enlightened perspective.  Shira and I took the journey of mitzvah observance together beginning in 1991.  She runs a joyful, well-managed kosher household and is adored by her grateful husband and three kids.  Shira is whip-smart, high functioning, athletic, maternal and giving.  She is the type of generous guest who will bring half the meal and won’t leave until she cleans up your whole kitchen.  She is a reliable resource for countless friends in need and is a pillar of strength for all who are lucky enough to know her.  I should add that she has an MBA, spent years in finance and marketing for major corporations and makes incredible humus. Who better to interview on the subject than my overachieving wife?

Shira, darling, can you describe your weekly Shabbat candlelighting ritual?

OK. The panic and rush of Friday comes to a shrieking halt.  I set up five candles (two plus one for each of my three kids) on the silver candlesticks that I received for our wedding. I light, cover my eyes, sing the blessing and then daven (pray.)  Shabbas candlelighting is a special time of focus for me.  First I take time to recognize God as my creator and provider, then I request the things I need and hope for.  I then pray for you, for our kids one by one, for our extended family, friends and the Jewish People.  I take an extra moment to cover specific family and friends that need refuah (healing,) parnasa (income) or a shiddach (spouse.)

I enter a totally new space after I light.  All distractions are gone. It’s very freeing.  No matter how much is going on, I can’t worry about whatever didn’t get done.  It’s nice to just let it go.  I try to light at the official eighteen-minute mark so that I’m taking on Shabbas with the whole community.  Sometimes I’m not quite ready so I keep in mind that I’m not taking on the laws of Shabbat for another few minutes while I finish all the details.

It takes discipline to be present for candlelighting.  Some of the time, especially when we have a big table, I’m panicked.  Over the years the Shabbas hustle (a tense time in the hour before Shabbas comes in) has become more manageable. I pace myself and I feel that it’s disrespectful to Shabbas to rush it.  Of course there are unforeseen circumstances so it’s not always so smooth.  The yetzer harah (inclination to blow it) is very powerful before Shabbas…we all have be careful to not lose our cool.

Candlelighting is one of my main prayer moments of my week.  The fact is that I’m praying most of the day. One thing that makes

candlelighting so sweet is that since her Bat Mitzvah I share it with Sarah (our fifteen-year-old daughter.)  She lights two candles of her own and we sing the bracha together using the Glaser family melody written by Max Helfman

at Brandeis Camp.  When Bubbie (Sam’s mom) and any extended family members are lighting with us, it’s a really amazing scene.  Bubbie lights over twenty-five candles…for her sixteen grandkids, all her kids and siblings.  Quite a sight!

Why do you suppose candlelighting is considered a woman’s mitzvah?

Well, our tradition tells us that Sarah the matriarch was the first to light candles and that her candles stayed lit miraculously the whole week.  They brought peace into her tent with Avraham and weren’t extinguished until she died.  Then when Rivkah took on the custom and the miracles reoccurred, it was clear that she was Sarah’s righteous successor.  I guess that women bring light into the household.  It’s the woman’s domain.  Especially the kitchen!  I’m pretty traditional in that I like to have my hands in every aspect of the house.  I maintain order, keep things stocked, cook and do the laundry

Obviously the traditional roles aren’t for everybody.  They work for me.  I think women have a more inward focus…just look at our bodies.  The way we were created is inside-oriented, more loving and nurturing.  I’ll be the first to admit that I am a homebody.  For example, I like doing laundry because touching your clothes lets me learn about you…what you did that day, if you worked out, what you ate.  I impart love into the laundry!  Having clean clothes lets you worry about other things because the fundamentals are taken care of.  I think kids need a sturdy platform from which they can spring.  Our kids don’t need to worry about what they are going to eat or wear, and that builds security, gives them a sense of confidence.  It’s important to me that our kids can trust us to be reliable, to always provide the essentials.  When they learn to be trusting of us, I think they will be able to trust others and have intimate relationships in their own lives.  There are many languages of love, and cooking and cleaning are how I love you.

Speaking of cooking, doesn’t it get old always having meals ready for your hungry family?

I get pleasure when my family eats with gusto.  I really strive to make things that everyone likes, the common denominator dishes. There’s something very intimate about feeding your family.  People feel love towards the one feeding them. It’s an intimate bond our kids have had with me since they were babies.  It’s connective…that’s just my gut feeling. Also, I’m using recipes that have been passed down from grandmothers.  The food I make ties us all moms together…it’s so deep…beyond lifetimes!  If we relied on take out food I feel that something maternal and sentimental would be missing.  And if we relied on you to cook, we would all starve!

Thanks.  That brings us to another famous woman’s mitzvah, baking challah.  Any thoughts?

I can’t seem to get organized enough to make it and I’ve had too many disasters in the past.  Making challah makes me feel A.D.D….I just can’t get it right.  We’re lucky in that we live in a place where there are lots of bakeries that make delicious challot.  Someday I hope to make it myself.

In the challah baking workshops that I’ve attended I’ve learned that it’s a special, spiritual food.  It’s one that requires significant human interaction in partnership with God.  Apples, bananas, veggies, meat…those things don’t require so much partnership.  But going from seed to plant to harvest to threshing to grinding to kneading and baking…that’s an awesome symbol of human effort combined with God’s gifts.  In the desert our people were dependent on Manna from heaven.  The motzi blessing thanks God for bread from the ground.  When they got to Israel it amazed the Israelites that bread didn’t just fall from the heavens but instead came from the ground…wow! Challah teaches that all our achievement is never really our own; that everything happens with only God’s help.

Every ingredient of challah is symbolic.  The oil is the medium for anointing and when adding the oil you can feel like you are anointing every member of your family like royalty.  Let the sugar overflow so the goodness and sweetness overflows for the family.  I’m sparing with the salt since it represents judgment.  Eggs represent the human lifecycle and the preciousness of time.  When we go to a friend’s home where the challah is homemade I can sense all the blessing that these women have invested.  I watch you guys in consuming in glutenous ecstasy.  Without a doubt our favorite is bubbie’s onion challah.  The taste is indescribable.

How do you avoid feeling burdened by all the cooking and entertaining for Shabbat and holidays?

Some of the women in our community set the bar so high that even my best effort is going to fail in comparison.  I realized that I have to make Shabbat MY best, not THEIR best. If you’re Martha Stewart, then great, go for it.  It’s important not to get trapped into thinking that the festive meals have be high level or not at all. My Shabbas and Yom Tov (holiday) meals are my expression, my creativity.  I like things clean and simple, so I keep things simple.  Light and healthy…that’s my style.  We don’t stuff ourselves or eat fried and processed food during the week, so we’re not going to do it on Shabbat.

My meals usually have sumptuous, fresh appetizers and great, homemade desserts.  I like to start and end with a bang.  One thing that I’m obsessed about is making desert.  I don’t bake challah but I make everything else.  (One time when we were all invited to a neighbor’s home for lunch my daughter asked, “Excuse me, but do you have anything homemade?”  Yes, our kids are spoiled!)

Do you feel compelled to have guests most of the time?

We do our best outreach at our table. You run the proceedings, keeping everyone engaged in conversation, words of Torah and music.  I keep the food and drink flowing.  Our tables have become so popular that they are the places that people want to send first timers or bring their parents when they come to town.  I love sharing our family’s unique gifts.  I think we make Judaism look good and we give singles something to emulate in their future households.  Yes, I get burned out.  Everybody does.  I have to pace myself.  Sometimes it’s just our family and it’s more casual.  Still, Shabbas is a big step up from weekdays.  We always eat in the dining room, have multiple courses, use tablecloths, fresh flowers and use the fancy glassware.

Our kids have grown up seeing that having guests is an important mitzvah.  I know they will want this feeling for themselves.  I do a lot of meals for community members who are sick or have just given birth.  I always get you and the kids to help in the preparation or delivery so that they share the mitzvah and have a learning experience.  One thing I realized with our kids is they always must be the focus at meals.  Since our tables are mostly outreach oriented it’s tempting to put the kids at the “kids table” and concentrate on the guests.  Whenever possible I include them in the proceedings, sitting them next to you, making them part of the adult conversation.  They love telling our guests jokes and often initiate the games we play and the songs we sing.  This way they have grown up loving having guests and they don’t feel excluded when others are invited.  And for our guests who don’t typically have kids around, they relish in joining the mischief of “Anger Bottle” and “Ghost in the Graveyard” games (email Sam for the rules!)

Nowadays I’m very aware of the brevity of the childrearing years.  With one kid out of the house and another about to graduate, I’m a bit selfish with sharing them.  Shabbas is the time when they are undistracted by media and cell phones…we have them to ourselves and they really open up and share with us.  Therefore I’m not so compelled to be entertaining as much.  This is truly a precious time.

Since you keep track of the finances in our family that puts you are in charge of tzedakah (charity), making sure we always give at least ten percent.  Any comments on this mitzvah?

Tzedakah is not just about giving money.  It’s about giving time and attention to the needy.  Tzedakah is justice.  God gives us our income as a test to see what we’re going to do with it.  I want to live in a world where people look out for one another.  So I start with me.

There are so many charities competing for our attention.  I think of them as balls flying through the air that need catching.  You can’t juggle all of them and must remember that only certain ones have your name on them. Catch that ball and make it yours.  Make it personal and meaningful. We have friends and relatives that have burned out on tzedakah.  I’ve heard it said, “If yes to them means no to you, then the answer is no.”  Part of the giving process is knowing when to say no and I know you have a hard time saying no to anyone.  As it stands we pay dues to four synagogues and by now we should be partial owners of two Jewish Day Schools.  By the way, there is also a law that states one shouldn’t give more than 20%.  Halacha recognizes that you want the giver to retain the ability to give in the future.

For me the big priority is Jewish day

school education. As we are witnessing in our rapidly assimilating country, there is no Jewish continuity without it.  This is my mission: to have substantial subsidies available for any parent in the Diaspora that wants to give their kids a day school education.  Middle Class families should not have to endure dire economic sacrifices to raise Jewish kids.  That said, I think it’s one of the most worthy sacrifices.

Can you comment on using the mikvah and what it has done for our relationship?

For me, the experience has evolved. At first I was nervous and self-conscious, worried that I’d do something wrong.  Then as I grew more confident I learned to love it.  I have always enjoyed the preparation.  I feel like I’ve accomplished something sacred and I feel elevated when I come back.  When I’m in the bath scrubbing, plucking, exfoliating, shaving, I feel just like a regal Queen Esther.  Who wouldn’t want a monthly spa treatment, to spend such concentrated time on oneself?

Of course the best part of the anticipation and preparation is that it makes our relations so special.  I think it’s natural to want to separate for a period of time.  It’s probably harder for you than me to be apart.  During those twelve days (five days of menstruation plus seven clean days) we manage to build up a sweet tension and it makes the monthly honeymoon so passionate.  It makes us relish the time we are able to be together, knowing that it’s not forever.  Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. The more careful we are with details of taharat mishpacha (family purity) the more intense our reunion.  Part of that feeling of getting back together is the satisfaction that we are doing the right thing in God’s eyes, that we are living holy lives and sanctifying the family.  Hopefully it creates a holy environment for our kids…so far so good.

Using the mikvah also implies that sex is a crucial aspect of a marital relationship.  Participation in a relationship means participating in sex.  I believe I heard Dennis Prager say on the radio that twice a week is the bare minimum!  A loving couple makes time for relations.  They should never be rushed.  It’s a chance to focus on each other’s needs, to light candles, relax, to fall asleep in each other’s arms.  When couples lose their desire for one another I know they are in trouble.  When only one member wants abstention for any given period of time it can cause feelings of abandonment.  This ritual keeps the passion hot by building mutual abstention into the fabric of the relationship.  It’s genius.

What are you thinking about in the mikvah?

The way it works is that after preparing at home I do the final touches at the mikvah.  Then when it’s my turn I enter the soothing water and submerge completely, making sure that every strand of hair is underwater.  I keep my eyes and mouth slightly open so that the water goes everywhere.  If all looks good when I come up, the mikvah lady says “kosher” and hands me a washcloth to cover my hair and make the “al hatevilah” bracha (the blessing over the mikvah mitzvah.)  Then I give back the washcloth and dunk two more times.  My kavanah (focus) when I’m underwater is very intense: the first time I dunk I daven for specific friends that I hope will meet their besheret (soulmate.)  I pray that they too will have the opportunity to use this ritual to sanctify their relationship.  The next dunk I daven for all my needs and then the third time I daven for you and the kids.  For the record, this is my custom.  What one does and how many times they submerge could be very different based on what was taught to them during their kallah (bridal) classes or what was handed down from mother to daughter.

Going to the mikvah is such a private, personal opportunity for prayer.  Friends of mine who no longer use the mikvah have empowered me to daven on behalf of people who are childless or in need of healing. Nowadays I never know if it’s my last time to the mikvah.  Many of my peers have been through menopause and I know my turn is coming.  That makes me appreciate the whole process even more.

I know some women think it’s sexist to be considered “niddah” or impure, but I prefer the idea that my period makes me “unavailable” for relations, not dirty or impure, God forbid.  It gives us a chance to learn to function in a non-sexual manner.  Taharat Mishpacha isn’t pejorative, it’s simply about appreciating the monthly gift of the ability to create new life and the conscious awareness of when that opportunity departs.

How do you feel about davening with a mechitza?

I don’t mind it.  As long as it’s practical, not a huge barrier.  It’s ok for us to see the men.  I like those shuls that have one-way glass or fabric.  The fact is that I’m in shul to daven.  Not to socialize or hold your hand.   That’s just a distraction.  I tell women who are gabbing away that they should just come to the Kiddush.  A mechitza clarifies what we are supposed to be doing…our attention shouldn’t be going horizontally, it should be going vertically!

There’s a feeling of sisterhood just having women together.  It’s good to be in a “girl zone” once in a while.  It’s so rare that the genders are separated in our society and there’s certainly a place for it.  I just read an article that researchers have shown that guys need nights out with the guys.  Certainly women create powerful camraderie when they are on their own.

Do you ever wish you could be called to the Torah for an aliyah?

I personally don’t have a desire to be called to the Torah.  But I can certainly understand that there are women who would want to do that.  It’s a modesty issue in traditional Judaism.  We have shuls in the neighborhood with women’s services, it’s just not my thing.  I do like to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah so I go to the shuls where that’s the custom.  Once again, I’m a traditionalist on these women/men separation issues.

I think egalitarianism as a sacred Jewish value is a slippery slope.  One compromise leads to others and eventually that movement is so far away.  The fact is that women can do everything.  We are the pinnacle of creation, the final being created and the most God-like in our ability to give life.  If women are so involved with the prayer leadership that the men get pushed aside, it’s not a good thing.  I’ve seen in many of the synagogues that I’ve visited on your concert tours that the men have opted out.  It’s like they are saying, “Oh great, you women have this handled!  I’ll just watch a ball game or get more work done.” Men clearly need to have their participation compulsory.  To be wrapped up in leather and bound to synagogue leadership and mitzvot.  Women are connected to God more naturally.  Men just won’t show up unless they feel that it’s up to them to keep Judaism going.  I vote that we not take their job away.

How do you feel about the emphasis of separate roles for men and women?

I believe that the genders are VERY different and efforts to blend them are foolhardy.  I heard Lori Palatnik, the incredible founder of the Jewish Women’s Initiative say, “Men need to be respected and women need to be loved.  I don’t know why!”  In other words, there are God-given realities here that we shouldn’t mess with.  Most men want to be head of the household and get respect from their wives and children.  Women want to be worshipped, to be made to feel that they are their husband’s only priority.  If they don’t feel like they are number one, they feel hated.  If their husbands are always busy with their buddies, obsessing over their hobbies or up all night with porn, it’s sending the message “you are not enough for me.”  I’m sure that our forefather Jacob loved both Leah and Rachel.  But because he loved Rachel more, the Torah tells us that Leah felt hatred.

I’m comfortable with femininity and support your masculinity.  I like that you take initiative in guiding our family’s destiny, plan our vacations or that you get the guys to go out on the town for your “Pico Men’s Club” outings.  I’ve learned not to criticize you in front of others or to gossip about you.  I like that you take a leadership role on Shabbat.  I’m careful never to undermine you with our kids or say, “Who cares what dad says” when making decisions. I see friends roll their eyes when their husbands make dumb comments.  It’s all about body language.  I’m not perfect but I do feel you flourish when you feel respected.  And you do a great job in complimenting me, expressing desire for me and making me feel loved.  And you take out the trash, as long as I remind you.

Yes, dear.

TGIF

January 20th, 2015

By Sam Glaser

I am who I am thanks to Shabbat. Thanks to this biblically mandated ancient institution I have peace of mind, a flourishing community, a great relationship with my spouse and children and a career where I traverse the country singing its praises.  I always enjoyed Shabbat as a kid. Our Friday night dinners were filled with singing, great food and extended family.  But the real magic of Shabbat was revealed only when I dove into the supernal pool of these twenty-five hour weekly rest days with total abandon, no turning back.

I was advised early on not to tell anyone that I was Shomer Shabbat (fully Sabbath observant) until I was all the way there. Otherwise I might get caught weaseling out of a family function that I didn’t really want to attend but making an exception for a reunion concert of a favorite rock band.  It took me six years once I began the process of learning about the intricacies of Shabbat and actually taking it on 100%.  I’m glad I did the baby-step routine; it made every hour that I added onto my sacred day a personal discovery, a triumph.

I found that there is a power in “closing the loop,” creating a new reality by taking on Shabbat in all of it’s facets regardless of any extenuating circumstances.  I guess it’s a bit like the institution of marriage, but here the spouse to whom you are promising fidelity is the Creator of the Universe.  I describe this level of commitment as the difference between inflating a balloon with helium that is perforated versus one that is intact. Try to fill a balloon with holes and it never gets off the ground. But when you close up that last escape hatch for that gas to escape, you now possess a craft that can fly to the highest atmosphere.  I didn’t really understand this until I was “in.” Strange as it sounds, I have found that building an unbreakable relationship with Shabbat has allowed me to soar, to dwell in a parallel universe.

When you meet someone who has become Sabbath Observant you can be pretty sure you are dealing with someone of bulletproof integrity. Someone whose word is his or her bond, who can handle commitment.  Sabbath observers typically have inculcated the value of restraint, of postponing gratification for a greater good.  Now when an exciting outing or a gig opportunity will trample my holy Sabbath, there can be only one answer.  Ask any Ba’al Teshuva (one who has taken on Jewish tradition) if they can imagine life without Shabbat.  I can guarantee you that he or she wouldn’t trade this precious weekly taste of paradise for the world.

Every week our home is whitewashed: sheetschanged, floors scrubbed and a fresh batch of flowers festoons even the bathrooms. We wear our best clothes, enjoy a multi-course feast in the dining room with our crystal goblets and polished silver, singing songs both sacred and secular and offering words of Torah.  We also do a lot of laughing together, play board and card games and tell stories.  Of course, when we have guests we take the meal up a notch, drink l’chaims and go around the table so guests can introduce themselves and perhaps mention something special from the past week for which they are grateful. Thanks to my incredible wife, our Shabbat table is the stuff of Pico-Robertson legend and I’m told that obtaining an invite is considered an “E-ticket” opportunity.

We are members of four synagogues in our unusual neighborhood and I do my best to “shul-hop” based on my mood, a sudden intuition or whichever shul among the fifty within walking distance has a special speaker or simcha. Happily, wherever I show up I am usually coaxed into leading the davening.  I generally say yes regardless of my level of exhaustion. There are lots of things that one can’t do on Shabbat.  I can tell you now that our community is very busy doing the things you can!  That’s eating, drinking, praying, shmoozing, spending time with family and perhaps most importantly, taking a much needed, luxurious nap on Saturday afternoon.

Our family has no physical record of any Shabbat or Holiday celebration for the past few decades.  No photos of my wife’s beautifully set tables, videos of our raucous singing or transcription of the many scintillating discussions. Shabbat is truly an island in time, a dimension that cannot be grasped with cameras or recording devices.  It is the stuff of ephemera and it would make little sense to attempt to commemorate the experience to be enjoyed later on. You won’t find a Shabbat photo album or a video of a Glaser seder. Funny how these special days are ineffable, transient and yet are the most real things in our lives.

Thanks to the extensive preparation required, Shabbat is something that we celebrate all week.  My wife saves her best recipes for the festive meals and spends the week planning the guest list and visiting various markets and bakeries for ingredients.  I read the weekly Torah portion while eating my cereal each morning so that I am in sync with the entire Jewish world and have something novel to share at my Shabbat meals.  I make sure the dry cleaning is picked up by Friday so that we all have our Shabbas clothes pressed and ready. When we do all these things, we try to keep the awareness that these mundane weekly activities are done l’kavod Shabbat (to honor Shabbat.) I must admit that I also binge on my work on Wednesday and Thursday nights knowing that I have Shabbat coming to catch up on my sleep.

Becoming Shomer Shabbat requires a temporal shift in the perspective of one’s week.  This is hinted to in the laws regarding Havdalah, the ceremony with which we commemorate the Sabbath’s departure on Saturday night.  If you miss saying Havdalah on Saturday night you can say it up until sunset of Tuesday.  That’s because Sunday, Monday and Tuesday day are considered in the “shadow” of the previous Shabbat.  From Tuesday night and on we are in the space anticipating the upcoming Shabbat.  I think that the lesson here is that the day of rest is not the “end” of the week, like reaching the finish line after a six days of work and then collapsing.  Instead it is the centerpiece of every week, the pinnacle, the raison d’être.  Perhaps the best symbol of this is the golden menorah in the Temple, with its primary central branch and the three on either side that angled towards it. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to say during his very long Havdalah services that the Kiddush we make in this ceremony isn’t just to separate the sacred from the profane, it’s to inject the profane with the sacred.  When Shabbat and a God-focused, holy life is the center of our week, we float on an exalted raft of blessing upon the raging river of life.  We innately perceive that the energy of the previous Shabbat is only three days behind us and another life giving, faith-building day is imminent.

The prayers on Shabbat are longer and hopefully more musical than their weekday counterpart. Shabbat is the time when a mourner’s chiyuv (halachic priority) to lead the service is superseded by the importance of having a trained chazzan with natural musical leadership ability.  The celebration starts with a final weekday Mincha (afternoon) service and segues into the special Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony to welcome the Sabbath bride. Then evening prayers are followed by a festive meal. On Saturday we have extra prayers in the Psukei D’zimra (Psalms of praise) and Shema section plus the inclusion of Mussaf to commemorate the additional sacrifice in biblical times.  Add that to the full-length Torah readings and you have a nearly three-hour marathon that can exhaust even the most penitent.  It doesn’t help that the halacha stipulates that one shouldn’t eat before services but must wait until hearing Kiddush.  Therefore, I recommend to newcomers that they take their time nurturing this acquired taste.  In other words, yes, optimally you should be in the synagogue for all the prayers, but no, you shouldn’t do so if it makes you want to tear your hair out.  A good indication of your frustration level is if you start counting how many pages are left in the prayer book.  If you come a bit later to services, then you can incorporate your public prayer daily requirement in measured doses.

It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when there was no Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony. This beautiful series of Psalms and songs that ushers in our holy day was initiated in Tsfat only 600 years ago…that makes it a new service, compared the rest of our 2500-year-old siddur. I think those kabbalists chose a specific set of tehillim (Psalms) in order to fill us with a sense of wonder in terms of God’s power as revealed in nature.  All of the passages vividly describe either lofty mountains, rushing rivers, heaving oceans or thunderous storms, hopefully allowing us to recall intense personal experiences of the Divine that we have had in beautiful natural surroundings. Just think of a time when you witnessed a spectacular waterfall, crashing waves or a perfectly silent, snowy scene. What typically happens in a nature moment is that your ever-present ego takes a short break and a palpable awareness of God’s presence fills the vacuum. In fact, Kabbalat Shabbat allows us to experience a degree of passion that is typically not a part of the Ma’ariv service.  The spoken word is our basic mode of communication, the next level is song, and when you just can’t contain your joy another moment, spontaneous dance is the only appropriate outlet!  When I’m leading a Sabbath program I try to get even the stodgiest congregation on their feet and dancing around the sanctuary.

Sometimes I wonder where I get the drive and discipline to be so machmir (strict) with my Sabbath and holiday observance.  I certainly didn’t start out life this way, and taking on such a profound and seemingly inconvenient commitment might seem out of reach.  Especially when even avoiding sugar for a day is impossible! Obviously I’m aided by having a great community that is dedicated to celebrating these holy days according to the letter of the law. It’s also helpful to have my family unified in sharing the adventure.  But I think in my case, there might be something more operating here behind the scenes.  I’d like to share a few stories that may indicate a celestial merit that has come down from my ancestors that is keeping our family on this path of righteousness.

The first story involves my great grandmotherLena Barenfeld, for whom my daughter Sarah Lena is named.  My brother, Rabbi Yom Tov was waiting for his El Al flight to depart when an attendant came down the aisle looking for a Mr. Glaser. Yom Tov raised his hand and she told him that there was another seat for him closer to the front.  A rabbi a few rows back said, “You’re Rabbi Glaser?”  This leader in the Ponevezh Yeshiva had heard that there were some Ba’al Teshuva Glasers out there and he wanted to verify a certain yeshiva legend.  He motioned for Yom Tov to join him in the seat next to him and told him this tale.

One auspicious evening in the late 40′s the Ponevezher Rav, Rabbi Kahaneman paid Lena and her husband Abraham a visit to raise funds for his new yeshiva. The rav was attempting to restore the grandeur of his formidable scholarly community that had been obliterated in the holocaust.  This new beis midrash (house of study) would be built in Israel within the legendary ancient rabbinic stronghold of B’nei Brak.  I imagine that my great grandpa Abe had his fill of such “shnorrers” and sent the rav away with a small donation.  Before he left, my great grandma entered the room and cried, “My children have strayed so far from Torah and I am heartbroken.  I don’t have even one member of my extended family Shomer Shabbas.  If you can bless us that some of my progeny will become Shomer Shabbat, we will dedicate the cornerstone of the beis midrash.” The rav then gave her this blessing and the rest is history.  This year I was honored to share this story and perform at the West Coast Ponevezh banquet and this yeshiva has now grown to become the leading Litvak institutiion in Israel to date.

The next story occurred shortly after I had starting keeping Shabbat in 1992.  It’s a long tale but I have to spell out the details in order to elucidate it properly.  My brother Yom Tov had just returned from his first year in yeshiva in Jerusalem. Our family was overjoyed to see how much he had grown spiritually and that just behind that scraggly beard was the charismatic Johnny that we adored.  Yom Tov and I have always bonded over action sports.  We’ve never been able to sit still and watch a ball game on TV; we much prefer to explore the backcountry on our mountain bikes or hit the surf.  That first weekend he was back we made plans to join a group of old friends for a weekend of fun in our beloved Joshua Tree National Park. A mere two hours from our home lies this rock-ridden patch of desert that is nothing short of an alien moonscape, perfect for climbing, biking and camping.

We set off that Friday morning in my trusty Toyota Supra that was packed to the brim with camping gear and our two mountain bikes strapped to the rack. A half hour down the road my car started to overheat.  It clearly was not up for the task of this arduous drive and thankfully it broke down near a friend’s home. We pulled into his driveway and earnestly begged to use his truck for the weekend. “Sure,” he said, “as soon as you unload the cord of firewood in the back.”  We frantically stacked the prodigious pile of lumber against his garage, transferred our gear and set off in his rickety 4×4. Unfortunately, an hour down the road, while doing eighty in the fast lane we had an explosive tire blowout.  Now we were stuck on the wrong side of the 10 Freeway and it took an eternity for a cop to show up and radio for a tow truck…hard to imagine how we ever survived without cell phones!

We waited for what felt like hours as the shop replaced the tire and charged $100 that I was not very excited to spend.  At last we were on the road again and it soon dawned on us that it was increasingly unlikely that we were going to make it to Joshua Tree by sundown. Still, we pressed ahead, hoping for a miracle.  Shortly before candle lighting we had a tense dialog regarding the state of affairs.  I was still at a point in my observance where I could rationalize that we should finish the trip and we’d take on Shabbas as soon as we would arrive. That is not a liberty that I would take today. My brother, however, said no, we will not drive even a minute after Shabbas comes in, even if we have to spend the day on the side of the freeway.

I have to explain that at this time in history, there was almost no civilization between LA and Palm Springs.  Just a few “one horse” towns with gas stations and fast food joints; certainly not the continuous metropolis that one finds today. We spotted a motel at the next exit and screeched off the interchange, only to find that it was out of business.  I saw a look of panic in my brother’s eyes as he commandeered our friend’s pickup back onto the freeway in search of another option. With sundown looming, we pulled off at the next exit and parked in the first motel we saw.  We immediately started throwing our property to the door of one of the units and I scampered to the front desk to check in. Just as the sun hit the horizon we had the last of our valuables inside and we high-fived each other, thrilled that we had a roof over our heads to celebrate this unusual Shabbat.

We prayed with a special intensity and enjoyed a delectable feast that my mother had lovingly prepared for our journey. We sang, danced and jumped on the beds until we realized that we were totally exhausted from the day’s exploits. Now we had another problem. The lights were on in the room and neither of us would turn them off. I checked the front desk and found that no one was there.  I noticed a young black couple in the room next door.  I gingerly knocked on the door and a clearly disconcerted, wide-eyed man peered out through the crack.  I explained that we wanted to go to sleep but the light was on. You see, when asking a non-Jew to do an act forbidden to a Jew on Shabbat, you can’t mention the exact thing you want him to do. He has to intuit the requisite action and choose to do it on his own volition.  Anyway, while this man looked at me with incredulity that I would make such a ridiculous statement, my brother stepped in and said, “you see, we are really tired and it would be great if it were dark enough to sleep.” With this, the man slammed the door shut, gathered his girlfriend and drove off into the night.

The next day we wandered the streets of this backwater town.  It was called Banning and we joked as we passed the few stores that they were “banning liquor” and “banning police.” After walking off our bodacious lunch we returned to the room for a nap and then after darkness fell, promptly checked out and finished that last forty minutes of our drive up to Joshua Tree. We rejoiced around the campfire with our worried friends and toasted to our zany Shabbat experience.  The next day we climbed the incredible boulders of this national park and enjoyed a memorable mountain bike ride down the sandy, cactus-lined trails.

Yes, the story has an epilogue: A few months later I attended a family holiday get together.  I told my dear Uncle Charlie the saga of our amusing Shabbas debacle getting stuck in this hick town.  When I finished the tale Charlie blanched and didn’t respond for a few moments. Then he said, “Sammy, are you telling me that you and your brother spent Shabbas in Banning?” “Yes, Uncle Charlie. What’s the big deal?”  He replied, “Do you know anything about Banning?” “Yes,” I said with a grin, “they are banning police and liquor!”  He looked at me sternly and said, “Sam, your grandfather, for whom you are named, founded the town of Banning.  And at that time in his life, as his garment business grew, Shabbas had to take a back seat to overseeing the production in his new factory. Do you see that you and Johnny, his descendants have created a tikkun, a healing? You kept Shabbas in Banning!  What do you think of that?

The fact is that most of us Jewish folks have great grandparents who were deeply connected to Shabbat and are pulling strings for us upstairs.  Just imagine that since the time of Moses, the freight train of Jewish history has been thundering along the tracks, powered by the eternal connection with Mount Sinai.  Tragically, in our days we see that many of the cars have derailed.  You can be the one to help get the train back on track. There’s a supernatural reason that our souls feel good when we affiliate, when we do a mitzvah.  Perhaps it’s assuaging our Jewish guilt or a subliminal attraction to members of the tribe.  Or maybe it’s all those ancestors rallying for you behind the scenes shouting, “Go, go, go, go, go!”

I wish all my readers a Good Shabbas!  Thank God it’s Friday!  And if it’s not Shabbas today, just know that it’s coming soon.

Asey L’cha Rav

December 28th, 2014

 By Sam Glaser

A turning point in the life of any individual that gets serious about his or her Jewish heritage is the moment that they find a rabbi. Everyone needs to have someone they call “my rabbi.” Someone with whom they can relate, someone with whom the buck stops, whose advice they respect and “hold by.” You can blame your rabbi, i.e. “My rabbi told me this is what I have to do,” until you’re ready to initiate your own momentum. The famous line is that “a good rabbi comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”  At times in your life you will be in either situation, and your rabbi must have the sensitivity to know how to respond in each instance. Effective rabbis gently coax you on a path of growth.  They introduce you to mitzvah options and help you choose a direction that is unique for you. Rabbis serve to connect us with our history; they are a link to the written Torah and also embody the oral, less structured Torah that confronts modernity and the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

You will know you have found your rabbi when you feel confident that you can relinquish control.  You allow your rabbi to be the arbiter of Torah philosophy and best practices.  In the secular realm you have to figure out the game of life on your own, shopping around for a mix and match world-view and hedging your bets with whatever combination seems advantageous at that moment.  Unfortunately, having your foot in many doors means that you eventually have no leg to stand on.  Choosing a path requires closing doors!  The term “decide” has the root “cide,” in other words, we have to kill off options in order to commit to one.  Some go their whole lives trying to keep all options on the table; it’s no mystery that this indecision wreaks havoc on relationships, employment and spiritual progress.  My friends, I can testify that God springs into action to help you realize your dreams as soon as you close the loop and commit to the calling of your Jewish heritage, whatever that may require. Yes, taking a plunge down the Jewish “rabbit hole” is scary but your journey through this wonderland will be guided with personalized rabbinic wisdom. So find a rabbi and get on with the life you were meant to live!

Your newfound rabbi will have spent countless years training to learn the craft of spiritual leadership and deserves the utmost respect.  Rabbis have to wear many hats.  They are often the chief fundraisers for their organizations. They have to shmooze with both the power players and the meek.  They represent the synagogue in the greater Jewish community and also among the clergy of other faiths.  They are the top dogs in the synagogue corporate structure and interface with the educational, administrative and governing teams.  Rabbis are also the pastoral leaders of the congregation, dispensing words of solace in times of individual, communal and international strife. Rabbis are usually authors of inspiring text and are counted upon as orators to express that text with originality and spontaneity. It’s not a job for the faint of heart!

On the flip side, rabbis are subject to intense scrutiny and can’t help but ruffle feathers.  They have to guide the community on a path of wisdom and growth but be careful not leave

constituents behind. Rabbis don’t ever get time off. Even when they are enjoying a vacation, the congregation expects them to remain at their beck and call.  Rabbis don’t experience the essential weekly release of Shabbat to the same degree as the laity.  In fact, the Sabbath and holidays are the times that they are most in demand! Their families tend to be somewhat mutant.  After all, rabbis are typically workaholics with precious little time for family matters.  Rabbi’s kids are scrutinized only slightly less than their parents.  Of course, rabbi’s spouses are criticized if they don’t become part of synagogue life, or conversely if they are too involved.  Said spouses often become unpaid employees of the synagogue, like it or not.

Furthermore, rabbis have to walk a consistent path of holiness and grace in public and in private.  This is especially challenging in an era of invasive social media and ubiquitous cameras/cell phones.  There is no teshuva for rabbis.  Rabbis that fall short of living up to the immense ethical expectations are left to crash and burn.  They cannot kiss and make up.  Their transgressions are discussed with a hush and a wagging finger or worse, exposed on the pages of the local paper for all to enjoy.  When any given rabbi blows it, their contracts are promptly voided; they are shipped off to another locale or have to leave the rabbinate in shame.  I’ve even seen situations where the body that issued semicha (ordination) denied ever having done so.  Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) by the official communal representative of morality is such a shanda (grievous error) that for many of my friends in the rabbinate there has been no second chance.  Make sure you have your act together if you are aspiring to the rabbinate!

When shopping for a rabbi there are several factors to consider.  First and foremost, you have to find the rabbi inspiring.  They have to touch you deeply and give you enlightened perspective both on our ancient texts and current issues. One person’s inspiration is another person’s ennui…finding YOUR rabbi is based on your unique needs and perceptions.  For this reason you may find that your rabbi is not your spouse’s rabbi.  Next, they have to be humble and approachable.  A rabbi must exude love and concern and make you feel like an important part of the synagogue family.  They must model ethical living and be fluent in the language of both the Judaic and secular world.  After all, that’s where you live, and your rabbi has to be able to intuit what you are going through.  Most importantly, your rabbi must have the chutzpah to nudge you to grow.  We need rabbis to get us out of complacency, to help us take on spiritual challenges, to increase our mitzvot.  Your rabbi should give you impetus to say Hineni, calling on you to make a verifiable difference for your family, your community and the world.

The next question in this process is where to look. For many of us, that’s a moot point. We live where we live, and only have so many local options.  That’s OK.  We also live in an era where you can affiliate with your local congregation but look to another more distant rabbi for Torah guidance.  We have the miracle of high-speed internet and nearly free long distance phone calls.  If you have a great rabbi for you in your hometown, consider yourself blessed.  But if not, it’s time to activate your personal search engine! All the gifts of 24/7 Jewish living can be yours…the only thing stopping you from “rabbi shopping” is you. Read books and articles written by influential rabbis.  I’m confident you will find some that speak to you. Yes, most of those rabbis, even the famous ones, will welcome a relationship. While I think it’s best to have only one official rabbi, in absence of that one perfect personality you can subdivide your spiritual guidance.  Whatever it takes to get you on a sanctified path and stick with it.

Some of us are raised with a certain set of customs, with Jewish practices that we are comfortable doing and others in which we’re not so interested.  I’m writing this essay to beg you to consider getting out of the comfort zone…to take on new challenges and stretch.  If your local rabbi is not going to push you into connecting with your Creator via taking on new mitzvot, then that rabbi isn’t for you!  That rabbi can still be a friend, a resource, a tennis partner, but it’s not your rabbi.  Your rabbi approaches our traditions with joy and makes a relationship with God palpable.  Your rabbi makes Jewish living look so good, like a sumptuous banquet!  As I’ve said, the book of Jewish law is called the Shulchan Aruch, the set table.  An ethical, loving, deeply connected rabbi will inevitably make Judaism so attractive that you can’t help but want some of that for yourself.

There are treasures and obstacles in all the Jewish denominations.  It’s hard to be both politically correct and honest but I’m throwing caution to the wind.  What matters more than whether your rabbi trained at HUC, JTS or YU is if they have both heart and gumption. There are rabbis that I deeply respect in all movements in Judaism.  I work with Reform through Chassidic institutions and I can verify that all denominations have something to offer the k’lal (whole group.)  That’s why there are twelve tribes in our ancient heritage…as the Talmud says, “these and these are the words of the Living God.” As long as a respect for halacha is maintained, I think there is something to be said for a “post-denominational” outlook. In other words, when shopping for a rabbi, don’t accept a denominational ceiling to growth. If you hear the statement: “well, we don’t have to do this because we are _______ Jews,” run for the exit.  For example, Orthodox can’t desist from acts of loving-kindness to gentiles and Reform can’t overtly cast off the commandments (they are commandments, not “suggestions” after all!)  The key here is finding guidance that will help you grow while remaining balanced, open-minded and without losing yourself in the process.

At the risk of generalizing, when choosing a denomination there are good and bad points to each of our major movements and I’m going to go out on a limb and list some caveats.  Some may think that the Yeshivish and Chassidic worlds offer a panacea for all society ills but they are grappling with losing their youth and finding it harder avoid the lure of mass media and manage technology.  The lack of a Western-style education can paralyze individuals that are striving to interface with the “real world.”  The Modern Orthodox are smug in their rootedness in Jewish wisdom and embrace of modernity but arrogance and inward focus is often the result.  As you may have guessed, I’m a big proponent of Orthodox-style mitzvah observance but I warn that it can devolve into obsession-compulsion, peer pressure-induced one upmanship and the lifestyle is financially draining.  Many love to bash the halachic waffling of the Conservative movement and prognosticate timetables for its demise.  That said, there are Conservative communities where Judaism is flourishing with a dedicated core of congregants that are Sabbath observant and mitzvah focused.  Lastly, Reform takes a beating from the right wing but is the bastion of appreciation for Jewish art and culture, social justice and simple, spiritual joy.  Some may assume that the lack of true “informed choice” and the “freedom” from the divine imperative of Torah renders Reform obsolete; let me state for the record that I know several Reform rabbis that perform epic roles of leadership in the spiritual well-being of their congregants.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at “liberal” Judaism is the comparative weakness of

communal structure.  In fact I’ve heard from Conservative leadership that the movement’s failings are due to the consistent shedding of the right wing.  In other words, if you get excited about your Judaism and seek daily practice, in most Conservative synagogues (but not all) you will be very lonely.  Unfortunately, the rule seems to be that the clergy may be on the “derech” (path) but the congregation for the most part only shows up on High Holidays and for friend’s bar/bat mitzvahs.  If you suddenly get interested in keeping kosher you are going to be eating alone.  If you want to ramp up your Shabbat observance you will have a hard time relating to the chevra that assembles every week, especially if you are under forty years old.  Those with heightened Judaic enthusiasm usually find their way to a Modern Orthodox or Chabad shul and never look back.  It’s less an indictment of any given philosophy and more about the astounding impact of a dedicated community. It was the presence of my dynamic learning and chesed (kindness) focused community that made my growth possible.  Or at least a lot more fun.  I write this with pain in my heart since my Jewish memories are Conservative memories, from amazing summers at Camp Ramah and Israel programs, to Sinai Temple’s dedicated Hebrew School teachers and clergy.

The crucial role of community cannot beoverstated.  Rabbi Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers states “Al tifrosh min hatzibur,” don’t distance yourself from the community.  As I’ve mentioned in my parenting essays, a Jewish community sets certain expectations of all members and therefore the parents don’t have to work quite as hard to educate their progeny.  It’s so much easier to thrive in mitzvot when it’s simply the way everyone lives.  To go it alone can be harsh and is certainly less fulfilling.  Even the coolest Mac cannot substitute for a flesh and blood chevra (peer group.)  As frail humans we usually don’t have the degree of resolve required to “run up the downward escalator” of spiritual life.  Moving to the epicenter of a Jewish community can make all the difference.  That’s easy in a big city; you just need to be able to afford the “shtetl tax,” referring to typically inflated Jewish neighborhood property values. Those in smaller towns can still find (or build) minyans of like-minded individuals and will likely have to put time into their learning on the web and traveling to Torah centers from time to time.

Choosing a rabbi can be the single most important move one makes in initiating a powerful Jewish journey, second only to finding a great spouse.  I want to take this moment to thank my amazing rav, Rabbi Moshe Cohen for all the patience, generosity and wisdom that he has shared with my family.  Yes, it takes dedication and powerful intention to find your own rabbi.  With the guidance of your newfound Jewish “guru” anything is possible for you in your life.  Hopefully your own exponential growth will inspire others to attempt the same path, to partake in our perpetual feast from the “set table” of Jewish life.  B’hatzlacha on your journey.

Life on the Fringe

October 31st, 2014

By Sam Glaser

I experienced my first taste of yeshiva learning when I was a twenty-something wanna-be rock star in LA.  After perusing an attractive brochure that appeared in the mail, I applied for the all-expenses-paid scholarship to study in Jerusalem.  Aish HaTorah provided an incredible curriculum with a dozen brilliant rabbis that taught us hour by hour in an Ottoman Empire study hall  perched atop the Old City walls.  I considered the millennia-old alleyways comprising the “shuk” my personal playground and had the Western Wall as my front yard.  The neophytes were never expected to join the yeshiva prayer services but since I had a fair grasp of the basics from Hebrew School I would often don my tallis (or tallit, meaning a prayer shawl) given to me at my Bar Mitzvah and join the minyan (prayer service.)

At one point one of my peers announced, “Sam, you don’t need to wear that tallis here.”  “Why not?” I responded. “I feel more comfortable praying in this thing.”  My friend then sat me down and gently explained that according to Ashkenazi tradition, men don’t wear a tallis until they are married.  I looked around the minyan and saw that he was right.  “But what about the last paragraph of the Shema?  I need a tallis to kiss the tzitztit, right?”  “Look, Sam,” he replied, “this way the single ladies on the other side of the mechitza (room divider) know who the single men are.”  That was all I needed to hear…I never wore a tallis again until I was married.

I enjoyed four months of intense learning and growth on that formative trip.  I was on fire!  Loving Torah study, loving Jerusalem, perceiving God’s presence from one end of the universe to the other.  Then Passover arrived and everything changed.  My first seder was with one of my favorite rabbis and it lasted nearly till dawn.  I learned so many new songs, some of which I still sing today.  All the study in preparation for the big night allowed me to connect to the Hagadah in the deepest way.  While I adored the Reform-style seders at my Grandpa Bill and Grandma Zetta’s home in Sacramento as I grew up, I never had an intellectual/spiritual marathon anything like this.  Afterwards, my fellow yeshiva bochers (students) passed out for a few hours and then the rabbi directed us back to the Old City.  For some reason he thought it would be funny to send us down the road to Hebron, in the opposite direction from where we had to go.  In our dress shoes.  Not funny.

Then I needed to find a second seder the next night since I am a Diaspora Jew (the locals only have to do one.) I remember having to shlep all over the Rova (Jewish Quarter) in search of a certain visiting American family.  Thankfully I found the place and the gracious host treated us royally and gave us an eye-opening overview of the Jewish calendar.  He explained the deeper reasons for the counting of the Omer and the juxtaposition of the Pesach holiday with Shavuot.  One of my fellow students turned to me and said, “Sam, you know no one is going to want to hear your music for the next month and a half.”  Of course I didn’t believe him.  Judaism without music…how could that be?  Well, the next day I verified it with my rabbi and now had perfect clarity that the time had arrived to go back to my LA recording studio and sports car.

My last Shabbat at the kotel was bittersweet.

While touching the cool, ancient stones of the Wall, I prayed an abbreviated service on my own since I was already running late for lunch. How could I leave this magical place, this “Jewish Disneyland?” It felt like I had learned more in those four months than in four years at my university.  But then there was also that feeling of homesickness, missing my family and longing for my beachside apartment.  One by one, my rabbis pulled me aside to discourage me from going back to LA so soon.  Particularly Rabbi Weinberg, my beloved Rosh Yeshiva.  “C’mon Sam, give us a year,” he implored, looking at me with that trademark gleam in his eye.

As I stood there at the kotel that final day I remember thinking, “God it’s been so good getting to know you.  I am so grateful for this chance to learn and to celebrate my Judaism in this incredible country.  I love you.  Thank you.”  Tears started streaming down my face.  I realized that I had been touched for life; that this knowledge of the truth and power of Torah was now a part of me.  There would be no going back.  I said a few passages in the Pseukei D’zimra (Psalms of Praise) and then the Shema. “I really wish I had my tallis on right now,” I muttered.  “I feel naked without it.”  Just then I heard footsteps behind me.  Before I could turn around, a man with an intimidating beard placed an oversized tallis over my shoulders.  Wow…now that’s service!  He motioned that I should come over and join a minyan at the back of the kotel plaza.

As I recovered from my shock I reluctantly followed the man, still not sure what he wanted from me.  Rabbi Sheinberger, a kabbalist and famous kotel personality indicated that I should be the one to serve as hagbah (to lift the Torah at the end of the public reading.)  This is a big honor!  I had no idea why he picked me but I stepped right up, grasped the worn wooden handles and thrust that beautiful scroll as high as my 6’3 frame would allow.  As I spun around allowing all to see the crisp calligraphy I recalled the Rosh Yeshiva saying that here in Jerusalem reaching God is a local phone call.

My next connection with a tallis would be at my wedding seven years later.  I sent my Israel-bound mom on a mission to purchase the tallis of my dreams.  She returned with a simple black and white, super lightweight, extra large garment and “sold” it to my fiancé since the custom is for the wife to give the tallis to her new husband.  That sunny Sunday afternoon we stretched it atop four poles and stood underneath as a cavalcade of seven illustrious LA rabbis gave us our blessings.  Now whenever I wear it I feel the hug of my wife as well as the warmth of God’s “wings” holding me close.

When one wraps oneself up in a tallis there there is sweet prayer that is said, Ma Yakar.  Since I found it difficult to hold a book while surrounding myself in the flowing fabric I simply wrote the text into a song to allow me to memorize the words.

“Clothing me in the shadow of Your wings

Shelter me in the comfort of Your home

Light of life, surrounding me with love

In Your arms I’ll never be alone”

When we gather the four corners before saying the Shema we ask that God collect Jews from the four corners of the earth in peace.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach told me that he collects the corners deliberately and lovingly as if he’s gathering all the Children of Israel together in a warm embrace.  So I do it the same way.  During the Shema we kiss the fringes every time we mention the word tzitzit.  It’s a very intimate act that’s been performed by legions of brutish, sleepy men every morning for millennia.

The “forget me knot” fringes tell a story of their own:  the numerical value (gematria) of the word tzitzit is 600.  Add to that the eight strings and five knots in each corner and you get to that mystical number of 613, the sum total of commandments throughout the Torah. Furthermore, one of the strings is dyed blue with the ink of a certain snail (although today most people don’t have this blue thread.)  The idea is that you see that beautiful aqua blue which reminds you of the sea, which reminds you of the sky, which reminds you of the “heavenly throne.” In other words, tzitzit remind us that by observing our breathtaking natural world we can extrapolate the presence of the Creator and concretize that relationship with the observance of our 613 commandments.

Since the tallis is typically worn only during the morning service there is a way to stay connected to the mitzvah all day:  I wear a “tallit katan,” a small t-shirt style cotton garment under my shirt.  Some tuck the fringes in to maintain a low profile.  I say, let them hang out!  I celebrate my tzitzit! After all, the mitzvah is based on SEEING them and then connecting to God and the commandments.  I think that the tallis katan serves as a subtle badge of honor; when you see someone wearing them, you can be pretty sure they are deeply respectful of Torah and scrupulous with mitzvot.  The fact is that it was a challenge for this surf short/t-shirt wearing California kid to add another layer of clothing everyday.  I can corroborate the Ethics of the Fathers, which states, “according to the effort is the reward.”

Since I’m always on the move I’m pretty tough on my fringes.  For that reason I learned to weave my own tzitzit, a skill that I usually practice on long airplane flights.  The people sitting next to me think I’m doing some bizarre crochet.  I try to weave with mindfulness and carefully follow the tradition of winding the string in between knots 7, 8, 11 and 13 times, which hints towards the metaphysical values of those numbers.  I like to emphasize to my curious seat mates that wearing fringes is an optional commandment; we only have to place them on four-cornered garments. Unless you are living in Mexico and typically wear a poncho, it’s pretty rare to find such angular clothing.  Therefore, by actively seeking out a garment with distinct corners, we are making the powerful statement that we desire to connect with the Almighty all day long.

There is an amusing coda to the aforementioned story: during a recent concert tour in Israel I wound up in Rabbi Scheinberger’s Friday night minyan at the wall.  After the spirited davening I asked the rabbi if he remembered the incident when he called a young stranger from across the kotel plaza to be hagbah.  He didn’t recall the day but remarked, “well, that makes sense…I like giving Hagbah to tall guys.”

My relationship with my prayer shawl and tallis katan is a loving one, as long as the temperature doesn’t get too hot!  Wearing them is a privilege that I anticipated from childhood when I played with the fringes of my dad’s tallis at our synagogue.  Whereas I used to say that I never wanted to be so forthright with my Judaism, displaying this round-the-clock four-cornered garment has become a celebrated part of my life. Believe it or not, I have some wonderful fans in the deaf community that have shared with me that the sign language gesture for “Sam Glaser” is two hands at the waist with fluttering fingers pointing down.  Keep your eyes open next time you’re at an airport.  You may see me at one of the gates wearing my black and white superhero cape, doing my part to save humanity.

Lucky Seven

October 13th, 2014

by Sam Glaser

The matrix of the world is built on a system of “sevens.” During lunch today I asked my kids to figure out all the times seven appears in Judaism.  We came up with over fifty!  And yes, my daughter did check Google at one point.  I started thinking about sevens recently at a neighborhood shiva call.  Shiva (from the root sheva, or seven) is the week of intense mourning for a loved one and is typically shared by the whole community.  Everyone gathers around the mourner for seven days of prayers, bringing them food and offering the solace of company and a listening ear.  In this case, my friend Jeff Mann didn’t have much family…the community was his family and we all needed comforting.  Another reason that this shiva stood out is that I was going straight from these somber minyans to “sheva brachot” celebrations for a friend’s raucous wedding that I had just played with my band. There’s that number seven again!  At a wedding the bride circles the groom seven times and seven blessings are recited under the marital canopy.  Then the couple celebrates for seven days with family and friends.  During this strange week I danced a schizophrenic ballet from mourning and tears to table-pounding jubilation, nearly every night.  Part of the joy and responsibility of living in a Jewish community is sharing lifecycle events, from birth to death.  And all have that mysterious number seven at their core.

Judaism maintains that seven is the number associated with the natural world.  Modern physics counts seven basic qualities like length, mass and time that describe all known matter.  I recall the acronym ROY G. BIV from grade school science to describe the seven colors of the rainbow.  Any musician will concur that there are seven notes in a major scale.  Seven planets surround Earth.  I find it remarkable that the entire world is anchored to the seven-day week; although some societies have attempted to modify the length of this period we find it stubbornly remaining the universal standard of marking time.

Just beyond seven is the number eight, which for Jews signifies the realm of the supernatural.  That’s why we invite our baby boys into the eternal Jewish covenant on the eight day of their lives.  That’s why we celebrate the power of Jewish unity and survival in the form of the eight-day holiday of Chanukah.  Eight represents “one step beyond.”  Science is here to address the realm of seven.  Your rabbi is here to help you grapple with eight.  Our body is seven, our soul, eight.  And Judaism is obsessed with dragging the number eight into the realm of seven; our task is to infuse our day-to-day “meat space” with spiritual intention such that we walk a tightrope between the physical world of seven and the metaphysical realm of eight.

So why would God use seven as the core construct material of the universe?  Among our discoveries at lunch today: the first sentence of the Torah has seven words and therein begins the description of the seven days of creation.  There are seven commandments associated with Noah, before Judaism upped the ante to 613.  The rabbis later codified another seven, like lighting Shabbat candles and making blessings.  Noah released the raven and then the dove for seven days each.  Our matriarch Leah had seven children.  Joseph was freed from prison only after interpreting Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat and skinny ears of corn and cows.  Moses appeared on the scene seven generations after Abraham and was born and died on the seventh of Adar.  The menorah that he made had seven branches.  Joshua had to conquer seven nations in the ancient land of Canaan.  We have seven major holidays and two of them last for seven days each.  Shavuot (another “sheva” root sighting) is the anniversary of the receiving of Torah and is not given a biblical date but is instead celebrated seven weeks from Pesach.  We just entered the “shmittah” year where we let the land go fallow every seven years and count seven of these cycles to get to the Jubilee or Yovel year.  Are you seeing a pattern here?

My awareness of this magical number began when I attended Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem for my first time as a wide-eyed twenty-three-year-old traveler.  A week into the Jerusalem Fellowships we were given a five day course called Discovery.   Our small group journeyed to a mobile home caravan community in the wilderness of the West Bank and our minds were blown with a formative version of this now popular seminar.  The bottom line: modern computing has allowed mathematicians to analyze the entire text of the Five Books of Moses as a single string of letters (without the spaces in between.)  What did the researchers find?  An awe-inspiring system of sevens and forty-nines stretching from one length of the book to the other.  One example occurred in the description of the creation of fruit trees in the Garden of Eden.  By counting every seven letters starting from that sentence we found the names of the “seven species” that according to tradition flourish in the Land of Israel.  We learned about scores of these patterns…just enough information to pry an opening into our secular, science-fed minds that perhaps our Bible might actually have divine origins.

We stand now in Tishrei, the seventh month of the biblical year and by far the most noteworthy and holiday-drenched.  It opens with the celebration of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, then the day of forgiveness, Yom Kippur, followed immediately by our primary season of joy, seven days of partying called Sukkot.  So many holidays that you might as well call in sick for a month.  Rather than feel inundated by festive meals and overlong services, hopefully you can relish in the chance to unplug from the daily grind and reprioritize.  Think of Tishrei as an annual “shmittah month.”  A chance to let our normal routine go “fallow,” to live in the moment and come back to your source.

We remain anchored in God’s original plan for the universe thanks to our weekly commemoration of the seventh day of creation, Shabbat.  It’s as if God is saying: “My children, I created the world just for you in seven days and I am still here with you every moment.” Perhaps that’s why God orchestrated both the material and physical realms to continue to operate in this heptagonal matrix.  We see a beautiful natural world that on the surface may seem to be operating on its own but in fact the watchful eye of the grand designer winks every time we see that number seven throughout our lives.  Shabbat gives us a once-every-seven-days break to ponder the miracle of our universe and give God full credit for our gifts. Engaging in acts of creation on this sacred day quickly erodes the possibility of the establishment of this transformational beachhead of living with simple faith on a weekly basis.  I’ll say it again: “more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

Now it makes sense why our lifecycle events seem to gravitate to this number.  It’s at these times of transitions that we are most likely to stop and reflect, to perceive the great gifts that God has bestowed upon us. In fact I think that even my ardently agnostic friends can look back at their precious lifecycle events and in their hearts feel the warmth of the smiling, loving face of God.  We all can remember attending a meaningful bris on the (seven plus one) eighth day of the child’s life.  We recall how as Bar/Bat Mitzvah boys and girls we had to grapple with the seven aliyot of our own birthday’s Torah portion.  Then to the chuppah where the beautiful bride surrounds the groom seven times with her innate spiritual essence and protection.  Another seven: well-informed couples wait for seven “clean days” each month before engaging in holy relations.  And then at the end of life we help to escort the departed to the next realm by comforting their loved ones for seven heartbreaking but intensely meaningful days.

Yes, seven is our lucky number.  May we all make the most of this special seventh month, may we readily perceive the presence of God in our lives and be sealed in the Book of Life.

Jews and Aspens

August 28th, 2014

By Sam Glaser

I am writing this on a long, lazy Tisha B’av afternoon.  The sky is brilliant blue and a gentle breeze is beckoning me to leave my air-conditioned studio and get on my bike.  No, not today.  I must conserve my energy and saliva.  At my synagogue we have undertaken a dramatic journey using prayer, speakers and chanting of Kinnot, the anguished poetry of Jewish suffering through the ages.  We sit on the floor, wearing wrinkled clothing and simple, non-leather shoes.  We are unshaven and unkempt and no one cares.  A custom particularly hard for this extrovert is not greeting friends.  We acknowledge each other with a stare, realizing that this day is not about camaraderie, it’s about alienation and exile, death and mourning, dashed hopes and endless tears.  Tisha B’av was once a universally observed commemoration of disaster befalling the Jewish People.  It is now observed by perhaps 10% of the tribe.  That in itself is reason to mourn.

This current war with Hamas in Gaza has corresponded appropriately with this Three Weeks of “decreased joy.” It has also done wonders for Jewish unity.  Among Israelis there is 95% agreement of the justice of our acts of self-defense, in a country that can’t agree on anything.  That same unanimity of purpose is sweeping the Jewish world and has created a sense of clarity that is rare in a world clouded in shades of grey.  This intense galvanization of the Jewish spirit began when we were praying for the well being of the three kidnapped teenagers.  As the atrocity of their senseless death spiraled into war, the Jewish people remained united in their revulsion of the unmitigated evil of Hamas and the need to be rid of the menace of their arsenal of rockets and terror tunnels.  My brother Yom Tov, who has lived over two decades in Jerusalem told me that he’s waited twenty-three years to feel this degree of unity.  As we go from ceasefire to ceasefire we stand together in prayer for a peaceful, lasting resolution.  And perhaps more importantly, we should pray that we remain in this holy state of achdut, unity.

I realized this week that the Jewish nation can be compared to aspen trees.  Ask anyone what the largest organism on earth is and they will likely respond: the blue whale.  No!  It’s the beautiful aspen tree that festoons the High Sierra with brilliant color.  What you cannot see below the earth’s surface is a network of roots that comes from a single source.  Aspens are not separate entities.  They are often separate expressions of a single subterranean root system, sometimes stretching up to 130 feet from the parent tree.  One such colony in Utah is estimated to be thousands of years old, having survived many forest fires because the roots survive beneath the heat of the fire.  Do you see the analogy?  Aspens occupy a sweet niche in a coniferous forest, swelling their collective Autumnal sunshine-yellow glory wherever the colony can obtain enough light.  The Jewish People is an interconnected family that has weathered the storms of history, shining the light of peace, love and innovation on the world whenever given the chance.

It took the kidnapping of three of our kids to remind us just how tight knit a family we are.  Synagogues of all denominations worldwide were praying for their lives.  Gentile friends of mine couldn’t quite understand why I was so rattled by their abduction.  We didn’t know these kids or their families personally and yet we had their names on cards in our pockets and their images engraved in our minds.  I wish I had the aspen analogy then to explain this connection.  It’s super-rational.  Even weird.  Why do we care so much about one another?  As individuals we may appear like separate islands in an archipelago but drain the water and one will see that we are all connected.  Jews are like fingers on a single hand.  Cut one and we all bleed.  The fires of the destruction of Jerusalem, pogroms or the Holocaust may rage but they cannot extinguish the spark that animates every Jewish soul.  It is this very spark that Hitler vowed to obliterate in Mein Kampf, may his memory be erased.

We all feel the pain of our fellow Jew because in essence we are one entity.  In our day-to-day we may not dwell on the miracle of eternal Jewish unity.  But attack us, steal our children, murder the elderly who cannot make it to bomb shelters quickly enough…you have unleashed the fury of the Tribe.  We will not be kicked around anymore.  Now we are back in our land. Now we have the IDF.  We have more learning of Torah than in any point in history.  When we stand together we are invincible.  Even my musician friends who haven’t been to the synagogue in decades are ready to take up arms.  These days even the most ardent lefties are taking a stand as militant members of God’s Chosen People, rising to the defense of the beloved holy nation of the Creator of the Universe.

When the Chosen People get fired up, a fascinating counter balance is unleashed.  God stays carefully behind the scenes…this is our drama to play out in this world.  When the Jews are hitting all the outside shots there is a force in the world that goes insane with envy, filled with anger, frustration and a maniacal desire for revenge.  It makes very little sense.  After all, give the Jews some space and they will revolutionize computers, agriculture, medicine and the arts.  For the whole world’s benefit.  We send humanitarian aid to the enemy and treat their wounded in our hospitals.  When and if Hamas can be neutralized, we will rebuild Gaza.  Our enemy has had many names over the years:  Arabs, Islamic fundamentalists, Germans, Cossacks, Romans…it doesn’t matter.  Anti-Semitism is a force of evil that is backwards and irrational.  But potent nonetheless.  In this current conflict there is little question which group holds the moral high ground.  But somehow this fact seems to be lost on many of our Hollywood celebrities, the European Union, in fact pretty much every nation except for Canada, God bless Prime Minister Steven Harper.  This conflict seems to be serving two primary purposes: to unite the Jewish People and teach everyone else that neutrality is not an option.

In response to the current events in the Middle East I have a suggestion for my concerned Christian friends.  When you find yourself in conversation with a Jew, don’t dwell on Israeli military strategy or politics.  Instead, perhaps offer words of condolence.  Our little nation is under siege.  Our children are being killed.  Bloodthirsty enemies with warped values that the Judeo-Christian world cannot comprehend surround us.  Just offer words of support and friendship.  Let us know that you share our pain and join us in prayer for a peaceful world.  Stand with us in our time of need.  Make sure you are a member of a church that “gets it.”  One that isn’t neutral or trying to divest from Israel, but is bravely advancing the cause of the Children of Israel.

For my Jewish friends, let this be a time of deep reflection.  You are in this boat, like it or not.  Might as well like it!  Rekindle a sense of wonder, investigate your roots, figure out why the messages of Torah are so powerful, meaningful and eternal. Don’t miss out on this greatest experiment in human history!  It’s your most precious inheritance, your most important legacy to your offspring. Anti-Semites will hate you no matter how likeable you try to be.  Hitler didn’t care much whether we were Reform, Orthodox or never Bar/Bat Mitzvah’d.  What is this spark of light that lies dormant in every Jewish soul?  My Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Noach Weinberg, zt”l used to say that if you don’t know what your willing to die for, you don’t know what you are living for.  For what are you willing to lay down your life?  Your children, your country, your people?  So then LIVE for them!

We returned to the synagogue at 7:20pm for the mincha-ma’ariv prayers.  At this point in the waning hours of Tisha B’av everyone was even more disheveled and exhausted.  Only now, as the sun set were we permitted to don our tallis and tefillin, having been denied the glory of these crowns earlier in the day.  We were comforted by the words of divine forgiveness in the Torah reading depicting the aftermath of the sin of the Golden Calf and the words of the prophet in the Haftorah:  “For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace; the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”  Even when all seems lost, God is with us, guiding us and giving us hope.  Even on this mournful day we must serve God with joy!  We then uttered the Amidah with an intensity that is only possible when one is ravenous and parched, poignantly aware of one’s mortality.  The Amidah includes a special insertion for a rebuilt Jerusalem, a paragraph only said on this day of destruction that echoes throughout history like rolling thunder from the original bolt of lightning when our Temple was destroyed.  Finally at the conclusion of services at 8:30pm we drank the most delicious mouthfuls of water outside of the synagogue and celebrated the end of the three week mourning period by blessing the moon and then dancing together in the darkness.

May we continue to dance together like aspen trees shimmering in a gentle alpine breeze.  May our unity be as self-evident as the aspen’s subterranean inter-connectedness. May our survival mimic that of the age-old grove of this hearty species with roots so deeply intertwined that it can withstand the heat of any historic conflagration.  May we adorn humanity with beauty much like the stands of this stubborn deciduous species among the fringes of the coniferous forest, bringing life, love, peace and the awareness of the Creator to all of humanity.

A footnote: I just did a search online for “aspen tree poetry” and came across this lovely verse by Monica Sharman.  Can you imagine my shock when I saw the biblical passage that she quoted, the aforementioned verse that I had already chosen to mention from the fast day reading?  Another large-world, well-managed moment…just when everything in the world seems so random, chaotic and confusing.  Thank you, God.

In the rising wind of a coming dust storm
a mini-stand of aspen planted between

the heron pond and the stucco home
made some noise; they say it’s

“quaking.” But that name makes one
think of timid fear. Listen like

a musician, with the psalter’s ear,
and hear, instead, the sound of applause

For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field
shall clap their hands.
(Isaiah 55:12)

Musical Thunder Down Under

August 1st, 2014

by Sam Glaser

When I started out in music my primary motivation was to get my songs heard.  That primal urge to offer shelter to the melodic offspring of my subconscious led me to open a recording studio, assemble bands, learn theory, practice the piano and take voice lessons.  A byproduct of the career that this passion invoked is a desire to offer a path to young musicians who are wrestling with their musical inclinations.  Establishing mentorship programs, music retreats and choral and instrumental ensembles is all part of this effort.  As a militant music advocate I maintain that basic music education is a crucial part of any modern school curriculum.  Somehow that truth seems lost on American administrators, especially in Jewish day schools.  When something has to be cut to accommodate shrinking budgets it’s usually not math and English; presently music education in both public and private schools is MIA or at best, piecemeal.

I just returned from a frenetic two-week concert tour of Australia.  I love to be utilized fully when I come into any given town, and my Sydney agent Judy Campbell made sure that there was very little downtime.  Keeping busy on the road is a good thing – that way I don’t get too homesick.  What I didn’t expect was just how moved I would be by the deep connection to music down under.  I found music everywhere.  Nearly all my new “mates” were musically literate and most played instruments, sang and actively patronized the arts.  From the guitarists in the pub to the Aborigine didgeridoo street musicians, I felt that there was a constant soundtrack to my wanderings.  I’d like to dedicate this month’s newsletter to a diary of my trip and the powerful impact of an education system where music and the arts are a priority.

After months of laborious planning, June 1st finally arrived.  My suitcase was carefully packed and my wife devotedly drove me to LAX, a bi-weekly ritual in our family.  I had to perform a Jedi mind trick on the woman who checked in my bag. It was over 60 pounds and should have been another $120 for the overage.  I beamed a friendly smile and kept asking her questions about the layover and she dutifully answered my questions while absentmindedly putting on the tags.  I did a happy dance through passport control.  I seem to have the same strange symptoms every time I leave town: twenty-four hours of the blues with the stress of preparing for the trip and leaving my family.  Then I get to my gate and breathe, light as a feather and stoked for the journey.  Sometimes I even look at myself in the airport bathroom mirror and I have to stifle laughing out loud.  “On the road again…”

I slept ten of the eleven hours on Fiji Airways to Nadi, Fiji (pronounced Nandi.) I was met by a Fijian four piece, ukulele-based band happily jamming in the terminal at 4:30am.  Following a second security check I prayed and did yoga in the transit lounge.  Ommmm.  I watched the sun come up over some green hills not unlike the windward side of Oahu…this would be my reward after two intensive weeks of concerts in Australia.  Once again, I slept for most of the 4.5-hour flight to Sydney.  No sleeping pill required.  All I need is a window seat, earplugs, tempur-pedic pillow, slippers and the drone of the engine.  The rest of the flight I worked on proofreading my new Jewish Handbook that I am so excited to be publishing soon.  Surprisingly, Fiji Airways is a fine, modern airline with in seat movies and kosher meals but every seat was sold out and I was crammed in next to a fellow broad-shouldered surfer.

 My hosts for the Australian Jewish Choral Festival

 (AJCF), Judy and her husband Mark picked me up and drove me straight to the festival venue so I could check out the piano and decide on any stage diagram changes. The Music Conservatorium is a modern, cutting-edge music academy with astonishing rehearsal and performance spaces and more grand pianos than I’ve seen under one roof.  I was excited to see that I would have a perfectly tuned Steinway concert grand for my show.  Pianos like that simply suck the notes out of my fingers.  Playing them is effortless, with dynamics that range from floating through a wispy sky to crashing cumulo-nimbus thunder.

The Sydney afternoon weather was breezy with bright blue skies following the morning rain and the impressive downtown area was fresh and shining.  Mid-June means mid-winter in this part of the world.  We took a walk around the Royal Botanical Gardens and the imposing Government House built in 1837.  Children on field trips from their respective private schools were decked out in coats and ties and in the case of the Muslim academy, headscarves.  These outfits didn’t stop them from happily rolling on the grass and climbing all the statues and trees.  Eventually my gracious hosts nudged me back to the car to head to the North to get ready for my Shavuot late night learning program.  A habit I would repeat every time I got to the car: I would head to the front passenger door on the right side and my drivers would patiently say, “No, Sam, wrong side.  Again.”  It’s a tough adjustment to sit in the US version of a driver’s seat when there’s no steering wheel or brake.  Especially when entering yet another roundabout. The same traffic patterns are in force on sidewalks: one passes on the right and no, it never feels normal.

I met my hosts for the Shavuot holiday, Rabbi Gary and Jocelyn Robuck and two of their college age kids, Shoshie and Aaron.  They have a spacious, modern home that they custom built right next to their synagogue and now are selling since the proximity is making them feel claustrophobic. The shul dinner was excellent, prepared by Jocelyn and Pauline, both ex-caterers, and the singing around the table was inspired.  I marveled at how temple members were so musical…it was only later that I found out that the dinner was primarily for the Temple choir! Soon we adjourned to the elegant, recently renovated sanctuary for the evening service.  I opened the proceedings with my V’haer Eyneynu in honor of Shavuot and closed with Blessing.  I felt such a sense of gratitude from this congregation; this community uses my music throughout their davening and I received a hero’s welcome. Rabbi Gary is also a chazzan and he and the 25-voice choir try to mix up traditional music with new songs from throughout Diaspora to keep things interesting.  And it wasn’t just the choir that was singing; as soon as the rabbi would feature a well-known song, everyone assembled chimed in with spirited abandon.

I led a two-hour “How to Observe the First of the Ten Commandments” workshop plus some additional Shavuot insights. Shavuot is the holiday that seemed to be left out of the Hebrew School syllabus as I grew up.  Now I feel like it’s my personal discovery.  I did my best to inspire the congregation into sharing my enthusiasm for this anniversary of receiving the greatest bestseller of all time from the Creator of the Universe.  By the time midnight was drawing near I started to lose focus…jet lag was hitting hard.   Thanks to adrenaline and the open miracle of a second wind I was able to keep my head together and even deliver a semblance of a conclusion that wrapped up all my points. As we walked back to the house the rabbi queried, “At what point did you achieve a sense of certainty in your belief in God?” That comment got me thinking.  Certainty is a big word, one that I haven’t entertained. Yes, I suppose I am certain about God. I perceive God’s hand in the world and in my life everyday and evidently that clarity informs my lecture style.  Then the rabbi brought up the Holocaust as a typical stumbling block for most, launching us into a late night theological odyssey.

I opted not to go to shul the next day, grateful that I wasn’t programmed to lead the services. I slept a luscious, deep sleep and then davened on my own by the pool under the eucalyptus in their spacious backyard. After a hearty breakfast I headed out on an ambitious bushwhacking expedition.  Long ago realized that my favorite way to travel is to get as far from the city as quickly as possible.  Give me bush!  Back in LA I had printed a Google map of their Chatswood neighborhood so that I could reach a trail that I imagined would be in the “green area” by the bay a few miles from their home.  One thing you can’t tell from a Google map is the topography…sure enough that green area on my map was a steep, dense rainforest that plunged down into a river valley below.  No trails, no access.  Just as I was about to give up hope in finding a proper path I saw a turnoff to the North Arms Reserve.  Bingo.

I launched on a shaded trail to a beautiful fishing spot in the middle of Sugarloaf Bay.  I saw countless exotic birds including trees filled with brilliant parrots, rainbow lorikeets, cockatoos and these crazy crested pigeons. I felt like I was on the set of Avatar, and the complete solitude of the path made me a bit concerned that some wild Pandora beast would come raging through the fern undergrowth.  At the terminus I watched a recently retired 51-year-old banker casting his reel for Australian Salmon.  He said that they taste nowhere near as good as the Tasmanian variety.  Over twenty years working for the same bank and this ex-executive was feeling like he was on the set of Groundhog Day. He felt he had barely escaped with his soul intact…fishing time!  We had a relaxed schmooze for a few hours as I ate my bagel, lox and cream cheese Yom Tov seudah (festive meal.)

I returned back a different way now that I had the aid of some maps that were posted on the trail.  All told I was gone for six hours and I think I covered at least eight sweaty miles over ambling terrain. After mincha and a good shluf (nap) I enjoyed Yom Tov sheni dinner with the Robucks and an animated Hungarian couple.  First course was fruit cocktail and second course was three pieces of butternut squash tortellini and a salad. Elegantly prepared and tasty but I must admit I was surprised when the next course was dessert!  I made up for the void with mouthfuls of challah.  Once again we did a musical benching and then I enjoyed a mikvah with the rabbi in their percolating hot tub by the pool.

The following morning I accompanied Rabbi Gary on a three-mile walk to a neighboring shul.  Temple Emanuel is what they call “Progressive” in these parts and therefore doesn’t hold by two-day holidays.  We found the vast North Shore Synagogue sanctuary nearly empty and those assembled were very glad to see us.  Some of the choir members recognized me from my poster and insisted that I join them.  I think there were more of us on the bimah than in the congregation!  I faked my way through the various tunes that they employ for the Torah service and mussaf and marveled that I could be 10,000 miles from home, singing with strangers and yet still know most of the tunes.  Following a spartan Kiddush we were invited to Rabbi Paul Lewin’s home for lunch.  Both the rabbi and cantor of the shul have five children.  All were in attendance, which meant that I spent as much time on the floor horsing around as I did at the table.  Thankfully what looked like an impending storm didn’t deliver the goods until we were walking the final block of our long trek back to Rabbi Gary’s house.  That said, we came home wet and well nourished.

When I awoke from my much-needed nap I watched the Emanuel choir rehearsal and enjoyed my new friend Judy Campbell’s sensitive conducting.  Then when the Yom Tov ended I led havdalah and was picked up by one of the altos in the choir, Naomi Jandausch whose job was to escort me to enjoy “Vivid Sydney.”  Naomi was excited to tell me that she had walked down the aisle to Believe in Me from my Presence album.  She was enthusiastic company and my first time seeing Vivid was such a treat!  Can you imagine that they decorated all the landmarks downtown with wild light shows in honor of my trip?  I was so grateful for the good timing…one month every year Sydney lights up on weekends.  Innovative images are projected onto scores of downtown buildings accompanied by evocative electronic music.  Tens of thousands of colorful locals wander the streets to enjoy the sensation and of course, the mass of humanity creates a carnival atmosphere.  The highlight was the vast projections cast over the harbor to the iconic Opera House.  Naomi and Iwalked until we couldn’t walk anymore, shot plenty of pictures that will likely not come out and then found one of the few establishments where this kosher consumer could eat.  I sent sleepy Naomi home since I was fired up with energy to explore more of the town.  Thanks to an excellent light rail system I felt perfectly confident that I could find my way back to Chatswood.

One of my primary objectives that night was to sample a pint of the local brew.  I stepped up to one of the many pubs that I found on nearly every downtown block and asked for advice on a local lager.  By my third round I nailed it!  Coopers with a few limes.  I found a group of musicians to hang out with and they soon became my “mates.”  Thanks to a recent wave of bar brawls there is a new curfew in effect so when the pub emptied shortly after midnight I walked towards the Central Railway station.  When I stopped for directions a friendly Indian man said, “You don’t want to walk through the park, my friend.  You’d better go back to the Town Hall station.”  Grateful for his advice but reluctant to shlep even another few feet, I traipsed up the hill to Town Hall to find that the last train had left the station.  Oy!  Thankfully there were night buses that trace the train routes, only I had just missed the 12:30 bus.  OK.  More wandering for a half hour and then a bus ride and a dark twenty-minute walk to my host’s home.  Great night!

I awoke bright and early to daven and then was escorted by the ever-able office manager Pauline Lazarus to the supermarket in St. Ives since it sports a well-stocked kosher section. Australia does not enjoy the plethora of hechshered (kosher symbol) products that we do in the US.  One is forced to stick with the limited inventory in the kosher aisles, much of which is imported from the US and Israel.  Thankfully they did have an ample kosher bakery.  I filled the cart with food for the week as I was moving into an apartment hotel in downtown Sydney, Woolloomooloo, to be exact.  Then off to meet my Sydney band, hand-picked to perform with me on this trip.  I was thrilled to find that these five musicians were of the highest caliber and had come to the rehearsal ready to rock on all my songs.  We also had a three-voice background vocal section consisting of Josh Robuck, the rabbi’s talented musical theater-trained son, Judy Campbell and adorable voice teacher Andrea Catzel.  We slogged through the details of the set and then munched on falafel with all the trimmings.  Over the course of this two-week tour I would be followed by a two-camera crew documenting the experience.  I am grateful to Chris and Dean who were on hand catching every note and emotion of the extensive rehearsal.

Judy then drove me to my downtown hotel which featured huge windows with a view of skyscrapers, two king size beds, fifteen-foot ceilings and a full kitchen.  She then handed me a wad of colorful Australian cash that would be my thirteen-day per diem.  Nice!  I was one of three conductors invited to take part in the Australian Jewish Choral Festival (AJCF) and one of my cohorts, Boston-based Josh Jacobson was staying in the room above me.  I had to do some fancy footwork with the office staff to work out how to get in and out of the building over Shabbat.  Alarms and keypads were plentiful and just getting in the building required a swipe of an electronic card.  After a thorough explanation of the obstacles to my observance the good-natured manager gave me the master key to the building!  I could enter through the car park when a car came in and never have to worry about the front door or emergency exit.  See…you just have to ask!

I scrambled to get everything in place for Shabbas and then went upstairs to enjoy a delicious dinner with Josh and his spunky wife Rhonda.  We nurtured our fine Cabernet and enjoyed the city lights while we discussed music, travel and several rounds of Jewish geography.  Of course we did plenty of three-part z’mirot singing!  After Shachrit the next morning I seized the day to have a walking tour of this amazing city.  Under blustery blue skies I walked first to the incredible New South Wales Art Gallery.  Built in 1871, this is one of the most beautiful museums in the world inside and out.  I wandered every single room, taking extra time at the canvases of Australian artists with whom I was unfamiliar.  I then ventured across the hundred acres of perfectly maintained grass known as The Domain and found myself at the State Library of New South Wales.  A spectacular multistory nineteenth century room held books up to the rafters, replete with rolling brass and walnut ladders for access.  On the top floor I enjoyed a Canon-sponsored exhibit of the top press photographs of the year.

By the time I made it to bustling harbor side Circular Quay (pronounced “key”) I was tired and thirsty.  Who knows how many miles I had put on at that point in the day!  There, overlooking the ferry wharfs was a perfectly situated pub with outdoor seating and great rock and roll on the PA.  If only I had some cash!  Well, as I’ve mentioned, you don’t get what you don’t ask for.  I stumbled up to the bar and asked the young, blonde bartender for a pint.  And then I told him, “but thanks to the Jewish Sabbath I have no money.”  He replied politely, “well, then, I don’t think I can help you.”  He then asked if this Sabbath thing had anything to do with Ramadan.  “No!” I replied, “the Sabbath is the way Jewish people take a break from acts of creativity every week.  We step back from the canvas of our lives to appreciate the work of the Creator and not engaging in commerce is one of the ways.”  He pondered that point, looked this way and that, and poured me a glass full of that delicious Coopers ale.  Yum!

I took my pint to a nearby table filled with upscale young people enjoying the day.  One woman spotted my kippah and said, “Oh, you’re Jewish!  Shabbat Shalom!”  She then gushed how much she loves Jews, how she’s traveled in Israel and is certain we are the Chosen People.  She then rolled up her sleeve to show me that Isaiah 53 was tattooed up her forearm.  As we laughed and nursed our pints she and her friend made sure mine was never empty.  By the time I got to the Contemporary Art Museum I was less steady on my feet but perhaps more open to appreciating the wild assortment of images, films and sculptures.  Another great coincidence arranged for my Shabbas explorations was that this week in June marked the “Bienniale of Sydney” anniversary and all the museums were free!  The theme of this year’s festivities was a prophetic phrase emblazoned on many buildings: “You Imagine What You Desire.”

I took the long way home via the amazing Opera House and Botanical Gardens and then after mincha-maariv prayers got a ride to the Music Conservatorium for the opening of the AJCF.  I

 started the proceedings with a rousing havdalah and sing-along.  Now I would be put to the test.  The eighty candidates assembled had notebooks with several of my SATB arrangements.  For the next sixty hours I would conduct the whole group in “Big Sing” rehearsals, form my own twenty-five voice Rock It Choir, teach workshops and give concerts both for the group and a gala show for the public.  I must say that conducting the first song that Saturday night was nerve wracking. I started working on the parts section by section and soon surrendered to the joy of hearing my music sung.  At first I waved my hands stiffly but then closed my eyes and “saw” their entrances in my heart rather than on the page.  By the time we had my Blessing song down I felt enveloped in a sonorous angelic wind that responded to my every gesture.  Wow.

 The next day would prove to be one of the craziest marathon days in my career.  I’m wondering how the coordinators of the conference thought that anyone could pull it off!  I find that the rehearsal is often more exhausting than the actual show.  Try five rehearsals back to back, plus a workshop with a men’s synagogue choir that was looking to me for advice with their technique.  (Just sing in tune, boys!) At one point, Judy saw my frazzled state and said, “Why don’t you just walk with your choir down to the park and rehearse by the water?”  Great advice, indeed.  We walked to the waterfront at Farm Cove, formed a semi-circle and sang our repertoire, and then some.  Soon a crowd gathered and that awakened the “ham” in these Jewish ladies.  We segued from Israeli repertoire into Waltzing Matilda and Amazing Grace and then got the crowd to join us for some acapella Israeli folk dancing.  We were particularly touched that some German tourists were in on the fun.

By the time my sound check/rehearsal for my big public concert arrived, I was fried.  Nothing left.  I got through a few tunes with the band but was having technical difficulties with the sustain pedal of my keyboard set up alongside the Steinway.  I had sweat through my clothing and was barely able to be gracious to the hardworking sound guys and my patient band.  Since this concert was being recorded with a multitrack setup there was also pressure to get good levels.  At 7:40pm before my 8pm, show I turned to my benevolent handler, David and said, “I have to get into a shower, any shower, now.”  I abandoned the sound check…what would be would be.  David escorted me to a backstage green room and pointed out the shower.  Oh, the pleasure of a powerful blast of hot water!  I used the liquid soap from the sink and dried off with paper towels.  It never dawned on me how hard it might be to dry the center of one’s back with a small paper towel.  Still somewhat wet, I put on my stage clothes and arrived backstage as they were announcing the band.  We put on a great show, all things considered.  Thank God my voice held out, the choir was effervescent and I was told the mix in the acoustically perfect room was excellent.  Sold plenty of CDs too!

The next full day had more of the same: choir performances, rehearsals and workshops, culminating in a concert that was staged mostly for our own group and friends.  We all felt a combined sense of satisfaction and relief, amazed at what we were able to accomplish in two and a half brilliant days.  I had made a personal commitment to be there 100% for the festival and did not attempt to sneak out when my presence wasn’t necessary.  That said, when it ended, I left the final cocktail hour with a few of my choir members to enjoy the parts of Vivid Sydney that I had missed.  One of the grand illuminated buildings we passed required a human conductor to set the pace for the extraordinary light show.  We boarded a ferry and got an aquatic view of the Opera House and downtown ablaze with colors intensified by the reflections on the water.  Then to Darling Harbor where a Bellagio hotel-style fountain display was paired with a holographic film projected on a wall of mist.  Right in the middle of the show the rain came down but no one left!  Hundreds of umbrellas immediately opened providing shelter for all. These Sydneyites come prepared!  Half the crowd was Asian; I was told by a cab driver that their population has swollen to a half a million residents in recent years.

After the show we got a bite to eat and then the ladies headed home, leaving me to audition an Australian version of an American top-40 band and then on to a Woolloomooloo Irish pub where a trio sang gruff Irish folk songs.  The bartender/owner took personal pride in demonstrating the nuances of the beers on tap and the finer points of World Cup soccer on the TV.  As the hour grew late I made one more stop at a lively establishment on the block of my hotel where rowdy twenty-somethings were gathered around a jukebox singing at the top of their lungs.  Yes, they still have jukeboxes!

Tuesday was my one and only day off during this two week tour.  I was excited for an extensive hiking tour of the renown Blue Mountains.  Sure enough, I cranked open my floor to ceiling blinds to see that it was pouring rain.  I caught the train to the North to meet Judy’s husband, sax man Mark Ginsburg at the Linfield station where we took shelter from the drizzle under the awning of an amazing coffee joint called Café Feoh.  These Australians sure take their coffee seriously!  When Sydney-based Cantor Shimon Farkas came to LA before Passover I offered to meet him at Coffee Bean.   He said, “No, I’m going to take you to a place in Beverly Hills that serves REAL coffee.”  Well, I was slowly becoming an aficionado and can safely say that that morning’s mocha was the best I’ve ever had.  No sugar required!  We walked back to Mark’s home while the clouds dissipated and played some groovy piano-soprano sax improvised meanderings and then boarded his zippy Audi Quattro for West Head.  This would be a more coastal (and hopefully drier) version of the hike we originally planned.  We wound through a gorgeous wilderness area taking care not set off any photo speed traps on the way.  I wouldn’t survive a town with such tightly controlled traffic enforcement!  We then embarked on a five-mile loop that followed bluffs to beaches and featured caves and ancient kitchens with aboriginal art.

We returned just as darkness fell.  Sunset in LA mid-June is about 7:45pm.  Here it’s at 4:30!  One must plan their day in outback carefully during the Southern Hemisphere winter.  Back at the Ginsburg home we jumped into their Jacuzzi perfectly situated on a back deck overlooking the bush.  Following a few beers and good conversation we dined on tuna sandwiches (keeping kosher isn’t always glamorous!) and I boarded a train back to the city.  I went straight to Town Hall and enjoyed a brisk walk along popular George Street up to the harbor.  I shot some glowing night shots of skyscrapers and the Harbor Bridge and then continued up to the tip of the peninsula where the Opera House holds court.  What good fortune that on my free night my childhood keyboard hero Chick Corea and vibes master Gary Burton were playing this storied venue.  I got in line for tickets and overheard the attendant stating that there were only a few seats left in the nearly 6000 capacity hall.  It dawned on me that if Chick were playing in LA he would barely fill a 200 seat club and the place would be half empty for the second set!  There was a woman in line next to me and I nodded that she could go ahead.  She responded that she wasn’t there to buy a ticket…she had one to sell.  I told her, “well I need one ticket!”  She said, “ok, is half price alright?”  I picked up the ticket for $50 and she said, “you’ll like these seats…you’re in the stalls.”  From that description, as far as I knew, I was over by the bathrooms.  But when I presented my ticket to the usher he marched me down to the third row, right in front of Chick’s keyboard.  Yes, God loves me!

Chick and Gary played a set of epic instrumentalsynchronicity that left the audience breathless.  I noted that the crowd was the best behaved that I had ever seen.  No catcalls, no standing ovations, just polite, warm applause all night.  I befriended the blokes around me and they made sure that I had a beverage at intermission and wouldn’t accept my money.  After the show I walked along the waterfront to the Opera House bar where I met members of the Swiss thrash metal band Coroner who were on tour down under.  No, I had never heard of them either.  It’s remarkable what nice guys they were given that they blast death rock for slamdancing skinhead crowds as a matter of habit.  I took the train to my hotel via the nightspot Kings Cross, the closest stop to Woolloomooloo.  At this late hour, on a Tuesday night, there wasn’t much action except for hash-smoking backpackers lighting up outside their hostels.  That night I turned on the TV for the first time.  Plenty of Australian shows with amusing Australian commercials.  Nice to see that there is significant broadcasting base of home-brew content and that Aussies are not dependent on Hollywood for entertainment.  That said, most of the typical American fare could be found for those homesick for Yank accents.

I had made plans early Wednesday morning with chorister Antony Milch who promised me a kayak adventure at dawn.  His day job is working as a psychiatrist and as we paddled through the sunrise over chilly Balmoral Bay he told me some of the harrowing work he does with broken and abusive families.  Kayaking is his escape.  He had all the requisite waterproof gear for me to enjoy the incredible scenery without suffering and we made it to a lone beach with a prominent rock to climb for an imperial view of a fading rainbow.  Thankfully we were in double kayak so when my arms were giving out after an hour of paddling I left it to him to retain our momentum.  Upon stashing the craft back on his car we headed up to St. Ives where I had a performance with the students of Masada grade school.  I first worked with about 200 kids in the younger grades and then a second workshop with the older students.  Then we put on a show for the whole student body with the kids joining me on vocals.  I loved hearing their accents on my songs, particularly the “repeat after me” verses of Unbreakable Soul. I felt like I was feeding in an American accent and I’d get the Aussie version at the other end of the machine.  The kids were respectful and somewhat awestruck.  When I finished I joined the crowd on the floor and was literally mobbed by hundreds of kids wanting a high five.  What fun!

Judy and Mark invited me to join Josh and Rhonda Jacobson for a delicious Chinese dinner to celebrate the Jacobson’s last night in town.  We were joined by Helene and Tony Abo who wanted to get in on the festivities since Tony had gone to elementary school with me before his family moved to Sydney.  Following our feast I sought out some jazz in town.  For such a musical place with so many musicians, Sydney is way under gunned in terms of live concert venues.  I heard a few singer-songwriters in pubs and a few cover bands, but there is no “scene.”  This town needs a 6th Street or Frenchmen Street badly!  I did find Club 505 on the web which was only a few miles from where we were dining.  About twenty jazz fans were enjoying the vocal stylings of Lionel Cole, Nat’s nephew.  A fine jazz trio backed him up and he took us through an eclectic songbook of jazz and pop standards with just the right amount of twist to make them interesting.  At the break I schmoozed with the players at the bar: they all knew the musicians from my local Sydney band and Lionel promised to come by my studio when he came back to LA.  In the meantime, he was perfectly content living half the year in the Paddington suburb of Sydney.  I think he enjoys being the only African American for miles and has found a great niche for his music and humor.

Early Thursday morning Judy picked me up for yet another school where I was to meet with high school musicians interested in learning about music career choices.  I gave the Mt. Sinai class the standard line I give young people when they come by my studio looking for connections:  it’s a tough business, and it’s getting tougher every year.  That said, it is so fulfilling doing what you love for a living.  So do what you love!  Be the best in your niche.  Nail your instrument, let your voice soar, get your music recorded, always be ready to deliver when opportunity strikes.  Some of the girls sang for me…undeniable talent in this town!  I performed a rowdy school-wide assembly concert and then Judy rushed me out to grab a quick bit to eat so that we would have time for a hike in Galston Gorge.

We stopped at nearby Katzy’s restaurant in Bondi, one of the only fleishig places in the city.  As I ordered my mix grill shwarma I heard a familiar voice next to me.  I peered around his shoulder…sure enough…my dear friend David Wolfe from Virginia Beach, VA.   Here in Australia.  The only other customer in this restaurant 13,000 miles away from his home.  I had just emailed him the week before about the upcoming High Holidays where I will be returning to serve as chazzan in his synagogue.  And here he was with an answer, in person!  Amazing.  His wife Helen came down to the restaurant when she heard I was there.  The Wolfes have one of the only kosher homes in Virginia Beach so needless to say, we’ve become close!  David’s sister lives in Bondi and he’s here for a week visiting…and now the whole mishpocha is coming to my show Saturday night!  After our reunion meal, Judy and I drove an hour north to the gorge, a wild hairpin road through the bush with a three space parking area at the base of the canyon.  It took us a few attempts to find a proper trail but we eventually wound up on a leg of the Great North Walk, which winds over a hundred miles from Sydney to Newcastle.  As kookaburra hooted overhead we explored the misty Australian Blue Gum forest and shared our stories. Nothing like a good hike to connect with a friend…this was the first time I caught Judy without twenty details on her mind.

We arrived at the Galston Gorge retreat just as the sun became a infernal ball of magenta on the tree-lined horizon.  120 high school kids from the Emanuel School were in the midst of an activity-filled music camp week at this beautiful, rustic setting.  Of the 800 students in the institution, 200 are musicians.  The school employs a full time staff of five music teachers and twenty-two part time specialists to handle their instrumental and choral needs.  They have jazz bands, classical ensembles, choirs and rock bands, with stiff competition to get a chair in the elite groups.  All this and I can barely get a half a dozen musicians to show up for the high school jazz ensemble I lead back in LA.  And my position is at risk of elimination due to budget cuts.  The difference in our continents is staggering, and our US students are suffering as a result.  The benefits of music to the developing mind and mentality are well documented.  The resulting cohesion and discipline acquired by participating in such a group is difficult to achieve in any other educational format.  Not to mention the joy of having a lifelong skill on an instrument and a deeper appreciation for music of all genres.  Don’t get me started.

I was scheduled as the official concert entertainment during their free night.  After devouring a deli dinner they brought for me (sparing me the cafeteria slop) I quickly worked with members of the top jazz band and assorted teachers and found multiple places to integrate them in my show.  I also heard that the Jr. choir had mastered Feeling Groovy and Uzi Svika Pick’s Shema Yisrael so of course I featured (or shall we say embarrassed) them.  The students packed the house, the musicians nailed their parts and their in-house soundman did a masterful job with my mix.  Thankfully Mark Ginsburg was on hand with his sax and his video camera.  As is my custom, I finished off my hour plus set with a rowdy hora that culminated in a sweaty mosh pit that left their teachers wondering about my sense of responsibility.  All the adults finished off the night with an fireside hang in the faculty lounge.  I seized the opportunity to learn about the music program and how it evolved.  While we sipped fine wine we listened to old school Australian jazz records on an audiophile NAD stereo system that the soundman schlepped to camp.  A perfect end to an amazing day.

Friday morning I awoke after too short a night of sleep, prayed, showered, shaved, packed my bags and loaded up Judy’s car for my final school show.  Thank God this was just a twenty-minute mini show at the K-12th Grade Moriah College near Bondi.  I watched in awe as my warm up act, a fifteen-piece middle school jazz band, performed Rock Around the Clock replete with a choir and dancers.  Then the principal aired my Dancing in Jerusalem YouTube video which the kids had been enjoying since Yom HaAtzmaut.  The 300 middle schoolers sang the chorus at the top of their lungs when the principal announced, “And now all the way from Los Angeles, our big surprise, Jewish rock star Sam Glaser!”  The kids were shocked to see me amble out on stage and lead them in the song with the soundtrack playing behind me.  I then regaled the suit and tie-wearing youngsters with rowdy versions of Shabbas, Sukkah’s on Fire, Unbreakable Soul and Uvenei Yerushalayim.  Had they not been so elegantly dressed I would have stage dived.

After the assembly a music teacher gave me a tour of the two fully equipped music labs, recording studios, orchestra halls and practice rooms.  Another jaw-dropping musical moment as I heard melodious cacophony in every hallway.  Yes, they have 1500 students at this school and therefore the economy of scale to host the most outrageous school music program I have ever witnessed.  Somehow I know that an LA or NY based yeshiva of the same size MIGHT have an ill-equipped music teacher on the staff schlepping around his own Casio keyboard.

Judy dropped me back at my new hotel, the upscale Meriton Apartments in Bondi Junction.  Much to my chagrin the room wasn’t ready.  I changed into my bike shorts in the compact lobby bathroom, placed my fins and wetsuit in a plastic bag and put my luggage in storage.  I walked a mile to a local bike shop hoping to rent a bike to ride the five miles to Bondi Beach.  Always call first!  The shop only sold bikes…no rentals.  Now there’s a business opportunity…I learned that there are two rental shops serving a city of four million!  Next gaffe: I waited for a bus on the wrong side of the street, then found someone to set me straight and when the 333 finally arrived they only accepted prepaid tickets.  Oy vey!  Off to a shop to buy said tickets, waited for the next bus and finally made my way down to the picture perfect crescent of Bondi Beach.  The beach break waves were head high and peaky with a consistent offshore breeze cleaning up the faces.  I rented a board and walked a mile in my wetsuit to a highly recommended nearby break called Tamarama.  Pumping overhead sets breaking on rocks.  A bit much for this tourist.  I saw the locals pulling out mere feet from ruin on the exposed reef.  Back to Bondi.  Finally, victory after a morning of frustration.  Two hours of great sets, steep drops and plenty of smiling Aussies to chat with in between.

After returning my board I walked the Bondi-Bronte beach path, snapping countless pictures of the aqua-blue water crashing on mossy rocks, skateboarders and surfers, first dates and families.  The sun was intermittently breaking through the grey stratus layer of clouds providing a rich backdrop to the colorful scene.  I emerged on a steeply pitched street at the end of the walk and asked a scruffy Scotsman where one might catch the bus up to Centennial Park.  He said, “You don’t need a bus, hop in my car!”  He and his son interviewed me as they schlepped me up to town and helped me search around the Central Park-size recreation spot for the bike rental.  Septuagenarian Stu offered me a fine hybrid with a perfect geometry for my 6’3 frame and off I went on a smooth cruise around the three-mile loop.  Other than the occasional horse and rider and vagabond swan I enjoyed the wide-open bike path unmolested.  Upon my return Stu gave me an Australian vocabulary quiz.  They seem to understand most of our American slang whereas most of theirs left me scratching my head.  Most importantly, I know now to call my fanny-pack a bum-bag.

Needless to say I was exhausted after the two-mile walk to my hotel from the park bike rental. My eighth floor, five-star ultramodern 1200 square foot room was now ready, with views from every window.  Minor detail: the heat, internet and phone didn’t work throughout my stay regardless of how I prodded the staff.  I quickly unpacked and showered, remembering just before Shabbas started to check Google for the route to Central Synagogue where I would be leading a Shabbaton.  Thankfully I saw plenty of men in black as they marched towards mincha.  Central is a synagogue of awesome proportions.  When the previous building burned to the ground in the 1990′s, among the congregants who helped with the audacious rebuild was Westfield Mall’s owner Frank Lowy.  My fellow conductor from the AJCF Russell Ger was leading the sixteen voice men’s choir accompanying the strident call to prayer of master chazzan Shimon Farkas.  I found out that the former chief rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, was on hand to give the d’var Torah that night, and for that reason my youth service had been cancelled.  Oh well!  I think I had sung enough at this point.  Just as I collapsed in my comfortable chair, Russell approached and insisted that I join the choir.  Twist my arm.

Following the celebratory davening and the rabbi’s oration on Parshat Shelach, Shimon and Veronica Farkas joined me for a spectacular meal at Rabbi Friedman’s home.  The singing and spirit was intoxicating as was the fine Australian merlot.  I walked (or rolled) home to my hotel and found that the ground floor door to the stairwell was now locked.  I had been assured that it wouldn’t be.  Eventually a couple came along that volunteered to stop by the fourth floor reception desk to tell security that a strange Jewish man couldn’t ride the elevator for some reason and needed to get into the stairwell.  That night I enjoyed yet another surfing dream, in this chapter the waves got bigger and bigger until they were swallowing the condominiums on the shore.

The next day I returned to Central for a lovely Shachrit that featured a Bar Mitzvah for a state politician’s handsome son. I was surprised that the vacuous room was only 1/10th full. Of course the dairy Kiddush was epic and featured cheesecake, lox and chocolate mousse.  The chazzan adopted me once again.  For a man who seems so pompous in his enormous black robe and tallis on a five-foot high center bimah, he is a smiling, suave, fun-loving friend.  He and his wife Veronica escorted me about two miles to their daughter’s high-tech home where we feasted on Middle Eastern delicacies.  They have four gorgeous daughters and a treasured infant son. I’m told that everyone in the family is musical.  Naturally!  After lunch I walked back the few miles on an alternate route that required that I find my way up and down a significant canyon.  Are you getting the message that I put on a few miles on this crazy trip?  I had to pull the same shenanigans to get back into the hotel stairway and eventually got back to my cozy king size bed for a deep Shabbas nap.

I awoke just on time to wet my hair and cart my CDs over to the Central Shul for my gala Motzei Shabbas melava malka concert.  Every seat in the house was full and I gave an energetic yet relaxed show filled with humor and anecdotes from my Australian adventures.  Cantor Farkas sat in on Adon Olam, a lovely violinist accompanied Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and a posse of ladies from my Rock It Choir materialized to join me on the songs that they had perfected during the AJCF.  I had asked Rabbi Wolf, a Chabadnik leading this very Modern Orthodox shul, if I could invite the ladies on stage.  No, that would not be appropriate, they would have to sing from their seats.  Oy. On hand were David and Helen Wolfe from Virginia with their Aussie mishpocha in tow.  Perhaps it was the nap or the favorable humidity but I must say that my voice felt invincible and I was surprised to be hitting notes that I can’t always get to, especially after weeks of constant use.

Yes, I am glutton for punishment.  I realized that this was essentially my last night in town and I wanted to wander the central business district to have a pint and shop for souvenirs.  I caught the train right under my hotel to the central station and wandered for a few hours.  Once again I caught some drunken karaoke where a few of the inebriated singers could actually sing!  As I stepped out of the club onto the pavement I felt a sharp pain in my lower shin on my left leg.  Serious ouch.  I had to sit down on the sidewalk and found that applying any pressure made me wince. OK.  Now I know my limits.  I managed to limp to a grocery store for supplies and then back to Town Hall where I caught the night bus back to my hotel.  What was I thinking!  Why didn’t I just go to bed.  Oy vey!  I hobbled up to my room and reviewed my notes for the two lectures I was giving the next day.  In my heart I knew I really hurt myself and it wasn’t going to just go away.

The next morning the pain was worse.  I was driven to the campus of the University of New South Wales to lead the community in the annual Yom Limmud day of learning and song.  Fortunately all the events were in a single building…I couldn’t walk more than twenty feet without incident.  Needless to say I did my morning kids concert seated rather than standing but still managed to motivate the group to a dancing frenzy and of course the Soap Soup Ice Cream chant.  I then taught my Life and Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach workshop.  I peppered the lecture notes with a chronological overview of his best-known songs and the packed hall sang with glee.  Following a pareve lunch of quiche and salad I offered a second class, this time my Across the River workshop.  This course discusses my own methods of incorporating text in song, Jewish music as a teaching tool and the power of music to access the soul.  I sold the last of the boxes of CDs that I brought with me to Australia and then Judy returned me to my hotel room for packing and pondering.

As I ruminated about my injury I filled my suitcases and wondered how I was going to make through Fiji with this handicap.  The whole idea of this four-day addendum to my Australia adventure was to reward myself with a tropical feast of turquoise warm water, big wave surf and scuba.  I must admit I was getting more and more depressed as I lay in bed unable to fall asleep in spite of my impending 3:30am wake up call.  I must have nodded off eventually.  3:30 came quickly and I gathered my belongings, performed an idiot check around the hotel room and met my jovial cab driver from Ghana.  He was sad to tell me that the USA beat Ghana in the World Cup game that day.  Thanks to the empty pre-dawn roads we arrived at the airport in a brief twenty minutes, setting me back fifty bucks.

I could barely handle my luggage as I limped through the enormous terminal in search of Fiji Airways.  The cabbie had dropped me off at the door farthest from the proper check in desk.  When I arrived it was empty.  What, I didn’t hear that the flight had been cancelled?  NO!  I did not!  And I called in to check the night before!  Now my depression was sliding towards abject misery.  No flights for hours.  I was a sleepwalking zombie.  The later flight would mean that I would miss the last high-speed catamaran ride to Mana Island where I had booked the Mana Resort for my stay.  I had handpicked this island from the hundreds in the archipelago.  The perfect mix of white sand beaches, amazing diving and proximity to the southern surf reefs.  Now I would have to pay for a seaplane or a costly hour-plus water taxi ride.  I asked the overworked attendant if he could get me on a non-stop back to LA.  He checked and eventually came back with an affirmative.  Worst decision I’ve made in a long time.

I found a place to hide at an unused gate and fell asleep on the airport floor for five hours.  When my alarm rang I got my bags together and then realized that I had to cancel the Fiji hotel so that I wouldn’t get charged for more than a night.  When I got through they replied that no, they had to charge me for the whole stay since I didn’t give them the requisite five days notice.  OK.  Now I was REALLY bummed.  I could have just vegged on the beach and worked on my new book.  Maybe even snorkeled without fins.  Speaking of fins, the location of this pain led me to believe that it was Friday’s surf adventure that did me in.  After all, I spent hours pumping through the ocean with plenty of “getting caught inside” spells where I was duck-diving wave after wave.  Fins do take a toll on the ankles and shins.  Finally I got onto my sold out Qantas flight to LA.  There would be no kosher meals since I switched at the last minute.  My leg was throbbing and I realized that I now had fourteen hours of agony ahead of me rather than the four that I would have had had I not changed my itinerary.  Never make big decisions when you are down in the dumps.  Stay with the program!

I slept for six hours, edited my book and watched a movie.  Upon landing I gathered all my belongings but failed to notice that my manuscript that I had spent weeks editing was on the side of my seat under a blanket.  Yes, I have been calling Qantas daily and it is quite gone.  It was wonderful to see my beautiful wife at the airport and hug my beautiful children.  But the LA haze and miles of cement just served as painful reminders that I could have been in paradise.  All paid for.  Even my tropical island Mac screensaver was taunting me.  The feeling did pass, but not until the four days were up and I stopped ruminating, “if only I had NOT gone out on the town that last night.”  It took a full week before I could walk around our block.  I hit the ground running (or limping) with a full schedule of clients who were excited that I was back in town early and we could dive into their projects. One of these clients recorded a song with these lyrics:

“God, I wanted for it to be one way

But I see that it’s not Your will

I accept Your gift, and thank You for the change in plans

For I can be certain it’s the absolute best for me”

Yes, I get the message.  Thank you, dear God, for bringing me home early.  Only You know what is best for me.  If only that blessed screensaver would stop speaking to me of Fijian sunsets.

Now it’s 5am and the sky is awakening.  Any moment now the sprinklers will go off.  I will sleep for four hours and then go into a massively busy day. I avoid coffee until I really need it; that way the caffeine packs a wallop.  This will be a coffee day.  The only way to finish an 8600-word essay is to stay up late. Congratulations for making it to the end!  The moral of the story is: live it up, maximize every moment, Thank God for your blessings and for your adversity, keep on singing and do not go gentle into that good night.

Good night!

(If you made it to the end of this, my longest blogpost ever, please consider sending me an email at sam@samglaser.com and telling me what you think of it.)

Getting in the Holy Spirit

May 9th, 2014
by Sam Glaser

After fifty-six monthly newsletters featuring 2500 word essays, it should be no mystery to my regular readers that I am surreptitiously writing a book. When I get to newsletter number sixty I will have assembled nearly 150,000 words or 500 novel-sized pages. Looks like I have some editing to do! My goal is to get this project launched in 2015 and the working title is The Jewish Missionary Handbook. Yes, I realize this hints to Mormons and bedroom Olympics – but the fact is that the Mormons are a great example of tirelessly spreading the good news and sex sells books. I’m very passionate about getting this heartfelt message out there: I feel that North American Jewry has lost its “mission statement” and I intend to do my part to get us back on track. The following essay will serve more or less as the opening chapter.

The Jewish People are the original missionaries in human history, with the goal of bringing the world to an loving appreciation of God, righteousness and holiness. Our deep-seated drive to teach the world about ethical monotheism is a spiritual legacy from Avraham, the first Jew. Over the millennia our attempts to missionize were thwarted by persecution and sadly we have retreated inward. At this point, before we can reignite our beacon to the nations, we have to “circle the wagons” and reclaim our critical message. It is my hope that the pages that follow serve as wake up call that living Jewishly 24/7 is attainable and attractive and that we can again lead by example. If we’re not living it, we can’t be giving it! I also hope that potential Jews-by-choice and those Jews-by-birth interested in returning to tradition can use this text to guide their ascent and focus on the pleasure of the process. My qualifications for writing are simple: this tome is autobiographical in nature and I am only recommending spiritual leaps that I have attempted myself. I don’t have a PhD; this is advice from the trenches, with lessons learned in the school of hard knocks during two decades of performing and teaching on the road.

To date, my newsletters have had a common theme: connecting Jews of all stripes to each other and to their Creator. Yes, I deviate from time to time to rant about childrearing, trends in music and travel adventures, but the majority of these articles focus on two basic words: “Kedoshim tihiyu,” or you shall be holy. That statement from Leviticus sums up our core national aspiration. Everything else is commentary. While our sages debate exactly what this seemingly vague mitzvah might entail, the bottom line stems from the ending of the sentence: “for I, God, your God, am holy”. Put simply, we are to strive to be God-like in our behavior. Every circumstance is a “choose life” moment, a divinely orchestrated series of situations in which we are challenged to choose wisely. In other words, “What would Moses do?” is the question to keep on our tongues.

Striving for holiness requires that we define our terms. The first thing that comes to my mind when thinking about holiness is the angelic realms or the High Priest doing the Temple service on Yom Kippur. The Kotzker Rebbe reminds us that an exhortation to holiness in the book of Exodus uses the term “people of holiness shall you be,” in other words, holiness isn’t just for priests and angels. Within the context of our messy, mistake-ridden humanity we are to emulate the angels. In fact, “kedoshim tihiyu” was delivered not from Moshe to Aharon or to the elders, but from Moshe to the entire assembly. This lesson is for ALL of us. Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews, all those who are “opting in” to actively celebrating our heritage, must make holiness the first priority.

The root of the word kodesh means separation. That root is in many important Hebrew words that employ this same integral meaning: Kaddish serves to divide our prayer services and Kedushin is the word for marriage wherein two people separate themselves from all others. The first time holiness is mentioned in the Torah is right at the top with the creation of the day of rest. Sure enough, with the Kiddush we verbally disconnect Shabbat or Yom Tov from regular days. Do you see a pattern here? Immediately after telling us to be holy, God lists all the sexual pairings that are forbidden, yet another separation. The laws  involving kashrut sanctify us as a holy nation AND separate us from the other nations. Yes, that sounds politically incorrect in a melting pot society. But if God’s treasured nation loses its holiness/separation, we assimilate, intermarry and eventually lose our ability to keep the light on, that is, the light unto nations that has so fundamentally transformed western civilization.

The key to holiness is abstention. In truth, abstention sounds like a bummer. Who wants to be a party pooper? It’s clear, however, that the greatest rewards in life are gained through abstention. Marital bliss and the resulting gift of children can only take place when one abstains from extramarital affairs. Accessing the deepest potential of the Sabbath and holidays requires a long list of abstentions. In fact, the way we celebrate is largely framed in the negative by the things we CANNOT do. We then fill the empty space that remains with nurturing activities like prayer, long meals and family time that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. God seems to be teaching us the invaluable lesson that most worthwhile endeavors involve postponing immediate gratification for a brighter future. I’m reminded of the research study wherein children tempted with delicious marshmallows would receive extra ones if they could wait. The kids were tracked throughout their lives and those who were able to abstain from the treats for a certain period of time were the most successful in life.

Whereas Rashi claims that a state of holiness is the result of abstaining from the illicit sexual acts that are enumerated in the rest of the Kedoshim parsha, Ramban argues that holiness arises from abstaining from those things that are ARE permitted to us. He points out that one can keep kosher and still be a slovenly glutton. This teaches that holiness involves balance. Eat kosher food, but don’t be a pig! Learn Torah, but don’t be a snob. Make a fortune, but give tzedakah. We may be a separate nation that “dwells apart,” but we are loving and tolerant to others. In the search for holiness it’s tempting to go to extremes or attempt asceticism but as the Rambam states, the key is to remain integrated with one’s community and to walk on the “shvil hazahav” or a balanced path. Perhaps the best biblical example of the importance of balance can be found in the laws of becoming a Nazir (one who feels the need to get super-frum for a period of time.) One might think that undertaking “extra” commandments is commendable but remarkably, when one completes the Nazirite period, he or she must bring a sin offering.

Our sages divide our commandments into positive and negative. Thou shalt vs. thou shalt not. The “shalt” category is simply a list of 248 divine pathways for connection at our disposal. The 365 “shalt nots” are those activities that will clog up those divine pathways. Stop for a moment and ponder that the next mitzvah you do, even giving a buck to a beggar, is opening a divine pathway to holiness. The grand total is a God-given 613 commandments (and not 613 “suggestions!”) They are the key to retaining holiness. Yes, it is worthwhile to debate the nuances of observance, but not at the expense of simple faith and service. The mitzvot are our most invaluable inheritance. Every single mitzvah you do has “angels doingbackflips.” Some claim that this system is archaic, valid only in biblical times or that Judaism today is a vestigial rabbinic construct. I’d like to argue that more than ever these principles are crucial for understanding the world, staying married, staying in shape, taking a weekly break from technology/media and igniting our imperiled national spark.

In fact, I believe that the net result of learning about holiness and applying the lessons leads to nothing short of a Matrix-style taking of the red pill. One enters a new realm, a powerful, palpable parallel universe. A realm filled with joy and tranquility. Even when everything seems to be going wrong! This transformation is the logical result of entering the path that God has created for his chosen people. Electrons have distinct pathways, planets have orbits, a forest left on its own will flourish. We humans are utterly miraculous in terms of the inexplicable design of our bodies and souls, the pinnacle of God’s creation. Of course we too have a path! We call it halacha, which literally means “the pathway” and is the term for the body of Jewish law. Seen this way, law isn’t confining or strict, it’s liberating! Taking on mitzvot with intention, understanding and balance can launch us on a trajectory where one can soar with God. Prayer becomes a mind-blowing tool of sweet partnership and dialog. Human interaction becomes refined and enlightened. Sounds utopian, right?

When we walk with God we can immediately perceive when we are off track. We feel the disconnection in our bones. I used to arrive at the synagogue on the High Holidays and wonder what I was doing there. I’m a “good person” after all! Why get on this woolen suit in the heat of late summer and stand here for hours with people I only see once a year? Transitioning to a mitzvah-focused life in my mid-twenties changed all that. Slowly but surely I was becoming spiritually sensitized to my own holy path and could intuit with some degree of confidence when I had strayed. It wasn’t about being ridden with guilt or feeling like I had to please my parents. Now I was in shul on the holiest day of the year with twenty-five precious hours to set things straight with my beloved Creator and best friend. Striving for holiness restores our internal compass. It clears the muck that clouds the glass and resets our magnetic north.

King David summarizes the formula for entry into holy space in the Psalm: “Sur meyrah v’asey tov.” Run from evil and do good. That’s it. Distance yourself from doing negative commandments and actively do the positive ones. Easy, right? Part of running from evil requires clarification of what is evil in the first place, and remaining vigilant against our temptation to the allure of the “dark side.” One might think that 613 commandments are more than enough. (Some think 10 are more than enough!) Well, there is much more to it; our rabbis have instituted a system of fences to keep us from trampling on the mitzvot and enhance our chances of successfully accomplishing “sur meyrah.” These fences are an integral part of halacha and negotiating them requires learning the nuances with a qualified rabbi. “Sur meyrah v’asey tov” also informs the teshuva (return) experience…until we stop the mistake we are making, only then can we apologize and resolve not to repeat it. I immerse in a mikvah before Shabbat each week and it is upon these words that I meditate while underwater.

There are two pitfalls I want to disavow: one is the misconception of personal limitations keeping one out of the game. That’s the voice in your head that says, “But I’m too ______ (fill in the blank with “bad at Hebrew, broke, far from a synagogue, depressed, busy, annoyed…”) My friends, there are 613 mitzvot to choose from. Start with one and make it your own. Do it for the wrong reason (guilt, shame, because I told you to, to make money, you are afraid God will strike you down) and eventually it will become a natural part of your life for the right reason. Don’t wait for a miracle or a patient rabbi to appear. Be the person in your group of friends who joins a synagogue, takes a stand for Shabbat, doesn’t eat shrimp. One of my favorite lines in the Torah is, “it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven…nor is it over the sea…rather the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart.”

The other pitfall is feeling that the “yoke of heaven” is a burden. Sure, no one wants a yoke around his or her neck! But a yoke allows oxen to plow and thereby bring sustenance and hopefully abundance into the world. Remember that all these rules and regulations are really our freedom, a source of pleasure and joy. Our sages point out that our biblical heroes lost their access to prophecy when they weren’t in a place of joy. You can see it in the text, for example, when during the twenty-two years Jacob was mourning Joseph he never spoke to God. We are trying to open our spiritual channels to perceive holiness. If observance is making you sad then it is counterproductive. Get out, lighten up, try another mitzvah, try another synagogue, try another community. Torah is “our life and the length of our days.” We are commanded to serve God with happiness and all the calamities mentioned in our holy texts only occur when we fail to do so.

Once the Jewish world gets its collective act together I believe anything is possible. An end to war, hunger, misery. We are seeing this come to fruition in our own times. So much remarkable technology emanates from our beloved Promised Land. Jewish Harvard professors teach the world about happiness. Zany Chabad rabbis on TVenlighten non-Jewish families about shalom bayit (peace in the home.) An unbroken chain of Jewish Federal Reserve chairmen keeps the world economy afloat. Now if we would just learn how to get along as a People, we could truly teach the world about peace. I have found that the most successful members of clergy (in all Jewish denominations) are those that eshew the ivory tower in order to get in the trenches helping congregants do mitzvot. We have tolerated enough Pew reports and population studies to see that promoting Judaism removed from mitzvot and the resulting gift of holiness is like trying to animate a body without a spine. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to say that kids are leaving synagogues not because they don’t want religion, but because they DO want religion. Jewish unity is the final cornerstone of our grand mission and I believe we won’t find that elusive unity until we learn to celebrate our differences and rally around Torah.

So there’s the mission statement. Now on to the commentary.  Enjoy the adventures in the book. I had to endure over a thousand flights (in coach!) to bring you these stories and insights. Every month I swore I wouldn’t write another newsletter. But I did. Step by step over the past six years I worked towards a goal of writing a book about my passion in life. Baby steps, persistence and patience are the key elements to reaching any goal. So too with our collective quest for holiness and redemption. That’s why Jacob saw a ladder and not a rocket ship. You’ve got to sweat the climbing, one rung at a time. I hope this humble manuscript will encourage you to “take it up a notch” in your quest for holiness and connection. I welcome all of you to share with me your personal journeys, both the triumphs and crises. We can learn so much from one another. I’m so grateful that you have taken the time to share my journey.

Strapping Up

April 7th, 2014

By Sam Glaser

My first exposure to tefillin was in a basement workshop of a holy sofer (scribe) in Jerusalem.  I was in Israel for my Bar Mitzvah; a lucky Brentwood, CA boy whose parents opted not only for an LA celebration but also for a meaningful few weeks touring the Promised Land.  The culmination of the experience was a second Bar Mitzvah service at the Western Wall where I read Torah at the spiritual “ground zero” of our planet and forged an unbreakable bond with Israel and my people.  I remember my new tefillin straps feeling sharp and rough; it would be months before the leather would soften and feel comfortable on my skin. After this trip my father made a point of praying with me in his rich, walnut-lined study in the mornings before school, allowing for quality father-son time and ensuring that my tefillin would actually get some use.

Unfortunately I fell into the pattern of most of my Conservative peers and my Bar Mitzvah year would be the last time I’d have any shred of active Jewish life.  Yes, I attended confirmation and a few youth group activities but Judaism as I saw it was for nerds and those without a social life.  Mypriorities were fitting in at public school, skiing, biking and surfing and playing with my band.  I was proud to be Jewish and enjoyed family Friday Night dinners, but my tefillin were relegated to a dark closet never to see the light of day.

Fast forward to my twenties when I was building my first recording studio and working as a full-time composer.  I was chasing TV and movie score work, producing my first albums for clients and trying to get a record deal with my own band.  I was approached to write some music to benefit the Operation Exodus campaign (Hineni) and a song for a Camp Ramah Hallel service (Pitchu Li) and suddenly found myself referred to as a Jewish composer. Accelerating this awakening was meeting John and Ruth Rauch whose Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity was offering a two-week arts seminar in Jerusalem, all expenses paid.  I knew I wanted to get back to Jerusalem and was excited to get some inspiration to write some more Jewish tunes, so I applied and got accepted to the program.

Imagine the thrill of living in the elegant guest artist hotel Mishkenot She’ananim in Jerusalem where creative types of all sorts performed, collaborated and workshopped late into the nights. I wrote another three songs that would become part of my first Jewish album and bonded tightly with the international group of composers assembled from the four corners of the earth.  On one of the final nights of the program one of our mentors made a point of having a one-on-one conversation with me. Phillip said, “Sam, I’ve noticed you are a deeply religious guy.” I laughed, waiting for the punch line.  “No, I’m serious,” he insisted.  I responded that I couldn’t imagine why he might have come to this conclusion and he replied that he had overheard me in dialog with the Israelis on our program and noted that I always took the religious side of our theological arguments.

Phillip concluded that I should further investigate this side of my personality and perhaps it would bear some fruit.  When I asked how I might do that he suggested that I choose a mitzvah and make it my own. We pondered the alternatives and he then asked if I had ever wrapped tefillin.  “Yes,” I replied, “I have a pair that I received for my Bar Mitzvah.” Phillip told me to try putting them on and using this spiritual activity as a way to remember the connection I felt in Israel.  Upon returning home weeks went by before I made it over to my parent’s house and found the aged leather in the exact place where it had been left sixteen years earlier. The next morning in my beachside apartment I tried to put them on.  I had very little recollection of how to tie the straps or utter the appropriate blessings. I did know enough once I got them on that it was a good time to say the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, to thank God for the blessings in my life and ponder my connection with my heritage.

Midway through my prayers the phone rang.  As I reached for the receiver it dawned on me that this was my time to pray and I shouldn’t interrupt the moment with a call. As I uttered the ancient words, however, I did pause to listen to my answering machine as it picked up the message: it was my friend Jymm Adams from the Sports Channel of LA asking me to do all the music for TV broadcast of the Dodger and Angel home games that season.  I reached my strapped up hands to the heavens and said, “We’ll try this again tomorrow!”

I never got another lucrative mid-prayer phone call, but this small daily exercise of faith gave me something much more: a palpable relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth.  As long as I was setting aside a few minutes each day to pray I started to navigate the challenging waters of the long winded P’zukei D’zimra (Psalms of Praise) and the central prayer, the Shmoneh Esrai.  I added paragraph by paragraph onto my personal ritual, not wanting to bog myself down with too long a service but hoping to increase the fluidity of my Hebrew reading.  I was suddenly grateful for the hours of Hebrew School, Camp Ramah and practice with my cantor and Bar Mitzvah tutor. Thanks to those with the thankless task of teaching this class clown, I could actually read the Hebrew and with time could flow through the siddur.  Before long I could get through the majority of the Shachrit (morning) service and put on my tefillin like a champ.  Eventually I learned to focus on the meanings rather than just pronunciations of the words and learned to close my eyes and simply dwell in God’s presence.

At first the whole binding exercise seemed like a masochistic reenactment of the binding of Isaac, attempting to sublimate ego and will to that of the Almighty in a servant/master relationship. Perhaps tefillin are a physical expression of our being “bound” in a covenant with God. Contracts and covenants are good in that they inspire a sense of trust for each party; I was learning to trust God in my daily life, and I was hoping to become someone that God would consider a trustworthy partner in the healing of the world. As I grew in my spiritual intelligence I realized that tefillin commemorate a much greater degree of intimacy that can only be compared to the covenant of marriage: When we wind them around our fingers we utter the betrothal passage of Hoshea that is often recited at marriage ceremonies. For me, tefillin represent a daily “chuppah” moment just like at Mount Sinai, where I get to participate in a loving embrace of my “partner” in creation.

We all know that tefillin are mentioned four times in our Torah, most notably in one of our most important prayers, the Sh’ma. It is these four passages that are carefully transcribed with the same care as a mezuzah or Torah scroll, both in the head and arm boxes. In the Sh’ma our love affair with God is described as one that involves all our heart, soul and might. So too do we wear the tefillin on the arm close to the heart, on the head, the seat of the soul/intellect, and might, the realm of action on our bicep. There is also an idea that the head straps hang unevenly down towards our genitalia. Essentially we are employing a very physical system of checks and balances, a daily uniting of our spiritual and material existence, our yetzer hatov and yetzer harah (good and evil inclinations,) all within the realm of love. Tefillin offer us the chance to walk the middle path, to keep our intellect, emotions and physical being in peaceful coexistence in service to God.

Another virtue of this practice is the idea of unifying the transmission of both the written and oral law.  The Chumash (Torah) advises that we place a sign on our arms and between our eyes, but does not tell us exactly where that place is, what that “sign” looks like or even to employ leather and parchment.  Yet for millennia Jews have worn the same black boxes in more or less the same way.  I remember on that Bar Mitzvah trip how we hiked to top of Masada and learned that the 2000-year-old tefillin that were discovered were indistinguishable from those of today. Clearly Moses was shown diagrams and visions in addition to just taking dictation on Sinai. This oral law gives us the “meat” on the bones of our written transmission of God’s will. By wearing tefillin everyday we deepen the connection of these two worlds of understanding and take our place in the chain of transmission.

I highly recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s book aptly titled “Tefillin” for anyone curious about the role of gender and the deeper mystical aspects of this mitzvah.

These days I wear my tefillin wherever I wander.  I find that I am often in airports or on the rooftops of hotels looking for a quiet corner to strap up and say my morning prayers. I know it appears strange to onlookers but laying tefillin makes a definitive statement: “I’m Jewish, this is what we do, thanks for respecting our differences.” I welcome the questions that often ensue. When I’m not in the synagogue, I have a favorite spot on my east-facing porch where I am greeted with the warm morning light, flitting hummingbirds and the perfume of jasmine. With my own kids I am relaxed with pushing them to get to a minyan on Shabbat, but I consider the wearing of tefillin every weekday inviolate. Their willingness to do this mitzvah is a prerequisite to participating in our family vacations or any activities on Sundays. Thankfully they get it, largely because they see me doing it and they intuit the importance of consistency. Hopefully it’s more than guilt that motivates them…they have their own loving relationship with God…why mess that up? As Woody Allen says, “80% of life is showing up.” I believe that faithful behavior like a daily appointment with one’s tefillin elevates elusive faith into the realm of knowledge.

I’d like to finish with a tefillin story.  Everyone that I know that wraps on a daily basis has a good tefillin story, usually about their quest never to miss a day under any circumstances. One day on a concert tour/family vacation on the North Shore of Kauai I did my morning service on the beach overlooking a perfect double overhead swell at Hanalei Bay.  After davening I stashed my tefillin in the car and paddled out to have one of the most exciting surf sessions of my life. The locals were helping me get into position to drop into some of the smoothest and deepest bowls of bright green glass of my aquatic career.  After a few hours of breathless exertion I returned to my rental car surprised that the interior smelled of cigarette smoke.  I then realized that someone else had been in the car.  I checked under the seat to find that my phone, camera and tallis/tefillin bag were gone.

I searched the area, interviewed onlookers and filed a report with the police, to no avail.  My son Max was Bar Mitzvah age but had left his tefillin in LA and I didn’t know of anyone else in the North Shore that might be observant. What would I pray with on the following day, the last weekday of our trip?  I had another problem…how would I reach the guy with whom I was supposed to be jamming that night?  After my concert the night before, some locals were inspired to get me together with a percussionist to do a show in a club. But now without my precious iPhone, I didn’t have any of their contact information.  It dawned on me that some friends of ours from LA were vacationing on the South Shore. Perhaps we could reach them and arrange to get together and borrow their tefillin.

Sure enough the Brant-Sarif family agreed to meet us for a hike on the North Shore. We met on the edge of a certain condo complex where a steep trail heads down a cliff to a system of ocean-side sea caves inhabited by giant sea turtles. Following our explorations we scaled the cliff back to the parking lot and went back to their car so that my son and I could daven with tefillin. Time was of the essence since they had to get back down south before Shabbat came in. Just as I strapped up, a warm Hawaiian drizzle started to fall.  To avoid getting my friend’s tefillin wet we all dashed into the alcove of one of the condos and shared an animated communal mincha (afternoon) prayer session.

Just as we were davening the owner of this particular condo came walking down the stairs and shouted, “What the…” Upon closer inspection he stated, “my mishpocha!”  Sure enough he was a Jewish guy from the mainland that had recently made Hawaii his home.  He demurred when we offered him to try on the tefillin but he invited us into his condo for a drink.  When I introduced myself as a visiting musician he responded, “You’re Sam Glaser?? We were supposed to jam last night!”  Yes, this condo where we were huddled, trying to sneak in our mitzvah of tefillin before Shabbat began, was the very home of the person that I needed to reach the day before.

Wearing my tefillin on a daily basis has been nothing other than a window to perceive the daily miracles in my life. Thanks to this discipline I have a regular rendezvous with the Almighty that is fulfilling and unshakeable.   Ensuring that I never miss this appointment has created some truly memorable moments.  I’m also reminded of the power of an encouraging word: just like my mentor on that Israel program gave me the idea of tefillin as a way to connect my trip to further spiritual growth, so too do I try to offer similar suggestions to those with open hearts whom I encounter. Finally, tefillin offer access to the deepest realms of the soul: a connection of mind, body and heart, a binding of servant to master and a daily reenactment of our sacred marriage with the Creator of the Universe.