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.

In Search of Hidden Miracles

March 11th, 2014

By Sam Glaser

The other night over tofu curry my wife was explaining the concept of fiscal vs. calendar years to my kids. Times they are a-changing: my seventeen-year-old Jesse just opened his own E-Trade account so that he can play the market on his own. He used to hunt bugs in the backyard; now he’s studying corporate cash flow! She told him that most individuals in the US seem to follow the January to December calendar model, making January the back to work month following a holiday vacation and a drunken New Years Eve. My dad’s swimwear business went summer to summer since we shipped everything by May and then had to figure out what to do the next season.

We then discussed that most synagogues work on a fiscal year that begins with the High Holidays since that’s when they put on the “big show” for the crowds of the penitent and do most of their fundraising. That schedule holds true in my business also since my gigs follow the ebb and flow of synagogue life. It seems to make sense to start the Jewish calendar year on Rosh Hashana, literally the “head of the year,” but indeed, that’s not how it goes in the bible. In fact, just as we are about to leave Egypt with great signs and wonders, our first commandment as a nation is to keep a calendar. Once we become free men and women, we are personally accountable for the passage of our time and must learn to use it wisely. We also have to know when the fifteenth of the month is so that we can properly conduct our national homecoming party, the seder. Therefore the Jewish year actually begins in Nissan, the month of Pesach, which makes this month, Adar, the last month of the year and both a time to party and a season of reckoning.

What exactly we’re supposed to be feeling in this final month of the calendar is concealed behind the mask of our beloved Adar holiday, Purim. Yes, it’s a great holiday for kids but the real magic requires deeper analysis. The scroll that we are commanded to read, Megilat Esther is one of the final entries in the chronology of the Jewish biblical canon and interestingly, has no mention of God’s name. We start the year with the Pesach Haggadah and it’s manifold recitations of gratitude to God for the plethora of miracles performed on our behalf. Missing from this text is the mention of the story’s hero, Moshe! By the end of the Jewish calendar year, no discussion of God and it’s all about Queen Esther. What has changed? Evidently over the Jewish year we move from emphasis to God’s revealed hand in our redemption (Exodus) to a focus on the action of individuals with God operating behind the scene (Esther). I think the message here is that God is always with us even when that isn’t clear, and that we’ve got to get into the game.

The rabbis teach that the ten plagues in Egypt transpired over a nine-month period. This was our national gestation; we morph from Avraham and Sarah’s mishpocha (family) into a great, holy nation. Over the course of the next few millennia we read about the fits and starts of our spiritual adolescence traveling to and living in Israel and then finally, by the time of Esther, we renew our covenant as adults. No more need for coercion, no more need to have Mount Sinai held over our heads, we accept the yoke of the commandments willingly and with joy, knowing that God’s intimate Presence follows us wherever we wander. In fact, the title of our text holds the answer to the puzzle of Jewish survival through this long exile: Megilat Esther can be translated as “revealing the hidden,” it’s a lesson plan in adopting a world view where we perceive God’s hand behind all events.

Therefore, the vibe of this month of Adar is to bask in the emunah (faith) that we have crafted over the Jewish calendar year. Every holiday that transpires, beginning with our national homecoming (Pesach), reenacting the receiving of Torah (Shavuot) and then the High Holidays, serves to build this invisible shield of Divine love and protection. By the time we’re getting ready for Purim we rejoice in the seemingly “God-less” story knowing firmly in our hearts that God’s grace is behind all the events in our lives. In fact, the word emunah alludes to “craftsmanship,” sharing the same root as the word “amanut,” the arts and crafts that we used to do at camp. The subliminal effect of full immersion in the Jewish holiday cycle forms a level of belief that is real, tactile, or as my Rosh Yeshiva used to say, offers “five finger clarity.”

One of the gifts of Judaism is the feeling that we are part of a big-picture national destiny, that time is marching towards a goal and we are here as Jews to do our part to bring that ultimate tikkun olam, or fixing of the world. When one is focused on a greater goal, the day-to-day mishaps become trivial. This eschatological passion has kept the Jews on track through millennia of abuse and deprivation. As Monty Python’s Black Knight might have said, “it’s just a flesh wound.” That’s because in our hearts we know we’re on an important mission as a people and that God is cleverly guiding history towards a powerful goal. When Queen Esther is given the chance by Uncle Mordechai to be the hero, he warns her: if you don’t take a stand here, our salvation will come from somewhere else. In other words, as Jews we can opt in to this great adventure or relegate ourselves to the sidelines. God will get the job done regardless. I say: let’s get on the playing field and go for it! My generation is sadly, for the most part, opting out and it is this bitter fact that keeps me packing my bags for yet another trip rather than sitting in the comfort of my recording studio.

There’s another aspect to this evolution that began with overt miracles to God’s working subtly behind the scene. Imagine that you are imprisoned and have a prison guard right outside the cell. Obviously with the watchful guard on the scene you are on your best behavior. When the guard goes on rounds, however, that’s when you can do headstands, scrawl graffiti or go back to digging that escape hole with a spoon. The God of Nissan is an overwhelming presence that limits our freedom of choice, whereas the God of Adar gives us the space to express the fullness of our human gift of choice. I believe that all history is following this same principle and more than ever we live in age where we are stratified into believers and “secular.” That intelligent people can deny God’s presence fills me with mirth. Just look at how powerful God is, like the guard on his rounds, giving us the freedom to perceive God, or not. Amazing!

I also see a remarkable shift of the power center of humanity moving from a single leader into the hands of the masses. In fact, Judaism teaches that we are on a continuous down-slope of leadership as we move farther from Sinai. But there is a simultaneous elevation of the individual as we move towards our ultimate redemption. The internet is one of the best examples of this modern revolution of self-empowerment. As of 2014 the majority of folks in the developed world have smartphones in their pockets. That means they have Google readily available for any question under the sun, not to mention the over a million remarkable apps at their bidding. When our greatest leader Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Mt. Sinai his face was glowing. His light was so bright that he had to wear a mask just to deal with the regular folk. Perhaps Moshe had to die before they went into the Land of Israel so that the Jews would learn to stand on their own two feet and become leaders in their own right. Hold up a candle in daylight and it’s light is irrelevant…but in a darkened room it can light the way. Fast forward three millennia and we have democracy, ipads and near total literacy. Our leaders may not be as monumental as those of the bible or even those of our previous generations but we live at a time when more than ever, every individual soul can shine.

The most important theme of this, our final month of the year, is that of joy. Living in a state of simple faith brings on the greatest joy. The month of Adar is the capitol of joy and Purim is its headquarters. At the end of days our sages tell us that Purim will be one of the only holidays that we celebrate. Because it’s all about joy in the end. We’re commanded to lessen our joy in the month of Av since we commemorate the loss of our national sovereignty and our beloved Temple. When Adar comes in we’re told to increase our joy. Reading between the lines reveals that we must ALWAYS be joyous. Lessening joy means we’re still serving God with joy! All the disasters foretold in our Torah occur because we forget to serve God with joy. When our service becomes a burden…look out! The true goal of Adar is seeing that the seeming “bad” breaks in our lives are all for our good, that we must accept them without despair. Jews can never despair. Gam zeh l’tova…this is also for the good. It’s one level to have acceptance. The Adar challenge is to accept pain with JOY.

Seven times every nineteen years our rabbis instituted a system of leap years to keep our lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar. This is required because according to the Torah, Nissan, the season of our redemption, must occur in the spring. Some argue that the rabbis chose the month of Adar to double because it is the last month of the year. I believe that there is more to it. If one is choosing which month to double, make it the most joyous of months! Imagine a double Av…yuck! Furthermore, when we get the chance to go through an experience a second time we can enjoy it so much more. We may have “been there, done that.” But if we take advantage of even more wisdom and perspective the second time around it’s much more powerful. In this case, Adar 2 can double our joyful emunah!  The Talmud debates whether it is better to seize the day and celebrate Purim in the first Adar. It then concludes that it is more important to celebrate in the second month of Adar in order to maintain its thirty-day proximity to Pesach. That way our holidays of redemption at the end and beginning of our canonic saga are juxtaposed. Just like we go right from finishing the Torah on Simchat Torah to starting immediately with Breshit (Genesis), we flow from our cycle of God’s hiddeness right into a deeper appreciation of God’s light revealed.

I urge you to go to a place where Purim is celebrated with joyful abandon. If you live in LA…just walk Pico Boulevard. Take advantage of the transformative power of the four mitzvot on this special day: hear the megila, give substantially to the needy, give a few items of food as a token of friendship and eat a hearty meal at the end of the day. For many of us, intoxication gets us to a place where the heart is opened, we love more readily and tears of joy can flow. For some of us getting intoxicated is a mistake. I find that when I’ve had a few l’chaims my empathy muscle is stronger and charity becomes more natural. Maybewalk over to a 7-11 and take care of the people outside. Acknowledge the miracle of God’s stewardship in the your life. Take a stand for a friend with a gift of food, the gift of time and a patient ear. Be deeply grateful for the feeling of belongingness to this remarkable nation. Make this Purim the day you emulate Queen Esther, becoming an integral part of the solution to the issues that face our people and the entire world.

In Search of Nachas

January 30th, 2014

by Sam Glaser

In order for the Jewish People to have a fighting chance at survival we need to connect with nachas.  Nachas is the simple feeling of satisfaction when connecting Jewishly.  It is a uniquely Jewish sensation and is therefore tough to define for those outside of the tribe.  All Jews have had nachas moments. Usually at lifecycle events when we perceive that thanks to this event, all will be well for the Jewish future.  Brises, baby-namings, Bar/Bat mitzvahs and Jewish weddings are all nachas moments.  Nachas isn’t quite pride, although that’s a big part of it.  All parents swell up with pride when a kid has an accomplishment in the world.  But a pride moment is an A on an algebra test or passing the Bar Exam.  A nachas moment is when that kid can read Hebrew well enough to be called to the Torah.  Or when a bride and groom exchange vows under a chuppah. Nachas involves continuity.  When the synagogues and federations around the world worry about connecting with the next generation, what they are really saying is that they are concerned about nachas.

My rabbi, Rav Moshe Cohen of Aish LA was giving an overview of the etymology of the word nachas on a recent Shabbas (or nachat on a recent Shabbat!)  The root of the word is Nach, like the name Noach (the guy who built the ark.)  Other similar words are menucha and nechama.  Rest and comfort.  Peace of mind.  A nachas moment is one where we can be confident that all is well in creation, that God’s well-managed world is working smoothly and that Jewish survival is assured.  A deeper meaning comes from the word l’haniach, as in the prayer when we are putting on our arm tefillin.  Nachas is about “placing” or putting down firmly the foundation of our Jewish destiny, just like we firmly place our tefillin on our bicep. The word intimates “resting” assured, feeling cool confidence in Jewish long-term spiritual outlook.

Nachas isn’t only for parents and children. Siblings can have nachas for one another. So can dear friends and even strangers. You don’t even need kids of your own: I’m a decades old veteran of Jewish Big Brothers and I have huge nachas seeing the accomplishments of my “little” bro. Unselfish gestures on another’s behalf inspire feelings of nachas for all who hear about it. Established Jewish neighborhoods like Pico, the Five Towns and Boro Park are nachas factories. Their free Jewish ambulance-paramedic service Hatzolah inspires tremendous nachas. They have gemachs (free loan societies) for just about everything: strollers, high chairs, wedding dresses, center pieces, children’s clothing, shoes, shtick, tefillin. Yes, even free loans of cash! Our LA Jewish Federation has a new campaign featuring the faces of those in the community that create nachas. Great Jewish organizations can give one nachas, as can great Jewish leaders who publicly acknowledge their Jewish roots and stay out of trouble. Eli Wiesel: big nachas. Anthony Weiner: not so much.

I remember meeting a wealthy individual on aconcierge tour of Israel who seemed to have the best of everything. He had recently been divorced from his non-Jewish wife and was rediscovering his roots.  I sensed there was an emptiness that he was trying to fill with this short visit to the Holy Land.  My rabbi brother turned to me and said, “He has everything except nachas.” Money can’t buy nachas. It’s a human pleasure on a higher plateau, up there with love, power, divine connection. Nachas takes investment, sacrifice and wisdom. In Jewish life, it’s not “he who dies with the most toys wins.” Go to any Jewish funeral; we don’t do roasts or talk about real estate acquisitions. Those properly eulogizing the dead are talking about nachas moments, the impact he or she had on loved ones, acts of charity and loving-kindness.

My parents used the nachas word frequently.  By doing so they ingrained in their four boys that all the success in the world is worthless without it. This is a message that only a few of my friends picked up from their parents. What happened to my generation? Many of them had grandparents who preferred the country club to the kiddush club. It seems that connecting with nachas requires “yichus” or direct connection to one’s Jewishly enlightened ancestry. That’s why Jews get nostalgic when we think of bubbies, Yiddish and chicken soup. Unfortunately, Jewish kitsch cannot replace the influence of a flesh and blood mentor; when we lose the link with those who lived and died for nachas, we lose our awareness of what we stand for and barring radical anti-Semitism, inevitably melt into the greater culture.

I’m grateful that my parents subconsciously taught us that the only access to nachas is an intact family with a Jewish spouse, with kids on a clear-cut path to living a Jewish life.  They got the same message from their own parents.  My dad only half jokingly would state that we were out of the will if we married out of the faith.  And this was in a home without kashrut or Sabbath observance and only a vague sense of the existence of Halacha.  In other words, one does not have keep all 613 mitzvot to pass on Jewish values. Assuring nachas does require affiliation, even it’s with the shul you only go to a few times a year. If you want nachas in your life it means you understand that there is no “free lunch.” You’ve got to give to Jewish causes, care about Israel, embrace Jewish culture. If you are lucky enough to have Jewish kids, you can’t teach them nachas by talking about it. They have to witness you in the act of helping to build the Jewish People in some small way. You can’t “phone it in.”

With our own children, my wife and I have emphasized nachas at the expense of luxury and even fiscal responsibility.  Nurturing our three kids through Jewish day school K-12 and beyond has been a financially draining and exhausting.  Kosher food, Pesach retreats, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs in Israel, guests for Shabbat and holidays…the whole megila!  Their father is on a perpetual treadmill where the larder never quite fills up and their mother, who keeps the family books, loses sleep and wears yesterday’s fashions.  But the sacrifices

we make are a small price to pay for the rewards of nurturing Jewishly alive offspring.  We’re “paying it forward,” laying the seeds for the future joy of our own kid’s Jewish grandchildren, God willing. Thanks to my prodigious frequent flyer miles we just returned from a two-week family vacation in Israel to visit our oldest son Max who is spending a year learning in yeshiva. He showed up at Ben Gurion airport to pick us up on a Friday afternoon already decked out in his form-fitting Shabbas suit. Clean cut, tanned, in top shape (thanks to the yeshiva gym) and with tzitzit dangling. Can you imagine my slack-jawed, overwhelming rush of nachas?

There were times that I was critical of my brother Yom Tov’s affiliation with the Chassidic veldt in Jerusalem, especially with his patchy facial hair and impractical outfits.  I felt he was losing touch with Western culture in his reticence to go to a musical or a movie, or his lack of interest in attending ball games with my father.  As much as I tried to convince him of the importance of remaining connected with the world at large, he insisted that his recoiling from “culture” was necessary to regain a sense of purity.  I retorted that we have the ability to filter the good stuff from the bad, that you don’t have throw the baby out with the bathwater.  He responded by saying that he doesn’t want to have filters, that he hopes for a completely open heart and the ability to hear God’s voice with clarity.  I lost these arguments; he moved near the ultra religious neighborhood of Mea Shearim, married a like-minded wife and raised eight beautiful peyos-wearing kids.  His oldest daughter recently got engaged at the ripe old age of seventeen.  Criticize this lifestyle if you must but I now see that my brother is “laughing all the way to the nachas bank.”  His kids will likely live close, marry early, have huge families and give him an exponential number of nachas moments.

So what are the rest of us supposed to do to maximize nachas, to assure Jewish survival? I realize that the gist of all my monthly newsletters is to try to steer my readers into bringing nachas into their lives.  Not just for future generations but for here and now satisfaction. Nachas comes one mitzvah at a time. Our sages tell us that the reward for a mitzvah is another mitzvah, in other words, the subtle pleasure from one act multiplies exponentially and launches one on a powerful pathway. Building one’s nachas reservoir requires patience, there’s no rushing this stuff. It’s a quality over quantity thing. We can start now with simple, positive steps. No need to point fingers, no need for panic.

I believe we can take responsibility in our own lives by learning and teaching Torah at any level and serving as an example of a mensch in our communities and in the workforce. The Ba’al Teshuva movement has shown that it’s possible to reclaim nachas even without direct contact to Jewishly aware relatives. Caring, concerned clergy must be out of the ivory tower and boardroom and be out in the field inspiring the performance of mitzvot. Adult education and adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah programs are crucial. Consistent communal Shabbat and holiday celebration is the nursery where nachas can flourish. That’s right, you have to go to the synagogue once in a while, even on sunny days. Lifecycle events should be as overtly Jewish as the participants can handle…these are opportunities to reach beyond one’s comfort zone and get REALLY Jewish.  Every step we take to grow Jewishly sends a strong signal to others that increasing nachas is a prerequisite to all our accomplishment and acquisition.

The recent Pew study has awakened Jewish leadership to the need for radical transformation of models of engagement. I think our leaders just need to singularly focus on creating nachas moments. We need to recognize the mensches in the trenches. We need to get beyond our denominational barriers and support one another. I think Jewish parents need a wake up call: Do you really want to be the end of the line of this unique and miraculous people? It’s up to you! Only you can inspire your kids to love their Judaism, to marry Jews. Don’t assume anything…drop lots of hints and if you’re brave enough, have an actual discussion! Your kids DO care what you think.

Let me close by offering a self-serving plug: listen to spiritual Jewish music! In your car, on your ipod, on your couch. There are hundreds of amazing artists out there with songs that will nourish your soul and connect you deeply with your own Jewish journey. Jewish music bolsters feelings of unity with the Jewish People and our Creator. Music can make you sing and dance…it is the antidote to lethargy and hopelessness. In fact, music is often the transport medium of nachas. At my own wedding, one of my friends helped settle my nerves by advising me to sum up all my needs and concerns with one simple prayer under the chuppah: that I be able to give God nachas. May we all have lifecycle events filled with sweet song and abundant nachas. May we all serve God with joy and merit a speedy redemption for our troubled world.

100 Blessings Everyday

December 20th, 2013

by Sam Glaser

Observant Jews can fly under the radar most of the time if they so choose. There is no law that states one must dress like a Chassid; one can wear a baseball hat, jeans and sneakers and blend.  The only day that’s problematic is Shabbat. For the uninitiated, Sabbath observance seems strange at best, alien at worst.  During weekdays, however, other than making sure kosher food is on hand, we can appear just like the Joneses next door.  That is, until we start to make blessings.

Well before I started keeping Shabbat I remember working with my first Orthodox recording clients. I was helping a pair of songwriting rabbis from Israel make their musical dreams come true.  I noticed that every few minutes they would start muttering to themselves.  I finally could hold my curiosity no longer and said, “Excuse me? What did you just say?” One of the rabbis explained he was making an “after-bracha” for the water he had consumed.  Evidently after he gulped down water from his cup he had about twenty minutes to thank God for the liquid refreshment.  And of course, before he drank he made a blessing as well. Because we were continuously munching, a time honored tradition in recording studios, that made for a lot of brachot.

All I could think was, “mutant alert!”  Now that I realized what was going on, I swore I would never indulge in such obsessive-compulsive behavior. In the end, their album came out great and I must admit that I eventually got used to their mumbling moments.  Fast forward a few years to a class with Rabbi Abner Weiss who declared that nothing must enter the mouth of a Jew without being preceded by a proper blessing.  That taking something from God’s creation for our sustenance without acknowledgement was tantamount to theft. I was incredulous that even a sip of water required a blessing.  But the rabbi insisted that these formulas were easily memorized and would make every pang of hunger an opportunity for spiritual connection.

I started with a simple “shehakol nihiyeh bidvaro,” the blessing for the generic foodstuff category, and worked my way up from there.  I soon learned to distinguish an adama (vegetable) from an eitz (tree fruit – not entirely intuitive, I found out,) and a mezonot from a motzi.  Once I got those down, itwasn’t long before I began to tackle the after-blessings. Thanks to my Conservative upbringing I was well acquainted with Birkat Hamazon in all its melodic glory. Somehow I had never been taught that this lengthy prayer/song was necessary only if one had consumed bread. Thankfully the after-blessings for most other foods are far shorter and easily learned and before long, just by making a habit of saying them at the appropriate time, I had them memorized.

Soon I was mumbling with the best of them. Actually, I was saying my blessings aloud so that I could give my friends an opportunity to “second the motion” with an enthusiastic “AMEN.”  Also, I realized that I could teach my newborn Max the blessings by example if I enunciated them.  Now I was a mutant just like my rabbi clients!  Anyone spending any length of time with me would inevitably wonder what strange incantation I kept reciting.  I found that blessings were a great conversation starter assuming one wanted to talk about matters of the spirit.  In fact, I can think of no better method of “v’dibarta bam” from the Shema, the commandment to actively speak about the mitzvot in one’s day to day.  Once you start discussing the system of blessings, the subject usually is uplifted from the secular into matters of mindfulness, connecting with God and elevating mundane acts.

I eventually learned that we have blessings after using the bathroom, upon seeing a wise person or hearing a clap of thunder. Just passing a rose garden allows for the opportunity for a blessing when you bend over to take a whiff. Excited about some new clothes? Make a Shehechiyanu! In fact, our Talmud recommends a daily requirement of uttering at least one hundred blessings everyday. Sound like a lot? Well, just by davening three times a day and blessing your food you are good to go! Bottom line: blessings open the heart, allow you to slow down and regain your humanity and keep you in a perpetual “attitude of gratitude.” Yes, an apple a day keeps the doctor away, just don’t forget the proper blessing…and at least ninety-nine others!

Last month I had some wonderful fans spend several days with me on the road. They drove from their hometown to see a show and had me return my rental car so that they could drive me to the next two towns on my itinerary. That way they heard three concerts and it gave us several hours to bond. Having them with me gave me fresh incentive to vary the songs in my set list just so they wouldn’t get bored!  Inevitably, blessings were the first topic of conversation. After all, I kept lapsing into brachot and looking at them funny if I didn’t get an amen. As we rolled down the highway I helped them commit to memory the whole system of blessings and we laughed together as they slowly improved.

One caveat of becoming too adept at blessings: it’s easy to mindlessly utter the words at a blinding pace.  Yes, it beats the alternative of no blessing at all.  But the genius of the system is lost in the shuffle as the sweet name of God is slurred and the sentiment becomes meaningless.  In fact, I find it best to take a moment before saying the first “baruch” and focus on the miraculous nature of the food that I hold in my hand.  Just to take that shiny red apple, for example, and behold that it is nutritious and juicy, is fragrant and tasty, comes wrapped in it’s own skin so you can throw it in your backpack, and HOLDS WITHIN THE SEEDS TO MAKE MORE APPLES JUST LIKE IT!  Then my “borey p’ri ha-eitz” blessing is earth shattering! That simple fruit serves to blow my mind, to remind me just what a gift life is, and how intensely our Creator loves and maintains us.

Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo calls blessings the entry into a state of “radical amazement.”  He describes religious life as a rejection of taking anything for granted.  There is no place for the “same old same old.”  A religious person seizes every opportunity to live with a sense of wonder and refuses to allow his or her senses to be dulled by repetition.  Much of the time when I point out a stunning sunset or spectacular moon, my kids shrug, “yeah, whatever dad. Saw it yesterday.” The only thing that prevents Technicolor sunsets from utterly shocking us is their frequency.  As one who wants to remain shocked at the vibrancy of life, I have attuned myself to maintain a sense of wonder, to make every moment an “aha” moment.

Walking along the beach in frigid San Francisco last night, a reality-challenged woman stopped my friend and me in our tracks by blurting out, “You two must be actors!” She then engaged us in a rambling conversation that covered multiple subjects and was astonished at the “coincidence” that we had met.  My buddy said, “C’mon Sam…stop talking to this loon!” But I was enjoying her spiritual insights and I must admit I washumored by her rants.  Before we left her company I gave her a blessing and sang her a song that I customized for her on the spot.  She joined in the chorus and promised that we would be lifelong friends. What was an annoyance for my friend was a source of mirth for me. I try to allow myself to be swept along in a continuous series of opportunities, much like Ferris Buehler on a continuous day off. My brother Yom Tov refers to this outlook as, “rather than seeing the world as a jungle, it’s a jungle gym.”  Just like I make blessings over my food and extraordinary events, I can offer blessings to others, even strangers on the beach. I feel that blessings can lift us into a parallel universe, one of constant connection and gratitude to our Creator and all living things.

At my Shabbat dinner table I give my children a blessing using the same words with which my father blessed me, based on the words that have been handed down since Aharon, the first Cohen (priest.) I remember a powerful realization just before my first son was born: I was going to have a child to bless! What an awesome responsibility! What did I know about blessings? What a chutzpah for me to bless anyone! This awareness gave me serious incentive to further research my heritage…after all, I had to build myself into a source of blessing if I was going to be blessing others. But the fact is that we don’t need a college degree to bless others…we just need to summon our God-given gifts of compassion and insight.

I often offer our Shabbas guests a bracha and many take me up on it. One of our frequent guests was a ninety-something next-door neighbor who graced our table for over a decade until she left this world. One Shabbat she mentioned that she had never before received a bracha, so I gave her the most heartfelt one I could muster. Our other guests thought I was just joking around but then witnessed her bursting into tears and thanking me profusely. I recognized at that moment that we have tremendous power to bestow blessing on one another. Blessings are real! Just like we uplift the act of eating by blessing God beforehand, so too can we uplift our relationships with our words of support and encouragement. By serving as a source of blessing we best emulate God, creating a karma loop of “blessing vibes” into a world hungry for light and hope, a light that I believe comes right back to support us.

One final thought: I find it much easier to remember to bless my food before I eat than after I’m done.  Our rabbis teach that in fact, I’m not alone…this is a common problem. Surprisingly, it’s the after blessing that is more important in Jewish law.  Thanking God after we are satiated is a direct commandment from our Torah, whereas the pre-blessing is a rabbinic mitzvah.  I think this makes a lot of sense: the time we are most likely to forget our myriad gifts is when we are fat and satisfied.  Wealthy people are less likely to run to their place of worship and cry for God’s help in their lives.  When we are needy we are more likely to pray with passion. As the saying goes, there is no atheist in a foxhole.  The rabbis set specific times for the after-blessing of each food group so that we would retain a state of gratitude even though we were happy and our bellies full. What a life lesson this is! This system of blessings gets us in the habit of remembering God in the bad times AND the good times. We don’t wait for a tragedy, God forbid, to initiate a relationship. When we are satisfied, happy, content with our lot, THAT is best time to share our lives with God.

If you want to increase blessings in your life, make more blessings! Jews are in this world to teach others to thank God, in fact, “to thank” (hoda) is at the root of word Yehudi (Jew!) A good place to start learning the nuances of blessings is this website.  Best to spend an hour to commit the list to memory so that you don’t have to fumble for a siddur each time you reach for your water bottle. Thanks to all of you, my dear readers and listeners, for blessing me with your friendship.

I Have a Dream!

November 27th, 2013

by Sam Glaser

During the month of Kislev the Jewish People celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, a brave troop of warriors that vanquished the mighty Syrian-Greeks.  For millennia, as winter sweeps the Northern Hemisphere and the days grow shorter, the eight days of Chanukah salute those who keep the dream of freedom and justice alive in spite of overwhelming odds.  Interestingly, the Torah portions that we read at this time of the year also highlight dreamers; we learn about the visions of our Patriarch Jacob and his son Joseph, followed by Pharaoh’s butler and baker and then Pharaoh himself.  Clearly this resounding theme of the power of dreams, of hope amidst darkness, serves to lift our spirits and remind us that “not by might but by spirit” shall we all live in peace.

Jacob and Joseph’s dreams signify turning points in their lives that lead to profound transformation. Jacob’s first dream is the famous ladder stretching to heaven, revealing for our patriarch the inner workings of God’s glorious realms. His second dream, twenty years later, is of spotted and speckled sheep, in other words, of cash flow. Lavan, Jacob’s father-in-law, had nearly derailed Jacob’s mission of serving as the leader of the eternal force that would become the Jewish People. Jacob’s transformation crystallizes only when he realizes it’s time to extricate himself from material concerns and return to the Holy Land. He wrestles the angel and receives the name Yisrael, to show that he has regained his mission of leadership and dedication to a lifetime of spiritual struggle with his Creator and mankind.

Joseph’s dreams demonstrate that he is self-absorbed and perhaps too aware of his external beauty, having been spoiled by the attention lavished upon him by his doting parents. He not only dreams that he is being bowed down to, but he enthusiastically shares those visions with those who would do the bowing. Soon disaster strikes in the form of near murder at the hands of his “brothers,” being sold into slavery, temptation, imprisonment and abandonment. Joseph’s transformation from narcissist to altruist can be observed when he manages to notice the forlorn expressions of his fellow prisoners one particular day. Chances are that no one was jumping for joy in the Pharaoh’s dungeons. But Joseph is sensitive enough to perceive the change in demeanor on the faces of the butler and baker, and by attempting to come to their aid by interpreting their dreams, sets the forces of redemption in motion. Jacob/Yisrael recaptures the mantle of the ephemeral during his exile and Joseph’s development of altruism in his exile sets the stage for the formation of the Jewish People in Egypt and their miraculous exodus.

Our biblical heroes have passed on to their progeny a legacy of rallying against apathy in the face of human suffering.  In concert, I typically introduce my Unbreakable Soul song by asking the audience a question.  Everyone knows from the Passover story that God redeemed the Jewish People from slavery with an outstretched arm. But why would our loving God also orchestrate the events to send the Jews into slavery in the first place? What aspect of enduring torture, bondage and infanticide was necessary in the formation of this diminutive, eternal people?  I maintain that Jewish survival requires toughness and fortitude, an indefatigable resolve to stick together and stand for truth and freedom. Also, embedded in the recesses of our spiritual DNA is the quality of always looking out for those less fortunate. For a previously enslaved people, the concept of bondage is so odious that we must stand against any injustice inflicted on anynation. No wonder we have deeply offended fascists like Stalin and Hitler.

The Jews are history’s canary in the coalmine, serving as the first warning of the nefarious plots of despots and tyrants. We are a global, spiritual tsunami warning system, spread out by our Creator to the four corners of the earth to warn, teach and uplift our neighbors. I find it refreshing to see the current phenomenon of Righteous Gentiles taking a stand to protect Israel from her enemies. I believe the civilized world is waking up to fact that those who bless Israel are blessed and vice versa, that the enemies of the Jewish People are the enemies of freedom. Thankfully we Jews can look back on the great issues of history and find that we have stood on the side of peace and truth, and it is this time of year that we feel a sense of victory not only in the plight of the Maccabees and the restoration of our Temple, but in the continued victory over evil. This powerful theme of the month of Kislev is also loudly echoing in my personal life.

I am in the midst of the busiest quarter in my career. A mind-blowing thirty cities in a row where I have offered performances, workshops and Shabbatons for the full array of denominations and age groups. Somehow my voice is holding up, thank God, and my spirit just gets more energized with each new adventure.  I now realize what being a “textbook extrovert” really means: I feel tremendous joy when I’m with other people.  The bigger the group, the better, and it just keeps accelerating through the years.  One of the highlights of my recent journey was a week in the Southern US where I visited Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Birmingham, Nashville and Chattanooga. This eight-day joyride in the welcoming arms of Southern hospitality gave me a insider’s glimpse into a region where one still sees Confederate flags aloft.

The musical and racial melting pot of New Orleans has always captured my imagination. In the streets of this classic city the ubiquitous musicians seem to handle any genre of music and defy barriers of race, religion or income bracket.  One is judged simply on the basis of soul: how deep and skillful are the notes that emanate from his or her instrument and how warm is the vibe when the musician is off stage.  I spent several nights wandering Frenchmen Street listening to the sweet expressions of countless bands and didn’t hear a bad player in the bunch.  New Orleans is a place where music lovers gather from all corners of the earth to dine on its unique cuisine and ingest its inimitable sounds. The concept of have and have-nots is blurred when it’s evident that the underfed, impoverished players on the stage are the city’s true royalty. That said, most of the patrons are White and most musicians are Black. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina revealed a deeply scarred city divided on racial lines. I had the privilege of performing for the victims who were living in warehouses immediately after the flooding…and nearly all of those that had to rely on the massive public rescue effort were African American.

I arrived in Birmingham to find a city still grappling with the stain of segregation. I suppose that it’s apropos that the Museum of Civil Rights is locatedin this town that was so notoriously divided throughout the sixties. After my jubilant concert at Temple Emanu-El I wandered the downtown area with some local friends where we saw many disoriented Black homeless men wandering the streets. As unwise as it might have been to break out my wallet, I couldn’t help but offer a few bucks to whomever asked.  Needless to say, I was very popular. My friends then took me to a new concert venue to audition a fantastic Pink Floyd-style band, Washed Out, who jammed at top volume to a standing-room-only crowd.  Here the White youth of the city swayed in unison to the deep groove enhanced by a tantalizing light show. Old habits die hard in Alabama, and it’s not just the old guard that reminisces about the glory days: while relaxing in a local coffee emporium I read how the University of Alabama legendary Greek system remains entirely segregated.

One of the most outspoken proponents against injustice in modern times was Dr. Martin Luther King, who worked tirelessly in Birmingham by the side of local organizer Fred Shuttlesworth. I have always felt a connection with Dr. King and have marveled at his eloquence and passion.  I take great pride in the fact that my parents opted to name their third son John Martin Glaser in memory of this powerful leader.  Growing up in Brentwood, CA we were surrounded by neighbors with all the snobbery and WASP-y attitudes typical in pricey suburbs.  Somehow we weren’t privy to any of that foolishness. Thankfully our folks raised us colorblind and comfortable with friends from all strata of society.  Our family’s only prerequisites for our peer group were innate goodness, a sense of humor and zest for life.  I remember feeling fearful of leaders like Malcolm X but wishing I could hug Dr. King who “looked forward to the time when Blacks and Whites would sit down at the table of brotherhood.”

The following day I ventured with my friends to the Museum of Civil Rights which is situated adjacent to the 16th Street Baptist Church that had been blown up at the height of the tension in the sixties. This elegantly designed facility reminded me of LA’s Museum of Tolerance in its clever use of multimedia to tell a story and create a sense of emotional catharsis.  We wound through the maze of exhibits, gaining an understanding of the difficulties that the region faced when it had to transition from a reliance on slave labor after the Civil War. Blacks may have been freed from the shackles of slavery but they faced a resentful and pugilistic society that would spare no energy or expense to keep them in the underclass.  This scourge of our nation’s past seems so unthinkable today and I marvel that imposed segregation was still happening within my lifetime.  Finally, with Dr. King’s efforts to organize the masses of African Americans in non-violent protest, the tables turned on the supremacists and eventually the antics of the racist mayor and governor were exposed to a nation no longer able to stand idly by.

The museum’s ingenious floor plan led us inexorably into a darkened chamber where the singular visual was a large screen with Martin Luther King delivering the “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington.  I was moved to tears by the reverend’s biblically inspired preaching.  I’m certain that this event was a modern day Maccabee moment as the unarmed minority managed to topple the entrenched establishment. I am so proud that our Jewish leaders stood by Dr. King’s side during this campaign and feel that the Jewish presence deserved more mention in the museum’s displays. Hopefully our efforts to uphold civil rights will be noted in the eyes of young African Americans when they investigate this painful chapter in their history.

Furthering this personal reawakening of the scourge of slavery is my friendship with fellow music aficionado Rob Steinberg, with whom I stayed while in New Orleans. He is one of the stars of the new motion picture, “12 Years a Slave,” and was in between press junkets and premiers during my visit. His character is the one to set in motion the freeing of the protagonist from being kidnapped and enslaved.  This jarring film is perhaps the most graphic representation of the brutality of American slavery to date. Another New Orleans connection I recently discovered is the fact that Louie Armstrong’s job as a young man was hauling junk for my Karnofsky relatives. The great Satchmo wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life as a tribute to the family that gave him love and guidance and taught him “how to live with real life and determination.”

Over the course of the past few months I have had the opportunity to visit the ancestral homes of three of our past presidents and founders of our country: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Southwest Virginia, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville and Washington’s Mt Vernon near Washington DC. These great leaders that set the course for our bold experiment in democracy were all slave owners.  Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime and only emancipated a few of them.  The stark difference between the bourgeois mansions and the harsh slave quarters was shocking. The presidential families were buried in elegant crypts whereas the slaves were scattered in unmarked graves. Appropriately, each the tour-guide through these beautifully maintained historical treasures was an eloquent African American. Who better should tell the story of the exploits of these brave and brilliant patriarchs of liberty while clarifying the dilemma of slave ownership?  I’m proud to live in a country that continuously struggles to take the high road, one that spreads values of liberty and justice throughout the world in spite of the cost of blood and treasure.

Chanukah is a time for Jews to celebrate a three thousand year journey from oppression to freedom. I think that this year’s once-in-a-lifetime connection with Thanksgiving requires that we expand our celebration with all humanity. The essence of Chanukah is a dichotomy: it represents the fight against assimilation into our host culture so that our heritage can remain distinct but it also carries our universal message of freedom for all.  How can we influence the world if we disappear?  If only all nations had the chance to witness the streets of urban Israel to see Jews of all colors working together to build up our Promised Land. Our Jewish light, the light that our prophet forecast will illuminate the entire world, shines ever more brightly when we unify as a people to stand against ignorance, racism, injustice, genocide. I’m grateful both for the guidance of our biblical heroes and our living examples of tolerance and courage today. How incredible to know as I was visiting the monuments and museums in Washington DC this week that just down the street an African American leads our proud country.

As I prepare to gorge myself on generous helpings of my mother’s latkes and turkey, I’d like to conclude by offering my personal thanks to my parents for creating the paradigm of openness to all peoples for their four boys to emulate. My father employed the full rainbow of races among the personnel in his garment business, at all echelons of the corporate hierarchy. My mom brought home guests of all stripes and shared the full spectrum of music such that I had the merit of being influenced by jazz, Motown, rock, soul, classical and gospel.  Our family road trips were accompanied by Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, War and Tower of Power, our family seders concluded with Negro spirituals.  It is my hope to continue the work of my parents and grandparents to make this world a better place to live for all peoples, to realize Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of a “day when all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.”

Jews in the Pews

October 25th, 2013

by Sam Glaser

Business is great.  The economy’s steady upturn has slowly trickled down to the bottom feeders of the socioeconomic ladder: non-profit organizations. With a bit more disposable income and the promise of more down the road, members of synagogues have been making good on unpaid dues and supporting special programming like Shabbatons, musicians and speakers.  Boards of Directors and clergy have realized that they cannot rave about dynamic synagogue life if they have cut back all their programming. And singer/speakers like me who offer all-ages programs rich in enthusiastic Jewish celebration and deep soul content are suddenly in fashion again.

The problem now is that Jewish institutions, which have been gasping for breath for the past five years, perceive that the real issue is greater than mere membership retention.  Those proud and few who have remained true to their shul in the lean years are the proverbial “choir” to whom the synagogues and JCC’s are marketing their refreshed calendars.  The great challenge revealed in the Pew Research Center’s recent study is that most of our fellow Jews are not even exposed to the message.  The real wake up call is  that Jews on the fringe are an endangered species and the challenge of our generation is fight complacency and endeavor to bring them back.

According to the study, 1/3 of Jews age 33 and younger, the American Jewish future, are claiming that they are Jewish with no religion. They have a vague sense that they are part of an elite and afflicted ancient cult and have a predisposition to enjoy Seinfeld and deli-food. Thanks to thewidespread acceptance of Jews in the greater culture, most have a sense of Jewish pride.  But the net result of that acceptance is that 4/5th’s of these “non-religious” Jews will marry out of the faith and all but eliminate the likelihood of raising the next generation with even basic Jewish values. Who will support Jewish non-profits in the future? Who will our teachers teach?  Who will fill the pews of our mega-synagogues?  No wonder this study has organized Judaism reeling.

I’d like to offer a few ideas for turning this ill-fated ship around.  I believe I have an unusual perspective gained from twenty years of visiting Jewish communities in fifty cities every year. I interact with, teach and entertain Reform, Conservative and Orthodox audiences, work with preschools through elder-hostel programs, visit schools, shuls, temples, JCC’s and even the occasional church. The formula that seems to work best requires a combination of three factors that I think are ignored at our peril.  I’ll sum them up in three simple words: Hineni, Halacha and Hillel.

In my office we can tell well in advance if my weekends are going to be successful. Some organizations hire me, pay a deposit and then we don’t hear from them until they request my travel information a few weeks before the show.  The fact is that we help our clients to be self sufficient by making all the marketing materials available online.  On the other hand, some venues bother us incessantly about how to “get out the vote.” Some daily.  These are often the gigs that are exceptional.  These organizations realize that they must strive to gain consensus, to establish committees for the sake of getting more people involved, to get the adults and kids in choirs on stage with me, to have my music playing “on hold” when people call in.  They may honor a few dignitaries, include a raffle or Chinese auction and call on local businesses to advertise in the program. They send the congregation links to my videos, they send buses to the senior homes to bring in the elderly, they have the teens run the intermission concession and pass out the aforementioned programs. They have the community vote on which workshop I present during Shabbatons, arrange for multiple individuals to pick me up and feed me, give out honors in advance for opening the ark and being called to the Torah.  The cantor might sing a duet with me, a brave teen instrumentalist gets to sit in on a particular song and then soloists and choirs all combine for a blockbuster finale.

Hineni CvrIn short, experienced leadership galvanizes the community by making requests, giving individuals the chance to answer Hineni, here I am.  I have a theory that since the time of Abraham, Jews have been primed to wait in quiet desperation until they are called upon and they cannot help but answer in the affirmative.  We respond to the call with a sense of honor and duty, glad that we were thought of, wanting to make a difference. Leaders can elicit Hineni responses when coordinating membership drives, planning artist-in-residence programs, banquets, even when recruiting enough folks for a minyan. The only prerequisite to releasing the inherent Jewish drive to take on a task, contribute funds or volunteer is a leader with the ability to pair individuals with a particular job and the guts to make the request.  The request must begin with “I need YOU to do ___________ for the community,” in other words, the community member feels uniquely singled out for the job.  Synagogues that elicit the Hineni response are typically busy beehives of activity, with all ages constantly coming and going, more like community centers than cold and corporate auditoria.

I recently co-officiated with a rabbi who had just taken his first full-time rabbinic position and was already beloved by his chosen congregation.  He was a capable speaker, practiced what he preached in terms of living a Jewish life and also had a fine voice for leading the prayers.  He had connected with the community in pastoral moments where he displayed his God-given gifts of compassion and insight. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers, but I felt compelled to give him this Hineni theory before I departed.  His community is aging and is endemic of the “running for the exits” tendency of the younger set.  I believe that all those great sermons and moments of tenderness will be ineffective in stemming this tide unless he finds the inner resolve to get under people’s skin with chutzpah.  I encouraged him to invent programming to empower the full range of congregants, to chase after ex-members, young familes and the unaffiliated with communal, even secular activities and not to spend an extra minute in his office when he can be meeting his constituents “where they live.”  In short, to get past the fear of rejection and elicit Hineni from everyone he meets.

Another crucial component to our survival in my humble opinion can be summed up with the word Halacha, or the path.  Just like planets have their orbit around the sun, so too do humans and more specifically, Jews. Our path is informed by the vast system of mitzvot that we have held sacred for millennia. No need to reinvent the wheel here. Part of the “Hineni” job of Jewish leadership is to reinforce that we all have an internal compass that is nurtured by the 613 commandments and clarify that they are not the 613 suggestions. Mitzvot are the skeleton that supports the body of Judaism. There is no continuity or survival without them. When an interviewer asks me where I’ve seen evidence of flourishing communities, I point out those synagogues where the leadership has laser-like focus on making mitzvot a priority, regardless of denomination.  One case in point is Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC, a Reform congregation where I experienced a united, dedicated community like no other.  I asked Rabbi Fred Guttman if he would reveal his secret. He replied, “it’s simple: I just get the congregation to take on mitzvot and build from there.”

Incorporating halacha into a leadership style is controversial. It requires that the leaders personally engage in halacha, to “walk the talk.” It requires that the education budget be allotted not only to the children but also on increasing the chance for true “informed” choice for the adults. It requires gentle, private tochacha, or rebuke, when any given individual is straying from the path. It requires nudging our young people to try on kashrut, to make Shabbat and holidays sacred, to marry within the tribe and be fruitful and multiply. I see posters around my neighborhood reminding me that parents are the “anti-drug,” in other words, that in spite of evidence to the contrary, our kids do care about what we think. I believe we continue to care about what our parents and other role models think until we’re six feet under. We can all look back on our lives and acknowledge the times that a mentor steered us on the right track. We Jews have a spiritual “right track” and it’s worthy of intensive research and aggressive marketing.

My last item, at least for this essay, is Hillel.   And by that I mean the amazing collegiate institution that is the pride of Jewish America, and by extension, all Jewish programming for our endangered tribespeople under thirty. Hillels enhance Jewish life on campus for those lucky enough to have had a Jewish day school education and are the last chance for engagement for those that haven’t. I just returned from leading a Shabbaton at Lafayette College, a top 50 liberal arts school in the rolling hills of Easton, PA. A passionate, self-selected group of Jewish students celebrated Shabbat with me, a 27-hour period which included spirited davening, divrei Torah, great meals, my workshop “Jewish Perspective of the Afterlife” and after Havdalah, a rowdy concert where many of them got into the act. Perhaps the Hillel board chose the afterlife course since Halloween is coming up? According to the Hillel website, 94% say that being Jewish will “continue to be important” to them after graduation. Is there any question where our benefactors should be directing funds?

That said, I think what we are seeing is that “continue to be important” is not enough to give these young people the gift of Jewish grandchildren. Nor is the powerful Birthright program or the multitudes of great Jewish summer camps that dot our countryside. The programs with the efficacy that we require must open the door to a life of Jewish commitment, in other words, a life of mitzvot. Hillel Shabbatons, Camp Ramah and NFTY will succeed only to the degree that Jewish leadership pursues the aforementioned individual “Hineni” connections. And when these young people are called upon, the framework on which they base their Judaism must include not only adventure travel and falafel but also an opportunity to learn of the Jewish derech, or path. Yes, we have to “nudge” them. Or else I fear they will be lost in space, spineless, grasping for meaning in their lives that they will satisfy in arenas outside the Jewish weltanschauung.

Some argue that students that come to Hillel events are from different backgrounds and therefore must be catered to with kid gloves so as to not offend or demean those with less Jewish education or tradition. I must admit that I was saddened when the dear students with whom I was interacting over the weekend were stumped when I asked what Lech L’cha meant or what was Abraham’s noted character trait. They didn’t realize that Jews believed in reincarnation and had no idea of the meaning of Kaddish. I’d like to make a plea that our national Hillel rabbis and interns take it up a notch. As I’ve seen at every Hillel function that I’ve had the pleasure to lead, the students will rise to the occasion. They are hungry for Torah and leadership. They need role models that are living a Jewish life and doing so with class and a sense of fun. They want their programming to include not only talks on Jewish history, Israel and the holocaust but on the Jewish soul, text study and personal growth through mitzvot. They know that they are about to enter the abyss of the job market and the ills of society at large and need to be armed with our Jewish secrets for success. Like many Jewish events, food is the primary magnet to attract these “starving students.” But once they are there for the meal we must also feed their hunger for spiritual transformation, for our rich tradition of tools they can use to navigate the waters of life.

I agree that it’s pointless to cry about the Pew study without coming up with concrete action items. I will be working with my wife to raise a pool of matching funds for Hillel programming over 2014-15. We will be partnering with the non-profit Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity to enable Hillels to book programming that informs as well as entertains. Several campuses in each region will be involved in any given weekend with Thursday Night Live concerts, Shabbatons and Sunday workshops and teacher/staff/board training. Students can opt in to any or all of the events on the schedule with transportation provided. In tandem with this effort will be a subsidized distribution of Jewish music downloads from top Jewish artists, with a featured album available every month for free to university students. It is my hope that this small effort will help to create a groundswell of renewed enthusiasm for Jewish life and serve to better inform the choices of young Jewish people during their college experience and after they graduate.

The solutions above are a-denominational. Some may argue that Orthodox Jews are immune to the above issues. I can state from experience that they too are badly in need of an injection of renewal and joy and lose sleep over their kids’ connection to Yiddishkeit. Others might argue that mitzvot are outside the purview of Reform Jews or are “optional.” No! In fact “The (1999) Pittsburgh Principles asserts that each Reform Jew has the right, indeed the obligation, to enter into dialogue with the mitzvot…affirming a mitzvah, declaring one is not ready yet to accept it, or even rejecting it. But the dialogue must precede the decision, or it is not really a decision.” Conservative Judaism wins the prize in the Pew reports of Jewish organizational hemorrhage. I’m hopeful that the new breed of JTS/AJU graduates are eschewing the ivory tower-academic rabbinic model with which I grew up and instead can incorporate the wide-eyed sense of amazement and intoxication with God’s love that religious life requires. Many Conservative rabbis model halachic life but are unwilling to offer halachic education or tochacha to increasingly secular congregants for fear of appearing pushy or damaging relationships with the board. Clearly the clergy of all denominations must restructure their time; they can’t be too busy in board meetings, fundraising and preparing sermons or they will miss out on crucial Hineni moments. If the Pew study revealed anything it’s that all our movements are in need of healing and that any one’s success is a victory for the Jewish People. More than ever, we’re all in this together.

My friends, all denominations are struggling with retention. All of our organizations are striving to improve the Jewish experience that they offer. All are concerned about maximizing nachas: that profound Jewish joy button that is only pushed when our deepest soul clearly perceives that the Jewish mission is alive and well. When our leadership has the guts and the wisdom to create Hineni moments in our lives, we will rise up and say, “Here I am!” When we are encouraged to focus daily on the Jewish “path” and nurture every age group with Jewish literacy, Torah study and the importance of halacha, our out of kilter orbit will eventually stabilize. And with the devotion of resources to inspiring and directing our youth, we will create an atmosphere of love for heritage that will make the decision to raise a Jewish family a no-brainer. Let us spend our hard earned resources not on further Pew exposés of our demise but on the programs that have proven to have efficacy in stemming the tide of assimilation. I’m confident that with resolve and sagacity we’ll once again see Jews in the Pews.

Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

September 17th, 2013

By Sam Glaser

lake sunsetOne of the perks of my line of work is time on the road to enjoy new experiences with people and places when I’m not on stage. This year marks my third time leading the High Holiday worship for a wonderful beachside congregation in Virginia Beach. Each year I bring my family and we have used the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to explore Washington DC, the Outer Banks and a very special mid-state retreat, Lake Anna. This unique body of water was formed in the early 70′s to cool the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant. Nearly 13,000 acres were flooded, creating hundreds of miles of prime lakefront property in the middle of an old growth forest.

The silver lining on this seeming ecological nightmare is a ski lake of unprecedented access and “glass.” We are lucky to have incredibly generous friends with a beautiful home with it’s own dock equipped with a ski boat and jet ski. They live at the far end of one of the fingers of the vast lake in a setting of peace and stillness. Just arriving in this slice of paradise was enough to get me breathing again. I made every effort to spend as much time outside as possible, reading and praying on the dock’s cabana, listening to the sweet birdcalls and the occasional powerboat rumble by in the distance. I love davening outdoors and have always felt a subliminal kinship with bodies of water. I want to describe a special ma’ariv (evening prayer) experience I had last night, one that I hope to hold on to for the rest of this new year of 5774 and for the rest of my life.

After active days of water sports the four of usGlasers on Lakespent our evenings relaxing with movies, card games and Settlers of Catan. I was also repeatedly rehearsing the Yom Kippur services, much to my family’s chagrin. Each night when everyone went to sleep I ventured down the uneven steps to the waters edge to ponder the stars and pray the evening prayers. On this particular night a sliver of the new Tishrei moon appeared and disappeared amidst the clouds above and the motionless ink-black water at my feet stretched to the horizon. I was surrounded with the rich stereo cacophony of multitudinous crickets filling the air and the occasional splash of a leaping lake trout. I closed my eyes and quietly recited the passages before and after the Sh’ma, then walked to the edge of the dock to recite the central Jewish prayer, the Sh’moneh Esrai. As I whispered the sacred words I searched the outlines of the gently swaying trees and felt them beckoning me upward. Suddenly a warm gust of wind welled up behind me and heard the baritone clang of the tubular bells of the large dockside wind chime. A chill rose from my feet to the top of my head and I felt like I was about to lift off the dock. I was ready to fly, to accept the gift of Heavenly wings.

I realized at that profound moment that I was no longer “just praying.” The words silently pouring forth from my lips were actually transforming the world. These were not simply idle recitations of the official thirteen paragraphs of requests that we recite on weekdays. Instead, I could feel with certainty that I was acting as God’s partner in the establishment of these realities. I was creating health and healing. I was forming a year of blessing. I was affecting the ingathering of the exiles, rebuilding Jerusalem, assisting God with the birth of the Messianic Age. There was no distinction between my efforts and God efforts to shape history. My will was enmeshed and inseparable with the Divine will for humanity. By the time I got to the concluding prayer, Aleynu, I was actively creating the possibility of a world where all nations proclaim God’s unified name.

prayerI must say that for the first time, prayer makes perfect sense to me. I’ve been davening daily for over twenty years…I guess it’s about time! The gift of Jewish prayer is a product of the powerful connection initiated by our forefather Avraham, God’s first partner in Tikkun Olam. It is a vehicle for radical transformation with an impact on a global scale. All this time I thought it was just  an ancient rabbinic wish list that we endlessly repeat, badgering God into action. Now I understand that prayer is the very instigator of Heavenly action in our material realm. I know viscerally that the transformative power of the human soul is unlimited by space and time. That even though I am surrounded by darkness in the forest of Mineral, VA, I can participate fully in the formation of a peaceful, loving planet, impacting my family, America, Israel, the entire world. Just as God is everywhere, I am everywhere. My pure soul, my “betzelem Elokim” spark of Godliness makes me immortal and omnipresent. At least for those few minutes a day when I choose to connect.

After davening I lay sprawled out on the papa-san chair pondering the implications of this experience. All the pieces of our vast heritage were falling into place. I could perceive the priceless value of walking the path of halacha, studying Torah, observing the commandments, committing God-like acts of loving-kindness. So many phrases uttered from memory and often absentmindedly suddenly made sense. We start our Sh’moneh Esrai with the words: God, open for me my lips (s’fatai) that my mouth may declare Your praise. S’fatai means lips and also the banks of a river, in other words, the limit or defining line of any given body of water. This invocation is encouraging us to leave our bodily limitations in order to invoke nothing less than transformation in the world of the spirit in a powerful partnership with God. We are welcome to stand with God in the Heights and impact world history.

So why the long-winded services when the real “service” is the Sh’moneh Esrai? I now appreciate that achieving this supernal level with the Sh’moneh Esrai requires a formulaic preamble of morning blessings and Psalms of Praise, just so that we mortals have a grasp of with whom we are dealing and therefore how great is our personal power. We need to be reminded that we are the very purpose of creation, the nexus of the spiritual and material realms and that we have a serious job to do. We have the Sh’ma to align us with God’s oneness and therefore our potential to merge with this oneness. It also serves to remind us of God’s love, the inevitable cause and effect when we stray from this love and the grand design of our redemption from Egypt. After all, how could God leave his chosen nation in the hands of a cruel tyrant when God needed us to carry out the master plan for the planet? If we can internalize a sense of wonder and gratitude for that redemption and the gift of the revelation of Torah, we are naturally launched into service in partnership with our redeemer in the form of our primary prayer, the Sh’moneh Esrai.

The next logical question for me is how can I ascend to this exalted place three times a day? How can I soar spiritually when I’m not relaxed on vacation but instead burdened with worry and deadlines in cement-laden Los Angeles? How can I share this passion when I’m in the midst of leading Shabbatons, when I’m on stage or teaching? What is unique about this time in my life that I enjoyed such a breakthrough? On that magical night I believe I was able to fly due to a rare combination of events. The incredible setting not only satiated my senses, it also served to create deep humility in the face of God’s masterful natural world. Spending quality time with my family gives me a degree of pleasure that is best defined in the indefinable word, nachas. I was entirely present, with no deadlines or agendas. As I lay there I dictated into my trusty iPhone a threefold theory of prerequisites to enact this partnership: attaining holiness, living in the present and serving God with joy.

If there is any time during the year that the Jewish People are thrust into the realm of holiness, it is the month of Tishrei. I take the High Holidays very seriously. From the start of the month of Elul I blow shofar every morning after my prayers, prepare the words and melodies of the machzor (Holiday prayer book) so that I can properly serve as cantor and focus on refining my character traits. I find truth in the maxim “according to the effort is the reward;” thanks to this hard work my Rosh Hashana is usually uplifting and empowering. After the days of proclaiming God’s kingship on Rosh Hashana, we enter the special week of repentance/return where our rabbis instruct us to be “goody two shoes” until Yom Kippur. Evidently, God judges us based on where we are at any given moment, unbiased by our past actions or future tendencies. In other words, it’s OK to be on good behavior even it’s something one can’t maintain all year. I’m particularly careful about my blessings before and after meals, how I treat my loved ones, my kavanah in prayer. Furthermore, this time period is marked by special insertions into the Sh’moneh Esrai that require intense concentration so that they are not omitted. You can’t just rally off the same ole prayer that week…if you take your mind off the ball you might skip those passages and must repeat the whole process.

I think I reached this awareness last night because of the power of this time period and the intensity of my concentration on the words. As I whispered them to myself I focused on the meaning of each syllable and proceeded slowly enough to not skip those seasonal insertions. Yes, it helps to have the prayer memorized and a grasp of the holy tongue of Hebrew. It’s challenging to find this time for extended contemplation in the city; we’re usually in a rush to finish or simply rushing to keep up with a minyan. Also, there is something innately purifying about the High Holiday period when one enters it with the right intentions and an open mind. The rabbis tell us that the day of Yom Kippur atones. You just have to show up and toe the line, and the state of purity and closeness follows. Perhaps I lifted off the dock spiritually because I was riding this ten day free gift of enhanced holiness and was taking the time to enjoy it’s fruits.

I believe that maintaining this simple puritythroughout the year is the underlying reason for our intimidating list of 613 commandments.   God urges us to become holy vessels so that we can powerfully assist God in the mission to perfect the world. Living within the boundaries that our beloved Torah prescribes keeps us in the spiritual zone and indicates our commitment to do this crucial work. This experience clarified for me why the Jewish People endures this legacy of celestial responsibility and intense demands on our lifestyle. A good example is kashrut, or why we have to give up certain delicacies like clam chowder and Dodger Dogs. We can see these seemingly archaic rules as a nuisance or instead appreciate that they are necessary since we are spiritual giants that on a sacred mission of Tikkun Olam (healing the world.) After all, it makes sense that the holy words of the siddur are uttered by a mouth that eats kosher food. Our food nourishes each cell in our bodies; certainly we are what we eat and our Creator knows the ideal spiritual formula. Suddenly the effort to prepare and shlep ten days worth of meals to bring in our suitcases for this trip makes a bit more sense.

Similarly, our mouth is better equipped to speak the holy words when it isn’t habitually engaging in deceit, gossip or idle chatter. We have rules of family purity and marital fidelity to allow us bodily pleasures that exalt rather than degrade our soul. My eyes can better perceive a Godly world of miracles when they aren’t exposed to those images that harm my soul. Our observance of the Sabbath allows for a weekly reset of priorities and time to appreciate our weekday efforts in the material and spiritual realms. Shabbat also teaches us the crucial lesson of living for the present moment. Sorry to sound like church lady (or Mr. Synagogue,) but I believe that while there’s always room for innovation, there is no need to rewrite our traditions…there is infinite benefit to the mitzvot that our mortal minds cannot begin to surmise.

I believe the next part of the aforementioned formula, living in the present, is a crucial life skill. Creating deep connections with our Creator and serving as God’s emissary only happens in the here and now. Transformative prayer cannot occur when one is mired in the past. It’s also not accessible when one is obsessing about an uncertain future. God’s real “present” to us is the opportunity to live passionately in the present. Since we can’t change the past and don’t know the future, the present is the only human access point with our timeless God. For most of us this requires slowing WAY down. Patience, patience! For that half hour in the morning or the 5-10 minutes for mincha and ma’ariv, one must start with deep breathing, meditation or whatever it takes to bring the spinning internal world to a halt so that true service can commence. The High Holidays bring us into a realm of timelessness: extra time to pray and reflect and hopefully, to feel inspiration from our clergy. Rosh Hashana gives us a view on God’s regal “presence” and a possibility to live lofty lives as princes and princesses of our Father, our King. Yom Kippur whitewashes our poor decisions in our divine service, cleansing those areas where we have missed the mark and allowing us to try again with a clean slate, putting the past in the past and accessing the realm of the here and now.

The bright red bow on top of the “present” of the month of Tishrei is in the message of Sukkot. Sukkot is all about joy. It’s about a sense of triumph after the work of the ten days of repentance, about the recognition that all we really have is this ephemeral relationship with the Almighty, as signified by our fragile sukkah. That breakthrough that I experienced on the dock at midnight is only possible in a milieu of joy. Our prophets could only prophesy in a joyful mood. We know Avraham was ecstatic about his divine service in the near sacrifice of Yitzchak or he wouldn’t have perceived the angel exhorting him to stay his hand. Joy it the key to the Palace. It is the pipeline connecting us to the heavens. We learn that one moment of the Olam Habah (the world that is coming) exceeds all the joy of this world combined. God exists in a realm of sublime pleasure.

With a bit of effort we can find intense happiness within our own lives, satisfaction with our lot, an attitude of gratitude. Joy is found in our human interactions, surrounding ourselves with those we love, making time for sweet friendships, nurturing our relatives, treasuring our spouses. Pursue the activities that give you joy, be it sports, attending concerts, learning a new craft, climbing a mountain. These are the things that cannot be put off. Don’t let vacation time accumulate. Acts of kindsness to others is a great way to refresh your inner joy receptacle. And In times of stress you’ll have that recent joyous moment to pull you through or to envision when you are preparing to pray.

Saying the Sh’moneh Esrai is a sacred gift for which I have a profound new appreciation. Seeing the potential of true service as I did that night has given me incentive to bring recharged enthusiasm to this highly repetitive act and to share that enthusiasm with others. Each time I pray I can challenge myself to bring a little more joy, a little more focus to the enormous task at hand. I’m incentivized to better understand every nuance of the Hebrew and the genius of the text’s construction. To take my three steps back and pause while I still my inner maelstrom and create a space for the Divine Presence. And then take three steps forward as I board the celestial chariot alongside my Creator and best friend. I stand in Tadasana, mountain pose, strong and confident in my personal power as I enter a realm of timelessness and bask in technicolor joy. And then when my avodah/work is done, I bow in sincere gratitude and retreat to my earthly plane.

Let us commit ourselves this year to serving as God’s hands to better this world. Let us be sensitized to the immense power of our words, thoughts and deeds. Let us fashion ourselves into holy vessels to receive God’s light and share that light with all nations. Let us make 5774 the year that all humanity knows God’s name and peace is proclaimed throughout the land.