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Getting in the Holy Spirit

Friday, 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

Monday, 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

Tuesday, 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

Thursday, 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

Friday, 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!

Wednesday, 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

Friday, 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?

Tuesday, 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.

The Treasure of the High Sierra

Friday, August 9th, 2013

By Sam Glaser

I am both a music lover and music maker. I’ve learned that the two are mutually exclusive; I have composer friends that minimize exposure to anyone else’s music in order to avoid being unduly influenced. I, on the other hand, regularly thank God for the gift of listening to music…any kind of music! Particularly when driving in LA traffic jams. I’m a fan of many local, US and international bands and I try to be a good groupie and sit in the front row whenever I can sneak out to their shows. I’m a regular at the LA Phil and LA Opera. I’m obsessed with jazz. I have over 3000 CDs of all genres in my collection and I still have my ear out for new sounds. My wife and I share in the Top 40 fun with our three kids and keep abreast of The Voice, Idol and America’s Got Talent. We admit to being both Beliebers and Gleeks. I used to brag that I like every style of music except Country. Well, thanks to dedicated honky-tonk friends I have been converted to the best of southern pedal steel, hillbilly, bluegrass, gospel and even yodeling.

I made another music discovery recently. It’s called the High Sierra Music Festival and I am convinced it is the ultimate musical indulgence on the planet. Sports fans have the World Series and the Final Four. For us music lovers, High Sierra is the Holy Grail. I’ve been to other festivals before, usually a single epic day of rock, R&B or jazz from which I return home with a smile on my lips and my ears ringing. But this High Sierra Festival is a binge of another dimension: a captive audience of 10,000 fans camp together at the Quincy Fairgrounds for four days with over fifty top-notch bands. Curated by someone who REALLY knows quality music. If there is any common denominator between the featured acts it’s a proven track record, years on the road, virtuoso musicianship, fun, upbeat tunes and a multi-genre sensibility with the ability to switch easily while keeping the groove intact. No Top 40 or Tribute Bands need

apply. The festival includes side show distractions like yoga on the hour, a kids play area, continuous Frisbee and hula hoops, (go Wham-o!) impromptu jam sessions and a delicious public swimming pool. Incredible alpine hikes are just down the road. And did I mention fifty of the hottest touring acts in the world?

Fellow music aficionado Rob Steinberg has regularly served as my host when I have gigs performing for the Jewish community of New Orleans. Rob is on a self-imposed mission to turn friends on to the best of the music-drenched Crescent City. He rarely leaves town save for this annual Sierra experience and has been mentioning for years that I’ve “got to try it someday.” Well, my excuse materialized in a unusual set of blessings (some might say coincidences.) Firstly, I was invited by Rabbi Yonah Bookstein to help lead the program at their annual High Sierra Shabbat Tentprogram ( is our Tzedakah of the Month below.) The staff provides a welcome refuge from the din and heat with free munchies, ice water, Shabbat meals and prayer services to ANYONE who is in need. July 4th weekend has always meant a pilgrimage to my folk’s home in Pacific Palisades where their shul has a gala BBQ on the parade route followed by beachside fireworks at my old high school. This year, however, my mom is in Israel visiting my brother’s family. My boys are counselors in summer camp in Wisconsin and my wife and daughter made plans to visit my other brother in San Diego. High Sierra here I come!

I flew into Reno, rented a Sonata and motored the hour and a half up to Quincy. I stopped at a market to load up with groceries, mostly breakfast stuff since I would be eating some meals in the Shabbat Tent. I was glad for the USB input in the car stereo that gave me control of my iPhone via the steering wheel controls…too cool! For some reason my phone defaulted into alphabetic mode. How interesting to hear my playlist of 2000 songs in that format rather than by full album. Over six hours of driving and I never made it out of the A’s! Since I have all twenty-four of my own albums in my digital library much of my music was featured in the alphabetical mix, much like an ultra-customized, grin-inducing Pandora station.

Over the course of the drive I must admit that I was both antsy and homesick. I was trying to remind myself why I had just abandoned my family, something I do fairly regularly thanks to my fifty-city tour every year. I was also worried that I had missed important bands (the event had started earlier in the day) and was hoping to set up my camp before nightfall. Thankfully, I found the festival box office lot easily, drove through a vast, dusty field to a helpful volunteer who welcomed me at my car, fastened on my wristband and sent me to park in a remote lot. I then shlepped my stuff to a shuttle stop and watched helplessly as several shuttles passed that were full or going “out of service.” Thankfully one finally arrived that could fit a few of the many people in line and because I was traveling solo I snagged a spot.

I found it disorienting arriving at this party-in-progress, especially since most of the 10,000 guests had already settled in. Just inside the entrance I found the Shabbat Tent and was overjoyed to see familiar faces. Thankfully Rabbi Yonah had already set up my tent in order to save the space. He gave me a hearty hug and a hand getting my stuff to the campsite after I stashed my refrigeratables in his cooler. I had arrived around 7pm and the heat had abated somewhat…now my tent was only 90 degrees inside. I inflated my air mattress, made the bed, unpacked my gear and then escaped the sauna to hear my first artist of the thirty or so that I would eventually audition. Three main venues had cascading schedules to allow rowdy overachievers like me to see nearly everyone on the bill. The Grandstand is a huge, outdoor mega-stage set up in the center of a dirt track speedway with enough space for the whole crowd. Big Meadow is a partially shaded, partially muddy concert space surrounded by the RV camping area. Finally, Vaudeville, my favorite venue, is a more intimate open wall tent andhoused the most raucous bands. This tennis court sized space is surrounded by a grassy field on one side and on the other, the tents of a dozen lucky campers that must have run FAST to secure these prime locations. Their “chill” areas are shaded with canopies and tapestries and they abut the concert space so all they have to do is hang out on their lounge chairs.

The Grandstand headliner that first night was Robert Plant and his new band, the Sensational Space Shifters. I was prepared for a self-indulgent, esoteric rock/bluegrass set but instead Plant rewarded the stoked crowd with AMAZING renditions of Zep songs. I was transfixed at the power that he held in his grasp: he could woo the crowd with a sweet new ballad or create an immediate frenzy with the first measure of a classic standard like Black Dog or Whole Lotta Love. I must admit that in spite of the power of the performance I was not entirely present. I met plenty of considerate people but at one point was rebuffed by a muscle-bound brute that decided no one was going to get closer to the stage than him. Halfway through the set I met some wonderful clothing vendors whose booths lined the perimeter of the field and had abandoned ship to dance to Plant. I bonded deeply and with these new friends and managed to enter a head-space of unity with the sweaty, happy mob. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

After the show my friends walked me back to their booth filled with brilliant handmade batik clothing and I found that the vendors had their own private community as their booths linked in the rear with hammocks, lounge chairs, tie-dyed tapestries, tables, food and drink and everything needed to make this annual four day pilgrimage a pleasure. Clearly these folks were here for more than making a buck. I called Rob Steinberg to check in and see if he wanted to go to any of the late night shows which play nightly from midnight till 4am. I mentioned that I was in someone’s clothing booth and he said, “Oh, Ciara and John?” Another “Large world, well managed” moment! We agreed to meet for the midnight shows and he felt confident he could get me a ticket. The festival itself is $200 for the four days of music, camping and fun. Late night (11:30pm-4:00am) is a $25 bonus price per venue…there are 2 to choose from and both had sold out.

After a bit of hassle we managed to get tickets, largely because I took initiative and stormed the box office to ask for tickets in Rob’s name. Rob was horrified that I cut the 40 person long line but I just did the “look like you know what you’re doing” thing and simply asked if his name was on a list. He lectured me on festival etiquette, not something I wanted or needed to hear; I had already perceived that this gathering was different that other “survival of the fittest” concert experiences. Clearly, brotherhood is the bylaw..but to sit in a line of wishful thinkers for a sold out show? Anyway, we had our “miracle tickets” and jumped around to three amazing bands: Newgrass founders Leftover Salmon and the extraordinary party bands Pimps of Joytime and Orgone.

Several friends asked why I didn’t bring my wife. First of all, none of the venues have chairs. Anywhere. Secondly, your boogers turn black from dust inhalation. It’s 90 degrees and there’s precious little shade and no air conditioning. You get to camp with thousands of other people in close proximity and the bathrooms are a block away. With lines for the stalls. And mosquitoes. Thursday night there was a five-foot space on one side of my tent, allowing me to enter along the dense corridor of tents from the nearby road. By Friday midday, another half dozen tents had filled the aisle…now there was no way to get back to my tent area without shimmying through the forest of ripstop nylon. That first night my queen size air mattress sprang a leak, leaving me a thin yoga mat to cushion my fifty-year-old bones from the uneven ground below. I lay there imagining my wife sharing this yoga mat with me after a day of travel, crowds, heat and inebriated people…better to do this one on my own.

I got to sleep at 4:30am and had the privilege of a private concert right outside my tent at 6am when one of the late night revelers decided to practice his guitar. I tried to get back to sleep with the aid of earplugs but by 7:30 my tent got so hot that I had to flee. I figured that I’d have to take a nap in order to get through the day and still be dancing latenight. But where would I nap? Now I understood why I saw countless people throughout the fairgrounds passed out on the grass, in hammocks, and some, face down in the dust on the edges of the concert venues. Remarkably, no one bothered these people, save for the occasional Samaritan trying to carry them to safety. I realized that one of the crucial elements of this utopian festival is the fact that in spite of arduous conditions, everyone is smiling, peaceful and looking out for one another.

Perhaps I feel so comfortable here because High Sierra is a microcosm of the perfected world paradigm that has motivated the Jewish People for millennia. Of course the peace and harmony is drug induced for many, but the fact is that 10,000 individuals of all faiths, ages and income brackets seem to get along famously.   The emphasis is on how much one can share and give rather than the grabby nature of our typical city life. One inter-act MC announced that there are “no strangers” here at High Sierra. The people next to you are just best friends that you haven’t yet met. Some might say that a Shabbat Tent at a “hippie rock festival” is an oxymoron. I think it makes perfect sense.

I searched the fairgrounds for a good place to daven. Certainly there must be an isolated tree and some shade! My efforts proved fruitless in this maze of humanity and I strapped up in the middle of the Vaudeville tent. I believe I was one of only two people wearing a kippah at this festival. The other was Rabbi Yonah who stuck mostly to the confines of the Shabbat Tent, leaving me as the official wandering Jew for the weekend. I lost count of how many people “outed” themselves as members of the tribe. One family of wild-eyed stoners saw me praying that morning and sure enough, the patriarch was a Jewish pot farmer from Northern California. Another woman and her daughter Shaina watched as I shuckled nearby. Shaina had never seen tefillin and had all sorts of questions for me. They live in Oakland and go to a Reform synagogue.   She and her family adopted me and became regulars in the Shabbat Tent. If only for connecting with this one family, the whole Shabbat Tent experiment was worth it.

I swapped my tallis bag for my yoga mat and headed out to the main lawn for an hour of Hatha yoga with a hundred new friends. Some didn’t have mats but still participated even though their lithe, sticky bodies were getting covered with dirt. Our transcendent leaders were a Jewish couple from San Francisco that tag-teamed over the course of the vigorous hour-plus workout. I returned to the Shabbas tent for a hearty breakfast of Peanut Butter Cheerios and then dashed off to the first concert of the day. Over the next few hours I crammed in four incredible acts: guitar slinging Scott Pemberton, a vastly innovative player with radical, unorthodox technique, incredible folk/rock party bands The Tumbleweed Wanderers and The Revivalists and then a neophyte up-and-coming band, Houndmouth.Houndmouth is a youthful quartet of “easy on the eye” musicians that were having a tough time winning over the ambivalent crowd. Something switched on during their set. I think the initial bias against these seeming pretty boy (and girl) posers disappeared in the light of their excellent material, great vocals and competent musicianship. I have never seen a band overcome indifference to this degree; by the last several songs the audience was SCREAMING for more.

Thankfully Rachel Bookstein had offered to buy me a new air mattress when she was in town shopping for food for Shabbat. After helping her unload a minivan stuffed to the rafters with groceries I pumped up the new bed and then ran for a mikvah at the local public swimming pool a few blocks away. Once again I was faced with a long line of people, this time waiting for the chance to swim. You could only get in when others got out and even though it was already 5pm no one looked like they were ready to leave the coveted H2O. Like every other interaction this weekend, I reframed and relaxed rather than stew in my typical impatient state and therefore had the presence of mind to engage some great people in line, allowing the time fly by. I swam a dozen awkward laps around the crowd, watched divers compete for the most elaborate flip off a diving board contest and then pulled off a discrete mikvah in one of the corners. Perhaps the most unkind moment of the week was when the crowd in the pool started cheering for a heavy-set woman to attempt a cannonball. She did not welcome the attention and was stuck in the spotlight as she jiggled on the diving board.

Following a shower in the pool facility I relished in the feeling of being cleansed of the coating of dust and sunscreen and I returned for services at the Shabbas Tent with a smile on my face. I led a sweet “service” consisting of a series of common denominator Jewish folk songs sung arm in arm. Rabbi Yonah did his best to make everyone feel included and tap into the magic of Shabbat in spite of our cacophonous surroundings. We ate a delicious dinner prepared by Rachel and the JConnect staff while hearing the stories of those individuals who happened upon the tent. Some non-Jews were in attendance and for a few of them it was their first experience with the Jewish Sabbath. Hosting this varied crowd of guests created an uncanny Avraham Avinu ambience. With the tent open on all four sides to all who wanted to enter, we had the opportunity to interface with a diverse and curious self-selected group that in all likelihood would not otherwise be celebrating Shabbat. Just as we finished dinner the nightly parade passed by, pausing at our corner to engage our group in a wild, erotic dance led by Cirque du Soleil-style performers on stilts and an ad hoc twenty piece drum corps. When official candlelighting time arrived I davened a proper Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv on my own and then headed out to the evening’s festivities.

First I heard a band called White Denim and then on to the headliner Primus whose music was dark and industrial and didn’t seem appropriate for this light-hearted crowd. I left halfway through to check out the very impressive Lord Huron and then snuck backstage with Rob for the John Scofield Uberjam. I’ve never loved Scofield’s sound but in this format with cleverly chosen groovy loops to keep the festival crowd moving, his vast chops were palatable and exciting. Backstage access included the perks of flowing beer and snacks, a true bonus since I was in Shabbat mode. I had to summon deep-reserve energy for late night festivities as Rob scored the elusive tickets yet again and we enjoyed a fantastic set with Fruition and my new favorite bluegrass band, the Infamous Stringdusters.   At about 4am there was still a considerable crowd milling about around the concert hall. One of the women that I had met earlier at Shabbat Tent was selling kosher brownies and offered me a few imperfect ones to satisfy my late night munchies. Hard to imagine that I was going to get even less sleep tonight; sure enough there was so much conversation around my tent that I didn’t nod off until 5am.

Morning came early at 7am when the commotion started in the tents around me. I tried to sleep through it but eventually the sun rose to the point where my tent was getting a direct hit, making it immediately uninhabitable. I repeated my davening-yoga-breakfast routine and then enjoyed a long distance Frisbee game with some guys with excellent technique. Hucking the disc with such abandon gave me a CU Boulder déjà vu. Thank God for the eruv! Then on to the Grandstand where I got to jump around to the funky grooves of Moksha and Rubblebucket. Enhancing my pleasure was the fact that both bands had crack horn sections and burning keyboardists. Thanks to my magic wristband I was able to frolic in the front row and have my fill of complimentary drinks and munchies. At one point the Rubblebucket lead singer jumped over the fence and into the pit, dancing with all of us in a frenzy. Then the rest of the horn section followed suit, eventually getting lifted up on people’s shoulders as they continued to play. About ten of us in the front row were welcomed on stage when they returned and we clambered up the enormous subwoofers to dance on stage with the band. Yes, this was an unusual Shabbas!

After a delicious tuna fish, humus and salad lunch back at the Shabbat Tent I schmoozed with several more guests. Some passersby opted to enjoy the quiet and shade and passed out on our beanbag chairs. All good. I met an Alabama-based band called Earth Noodle that was standing at the periphery of the tent wondering what it was all about. I invited them in and fed them and then requested that they sing Amazing Grace with me. For two of them we were the first Jewish people that they had ever met; how cool that their first impression was of such giving, happy people. By now five-year-old Shaina had adopted me as her best buddy and spent the entire time in my lap or daring me to chase her.

The afternoon was filled with more fantastic music and I had to get second and third winds to find the strength to dance. I enjoyed powerful sets by the nonstop monster lineup of the Greyboy Allstars, Barr Brothers and Thievery Corporation and then at 11pm returned to the tent to lead Havdalah. An intimate group gathered as we lit the candle and smelled the spices as I led the songs with my voice and melodica. In attendance was Dave Margulies, one of the founders of the festival, who commented that Shabbat Tent would have a higher profile in the next year’s event. He doled out backstage passes to the Vaudeville tent, allowing the whole Shabbat Tent staff to enjoy the festivities during Lee Field and the Expressions electrifying old-school set. Before I left however, a family that missed Havdalah insisted that I walk with them back to their RV to include the rest of their group. Some high school musicians were leading a full bore jam session in front of their RV next door and it seemed impossible to lead a service amidst the din. I tried another tactic: during a blues number I simply chanted the Havdalah prayer in the form of a blues tune and grooved everyone along to a shavua tov.

Late night I met Rob once again for the funk of Jelly Bread the prog rock jamming of Moe. These seasoned musicians put in overtime with dueling guitar solos that were through-composed, with tight as nails breakdowns and a three pronged vocal attack that included their virtuoso bass player. At 3am I walked over to the Mineral Hall where an unlisted acoustic set with Naked Soul was taking place. I am now a die-hard fan of this spiritual, musical foursome. The focus and connection was palpable as all fifty or so late night fans felt blessed to be in the presence of these four gifted artists. I saw some of my Shabbat Tent chevre and we gave each other a look that indicated we were so happy to be part of this experience. Once again I had to force myself to bed in spite of my exhaustion. Just too many good times to be had.

On Sunday I was determined to hit the trail and was ready to miss a few bands to do so. I had printed out the directions before leaving LA to Gold Lake, commonly recommended online as the nicest hike in this region. After breakfast I waited for the shuttle to the remote parking lot and then drove about 15 miles out of town to a rowdy, well-banked dirt road through the pine forest that gained about 2000 feet of elevation. The path terminated at a dusty, neglected campground by the partially drained Silver Lake. I slathered on some sunscreen and started up the beautiful two-mile hike that traversed a ridge with views on either side. There were times when I lost the trail and at one point a poorly marked fork that left me guessing if I had chosen the right path. Finally I spied my destination below, a round, pristine green-blue body of water surrounded by spectacular granite cliffs. There were a few other families there and I schmoozed with one of them as their dog frolicked in and out of the high 70′s crystal clear water. I stripped down to my underwear and dove in, swimming to the center of the lake, floating on my back and staring deeply into the blue sky. When I returned to shore the families were both departing, leaving me along to frolic, sing and do yoga in my birthday suit. True High Sierra splendor.

I drove back to the fairgrounds and this time found a parking spot a few blocks away meaning I wouldn’t have to endure the remote lot and that God-forsaken shuttle. I walked back into the melee of bodies, heat, dust and the pulsating beat, grateful for my morning respite. My first destination was the annual Guitarmageddon jam, a Festival tradition where the top guitarists of the resident bands relish in 80′s hard rock glory. The head banging audience pumped their fists in the air to Stones, Journey and Zeppelin standards. After that I auditioned David Mayfield, Anders Osborne and then another epic set from party band Jelly Bread. By the time I got to reggae heroes Steel Pulse at the Grandstand I was out of gas. Nothing left. I had long since pushed past the second wind mark. One of my neighbors broke out a Emergen-C packet which I downed with a double espresso ice coffee and a pair of Advil. That got me dancing again in the front row for one of the tightest reggae shows I’ve seen. I befriended the hot and exhausted folks behind me who were pressed up against the barrier fence. I took initiative at one point and surprised them with a tray laden with backstage refreshments to slake their thirst. I could see the joy in their eyes as they were revived by the gift and likely poised to pay it forward. Following a great backstage hang with some new friends that were running the festival’s beer concession I ran back to the front row to cheer on Moe, which gave a stellar set that featured many of the luminary sidemen that were on hand.

I sought out my late night buddy Rob but he was back at his apartment with an aching back. Tired as I was I decided to splurge for the Greyboy/Moksha show and was not let down. I danced with all my new friends gathered from a four-day marathon where I met wonderful people at every venue. I found that I remembered everyone’s names, a phenomenon that I can’t always accomplish. I think that it was due to my focused efforts in the Shabbat Tent to serve as a light onto nations, spreading a compassionate Jewish presence in this alpine love fest. Just like the connections I make when I lead a Shabbaton weekend and really can “get” everyone that I meet, I feel similarly present in this milieu.

By 4:30am on this last night there were markedly fewer people still awake. I wandered the nearly deserted fairgrounds back to the Shabbat tent where I found Shimon and a few others gathered around a smoldering grill. Shimon had found some meat that wasn’t cooked up on Shabbas and was preparing it for the ride home the next day. I helped him get rid of some perfectly spiced hamburgers, thrilled to have my first taste of meat over the weekend, just when I was ready for a midnight (or mid-morning) snack.

After a few hours of sleep I packed up my gear before the sun got too stifling. I made sure I left my campsite in zero impact condition and shlepped my gear a few blocks to the fairground entrance. After a quick breakfast and earnest goodbyes at the Shabbat Tent I loading up my trusty Hyundai I headed up to Lassen Volcanic National Park. My demeanor had changed fundamentally since the first day of the trip. Now I was suntanned, relaxed and buzzing with the new friendships and musical discoveries. My nearly new rental smoothly negotiated the winding mountain roads where breathtaking vistas unfolded around every corner. A brief hour and a half later and I was at the entrance to this striking high alpine environment for the first time in my life. While it doesn’t compare to Yosemite and Kings Canyon to the south, it is a spectacular destination with unusual hikes and a volatile history. After a film on park history and plate tectonics and discussions with the rangers I left the headquarters for a quick six-hour tour. The ranger told me it would be about a one hour drive through the park and then another two hours back to the Reno airport, plus whatever side trips I took. I crammed in visits to the popular bubbling springs and mud holes of Bumpass Hell (yes, that’s the real name) and a hike to the intimate but spectacular Kings Creek Falls. A sweet 62-year-old recently retired moviemaker accompanied me on one of the hikes and we spent the time talking of exotic travels and photography techniques. 

I sensed that I was running a bit late and started to panic each time I was caught behind the occasional motor home on the curvy two-lane road. I could pass at will largely because I didn’t have my wife freaking out in the front seat each time I attempted a daring maneuver. By the time I got to the northern park entrance I had around two hours to make it to the airport and I fretted when I saw that I still had over one hundred fifty miles to drive, much of it on isolated two lane roads. As my iPhone cascaded through all the A’S in my music library I sped through gorgeous Sierra forest and then down into the flats along the 395 to Reno. At the first sign of civilization I stopped to splash water on my face and down a double Frappuccino. With about 42 minutes to go before my flight I pulled up to the airport and left my car at the curb as I sprinted with my suitcase in order to make the 40-minute bag check cutoff.   Then I burned rubber out of the airport to a miracle gas station that I found blocks away. Then I hustled back to the rental car return, ran across the driveway with my overweight bags and through security to my gate where I davened a quick mincha and boarded my plane. As the sun set over the golden Sierras our Southwest plane flew down to the lights of LA, returning me to the arms of my deeply understanding wife.

I’m so thankful to Rabbi Yonah, and his staff for their selfless commitment to bringing an “out and proud” Judaism to music festivals across the US. Part of my incentive to write this novel is to thank the backers of Shabbat Tent for giving me the chance to be a big shot and help in the mitzvah of radical hospitality. I’m grateful to Dave Margulies and the other founders for their efforts in nurturing this epic festival. I felt deeply connected with many of the vendors who have made High Sierra their destination for over twenty years and welcomed me into their family. Thanks to Rob Steinberg for over a decade of friendship and for serving as a “courier” in terms of bringing so much quality new music into my life.  Finally, thank God for the gift of music, mountains and an adorable, forgiving wife who lets me spread my wings.  Hope you can join us next year!

Keeping Consistency Constant

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

By Sam Glaser

The night before my son Jesse left for summer camp in Wisconsin we were sitting around the dinner table discussing discipline. We turned to our sixteen-year-old counselor-in-training to get his feedback on our parenting style. Jesse commented, “Dad, you have never punished me.” “Really?” I responded. “Yep. Never.” I asked my wife if this is a good thing. She responded, “probably not.” I guess I will be remembered as an “old softy” and clearly Jesse has the healthy quality of omitting certain memories. So how do I enforce discipline? My technique seems to be treating my kids like adults and making consequences real. Indeed, there are ground rules in our mostly peaceful household. If they are broken, our kids immediately sense that the placid order of our micro-universe has been altered. Yes, they can keep pushing or nudging and drive us crazy, but why do that? It doesn’t get them anywhere.

I think there are two key factors that have kept us sane while raising the next generation of LA Jewish kids. One is that we leave most of the heavy lifting to God. What we eat, how we treat others and what we do on Shabbat and holidays isn’t something we have to negotiate. We have a 3500-year-old tradition that offers precise guidelines to keep out of one another’s hair and perceive God’s presence in our everyday lives. The kids see us not only respecting halacha (Jewish law) but also loving it. We appreciate that the genius of Judaism is in the details. We don’t obsess about the supposed limitations but we embrace them. We lead by serving as an example and not by lecturing. And we live in a community where love of Torah and a natural adoption of halacha is the norm.

The other factor is the focus of this essay, consistency. We’re not perfect, but as parents, we are really there for our kids. Going to bat for them at school, helping them grow, not tolerating wasting time or mistreatment of others. When we say we’ll be at the corner to pick them up, we show up on time, give or take five minutes. Dinner is on the table for a family sit-down every night. I think our kids sense that we are all teammates and that we will do whatever we can for them within our means. No really means no. And as hard as it is to have a meeting of the minds, my wife and I do try to dispense justice in tandem and resist our kid’s attempts to play one parent against the other. Our parenting style isn’t “disciplinarian.” Just disciplined.

Consistency is one of the few themes that we areconsistently repeating. All three of our children take lessons on their respective musical instruments and must practice regularly if they want to continue. We encourage them to find friends that are trustworthy and do not run hot or cold based on ever-mutating peer popularity contests. We teach follow-through and expect them to meet the obligations they have taken on. I regularly emphasize the teaching that the holy ark was lined with gold leaf on the outside AND on the inside. Why waste precious gold on the inside? The lesson in a nutshell is that being consistent isn’t just an outward attribute; a true tzadik is holy on the inside and the outside. Learning to be consistent as kids makes them better sons and daughters and I believe will make them better employees, employers and most importantly, spouses.

I regularly reflect on our “chassan and kallah” classes when we were newlyweds. Torah wisdom suggests that the guys make their wives the “queen” of the household, and women must demonstrate sincere respect for their husbands. The marriages that thrive seem to be those where the couple is very consistent in managing these two behaviors. Men, you have to make your wife number one. And remind her daily how she rocks your world. Any less and she feels “hated,” much like Leah felt hated by Yaakov. Women, while it’s true that you may wear the “pants” in the family and may even be the primary breadwinner, you have to keep your husband feeling respected and venerated. And not just on Father’s Day. Anyone can be a tzadik for a minute or two. It’s consistent proactive behavior that keeps marriages strong.

Another piece of advice we got as neophyte grooms is to ensure that we consistently satisfy our wives both in the bedroom and the way we pitch in around the house. The key is to set a standard during the first year of marriage that is reasonable. In other words, not firing on all cylinders at the starting line if that is a pace we can’t maintain. During that first year of marriagewe minimize outside distractions to find a point of deep connection and passion, thereby allowing one’s spouse to feel secure that the pattern of love and duty established is not going to diminish. The true aphrodisiac in a loving relationship is consistency: honesty and reliability that builds real trust and thereby builds intimacy.

Similarly, those growing in Judaism have to set an observance level that they can maintain and not burnout. Yes, we all need to be learning and growing; good enough is the enemy of greatness. But not all at once. Most wise teachers suggest a “baby steps” pace so that the growth remains consistent and practical. It’s hard to take someone seriously that jumps from eating Big Macs into a glatt kosher ascetic the next day. Just like we build marital intimacy with consistency, so to can we bond with the Creator of the Universe. The same dynamic is at play: don’t bite off more that you can chew, take one mitzvah at a time, take on Shabbat one hour at a time, show up for prayer whether you feel like it or not. Every mitzvah has angels doing back flips. Consistency with one’s commitments to God are the engine of the relationship; after all, God created the concept of fidelity and thankfully is infinitely patient.

As many of you know, I am excited about The Possible You, a seminar in powerful Jewish living that I deliver about every other month. One of the key aspects of the work is to distinguish “emes” from “sheker” or truth from falsehood in terms of our relationships with God, one another and ourselves. When we are consistent we are bringing truth into the world. When we break our word we bring falsehood. The goal of this work is in respecting the power of the word, creating reality with our declarations and maintaining that reality by being consistent. This isn’t a recipe for guilt every time you are running late, just something to keep in mind when you have a lapse. One can simply restore emes to the world by apologizing, re-committing to a new goal and moving on. The prophet Shmuel says, “Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker,” usually translated as, “The Jewish People are eternal.” A better translation is “the eternity of Israel is intact because we don’t deceive,” or that our close relationship with God is unbreakable when our word is our bond.

We all have areas where we are inconsistent. Usually it’s those very areas that are crucial for our personal task (tafkid) in life. Thank your Yetzer Harah (evil inclination) for tripping you up in the very place you need consistency. It knows exactly what to do to keep you from reaching your life goals. The $100,000 question is then, how can we create more consistency in our lives? I think the key is threefold: once we identify things that make us procrastinate, give us heart palpitations or get us addicted, set small, manageable goals in

writing and tackle them one by one. Too big a mountain and we’ll never try to climb it. Another method is to bring God into the picture. For example, when I have a creative roadblock I ask God for a new song before I go to sleep. I am rarely let down. Some folks feel funny praying on their own behalf. Establish your small goal and ask for God’s help in achieving it, in the same language you would use asking a friend to do you a favor. Finally, allow yourself a sense of triumph when you accomplish each step and reward yourself for being consistent. For me, chocolate ice cream is a great perk. In fact, I think I’ll use that one right now as a reward for getting this essay written.

There are so lessons we can learn from that simple sentence we utter upon awakening: Modeh Ani. I am grateful to you, living and eternal King, Who consistently returns my soul with abundant compassion. Consistency is God’s gift to us. That we can busy ourselves surfing Facebook while our lungs breathe, blood circulates and food digests is nothing short of a miracle. Every sunrise is a miracle. It just loses its impact by virtue of repetition. “Modeh Ani” asks us to not even leave our beds without acknowledging that our miraculous lives are sustained by God’s quiet consistency. Perhaps the best way to emulate the Creator is with an emphasis on bringing that same consistency to our interactions with our children, spouses and everyone we meet.