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Let There Be Music

Sunday, September 27th, 2015
by Sam Glaser

I’m writing this in suburban Denver having just performed a concert where it seems like I knew every other person in the audience. The Jewish Experience pulled off one of those rare gatherings of people from all local synagogues and denominations, cleverly organized outdoors in a sunny park, thereby avoiding any one group’s fiefdom.  There was no need to bring my own band; I recruited a variety of talented local friends who have my set wired and added a pair of extraordinary Latin percussionists who volunteered their time to express their support for the Jewish community.  Since I’ve played the mile high city at least once a year for the past two decades and my alma mater, University of Colorado, Boulder is close by, I feel a sense of homecoming every time I return. I opted to extend the trip a few more days to hike, visit friends and stroll downtown Boulder.  What a thrill to enjoy perfect blue sky days on the trail, relive memories on campus and visit the “youngsters” that now inhabit my fraternity house. I enjoyed meals with old pals, jammed with the hippies on the Pearl Street Mall and lodged in a creative friend’s imaginative canyon home.

One morning I chose to sleep in, pray leisurely and to do some much needed yoga. My regimen becomes even more crucial when I am enduring cramped airline seats and beds of varying quality on the road. Colorado was my third tour stop of the week, and it was long past time for me to get on the mat.  As I did my downward dog, crescent and pigeon poses, I was listening to a touching album by one of my favorite singer-songwriter-bassists Richard Page. The music filled me with inexplicable, indescribable joy. I anticipated every phrase and sang unabashedly in my friend’s empty home.  What is it about this album that makes me so happy? I could say the same about so many of the thousands of CDs that I have in my collection. Why do they have such an impact on my psyche? How is it possible to know every beat and every lyric? Why is music so directly connected to my sense of well being? How is it that these ephemeral sound waves can transform my morning workout from drudgery to a celebration?

Here’s what I came up with on that sweet, sweaty morning. I believe that familiar music graces certain neural templates in our memory. The first time we hear any given piece, the sound traces a path in our brain much like grooves on an LP. The next time we hear those notes we have a vague memory of where the rhythms fall. And by the tenth or hundredth time that we hear that same music, every lyric, each kick drum and hi hat, every guitar lick and violin flourish, all the counterpoint and harmony oozes like dripping honey along that ever deepening synaptic path.  I concluded that the music that we love really is a part of us; the joy that we feel upon repeat listening is perhaps because in an out-of-control world our favorite albums remain predictable, reassuring and comforting.

We have a limited window of opportunity to establish deep connections with those genres we consider to be OUR music.  Our brains are more malleable when we are young. Just as it’s easier for kids to learn a foreign language or to pick up a new accent, the same is certainly true when learning a musical instrument or building repertoire.  It seems that those neural receptors calcify with age and the musical input we receive from birth until we’re in our early twenties is more profoundly engraved in our gray matter. For the rest of our lives, new music that we hear tends to pale in comparison. Much like when high school seniors view incoming ninth graders with disdain and claim the student body is quickly going downhill, we grow intolerant of the latest hits. In fact, by our mid-twenties we tend to recoil in horror to the latest “noise” on the radio. Now that I’ve hit my fifties it takes a really amazing album to penetrate my consciousness. I do listen to Top 40 radio to stay current for my studio work and to humor my kids who switch it on as soon as we’re in the car.  Keeping up with the trends is essential in my business; in the immortal words of John Lennon, “Either you grow with music or music outgrows you.”  Another reason that we may find it a challenge to incorporate new music later in life is because we have so much input filling our brains by adulthood that there’s less cranial storage space for new stimuli to make an impression. For this reason I strategically fed my unsuspecting children a steady diet of musical heroes from rock to jazz to classical and I experience unbounded mirth when they call me from college to rave about a “new” discovery from the seventies.

Many feel that music is anecdotal, not central to crucial issues in life. But do we want to live in a world where the arts are left out of our children’s STEM-based education? I teach jazz ensemble in our local high school and I have found that most of our neighborhood kids get to ninth grade without any hands-on music experience whatsoever, no memories of instrument lessons or choral performances. Music is liquid math!  Reggae band Steel Pulse said it best: “Life without music…I can’t go!”  I’d like to argue that music is one of the best media for the dissemination of universal values. Music has at its core an element of truth that is cross-cultural and international.  That’s why a hit in LA can also rise up the charts in countries around the globe.  That’s why the movie scores that allow one to have emotional engagement and thereby suspend disbelief serve their purpose worldwide.  Imagine a cheer at a baseball game, like that major arpeggio causing fans to scream, “Charge!” Contrast that with the suspenseful two notes of the Jaws theme; you hear them and start worrying about sharks, even on dry land.  We can describe a tune as happy or sad, suspenseful or romantic regardless of where we were born.

Music is the glue that binds generations and unites the nations.  I remember a U2 concert several years ago when during the messianic-flavored song One, a message appeared on the gigantic video screen for the fans of all ages to take out their cell phones.  Within moments the arena was bathed in a surreal Android  glow as the audience swayed with the moving piece.  Then we were instructed to text our names to a certain number.  Immediately the room went dark but everyone’s face lit up as they quickly texted.  Then at the climax of the song while 20,000 people were jumping ecstatically singing “One love, one blood, one life” in unison, our projected names cascaded like alphabetic confetti across the stadium walls.  I still get the chills thinking about it.  We are currently witnessing the explosion in popularity of the multi-day music festival.  Our youth are discovering oneness, peace and lovingkindness not in places of worship but in carefully manicured settings where music is the common language and catalyst for unity.

For the Jewish People, religious life without music is unthinkable.  We see music as the icing on the cake of creation. According to Jewish tradition, God is perpetually singing the world into being.  Our Tanach (bible) is replete with epic songs that punctuate the narrative.  Jubal, the inventor of the first instruments, is one of the few key characters mentioned in the first ten generations of mankind.  Vast orchestras accompanied the service in the Temple. Our prophets of yore required music to enter a transcendent realm and hear God’s voice.  Our patriarchs composed while in the fields with their livestock; our tradition maintains that King David was “hearing” their songs as he composed his Psalms.

I often wonder just where I get these songs that come to me almost nightly.  Am I hearing remnants of biblical melodies in the ether?  After an extended wedding ceremony in the Old City of Jerusalem, I had the rare opportunity to spend an hour in yechidus (one on one) with Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.  For years I had served as his West Coast keyboardist and relished any time I was able to spend in his presence.  Underneath the arch of the ruins of the Churva Synagogue he spoke of my music and how it moved him.  He told me that I had a tremendous gift and a mamash (hugely) enormous responsibility to share it.  He then warned me that I had to be prepared for when the Mashiach would come to me and say, “Sam, how did you know all my nigunim?!”  Of course, Reb Shlomo always knew the right words to say…can you imagine a more powerful charge for a young composer?  I was told that when he left this world at the tender age of 69, he was on an airplane bound for the next gig…with my Shira album in his Walkman.

When we sing our prayers we transform our worship from lethargy to ecstasy, from stasis to action and commitment.  Find yourself a shul where they sing!  The nusach or traditional melodies of prayer are so beautifully detailed that one could conceivably travel by time machine to any prayer service in history and know if it’s a weekday, Shabbat or a holiday, if it’s morning, afternoon or evening and if you wound up davening with Sephardim or Ashkenazim.  Specific tropes accompany the public reading of our Torah and prophetic writings. We even have a melody for Torah study.  The revelation of Torah to the millions assembled at Sinai was marked by an unprecedented concert spectacular featuring mass synethesia where we “heard” the sights and “saw” the sounds.  For those who find the lack of fluency in Hebrew a barrier to Jewish prayer, the fact is that you just need to know “aye dee di di di.” In the past several hundred years we have inherited the rich tradition of Chassidic nigunim, or wordless melodies, gifts of tzadikim (righteous people) that allow for the deepest spiritual connections without lyrics getting in the way of the sentiment.

According to 16th century commentator, the Maharal of Prague, music serves the threefold purpose of the creation of mankind: to develop a connection with the divine in the form of prayer, to connect us with one another and to connect us with our own souls.  The gift of music is one of the best examples of the majesty of our neshamot (souls); our ability to compose is a miracle that baffles evolutionists and physicists.  Music allows us to perceive that the apex of achievement in life is soul achievement; that the essence of our existence is in spiritual expression rather than the physical.  As an example, we don’t go to the symphony to hear horsehair scraping catgut!  In other words, the physical realm may seem like all there is, but in truth it is the most elementary level of creation and exists to give structure to the spiritual. Another function of music is to give us a unique sense of the dimension of time in that music requires time to unfold and develop, one note requires the next to complete a musical phrase.  We can only enjoy it in the present but it requires the past for context and draws us into a spectacular future.  We also gain an appreciation of eternity through music; for example, the gifted classical composers were able to capture something from beyond, an accomplishment that never dies.  After his stroke my father-in-law might be unable to remember our names or his birthday, but can sing along with all his favorite melodies.

One of the most exciting aspects of our current technological prowess is the fact that the music of the vast span of Jewish history is now available in the form of thousands of recordings, from cantorial to klezmer to folk to good ole’ rock and roll.  Contemporary Jewish Music is experiencing a renaissance of unparalleled quality and quantity in every conceivable genre; check out to see the vast selection.  Some folks can’t abide by my new settings of liturgy, preferring the “traditional” melodies.  But I can point to King David who exhorts his progeny to engage in “shir chadash,” writing new music.  New music gives us vitality and excitement and keeps our ritual from becoming stagnant.  Whereas David’s son Solomon insisted that there is nothing new under the sun, clearly music emerges “above the sun,” in the realm of the supernatural. That said, all composers are influenced by those who have come before. I’m sometimes asked if I perform “originals” or “covers.”  I reply that no one really writes originals; composition is a more accurate term since all composers stand on the shoulders of those who have preceded us.  New music is crucial to the Jewish concept of redemption; the Talmud teaches that King Chizkiyahu was destined to be Mashiach (the messiah) but was deemed unworthy because he couldn’t sing.  According to Rabbi Natan Lopez Cardozo: “Judaism can’t be passed on without a song and a smile.”

I remain grateful for my gifts and still marvel that I am earning a living in this field for which I am so passionate.  The real credit goes to my wife who has to deal with the vicissitudes of a musician’s income!  It is a tremendous privilege to create the music that is enjoyed in congregations and carpools wherever I travel.  The best part of checking my email is seeing the occasional testimonial of how my songs may have touched a listener.  Keep those emails coming!  May God give me the strength to continue to play and sing and bring audiences together like I did on that sunny Sunday in Denver.

Surviving Shachrit: Kabbalistic Insights to Enhance the Morning Ritual

Friday, September 4th, 2015
By Sam Glaser
A Miami-based fan who has become a dear friend invited me to share my music with his summertime chevra in the High Country of North Carolina.  During the days before and after my concert we hiked, biked and zip-lined and the nights were spent enjoying the company of his fellow South Florida sunbirds who entertained us in their posh mountain homes.  Since this was our anniversary week, a second airfare was offered so that I could bring my dear wife on the adventure…our first vacation without the kids in as long as we can remember.  We got perfect weather, the forests were painted with wildflowers and the deep blue skies were filled with dreamy scattered clouds. My friend marveled that even though I’m making a vacation out of this Beech Mountain and Asheville concert tour I still manage to keep up with my three times a day prayer ritual and don my kippah wherever I go.  I explained that especially when I’m on the road during my crazy annual performance schedule I rely on my Jewish daily practices to keep me grounded.
I’m grateful for my morning routine.  No matter how sore, sleep deprived or rushed I am feeling, I still carve out time for my various rituals.  Inevitably I feel ready to face the day as soon as I’m finished with my prayers and a heaping bowl of my favorite cereal.  The repetitive rigor of morning mitzvot may seem like mindless drudgery but they give me a sense of accomplishment even when I wake up feeling brain-dead.  I’d like to take you on a detailed tour through my daily checklist and offer a powerful way to relate to the prayers based on the teachings of Jewish mysticism.
At the first sound of the alarm I resist the urge to push snooze, (who invented this perennial challenge?) sit on the side of my bed and groggily say the Modeh Ani. Then I lumber to the bathroom where I do the traditional washing as soon as I’m done with the toilet, pouring copious amounts of water on my hands from a special two-handled pitcher, right-left-right-left-right-left.  This practice is reminiscent of the washing by the priests when the Temple stood and is likely the reason that Jews survived the various plagues that afflicted the unwashed ancient world.  For me, it makes a statement that I am on a distinctive derech (path) of purpose and purity.  I then wash my face, brush my teeth, shave and get dressed.  Even the manner in which one puts on clothing is mandated by Jewish law, for example, I put on the right shoe, then the left shoe, then tie the left one and then the right one.  This teaches subtle lessons in the primacy of the right (representing compassion) over the left, which represents judgment. Some may laugh at this level of requisite detail and when they do, I tell the story about my friend David Sacks who realized that he wasn’t ready to be Sabbath observant but realized that at least he could put on his shoes in a kosher way.  It was this small mitzvah that got him started on a profound and powerful direction.
When I’m not going to a minyan, I go straight to my living room, even if I’m really hungry, and “strap up” in my tallis and tefillin in the nook of my grand piano.  Our sages recommend that we pray before we have a meal or get into our workday. I resonate strongly with making the connection with God before I stuff my face.  Having an empty stomach gives my prayer a bit more urgency and ensures that I do my davening (praying) without getting carried away with the rest of my day.  I usually step out on our verdant front porch…just being outside is enough to enliven my senses and fill me with joy…unless the gardeners are mowing.  My dog-owning neighbors know to look for me and wave when they pass.  Some have told me that even though they don’t daven themselves, just seeing me veiled behind the jasmine vines is enough to give them a spiritual boost.
When praying alone, the traditional service takes about a half hour, start to finish.  When in a rush I still do the whole service but take a shortcut to the highlights of the P’zukei D’zimra (Verses of Praise) portion so that I don’t feel overly burdened by the experience.  As I’ve said before, our mission is to live by the commandments; if I feel annoyed rather than uplifted, I allow myself some liberties.  I’ve worked my way up to getting through the whole siddur in baby-step fashion.  I recommend that prayer neophytes start with the Sh’ma and the V’ahavta and work up to the full three paragraphs. Then the Sh’moneh Esrei, one section at a time, then the main three paragraphs of the Verses of Praise.  In other words, there’s no need to try to tackle the whole megilla in one sitting.
Yes, the morning prayers are extensive, involve vast fields of Hebrew on the printed page and contain some seemingly redundant parts.  The four sections of the Shachrit service can be compared to a good hike up a mountain.  The Birchot Hashachar (morning blessings) are the parking lot at the trailhead, the P’sukei D’zimra (verses of praise) are like the first set of switchbacks, the prayers before and after the Sh’ma are towards the end of the ascent when you are really sweating, and the Sh’moneh Esrai is the view.  Then you go back down again, step by step.  Understanding the deeper aspects of this level by level ascension is best explained in the Jewish mystical tradition.  But to get the insights,  it’s necessary to explain a few essential Kabbalistic concepts.
Kabbalah is our “origin story,” the science of how God interacts with creation.  It isn’t out of reach of laymen or reserved for those over forty, in fact it is readily accessible if you have an open heart and a patient teacher.  I’ll do my best to summarize the heavy stuff…I think it’s worth the effort!  We believe that before the “big bang” there was only the infinite light of God, known as the Or Ein Sof.  Within this all-encompassing revelation there was no possibility for anything “other” to exist.  Therefore, God had to constrict God’s own light to allow for the formation of finite, limited physicality.  This progressive constriction of Godliness is called Tzimtzum and we can best understand the process in the kabbalistic description of four levels of reality, or four worlds.  Imagine that all matter is on a continuum from pure spirituality to raw physicality, like a chair or a rock.  But still that rock isn’t NON spiritual, it’s just the physical edge of this Godly continuum.  Our four level prayer experience takes us through these levels, from our opaque, dimly lit world until we stand at the pinnacle of unadulterated spiritual clarity.
If you are still with me, you will see that according to Judaism, every finite object is infused with Godliness.  Every living thing is animated by holy sparks of divinity, with the Almighty serving as creator and maintainer of all matter.  Therefore we should live with a deep respect and awe for all of nature…and how much more so every human being!  Yes, even the mad homeless lady who rants on the street corner.  We inhabit the lowest of the four Kabbalistic worlds, the realm that contains the entirety of the physical universe, known as Asiyah.  Remarkably, at our mundane level, Godliness is concealed to the degree that even brilliant human beings, the apex of God’s creation, can deny God’s existence.  Regardless of the beliefs of atheists, even our “opaque” world is infused with spirituality and our job as Jews is to reveal God’s handiwork.
 The essence of the world of Asiyah is action.  It is derived from the word L’asot, or to do.  This is the final word in the “Vay’chulu” paragraph of the Friday Night Kiddush, taken from the creation saga in Genesis.  Mankind was created “to do,” to complete an incomplete world, to engage in a “tikkun olam” healing.  Our mission is to serve as “God’s hands,” to seek out what is lacking and make it whole.  The Talmudic statement, “For me the world was created” is less an ego boost than a call to action, in other words, that the world was created for each individual to rectify the lack of clarity of omnipresent Godliness by revealing God’s “name.”  This is the only realm where mitzvot are possible; in the other worlds, Godliness is unquestionable.  Therefore it should make sense that the morning blessings with which the Shachrit service begins reflect this world of Asiyah, describing our physical needs and actions.  Here you’ll find the blessing over washing the hands, the blessing for the gift of our bodies, the blessing for Torah study and for our unique gifts as human beings. Our fragility and temptation to the “dark side” is addressed as is the system of sacrifices in the Temple for which our prayers are designed to substitute.
The next level or world that we reference in our prayers is referred to as Yetzira.  Time and space are the realm of Asiyah whereas in Yetzira the infinite light of Godliness is not limited by these dimensions. Yetzira is dimension itself, beyond the physical, and is described as sephirot or the realm of feelings and emotions.  The second section of the Shachrit prayers, P’zukei D’zimra, or Verses of Praise are primarily composed of the Psalms of King David describing the greatness of God.  It opens with the description of God speaking the world into being and goes on to extol God’s myriad abilities.  These paragraphs are intended to awaken an emotional attachment to God and inspire gratitude.  Of course in most minyanim this section of the service goes by with stunning speed which I believe is a disservice to the beauty of the prose. Zimra comes from the root of zemer or holy song.  In other words, these passages are laden with musical cadence and were likely sung in their entirety back in a more leisurely era.  Whereas the morning blessings are simple statements of awareness God’s gifts, the P’sukei D’zimra section is an emotional, dynamic engagement of our relationship with the Or Ein Sof.  Like Yetzira it is a realm of increased light and clarity and is the place to progress from lip service to a deeply felt, loving connection with God.
The next realm is that of intellect, known as Beriyah.  It corresponds with the Bar’chu, the two blessings before the Sh’ma, the Sh’ma itself and the two blessings afterwards. Beriya means creation and is the penultimate level before Or Ein Sof, unlimited Godliness.  Therefore it implies a nearly unlimited reality, the concept of being, the highest level of the Tzimtzum.  In this world the light is still somewhat obscured and allows for some differentiation. This is the angelic realm described by our prophets, with Chayot and Seraphim, Gavriel and Rafael and company.  A close look at the third part of the Shachrit service reveals an exploration of the workings of the angels, including their secret formulas “Kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” and “Baruch kavod Adonai mim’komo.”  We see that the angels are creations of God, and can be best understood as Divine energy directed towards a certain, singular goal.  We do not aspire to emulate these perfect beings, instead we acknowledge our imperfection while recognizing the power of Torah and mitzvot to keep us on an angelic path.  The Sh’ma declares our Beriyah-level awareness of God’s uniqueness and goes on to list crucial daily commandments, an overview of cause and effect and the importance of the memory of our slavery in Egypt to keep us focused on the gift of our freedom.
Finally we arrive at the highest world, the realm of Atzilut, the primordial unrestricted light before Tzimtzum.  What a gift to ascend this ladder of existential thought three times a day and stand in unity with the Creator of the Universe during the Amidah.  Clearly this is not a time to rush the process!  When in this deep communion I try to imagine Avraham’s first recorded divine conversation when he was seated at the entrance of his tent in the portion of Vayera.  It may seem like a chutzpah for us to bask in divine glory and then make the various requests in our weekday Sh’moneh Esrei, but just like a parent is so happy to give to a grateful child, so too is our Parent in Heaven.
Back to our hiking analogy…After a delicious sandwich while enjoying the heart-opening view at the top of the mountain, now you have to go back down.  Similarly, our siddur offers a gradual level by level descent to conclude the morning service.  On most weekdays we go into the Tachanun service where we pray for forgiveness, a mini-Yom Kippur to keep the soul whitewashed, and then corresponding to the P’zukei D’zimra on the way up the hill, we have a second recitation of the Ashrei and the Uva L’tziyon.  By saying the Ashrei twice in Shachrit and then once at the beginning of Mincha we are able to fulfill the three time daily minimum requirement that the Talmud claims will guarantee us a spot in the World to Come.  Finally, corresponding with the morning blessings back at the trailhead we say the Aleynu and the Psalm of the Day, restating our Asiyah/World of Action mission statement to use our efforts to bring our incomplete planet to a place of perfection that recognizes God’s sovereignty. And then the next morning we do it again!
Tomorrow we leave this blessed mountaintop and head to Ashville for the next leg of my tour. Then onto Denver for a city-wide outdoor concert and a few days of mountain biking at my alma mater, Boulder.  When I am back in LA I will do my best to retain a vision of this incredible view, the clarity of this blue sky and gift of dear, generous friends.  At my humble home on Livonia Avenue I may not have the magnificent mountains or extensive leisure time but God willing, thanks to my quaint morning ritual, I will soar to even greater heights in my daily ascent to the realms of Atzilut and beyond.

Can’t Beat Bitachon

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2015

by Sam Glaser

Emunah is typically defined as belief in God. According to medieval commentator Rambam, it is the knowledge that Hashem created and continues to maintain all creation.  Jews are not Pantheists, those who share a sense of wonder for the universe but eschew an immanent God.  Our legacy is the radical concept that there are no random occurrences, that God is intricately involved in every detail of history.  We see “acts of God” not only in famine, disease and disaster. One with emunah perceives that God is present with every individual on a 24/7 basis, loving us, hearing our prayer and decreeing our fate.

Bitachon is the next level of connection.  It means that you take this relationship on the test track.  It means that you are proactive in life but acknowledge that God is in charge of the results. It’s possible to have great emunah in God’s existence but then say, “so what!”  In fact, according to a recent poll, three quarters of American adults say that they believe in God.  The Jewish goal is beyond belief. The ideal is living every day manifesting that belief, or as I like to put it, walking the talk.  A ba’al (master of) bitachon has a feeling of serene confidence that the Creator of all reality is on the scene and doing what is best for creation. God isn’t out to punish. Rather, God systematically tests and tempts to enable us to grow. “Gam zeh l’tova” (this is also for the good) is the bitachon mission statement.

True bitachon progresses from the simple level where one might say, although things aren’t great right now, it’s all for the best.  A higher form is to be able to perceive that everything right now is good, even though on the surface, circumstances may seem nightmarish.  We don’t ask for tests or jump in front of speeding cars in hope of a miracle.  One with bitachon is grateful that God has given us a world with reliable, predictable physical and spiritual laws of cause and effect.  But within these limitations, the ba’al bitachon knows that no challenge is insurmountable with God’s help.  Rabbi Noach Weinberg used to urge his Aish outreach staff to remember that their strength comes from the Almighty; that the all powerful God who creates heaven and earth will assist in anything they might undertake, especially the challenging work of inspiring God’s children.  A master of bitachon sees his or her paycheck as coming not from the employer but the employer as a channel for God’s blessing.  Similarly, a disease is cured not by the doctor, but the doctor or the drug is a channel for God’s healing power. People with bitachon can easily avoid jealousy since they know God gives them exactly what they deserve.


The Jewish concept of mindfulness is really just livingwith bitachon.  You can tell when you are with a ba’al bitachon.  They are not fazed by life’s craziness, and are able to focus on what’s important and slough off what’s not.  Our sages explain that the ba’al bitachon is humble, avoids disappointment and never loses his or her temper. In fact, anger is described as equivalent to avodah zarah.  That term is usually translated as idol worship,one of the ultimate transgressions, but really means “strange worship.” In other words, someone with bitachon sees an anger-inducing situation for what it is: a test.  To lose one’s temper can only mean that you have lost sight of God’s omnipresence and master plan, if only for that moment.  Therefore you must be “worshipping” something other than God.

A ba’al bitachon would never brag about his or her level of trust in God.  That is akin to asking for a test, and one only need look at characters like Job or King David to know that tests can be perilous.  To further clarify this distinction, sharing one’s emunah is a great idea as it helps others to solidifying their faith.  Bitachon is a more personal thing.  If you are following this argument you may conclude that a true ba’al bitachon might as well retire.  After all, one can sit and learn Torah all day…God will provide, right?  Not so fast, say the sages.  Hashem blesses us in everything that we DO.  In other words, we have to initiate the blessing with our own passion, drive and courageous effort.  The word for this mandatory exertion is Hishtadlut (or hishtadlus in the Ashkenaz pronunciation.)  The best bet is to choose a goal, make your hishtadlus and know that God will finish the job, one way or the other.

Perhaps the best Torah example of bitachon is Nachshon ben Aminadav.  According to the Midrash, while everyone was panicking and/or praying at the Red Sea, Nachshon intuited that God would not miraculously bring the Jews out of Egypt only for them to perish at the hands of the Egyptians.  He took a serious leap of faith, jumping into the sea up to his nose and only at that point of radical commitment did the waters part.  The lesson is that God can part the waters in our lives, helping us overcome any obstacles in our lives.  But first we have to get into the water.

One of the benefits of frequent worldwide travel with typically tight schedules is the opportunity to test my personal bitachon.  The more I live on the edge, the more I have to rely on God to get me out of crazy situations.  Not that I look for trouble, God forbid!  I have learned that if you don’t break through barriers, you never get out of the box. Life is exciting outside the box!  A corollary is the idea that if you are never asking, you don’t get.  The Universe rises to meet your needs, to answer your prayers.  So ask for the moon!  I had an adventure last week that was a personal bitachon moment that I’d like to share.

About six months ago my famous cardiologist uncle helped buy a new car for his big sister, who happens to be my mother.  He is so enamored with his Tesla that he wanted my mom to have the same electric thrill zooming down Sunset Boulevard.  She has been making the most of this gas-free lifestyle and therefore wanted to take the car on the open road and try out the Tesla Superchargers that dot the US countryside.
Fast forward to last week when I had a series of concerts up in Northern California.  One of my stops was Sacramento, which happens to be where my mom and her brother grew up.  She called to suggest that I drive with her up the 5 freeway and then fly home at the end of the week after my other concerts.  We would have a lovely day together sharing the drive in her 0-60mph in three seconds race car and then she would drive back the next day.  That way she would have company for the car’s maiden voyage to the great wild north.  My mom invited all her old high school friends (really old, at this point!) and a few relatives to my gala concert at the new performance space at Mosaic Law Synagogue.  We rehearsed her McClatchy High School fight songs so that I could properly add them to my concert for the enjoyment of the alumni assembled.  She would bring the tuna sandwiches and I would supervise the soundtrack, choosing a setlist that would ensure that we could both harmonize the whole drive.

The day before our trip my mom let me know that we would have to leave at least nine hours before my soundcheck.  “What!?” I responded.  “This drive should only take five and half hours!”  She explained that the onboard computer indicated that due to the stops at the three superchargers we had to allot for the minimum waiting time…but not to worry since they were located in nice places to take a break.  Suddenly this leisurely day with my mom was looking a bit too leisurely for my impatient bones.  I prodded her into leaving a little later, promising her that all would be well…after all, I have bitachon that God wants me to reach my gig on time.  She didn’t buy it.  One thing is for sure…there is no arguing with my mom when she gets set on an idea, and I certainly did not want to add to her predisposition to anxiety.  Yes, I would just have to get up early.

That next morning arrived too soon.  I had so much work to do before leaving for a week and only got a few hours of sleep.  Mom arrived right on time and we loaded my gear in the surprisingly roomy car.  We sang our traditional trip song “We’re Off on the Morning Train” and sailed up the 405 freeway.  A mere hour into the trip we hit the Grapevine, a long mountain pass that sucks heavily on electricity as the car labors on the climb.  What I didn’t realize is that the range indicated on the odometer is sharply curtailed by excess speed and climbing.  Therefore, the Tesla Corporation wisely put the first stop outside of LA at the other end of the Grapevine in a fast food/truck stop town called Lebec.  Fortunately, co-located with the Tesla chargers is Yogurtland, a delicious do-it-yourself yogurt store that is kosher certified.

As we basked in the air-conditioned chill of the shopenjoying our treats we waited a half hour as the car recharged in the heat of a 95-degree morning.  We returned to the vehicle to find that my mom didn’t insert the recharging cable properly.  In fact, it didn’t get any charge whatsoever.  Oy vey!  She plugged it in more securely and we returned to the yogurt place to escape the stifling Central Valley temperature.  After another half hour, when we came back to the car my mom screamed, “Oh @#$!, I locked the keys in the car!”  After I calmed her down we called the Tesla dealer, eventually finding a service person that was able to unlock our car remotely.  I did a quick mental calculation…we would still be on time but we had to get moving!

This time when we departed I could no longer keep my eyes open.  I apologized to my mom for being lousy company, put my seat back and was asleep within minutes.  I awoke a mere half hour later when I sensed that something was awry.  As the street signs came into focus I observed that we were driving SOUTH on the 5.  NO!  I struggled to maintain my composure and growled, “MOM, what happened?”  She responded that twenty miles out of Lebec the computer flashed a warning that she had to return to the previous supercharger; she didn’t have enough juice to make it to the next one and the car would be dead on the side of the road if she didn’t turn around.  Now I could feel my well-developed bitachon eroding.  Back to the same charger, back to the same Yogurtland.  The lady behind the counter was giggling when she saw us return.  Evidently this behavior is not uncommon for her Tesla-traveling customers.  As we waited we called the dealership to assess the problem.  They told us that the only way to make it from one charger to the next is to go between 55 and 60 miles per hour.  That’s on a freeway where the speed limit is 70 and most are driving 85!   And how ironic that our speed for the whole trip had to be slower than the diesel trucks and yet we’re in a hi-tech sports car!

Clearly this celebrated automobile is not quite ready for prime time.  It’s fine for local errands but that’s it.  I made some mental calculations: I was expected in Sacramento for a soundcheck at 5:30pm and was breaking in a brand new drummer.  I also had to rehearse with the local kids choir.  Being late was clearly not an option.  I have been on tour for over twenty years and have built my reputation on being reliable and prompt.  I have never missed a downbeat…thank God!  Now what was I going to do?  Even with our lethargic 55 MPH pace there was still concern that we wouldn’t have enough power and the onboard computer kept sounding warnings that we wouldn’t make it.  Who wants to drive a car that keeps one paralyzed with fear that it’s going to die at any moment?  In spite of this predicament I somehow I retained a calm complacency that all was going to work out fine, that God wanted me to get to my show on time and would help us one way or another.  As we limped along in the slow lane I did my best to change the subject, all the while realizing that at the next stop I was going to have to hitchhike with someone who had a very fast car.  Electric vehicles need not apply!


The Harris Ranch charger is the halfway point on the journey and is situated next to a sprawling western-theme restaurant and gift shop.  I went straight to the middle of the crowded main dining room, summoned all my chutzpah and asked aloud if anyone was traveling to Sacramento.  Tourists from all nations stopped their meals and gave me an icy response as if I was a homicidal maniac.  Or worse.  Me!  I tried the next dining room over, to no avail.  I realized that I had to brave the heat outside the restaurant and wait for the perfect couple to emerge that might sympathize with myplight.  I let the families and non-English speakers pass and finally set my sights on a middle-aged couple that looked like good-natured Christians.  They replied that yes, they were Sacramento-bound so I walked with them to their car and explained my strange saga.  When they saw my mom and her ill-fated Tesla they opened their hearts and allowed me to stuff my luggage, keyboard and stand into the back seat of their brand new Mercedes C300 Turbo Coupe.  Christine was even kind enough to let me ride shotgun!

Yes, I abandoned my mom at the rest stop.  She would have to wait a full hour for the charge and quite frankly, she was happy to be rid of me and my urgent deadline.  I flew down the road with my new friends at 80 miles per hour as we conversed about Judaism, travel and life in the Navy.  At one point there was a multiple car fender bender right next to us that Ron deftly avoided.  We hit Sacramento rush hour and I deferred to Waze to find the most expeditious route.  At long last we pulled into the driveway of the synagogue at EXACTLY 5:30pm, the aforementioned moment that I promised to arrive.  A very relieved Cantor Ben welcomed us at the door, I did my soundcheck and rehearsal and then performed a spirited concert for the 250 congregants in attendance.  My mom made it right at showtime nearly twelve hours after leaving her home.  In the end she was elated that she survived the experience and got to share the evening with her friends and family. Yes, I lovingly dedicated my Blessing song to her.

Let me conclude by suggesting a few ways to transform emunah into bitachon. The first item on the agenda is to get off the couch and try something new, something that will fundamentally challenge you.  Otherwise, your need for heavenly assistance is minimal.  Another idea is to ask for whatever you want without fear that the answer may be no.  Note that in the above story, I got a lot of no’s before I got to yes.  I rely on Rabbi Jagger: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.”  The best trust-building technique is becoming one who is “la’asok b’divrei Torah,” occupied with daily mitzvot (commandments.)   Mitzvot are actually “bitachon bites;” small doses of divine serum that inoculate you from triviality. Rather, you live powerfully in realm of action with everyday affirmations that God runs the world and gave the Torah as the instructions for living. Finally, acquiring bitachon requires a humbling reality check: you must discern that you don’t have the whole picture, that your perspective is subjective, that only God truly knows why things are the way they are.

Gaining bitachon requires time, patience and daring. Next thing you know, you are sailing on glassy smooth waters in spite of stormy seas, riding an endless wind of God’s providence and love, or at least keeping your cool with your semi-adventurous mother on a near calamitous road trip.

Dear Yeshiva University of LA High School Graduates…

Wednesday, June 24th, 2015

A Commencement Speech by Sam Glaser

It gives me great nachas to stand here with you today. I have watched many of you grow up, either as your music teacher at Hillel or YULA, or as you have befriended my own children, one of whom, Jesse Glaser is wearing a cap and gown today.  Some of you are thinking that this ceremony is not a big deal. Some are here because your parents made you show up. Some of the guys are plotting pranks, some girls can’t wait to get the gown off because they think they look fat.

I chose to speak because I want to tell you that this is, in fact, a big deal.  Graduates of this legendary institution have gone on to remarkable careers in business, science, law and medicine, becoming powerful leaders in their communities.  Some even have gone on to become teachers and rabbis!  Most importantly, they have done so as proud Modern Orthodox Jews, fully aware of the presence of God, cherishing every mitzvah, seizing opportunities for chesed.  Because they are interfacing with society at large, they have touched countless others with whom they interact.  You’ll learn that it doesn’t matter so much what you choose as your career as it does whether you are a Kiddush Hashem, one who is sanctifying God’s name everyday.

At this point in your lives you may not feel that this is priority number one.  This is the peak of a period in your lives where you are doing the normal activity called individuation.  That means you are rebelling in your own unique way, distancing yourself from your parents and teachers, worrying about what everyone thinks about you, wondering what you are going to do with your life, struggling with a toxic combination of angst and shpilkes.  Leaving your parents and siblings isn’t easy but it’s necessary if you’re going to stand on your own.  Believe it or not, your occasional ungrateful or obnoxious behavior is a crucial function of your pituitary gland that serves to make your adoring parents want to throw you out of the house.

What’s next for you is the greatest, most exciting ride ofyour lives that you will ever experience.  How totally amazing to share this moment on the edge with you.  You’ll notice that when you tell anyone how old you are you will see a hint of jealousy.  You are in the prime of your lives, filled with optimism, ready to change the world.  Most of you will be spending a year studying in Israel.  That’s the best place in the world to be young, open minded and adventurous while learning about spirituality, learning about yourself and learning how to survive waiting in line with Israelis.  This is a magical time when you are on your own and yet you still have your folks helping with the bills and offering advice, even if you pay no attention.  People go to Paris to learn about food and romance, to Italy to learn food and art and to Jerusalem to learn about God.  It’s said that the air makes you wise and that access to God is a “local phone call.”   Around a quarter of you are going straight to college.  Mazeltov on getting accepted.  I will be davening for your souls.

You see, one of the problems with individuation is that Hashem can get thrown off the bus.  Separating from your parents is a good thing.  Separating from Hashem is not.  Remember the song from kindergarten?  Hashem is everywhere.  Loving you, giving you breath, keeping your body functioning, arranging all the unique circumstances in your life.  Hashem gave us our awesome Torah that is the deepest source of wisdom, insight and self-help advice in the universe.  Torat Emet…the Torah is truth.  Our Christian and Muslim friends understand that the Torah is indisputable and so, perhaps reluctantly, they must incorporate it in their own traditions.  Torah is the key to our eternity. Every mitzvah is a once in a lifetime chance to make that particular moment holy.  Kedoshim Tihiyu…be holy.  That’s our mission statement.  So don’t run from Hashem.  That just doesn’t make sense.

As you leave YULA, you will be responsible for your own nurturing of this relationship.  A relationship is as strong as the weakest partner.  If I think you are my best friend but you only call me back once a month, we have a once a month relationship.  God loves us so much that we always will be the weakest partner!  You have learned with your rabbis and teachers a profound 3000 year old system to keep this relationship on fire.  Are you sick of the Sh’moneh Esrai?  From now on, no one is going to make you do it.  Find those tefillin annoying?  Well, now you can just leave them in the bag if you so choose.  Or you can choose life.  You can choose to bring Hashem into your every day with a blessing over everything that goes in your mouth.  You can act as Hashem’s partner in creating the world by perceiving the impact you have in your heartfelt tefilah.  You can hear Hashem’s patient voice in every word of Torah that you learn.  You can touch everyone you meet by serving as an example of what it means to be a fully invested Jew.  Hashem is ready to make miracles for you, to make your life amazing, to hear your requests in your prayers and make your dreams come true.

Observant Jews live in a parallel universe.  We are totally engrossed in the material world and yet we are removed, separate, spiritual.  You have learned techniques in school and from your parents to maximize both worlds.  Modern Orthodox Jews have a particularly challenging path: we don’t throw away all connections with secular culture and the internet.  We understand that we have to be “in the world” in order to be a light unto nations.  Whether you realize it or not, you are all Jewish leaders!  People will see how you act and judge all Jews accordingly.  You’ll be explaining your dietary habits, your kippah, why you have to leave early on Fridays.  It’s not easy to walk on this tightrope and maintain your footing.  In college the balance gets even trickier with your academic mentors preaching secularism and even anti-Israel sentiments.  That’s why today is a big deal.  Your parents have spent a small fortune to put you in an environment like YULA, one that has empowered you with our eternal traditions to keep you on track.

Here’s another reason why today is a big deal.  Look around you at your graduating class.  These people are your brothers and sisters.  You have a lifelong connection with one another, a deeper bond than you’ll make with your future college buddies and business peers.  All those tough classes and school trips and demanding teachers and issues with the administration have served as the glue to connect you.  What you have with each other is real achdut (brother/sisterhood.)  And achdut is priceless.  We learn that our Temple was destroyed because of lack of achdut.  And the restoration of achdut brings us closer to our redemption.  Invest in your YULA friends.  Treasure them.  Count on them.  Some of your peers left YULA early to go straight to City College or wherever.  They missed out on this opportunity.  Take a moment to be grateful for the circumstances that allowed you to make it all the way.  You got the real diploma and not a GED.  Most importantly, you got achdut.

Finally, I urge you to keep your Judaism fresh. Judaism is a lot of work.  It can get tiring and repetitive.  It can be expensive!  If you keep a minimum daily requirement in your lives, like morning tefilah, learning parsha shavua and kashrut, you’ll know when you are losing it.  You have spent the past twelve years growing into a superstar YULA graduate.  Don’t lose it!  If you can’t find the motivation inside, do it for the wrong reasons.  Do it for your parents.  Do it for your rabbis and teachers.  Do it for your unborn children. Do it for the 6 million.  Even if you’re not positive that God exists, do it just in case God does exist!  You’ve probably heard the Gemara, “lo lishma ba lishma” (not for it’s own sake become for it’s own sake.)  In other words, Just do it!

So, my friends, thanks for your attention.  Please continue to give your parents and teachers nachas.  Choose life.  Live to the fullest. Be true to yourself.  Learn to balance “you-ish” AND Jewish.  That is the unbeatable combination that will guarantee you success in every part of your life.  The YULA Class of 2015 is a stunning, shining group of remarkable young people that will make the world a better place.  This world needs your help in a big way.  Stand proudly, YULA graduates, and know that you carry with you the hope of your families, the hope of the Nation of Israel and a brighter future for all mankind.

Engage the Dying of the Light

Tuesday, May 26th, 2015

by Sam Glaser

My father in law was an active music lover who regularly attended the LA Philharmonic, LA Opera and musicals at the Pantages Theater. He traveled the globe with his wife so frequently that we were never sure if they had disappeared on yet another trip when we couldn’t reach them at home. Six months ago he went in to the hospital complaining of stomach pain.  The doctor wasn’t sure how to alleviate his symptom but declared that his blood pressure was low and he needed an emergency pacemaker installed.  The next day the procedure was scheduled and by that afternoon he was comatose in the recovery room having suffered a significant stroke. It turns out that the doctor botched the surgery, attaching the lead wire to his vein instead of an artery and sending the resulting clots mainlining into poor grandpapa’s brain. The hospital staff couldn’t find the missing three liters of blood that they had to replace via a transfusion. Needless to say we immediately switched hospitals, found the missing blood in his chest cavity, had the unnecessary pacemaker removed and began the long road to recovery.

Six months later he is still not sure who we are when we visit. Instead of dwelling in his comfortable four-bedroom house in Marina Del Rey, he is the resident of a dementia ward in a nearby senior home.  He still has his sense of humor and can play a tango on the piano.  But he lives in a fog with no recollection from one moment to the next, no concept of time, no idea where his wife is or why he had been incarcerated in this lockdown facility.

My own father just had back surgery this week.  He had to shop around to nearly every top orthopedic surgeon in LA before he was able to find one willing to cut into his ailing eighty-five year old frame and repair three levels of his lumbar vertebrae. Yes, we are nervous and concerned. Thank you for praying for his and my father-in-law’s well being.  Your prayers matter! My dad’s back is just one of the multitude of maladies that wreck his days and keep him swallowing Oxycontin. For all his health issues he still maintains his Dodger and Laker season tickets, trades on the stock market and teaches a monthly Jewish history class.  But his pleasure in life is intensely curtailed in what seems to be a cruel downward spiral of Job-like proportions.

I share with you this saga not only to urge you to appreciate your moments on this planet and hold the ones you love.  I also want to analyze why we might have to endure end of life agony and force our loved ones to witness the indignity of the ultimate ride. According to our tradition, the symptoms of old age were given to us due to the prayers of our forefather Avraham. He and his son Yitzchak looked so alike that they were indistinguishable and Avraham prayed that God should introduce gray hair and senior moments to differentiate the aged from the sprightly.  I’m sure his beautiful wife Sarah was thrilled when she suddenly became wrinkled. Many sages argue that Avraham was actually praying that mankind learn the important lesson of appreciating elders.  So we can say that at least there’s a consolation prize to losing our ability to play tennis and surf…thanks to Avraham, we now know who to just honor, an important lesson in our youth driven culture.

Clearly God wants us to value our precious time by limiting the amount we have.  Just like absolute power corrupts absolutely, an endless supply of time might cause us to take it for granted and ironically, cripple our ability to get anything done. The importance of gratitude seems to trump the value of longevity. Furthermore, since our health is a temporary asset, God created a scenario where we have to suck the marrow out of every life experience while we’re still mobile.  Perhaps that’s why we have this unique human quality of having regrets. One might wonder why so many of us remain couch potatoes in our youth in spite of the fact that at some point most of us will wind up couch bound. In one of the ski movies that I scored, narrator-producer Warren Miller exhorted the audience to get out and ski or “you’ll just be another year older when you do.”  My kids, who assume they are immortal, laugh at me when I beg them to join me on a hike, bike ride or to jump in the ocean. They return to their computer screens annoyed at the interruption, not realizing that at some point they will long for the day that their dad wanted to take them on an outing.

Perhaps we must witness the demise of our loved ones in order to press us into real service and not lip service. After all, honoring parents made the top ten-commandment countdown!  What better way to demonstrate respect than when parents (who lovingly provided for your every need during your childhood) are now in need themselves. The mitzvah of visiting the sick is not for the sick…it’s for those doing the visiting. In other words, the mitzvah is for you to empathize with suffering, to reclaim your humanity, to feel vulnerable and to give. When your loved ones are really hurting you can’t “outsource” the care that you give them.  We have doled out shifts to be with my dad post-surgery this week. I could perceive this responsibility as a burden or as a treasured opportunity to be there for my sweet papa and to fulfill this awesome mitzvah.  When you have bedridden relatives and friends who really need you, human compassion transitions from the ephemeral to the actual; “The thought counts” is trumped by meaningful action.

Most of us are entirely focused on our careers or studies and find it difficult to carve out time for the acute needs of community or loved ones. When we do get called upon the subconscious reaction is usually, “what a damn inconvenience!”  God seems to throw these footballs in our lap so that we get off the treadmill for long enough to reassess our true goals.  Is it “he who dies with the most toys wins” or are we here to genuinely love and support one another?   Even the agnostic is filled with a sense of heavenly connection when he or she responds to a cry for help affirmatively. When I am vacillating between making the visit or passing the buck, I stop to think about what might be said when I am eulogized: that I pumped out yet another arrangement for a client’s album or that I was always responsive to those in need? Another question that we are forced to grapple with due the fragility of human life: Do we really want to wait until our friends or loved ones are in the hospital before we take out some time to be with them and tell them how we feel?

I live in the land of smoke and mirrors, otherwise known as Tinseltown or La La Land.  Hollywood is all about looks, about the façade.  Here, illness and death is hidden, spoken about in hushed tones and clever euphemisms.  When I walk down Rodeo or Beverly Drive I marvel at the carefully stretched grandmothers teetering on their stiletto heels donning colorful neck scarves and oversized sunglasses.  Who are they fooling?  These are the folks that will die in their oversized homes surrounded by paid caretakers…God forbid they become a burden or anyone witnesses their degradation.  I am only realizing now that I am fortunate to have this degree of intimacy with my parents and in-laws.  If they were to suffer silently surrounded by wealth and the detachment that it can bring, I would never have this chance to get closer to them and respond to the call.

Understanding the greater role that aging and illness plays in society can offer perspective on how to behave when it’s you who is injured. In the past, when I have been laid up, I have felt humiliated that I had to lean on my wife or kids to help me out.  It’s not an enviable position to be in a place of weakness or the subject of pity. Now I appreciate that my own malady gives others the chance to exercise patience, to perform acts of kindness.  I can use the same paradigm shift to be more compassionate with those who are down for the count.  Rather than see my dad as an accident prone annoyance, I can put myself in his shoes, imagining how scared he must be, how despondent he must feel with yet another system failing him, how preposterous it is that this one time captain of industry can’t walk across the living room.  People in pain are typically ornery, throwing out barbs, frustrated and hopeless.  Caring for them is perhaps the best way to develop the crucial character traits of tolerance and compassion.  With this in mind, the most difficult patients can be seen as the most important for our personal growth, testing us to not be vengeful or drag our personal agendas into their care.

Another aspect of the inevitability of death is that it keeps humans humble.  We can never fully complete the task.  There is always so much more to learn, to experience. We come into this world wholly dependent on others and most of us leave the same way.  That’s why it’s called the “circle of life.” Where there is humility there is Godliness.  It’s our relentless ego that voids our spirituality.  We grapple with seeing our once superhero parents become so frail.  Soon it will be our turn.  I hope that our kids perceive that we treat our own folks with humility and patience and will respond in kind when it’s their turn.  I hope that my wife and I merit to become seniors that are worthy of reverence and respect, that we remain emotionally healthy and peaceful.  I find it fascinating that just as my own kids become independent and need us less, that our parents are at the stage where they are becoming needy.  God continues to shower us with the gift of being needed!  Soon we’ll have grandchildren hungry for attention, God willing!

In spite of his maladies my father still jokes that he wants to come with me on my concert tours or ski trips. Daddy, I’m so sorry…I wish that you could join me on my adventures.  I should have insisted when you could.  I want you to be out of pain, mobile, active.  I’m so lucky that I have had a loving, supportive, concerned dad for my half century on this earth.  I’m so frustrated that my prayers for your well-being seem fruitless. I so value your wisdom, your perspective, your newfound love of impressive four syllable words. Keep fighting that good fight, papa!  Rage against the dying of the light!  I remember the demise of your own mother, how you just wanted to hold her hand in the hospital and not let her go.  Daddy, I love you so much.  I don’t want to let you go.

Teenagers individuate, becoming rebellious, indifferent, callous or worse, so that the parents stop clinging long enough to throw them out of the house and on to their futures in college.  It’s a force of nature that while challenging, is predictable and normal.  So too does God give us a body that gradually fails so that at the end of the story we are ready to leave it behind. This world is not the end of the journey.  It is but a corridor on the way to a brilliant future of our own making thanks to the acts of kindness and service to God that we accomplish while in this temporal form.  The “dying of the light” is all part of God’s plan. And the light of this world pales in comparison with the supernal light beyond.  God is good.  Life is good!  I say rage not…let us engage the dying of the light.

Minor League Jewish Holidays

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

by Sam Glaser

A summary of every Jewish holiday:

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

-Alan King

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

-Woody Allen

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

The 15/16th of Nissan:

The Passover Seders…it’s matzah time!

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

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

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

The 17th of Nissan:

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

21st/22nd of Nissan:

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

 The 26th of Nissan:

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

 The 1st and 2nd of Iyar:

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

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

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

The primary theme of Rosh Chodesh is the

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

The 3rd of Iyar:

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

The 4th of Iyar:

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

The 14th of Iyar:

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

The 18th of Iyar:

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

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

The 28th of Iyar:

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

The 1st of Sivan:

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

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

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

By Sam and Shira Glaser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For me the big priority is Jewish day

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

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

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

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

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

What are you thinking about in the mikvah?

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

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

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

How do you feel about davening with a mechitza?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, dear.


Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

By Sam Glaser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Asey L’cha Rav

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

 By Sam Glaser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life on the Fringe

Friday, October 31st, 2014

By Sam Glaser

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

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

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

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

My last Shabbat at the kotel was bittersweet.

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

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

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

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

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

“Clothing me in the shadow of Your wings

Shelter me in the comfort of Your home

Light of life, surrounding me with love

In Your arms I’ll never be alone”

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

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

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

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

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

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