Archive for December, 2009

Rights of Passage

Thursday, December 17th, 2009
Rights of Passage

by Sam Glaser
December 2009

ritesofpassageI’ve seen it time and time again. Your friend’s kid, whom you know since he was in diapers, is transformed into a young adult who can read from the Torah, lead a prayer service and give an intelligent speech in front of hundreds of people.  Other cultures engage in body mutilations, the hunting of big game or mock combat.  Jews train their kids to head a board of directors.

The mechanics of transition and transformation are mysterious and yet the results are palpable.  My Jesse, now a man of thirteen is vastly more responsible, thoughtful and capable than he was at twelve.  It seems that something more than chronology is at play here.  My theory is that the key word in life transitions is expectations.  That as a species we rise up and answer the call; in our spiritual DNA we are hardwired not to disappoint.

Perhaps the most universal and fundamental transition is marriage.  With a few words we leave single life behind and enter a committed, caring relationship, forever.  Incredible to think that for some, the night before the wedding a drunken bachelor party ensues. These vows are usually accompanied by a tremendous expense for a catering hall and a great band (yes, a band and not a DJ!)  On the most basic level, if one is spending all this cash he/she had better be serious about this union.  But operating on a deeper plane, the expectations and prayers of all assembled help the marriage succeed, offering invisible support for the partners to find the desire and strength to maintain fidelity and nurture their loving bond so that it remains unbreakable.

In “Supernature II,” author Lyall Watson investigates phenomena that are beyond the scope of scientific research.  One of his case studies involves the power of human will as observed at professional basketball games.  Many factors are involved in creating the home court advantage but Dr. Watson argues that the most powerful force is the focused desire of the fans that the ball drops into the hoop.  Harvard researcher Ryan Boyko studied 5,000 soccer games in the UK to determine the formula that for every 10,000 people attending, the home team advantage increases by 0.1 goals.

My brother Yom Tov is a Pinsk Karlin chassid in Jerusalem.  He has transformed himself from a dreadlocked, tie-dyed surfer dude into a shtreimel (fur hat) and robe wearing chassid indistinguishable from theYomTovGtrothers in his sect.  One of his good buddies recently became the Pinsk Karlin rebbe, the head honcho.  From one day to the next, he went from being “one of the guys” to conducting the tishes (ceremonial meals), answering shylas (questions) and performing miracles.  Yes, even performing miracles.  I am convinced that this radical transformation came about because the community NEEDS him to be the rebbe.  They invest their collective will in him, lifting him to great heights, giving him capabilities that even he didn’t know he possessed.

My career offers me momentary glimpses into the transition towards rebbe-hood.  When I show up in any given city for a successful Shabbaton or concert, the preparation is often very extensive.  Ads and interviews have been placed in the papers, my video is playing in the synagogue or JCC lobby, the choir kids have been learning my songs, my CDs have been circulating in the carpools.  The producer of the event needs me to be a smash hit.  The congregants come to the services and/or the show hoping to be touched and uplifted.  At the meals I am surrounded by those who want to share an anecdote, a musical memory or a crisis, or simply to find out if I know so-and-so in L.A.  I truly feel uplifted by all this attention.  It’s not an ego thing.  It’s empowerment.  And with that empowerment I can sing higher and longer, my workshops are more profound, my delivery more lucid and I am able to look into a new friend’s eyes and respond with the deepest knowing.

It seems that if we can harness the power of the “I do” marital transformation that we can accomplish anything in our lives. Maybe it’s a matter of enlisting others to stand behind us in our personal commitments. Just as we honor our word while under the canopy, so too can we honor our commitment to anything to which we aspire.  I would surmise that the reason that Alcoholics Anonymous is so successful is because the group with whom the ex-drinker meets regularly has expectations and is pulling for the individual.  But another factor in AA’s efficacy is connecting one’s efforts with Divine assistance.  In the text Ethics of the Fathers we learn that “it’s not up to us to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist.”  G-d is a most powerful teammate, but G-d waits for us to make the first move.

One of the first Jewish songs I wrote was Hineni (here I am.)  It became a summer camp standard and was recorded by many artists, my friend Craig Taubman among them.  In my fledgling Torah study back in 1990 IHineni Cvrwas fascinated by the common response of our biblical heroes when called upon for greatness.  Hineni, according to our master commentator Rashi, signals alacrity, the readiness to act with heroic zeal.  That year the Jewish community was mobilizing to aid the Jews of the former Soviet Union who were able to emigrate freely for the first time in their lives.  This seemed to me like my generation’s “Hineni moment.”  I believe we all are preprogrammed to be called upon and respond Hineni.  But someone has to do the calling.

My late friend Lou Rudolph was a famed Hollywood producer who found his “Letter in the Torah” while in his 50’s.  He got turned onto the power of Judaism and filled his days with learning, tzedakah (charity) and outreach.  Singlehandedly he mobilized our Pico-Robertson community.  When Lou Rudolph phoned, you took the call. And when he told you what he needed you to do, you said “Hineni!”  Lou had a heart attack in his Lexus and couldn’t call for help.  His wife gave me his wardrobe.  I feel his presence every time I don one of his Armani or Hugo Boss suits.  And I hear his voice every time I am about to go back to sleep and avoid doing what needs to be done.

We live lives in quiet desperation, waiting to be called upon to make a difference.  I believe that the necessity of daily prayer is to hear G-d’s voice in our heads on a regular basis repeating the mantra “I need you!  I’m calling you to choose life, to be great, to help others, to avoid selfishness and close-mindedness, to ask Me for anything you desire.”  In truth we are called everyday. It’s not just our friends and family that empower us.  It’s the Creator of the universe.

Life is throwing curve balls everyday.  This economy has so many of us in states of confusion, hopelessness and depression.  In a G-d centered universe, everything that happens to us is for our good.  Please G-d, let us find strength in our hearts.  Let us take the initiative.  Let us find new and better ways to express ourselves, to support our families, to realize our dreams, to leave a lasting legacy.

We bless our boys at a bris (ritual circumcision) by saying “just as he has entered into the covenant, so may he enter into the Torah, the marriage canopy and good deeds.”  A bris is painful.  We anesthetize the baby with a few drops of wine but he still screams.  Transitions hurt.  Remarkably, we BabyBrispray that with the same pain with which the baby has entered the covenant, so too may he go through his life.  Nike has it right. No pain, no gain.  In other words, no pain, no pleasure.  The opposite of pain is comfort.  Comfort is for wimps.

My son Jesse worked almost nightly with me for the past year to learn his Torah portion, haftorah and how to lead the prayer service.  He cried and moaned and quit and tried again the next evening.  Any good marriage requires hard work.  Attention to detail, self sacrifice, gestures large and small, carpools, changing diapers, taking out the trash and weekly date nights.  Every decent movie has an engaging plot, with a villain and a hero and challenges to overcome, or else we’d just walk out of the theater.

Each transition we face can be seen as a disaster or as an opportunity.  Try to see each test as a love note from G-d who believes in you enough to push you to the next level. The “right” of passage is the allowing oneself to accept pain as part of this loving process.  And to know that our friends, community, family and Creator are with us in the trenches, pulling for us, praying for us and serving as the wind beneath our wings.

Livin’ on a Prayer

Thursday, December 17th, 2009
Livin’ on a Prayer

by Sam Glaser
November 2009

bonjoviMax’s Bar Mitzvah in 2008 was a true peak experience for this doting father.  That year of preparation was breathtaking as we watched him grow up overnight and master a formidable mountain of Torah text, prayers and speeches.  We celebrated first in LA and then in Jerusalem.  Now it’s Jesse’s turn.  Working as his tutor on the material over the past year has created plenty of quality time for us.  My wife has laboriously organized a beautiful lunch replete with plentiful sushi, the Glaser family flag ceremony, and my Kol Sason a capella band leading the singing.  Jesse hopes to get some great presents and donate 10% to the scholarship fund at his beloved Camp Moshava in Wisconsin.  The big question is: what happens the day after?  Will he embrace his Torah obligations or will I have to beg him to wrap his tefillin on Sunday morning?  Will he see mitzvot as burdens or opportunities?  Will he pray with kavanah (spirit and focus) or just go through the motions?

Once in a while I join my kids’ minyan (prayer services) at their yeshiva.  On the one hand it’s sweet to see the kids participate in a self-led service.  On the other hand most of the students stand there like zombies.  They seem catatonic with boredom, turning pages absentmindedly and whispering jokes to one another.  I know the rabbis are trying hard to make it meaningful, but clearly the boys are thinking: “Why are we saying this again?  Why can’t I text my friends now?  When do we eat?”

It’s not easy repeating the same words three times a day.  SamPraySeattleBy definition G-d doesn’t change…yet WE are supposed to be different every time we read these prayers, with new perspectives and new concerns.  Most importantly, we have to keep in mind that we are trying to achieve a relationship with our parent in heaven.  Most would agree that waiting to pray on the High Holidays means that you have a twice a year relationship.  That’s fine for an acquaintance.  But that’s no way to maximize the power of sensing G-d’s presence every waking moment.  Prayer is a sacred habit that we acquire.  Everyday we show up and talk to G-d.  As Woody Allen says, “80% of success is just showing up.”  If we wait until we are really inspired to work out we’ll become obese.  Rather than holding out for that flash of inspiration, our tradition asks us to create a daily sacred space for the connection to flourish.

In my own davening I’ve learned that there are four steps to effective prayer. Prayer begins and ends with gratitude.  After all, the Hebrew word for Jews is Yehudim which means those who “thank.”  Our lengthy morning blessings and psalms of praise are simply to remind us of the wonder of life, to regain our sense of amazement at G-d’s constant creation of our world.  Everyday is Thanksgiving.  Step two is to ask for something specific, be it health, wealth, an asset, an idea. Nothing we request is outside of G-d’s ability to deliver.  Next we have to listen to our messages over the course of the day, to be aware when the Creator is trying to get our attention and most importantly, to have a readiness to respond or change in accordance with the message. Finally, we must give thanks and feel a sense of confidence that the prayer will be answered by a loving G-d who desires our prayer.

A case in point: I realized last month that it had been a while since I had written a song.  Usually my songs are the stuff of dreams; they come to me in the middle of the night while I’m sleeping and I must force myself out of bed to get them recorded before I can go back to sleep.  Well, I asked G-d to send me some great songs. Songs that would inspire me and my audiences, songs that might be marketable, songs that would fill the needs of the projects that I’m working on.  And then, like clockwork, the next morning I received a great song.  What a feeling!  Intro, verse, chorus, bridge, full arrangement and a vague idea of what the lyrics should be…all intact in that initial inspiration.  The only problem for me is that getting new songs is easy, like breathing.  The hard thing is to finish the song, to actually sit down and flesh out the lyrics, work out the piano part, to practice it so that it is ready to perform.

Unfortunately, that new song just went into the vast file of Sam Glaser’s unfinished work, joining melodies easily in the thousands on my computer hard drive (and formerly on legions of cassette tapes.)  You may notice that this neglect negates one of my aforementioned steps to effective prayer: acting on the messages.  Why should G-d send me any new material if all I do is put it in cold storage?  A new song should open new doors, awaken unconscious yearnings, create possibilities.  When I prayed the next night for inspiration I also committed to spending an hour at the piano when I was hot and inspired, pledging not to wait for the spare time to complete it that might never come.

Sure enough, I was given the gift of a song every day of the week.  That’s a lot of new material for me!  Completely different tunes, some with a Jewish flavor, a ballad for a friend who just lost his young wife, a musical theater piece, a kids tune.  Each morning I put everything on hold to work on them, including going back to sleep or wrapping my tefillin at the proper time.  I haven’t asked my rabbi but my gut tells me that postponing Shachrit is OK once in a while, that creating music is my true avodah (sacred work.)

Our wildest dreams are possible.  We just have to want them badly enough.  We have to be willing to “march into hell for a heavenly cause,” or commit to the sacrifices that might be required.  Daily prayer forces us to ask tough questions, to figure out what we really want out of life.  How many times have I performed in a community where after the show, members of the audience have approached me and said they wished they could have a deeper connection with G-d.  G-d is ever-present!  Surrounding us like molecules of oxygen.  A relationship is as strong as the weakest partner.  WE are the weak partner!  G-d is sending us powerful love and blessings 24/7!  It’s like wishing you could quit smoking or overeating or neglecting your kids. Change is in your hands and you have the Master of the Universe at your beck and call.

In the prayer workshops that I lead I emphasize that the key to powerful prayer is learning to perceive G-d in our everyday lives; to see the miracles in sunlight, cereal, sisters, cars and buildings.  One of the best examples of G-d’s maintenance of our every life interaction is to view the Truman Show movie.  Remember this for your next Netflix order.  Just like Truman (played by Jim Carrey) was surrounded by props and sets that were only for his benefit, so too are we surrounded by people and situations that are precisely positioned to teach us what we need to learn, to grow and to fulfill our destinies.  My Hollywood writer friend and teacher David Sacks points out that screenwriters need feedback from the actors to ensure that the screenplay is optimized.  So too does the master Creator love our feedback.  That’s prayer!  Telling G-d what you desire, what you fear, where you need help.  And then when you get a response in any form, be it an annoying person, a speeding ticket or a stubbed toe, treat it as the divine communication that it is.

Emunah, (belief) comes from the word uman, or craftsmanship.  It has the same root as amanut (arts and crafts) at Jewish summer camp.  You have to work at it, to craft it.  According to Rambam, we can KNOW G-d exists if we just investigate with an open mind.  He maintains that this knowing is a constant commandment, in fact it is the way we fulfill the first of the Ten Commandments.  Exercising our emunah is a primary reason for regular daily prayer.  It’s aligning our will with G-ds will for us.  After a while you begin to recognize that there are no “bad things,” just challenges to overcome and learn from.  Having true emunah is hard work and is fleeting.  Sometimes when you are suffering or blocked, I recommend acquiring an Emunah-buddy: someone who knows you well and can help you see the silver lining.  When we’re down in the dumps it’s hard to smell the roses.

The Jewish people have been praying with fervor for millennia.  Our prayer has created a world where basic Jewish life tenets have become the norm for Western society.  We prayed daily for a return to our homeland and our generation has the unique merit of seeing that dream fulfilled.  My friends, the sky is the limit!  We are a people who, as Jon Bon Jovi eloquently stated, are “Living on a Prayer,” or perhaps better stated by MC Hammer, “We got to pray just to make it today.”

Tonight I performed a Veterans Day concert for the LA Jewish community at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.  I wrote a rousing anthem in honor of US veterans that was premiered at the show and I finished the concert with an American patriotic song sing-along.  One of my old Hebrew school teachers was in the audience.  After the show we reminisced about old times and he remarked that the rowdiest kids with the biggest behavior problems (like me) grew up to make the most profound difference in the Jewish community.  I guess it’s possible to reach even those spaced out kids and class clowns that disrupt the minyan.  It worked for me.