Archive for March, 2012

The Unbreakable Soul of Passover

Friday, March 30th, 2012

by Sam Glaser

This Rosh Chodesh Nissan I had the pleasure of culminating my eight-day tour of Florida with a Shabbaton in Cooper City, just north of Miami. Just before launching into Kabbalat Shabbat services I sang Auld Lang Syne. After all, we just concluded Adar, the final month of year in terms of the biblical count. That makes the transition into Nissan the true New Year’s Eve. As soon as the moon is full, on the eve of the fifteenth night of the first month, we celebrate our annual birthday as a nation. Some 3000 years ago we were a nation enslaved by a decadent tyrant, yearning for freedom. At the stroke of midnight that first Passover, after nine months of plagues, we emerged from the womb of Egypt to our destiny of freedom. The concealment of Adar gives way to open revelation at the Sea of Reeds and Sinai, and thanks to our remarkable custom of making an annual Seder, we still relish in the birth of the unbreakable soul of our nation.

The Seder requires that we relive the experience of Exodus as if we too left our homes for the hostile desert. The Hagada guides us through a plethora of mitzvot to be performed as we grapple with the demands of this gift of freedom. I can just hear my relatives in my ear: “we have to read this whole book, before we eat dinner? Oy vey!” Moses said, “Let my people go” but didn’t stop there. The end of the sentence, “so that they may serve me,” requires that we ask questions regarding the task of the Jewish soul. If there are no children to ask the four questions, our sages insist that adults still must ask them. The Seder’s primary purpose is to awaken the child within us and create a sense of awe and gratitude. Without curiosity and sincerity there can be no revelation. You have not properly celebrated this venerated holiday unless you have rekindled a sense of AMAZEMENT. The question is, in the era of information overload, media bombardment and iphone/crackberry addiction, how do we regain a sense of WOW in the realm of the spirit?

I think the best method is to remind ourselves that we have a powerful, unique soul, a soul that is the rider while the body is the horse. Judaism

insists that this body is no more than a meat-jacket that we must maintain with food, water and exercise so that it can continue to shlep the precious, divine soul on it’s mission. Throughout the year we indulge in petty material concerns and accumulations. Come Pesach, along with our physical spring-cleaning we have the opportunity to get down to the soul level in our worldview and interpersonal connections. Kabbalah has given us a window into the soul that is a perfect user manual that engenders pride in ownership.   For those empirical types that must see it to believe it, our tradition teaches a “five levels of the soul paradigm” that clarifies the outlines of the ephemeral self. In the interest of having a wide-eyed, openhearted Pesach, allow me to take you through the journey of these five levels, based on the teachings of Rabbi David Aaron and Rabbi Tom Meyer.

The first level is known as the NEFESH. This is an aspect of consciousness that we share with the animal kingdom. It is the basic life force, our instinct, our autonomic survival functions. But for humans it takes on a more elevated role. When we state that we were made “b’tzelem Elokim”, in God’s image, we are referring to this elevated nefesh soul level. As humans we don’t merely rely on instinct, we also have the deep-seated feeling of nobility. A dog doesn’t pee on your Persian rug in order to avoid a swat with a rolled up newspaper. We don’t pee on the rug because it’s just not the right thing to do.   An important aspect of our nefesh is our craving for meaning in our life. The worst form of torture

during the Holocaust was meaningless manual labor. Without meaning, our lives become living agony. Also, the nefesh is being expressed when we hear the voice of the conscience speaking, that fundamental, cross-cultural concept of good and evil. We know it’s inherently wrong to punch an elderly stranger in the street. Hollywood movies with heroes and villains sell worldwide because all humans share certain internal ethics. That’s our nefesh speaking. Darwinian evolutionists and physicists can’t quite explain why it’s there. But it is. And we know its voice like we know we have five fingers on our hand.

The next level is known in Kabbalah as RUACH. This level of the spirit is based in our quest for truth. It is a uniquely human attribute and words are the vehicle for its dissemination. What are we saying when something “rings of truth?” It means that our soul can intuit truth from falsehood. It’s the reason why our society rewards honesty and punishes the liar. When we hear that someone is badmouthing us with harsh gossip, it’s our ruach that is damaged. Having a good name means maintaining the integrity of one’s ruach. When it’s damaged by slander or our own personal shortcomings, it’s our ruach that is feeling acute pain. I think that’s why really great music endures forever. Our ruach soul hears it as truth, as something bigger than us, a taste of eternity.

The third level is known as the NESHAMA. Neshama is the generic Hebrew term for soul. But in this five level model, it is the idea of the power of our thoughts. We are affected by more than mere actions and words.   We have ideals. We have a sense of mission. A feeling that we have a special purpose, that each of us is

unique, in spite of the fact that we are one among billions of similarly entitled beings. It’s our neshama speaking when we pursue happiness. I’m sure scientists might have convincing theories about why we strive to feel in sync, on a mission, why we feel we are deserving of happiness.   But any true pleasure seeker does not need science to explain this universal drive. When we stop to think about it, it’s clear we have a neshama, a divine force informing our every motivation.

The next level of the soul is the reason that Passover is one of the most widely celebrated holidays. We love the traditions, songs and stories associated with our annual homecoming. We love spending time with our families and friends, engrossed in the powerful mitzvah of the transmission of our heritage. That, my friends, is our CHAYA. Chaya means life force and that of every nation is distinctive. It’s our chaya that makes Jewish summer camp so redeeming. It’s our chaya that gets us to services on Friday night. Yes, the prayers will be the same, but we just love to be with our fellow Jews and eat herring and challah. Germans have their own chaya. So do Nigerians and Japanese. One of the best examples of the presence of chaya is the way our sacred texts describe death. Our biblical heroes are “gathered to their people.” That’s right…we are all going to be gathered to our people at the end of our lives. Our chaya is that “pinteleh yid” or Jewish pilot light that gets ignited when you hear a great sermon or Chassidic story (or Sam Glaser song!) It’s your chaya that made you fall in love with Israel the first time you stroked the stones of the Kotel or walked down Dizengoff. This fourth level of the soul is so powerful that it transcends common sense in regards to the survival of the fittest; thanks to our chaya we are willing to lay down our lives for the love of country.

The top of this pyramid of the five levels of the soul is known as YECHIDA. It’s the identification with the ultimate universal soul, connecting with that entity we call God. Yechida is related to theidea of being separate, alone with another. The yichud room at a traditional Jewish wedding is when the bride and groom are secluded in an intimate space just after the ceremony. We’ve all felt yechida: those times when we are deeply connected and empowered and totally blown away. For some of us, it was the birth of our child. For others, a perfect ski run on the back bowls of Vail. Some find it in Yosemite or surfing a glassy, overhead, bowling wave. Ask anyone who feels they were saved from a potential harrowing accident by a miracle. The Seder is a fifteen-step opportunity to spend an entire night in yechida. We say the Sh’ma twice a day to remind ourselves of the possibility, just for that moment, to love God with all our heart, soul and might.

We can’t stay in the realm of yechida. We get momentary glimpses and then our ego pulls us out. Perhaps that is why experiences in nature get us there more easily…our egos are out of the way at that moment of pure awe at our wondrous surroundings. This Pesach when we mention the Jews united at Sinai, try to teleport yourself to the base of the mountain and personally witness the power of the fire, and smoke, the shofar blast and the overwhelming divine presence. Of course, in the narrative we didn’t stay in this lofty place…shortly after the revelation we were building a golden calf. Even though yechida is fleeting it is still of supreme value. Imagine you are walking in the countryside on a stormy, moonless night. True darkness envelopes you and you fear you will fall off the path. But every now and then a brilliant lightning strike illuminates the landscape. Just like you can use that flash to find your way, so too can you use your moments of “yechida memory” to guide you through times of darkness. I think God gives us these tastes of yechida to keep us close and give us comfort knowing it’s the world of yechida that our souls are destined to reach at the end of our days.

Any time I sit next to a self-professed atheist on an airplane, a short discussion of the five levels of the soul yields new vistas into feeling God’s presence, or at least into the miracle of our human complexity. I find the topic of Near Death Experience particularly convincing for the die-hard skeptics. The pioneer in this fascinating

field, Raymond Moody, interviewed thousands of individuals that “flat-lined” for over twenty minutes and then came back to life. Many report a multi-stage chain of events that parallel the description of death in Kabbalah. Commonly experienced phenomena are seeing their body from above, hearing everything that was going on and enduring a rapid review of their lives (much like the great James Brooks movie Defending Your Life.)   Some are met by loved ones and are then sent back or feel they must return to their corporeal existence to complete a task. Nearly all see or feel a powerful light that is loving and comforting. Our rabbis tell us that this is the “ziv hashechina,” the light of God, of creation. After all, the sun wasn’t formed until the fourth day…could this be the light that God stated was “good” on the first?

For the week of Pesach we eat a flat, crunchy soul food called matzah. The rest of the year it’s ok to live in the realm of bloated, leavened bread. But for this time of renewal, we go back to basics. Simplicity, humility, spirituality, in other words, the realm of the soul. This is the time to listen to our soul messages. To slow down enough to get on the universe’s schedule. To use the four cups of wine to get just a bit out of time and space so that we can enter our story, a story that is still being written. Just like a screenwriter asks for feedback from actors, God is hungry for our interaction. The rabbis gave us a Haggadah with more questions than answers and massive red herrings to pique our curiosity. I ask my readers to enter the sweet realm of childlike innocence, the place of wonderment, unguarded affection and openness. Remember the five levels of the soul and how the realm of the spirit can be even more real than that of the material. And most importantly, feel the outpouring of love of the Creator that has maintained and sustained us to reach this season once again, amen.

The Jewish Music Manifesto

Thursday, March 1st, 2012

by Sam Glaser

The Beginning

Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman started something big. Much like the Internet freed visionaries to rip away the barriers of industry, these two composers wrote music from their hearts and delivered it directly to the people. They didn’t go to a conservatory to get degrees in composition. Nor did they spend six years at a cantorial school. They heard music in their heads, translated it for the world to access with simple guitar chords and sweet, non-operatic voices, and hit the road to any venue open to their spiritual message.

Their music was not klezmer, the schizophrenic happy/sad party music of the Ashkenazi old world. Nor was it weighty like cantorial and choral works by Louis Lewandowski or Ernest Bloch. It didn’t poke fun at tradition or lament shtetl life like Yiddish Theater or Allan Sherman. It wasn’t yet another repackaging of the Israeli hits born from the legacy of war. This was genuine American Jewish music, made for the people, by the people, with its roots in the radical belief that Judaism is a religion of life and celebration. North American Contemporary Jewish Music (CJM) transcends the burden of the Holocaust and pogroms. It is the music of a people born on the wings of eagles to a land that has offered themunprecedented tranquility, success and freedom. It is the music of a profound and unprecedented byproduct of the 20th century: the optimistic Jew.

Thousands of young Jews flocked to Shlomo and Debbie concerts and memorized their songs. Over the decades, the very institutions that mocked or discarded these seminal figures eventually found themselves enraptured by their melodies. Their music captured the ebullient mood of the youth and of course the youth grew to positions of power and made CJM normative. Young Jewish musicians, myself included, saw them in the limelight and realized, “YES…this is what we want to do!” This generation included the likes of Craig Taubman, Julie Silver, Dan Nichols and Rick Recht, groups like Kol Beseder, Safam and the Moshav Band. These artists were compelled to create recorded music that exceeded the production quality of their mentors while carrying the same message of the spirit. Their success has led to exponentially more composers in the now up-and-coming generation, who are creating innovative music that combines the best of hip hop, folk, rock and jazz with clever beat boxing, looping and generous helpings of studio magic.

Good News

Today this renaissance has created a music market that is bursting at the seams. Many of the countless Jewish albums released every year are audiophile quality; whereas 20 years ago most Jewish albums were poorly produced, nowadays the majority are comparable with any releases in the secular world. Among the Jewish music industry summits are such conferences as NewCAJE, Hava Nashira and the Reform Biennial where songwriters perform their latest and jam late into the night. Soundswrite, a Jewish music distributor now under the auspices of the Union for Reform Judaism markets nearly 400

CD titles on its website; Mostly Music, associated with the Orthodox movement, carries the work of over 1300 different artists. Just last week the annual Song Leader Boot Camp offered three full days of training in the art form to over 90 young singers and composers. The main CJM online outlet,, boasts nearly 4000 songs available for download, not to mention the availability of the matching sheet music. “Jefe, would you say we have a plethora?”

Shrinking Resources

While the music business at large is suffering globally, Jewish music has its unique tzuris (pain.) Like all musicians, we generally pay our bills by virtue of our live bookings and sales of our music. After four years in the current recession we see that cultural arts events are often the disposable item on most synagogue and JCC budgets. Shuls nationwide are merging, most are cutting “extra” clergy like cantors and songleaders, and the transmission of the arts is falling into the hands of whichever parent volunteer can play guitar or wield a paintbrush. Our precious Jewish children are growing up without an awareness of their cultural history, their repertoire of music is stunted and access to active Jewish musical role models is increasingly limited. And that’s for the kids who ARE affiliated, who actually show up to the synagogue once in a while and attend Jewish summer camps.

A primary issue with the industry as a whole is the shocking abandonment of the physical delivery of music by consumers under 30 years old. Many young listeners do not even own CD players and have never paid for music. Their ipods hold thousands of songs “gifted” from friends or “found” on the Internet. It’s a great era to be a music consumer and a lousy one to be a provider. Over the past decade, brick and mortar record shops have disappeared with awesome rapidity. In the Jewish world, this trend is manifest in the disappearance of Judaica stores, and for the hearty survivors, an ever-shrinking music department. There are very few Jewish music distribution companies left and those that are still fighting the battle are finding that the profits are so low that it’s easier to walk away than sell their beleaguered enterprises.  This trend does not make the creation of quality new Jewish music less important.

Our silver lining in CJM is the possibility for widespread dissemination of our music and message via outlets like iTunes, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Spotify. Like never before we can get the word out about new projects, share behind the scenes adventures and concert footage with fans, and we no longer have to endure the tyranny of record labels or distributors dictating our marketing moves. That said, of the above outlets, only iTunes pays. My “day gig” is producing albums for a wide variety of clients. I used to tell them that they only had to sell about 1500 CDs to break even on production costs. That was based on the $15 per album that they could typically charge audiences after a concert, a goal that the average working musician could fathom. With iTunes, the breakeven point jumps to nearly 50,000 singles that must be sold. The new model has emasculated the long form album, the beloved collections that gave singers a dozen songs to make their artistic statements. Spotify, the rising star of subscription services, referred to as the “iTunes killer,” pays the artist .3 cents per listen. I shudder to do the math.


Sorry about the grim outlook. I have some ideas to brighten the future. My plan is to unite around an existing arts-focused non-profit and create The Contemporary Jewish Music Association, or something like that with a better sounding acronym. I will locate like-minded, deep-pocketed individuals who appreciate the musical gifts of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman and the revolutions that they inspired. These will be benefactors that understand that in addition to supporting hospitals and the hungry, we need to keep our greatest cultural aspirations alive. Under a single umbrella we will create a collection of entities that will lift the profile of CJM by providing publicity, enhance composing, recording and performance opportunities for artists and allow for unprecedented recognition for accomplishments. I plan to be the CEO, my wife will be CFO and we’ll hire a Jewish music loving Ivy League MBA as our COO. Overhead will be minimized and accountability and transparency will be top-notch. I beleive the effect on the Jewish world will be nothing short of radical, transforming it from an afterthought to a bonafide industry alongside our Christian music counterparts.

(See February 2012 Newsletter sidebar for my wish list of the initial twelve branches.)

I like to dream big. I’ve been doing so since the age of seven when I started writing songs about global issues and facing mortality. When I was twelve I started preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. I joined our Sinai Temple Shachrit Choir, studied Torah andHaftorah trope with our organist Aryell Cohen, and mastered Mussaf with Cantor Joe Gole who took me under his wing. I had to learn the portions both for my LA ceremony and the one that followed a few weeks later at the holy Western Wall. One night my mom recognized my accomplishments in that short period of time. She came into my bedroom as I negotiated our ancient texts and said, “Sammy, if you keep pursuing your goals like you did this year, there is nothing that will stop you.” Thanks Mom…I’ve been a workaholic ever since.

It’s tempting to walk away from the music business at this point. Most of my peers have done so. My guitarist recently said to me, “I’m just glad that I got to be alive when it was possible to make a living as a working musician.” The problem is that I have learned to love this small, underfunded CJM genre. I have all my eggs in this fragile basket. It’s not enough to help CJM to survive; I believe the Jewish world needs it to thrive. Rabbi Natan Lopez Cardozo teaches that the great King Chizkiyahu was supposed to become Mashiach and put an end to the suffering of the Jewish people. But he couldn’t sing and therefore couldn’t inspire his offspring. “There is no future to Jewish learning and Judaism without a song and a smile.”

Music unifies a disparate group like nothing else. In my opinion, meaningful, well-produced Contemporary Jewish Music is the most powerful expression of our people. Last week during his LA visit, the Chief Rabbi of the UK, Lord Jonathan Sacks told me, “Sam, more than we need sermons, we need your music to unite our people. You have the unique ability to take what has been and breathe new life into it. While Torah always stays the same, music must change. We need your new music, your shir chadash, to keep Judaism alive.” Chief Rabbi used two songs that I recorded in for his “Israel at 60” anniversary album that was given to over 260,000 families throughout Europe. He’s a powerful fan. I only reached him because I was invited to play a high profile UK event. I got that gig from performing at a US based event of an organization that sadly went bankrupt on the heels of the 2008 recession. If I were new on the scene today, I doubt I would have had the chance to make an impression. I’m so grateful that I’ve had the fortune to release over twenty CDs of the music of my dreams and travel to fifty cities a year singing that music for happy audiences. I think the next generation of talented Jewish musicians deserves the same opportunity.

Most of you are thinking…Sam is living in Fantasyland. Not true…I much prefer Tomorrowland. My friends, millions of dollars are given away by Jewish benefactors everyday.  We just need one. Theodore Herzl said “If you will it, it is no dream,” and look where that got him!  Thanks to Shlomo and Debbie for the music, for striving against all odds, for giving us a career and a dream.