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.