Archive for May, 2015

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.