Archive for September, 2015

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.