Musical Thunder Down Under

October 26th, 2015

by Sam Glaser

When I started out in music my primary motivation was to get my songs heard.  That primal urge to offer shelter to the melodic offspring of my subconscious led me to open a recording studio, assemble bands, learn theory, practice the piano and take voice lessons.  A byproduct of the career that this passion invoked is a desire to offer a path to young musicians who are wrestling with their musical inclinations.  Establishing mentorship programs, music retreats and choral and instrumental ensembles is all part of this effort.  As a militant music advocate I maintain that basic music education is a crucial part of any modern school curriculum.  Somehow that truth seems lost on American administrators, especially in Jewish day schools.  When something has to be cut to accommodate shrinking budgets it’s usually not math and English; presently music education in both public and private schools is MIA or at best, piecemeal.

I just returned from a frenetic two-week concert tour of Australia.  I love to be utilized fully when I come into any given town, and my Sydney agent Judy Campbell made sure that there was very little downtime.  Keeping busy on the road is a good thing – that way I don’t get too homesick.  What I didn’t expect was just how moved I would be by the deep connection to music down under.  I found music everywhere.  Nearly all my new “mates” were musically literate and most played instruments, sang and actively patronized the arts.  From the guitarists in the pub to the Aborigine didgeridoo street musicians, I felt that there was a constant soundtrack to my wanderings.  I’d like to dedicate this month’s newsletter to a diary of my trip and the powerful impact of an education system where music and the arts are a priority.

After months of laborious planning, June 1st finally arrived.  My suitcase was carefully packed and my wife devotedly drove me to LAX, a bi-weekly ritual in our family.  I had to perform a Jedi mind trick on the woman who checked in my bag. It was over 60 pounds and should have been another $120 for the overage.  I beamed a friendly smile and kept asking her questions about the layover and she dutifully answered my questions while absentmindedly putting on the tags.  I did a happy dance through passport control.  I seem to have the same strange symptoms every time I leave town: twenty-four hours of the blues with the stress of preparing for the trip and leaving my family.  Then I get to my gate and breathe, light as a feather and stoked for the journey.  Sometimes I even look at myself in the airport bathroom mirror and I have to stifle laughing out loud.  “On the road again…”

I slept ten of the eleven hours on Fiji Airways to Nadi, Fiji (pronounced Nandi.) I was met by a Fijian four piece, ukulele-based band happily jamming in the terminal at 4:30am.  Following a second security check I prayed and did yoga in the transit lounge.  Ommmm.  I watched the sun come up over some green hills not unlike the windward side of Oahu…this would be my reward after two intensive weeks of concerts in Australia.  Once again, I slept for most of the 4.5-hour flight to Sydney.  No sleeping pill required.  All I need is a window seat, earplugs, tempur-pedic pillow, slippers and the drone of the engine.  The rest of the flight I worked on proofreading my new Jewish Handbook that I am so excited to be publishing soon.  Surprisingly, Fiji Airways is a fine, modern airline with in seat movies and kosher meals but every seat was sold out and I was crammed in next to a fellow broad-shouldered surfer.

My hosts for the Australian Jewish Choral Festival(AJCF), Judy and her husband Mark picked me up and drove me straight to the festival venue so I could check out the piano and decide on any stage diagram changes. The Music Conservatorium is a modern, cutting-edge music academy with astonishing rehearsal and performance spaces and more grand pianos than I’ve seen under one roof.  I was excited to see that I would have a perfectly tuned Steinway concert grand for my show.  Pianos like that simply suck the notes out of my fingers.  Playing them is effortless, with dynamics that range from floating through a wispy sky to crashing cumulo-nimbus thunder.

The Sydney afternoon weather was breezy with bright blue skies following the morning rain and the impressive downtown area was fresh and shining.  Mid-June means mid-winter in this part of the world.  We took a walk around the Royal Botanical Gardens and the imposing Government House built in 1837.  Children on field trips from their respective private schools were decked out in coats and ties and in the case of the Muslim academy, headscarves.  These outfits didn’t stop them from happily rolling on the grass and climbing all the statues and trees.  Eventually my gracious hosts nudged me back to the car to head to the North to get ready for my Shavuot late night learning program.  A habit I would repeat every time I got to the car: I would head to the front passenger door on the right side and my drivers would patiently say, “No, Sam, wrong side.  Again.”  It’s a tough adjustment to sit in the US version of a driver’s seat when there’s no steering wheel or brake.  Especially when entering yet another roundabout. The same traffic patterns are in force on sidewalks: one passes on the right and no, it never feels normal.

I met my hosts for the Shavuot holiday, Rabbi Gary and Jocelyn Robuck and two of their college age kids, Shoshie and Aaron.  They have a spacious, modern home that they custom built right next to their synagogue and now are selling since the proximity is making them feel claustrophobic. The shul dinner was excellent, prepared by Jocelyn and Pauline, both ex-caterers, and the singing around the table was inspired.  I marveled at how temple members were so musical…it was only later that I found out that the dinner was primarily for the Temple choir! Soon we adjourned to the elegant, recently renovated sanctuary for the evening service.  I opened the proceedings with my V’haer Eyneynu in honor of Shavuot and closed with Blessing.  I felt such a sense of gratitude from this congregation; this community uses my music throughout their davening and I received a hero’s welcome. Rabbi Gary is also a chazzan and he and the 25-voice choir try to mix up traditional music with new songs from throughout Diaspora to keep things interesting.  And it wasn’t just the choir that was singing; as soon as the rabbi would feature a well-known song, everyone assembled chimed in with spirited abandon.

I led a two-hour “How to Observe the First of the Ten Commandments” workshop plus some additional Shavuot insights. Shavuot is the holiday that seemed to be left out of the Hebrew School syllabus as I grew up.  Now I feel like it’s my personal discovery.  I did my best to inspire the congregation into sharing my enthusiasm for this anniversary of receiving the greatest bestseller of all time from the Creator of the Universe.  By the time midnight was drawing near I started to lose focus…jet lag was hitting hard.   Thanks to adrenaline and the open miracle of a second wind I was able to keep my head together and even deliver a semblance of a conclusion that wrapped up all my points. As we walked back to the house the rabbi queried, “At what point did you achieve a sense of certainty in your belief in God?” That comment got me thinking.  Certainty is a big word, one that I haven’t entertained. Yes, I suppose I am certain about God. I perceive God’s hand in the world and in my life everyday and evidently that clarity informs my lecture style.  Then the rabbi brought up the Holocaust as a typical stumbling block for most, launching us into a late night theological odyssey.

I opted not to go to shul the next day, grateful that I wasn’t programmed to lead the services. I slept a luscious, deep sleep and then davened on my own by the pool under the eucalyptus in their spacious backyard. After a hearty breakfast I headed out on an ambitious bushwhacking expedition.  Long ago realized that my favorite way to travel is to get as far from the city as quickly as possible.  Give me bush!  Back in LA I had printed a Google map of their Chatswood neighborhood so that I could reach a trail that I imagined would be in the “green area” by the bay a few miles from their home.  One thing you can’t tell from a Google map is the topography…sure enough that green area on my map was a steep, dense rainforest that plunged down into a river valley below.  No trails, no access.  Just as I was about to give up hope in finding a proper path I saw a turnoff to the North Arms Reserve.  Bingo!

I launched on a shaded trail to a beautiful fishing spot in the middle of Sugarloaf Bay.  I saw countless exotic birds including trees filled with brilliant parrots, rainbow lorikeets, cockatoos and these crazy crested pigeons. I felt like I was on the set of Avatar, and the complete solitude of the path made me a bit concerned that some wild Pandora beast would come raging through the fern undergrowth.  At the terminus I watched a recently retired 51-year-old banker casting his reel for Australian Salmon.  He said that they taste nowhere near as good as the Tasmanian variety.  Over twenty years working for the same bank and this ex-executive was feeling like he was on the set of Groundhog Day. He felt he had barely escaped with his soul intact…fishing time!  We had a relaxed schmooze for a few hours as I ate my bagel, lox and cream cheese Yom Tov seudah (festive meal.)

I returned back a different way now that I had the aid of some maps that were posted on the trail.  All told I was gone for six hours and I think I covered at least eight sweaty miles over ambling terrain. After mincha and a good shluf (nap) I enjoyed Yom Tov sheni dinner with the Robucks and an animated Hungarian couple.  First course was fruit cocktail and second course was three pieces of butternut squash tortellini and a salad. Elegantly prepared and tasty but I must admit I was surprised when the next course was dessert!  I made up for the void with mouthfuls of challah.  Once again we did a musical benching and then I enjoyed a mikvah with the rabbi in their percolating hot tub by the pool.

The following morning I accompanied Rabbi Gary on a three-mile walk to a neighboring shul.  Temple Emanuel is what they call “Progressive” in these parts and therefore doesn’t hold by two-day holidays.  We found the vast North Shore Synagogue sanctuary nearly empty and those assembled were very glad to see us.  Some of the choir members recognized me from my poster and insisted that I join them.  I think there were more of us on the bimah than in the congregation!  I faked my way through the various tunes that they employ for the Torah service and mussaf and marveled that I could be 10,000 miles from home, singing with strangers and yet still know most of the tunes.  Following a spartan Kiddush we were invited to Rabbi Paul Lewin’s home for lunch.  Both the rabbi and cantor of the shul have five children.  All were in attendance, which meant that I spent as much time on the floor horsing around as I did at the table.  Thankfully what looked like an impending storm didn’t deliver the goods until we were walking the final block of our long trek back to Rabbi Gary’s house.  That said, we came home wet and well nourished.

When I awoke from my much-needed nap I watched the Emanuel choir rehearsal and enjoyed my new friend Judy Campbell’s sensitive conducting.  Then when the Yom Tov ended I led havdalah and was picked up by one of the altos in the choir, Naomi Jandausch whose job was to escort me to enjoy “Vivid Sydney.”  Naomi was excited to tell me that she had walked down the aisle to Believe in Me from my Presence album.  She was enthusiastic company and my first time seeing Vivid was such a treat!  Can you imagine that they decorated all the landmarks downtown with wild light shows in honor of my trip?  I was so grateful for the good timing…one month every year Sydney lights up on weekends.  Innovative images are projected onto scores of downtown buildings accompanied by evocative electronic music.  Tens of thousands of colorful locals wander the streets to enjoy the sensation and of course, the mass of humanity creates a carnival atmosphere.  The highlight was the vast projections cast over the harbor to the iconic Opera House.  Naomi and I walked until we couldn’t walk anymore, shot plenty of pictures that will likely not come out and then found one of the few establishments where this kosher consumer could eat.  I sent sleepy Naomi home since I was fired up with energy to explore more of the town.  Thanks to an excellent light rail system I felt perfectly confident that I could find my way back to Chatswood.

One of my primary objectives that night was to sample a pint of the local brew.  I stepped up to one of the many pubs that I found on nearly every downtown block and asked for advice on a local lager.  By my third round I nailed it!  Coopers with a few limes.  I found a group of musicians to hang out with and they soon became my “mates.”  Thanks to a recent wave of bar brawls there is a new curfew in effect so when the pub emptied shortly after midnight I walked towards the Central Railway station.  When I stopped for directions a friendly Indian man said, “You don’t want to walk through the park, my friend.  You’d better go back to the Town Hall station.”  Grateful for his advice but reluctant to shlep even another few feet, I traipsed up the hill to Town Hall to find that the last train had left the station.  Oy!  Thankfully there were night buses that trace the train routes, only I had just missed the 12:30 bus.  OK.  More wandering for a half hour and then a bus ride and a dark twenty-minute walk to my host’s home.  Great night!

I awoke bright and early to daven and then was escorted by the ever-able office manager Pauline Lazarus to the supermarket in St. Ives since it sports a well-stocked kosher section. Australia does not enjoy the plethora of hechshered (kosher symbol) products that we do in the US.  One is forced to stick with the limited inventory in the kosher aisles, much of which is imported from the US and Israel.  Thankfully they did have an ample kosher bakery.  I filled the cart with food for the week as I was moving into an apartment hotel in downtown Sydney, Woolloomooloo, to be exact.  Then off to meet my Sydney band, hand-picked to perform with me on this trip.  I was thrilled to find that these five musicians were of the highest caliber and had come to the rehearsal ready to rock on all my songs.  We also had a three-voice background vocal section consisting of Josh Robuck, the rabbi’s talented musical theater-trained son, Judy Campbell and adorable voice teacher Andrea Catzel.  We slogged through the details of the set and then munched on falafel with all the trimmings.  Over the course of this two-week tour I would be followed by a two-camera crew documenting the experience.  I am grateful to Chris and Dean who were on hand catching every note and emotion of the extensive rehearsal.

Judy then drove me to my downtown hotel which featured huge windows with a view of skyscrapers, two king size beds, fifteen-foot ceilings and a full kitchen.  She then handed me a wad of colorful Australian cash that would be my thirteen-day per diem.  Nice!  I was one of three conductors invited to take part in the Australian Jewish Choral Festival (AJCF) and one of my cohorts, Boston-based Josh Jacobson was staying in the room above me.  I had to do some fancy footwork with the office staff to work out how to get in and out of the building over Shabbat.  Alarms and keypads were plentiful and just getting in the building required a swipe of an electronic card.  After a thorough explanation of the obstacles to my observance the good-natured manager gave me the master key to the building!  I could enter through the car park when a car came in and never have to worry about the front door or emergency exit.  See…you just have to ask!

I scrambled to get everything in place for Shabbas and then went upstairs to enjoy a delicious dinner with Josh and his spunky wife Rhonda.  We nurtured our fine Cabernet and enjoyed the city lights while we discussed music, travel and several rounds of Jewish geography.  Of course we did plenty of three-part z’mirot singing!  After Shachrit the next morning I seized the day to have a walking tour of this amazing city.  Under blustery blue skies I walked first to the incredible New South Wales Art Gallery.  Built in 1871, this is one of the most beautiful museums in the world inside and out.  I wandered every single room, taking extra time at the canvases of Australian artists with whom I was unfamiliar.  I then ventured across the hundred acres of perfectly maintained grass known as The Domain and found myself at the State Library of New South Wales.  A spectacular multistory nineteenth century room held books up to the rafters, replete with rolling brass and walnut ladders for access.  On the top floor I enjoyed a Canon-sponsored exhibit of the top press photographs of the year.

By the time I made it to bustling harbor side Circular Quay (pronounced “key”) I was tired and thirsty.  Who knows how many miles I had put on at that point in the day!  There, overlooking the ferry wharfs was a perfectly situated pub with outdoor seating and great rock and roll on the PA.  If only I had some cash!  Well, as I’ve mentioned, you don’t get what you don’t ask for.  I stumbled up to the bar and asked the young, blonde bartender for a pint.  And then I told him, “but thanks to the Jewish Sabbath I have no money.”  He replied politely, “well, then, I don’t think I can help you.”  He then asked if this Sabbath thing had anything to do with Ramadan.  “No!” I replied, “the Sabbath is the way Jewish people take a break from acts of creativity every week.  We step back from the canvas of our lives to appreciate the work of the Creator and not engaging in commerce is one of the ways.”  He pondered that point, looked this way and that, and poured me a glass full of that delicious Coopers ale.  Yum!

I took my pint to a nearby table filled with upscale young people enjoying the day.  One woman spotted my kippah and said, “Oh, you’re Jewish!  Shabbat Shalom!”  She then gushed how much she loves Jews, how she’s traveled in Israel and is certain we are the Chosen People.  She then rolled up her sleeve to show me that Isaiah 53 was tattooed up her forearm.  As we laughed and nursed our pints she and her friend made sure mine was never empty.  By the time I got to the Contemporary Art Museum I was less steady on my feet but perhaps more open to appreciating the wild assortment of images, films and sculptures.  Another great coincidence arranged for my Shabbas explorations was that this week in June marked the “Bienniale of Sydney” anniversary and all the museums were free!  The theme of this year’s festivities was a prophetic phrase emblazoned on many buildings: “You Imagine What You Desire.”

I took the long way home via the amazing Opera House and Botanical Gardens and then after mincha-maariv prayers got a ride to the Music Conservatorium for the opening of the AJCF.  I

started the proceedings with a rousing havdalah and sing-along.  Now I would be put to the test.  The eighty candidates assembled had notebooks with several of my SATB arrangements.  For the next sixty hours I would conduct the whole group in “Big Sing” rehearsals, form my own twenty-five voice Rock It Choir, teach workshops and give concerts both for the group and a gala show for the public.  I must say that conducting the first song that Saturday night was nerve wracking. I started working on the parts section by section and soon surrendered to the joy of hearing my music sung.  At first I waved my hands stiffly but then closed my eyes and “saw” their entrances in my heart rather than on the page.  By the time we had my Blessing song down I felt enveloped in a sonorous angelic wind that responded to my every gesture.  Wow.

The next day would prove to be one of the craziest marathon days in my career.  I’m wondering how the coordinators of the conference thought that anyone could pull it off!  I find that the rehearsal is often more exhausting than the actual show.  Try five rehearsals back to back, plus a workshop with a men’s synagogue choir that was looking to me for advice with their technique.  (Just sing in tune, boys!) At one point, Judy saw my frazzled state and said, “Why don’t you just walk with your choir down to the park and rehearse by the water?”  Great advice, indeed.  We walked to the waterfront at Farm Cove, formed a semi-circle and sang our repertoire, and then some.  Soon a crowd gathered and that awakened the “ham” in these Jewish ladies.  We segued from Israeli repertoire into Waltzing Matilda and Amazing Grace and then got the crowd to join us for some acapella Israeli folk dancing.  We were particularly touched that some German tourists were in on the fun.

By the time my sound check/rehearsal for my big public concert arrived, I was fried.  Nothing left.  I got through a few tunes with the band but was having technical difficulties with the sustain pedal of my keyboard set up alongside the Steinway.  I had sweat through my clothing and was barely able to be gracious to the hardworking sound guys and my patient band.  Since this concert was being recorded with a multitrack setup there was also pressure to get good levels.  At 7:40pm before my 8pm, show I turned to my benevolent handler, David and said, “I have to get into a shower, any shower, now.”  I abandoned the sound check…what would be would be.  David escorted me to a backstage green room and pointed out the shower.  Oh, the pleasure of a powerful blast of hot water!  I used the liquid soap from the sink and dried off with paper towels.  It never dawned on me how hard it might be to dry the center of one’s back with a small paper towel.  Still somewhat wet, I put on my stage clothes and arrived backstage as they were announcing the band.  We put on a great show, all things considered.  Thank God my voice held out, the choir was effervescent and I was told the mix in the acoustically perfect room was excellent.  Sold plenty of CDs too!

The next full day had more of the same: choir performances, rehearsals and workshops, culminating in a concert that was staged mostly for our own group and friends.  We all felt a combined sense of satisfaction and relief, amazed at what we were able to accomplish in two and a half brilliant days.  I had made a personal commitment to be there 100% for the festival and did not attempt to sneak out when my presence wasn’t necessary.  That said, when it ended, I left the final cocktail hour with a few of my choir members to enjoy the parts of Vivid Sydney that I had missed.  One of the grand illuminated buildings we passed required a human conductor to set the pace for the extraordinary light show.  We boarded a ferry and got an aquatic view of the Opera House and downtown ablaze with colors intensified by the reflections on the water.  Then to Darling Harbor where a Bellagio hotel-style fountain display was paired with a holographic film projected on a wall of mist.  Right in the middle of the show the rain came down but no one left!  Hundreds of umbrellas immediately opened providing shelter for all. These Sydneyites come prepared!  Half the crowd was Asian; I was told by a cab driver that their population has swollen to a half a million residents in recent years.

After the show we got a bite to eat and then the ladies headed home, leaving me to audition an Australian version of an American top-40 band and then on to a Woolloomooloo Irish pub where a trio sang gruff Irish folk songs.  The bartender/owner took personal pride in demonstrating the nuances of the beers on tap and the finer points of World Cup soccer on the TV.  As the hour grew late I made one more stop at a lively establishment on the block of my hotel where rowdy twenty-somethings were gathered around a jukebox singing at the top of their lungs.  Yes, they still have jukeboxes!

Tuesday was my one and only day off during this two week tour.  I was excited for an extensive hiking tour of the renown Blue Mountains.  Sure enough, I cranked open my floor to ceiling blinds to see that it was pouring rain.  I caught the train to the North to meet Judy’s husband, sax man Mark Ginsburg at the Linfield station where we took shelter from the drizzle under the awning of an amazing coffee joint called Café Feoh.  These Australians sure take their coffee seriously!  When Sydney-based Cantor Shimon Farkas came to LA before Passover I offered to meet him at Coffee Bean.   He said, “No, I’m going to take you to a place in Beverly Hills that serves REAL coffee.”  Well, I was slowly becoming an aficionado and can safely say that that morning’s mocha was the best I’ve ever had.  No sugar required!  We walked back to Mark’s home while the clouds dissipated and played some groovy piano-soprano sax improvised meanderings and then boarded his zippy Audi Quattro for West Head.  This would be a more coastal (and hopefully drier) version of the hike we originally planned.  We wound through a gorgeous wilderness area taking care not set off any photo speed traps on the way.  I wouldn’t survive a town with such tightly controlled traffic enforcement!  We then embarked on a five-mile loop that followed bluffs to beaches and featured caves and ancient kitchens with aboriginal art.

We returned just as darkness fell.  Sunset in LA mid-June is about 7:45pm.  Here it’s at 4:30!  One must plan their day in outback carefully during the Southern Hemisphere winter.  Back at the Ginsburg home we jumped into their Jacuzzi perfectly situated on a back deck overlooking the bush.  Following a few beers and good conversation we dined on tuna sandwiches (keeping kosher isn’t always glamorous!) and I boarded a train back to the city.  I went straight to Town Hall and enjoyed a brisk walk along popular George Street up to the harbor.  I shot some glowing night shots of skyscrapers and the Harbor Bridge and then continued up to the tip of the peninsula where the Opera House holds court.  What good fortune that on my free night my childhood keyboard hero Chick Corea and vibes master Gary Burton were playing this storied venue.  I got in line for tickets and overheard the attendant stating that there were only a few seats left in the nearly 6000 capacity hall.  It dawned on me that if Chick were playing in LA he would barely fill a 200 seat club and the place would be half empty for the second set!  There was a woman in line next to me and I nodded that she could go ahead.  She responded that she wasn’t there to buy a ticket…she had one to sell.  I told her, “well I need one ticket!”  She said, “ok, is half price alright?”  I picked up the ticket for $50 and she said, “you’ll like these seats…you’re in the stalls.”  From that description, as far as I knew, I was over by the bathrooms.  But when I presented my ticket to the usher he marched me down to the third row, right in front of Chick’s keyboard.  Yes, God loves me!

Chick and Gary played a set of epic instrumentalsynchronicity that left the audience breathless.  I noted that the crowd was the best behaved that I had ever seen.  No catcalls, no standing ovations, just polite, warm applause all night.  I befriended the blokes around me and they made sure that I had a beverage at intermission and wouldn’t accept my money.  After the show I walked along the waterfront to the Opera House bar where I met members of the Swiss thrash metal band Coroner who were on tour down under.  No, I had never heard of them either.  It’s remarkable what nice guys they were given that they blast death rock for slamdancing skinhead crowds as a matter of habit.  I took the train to my hotel via the nightspot Kings Cross, the closest stop to Woolloomooloo.  At this late hour, on a Tuesday night, there wasn’t much action except for hash-smoking backpackers lighting up outside their hostels.  That night I turned on the TV for the first time.  Plenty of Australian shows with amusing Australian commercials.  Nice to see that there is significant broadcasting base of home-brew content and that Aussies are not dependent on Hollywood for entertainment.  That said, most of the typical American fare could be found for those homesick for Yank accents.

I had made plans early Wednesday morning with chorister Antony Milch who promised me a kayak adventure at dawn.  His day job is working as a psychiatrist and as we paddled through the sunrise over chilly Balmoral Bay he told me some of the harrowing work he does with broken and abusive families.  Kayaking is his escape.  He had all the requisite waterproof gear for me to enjoy the incredible scenery without suffering and we made it to a lone beach with a prominent rock to climb for an imperial view of a fading rainbow.  Thankfully we were in double kayak so when my arms were giving out after an hour of paddling I left it to him to retain our momentum.  Upon stashing the craft back on his car we headed up to St. Ives where I had a performance with the students of Masada grade school.  I first worked with about 200 kids in the younger grades and then a second workshop with the older students.  Then we put on a show for the whole student body with the kids joining me on vocals.  I loved hearing their accents on my songs, particularly the “repeat after me” verses of Unbreakable Soul. I felt like I was feeding in an American accent and I’d get the Aussie version at the other end of the machine.  The kids were respectful and somewhat awestruck.  When I finished I joined the crowd on the floor and was literally mobbed by hundreds of kids wanting a high five.  What fun!

Judy and Mark invited me to join Josh and Rhonda Jacobson for a delicious Chinese dinner to celebrate the Jacobson’s last night in town.  We were joined by Helene and Tony Abo who wanted to get in on the festivities since Tony had gone to elementary school with me before his family moved to Sydney.  Following our feast I sought out some jazz in town.  For such a musical place with so many musicians, Sydney is way under gunned in terms of live concert venues.  I heard a few singer-songwriters in pubs and a few cover bands, but there is no “scene.”  This town needs a 6th Street or Frenchmen Street badly!  I did find Club 505 on the web which was only a few miles from where we were dining.  About twenty jazz fans were enjoying the vocal stylings of Lionel Cole, Nat’s nephew.  A fine jazz trio backed him up and he took us through an eclectic songbook of jazz and pop standards with just the right amount of twist to make them interesting.  At the break I schmoozed with the players at the bar: they all knew the musicians from my local Sydney band and Lionel promised to come by my studio when he came back to LA.  In the meantime, he was perfectly content living half the year in the Paddington suburb of Sydney.  I think he enjoys being the only African American for miles and has found a great niche for his music and humor.

Early Thursday morning Judy picked me up for yet another school where I was to meet with high school musicians interested in learning about music career choices.  I gave the Mt. Sinai class the standard line I give young people when they come by my studio looking for connections:  it’s a tough business, and it’s getting tougher every year.  That said, it is so fulfilling doing what you love for a living.  So do what you love!  Be the best in your niche.  Nail your instrument, let your voice soar, get your music recorded, always be ready to deliver when opportunity strikes.  Some of the girls sang for me…undeniable talent in this town!  I performed a rowdy school-wide assembly concert and then Judy rushed me out to grab a quick bit to eat so that we would have time for a hike in Galston Gorge.

We stopped at nearby Katzy’s restaurant in Bondi, one of the only fleishig places in the city.  As I ordered my mix grill shwarma I heard a familiar voice next to me.  I peered around his shoulder…sure enough…my dear friend David Wolfe from Virginia Beach, VA.   Here in Australia.  The only other customer in this restaurant 13,000 miles away from his home.  I had just emailed him the week before about the upcoming High Holidays where I will be returning to serve as chazzan in his synagogue.  And here he was with an answer, in person!  Amazing.  His wife Helen came down to the restaurant when she heard I was there.  The Wolfes have one of the only kosher homes in Virginia Beach so needless to say, we’ve become close!  David’s sister lives in Bondi and he’s here for a week visiting…and now the whole mishpocha is coming to my show Saturday night!  After our reunion meal, Judy and I drove an hour north to the gorge, a wild hairpin road through the bush with a three space parking area at the base of the canyon.  It took us a few attempts to find a proper trail but we eventually wound up on a leg of the Great North Walk, which winds over a hundred miles from Sydney to Newcastle.  As kookaburra hooted overhead we explored the misty Australian Blue Gum forest and shared our stories. Nothing like a good hike to connect with a friend…this was the first time I caught Judy without twenty details on her mind.

We arrived at the Galston Gorge retreat just as the sun became a infernal ball of magenta on the tree-lined horizon.  120 high school kids from the Emanuel School were in the midst of an activity-filled music camp week at this beautiful, rustic setting.  Of the 800 students in the institution, 200 are musicians.  The school employs a full time staff of five music teachers and twenty-two part time specialists to handle their instrumental and choral needs.  They have jazz bands, classical ensembles, choirs and rock bands, with stiff competition to get a chair in the elite groups.  All this and I can barely get a half a dozen musicians to show up for the high school jazz ensemble I lead back in LA.  And my position is at risk of elimination due to budget cuts.  The difference in our continents is staggering, and our US students are suffering as a result.  The benefits of music to the developing mind and mentality are well documented.  The resulting cohesion and discipline acquired by participating in such a group is difficult to achieve in any other educational format.  Not to mention the joy of having a lifelong skill on an instrument and a deeper appreciation for music of all genres.  Don’t get me started.

I was scheduled as the official concert entertainment during their free night.  After devouring a deli dinner they brought for me (sparing me the cafeteria slop) I quickly worked with members of the top jazz band and assorted teachers and found multiple places to integrate them in my show.  I also heard that the Jr. choir had mastered Feeling Groovy and Uzi Svika Pick’s Shema Yisrael so of course I featured (or shall we say embarrassed) them.  The students packed the house, the musicians nailed their parts and their in-house soundman did a masterful job with my mix.  Thankfully Mark Ginsburg was on hand with his sax and his video camera.  As is my custom, I finished off my hour plus set with a rowdy hora that culminated in a sweaty mosh pit that left their teachers wondering about my sense of responsibility.  All the adults finished off the night with an fireside hang in the faculty lounge.  I seized the opportunity to learn about the music program and how it evolved.  While we sipped fine wine we listened to old school Australian jazz records on an audiophile NAD stereo system that the soundman schlepped to camp.  A perfect end to an amazing day.


Friday morning I awoke after too short a night of sleep, prayed, showered, shaved, packed my bags and loaded up Judy’s car for my final school show.  Thank God this was just a twenty-minute mini show at the K-12th Grade Moriah College near Bondi.  I watched in awe as my warm up act, a fifteen-piece middle school jazz band, performed Rock Around the Clock replete with a choir and dancers.  Then the principal aired my Dancing in Jerusalem YouTube video which the kids had been enjoying since Yom HaAtzmaut.  The 300 middle schoolers sang the chorus at the top of their lungs when the principal announced, “And now all the way from Los Angeles, our big surprise, Jewish rock star Sam Glaser!”  The kids were shocked to see me amble out on stage and lead them in the song with the soundtrack playing behind me.  I then regaled the suit and tie-wearing youngsters with rowdy versions of Shabbas, Sukkah’s on Fire, Unbreakable Soul and Uvenei Yerushalayim.  Had they not been so elegantly dressed I would have stage dived.

After the assembly a music teacher gave me a tour of the two fully equipped music labs, recording studios, orchestra halls and practice rooms.  Another jaw-dropping musical moment as I heard melodious cacophony in every hallway.  Yes, they have 1500 students at this school and therefore the economy of scale to host the most outrageous school music program I have ever witnessed.  Somehow I know that an LA or NY based yeshiva of the same size MIGHT have an ill-equipped music teacher on the staff schlepping around his own Casio keyboard.

Judy dropped me back at my new hotel, the upscale Meriton Apartments in Bondi Junction.  Much to my chagrin the room wasn’t ready.  I changed into my bike shorts in the compact lobby bathroom, placed my fins and wetsuit in a plastic bag and put my luggage in storage.  I walked a mile to a local bike shop hoping to rent a bike to ride the five miles to Bondi Beach.  Always call first!  The shop only sold bikes…no rentals.  Now there’s a business opportunity…I learned that there are two rental shops serving a city of four million!  Next gaffe: I waited for a bus on the wrong side of the street, then found someone to set me straight and when the 333 finally arrived they only accepted prepaid tickets.  Oy vey!  Off to a shop to buy said tickets, waited for the next bus and finally made my way down to the picture perfect crescent of Bondi Beach.  The beach break waves were head high and peaky with a consistent offshore breeze cleaning up the faces.  I rented a board and walked a mile in my wetsuit to a highly recommended nearby break called Tamarama.  Pumping overhead sets breaking on rocks.  A bit much for this tourist.  I saw the locals pulling out mere feet from ruin on the exposed reef.  Back to Bondi.  Finally, victory after a morning of frustration.  Two hours of great sets, steep drops and plenty of smiling Aussies to chat with in between.

After returning my board I walked the Bondi-Bronte beach path, snapping countless pictures of the aqua-blue water crashing on mossy rocks, skateboarders and surfers, first dates and families.  The sun was intermittently breaking through the grey stratus layer of clouds providing a rich backdrop to the colorful scene.  I emerged on a steeply pitched street at the end of the walk and asked a scruffy Scotsman where one might catch the bus up to Centennial Park.  He said, “You don’t need a bus, hop in my car!”  He and his son interviewed me as they schlepped me up to town and helped me search around the Central Park-size recreation spot for the bike rental.  Septuagenarian Stu offered me a fine hybrid with a perfect geometry for my 6’3 frame and off I went on a smooth cruise around the three-mile loop.  Other than the occasional horse and rider and vagabond swan I enjoyed the wide-open bike path unmolested.  Upon my return Stu gave me an Australian vocabulary quiz.  They seem to understand most of our American slang whereas most of theirs left me scratching my head.  Most importantly, I know now to call my fanny-pack a bum-bag.

Needless to say I was exhausted after the two-mile walk to my hotel from the park bike rental. My eighth floor, five-star ultramodern 1200 square foot room was now ready, with views from every window.  Minor detail: the heat, internet and phone didn’t work throughout my stay regardless of how I prodded the staff.  I quickly unpacked and showered, remembering just before Shabbas started to check Google for the route to Central Synagogue where I would be leading a Shabbaton.  Thankfully I saw plenty of men in black as they marched towards mincha.  Central is a synagogue of awesome proportions.  When the previous building burned to the ground in the 1990’s, among the congregants who helped with the audacious rebuild was Westfield Mall’s owner Frank Lowy.  My fellow conductor from the AJCF Russell Ger was leading the sixteen voice men’s choir accompanying the strident call to prayer of master chazzan Shimon Farkas.  I found out that the former chief rabbi of Israel, Shlomo Amar, was on hand to give the d’var Torah that night, and for that reason my youth service had been cancelled.  Oh well!  I think I had sung enough at this point.  Just as I collapsed in my comfortable chair, Russell approached and insisted that I join the choir.  Twist my arm.

Following the celebratory davening and the rabbi’s oration on Parshat Shelach, Shimon and Veronica Farkas joined me for a spectacular meal at Rabbi Friedman’s home.  The singing and spirit was intoxicating as was the fine Australian merlot.  I walked (or rolled) home to my hotel and found that the ground floor door to the stairwell was now locked.  I had been assured that it wouldn’t be.  Eventually a couple came along that volunteered to stop by the fourth floor reception desk to tell security that a strange Jewish man couldn’t ride the elevator for some reason and needed to get into the stairwell.  That night I enjoyed yet another surfing dream, in this chapter the waves got bigger and bigger until they were swallowing the condominiums on the shore.

The next day I returned to Central for a lovely Shachrit that featured a Bar Mitzvah for a state politician’s handsome son. I was surprised that the vacuous room was only 1/10th full. Of course the dairy Kiddush was epic and featured cheesecake, lox and chocolate mousse.  The chazzan adopted me once again.  For a man who seems so pompous in his enormous black robe and tallis on a five-foot high center bimah, he is a smiling, suave, fun-loving friend.  He and his wife Veronica escorted me about two miles to their daughter’s high-tech home where we feasted on Middle Eastern delicacies.  They have four gorgeous daughters and a treasured infant son. I’m told that everyone in the family is musical.  Naturally!  After lunch I walked back the few miles on an alternate route that required that I find my way up and down a significant canyon.  Are you getting the message that I put on a few miles on this crazy trip?  I had to pull the same shenanigans to get back into the hotel stairway and eventually got back to my cozy king size bed for a deep Shabbas nap.

I awoke just on time to wet my hair and cart my CDs over to the Central Shul for my gala Motzei Shabbas melava malka concert.  Every seat in the house was full and I gave an energetic yet relaxed show filled with humor and anecdotes from my Australian adventures.  Cantor Farkas sat in on Adon Olam, a lovely violinist accompanied Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and a posse of ladies from my Rock It Choir materialized to join me on the songs that they had perfected during the AJCF.  I had asked Rabbi Wolf, a Chabadnik leading this very Modern Orthodox shul, if I could invite the ladies on stage.  No, that would not be appropriate, they would have to sing from their seats.  Oy. On hand were David and Helen Wolfe from Virginia with their Aussie mishpocha in tow.  Perhaps it was the nap or the favorable humidity but I must say that my voice felt invincible and I was surprised to be hitting notes that I can’t always get to, especially after weeks of constant use.

Yes, I am glutton for punishment.  I realized that this was essentially my last night in town and I wanted to wander the central business district to have a pint and shop for souvenirs.  I caught the train right under my hotel to the central station and wandered for a few hours.  Once again I caught some drunken karaoke where a few of the inebriated singers could actually sing!  As I stepped out of the club onto the pavement I felt a sharp pain in my lower shin on my left leg.  Serious ouch.  I had to sit down on the sidewalk and found that applying any pressure made me wince. OK.  Now I know my limits.  I managed to limp to a grocery store for supplies and then back to Town Hall where I caught the night bus back to my hotel.  What was I thinking!  Why didn’t I just go to bed.  Oy vey!  I hobbled up to my room and reviewed my notes for the two lectures I was giving the next day.  In my heart I knew I really hurt myself and it wasn’t going to just go away.

The next morning the pain was worse.  I was driven to the campus of the University of New South Wales to lead the community in the annual Yom Limmud day of learning and song.  Fortunately all the events were in a single building…I couldn’t walk more than twenty feet without incident.  Needless to say I did my morning kids concert seated rather than standing but still managed to motivate the group to a dancing frenzy and of course the Soap Soup Ice Cream chant.  I then taught my Life and Legacy of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach workshop.  I peppered the lecture notes with a chronological overview of his best-known songs and the packed hall sang with glee.  Following a pareve lunch of quiche and salad I offered a second class, this time my Across the River workshop.  This course discusses my own methods of incorporating text in song, Jewish music as a teaching tool and the power of music to access the soul.  I sold the last of the boxes of CDs that I brought with me to Australia and then Judy returned me to my hotel room for packing and pondering.

As I ruminated about my injury I filled my suitcases and wondered how I was going to make through Fiji with this handicap.  The whole idea of this four-day addendum to my Australia adventure was to reward myself with a tropical feast of turquoise warm water, big wave surf and scuba.  I must admit I was getting more and more depressed as I lay in bed unable to fall asleep in spite of my impending 3:30am wake up call.  I must have nodded off eventually.  3:30 came quickly and I gathered my belongings, performed an idiot check around the hotel room and met my jovial cab driver from Ghana.  He was sad to tell me that the USA beat Ghana in the World Cup game that day.  Thanks to the empty pre-dawn roads we arrived at the airport in a brief twenty minutes, setting me back fifty bucks.

I could barely handle my luggage as I limped through the enormous terminal in search of Fiji Airways.  The cabbie had dropped me off at the door farthest from the proper check in desk.  When I arrived it was empty.  What, I didn’t hear that the flight had been cancelled?  NO!  I did not!  And I called in to check the night before!  Now my depression was sliding towards abject misery.  No flights for hours.  I was a sleepwalking zombie.  The later flight would mean that I would miss the last high-speed catamaran ride to Mana Island where I had booked the Mana Resort for my stay.  I had handpicked this island from the hundreds in the archipelago.  The perfect mix of white sand beaches, amazing diving and proximity to the southern surf reefs.  Now I would have to pay for a seaplane or a costly hour-plus water taxi ride.  I asked the overworked attendant if he could get me on a non-stop back to LA.  He checked and eventually came back with an affirmative.  Worst decision I’ve made in a long time.

I found a place to hide at an unused gate and fell asleep on the airport floor for five hours.  When my alarm rang I got my bags together and then realized that I had to cancel the Fiji hotel so that I wouldn’t get charged for more than a night.  When I got through they replied that no, they had to charge me for the whole stay since I didn’t give them the requisite five days notice.  OK.  Now I was REALLY bummed.  I could have just vegged on the beach and worked on my new book.  Maybe even snorkeled without fins.  Speaking of fins, the location of this pain led me to believe that it was Friday’s surf adventure that did me in.  After all, I spent hours pumping through the ocean with plenty of “getting caught inside” spells where I was duck-diving wave after wave.  Fins do take a toll on the ankles and shins.  Finally I got onto my sold out Qantas flight to LA.  There would be no kosher meals since I switched at the last minute.  My leg was throbbing and I realized that I now had fourteen hours of agony ahead of me rather than the four that I would have had had I not changed my itinerary.  Never make big decisions when you are down in the dumps.  Stay with the program!

I slept for six hours, edited my book and watched a movie.  Upon landing I gathered all my belongings but failed to notice that my manuscript that I had spent weeks editing was on the side of my seat under a blanket.  Yes, I have been calling Qantas daily and it is quite gone.  It was wonderful to see my beautiful wife at the airport and hug my beautiful children.  But the LA haze and miles of cement just served as painful reminders that I could have been in paradise.  All paid for.  Even my tropical island Mac screensaver was taunting me.  The feeling did pass, but not until the four days were up and I stopped ruminating, “if only I had NOT gone out on the town that last night.”  It took a full week before I could walk around our block.  I hit the ground running (or limping) with a full schedule of clients who were excited that I was back in town early and we could dive into their projects. One of these clients recorded a song with these lyrics

God, I wanted for it to be one way

But I see that it’s not Your will

I accept Your gift, and thank You for the change in plans

For I can be certain it’s the absolute best for me

Yes, I get the message.  Thank you, dear God, for bringing me home early.  Only You know what is best for me.  If only that blessed screensaver would stop speaking to me of Fijian sunsets.

Now it’s 5am and the sky is awakening.  Any moment now the sprinklers will go off.  I will sleep for four hours and then go into a massively busy day. I avoid coffee until I really need it; that way the caffeine packs a wallop.  This will be a coffee day.  The only way to finish an 8600-word essay is to stay up late. Congratulations for making it to the end!  The moral of the story is: live it up, maximize every moment, Thank God for your blessings and for your adversity, keep on singing and do not go gentle into that good night.

Good night!

Let There Be Music

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

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.

Can’t Beat Bitachon

July 22nd, 2015

by Sam Glaser

Emunah is typically defined as belief in God. According to medieval commentator Rambam, it is the knowledge that Hashem created and continues to maintain all creation.  Jews are not Pantheists, those who share a sense of wonder for the universe but eschew an immanent God.  Our legacy is the radical concept that there are no random occurrences, that God is intricately involved in every detail of history.  We see “acts of God” not only in famine, disease and disaster. One with emunah perceives that God is present with every individual on a 24/7 basis, loving us, hearing our prayer and decreeing our fate.

Bitachon is the next level of connection.  It means that you take this relationship on the test track.  It means that you are proactive in life but acknowledge that God is in charge of the results. It’s possible to have great emunah in God’s existence but then say, “so what!”  In fact, according to a recent poll, three quarters of American adults say that they believe in God.  The Jewish goal is beyond belief. The ideal is living every day manifesting that belief, or as I like to put it, walking the talk.  A ba’al (master of) bitachon has a feeling of serene confidence that the Creator of all reality is on the scene and doing what is best for creation. God isn’t out to punish. Rather, God systematically tests and tempts to enable us to grow. “Gam zeh l’tova” (this is also for the good) is the bitachon mission statement.

True bitachon progresses from the simple level where one might say, although things aren’t great right now, it’s all for the best.  A higher form is to be able to perceive that everything right now is good, even though on the surface, circumstances may seem nightmarish.  We don’t ask for tests or jump in front of speeding cars in hope of a miracle.  One with bitachon is grateful that God has given us a world with reliable, predictable physical and spiritual laws of cause and effect.  But within these limitations, the ba’al bitachon knows that no challenge is insurmountable with God’s help.  Rabbi Noach Weinberg used to urge his Aish outreach staff to remember that their strength comes from the Almighty; that the all powerful God who creates heaven and earth will assist in anything they might undertake, especially the challenging work of inspiring God’s children.  A master of bitachon sees his or her paycheck as coming not from the employer but the employer as a channel for God’s blessing.  Similarly, a disease is cured not by the doctor, but the doctor or the drug is a channel for God’s healing power. People with bitachon can easily avoid jealousy since they know God gives them exactly what they deserve.


The Jewish concept of mindfulness is really just livingwith bitachon.  You can tell when you are with a ba’al bitachon.  They are not fazed by life’s craziness, and are able to focus on what’s important and slough off what’s not.  Our sages explain that the ba’al bitachon is humble, avoids disappointment and never loses his or her temper. In fact, anger is described as equivalent to avodah zarah.  That term is usually translated as idol worship,one of the ultimate transgressions, but really means “strange worship.” In other words, someone with bitachon sees an anger-inducing situation for what it is: a test.  To lose one’s temper can only mean that you have lost sight of God’s omnipresence and master plan, if only for that moment.  Therefore you must be “worshipping” something other than God.

A ba’al bitachon would never brag about his or her level of trust in God.  That is akin to asking for a test, and one only need look at characters like Job or King David to know that tests can be perilous.  To further clarify this distinction, sharing one’s emunah is a great idea as it helps others to solidifying their faith.  Bitachon is a more personal thing.  If you are following this argument you may conclude that a true ba’al bitachon might as well retire.  After all, one can sit and learn Torah all day…God will provide, right?  Not so fast, say the sages.  Hashem blesses us in everything that we DO.  In other words, we have to initiate the blessing with our own passion, drive and courageous effort.  The word for this mandatory exertion is Hishtadlut (or hishtadlus in the Ashkenaz pronunciation.)  The best bet is to choose a goal, make your hishtadlus and know that God will finish the job, one way or the other.

Perhaps the best Torah example of bitachon is Nachshon ben Aminadav.  According to the Midrash, while everyone was panicking and/or praying at the Red Sea, Nachshon intuited that God would not miraculously bring the Jews out of Egypt only for them to perish at the hands of the Egyptians.  He took a serious leap of faith, jumping into the sea up to his nose and only at that point of radical commitment did the waters part.  The lesson is that God can part the waters in our lives, helping us overcome any obstacles in our lives.  But first we have to get into the water.

One of the benefits of frequent worldwide travel with typically tight schedules is the opportunity to test my personal bitachon.  The more I live on the edge, the more I have to rely on God to get me out of crazy situations.  Not that I look for trouble, God forbid!  I have learned that if you don’t break through barriers, you never get out of the box. Life is exciting outside the box!  A corollary is the idea that if you are never asking, you don’t get.  The Universe rises to meet your needs, to answer your prayers.  So ask for the moon!  I had an adventure last week that was a personal bitachon moment that I’d like to share.

About six months ago my famous cardiologist uncle helped buy a new car for his big sister, who happens to be my mother.  He is so enamored with his Tesla that he wanted my mom to have the same electric thrill zooming down Sunset Boulevard.  She has been making the most of this gas-free lifestyle and therefore wanted to take the car on the open road and try out the Tesla Superchargers that dot the US countryside.
Fast forward to last week when I had a series of concerts up in Northern California.  One of my stops was Sacramento, which happens to be where my mom and her brother grew up.  She called to suggest that I drive with her up the 5 freeway and then fly home at the end of the week after my other concerts.  We would have a lovely day together sharing the drive in her 0-60mph in three seconds race car and then she would drive back the next day.  That way she would have company for the car’s maiden voyage to the great wild north.  My mom invited all her old high school friends (really old, at this point!) and a few relatives to my gala concert at the new performance space at Mosaic Law Synagogue.  We rehearsed her McClatchy High School fight songs so that I could properly add them to my concert for the enjoyment of the alumni assembled.  She would bring the tuna sandwiches and I would supervise the soundtrack, choosing a setlist that would ensure that we could both harmonize the whole drive.

The day before our trip my mom let me know that we would have to leave at least nine hours before my soundcheck.  “What!?” I responded.  “This drive should only take five and half hours!”  She explained that the onboard computer indicated that due to the stops at the three superchargers we had to allot for the minimum waiting time…but not to worry since they were located in nice places to take a break.  Suddenly this leisurely day with my mom was looking a bit too leisurely for my impatient bones.  I prodded her into leaving a little later, promising her that all would be well…after all, I have bitachon that God wants me to reach my gig on time.  She didn’t buy it.  One thing is for sure…there is no arguing with my mom when she gets set on an idea, and I certainly did not want to add to her predisposition to anxiety.  Yes, I would just have to get up early.

That next morning arrived too soon.  I had so much work to do before leaving for a week and only got a few hours of sleep.  Mom arrived right on time and we loaded my gear in the surprisingly roomy car.  We sang our traditional trip song “We’re Off on the Morning Train” and sailed up the 405 freeway.  A mere hour into the trip we hit the Grapevine, a long mountain pass that sucks heavily on electricity as the car labors on the climb.  What I didn’t realize is that the range indicated on the odometer is sharply curtailed by excess speed and climbing.  Therefore, the Tesla Corporation wisely put the first stop outside of LA at the other end of the Grapevine in a fast food/truck stop town called Lebec.  Fortunately, co-located with the Tesla chargers is Yogurtland, a delicious do-it-yourself yogurt store that is kosher certified.

As we basked in the air-conditioned chill of the shopenjoying our treats we waited a half hour as the car recharged in the heat of a 95-degree morning.  We returned to the vehicle to find that my mom didn’t insert the recharging cable properly.  In fact, it didn’t get any charge whatsoever.  Oy vey!  She plugged it in more securely and we returned to the yogurt place to escape the stifling Central Valley temperature.  After another half hour, when we came back to the car my mom screamed, “Oh @#$!, I locked the keys in the car!”  After I calmed her down we called the Tesla dealer, eventually finding a service person that was able to unlock our car remotely.  I did a quick mental calculation…we would still be on time but we had to get moving!

This time when we departed I could no longer keep my eyes open.  I apologized to my mom for being lousy company, put my seat back and was asleep within minutes.  I awoke a mere half hour later when I sensed that something was awry.  As the street signs came into focus I observed that we were driving SOUTH on the 5.  NO!  I struggled to maintain my composure and growled, “MOM, what happened?”  She responded that twenty miles out of Lebec the computer flashed a warning that she had to return to the previous supercharger; she didn’t have enough juice to make it to the next one and the car would be dead on the side of the road if she didn’t turn around.  Now I could feel my well-developed bitachon eroding.  Back to the same charger, back to the same Yogurtland.  The lady behind the counter was giggling when she saw us return.  Evidently this behavior is not uncommon for her Tesla-traveling customers.  As we waited we called the dealership to assess the problem.  They told us that the only way to make it from one charger to the next is to go between 55 and 60 miles per hour.  That’s on a freeway where the speed limit is 70 and most are driving 85!   And how ironic that our speed for the whole trip had to be slower than the diesel trucks and yet we’re in a hi-tech sports car!

Clearly this celebrated automobile is not quite ready for prime time.  It’s fine for local errands but that’s it.  I made some mental calculations: I was expected in Sacramento for a soundcheck at 5:30pm and was breaking in a brand new drummer.  I also had to rehearse with the local kids choir.  Being late was clearly not an option.  I have been on tour for over twenty years and have built my reputation on being reliable and prompt.  I have never missed a downbeat…thank God!  Now what was I going to do?  Even with our lethargic 55 MPH pace there was still concern that we wouldn’t have enough power and the onboard computer kept sounding warnings that we wouldn’t make it.  Who wants to drive a car that keeps one paralyzed with fear that it’s going to die at any moment?  In spite of this predicament I somehow I retained a calm complacency that all was going to work out fine, that God wanted me to get to my show on time and would help us one way or another.  As we limped along in the slow lane I did my best to change the subject, all the while realizing that at the next stop I was going to have to hitchhike with someone who had a very fast car.  Electric vehicles need not apply!


The Harris Ranch charger is the halfway point on the journey and is situated next to a sprawling western-theme restaurant and gift shop.  I went straight to the middle of the crowded main dining room, summoned all my chutzpah and asked aloud if anyone was traveling to Sacramento.  Tourists from all nations stopped their meals and gave me an icy response as if I was a homicidal maniac.  Or worse.  Me!  I tried the next dining room over, to no avail.  I realized that I had to brave the heat outside the restaurant and wait for the perfect couple to emerge that might sympathize with myplight.  I let the families and non-English speakers pass and finally set my sights on a middle-aged couple that looked like good-natured Christians.  They replied that yes, they were Sacramento-bound so I walked with them to their car and explained my strange saga.  When they saw my mom and her ill-fated Tesla they opened their hearts and allowed me to stuff my luggage, keyboard and stand into the back seat of their brand new Mercedes C300 Turbo Coupe.  Christine was even kind enough to let me ride shotgun!

Yes, I abandoned my mom at the rest stop.  She would have to wait a full hour for the charge and quite frankly, she was happy to be rid of me and my urgent deadline.  I flew down the road with my new friends at 80 miles per hour as we conversed about Judaism, travel and life in the Navy.  At one point there was a multiple car fender bender right next to us that Ron deftly avoided.  We hit Sacramento rush hour and I deferred to Waze to find the most expeditious route.  At long last we pulled into the driveway of the synagogue at EXACTLY 5:30pm, the aforementioned moment that I promised to arrive.  A very relieved Cantor Ben welcomed us at the door, I did my soundcheck and rehearsal and then performed a spirited concert for the 250 congregants in attendance.  My mom made it right at showtime nearly twelve hours after leaving her home.  In the end she was elated that she survived the experience and got to share the evening with her friends and family. Yes, I lovingly dedicated my Blessing song to her.

Let me conclude by suggesting a few ways to transform emunah into bitachon. The first item on the agenda is to get off the couch and try something new, something that will fundamentally challenge you.  Otherwise, your need for heavenly assistance is minimal.  Another idea is to ask for whatever you want without fear that the answer may be no.  Note that in the above story, I got a lot of no’s before I got to yes.  I rely on Rabbi Jagger: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.”  The best trust-building technique is becoming one who is “la’asok b’divrei Torah,” occupied with daily mitzvot (commandments.)   Mitzvot are actually “bitachon bites;” small doses of divine serum that inoculate you from triviality. Rather, you live powerfully in realm of action with everyday affirmations that God runs the world and gave the Torah as the instructions for living. Finally, acquiring bitachon requires a humbling reality check: you must discern that you don’t have the whole picture, that your perspective is subjective, that only God truly knows why things are the way they are.

Gaining bitachon requires time, patience and daring. Next thing you know, you are sailing on glassy smooth waters in spite of stormy seas, riding an endless wind of God’s providence and love, or at least keeping your cool with your semi-adventurous mother on a near calamitous road trip.

Dear Yeshiva University of LA High School Graduates…

June 24th, 2015

A Commencement Speech by Sam Glaser

It gives me great nachas to stand here with you today. I have watched many of you grow up, either as your music teacher at Hillel or YULA, or as you have befriended my own children, one of whom, Jesse Glaser is wearing a cap and gown today.  Some of you are thinking that this ceremony is not a big deal. Some are here because your parents made you show up. Some of the guys are plotting pranks, some girls can’t wait to get the gown off because they think they look fat.

I chose to speak because I want to tell you that this is, in fact, a big deal.  Graduates of this legendary institution have gone on to remarkable careers in business, science, law and medicine, becoming powerful leaders in their communities.  Some even have gone on to become teachers and rabbis!  Most importantly, they have done so as proud Modern Orthodox Jews, fully aware of the presence of God, cherishing every mitzvah, seizing opportunities for chesed.  Because they are interfacing with society at large, they have touched countless others with whom they interact.  You’ll learn that it doesn’t matter so much what you choose as your career as it does whether you are a Kiddush Hashem, one who is sanctifying God’s name everyday.

At this point in your lives you may not feel that this is priority number one.  This is the peak of a period in your lives where you are doing the normal activity called individuation.  That means you are rebelling in your own unique way, distancing yourself from your parents and teachers, worrying about what everyone thinks about you, wondering what you are going to do with your life, struggling with a toxic combination of angst and shpilkes.  Leaving your parents and siblings isn’t easy but it’s necessary if you’re going to stand on your own.  Believe it or not, your occasional ungrateful or obnoxious behavior is a crucial function of your pituitary gland that serves to make your adoring parents want to throw you out of the house.

What’s next for you is the greatest, most exciting ride ofyour lives that you will ever experience.  How totally amazing to share this moment on the edge with you.  You’ll notice that when you tell anyone how old you are you will see a hint of jealousy.  You are in the prime of your lives, filled with optimism, ready to change the world.  Most of you will be spending a year studying in Israel.  That’s the best place in the world to be young, open minded and adventurous while learning about spirituality, learning about yourself and learning how to survive waiting in line with Israelis.  This is a magical time when you are on your own and yet you still have your folks helping with the bills and offering advice, even if you pay no attention.  People go to Paris to learn about food and romance, to Italy to learn food and art and to Jerusalem to learn about God.  It’s said that the air makes you wise and that access to God is a “local phone call.”   Around a quarter of you are going straight to college.  Mazeltov on getting accepted.  I will be davening for your souls.

You see, one of the problems with individuation is that Hashem can get thrown off the bus.  Separating from your parents is a good thing.  Separating from Hashem is not.  Remember the song from kindergarten?  Hashem is everywhere.  Loving you, giving you breath, keeping your body functioning, arranging all the unique circumstances in your life.  Hashem gave us our awesome Torah that is the deepest source of wisdom, insight and self-help advice in the universe.  Torat Emet…the Torah is truth.  Our Christian and Muslim friends understand that the Torah is indisputable and so, perhaps reluctantly, they must incorporate it in their own traditions.  Torah is the key to our eternity. Every mitzvah is a once in a lifetime chance to make that particular moment holy.  Kedoshim Tihiyu…be holy.  That’s our mission statement.  So don’t run from Hashem.  That just doesn’t make sense.

As you leave YULA, you will be responsible for your own nurturing of this relationship.  A relationship is as strong as the weakest partner.  If I think you are my best friend but you only call me back once a month, we have a once a month relationship.  God loves us so much that we always will be the weakest partner!  You have learned with your rabbis and teachers a profound 3000 year old system to keep this relationship on fire.  Are you sick of the Sh’moneh Esrai?  From now on, no one is going to make you do it.  Find those tefillin annoying?  Well, now you can just leave them in the bag if you so choose.  Or you can choose life.  You can choose to bring Hashem into your every day with a blessing over everything that goes in your mouth.  You can act as Hashem’s partner in creating the world by perceiving the impact you have in your heartfelt tefilah.  You can hear Hashem’s patient voice in every word of Torah that you learn.  You can touch everyone you meet by serving as an example of what it means to be a fully invested Jew.  Hashem is ready to make miracles for you, to make your life amazing, to hear your requests in your prayers and make your dreams come true.

Observant Jews live in a parallel universe.  We are totally engrossed in the material world and yet we are removed, separate, spiritual.  You have learned techniques in school and from your parents to maximize both worlds.  Modern Orthodox Jews have a particularly challenging path: we don’t throw away all connections with secular culture and the internet.  We understand that we have to be “in the world” in order to be a light unto nations.  Whether you realize it or not, you are all Jewish leaders!  People will see how you act and judge all Jews accordingly.  You’ll be explaining your dietary habits, your kippah, why you have to leave early on Fridays.  It’s not easy to walk on this tightrope and maintain your footing.  In college the balance gets even trickier with your academic mentors preaching secularism and even anti-Israel sentiments.  That’s why today is a big deal.  Your parents have spent a small fortune to put you in an environment like YULA, one that has empowered you with our eternal traditions to keep you on track.

Here’s another reason why today is a big deal.  Look around you at your graduating class.  These people are your brothers and sisters.  You have a lifelong connection with one another, a deeper bond than you’ll make with your future college buddies and business peers.  All those tough classes and school trips and demanding teachers and issues with the administration have served as the glue to connect you.  What you have with each other is real achdut (brother/sisterhood.)  And achdut is priceless.  We learn that our Temple was destroyed because of lack of achdut.  And the restoration of achdut brings us closer to our redemption.  Invest in your YULA friends.  Treasure them.  Count on them.  Some of your peers left YULA early to go straight to City College or wherever.  They missed out on this opportunity.  Take a moment to be grateful for the circumstances that allowed you to make it all the way.  You got the real diploma and not a GED.  Most importantly, you got achdut.

Finally, I urge you to keep your Judaism fresh. Judaism is a lot of work.  It can get tiring and repetitive.  It can be expensive!  If you keep a minimum daily requirement in your lives, like morning tefilah, learning parsha shavua and kashrut, you’ll know when you are losing it.  You have spent the past twelve years growing into a superstar YULA graduate.  Don’t lose it!  If you can’t find the motivation inside, do it for the wrong reasons.  Do it for your parents.  Do it for your rabbis and teachers.  Do it for your unborn children. Do it for the 6 million.  Even if you’re not positive that God exists, do it just in case God does exist!  You’ve probably heard the Gemara, “lo lishma ba lishma” (not for it’s own sake become for it’s own sake.)  In other words, Just do it!

So, my friends, thanks for your attention.  Please continue to give your parents and teachers nachas.  Choose life.  Live to the fullest. Be true to yourself.  Learn to balance “you-ish” AND Jewish.  That is the unbeatable combination that will guarantee you success in every part of your life.  The YULA Class of 2015 is a stunning, shining group of remarkable young people that will make the world a better place.  This world needs your help in a big way.  Stand proudly, YULA graduates, and know that you carry with you the hope of your families, the hope of the Nation of Israel and a brighter future for all mankind.

Engage the Dying of the Light

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

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.

It’s a Woman’s World: An Inside View of “Women’s” Mitzvot.

February 12th, 2015

By Sam and Shira Glaser

At the risk of sounding sexist (too late!,) there are certain rituals in Judaism that are considered the territory of women.  Rather than pontificating from this man’s point of view, I thought I would interview my wife Shira to obtain her enlightened perspective.  Shira and I took the journey of mitzvah observance together beginning in 1991.  She runs a joyful, well-managed kosher household and is adored by her grateful husband and three kids.  Shira is whip-smart, high functioning, athletic, maternal and giving.  She is the type of generous guest who will bring half the meal and won’t leave until she cleans up your whole kitchen.  She is a reliable resource for countless friends in need and is a pillar of strength for all who are lucky enough to know her.  I should add that she has an MBA, spent years in finance and marketing for major corporations and makes incredible humus. Who better to interview on the subject than my overachieving wife?

Shira, darling, can you describe your weekly Shabbat candlelighting ritual?

OK. The panic and rush of Friday comes to a shrieking halt.  I set up five candles (two plus one for each of my three kids) on the silver candlesticks that I received for our wedding. I light, cover my eyes, sing the blessing and then daven (pray.)  Shabbas candlelighting is a special time of focus for me.  First I take time to recognize God as my creator and provider, then I request the things I need and hope for.  I then pray for you, for our kids one by one, for our extended family, friends and the Jewish People.  I take an extra moment to cover specific family and friends that need refuah (healing,) parnasa (income) or a shiddach (spouse.)

I enter a totally new space after I light.  All distractions are gone. It’s very freeing.  No matter how much is going on, I can’t worry about whatever didn’t get done.  It’s nice to just let it go.  I try to light at the official eighteen-minute mark so that I’m taking on Shabbas with the whole community.  Sometimes I’m not quite ready so I keep in mind that I’m not taking on the laws of Shabbat for another few minutes while I finish all the details.

It takes discipline to be present for candlelighting.  Some of the time, especially when we have a big table, I’m panicked.  Over the years the Shabbas hustle (a tense time in the hour before Shabbas comes in) has become more manageable. I pace myself and I feel that it’s disrespectful to Shabbas to rush it.  Of course there are unforeseen circumstances so it’s not always so smooth.  The yetzer harah (inclination to blow it) is very powerful before Shabbas…we all have be careful to not lose our cool.

Candlelighting is one of my main prayer moments of my week.  The fact is that I’m praying most of the day. One thing that makes

candlelighting so sweet is that since her Bat Mitzvah I share it with Sarah (our fifteen-year-old daughter.)  She lights two candles of her own and we sing the bracha together using the Glaser family melody written by Max Helfman

at Brandeis Camp.  When Bubbie (Sam’s mom) and any extended family members are lighting with us, it’s a really amazing scene.  Bubbie lights over twenty-five candles…for her sixteen grandkids, all her kids and siblings.  Quite a sight!

Why do you suppose candlelighting is considered a woman’s mitzvah?

Well, our tradition tells us that Sarah the matriarch was the first to light candles and that her candles stayed lit miraculously the whole week.  They brought peace into her tent with Avraham and weren’t extinguished until she died.  Then when Rivkah took on the custom and the miracles reoccurred, it was clear that she was Sarah’s righteous successor.  I guess that women bring light into the household.  It’s the woman’s domain.  Especially the kitchen!  I’m pretty traditional in that I like to have my hands in every aspect of the house.  I maintain order, keep things stocked, cook and do the laundry

Obviously the traditional roles aren’t for everybody.  They work for me.  I think women have a more inward focus…just look at our bodies.  The way we were created is inside-oriented, more loving and nurturing.  I’ll be the first to admit that I am a homebody.  For example, I like doing laundry because touching your clothes lets me learn about you…what you did that day, if you worked out, what you ate.  I impart love into the laundry!  Having clean clothes lets you worry about other things because the fundamentals are taken care of.  I think kids need a sturdy platform from which they can spring.  Our kids don’t need to worry about what they are going to eat or wear, and that builds security, gives them a sense of confidence.  It’s important to me that our kids can trust us to be reliable, to always provide the essentials.  When they learn to be trusting of us, I think they will be able to trust others and have intimate relationships in their own lives.  There are many languages of love, and cooking and cleaning are how I love you.

Speaking of cooking, doesn’t it get old always having meals ready for your hungry family?

I get pleasure when my family eats with gusto.  I really strive to make things that everyone likes, the common denominator dishes. There’s something very intimate about feeding your family.  People feel love towards the one feeding them. It’s an intimate bond our kids have had with me since they were babies.  It’s connective…that’s just my gut feeling. Also, I’m using recipes that have been passed down from grandmothers.  The food I make ties us all moms together…it’s so deep…beyond lifetimes!  If we relied on take out food I feel that something maternal and sentimental would be missing.  And if we relied on you to cook, we would all starve!

Thanks.  That brings us to another famous woman’s mitzvah, baking challah.  Any thoughts?

I can’t seem to get organized enough to make it and I’ve had too many disasters in the past.  Making challah makes me feel A.D.D….I just can’t get it right.  We’re lucky in that we live in a place where there are lots of bakeries that make delicious challot.  Someday I hope to make it myself.

In the challah baking workshops that I’ve attended I’ve learned that it’s a special, spiritual food.  It’s one that requires significant human interaction in partnership with God.  Apples, bananas, veggies, meat…those things don’t require so much partnership.  But going from seed to plant to harvest to threshing to grinding to kneading and baking…that’s an awesome symbol of human effort combined with God’s gifts.  In the desert our people were dependent on Manna from heaven.  The motzi blessing thanks God for bread from the ground.  When they got to Israel it amazed the Israelites that bread didn’t just fall from the heavens but instead came from the ground…wow! Challah teaches that all our achievement is never really our own; that everything happens with only God’s help.

Every ingredient of challah is symbolic.  The oil is the medium for anointing and when adding the oil you can feel like you are anointing every member of your family like royalty.  Let the sugar overflow so the goodness and sweetness overflows for the family.  I’m sparing with the salt since it represents judgment.  Eggs represent the human lifecycle and the preciousness of time.  When we go to a friend’s home where the challah is homemade I can sense all the blessing that these women have invested.  I watch you guys in consuming in glutenous ecstasy.  Without a doubt our favorite is bubbie’s onion challah.  The taste is indescribable.

How do you avoid feeling burdened by all the cooking and entertaining for Shabbat and holidays?

Some of the women in our community set the bar so high that even my best effort is going to fail in comparison.  I realized that I have to make Shabbat MY best, not THEIR best. If you’re Martha Stewart, then great, go for it.  It’s important not to get trapped into thinking that the festive meals have be high level or not at all. My Shabbas and Yom Tov (holiday) meals are my expression, my creativity.  I like things clean and simple, so I keep things simple.  Light and healthy…that’s my style.  We don’t stuff ourselves or eat fried and processed food during the week, so we’re not going to do it on Shabbat.

My meals usually have sumptuous, fresh appetizers and great, homemade desserts.  I like to start and end with a bang.  One thing that I’m obsessed about is making desert.  I don’t bake challah but I make everything else.  (One time when we were all invited to a neighbor’s home for lunch my daughter asked, “Excuse me, but do you have anything homemade?”  Yes, our kids are spoiled!)

Do you feel compelled to have guests most of the time?

We do our best outreach at our table. You run the proceedings, keeping everyone engaged in conversation, words of Torah and music.  I keep the food and drink flowing.  Our tables have become so popular that they are the places that people want to send first timers or bring their parents when they come to town.  I love sharing our family’s unique gifts.  I think we make Judaism look good and we give singles something to emulate in their future households.  Yes, I get burned out.  Everybody does.  I have to pace myself.  Sometimes it’s just our family and it’s more casual.  Still, Shabbas is a big step up from weekdays.  We always eat in the dining room, have multiple courses, use tablecloths, fresh flowers and use the fancy glassware.

Our kids have grown up seeing that having guests is an important mitzvah.  I know they will want this feeling for themselves.  I do a lot of meals for community members who are sick or have just given birth.  I always get you and the kids to help in the preparation or delivery so that they share the mitzvah and have a learning experience.  One thing I realized with our kids is they always must be the focus at meals.  Since our tables are mostly outreach oriented it’s tempting to put the kids at the “kids table” and concentrate on the guests.  Whenever possible I include them in the proceedings, sitting them next to you, making them part of the adult conversation.  They love telling our guests jokes and often initiate the games we play and the songs we sing.  This way they have grown up loving having guests and they don’t feel excluded when others are invited.  And for our guests who don’t typically have kids around, they relish in joining the mischief of “Anger Bottle” and “Ghost in the Graveyard” games (email Sam for the rules!)

Nowadays I’m very aware of the brevity of the childrearing years.  With one kid out of the house and another about to graduate, I’m a bit selfish with sharing them.  Shabbas is the time when they are undistracted by media and cell phones…we have them to ourselves and they really open up and share with us.  Therefore I’m not so compelled to be entertaining as much.  This is truly a precious time.

Since you keep track of the finances in our family that puts you are in charge of tzedakah (charity), making sure we always give at least ten percent.  Any comments on this mitzvah?

Tzedakah is not just about giving money.  It’s about giving time and attention to the needy.  Tzedakah is justice.  God gives us our income as a test to see what we’re going to do with it.  I want to live in a world where people look out for one another.  So I start with me.

There are so many charities competing for our attention.  I think of them as balls flying through the air that need catching.  You can’t juggle all of them and must remember that only certain ones have your name on them. Catch that ball and make it yours.  Make it personal and meaningful. We have friends and relatives that have burned out on tzedakah.  I’ve heard it said, “If yes to them means no to you, then the answer is no.”  Part of the giving process is knowing when to say no and I know you have a hard time saying no to anyone.  As it stands we pay dues to four synagogues and by now we should be partial owners of two Jewish Day Schools.  By the way, there is also a law that states one shouldn’t give more than 20%.  Halacha recognizes that you want the giver to retain the ability to give in the future.

For me the big priority is Jewish day

school education. As we are witnessing in our rapidly assimilating country, there is no Jewish continuity without it.  This is my mission: to have substantial subsidies available for any parent in the Diaspora that wants to give their kids a day school education.  Middle Class families should not have to endure dire economic sacrifices to raise Jewish kids.  That said, I think it’s one of the most worthy sacrifices.

Can you comment on using the mikvah and what it has done for our relationship?

For me, the experience has evolved. At first I was nervous and self-conscious, worried that I’d do something wrong.  Then as I grew more confident I learned to love it.  I have always enjoyed the preparation.  I feel like I’ve accomplished something sacred and I feel elevated when I come back.  When I’m in the bath scrubbing, plucking, exfoliating, shaving, I feel just like a regal Queen Esther.  Who wouldn’t want a monthly spa treatment, to spend such concentrated time on oneself?

Of course the best part of the anticipation and preparation is that it makes our relations so special.  I think it’s natural to want to separate for a period of time.  It’s probably harder for you than me to be apart.  During those twelve days (five days of menstruation plus seven clean days) we manage to build up a sweet tension and it makes the monthly honeymoon so passionate.  It makes us relish the time we are able to be together, knowing that it’s not forever.  Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. The more careful we are with details of taharat mishpacha (family purity) the more intense our reunion.  Part of that feeling of getting back together is the satisfaction that we are doing the right thing in God’s eyes, that we are living holy lives and sanctifying the family.  Hopefully it creates a holy environment for our kids…so far so good.

Using the mikvah also implies that sex is a crucial aspect of a marital relationship.  Participation in a relationship means participating in sex.  I believe I heard Dennis Prager say on the radio that twice a week is the bare minimum!  A loving couple makes time for relations.  They should never be rushed.  It’s a chance to focus on each other’s needs, to light candles, relax, to fall asleep in each other’s arms.  When couples lose their desire for one another I know they are in trouble.  When only one member wants abstention for any given period of time it can cause feelings of abandonment.  This ritual keeps the passion hot by building mutual abstention into the fabric of the relationship.  It’s genius.

What are you thinking about in the mikvah?

The way it works is that after preparing at home I do the final touches at the mikvah.  Then when it’s my turn I enter the soothing water and submerge completely, making sure that every strand of hair is underwater.  I keep my eyes and mouth slightly open so that the water goes everywhere.  If all looks good when I come up, the mikvah lady says “kosher” and hands me a washcloth to cover my hair and make the “al hatevilah” bracha (the blessing over the mikvah mitzvah.)  Then I give back the washcloth and dunk two more times.  My kavanah (focus) when I’m underwater is very intense: the first time I dunk I daven for specific friends that I hope will meet their besheret (soulmate.)  I pray that they too will have the opportunity to use this ritual to sanctify their relationship.  The next dunk I daven for all my needs and then the third time I daven for you and the kids.  For the record, this is my custom.  What one does and how many times they submerge could be very different based on what was taught to them during their kallah (bridal) classes or what was handed down from mother to daughter.

Going to the mikvah is such a private, personal opportunity for prayer.  Friends of mine who no longer use the mikvah have empowered me to daven on behalf of people who are childless or in need of healing. Nowadays I never know if it’s my last time to the mikvah.  Many of my peers have been through menopause and I know my turn is coming.  That makes me appreciate the whole process even more.

I know some women think it’s sexist to be considered “niddah” or impure, but I prefer the idea that my period makes me “unavailable” for relations, not dirty or impure, God forbid.  It gives us a chance to learn to function in a non-sexual manner.  Taharat Mishpacha isn’t pejorative, it’s simply about appreciating the monthly gift of the ability to create new life and the conscious awareness of when that opportunity departs.

How do you feel about davening with a mechitza?

I don’t mind it.  As long as it’s practical, not a huge barrier.  It’s ok for us to see the men.  I like those shuls that have one-way glass or fabric.  The fact is that I’m in shul to daven.  Not to socialize or hold your hand.   That’s just a distraction.  I tell women who are gabbing away that they should just come to the Kiddush.  A mechitza clarifies what we are supposed to be doing…our attention shouldn’t be going horizontally, it should be going vertically!

There’s a feeling of sisterhood just having women together.  It’s good to be in a “girl zone” once in a while.  It’s so rare that the genders are separated in our society and there’s certainly a place for it.  I just read an article that researchers have shown that guys need nights out with the guys.  Certainly women create powerful camraderie when they are on their own.

Do you ever wish you could be called to the Torah for an aliyah?

I personally don’t have a desire to be called to the Torah.  But I can certainly understand that there are women who would want to do that.  It’s a modesty issue in traditional Judaism.  We have shuls in the neighborhood with women’s services, it’s just not my thing.  I do like to dance with the Torah on Simchat Torah so I go to the shuls where that’s the custom.  Once again, I’m a traditionalist on these women/men separation issues.

I think egalitarianism as a sacred Jewish value is a slippery slope.  One compromise leads to others and eventually that movement is so far away.  The fact is that women can do everything.  We are the pinnacle of creation, the final being created and the most God-like in our ability to give life.  If women are so involved with the prayer leadership that the men get pushed aside, it’s not a good thing.  I’ve seen in many of the synagogues that I’ve visited on your concert tours that the men have opted out.  It’s like they are saying, “Oh great, you women have this handled!  I’ll just watch a ball game or get more work done.” Men clearly need to have their participation compulsory.  To be wrapped up in leather and bound to synagogue leadership and mitzvot.  Women are connected to God more naturally.  Men just won’t show up unless they feel that it’s up to them to keep Judaism going.  I vote that we not take their job away.

How do you feel about the emphasis of separate roles for men and women?

I believe that the genders are VERY different and efforts to blend them are foolhardy.  I heard Lori Palatnik, the incredible founder of the Jewish Women’s Initiative say, “Men need to be respected and women need to be loved.  I don’t know why!”  In other words, there are God-given realities here that we shouldn’t mess with.  Most men want to be head of the household and get respect from their wives and children.  Women want to be worshipped, to be made to feel that they are their husband’s only priority.  If they don’t feel like they are number one, they feel hated.  If their husbands are always busy with their buddies, obsessing over their hobbies or up all night with porn, it’s sending the message “you are not enough for me.”  I’m sure that our forefather Jacob loved both Leah and Rachel.  But because he loved Rachel more, the Torah tells us that Leah felt hatred.

I’m comfortable with femininity and support your masculinity.  I like that you take initiative in guiding our family’s destiny, plan our vacations or that you get the guys to go out on the town for your “Pico Men’s Club” outings.  I’ve learned not to criticize you in front of others or to gossip about you.  I like that you take a leadership role on Shabbat.  I’m careful never to undermine you with our kids or say, “Who cares what dad says” when making decisions. I see friends roll their eyes when their husbands make dumb comments.  It’s all about body language.  I’m not perfect but I do feel you flourish when you feel respected.  And you do a great job in complimenting me, expressing desire for me and making me feel loved.  And you take out the trash, as long as I remind you.

Yes, dear.


January 20th, 2015

By Sam Glaser

I am who I am thanks to Shabbat. Thanks to this biblically mandated ancient institution I have peace of mind, a flourishing community, a great relationship with my spouse and children and a career where I traverse the country singing its praises.  I always enjoyed Shabbat as a kid. Our Friday night dinners were filled with singing, great food and extended family.  But the real magic of Shabbat was revealed only when I dove into the supernal pool of these twenty-five hour weekly rest days with total abandon, no turning back.

I was advised early on not to tell anyone that I was Shomer Shabbat (fully Sabbath observant) until I was all the way there. Otherwise I might get caught weaseling out of a family function that I didn’t really want to attend but making an exception for a reunion concert of a favorite rock band.  It took me six years once I began the process of learning about the intricacies of Shabbat and actually taking it on 100%.  I’m glad I did the baby-step routine; it made every hour that I added onto my sacred day a personal discovery, a triumph.

I found that there is a power in “closing the loop,” creating a new reality by taking on Shabbat in all of it’s facets regardless of any extenuating circumstances.  I guess it’s a bit like the institution of marriage, but here the spouse to whom you are promising fidelity is the Creator of the Universe.  I describe this level of commitment as the difference between inflating a balloon with helium that is perforated versus one that is intact. Try to fill a balloon with holes and it never gets off the ground. But when you close up that last escape hatch for that gas to escape, you now possess a craft that can fly to the highest atmosphere.  I didn’t really understand this until I was “in.” Strange as it sounds, I have found that building an unbreakable relationship with Shabbat has allowed me to soar, to dwell in a parallel universe.

When you meet someone who has become Sabbath Observant you can be pretty sure you are dealing with someone of bulletproof integrity. Someone whose word is his or her bond, who can handle commitment.  Sabbath observers typically have inculcated the value of restraint, of postponing gratification for a greater good.  Now when an exciting outing or a gig opportunity will trample my holy Sabbath, there can be only one answer.  Ask any Ba’al Teshuva (one who has taken on Jewish tradition) if they can imagine life without Shabbat.  I can guarantee you that he or she wouldn’t trade this precious weekly taste of paradise for the world.

Every week our home is whitewashed: sheetschanged, floors scrubbed and a fresh batch of flowers festoons even the bathrooms. We wear our best clothes, enjoy a multi-course feast in the dining room with our crystal goblets and polished silver, singing songs both sacred and secular and offering words of Torah.  We also do a lot of laughing together, play board and card games and tell stories.  Of course, when we have guests we take the meal up a notch, drink l’chaims and go around the table so guests can introduce themselves and perhaps mention something special from the past week for which they are grateful. Thanks to my incredible wife, our Shabbat table is the stuff of Pico-Robertson legend and I’m told that obtaining an invite is considered an “E-ticket” opportunity.

We are members of four synagogues in our unusual neighborhood and I do my best to “shul-hop” based on my mood, a sudden intuition or whichever shul among the fifty within walking distance has a special speaker or simcha. Happily, wherever I show up I am usually coaxed into leading the davening.  I generally say yes regardless of my level of exhaustion. There are lots of things that one can’t do on Shabbat.  I can tell you now that our community is very busy doing the things you can!  That’s eating, drinking, praying, shmoozing, spending time with family and perhaps most importantly, taking a much needed, luxurious nap on Saturday afternoon.

Our family has no physical record of any Shabbat or Holiday celebration for the past few decades.  No photos of my wife’s beautifully set tables, videos of our raucous singing or transcription of the many scintillating discussions. Shabbat is truly an island in time, a dimension that cannot be grasped with cameras or recording devices.  It is the stuff of ephemera and it would make little sense to attempt to commemorate the experience to be enjoyed later on. You won’t find a Shabbat photo album or a video of a Glaser seder. Funny how these special days are ineffable, transient and yet are the most real things in our lives.

Thanks to the extensive preparation required, Shabbat is something that we celebrate all week.  My wife saves her best recipes for the festive meals and spends the week planning the guest list and visiting various markets and bakeries for ingredients.  I read the weekly Torah portion while eating my cereal each morning so that I am in sync with the entire Jewish world and have something novel to share at my Shabbat meals.  I make sure the dry cleaning is picked up by Friday so that we all have our Shabbas clothes pressed and ready. When we do all these things, we try to keep the awareness that these mundane weekly activities are done l’kavod Shabbat (to honor Shabbat.) I must admit that I also binge on my work on Wednesday and Thursday nights knowing that I have Shabbat coming to catch up on my sleep.

Becoming Shomer Shabbat requires a temporal shift in the perspective of one’s week.  This is hinted to in the laws regarding Havdalah, the ceremony with which we commemorate the Sabbath’s departure on Saturday night.  If you miss saying Havdalah on Saturday night you can say it up until sunset of Tuesday.  That’s because Sunday, Monday and Tuesday day are considered in the “shadow” of the previous Shabbat.  From Tuesday night and on we are in the space anticipating the upcoming Shabbat.  I think that the lesson here is that the day of rest is not the “end” of the week, like reaching the finish line after a six days of work and then collapsing.  Instead it is the centerpiece of every week, the pinnacle, the raison d’être.  Perhaps the best symbol of this is the golden menorah in the Temple, with its primary central branch and the three on either side that angled towards it. Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to say during his very long Havdalah services that the Kiddush we make in this ceremony isn’t just to separate the sacred from the profane, it’s to inject the profane with the sacred.  When Shabbat and a God-focused, holy life is the center of our week, we float on an exalted raft of blessing upon the raging river of life.  We innately perceive that the energy of the previous Shabbat is only three days behind us and another life giving, faith-building day is imminent.

The prayers on Shabbat are longer and hopefully more musical than their weekday counterpart. Shabbat is the time when a mourner’s chiyuv (halachic priority) to lead the service is superseded by the importance of having a trained chazzan with natural musical leadership ability.  The celebration starts with a final weekday Mincha (afternoon) service and segues into the special Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony to welcome the Sabbath bride. Then evening prayers are followed by a festive meal. On Saturday we have extra prayers in the Psukei D’zimra (Psalms of praise) and Shema section plus the inclusion of Mussaf to commemorate the additional sacrifice in biblical times.  Add that to the full-length Torah readings and you have a nearly three-hour marathon that can exhaust even the most penitent.  It doesn’t help that the halacha stipulates that one shouldn’t eat before services but must wait until hearing Kiddush.  Therefore, I recommend to newcomers that they take their time nurturing this acquired taste.  In other words, yes, optimally you should be in the synagogue for all the prayers, but no, you shouldn’t do so if it makes you want to tear your hair out.  A good indication of your frustration level is if you start counting how many pages are left in the prayer book.  If you come a bit later to services, then you can incorporate your public prayer daily requirement in measured doses.

It’s hard to imagine that there was a time when there was no Kabbalat Shabbat ceremony. This beautiful series of Psalms and songs that ushers in our holy day was initiated in Tsfat only 600 years ago…that makes it a new service, compared the rest of our 2500-year-old siddur. I think those kabbalists chose a specific set of tehillim (Psalms) in order to fill us with a sense of wonder in terms of God’s power as revealed in nature.  All of the passages vividly describe either lofty mountains, rushing rivers, heaving oceans or thunderous storms, hopefully allowing us to recall intense personal experiences of the Divine that we have had in beautiful natural surroundings. Just think of a time when you witnessed a spectacular waterfall, crashing waves or a perfectly silent, snowy scene. What typically happens in a nature moment is that your ever-present ego takes a short break and a palpable awareness of God’s presence fills the vacuum. In fact, Kabbalat Shabbat allows us to experience a degree of passion that is typically not a part of the Ma’ariv service.  The spoken word is our basic mode of communication, the next level is song, and when you just can’t contain your joy another moment, spontaneous dance is the only appropriate outlet!  When I’m leading a Sabbath program I try to get even the stodgiest congregation on their feet and dancing around the sanctuary.

Sometimes I wonder where I get the drive and discipline to be so machmir (strict) with my Sabbath and holiday observance.  I certainly didn’t start out life this way, and taking on such a profound and seemingly inconvenient commitment might seem out of reach.  Especially when even avoiding sugar for a day is impossible! Obviously I’m aided by having a great community that is dedicated to celebrating these holy days according to the letter of the law. It’s also helpful to have my family unified in sharing the adventure.  But I think in my case, there might be something more operating here behind the scenes.  I’d like to share a few stories that may indicate a celestial merit that has come down from my ancestors that is keeping our family on this path of righteousness.

The first story involves my great grandmotherLena Barenfeld, for whom my daughter Sarah Lena is named.  My brother, Rabbi Yom Tov was waiting for his El Al flight to depart when an attendant came down the aisle looking for a Mr. Glaser. Yom Tov raised his hand and she told him that there was another seat for him closer to the front.  A rabbi a few rows back said, “You’re Rabbi Glaser?”  This leader in the Ponevezh Yeshiva had heard that there were some Ba’al Teshuva Glasers out there and he wanted to verify a certain yeshiva legend.  He motioned for Yom Tov to join him in the seat next to him and told him this tale.

One auspicious evening in the late 40’s the Ponevezher Rav, Rabbi Kahaneman paid Lena and her husband Abraham a visit to raise funds for his new yeshiva. The rav was attempting to restore the grandeur of his formidable scholarly community that had been obliterated in the holocaust.  This new beis midrash (house of study) would be built in Israel within the legendary ancient rabbinic stronghold of B’nei Brak.  I imagine that my great grandpa Abe had his fill of such “shnorrers” and sent the rav away with a small donation.  Before he left, my great grandma entered the room and cried, “My children have strayed so far from Torah and I am heartbroken.  I don’t have even one member of my extended family Shomer Shabbas.  If you can bless us that some of my progeny will become Shomer Shabbat, we will dedicate the cornerstone of the beis midrash.” The rav then gave her this blessing and the rest is history.  This year I was honored to share this story and perform at the West Coast Ponevezh banquet and this yeshiva has now grown to become the leading Litvak institutiion in Israel to date.

The next story occurred shortly after I had starting keeping Shabbat in 1992.  It’s a long tale but I have to spell out the details in order to elucidate it properly.  My brother Yom Tov had just returned from his first year in yeshiva in Jerusalem. Our family was overjoyed to see how much he had grown spiritually and that just behind that scraggly beard was the charismatic Johnny that we adored.  Yom Tov and I have always bonded over action sports.  We’ve never been able to sit still and watch a ball game on TV; we much prefer to explore the backcountry on our mountain bikes or hit the surf.  That first weekend he was back we made plans to join a group of old friends for a weekend of fun in our beloved Joshua Tree National Park. A mere two hours from our home lies this rock-ridden patch of desert that is nothing short of an alien moonscape, perfect for climbing, biking and camping.

We set off that Friday morning in my trusty Toyota Supra that was packed to the brim with camping gear and our two mountain bikes strapped to the rack. A half hour down the road my car started to overheat.  It clearly was not up for the task of this arduous drive and thankfully it broke down near a friend’s home. We pulled into his driveway and earnestly begged to use his truck for the weekend. “Sure,” he said, “as soon as you unload the cord of firewood in the back.”  We frantically stacked the prodigious pile of lumber against his garage, transferred our gear and set off in his rickety 4×4. Unfortunately, an hour down the road, while doing eighty in the fast lane we had an explosive tire blowout.  Now we were stuck on the wrong side of the 10 Freeway and it took an eternity for a cop to show up and radio for a tow truck…hard to imagine how we ever survived without cell phones!

We waited for what felt like hours as the shop replaced the tire and charged $100 that I was not very excited to spend.  At last we were on the road again and it soon dawned on us that it was increasingly unlikely that we were going to make it to Joshua Tree by sundown. Still, we pressed ahead, hoping for a miracle.  Shortly before candle lighting we had a tense dialog regarding the state of affairs.  I was still at a point in my observance where I could rationalize that we should finish the trip and we’d take on Shabbas as soon as we would arrive. That is not a liberty that I would take today. My brother, however, said no, we will not drive even a minute after Shabbas comes in, even if we have to spend the day on the side of the freeway.

I have to explain that at this time in history, there was almost no civilization between LA and Palm Springs.  Just a few “one horse” towns with gas stations and fast food joints; certainly not the continuous metropolis that one finds today. We spotted a motel at the next exit and screeched off the interchange, only to find that it was out of business.  I saw a look of panic in my brother’s eyes as he commandeered our friend’s pickup back onto the freeway in search of another option. With sundown looming, we pulled off at the next exit and parked in the first motel we saw.  We immediately started throwing our property to the door of one of the units and I scampered to the front desk to check in. Just as the sun hit the horizon we had the last of our valuables inside and we high-fived each other, thrilled that we had a roof over our heads to celebrate this unusual Shabbat.

We prayed with a special intensity and enjoyed a delectable feast that my mother had lovingly prepared for our journey. We sang, danced and jumped on the beds until we realized that we were totally exhausted from the day’s exploits. Now we had another problem. The lights were on in the room and neither of us would turn them off. I checked the front desk and found that no one was there.  I noticed a young black couple in the room next door.  I gingerly knocked on the door and a clearly disconcerted, wide-eyed man peered out through the crack.  I explained that we wanted to go to sleep but the light was on. You see, when asking a non-Jew to do an act forbidden to a Jew on Shabbat, you can’t mention the exact thing you want him to do. He has to intuit the requisite action and choose to do it on his own volition.  Anyway, while this man looked at me with incredulity that I would make such a ridiculous statement, my brother stepped in and said, “you see, we are really tired and it would be great if it were dark enough to sleep.” With this, the man slammed the door shut, gathered his girlfriend and drove off into the night.

The next day we wandered the streets of this backwater town.  It was called Banning and we joked as we passed the few stores that they were “banning liquor” and “banning police.” After walking off our bodacious lunch we returned to the room for a nap and then after darkness fell, promptly checked out and finished that last forty minutes of our drive up to Joshua Tree. We rejoiced around the campfire with our worried friends and toasted to our zany Shabbat experience.  The next day we climbed the incredible boulders of this national park and enjoyed a memorable mountain bike ride down the sandy, cactus-lined trails.

Yes, the story has an epilogue: A few months later I attended a family holiday get together.  I told my dear Uncle Charlie the saga of our amusing Shabbas debacle getting stuck in this hick town.  When I finished the tale Charlie blanched and didn’t respond for a few moments. Then he said, “Sammy, are you telling me that you and your brother spent Shabbas in Banning?” “Yes, Uncle Charlie. What’s the big deal?”  He replied, “Do you know anything about Banning?” “Yes,” I said with a grin, “they are banning police and liquor!”  He looked at me sternly and said, “Sam, your grandfather, for whom you are named, founded the town of Banning.  And at that time in his life, as his garment business grew, Shabbas had to take a back seat to overseeing the production in his new factory. Do you see that you and Johnny, his descendants have created a tikkun, a healing? You kept Shabbas in Banning!  What do you think of that?

The fact is that most of us Jewish folks have great grandparents who were deeply connected to Shabbat and are pulling strings for us upstairs.  Just imagine that since the time of Moses, the freight train of Jewish history has been thundering along the tracks, powered by the eternal connection with Mount Sinai.  Tragically, in our days we see that many of the cars have derailed.  You can be the one to help get the train back on track. There’s a supernatural reason that our souls feel good when we affiliate, when we do a mitzvah.  Perhaps it’s assuaging our Jewish guilt or a subliminal attraction to members of the tribe.  Or maybe it’s all those ancestors rallying for you behind the scenes shouting, “Go, go, go, go, go!”

I wish all my readers a Good Shabbas!  Thank God it’s Friday!  And if it’s not Shabbas today, just know that it’s coming soon.

Asey L’cha Rav

December 28th, 2014

 By Sam Glaser

A turning point in the life of any individual that gets serious about his or her Jewish heritage is the moment that they find a rabbi. Everyone needs to have someone they call “my rabbi.” Someone with whom they can relate, someone with whom the buck stops, whose advice they respect and “hold by.” You can blame your rabbi, i.e. “My rabbi told me this is what I have to do,” until you’re ready to initiate your own momentum. The famous line is that “a good rabbi comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.”  At times in your life you will be in either situation, and your rabbi must have the sensitivity to know how to respond in each instance. Effective rabbis gently coax you on a path of growth.  They introduce you to mitzvah options and help you choose a direction that is unique for you. Rabbis serve to connect us with our history; they are a link to the written Torah and also embody the oral, less structured Torah that confronts modernity and the idiosyncrasies of the individual.

You will know you have found your rabbi when you feel confident that you can relinquish control.  You allow your rabbi to be the arbiter of Torah philosophy and best practices.  In the secular realm you have to figure out the game of life on your own, shopping around for a mix and match world-view and hedging your bets with whatever combination seems advantageous at that moment.  Unfortunately, having your foot in many doors means that you eventually have no leg to stand on.  Choosing a path requires closing doors!  The term “decide” has the root “cide,” in other words, we have to kill off options in order to commit to one.  Some go their whole lives trying to keep all options on the table; it’s no mystery that this indecision wreaks havoc on relationships, employment and spiritual progress.  My friends, I can testify that God springs into action to help you realize your dreams as soon as you close the loop and commit to the calling of your Jewish heritage, whatever that may require. Yes, taking a plunge down the Jewish “rabbit hole” is scary but your journey through this wonderland will be guided with personalized rabbinic wisdom. So find a rabbi and get on with the life you were meant to live!

Your newfound rabbi will have spent countless years training to learn the craft of spiritual leadership and deserves the utmost respect.  Rabbis have to wear many hats.  They are often the chief fundraisers for their organizations. They have to shmooze with both the power players and the meek.  They represent the synagogue in the greater Jewish community and also among the clergy of other faiths.  They are the top dogs in the synagogue corporate structure and interface with the educational, administrative and governing teams.  Rabbis are also the pastoral leaders of the congregation, dispensing words of solace in times of individual, communal and international strife. Rabbis are usually authors of inspiring text and are counted upon as orators to express that text with originality and spontaneity. It’s not a job for the faint of heart!

On the flip side, rabbis are subject to intense scrutiny and can’t help but ruffle feathers.  They have to guide the community on a path of wisdom and growth but be careful not leave

constituents behind. Rabbis don’t ever get time off. Even when they are enjoying a vacation, the congregation expects them to remain at their beck and call.  Rabbis don’t experience the essential weekly release of Shabbat to the same degree as the laity.  In fact, the Sabbath and holidays are the times that they are most in demand! Their families tend to be somewhat mutant.  After all, rabbis are typically workaholics with precious little time for family matters.  Rabbi’s kids are scrutinized only slightly less than their parents.  Of course, rabbi’s spouses are criticized if they don’t become part of synagogue life, or conversely if they are too involved.  Said spouses often become unpaid employees of the synagogue, like it or not.

Furthermore, rabbis have to walk a consistent path of holiness and grace in public and in private.  This is especially challenging in an era of invasive social media and ubiquitous cameras/cell phones.  There is no teshuva for rabbis.  Rabbis that fall short of living up to the immense ethical expectations are left to crash and burn.  They cannot kiss and make up.  Their transgressions are discussed with a hush and a wagging finger or worse, exposed on the pages of the local paper for all to enjoy.  When any given rabbi blows it, their contracts are promptly voided; they are shipped off to another locale or have to leave the rabbinate in shame.  I’ve even seen situations where the body that issued semicha (ordination) denied ever having done so.  Chilul Hashem (desecration of God’s Name) by the official communal representative of morality is such a shanda (grievous error) that for many of my friends in the rabbinate there has been no second chance.  Make sure you have your act together if you are aspiring to the rabbinate!

When shopping for a rabbi there are several factors to consider.  First and foremost, you have to find the rabbi inspiring.  They have to touch you deeply and give you enlightened perspective both on our ancient texts and current issues. One person’s inspiration is another person’s ennui…finding YOUR rabbi is based on your unique needs and perceptions.  For this reason you may find that your rabbi is not your spouse’s rabbi.  Next, they have to be humble and approachable.  A rabbi must exude love and concern and make you feel like an important part of the synagogue family.  They must model ethical living and be fluent in the language of both the Judaic and secular world.  After all, that’s where you live, and your rabbi has to be able to intuit what you are going through.  Most importantly, your rabbi must have the chutzpah to nudge you to grow.  We need rabbis to get us out of complacency, to help us take on spiritual challenges, to increase our mitzvot.  Your rabbi should give you impetus to say Hineni, calling on you to make a verifiable difference for your family, your community and the world.

The next question in this process is where to look. For many of us, that’s a moot point. We live where we live, and only have so many local options.  That’s OK.  We also live in an era where you can affiliate with your local congregation but look to another more distant rabbi for Torah guidance.  We have the miracle of high-speed internet and nearly free long distance phone calls.  If you have a great rabbi for you in your hometown, consider yourself blessed.  But if not, it’s time to activate your personal search engine! All the gifts of 24/7 Jewish living can be yours…the only thing stopping you from “rabbi shopping” is you. Read books and articles written by influential rabbis.  I’m confident you will find some that speak to you. Yes, most of those rabbis, even the famous ones, will welcome a relationship. While I think it’s best to have only one official rabbi, in absence of that one perfect personality you can subdivide your spiritual guidance.  Whatever it takes to get you on a sanctified path and stick with it.

Some of us are raised with a certain set of customs, with Jewish practices that we are comfortable doing and others in which we’re not so interested.  I’m writing this essay to beg you to consider getting out of the comfort zone…to take on new challenges and stretch.  If your local rabbi is not going to push you into connecting with your Creator via taking on new mitzvot, then that rabbi isn’t for you!  That rabbi can still be a friend, a resource, a tennis partner, but it’s not your rabbi.  Your rabbi approaches our traditions with joy and makes a relationship with God palpable.  Your rabbi makes Jewish living look so good, like a sumptuous banquet!  As I’ve said, the book of Jewish law is called the Shulchan Aruch, the set table.  An ethical, loving, deeply connected rabbi will inevitably make Judaism so attractive that you can’t help but want some of that for yourself.

There are treasures and obstacles in all the Jewish denominations.  It’s hard to be both politically correct and honest but I’m throwing caution to the wind.  What matters more than whether your rabbi trained at HUC, JTS or YU is if they have both heart and gumption. There are rabbis that I deeply respect in all movements in Judaism.  I work with Reform through Chassidic institutions and I can verify that all denominations have something to offer the k’lal (whole group.)  That’s why there are twelve tribes in our ancient heritage…as the Talmud says, “these and these are the words of the Living God.” As long as a respect for halacha is maintained, I think there is something to be said for a “post-denominational” outlook. In other words, when shopping for a rabbi, don’t accept a denominational ceiling to growth. If you hear the statement: “well, we don’t have to do this because we are _______ Jews,” run for the exit.  For example, Orthodox can’t desist from acts of loving-kindness to gentiles and Reform can’t overtly cast off the commandments (they are commandments, not “suggestions” after all!)  The key here is finding guidance that will help you grow while remaining balanced, open-minded and without losing yourself in the process.

At the risk of generalizing, when choosing a denomination there are good and bad points to each of our major movements and I’m going to go out on a limb and list some caveats.  Some may think that the Yeshivish and Chassidic worlds offer a panacea for all society ills but they are grappling with losing their youth and finding it harder avoid the lure of mass media and manage technology.  The lack of a Western-style education can paralyze individuals that are striving to interface with the “real world.”  The Modern Orthodox are smug in their rootedness in Jewish wisdom and embrace of modernity but arrogance and inward focus is often the result.  As you may have guessed, I’m a big proponent of Orthodox-style mitzvah observance but I warn that it can devolve into obsession-compulsion, peer pressure-induced one upmanship and the lifestyle is financially draining.  Many love to bash the halachic waffling of the Conservative movement and prognosticate timetables for its demise.  That said, there are Conservative communities where Judaism is flourishing with a dedicated core of congregants that are Sabbath observant and mitzvah focused.  Lastly, Reform takes a beating from the right wing but is the bastion of appreciation for Jewish art and culture, social justice and simple, spiritual joy.  Some may assume that the lack of true “informed choice” and the “freedom” from the divine imperative of Torah renders Reform obsolete; let me state for the record that I know several Reform rabbis that perform epic roles of leadership in the spiritual well-being of their congregants.

One of the biggest criticisms leveled at “liberal” Judaism is the comparative weakness of

communal structure.  In fact I’ve heard from Conservative leadership that the movement’s failings are due to the consistent shedding of the right wing.  In other words, if you get excited about your Judaism and seek daily practice, in most Conservative synagogues (but not all) you will be very lonely.  Unfortunately, the rule seems to be that the clergy may be on the “derech” (path) but the congregation for the most part only shows up on High Holidays and for friend’s bar/bat mitzvahs.  If you suddenly get interested in keeping kosher you are going to be eating alone.  If you want to ramp up your Shabbat observance you will have a hard time relating to the chevra that assembles every week, especially if you are under forty years old.  Those with heightened Judaic enthusiasm usually find their way to a Modern Orthodox or Chabad shul and never look back.  It’s less an indictment of any given philosophy and more about the astounding impact of a dedicated community. It was the presence of my dynamic learning and chesed (kindness) focused community that made my growth possible.  Or at least a lot more fun.  I write this with pain in my heart since my Jewish memories are Conservative memories, from amazing summers at Camp Ramah and Israel programs, to Sinai Temple’s dedicated Hebrew School teachers and clergy.

The crucial role of community cannot beoverstated.  Rabbi Hillel in Ethics of the Fathers states “Al tifrosh min hatzibur,” don’t distance yourself from the community.  As I’ve mentioned in my parenting essays, a Jewish community sets certain expectations of all members and therefore the parents don’t have to work quite as hard to educate their progeny.  It’s so much easier to thrive in mitzvot when it’s simply the way everyone lives.  To go it alone can be harsh and is certainly less fulfilling.  Even the coolest Mac cannot substitute for a flesh and blood chevra (peer group.)  As frail humans we usually don’t have the degree of resolve required to “run up the downward escalator” of spiritual life.  Moving to the epicenter of a Jewish community can make all the difference.  That’s easy in a big city; you just need to be able to afford the “shtetl tax,” referring to typically inflated Jewish neighborhood property values. Those in smaller towns can still find (or build) minyans of like-minded individuals and will likely have to put time into their learning on the web and traveling to Torah centers from time to time.

Choosing a rabbi can be the single most important move one makes in initiating a powerful Jewish journey, second only to finding a great spouse.  I want to take this moment to thank my amazing rav, Rabbi Moshe Cohen for all the patience, generosity and wisdom that he has shared with my family.  Yes, it takes dedication and powerful intention to find your own rabbi.  With the guidance of your newfound Jewish “guru” anything is possible for you in your life.  Hopefully your own exponential growth will inspire others to attempt the same path, to partake in our perpetual feast from the “set table” of Jewish life.  B’hatzlacha on your journey.