by Sam Glaser
During the month of Kislev the Jewish People celebrate the victory of the Maccabees, a brave troop of warriors that vanquished the mighty Syrian-Greeks. For millennia, as winter sweeps the Northern Hemisphere and the days grow shorter, the eight days of Chanukah salute those who keep the dream of freedom and justice alive in spite of overwhelming odds. Interestingly, the Torah portions that we read at this time of the year also highlight dreamers; we learn about the visions of our Patriarch Jacob and his son Joseph, followed by Pharaoh’s butler and baker and then Pharaoh himself. Clearly this resounding theme of the power of dreams, of hope amidst darkness, serves to lift our spirits and remind us that “not by might but by spirit” shall we all live in peace.
Jacob and Joseph’s dreams signify turning points in their lives that lead to profound transformation. Jacob’s first dream is the famous ladder stretching to heaven, revealing for our patriarch the inner workings of God’s glorious realms. His second dream, twenty years later, is of spotted and speckled sheep, in other words, of cash flow. Lavan, Jacob’s father-in-law, had nearly derailed Jacob’s mission of serving as the leader of the eternal force that would become the Jewish People. Jacob’s transformation crystallizes only when he realizes it’s time to extricate himself from material concerns and return to the Holy Land. He wrestles the angel and receives the name Yisrael, to show that he has regained his mission of leadership and dedication to a lifetime of spiritual struggle with his Creator and mankind.
Joseph’s dreams demonstrate that he is self-absorbed and perhaps too aware of his external beauty, having been spoiled by the attention lavished upon him by his doting parents. He not only dreams that he is being bowed down to, but he enthusiastically shares those visions with those who would do the bowing. Soon disaster strikes in the form of near murder at the hands of his “brothers,” being sold into slavery, temptation, imprisonment and abandonment. Joseph’s transformation from narcissist to altruist can be observed when he manages to notice the forlorn expressions of his fellow prisoners one particular day. Chances are that no one was jumping for joy in the Pharaoh’s dungeons. But Joseph is sensitive enough to perceive the change in demeanor on the faces of the butler and baker, and by attempting to come to their aid by interpreting their dreams, sets the forces of redemption in motion. Jacob/Yisrael recaptures the mantle of the ephemeral during his exile and Joseph’s development of altruism in his exile sets the stage for the formation of the Jewish People in Egypt and their miraculous exodus.
Our biblical heroes have passed on to their progeny a legacy of rallying against apathy in the face of human suffering. In concert, I typically introduce my Unbreakable Soul song by asking the audience a question. Everyone knows from the Passover story that God redeemed the Jewish People from slavery with an outstretched arm. But why would our loving God also orchestrate the events to send the Jews into slavery in the first place? What aspect of enduring torture, bondage and infanticide was necessary in the formation of this diminutive, eternal people? I maintain that Jewish survival requires toughness and fortitude, an indefatigable resolve to stick together and stand for truth and freedom. Also, embedded in the recesses of our spiritual DNA is the quality of always looking out for those less fortunate. For a previously enslaved people, the concept of bondage is so odious that we must stand against any injustice inflicted on anynation. No wonder we have deeply offended fascists like Stalin and Hitler.
The Jews are history’s canary in the coalmine, serving as the first warning of the nefarious plots of despots and tyrants. We are a global, spiritual tsunami warning system, spread out by our Creator to the four corners of the earth to warn, teach and uplift our neighbors. I find it refreshing to see the current phenomenon of Righteous Gentiles taking a stand to protect Israel from her enemies. I believe the civilized world is waking up to fact that those who bless Israel are blessed and vice versa, that the enemies of the Jewish People are the enemies of freedom. Thankfully we Jews can look back on the great issues of history and find that we have stood on the side of peace and truth, and it is this time of year that we feel a sense of victory not only in the plight of the Maccabees and the restoration of our Temple, but in the continued victory over evil. This powerful theme of the month of Kislev is also loudly echoing in my personal life.
I am in the midst of the busiest quarter in my career. A mind-blowing thirty cities in a row where I have offered performances, workshops and Shabbatons for the full array of denominations and age groups. Somehow my voice is holding up, thank God, and my spirit just gets more energized with each new adventure. I now realize what being a “textbook extrovert” really means: I feel tremendous joy when I’m with other people. The bigger the group, the better, and it just keeps accelerating through the years. One of the highlights of my recent journey was a week in the Southern US where I visited Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Birmingham, Nashville and Chattanooga. This eight-day joyride in the welcoming arms of Southern hospitality gave me a insider’s glimpse into a region where one still sees Confederate flags aloft.
The musical and racial melting pot of New Orleans has always captured my imagination. In the streets of this classic city the ubiquitous musicians seem to handle any genre of music and defy barriers of race, religion or income bracket. One is judged simply on the basis of soul: how deep and skillful are the notes that emanate from his or her instrument and how warm is the vibe when the musician is off stage. I spent several nights wandering Frenchmen Street listening to the sweet expressions of countless bands and didn’t hear a bad player in the bunch. New Orleans is a place where music lovers gather from all corners of the earth to dine on its unique cuisine and ingest its inimitable sounds. The concept of have and have-nots is blurred when it’s evident that the underfed, impoverished players on the stage are the city’s true royalty. That said, most of the patrons are White and most musicians are Black. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina revealed a deeply scarred city divided on racial lines. I had the privilege of performing for the victims who were living in warehouses immediately after the flooding…and nearly all of those that had to rely on the massive public rescue effort were African American.
I arrived in Birmingham to find a city still grappling with the stain of segregation. I suppose that it’s apropos that the Museum of Civil Rights is locatedin this town that was so notoriously divided throughout the sixties. After my jubilant concert at Temple Emanu-El I wandered the downtown area with some local friends where we saw many disoriented Black homeless men wandering the streets. As unwise as it might have been to break out my wallet, I couldn’t help but offer a few bucks to whomever asked. Needless to say, I was very popular. My friends then took me to a new concert venue to audition a fantastic Pink Floyd-style band, Washed Out, who jammed at top volume to a standing-room-only crowd. Here the White youth of the city swayed in unison to the deep groove enhanced by a tantalizing light show. Old habits die hard in Alabama, and it’s not just the old guard that reminisces about the glory days: while relaxing in a local coffee emporium I read how the University of Alabama legendary Greek system remains entirely segregated.
One of the most outspoken proponents against injustice in modern times was Dr. Martin Luther King, who worked tirelessly in Birmingham by the side of local organizer Fred Shuttlesworth. I have always felt a connection with Dr. King and have marveled at his eloquence and passion. I take great pride in the fact that my parents opted to name their third son John Martin Glaser in memory of this powerful leader. Growing up in Brentwood, CA we were surrounded by neighbors with all the snobbery and WASP-y attitudes typical in pricey suburbs. Somehow we weren’t privy to any of that foolishness. Thankfully our folks raised us colorblind and comfortable with friends from all strata of society. Our family’s only prerequisites for our peer group were innate goodness, a sense of humor and zest for life. I remember feeling fearful of leaders like Malcolm X but wishing I could hug Dr. King who “looked forward to the time when Blacks and Whites would sit down at the table of brotherhood.”
The following day I ventured with my friends to the Museum of Civil Rights which is situated adjacent to the 16th Street Baptist Church that had been blown up at the height of the tension in the sixties. This elegantly designed facility reminded me of LA’s Museum of Tolerance in its clever use of multimedia to tell a story and create a sense of emotional catharsis. We wound through the maze of exhibits, gaining an understanding of the difficulties that the region faced when it had to transition from a reliance on slave labor after the Civil War. Blacks may have been freed from the shackles of slavery but they faced a resentful and pugilistic society that would spare no energy or expense to keep them in the underclass. This scourge of our nation’s past seems so unthinkable today and I marvel that imposed segregation was still happening within my lifetime. Finally, with Dr. King’s efforts to organize the masses of African Americans in non-violent protest, the tables turned on the supremacists and eventually the antics of the racist mayor and governor were exposed to a nation no longer able to stand idly by.
The museum’s ingenious floor plan led us inexorably into a darkened chamber where the singular visual was a large screen with Martin Luther King delivering the “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington. I was moved to tears by the reverend’s biblically inspired preaching. I’m certain that this event was a modern day Maccabee moment as the unarmed minority managed to topple the entrenched establishment. I am so proud that our Jewish leaders stood by Dr. King’s side during this campaign and feel that the Jewish presence deserved more mention in the museum’s displays. Hopefully our efforts to uphold civil rights will be noted in the eyes of young African Americans when they investigate this painful chapter in their history.
Furthering this personal reawakening of the scourge of slavery is my friendship with fellow music aficionado Rob Steinberg, with whom I stayed while in New Orleans. He is one of the stars of the new motion picture, “12 Years a Slave,” and was in between press junkets and premiers during my visit. His character is the one to set in motion the freeing of the protagonist from being kidnapped and enslaved. This jarring film is perhaps the most graphic representation of the brutality of American slavery to date. Another New Orleans connection I recently discovered is the fact that Louie Armstrong’s job as a young man was hauling junk for my Karnofsky relatives. The great Satchmo wore a Star of David pendant for the rest of his life as a tribute to the family that gave him love and guidance and taught him “how to live with real life and determination.”
Over the course of the past few months I have had the opportunity to visit the ancestral homes of three of our past presidents and founders of our country: Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Southwest Virginia, Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage in Nashville and Washington’s Mt Vernon near Washington DC. These great leaders that set the course for our bold experiment in democracy were all slave owners. Jefferson, who authored the Declaration of Independence, owned hundreds of slaves during his lifetime and only emancipated a few of them. The stark difference between the bourgeois mansions and the harsh slave quarters was shocking. The presidential families were buried in elegant crypts whereas the slaves were scattered in unmarked graves. Appropriately, each the tour-guide through these beautifully maintained historical treasures was an eloquent African American. Who better should tell the story of the exploits of these brave and brilliant patriarchs of liberty while clarifying the dilemma of slave ownership? I’m proud to live in a country that continuously struggles to take the high road, one that spreads values of liberty and justice throughout the world in spite of the cost of blood and treasure.
Chanukah is a time for Jews to celebrate a three thousand year journey from oppression to freedom. I think that this year’s once-in-a-lifetime connection with Thanksgiving requires that we expand our celebration with all humanity. The essence of Chanukah is a dichotomy: it represents the fight against assimilation into our host culture so that our heritage can remain distinct but it also carries our universal message of freedom for all. How can we influence the world if we disappear? If only all nations had the chance to witness the streets of urban Israel to see Jews of all colors working together to build up our Promised Land. Our Jewish light, the light that our prophet forecast will illuminate the entire world, shines ever more brightly when we unify as a people to stand against ignorance, racism, injustice, genocide. I’m grateful both for the guidance of our biblical heroes and our living examples of tolerance and courage today. How incredible to know as I was visiting the monuments and museums in Washington DC this week that just down the street an African American leads our proud country.
As I prepare to gorge myself on generous helpings of my mother’s latkes and turkey, I’d like to conclude by offering my personal thanks to my parents for creating the paradigm of openness to all peoples for their four boys to emulate. My father employed the full rainbow of races among the personnel in his garment business, at all echelons of the corporate hierarchy. My mom brought home guests of all stripes and shared the full spectrum of music such that I had the merit of being influenced by jazz, Motown, rock, soul, classical and gospel. Our family road trips were accompanied by Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, War and Tower of Power, our family seders concluded with Negro spirituals. It is my hope to continue the work of my parents and grandparents to make this world a better place to live for all peoples, to realize Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of a “day when all of God’s children, Black men and White men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.”