Posts Tagged ‘jewish’

Strapping Up

Monday, April 7th, 2014

By Sam Glaser

My first exposure to tefillin was in a basement workshop of a holy sofer (scribe) in Jerusalem.  I was in Israel for my Bar Mitzvah; a lucky Brentwood, CA boy whose parents opted not only for an LA celebration but also for a meaningful few weeks touring the Promised Land.  The culmination of the experience was a second Bar Mitzvah service at the Western Wall where I read Torah at the spiritual “ground zero” of our planet and forged an unbreakable bond with Israel and my people.  I remember my new tefillin straps feeling sharp and rough; it would be months before the leather would soften and feel comfortable on my skin. After this trip my father made a point of praying with me in his rich, walnut-lined study in the mornings before school, allowing for quality father-son time and ensuring that my tefillin would actually get some use.

Unfortunately I fell into the pattern of most of my Conservative peers and my Bar Mitzvah year would be the last time I’d have any shred of active Jewish life.  Yes, I attended confirmation and a few youth group activities but Judaism as I saw it was for nerds and those without a social life.  Mypriorities were fitting in at public school, skiing, biking and surfing and playing with my band.  I was proud to be Jewish and enjoyed family Friday Night dinners, but my tefillin were relegated to a dark closet never to see the light of day.

Fast forward to my twenties when I was building my first recording studio and working as a full-time composer.  I was chasing TV and movie score work, producing my first albums for clients and trying to get a record deal with my own band.  I was approached to write some music to benefit the Operation Exodus campaign (Hineni) and a song for a Camp Ramah Hallel service (Pitchu Li) and suddenly found myself referred to as a Jewish composer. Accelerating this awakening was meeting John and Ruth Rauch whose Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity was offering a two-week arts seminar in Jerusalem, all expenses paid.  I knew I wanted to get back to Jerusalem and was excited to get some inspiration to write some more Jewish tunes, so I applied and got accepted to the program.

Imagine the thrill of living in the elegant guest artist hotel Mishkenot She’ananim in Jerusalem where creative types of all sorts performed, collaborated and workshopped late into the nights. I wrote another three songs that would become part of my first Jewish album and bonded tightly with the international group of composers assembled from the four corners of the earth.  On one of the final nights of the program one of our mentors made a point of having a one-on-one conversation with me. Phillip said, “Sam, I’ve noticed you are a deeply religious guy.” I laughed, waiting for the punch line.  ”No, I’m serious,” he insisted.  I responded that I couldn’t imagine why he might have come to this conclusion and he replied that he had overheard me in dialog with the Israelis on our program and noted that I always took the religious side of our theological arguments.

Phillip concluded that I should further investigate this side of my personality and perhaps it would bear some fruit.  When I asked how I might do that he suggested that I choose a mitzvah and make it my own. We pondered the alternatives and he then asked if I had ever wrapped tefillin.  ”Yes,” I replied, “I have a pair that I received for my Bar Mitzvah.” Phillip told me to try putting them on and using this spiritual activity as a way to remember the connection I felt in Israel.  Upon returning home weeks went by before I made it over to my parent’s house and found the aged leather in the exact place where it had been left sixteen years earlier. The next morning in my beachside apartment I tried to put them on.  I had very little recollection of how to tie the straps or utter the appropriate blessings. I did know enough once I got them on that it was a good time to say the Sh’ma and V’ahavta, to thank God for the blessings in my life and ponder my connection with my heritage.

Midway through my prayers the phone rang.  As I reached for the receiver it dawned on me that this was my time to pray and I shouldn’t interrupt the moment with a call. As I uttered the ancient words, however, I did pause to listen to my answering machine as it picked up the message: it was my friend Jymm Adams from the Sports Channel of LA asking me to do all the music for TV broadcast of the Dodger and Angel home games that season.  I reached my strapped up hands to the heavens and said, “We’ll try this again tomorrow!”

I never got another lucrative mid-prayer phone call, but this small daily exercise of faith gave me something much more: a palpable relationship with the Creator of heaven and earth.  As long as I was setting aside a few minutes each day to pray I started to navigate the challenging waters of the long winded P’zukei D’zimra (Psalms of Praise) and the central prayer, the Shmoneh Esrai.  I added paragraph by paragraph onto my personal ritual, not wanting to bog myself down with too long a service but hoping to increase the fluidity of my Hebrew reading.  I was suddenly grateful for the hours of Hebrew School, Camp Ramah and practice with my cantor and Bar Mitzvah tutor. Thanks to those with the thankless task of teaching this class clown, I could actually read the Hebrew and with time could flow through the siddur.  Before long I could get through the majority of the Shachrit (morning) service and put on my tefillin like a champ.  Eventually I learned to focus on the meanings rather than just pronunciations of the words and learned to close my eyes and simply dwell in God’s presence.

At first the whole binding exercise seemed like a masochistic reenactment of the binding of Isaac, attempting to sublimate ego and will to that of the Almighty in a servant/master relationship. Perhaps tefillin are a physical expression of our being “bound” in a covenant with God. Contracts and covenants are good in that they inspire a sense of trust for each party; I was learning to trust God in my daily life, and I was hoping to become someone that God would consider a trustworthy partner in the healing of the world. As I grew in my spiritual intelligence I realized that tefillin commemorate a much greater degree of intimacy that can only be compared to the covenant of marriage: When we wind them around our fingers we utter the betrothal passage of Hoshea that is often recited at marriage ceremonies. For me, tefillin represent a daily “chuppah” moment just like at Mount Sinai, where I get to participate in a loving embrace of my “partner” in creation.

We all know that tefillin are mentioned four times in our Torah, most notably in one of our most important prayers, the Sh’ma. It is these four passages that are carefully transcribed with the same care as a mezuzah or Torah scroll, both in the head and arm boxes. In the Sh’ma our love affair with God is described as one that involves all our heart, soul and might. So too do we wear the tefillin on the arm close to the heart, on the head, the seat of the soul/intellect, and might, the realm of action on our bicep. There is also an idea that the head straps hang unevenly down towards our genitalia. Essentially we are employing a very physical system of checks and balances, a daily uniting of our spiritual and material existence, our yetzer hatov and yetzer harah (good and evil inclinations,) all within the realm of love. Tefillin offer us the chance to walk the middle path, to keep our intellect, emotions and physical being in peaceful coexistence in service to God.

Another virtue of this practice is the idea of unifying the transmission of both the written and oral law.  The Chumash (Torah) advises that we place a sign on our arms and between our eyes, but does not tell us exactly where that place is, what that “sign” looks like or even to employ leather and parchment.  Yet for millennia Jews have worn the same black boxes in more or less the same way.  I remember on that Bar Mitzvah trip how we hiked to top of Masada and learned that the 2000-year-old tefillin that were discovered were indistinguishable from those of today. Clearly Moses was shown diagrams and visions in addition to just taking dictation on Sinai. This oral law gives us the “meat” on the bones of our written transmission of God’s will. By wearing tefillin everyday we deepen the connection of these two worlds of understanding and take our place in the chain of transmission.

I highly recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s book aptly titled “Tefillin” for anyone curious about the role of gender and the deeper mystical aspects of this mitzvah.

These days I wear my tefillin wherever I wander.  I find that I am often in airports or on the rooftops of hotels looking for a quiet corner to strap up and say my morning prayers. I know it appears strange to onlookers but laying tefillin makes a definitive statement: “I’m Jewish, this is what we do, thanks for respecting our differences.” I welcome the questions that often ensue. When I’m not in the synagogue, I have a favorite spot on my east-facing porch where I am greeted with the warm morning light, flitting hummingbirds and the perfume of jasmine. With my own kids I am relaxed with pushing them to get to a minyan on Shabbat, but I consider the wearing of tefillin every weekday inviolate. Their willingness to do this mitzvah is a prerequisite to participating in our family vacations or any activities on Sundays. Thankfully they get it, largely because they see me doing it and they intuit the importance of consistency. Hopefully it’s more than guilt that motivates them…they have their own loving relationship with God…why mess that up? As Woody Allen says, “80% of life is showing up.” I believe that faithful behavior like a daily appointment with one’s tefillin elevates elusive faith into the realm of knowledge.

I’d like to finish with a tefillin story.  Everyone that I know that wraps on a daily basis has a good tefillin story, usually about their quest never to miss a day under any circumstances. One day on a concert tour/family vacation on the North Shore of Kauai I did my morning service on the beach overlooking a perfect double overhead swell at Hanalei Bay.  After davening I stashed my tefillin in the car and paddled out to have one of the most exciting surf sessions of my life. The locals were helping me get into position to drop into some of the smoothest and deepest bowls of bright green glass of my aquatic career.  After a few hours of breathless exertion I returned to my rental car surprised that the interior smelled of cigarette smoke.  I then realized that someone else had been in the car.  I checked under the seat to find that my phone, camera and tallis/tefillin bag were gone.

I searched the area, interviewed onlookers and filed a report with the police, to no avail.  My son Max was Bar Mitzvah age but had left his tefillin in LA and I didn’t know of anyone else in the North Shore that might be observant. What would I pray with on the following day, the last weekday of our trip?  I had another problem…how would I reach the guy with whom I was supposed to be jamming that night?  After my concert the night before, some locals were inspired to get me together with a percussionist to do a show in a club. But now without my precious iPhone, I didn’t have any of their contact information.  It dawned on me that some friends of ours from LA were vacationing on the South Shore. Perhaps we could reach them and arrange to get together and borrow their tefillin.

Sure enough the Brant-Sarif family agreed to meet us for a hike on the North Shore. We met on the edge of a certain condo complex where a steep trail heads down a cliff to a system of ocean-side sea caves inhabited by giant sea turtles. Following our explorations we scaled the cliff back to the parking lot and went back to their car so that my son and I could daven with tefillin. Time was of the essence since they had to get back down south before Shabbat came in. Just as I strapped up, a warm Hawaiian drizzle started to fall.  To avoid getting my friend’s tefillin wet we all dashed into the alcove of one of the condos and shared an animated communal mincha (afternoon) prayer session.

Just as we were davening the owner of this particular condo came walking down the stairs and shouted, “What the…” Upon closer inspection he stated, “my mishpocha!”  Sure enough he was a Jewish guy from the mainland that had recently made Hawaii his home.  He demurred when we offered him to try on the tefillin but he invited us into his condo for a drink.  When I introduced myself as a visiting musician he responded, “You’re Sam Glaser?? We were supposed to jam last night!”  Yes, this condo where we were huddled, trying to sneak in our mitzvah of tefillin before Shabbat began, was the very home of the person that I needed to reach the day before.

Wearing my tefillin on a daily basis has been nothing other than a window to perceive the daily miracles in my life. Thanks to this discipline I have a regular rendezvous with the Almighty that is fulfilling and unshakeable.   Ensuring that I never miss this appointment has created some truly memorable moments.  I’m also reminded of the power of an encouraging word: just like my mentor on that Israel program gave me the idea of tefillin as a way to connect my trip to further spiritual growth, so too do I try to offer similar suggestions to those with open hearts whom I encounter. Finally, tefillin offer access to the deepest realms of the soul: a connection of mind, body and heart, a binding of servant to master and a daily reenactment of our sacred marriage with the Creator of the Universe.

Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights?

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

By Sam Glaser

lake sunsetOne of the perks of my line of work is time on the road to enjoy new experiences with people and places when I’m not on stage. This year marks my third time leading the High Holiday worship for a wonderful beachside congregation in Virginia Beach. Each year I bring my family and we have used the time between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur to explore Washington DC, the Outer Banks and a very special mid-state retreat, Lake Anna. This unique body of water was formed in the early 70′s to cool the North Anna Nuclear Power Plant. Nearly 13,000 acres were flooded, creating hundreds of miles of prime lakefront property in the middle of an old growth forest.

The silver lining on this seeming ecological nightmare is a ski lake of unprecedented access and “glass.” We are lucky to have incredibly generous friends with a beautiful home with it’s own dock equipped with a ski boat and jet ski. They live at the far end of one of the fingers of the vast lake in a setting of peace and stillness. Just arriving in this slice of paradise was enough to get me breathing again. I made every effort to spend as much time outside as possible, reading and praying on the dock’s cabana, listening to the sweet birdcalls and the occasional powerboat rumble by in the distance. I love davening outdoors and have always felt a subliminal kinship with bodies of water. I want to describe a special ma’ariv (evening prayer) experience I had last night, one that I hope to hold on to for the rest of this new year of 5774 and for the rest of my life.

After active days of water sports the four of usGlasers on Lakespent our evenings relaxing with movies, card games and Settlers of Catan. I was also repeatedly rehearsing the Yom Kippur services, much to my family’s chagrin. Each night when everyone went to sleep I ventured down the uneven steps to the waters edge to ponder the stars and pray the evening prayers. On this particular night a sliver of the new Tishrei moon appeared and disappeared amidst the clouds above and the motionless ink-black water at my feet stretched to the horizon. I was surrounded with the rich stereo cacophony of multitudinous crickets filling the air and the occasional splash of a leaping lake trout. I closed my eyes and quietly recited the passages before and after the Sh’ma, then walked to the edge of the dock to recite the central Jewish prayer, the Sh’moneh Esrai. As I whispered the sacred words I searched the outlines of the gently swaying trees and felt them beckoning me upward. Suddenly a warm gust of wind welled up behind me and heard the baritone clang of the tubular bells of the large dockside wind chime. A chill rose from my feet to the top of my head and I felt like I was about to lift off the dock. I was ready to fly, to accept the gift of Heavenly wings.

I realized at that profound moment that I was no longer “just praying.” The words silently pouring forth from my lips were actually transforming the world. These were not simply idle recitations of the official thirteen paragraphs of requests that we recite on weekdays. Instead, I could feel with certainty that I was acting as God’s partner in the establishment of these realities. I was creating health and healing. I was forming a year of blessing. I was affecting the ingathering of the exiles, rebuilding Jerusalem, assisting God with the birth of the Messianic Age. There was no distinction between my efforts and God efforts to shape history. My will was enmeshed and inseparable with the Divine will for humanity. By the time I got to the concluding prayer, Aleynu, I was actively creating the possibility of a world where all nations proclaim God’s unified name.

prayerI must say that for the first time, prayer makes perfect sense to me. I’ve been davening daily for over twenty years…I guess it’s about time! The gift of Jewish prayer is a product of the powerful connection initiated by our forefather Avraham, God’s first partner in Tikkun Olam. It is a vehicle for radical transformation with an impact on a global scale. All this time I thought it was just  an ancient rabbinic wish list that we endlessly repeat, badgering God into action. Now I understand that prayer is the very instigator of Heavenly action in our material realm. I know viscerally that the transformative power of the human soul is unlimited by space and time. That even though I am surrounded by darkness in the forest of Mineral, VA, I can participate fully in the formation of a peaceful, loving planet, impacting my family, America, Israel, the entire world. Just as God is everywhere, I am everywhere. My pure soul, my “betzelem Elokim” spark of Godliness makes me immortal and omnipresent. At least for those few minutes a day when I choose to connect.

After davening I lay sprawled out on the papa-san chair pondering the implications of this experience. All the pieces of our vast heritage were falling into place. I could perceive the priceless value of walking the path of halacha, studying Torah, observing the commandments, committing God-like acts of loving-kindness. So many phrases uttered from memory and often absentmindedly suddenly made sense. We start our Sh’moneh Esrai with the words: God, open for me my lips (s’fatai) that my mouth may declare Your praise. S’fatai means lips and also the banks of a river, in other words, the limit or defining line of any given body of water. This invocation is encouraging us to leave our bodily limitations in order to invoke nothing less than transformation in the world of the spirit in a powerful partnership with God. We are welcome to stand with God in the Heights and impact world history.

So why the long-winded services when the real “service” is the Sh’moneh Esrai? I now appreciate that achieving this supernal level with the Sh’moneh Esrai requires a formulaic preamble of morning blessings and Psalms of Praise, just so that we mortals have a grasp of with whom we are dealing and therefore how great is our personal power. We need to be reminded that we are the very purpose of creation, the nexus of the spiritual and material realms and that we have a serious job to do. We have the Sh’ma to align us with God’s oneness and therefore our potential to merge with this oneness. It also serves to remind us of God’s love, the inevitable cause and effect when we stray from this love and the grand design of our redemption from Egypt. After all, how could God leave his chosen nation in the hands of a cruel tyrant when God needed us to carry out the master plan for the planet? If we can internalize a sense of wonder and gratitude for that redemption and the gift of the revelation of Torah, we are naturally launched into service in partnership with our redeemer in the form of our primary prayer, the Sh’moneh Esrai.

The next logical question for me is how can I ascend to this exalted place three times a day? How can I soar spiritually when I’m not relaxed on vacation but instead burdened with worry and deadlines in cement-laden Los Angeles? How can I share this passion when I’m in the midst of leading Shabbatons, when I’m on stage or teaching? What is unique about this time in my life that I enjoyed such a breakthrough? On that magical night I believe I was able to fly due to a rare combination of events. The incredible setting not only satiated my senses, it also served to create deep humility in the face of God’s masterful natural world. Spending quality time with my family gives me a degree of pleasure that is best defined in the indefinable word, nachas. I was entirely present, with no deadlines or agendas. As I lay there I dictated into my trusty iPhone a threefold theory of prerequisites to enact this partnership: attaining holiness, living in the present and serving God with joy.

If there is any time during the year that the Jewish People are thrust into the realm of holiness, it is the month of Tishrei. I take the High Holidays very seriously. From the start of the month of Elul I blow shofar every morning after my prayers, prepare the words and melodies of the machzor (Holiday prayer book) so that I can properly serve as cantor and focus on refining my character traits. I find truth in the maxim “according to the effort is the reward;” thanks to this hard work my Rosh Hashana is usually uplifting and empowering. After the days of proclaiming God’s kingship on Rosh Hashana, we enter the special week of repentance/return where our rabbis instruct us to be “goody two shoes” until Yom Kippur. Evidently, God judges us based on where we are at any given moment, unbiased by our past actions or future tendencies. In other words, it’s OK to be on good behavior even it’s something one can’t maintain all year. I’m particularly careful about my blessings before and after meals, how I treat my loved ones, my kavanah in prayer. Furthermore, this time period is marked by special insertions into the Sh’moneh Esrai that require intense concentration so that they are not omitted. You can’t just rally off the same ole prayer that week…if you take your mind off the ball you might skip those passages and must repeat the whole process.

I think I reached this awareness last night because of the power of this time period and the intensity of my concentration on the words. As I whispered them to myself I focused on the meaning of each syllable and proceeded slowly enough to not skip those seasonal insertions. Yes, it helps to have the prayer memorized and a grasp of the holy tongue of Hebrew. It’s challenging to find this time for extended contemplation in the city; we’re usually in a rush to finish or simply rushing to keep up with a minyan. Also, there is something innately purifying about the High Holiday period when one enters it with the right intentions and an open mind. The rabbis tell us that the day of Yom Kippur atones. You just have to show up and toe the line, and the state of purity and closeness follows. Perhaps I lifted off the dock spiritually because I was riding this ten day free gift of enhanced holiness and was taking the time to enjoy it’s fruits.

I believe that maintaining this simple puritythroughout the year is the underlying reason for our intimidating list of 613 commandments.   God urges us to become holy vessels so that we can powerfully assist God in the mission to perfect the world. Living within the boundaries that our beloved Torah prescribes keeps us in the spiritual zone and indicates our commitment to do this crucial work. This experience clarified for me why the Jewish People endures this legacy of celestial responsibility and intense demands on our lifestyle. A good example is kashrut, or why we have to give up certain delicacies like clam chowder and Dodger Dogs. We can see these seemingly archaic rules as a nuisance or instead appreciate that they are necessary since we are spiritual giants that on a sacred mission of Tikkun Olam (healing the world.) After all, it makes sense that the holy words of the siddur are uttered by a mouth that eats kosher food. Our food nourishes each cell in our bodies; certainly we are what we eat and our Creator knows the ideal spiritual formula. Suddenly the effort to prepare and shlep ten days worth of meals to bring in our suitcases for this trip makes a bit more sense.

Similarly, our mouth is better equipped to speak the holy words when it isn’t habitually engaging in deceit, gossip or idle chatter. We have rules of family purity and marital fidelity to allow us bodily pleasures that exalt rather than degrade our soul. My eyes can better perceive a Godly world of miracles when they aren’t exposed to those images that harm my soul. Our observance of the Sabbath allows for a weekly reset of priorities and time to appreciate our weekday efforts in the material and spiritual realms. Shabbat also teaches us the crucial lesson of living for the present moment. Sorry to sound like church lady (or Mr. Synagogue,) but I believe that while there’s always room for innovation, there is no need to rewrite our traditions…there is infinite benefit to the mitzvot that our mortal minds cannot begin to surmise.

I believe the next part of the aforementioned formula, living in the present, is a crucial life skill. Creating deep connections with our Creator and serving as God’s emissary only happens in the here and now. Transformative prayer cannot occur when one is mired in the past. It’s also not accessible when one is obsessing about an uncertain future. God’s real “present” to us is the opportunity to live passionately in the present. Since we can’t change the past and don’t know the future, the present is the only human access point with our timeless God. For most of us this requires slowing WAY down. Patience, patience! For that half hour in the morning or the 5-10 minutes for mincha and ma’ariv, one must start with deep breathing, meditation or whatever it takes to bring the spinning internal world to a halt so that true service can commence. The High Holidays bring us into a realm of timelessness: extra time to pray and reflect and hopefully, to feel inspiration from our clergy. Rosh Hashana gives us a view on God’s regal “presence” and a possibility to live lofty lives as princes and princesses of our Father, our King. Yom Kippur whitewashes our poor decisions in our divine service, cleansing those areas where we have missed the mark and allowing us to try again with a clean slate, putting the past in the past and accessing the realm of the here and now.

The bright red bow on top of the “present” of the month of Tishrei is in the message of Sukkot. Sukkot is all about joy. It’s about a sense of triumph after the work of the ten days of repentance, about the recognition that all we really have is this ephemeral relationship with the Almighty, as signified by our fragile sukkah. That breakthrough that I experienced on the dock at midnight is only possible in a milieu of joy. Our prophets could only prophesy in a joyful mood. We know Avraham was ecstatic about his divine service in the near sacrifice of Yitzchak or he wouldn’t have perceived the angel exhorting him to stay his hand. Joy it the key to the Palace. It is the pipeline connecting us to the heavens. We learn that one moment of the Olam Habah (the world that is coming) exceeds all the joy of this world combined. God exists in a realm of sublime pleasure.

With a bit of effort we can find intense happiness within our own lives, satisfaction with our lot, an attitude of gratitude. Joy is found in our human interactions, surrounding ourselves with those we love, making time for sweet friendships, nurturing our relatives, treasuring our spouses. Pursue the activities that give you joy, be it sports, attending concerts, learning a new craft, climbing a mountain. These are the things that cannot be put off. Don’t let vacation time accumulate. Acts of kindsness to others is a great way to refresh your inner joy receptacle. And In times of stress you’ll have that recent joyous moment to pull you through or to envision when you are preparing to pray.

Saying the Sh’moneh Esrai is a sacred gift for which I have a profound new appreciation. Seeing the potential of true service as I did that night has given me incentive to bring recharged enthusiasm to this highly repetitive act and to share that enthusiasm with others. Each time I pray I can challenge myself to bring a little more joy, a little more focus to the enormous task at hand. I’m incentivized to better understand every nuance of the Hebrew and the genius of the text’s construction. To take my three steps back and pause while I still my inner maelstrom and create a space for the Divine Presence. And then take three steps forward as I board the celestial chariot alongside my Creator and best friend. I stand in Tadasana, mountain pose, strong and confident in my personal power as I enter a realm of timelessness and bask in technicolor joy. And then when my avodah/work is done, I bow in sincere gratitude and retreat to my earthly plane.

Let us commit ourselves this year to serving as God’s hands to better this world. Let us be sensitized to the immense power of our words, thoughts and deeds. Let us fashion ourselves into holy vessels to receive God’s light and share that light with all nations. Let us make 5774 the year that all humanity knows God’s name and peace is proclaimed throughout the land.

Keeping Consistency Constant

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013

By Sam Glaser

The night before my son Jesse left for summer camp in Wisconsin we were sitting around the dinner table discussing discipline. We turned to our sixteen-year-old counselor-in-training to get his feedback on our parenting style. Jesse commented, “Dad, you have never punished me.” “Really?” I responded. “Yep. Never.” I asked my wife if this is a good thing. She responded, “probably not.” I guess I will be remembered as an “old softy” and clearly Jesse has the healthy quality of omitting certain memories. So how do I enforce discipline? My technique seems to be treating my kids like adults and making consequences real. Indeed, there are ground rules in our mostly peaceful household. If they are broken, our kids immediately sense that the placid order of our micro-universe has been altered. Yes, they can keep pushing or nudging and drive us crazy, but why do that? It doesn’t get them anywhere.

I think there are two key factors that have kept us sane while raising the next generation of LA Jewish kids. One is that we leave most of the heavy lifting to God. What we eat, how we treat others and what we do on Shabbat and holidays isn’t something we have to negotiate. We have a 3500-year-old tradition that offers precise guidelines to keep out of one another’s hair and perceive God’s presence in our everyday lives. The kids see us not only respecting halacha (Jewish law) but also loving it. We appreciate that the genius of Judaism is in the details. We don’t obsess about the supposed limitations but we embrace them. We lead by serving as an example and not by lecturing. And we live in a community where love of Torah and a natural adoption of halacha is the norm.

The other factor is the focus of this essay, consistency. We’re not perfect, but as parents, we are really there for our kids. Going to bat for them at school, helping them grow, not tolerating wasting time or mistreatment of others. When we say we’ll be at the corner to pick them up, we show up on time, give or take five minutes. Dinner is on the table for a family sit-down every night. I think our kids sense that we are all teammates and that we will do whatever we can for them within our means. No really means no. And as hard as it is to have a meeting of the minds, my wife and I do try to dispense justice in tandem and resist our kid’s attempts to play one parent against the other. Our parenting style isn’t “disciplinarian.” Just disciplined.

Consistency is one of the few themes that we areconsistently repeating. All three of our children take lessons on their respective musical instruments and must practice regularly if they want to continue. We encourage them to find friends that are trustworthy and do not run hot or cold based on ever-mutating peer popularity contests. We teach follow-through and expect them to meet the obligations they have taken on. I regularly emphasize the teaching that the holy ark was lined with gold leaf on the outside AND on the inside. Why waste precious gold on the inside? The lesson in a nutshell is that being consistent isn’t just an outward attribute; a true tzadik is holy on the inside and the outside. Learning to be consistent as kids makes them better sons and daughters and I believe will make them better employees, employers and most importantly, spouses.

I regularly reflect on our “chassan and kallah” classes when we were newlyweds. Torah wisdom suggests that the guys make their wives the “queen” of the household, and women must demonstrate sincere respect for their husbands. The marriages that thrive seem to be those where the couple is very consistent in managing these two behaviors. Men, you have to make your wife number one. And remind her daily how she rocks your world. Any less and she feels “hated,” much like Leah felt hated by Yaakov. Women, while it’s true that you may wear the “pants” in the family and may even be the primary breadwinner, you have to keep your husband feeling respected and venerated. And not just on Father’s Day. Anyone can be a tzadik for a minute or two. It’s consistent proactive behavior that keeps marriages strong.

Another piece of advice we got as neophyte grooms is to ensure that we consistently satisfy our wives both in the bedroom and the way we pitch in around the house. The key is to set a standard during the first year of marriage that is reasonable. In other words, not firing on all cylinders at the starting line if that is a pace we can’t maintain. During that first year of marriagewe minimize outside distractions to find a point of deep connection and passion, thereby allowing one’s spouse to feel secure that the pattern of love and duty established is not going to diminish. The true aphrodisiac in a loving relationship is consistency: honesty and reliability that builds real trust and thereby builds intimacy.

Similarly, those growing in Judaism have to set an observance level that they can maintain and not burnout. Yes, we all need to be learning and growing; good enough is the enemy of greatness. But not all at once. Most wise teachers suggest a “baby steps” pace so that the growth remains consistent and practical. It’s hard to take someone seriously that jumps from eating Big Macs into a glatt kosher ascetic the next day. Just like we build marital intimacy with consistency, so to can we bond with the Creator of the Universe. The same dynamic is at play: don’t bite off more that you can chew, take one mitzvah at a time, take on Shabbat one hour at a time, show up for prayer whether you feel like it or not. Every mitzvah has angels doing back flips. Consistency with one’s commitments to God are the engine of the relationship; after all, God created the concept of fidelity and thankfully is infinitely patient.

As many of you know, I am excited about The Possible You, a seminar in powerful Jewish living that I deliver about every other month. One of the key aspects of the work is to distinguish “emes” from “sheker” or truth from falsehood in terms of our relationships with God, one another and ourselves. When we are consistent we are bringing truth into the world. When we break our word we bring falsehood. The goal of this work is in respecting the power of the word, creating reality with our declarations and maintaining that reality by being consistent. This isn’t a recipe for guilt every time you are running late, just something to keep in mind when you have a lapse. One can simply restore emes to the world by apologizing, re-committing to a new goal and moving on. The prophet Shmuel says, “Netzach Yisrael lo yishaker,” usually translated as, “The Jewish People are eternal.” A better translation is “the eternity of Israel is intact because we don’t deceive,” or that our close relationship with God is unbreakable when our word is our bond.

We all have areas where we are inconsistent. Usually it’s those very areas that are crucial for our personal task (tafkid) in life. Thank your Yetzer Harah (evil inclination) for tripping you up in the very place you need consistency. It knows exactly what to do to keep you from reaching your life goals. The $100,000 question is then, how can we create more consistency in our lives? I think the key is threefold: once we identify things that make us procrastinate, give us heart palpitations or get us addicted, set small, manageable goals in

writing and tackle them one by one. Too big a mountain and we’ll never try to climb it. Another method is to bring God into the picture. For example, when I have a creative roadblock I ask God for a new song before I go to sleep. I am rarely let down. Some folks feel funny praying on their own behalf. Establish your small goal and ask for God’s help in achieving it, in the same language you would use asking a friend to do you a favor. Finally, allow yourself a sense of triumph when you accomplish each step and reward yourself for being consistent. For me, chocolate ice cream is a great perk. In fact, I think I’ll use that one right now as a reward for getting this essay written.

There are so lessons we can learn from that simple sentence we utter upon awakening: Modeh Ani. I am grateful to you, living and eternal King, Who consistently returns my soul with abundant compassion. Consistency is God’s gift to us. That we can busy ourselves surfing Facebook while our lungs breathe, blood circulates and food digests is nothing short of a miracle. Every sunrise is a miracle. It just loses its impact by virtue of repetition. “Modeh Ani” asks us to not even leave our beds without acknowledging that our miraculous lives are sustained by God’s quiet consistency. Perhaps the best way to emulate the Creator is with an emphasis on bringing that same consistency to our interactions with our children, spouses and everyone we meet.

The Jewish Secret of Attracting Abundance

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

by Sam Glaser

My wife buys the smallest packages of food in order to conserve space in our three-shelf pantry. When I open it on any given morning and find one of those 10oz. boxes of Cheerios I cringe and dream of a time when we can shop at Costco. Furthermore, I insist on having a plethora of cereal options so that I can mix and match my breakfast. She retaliates by buying the mini jars of peanut butter. I get the same grief when it comes to my closet full of clothes. She argues that I have more than she does and calls me a pack rat. I respond that I like lots of choices and see no reason to throw my old favorites away, as long as they still fit. So too with my CD collection, the gear in my music studio, my library. Am I too attached to material things? Yes. But I prefer to give my obsession another name.

Shefa. Shefa is one of my favorite Hebrew words. It means abundance, and it’s something to which all of us aspire. On the most basic level it’s having plenty of money in your bank account. For our family, after our household expenses and day school tuition, this “plenty” is highly variable. I think my array of cereal and t-shirt choices is a subconscious attempt to live in that world of shefa, for at least some of my day. Another way we add shefa into our lives is by celebrating Shabbat in grand style. We get tremendous pleasure out of entertaining guests. Even though it’s expensive to buy all the food and my wife works so hard to make a delicious and beautifully presented meal, one day a week we reign as the monarchs of Livonia Avenue.

I resonate with the idea of living large. I love my king size bed, skiing big mountains, eating overstuffed burritos. I sit in an enormous relax-the-back chair in my studio; I love epic movies on big screens and all-day-long music festivals. Big things give me big joy. I recognize that this conspicuous consumption flies in the face of politicalcorrectness. We live at a time when conscientious Americans are trying to reduce our carbon footprints, bringing canvas bags to the supermarket, driving hybrids and recycling. I’m not suggesting that we abandon these astute practices, God forbid! I am suggesting that we distinguish between minimizing our consumption and maximizing our joy.

Some feel that invoking shefa to accumulate wealth is at odds with Judaism or a liberal agenda. The fact is that all of our patriarchs and matriarchs were loaded. Their illustrious stories are enshrined in our national consciousness to teach that financial abundance isn’t just tolerated, it’s encouraged! The single caveat is that one must remain a mensch (kind-hearted person.) When Abraham left Egypt with the trappings of wealth he took care that his vast flocks didn’t graze on anyone else’s property. Isaac managed his holdings with a low profile and when neighbors maliciously tampered with his wells he reached out with overtures of peace. When Jacob made his fortune he radically transitioned from hardened businessman into the spiritual father of the Jewish People.

Kabbalah describes a higher meaning of shefa: our God is essentially GOOD, and created the universe to extend His/Her good in every direction. Shefa isn’t just material abundance; it refers to the FLOW of God’s beneficence in every form. Imagine a brilliant beam emanating from a spotlight towards a performer on stage. This is like the divine light highlighting all creation. Spotlight operators have the choice of filters to dim the light all the way down to near darkness. What most self-help books and seminars attempt to show us is that we are in control of these filters and can open or close our personal flow, based on our actions and attitudes.

I chose to write about shefa this month because I feel that we tend to self-limit our own shefa, the flow of God’s light in our lives. We allow global economic woes to diminish our outlook, feel beaten down at work, have less time to do the things we enjoy, feel hopeless trying to pay stacks of bills with shrinking salaries, feel helpless dealing with health issues. Life is scary. Living in fear takes us out of the flow of shefa. The million-dollar question is how can we attract blessing in our income, health and happiness?  Thankfully, for the Jewish people, there are very specific ways to master the law of attraction.

Our crowning quality as human beings is our freedom of choice. God created a world where we must choose constantly, where our own micro universes are manifestations of our daily choices. God implores us to “choose life,” to arm ourselves with the information of exactly what is life and what is death and to choose appropriately. Just like we might obsess over which new HD3DTV to purchase on Black Friday, in order to get into a place of divine flow we must we investigate our spiritual choices and then commit to a path.

Our most fundamental choice is whether or not we choose to have God in our lives. Choosing God requires that we create the space for a relationship and connect on a regular basis. You wouldn’t call a once a year Facebook post a great relationship. That’s right, we need more than just the High Holidays to “go with the flow.” Relationship building in Judaism is a two way street: we have to pray with passion and we have to study God’s Torah to hear God’s voice in return. Any deep relationship has the important prerequisite of humility. With the same stubbornness that I will drive around lost rather than ask for directions, I often forget that God is here to help me and bring bounty in my life. The Kotzker Rebbe says, “Where is God? Wherever you let God in.” Get your ego in check, open your heart and simply ask for guidance and sustenance. This is the magic of prayer. To get on the E-ticket ride on this Heavenly wave, all we have to do is ASK for it.

Another aspect of bringing shefa into our lives is in fashioning vessels that can handle ever-increasing blessing. A sixteen-year-old praying for a red Ferrari most likely is not ready for such a vehicle. The answer to his prayer, regardless of how earnestly he asks, is likely going to be NO. Too much shefa can destroy us. Over our lifetime God gives us challenges to see how much shefa we are ready for. The tests we get on a daily basis are here to build us into people who can deal with greater gifts. Only God really knows how much we can handle, even better than we know ourselves. Of course, random acts of loving-kindness are shefa“magnets”; if we prove that we know how to do the right thing in any situation, clearly God can trust us with abundance. God aches to give us more, but we have to CHOOSE the relationship, we have to ASK for what we want and we have to BUILD ourselves into individuals who can handle abundance.

At a conference at which I was performing a few years ago I met a Chassidic maple syrup farmer named Shmuel Simenowitz. He lectures on the subject of eco-farming, getting back to the land and working with one’s hands. One thing he warned of however, is knowing when to be thrifty and when to aim for abundance. We must tread lightly on our planet, but with God we have to live LARGE and ask for the moon. He brought with him a diminutive, two-handled cup for the ritual washing of the hands. He explained that it was given to him by a Jewish ecological organization to minimize the water used in the hand washing ceremony. In no uncertain terms Reb Shmuel lambasted this assault at shefa. Indeed, we bring abundance into our lives when we wash with a lot of water! In other words, don’t hold back with your mitzvot. Do them with alacrity and dedication. Give big charity, make loud blessings over your food, learn Torah with fervor. Take shorter showers but pour it on when you wash.

My regular readers know that I’m a big advocate of halacha, or Jewish law. Halacha has at its root the word “pathway” or how one walks. Halacha may seem formfitting but it is truly a unique channel for each individual. It serves to orient our neshamot (souls) on a step by step ascent towards that spiritual beam of light. Halacha gives us the ability to know the choices at hand and to choose wisely. This is true “informed choice.” Halacha teaches us how to walk humbly before our Creator. It gives us a daily workout of our spiritual muscles in the form of prayer and blessings, even when we don’t feel like working out. It doesn’t turn us into robots; it molds us into the best individuals that we can possibly be, the most refined version of ourselves, the ideal receptacles for God’s blessings. Just like planets and atoms have orbits, animals have instincts and trees know which way is up, so too do we human beings have a divine pathway.

One issue that I’m sure is not unique to the Jewish people is that we often let our tightly defined denominations limit us rather than allow us to bask in the rays of unadulterated shefa. We tend to deem those less observant than we are as heretics and more observant as fanatics. When I grew up in the Conservative movement, I somehow thought that the laws of kashrut were only for the rabbi. I often hear my Reform friends say “well, as a Reform Jew I don’t have to ________” (fill in the blank with whatever mitzvah is deemed too difficult.) Some Modern Orthodox Jews scoff at their “backwards” Haredi neighbors who are simply trying to be earnest in their divine service. My point is that we are all on a personal growth continuum

and should use our Jewish institutions to enhance our connection rather than provide a glass ceiling to our growth. My friend David Suissa comments that in religious life we decide, “that’s not what I do” and then defend that stance religiously! We argue: why try a mitzvah one time if it makes us a “hypocrite” for not sticking with it? As Jews, our access to shefa is closely aligned with the mitzvot that we take on. Take a chance! Be a hypocrite once in a while. Suissa quotes Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz as saying “God counts only the mitzvahs you do, not the ones you don’t.”

Another point of blockage to that loving beam of spiritual light is our own feelings of inferiority. Often we feel like we are not deserving. We can be our own worst enemy. We label ourselves “bad Jews” and sinners and become paralyzed with depression and doubt. There is no such thing as a perfect person. Proverbs tell us that a righteous person falls seven times. But he or she gets back up! Dust yourself off, pound your chest, start a new day and get over it! God created teshuva (return to a spiritual path) before creating the world. God is infinite and therefore infinitely forgiving. God has such tremendous gifts in store for all of us. If we can just get out of our own way.

My wife loves me so much. A few months after the cereal argument she told me that she realizes that having great variety is an important ingredient in my personal quest for shefa. Now she not only provides it lovingly, she actively shops for the brands I like. The boxes are still small, however. Our relationship with our Creator is much like a marriage: success is based on knowing what makes your partner tick, expressing heartfelt gratitude, being sensitive to what makes the relationship flow and rectifying what doesn’t. God is continuously showering us with shefa, in the form of the breath we take, our insight, relationships, awareness and inner peace. And of course, in wearing a favorite outfit, getting that perfect gig and blue-sky powder days on the slopes.

United We Stand

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

by Sam Glaser

My cherished custom every time I land in Florida is to head straight to the beach and jump in the glassy, warm water. The shock of the Pacific chill is absent…no wetsuit required…and the white sand unfolds to the North for hundreds of miles. Upon arriving on this last trip with my fellow Jewish singer and good buddy Todd Herzog, we dropped our bags at the beachfront hotel and davened a peaceful mincha (afternoon prayer) before jumping into the shallow blue-green playground. As we pondered the pelicans and sandpipers, Todd asked me some penetrating questions about why one would want to say the same exact words three times a day. He was curious what I get out of it. Am I was focusing on just getting the words out or am I actually thinking about meanings? Where do I add my own thoughts? And what happens on Shabbat when we stop making requests from God…what am I praying for then?

This conversation got me thinking about why I am so obsessed about getting in my thrice-daily conversation with our Creator. Is it all hot air? Does God hear me? Is it for God or me? Why do the words have to be just right? Have I been brainwashed? Isn’t repeating the same behavior while expecting a different result the definition of insanity? I know…lots of questions. My first answer is that prayer keeps my God-focus intact. It exercises a spiritual muscle that grows stronger with each repetition. Just like a marathon runner would never start a race without training, saying the Amidah (standing prayer) three times a day keeps me spiritually limber. Using that same analogy, for someone just starting out, I never recommend they try to tackle the whole siddur. Bite size chunks, little by little, adding a few miles a day makes the runner a success rather than a crash and burn heretic. I don’t wait for inspiration to pray that may or may not come. I would argue that davening regularly makes God your best friend, your teammate that you train with daily. It makes the elusive “I-Thou” bond palpable.

The next obvious question is “why repeat these exact words?  How about prayer from the heart?” Over the past twenty years I have found that respecting Jewish tradition is a safe road. Generations of righteous people have rallied around these specific paragraphs for millennia and I believe that they have served as a key to our unique and unprecedented survival. The Men of the Great Assembly codified our central prayer nearly 2500 years ago…and it was clearly already in use when they did so. Among their ranks were several sages of prophetic stature. They boiled down God’s will for the Jewish People in eighteen (later nineteen) crucial categories. When we repeat this menu of our deepest needs, we enact our partnership with God in bringing them to fruition. So central is this prayer to our existence that it is simply referred to as tefila (THE prayer) when discussed in the Talmud. The Sh’ma and psalms are important, but the Amidah is IT. I think Rashi says it best when he explains that l’hitpalel, or to pray, means to dream or think ultimate thoughts. We utter nineteen dreams for humanity and those dreams become part of us, defining our aspirations and clarifying our service to God.

When my brother and I were getting more involved in our heritage we made a pact with each other that we call “Holocaust Proofing.” Interestingly, we both came up with this practice on our own and then shared it with one another. The idea is that the structure of the siddur is set up for memorization due to the repetitive nature of the prayer experience. Over the years, with minimal effort we were able to internalize the morning, afternoon and evening prayers so that if we were to find ourselves without a prayer book or, God forbid, in an adverse situation, we would always have these crucial words on our lips. In my personal practice I pray without a book every other time so that I don’t lose the accumulated knowledge. One of the keys to this technique is mouthing the words silently, a custom that we learn from our prophetess Hannah when she so ardently prayed for a child. Just scanning the words doesn’t seem to be as effective as quietly pronouncing every last one.

A friend who was recently divorced was appalled that the rabbi writing her Get (divorce document) didn’t have a special kavanah (spiritual intent) as he wrote the letters with careful calligraphy. She kept asking him to try to infuse the document with spiritual meaning and passion and the frustrated rabbi could only reply, “my kavanah is that I’m writing a Get, period!” Sometimes my emotional connection in prayer isn’t so passionate. It’s the exercise that counts. Rabbi Natan Lopez Cardozo states that simply saying the words, even if you are thinking about the stock market, is still a remarkable triumph. Indeed, taking time out from one’s busy schedule to stand with God is a profound step that cannot be underestimated. I find that my personal Amidah is on a continuum, from awe-inspiring, tear filled revelation to squeezing in a quick mincha hiding behind a Christmas tree in an airport. I’m convinced that those radical moments of sublime unity wouldn’t happen if I didn’t subscribe to the “Just Do It” day-to-day practice.

For me, the key is to make each prayer session personal and real. I realize that most minyanim don’t allow slow nurturing of each syllable but I still insist that the key is in living the words. My rabbi Moshe Cohen says the first paragraph of the Amidah is the web address. If you misspell Appel.com you are going to get some random website. Or worse. Ifgod.com there’s any place that you want to deeply focus and use the formulaic words of the millennia, this is it.

 

Even this single minute of concentration is hard to achieve when your head is filled with worry and deadlines. That’s why we start with a sentence asking God to open our mouths for us; we have to supersede our human limitations to enter the realm of the spirit. A crucial place to pause is the prayer for healing, refa-eynu. The Amidah is written in the plural…it’s not all about you! This paragraph is a perfect place to take a break and earnestly say the names of those who are in need of healing of the body and spirit. I try to make sure I’m focused on Jerusalem during the prayer for the holy city…it’s not enough that I’m facing East; I try to envision a vortex of holiness at the site of the Temple spreading all the way to Los Angeles. During Shma Koleynu I insert anything I’m dealing with at the time, in my own words, silently speaking in plain English exactly what I want and need. Then I make sure that my Modim (thank you) is real, that thanks is pouring out of me like a grateful defendant who just received a positive verdict.

Todd’s last issue concerns how to navigate the personal prayers on Shabbat. The middle thirteen blessings with personal petitions are not part of the Sabbath liturgy. This omission heightens our sensitivity to the glory of the day, since we are tasting “Olam Habah,” a realm where all our needs are met. Crying about our needs can create a sense of lack and potential bitterness, clearly counterproductive in our attempt to establish a sacred island in time. We certainly are allowed to pray for our spiritual needs and for communal imperatives like healing and peace. Our sages recognize that praying for a soul mate is a spiritual need. A good question is what happens for those who only pray on Shabbat…when do they get to ask for their personal needs if not on Shabbat when they do show up to the synagogue?

As I first started praying regularly and respecting Shabbat my main battle was consistency, “walking the talk.”  The beauty of the Amidah is that it helps to unify our inner and outer essence and keep us on a divine pathway. Clearly, success in prayer happens when we are honest in our personal reflection, baring all to our God that perceives all. Tefilah and Tofel, or secondary, have the same root, teaching us that part of the foundation of prayer is making oneself secondary to our Creator. It re-establishes our servitude to a Higher Power; we shouldn’t be cowardly, but humble, making God’s will our will. I have found that this powerful prayer forces me to constantly reassess my personal will with divine will and when in doubt, to err on the side of holiness.

Since the powerful spiritual practice of reciting the Amidah requires engaging and understanding the Hebrew text, it’s important to find a good siddur. The book I prefer is the new Artscroll’s Interlinearsiddur since it has the English printed in a clever way under each word. In fact, I think that it’s intellectually dishonest for a non-fluent Hebrew speaker to use anything else now that this amazing tool is available. It also has the prayer “aerobics” instructions for when to stand, bow and say amen.

In the words of MC Hammer, “We got to pray just to make it today.” Prayer affects worlds beyond our grasp. It connects, corrects, consoles, propels, heals and inspires. With the weight of the world on our shoulders we can opt for fight or flight. As the People of the Book and the Children of Israel, we have at our root a connection to the collective wisdom and strength of the past and a penchant to get into the ring. Yisrael means to struggle with God and man. And win! The Amidah is one of the best tools to unite us as a nation, and when we stand together anything is possible.

 

The Family Portrait

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

By Sam Glaser

I was mortified by the videos of Charedim taunting school-children in Beit Shemesh. I didn’t see them until I was asked to participate in the recording of a new song composed as a response of US Jewry. I immediately watched the plethora of YouTube versions of the incidents and had a visceral reaction of nausea. I had to ask myself: obviously this is horrible but why is this having such a profound impact on me?

This tragedy helped me realize that my dedication to bringing Jews together is more than skin deep. My parents made unity an essential part of my upbringing and clearly it has played a central role in my career choice. Situations that divide us as a people undo something fundamental within me. Also, becoming observant over the course of my life has given me deep respect for rabbinic authority and the realm of Charedim. I am sickened by news reports of corrupt Orthodox rabbis trafficking human organs or covering up child abuse. But that’s criminal greed and depravity behind the scenes, and depraved individuals infect every culture. There’s something uniquely damaging in blatant, public hatred for fellow Jews. Spitting on children? Throwing rocks? Disrupting school? This is my people? What can we do?

While discussing my feelings with my wise wife she directed my attention to our family portrait shot at a recent reunion. She recommended that I analyze our unique clan and expound on the differences that exist while we manage to remain a core unit of love and compassion. I have to give her credit for reminding me that if we can all get along in our microcosm, perhaps there is hope for our diverse people.

Allow me to take you on a tour of adults seated in this sweet portrait, from oldest to youngest. My dad, seated on the couch, is looking somewhat haggard thanks to the 15 grandchildren that invaded his peaceful Pacific Palisades home for the week of Sukkot.   He was raised in a WWII-era Bronx family that moved in LA while he was a teenager. He went to LA High, rebelled and joined the army instead of going to college and then took over a division of his dad’s garment company. He went from his Orthodox upbringing to eventually join one of the largest Conservative synagogues in LA, Sinai Temple, the congregation in which I grew up. Nowadays he regularly leins the Torah for his local Chabad and actively engages in the passion of his retirement years: studying and teaching Jewish history.

Next to him with a baby on her lap is my beloved mom who was able to cook for this whole crew and still keep a smile on her face. She grew up in a staunch left wing Reform household in Sacramento. Her dad, Bill Berman, blew the shofar in their temple on Rosh Hashana, led epic seders for all of us happy grandkids and her mom founded the local Hadassah chapter. Thanks to her love of Israeli folk dancing and handsome Israeli men, we had a continuous stream of sabras in our home. These contacts provided us with scores of Israeli friends to visit on our frequent trips to the Holy Land and a comfort level with folk dancing that would get us through many an Oneg Shabbat. Thanks to the influence of her sons, my mom became a founding member of her Chabad and her famously open home is one of the few in the area in which the kashrut is trusted.

Next comes me and my wife Shira. We both came from an observance-free singlehood knowing that eventually we wanted community in our lives. We fell in love with a neighborhood that came to life each Shabbat and where family life was the rule rather than the beachside exception. Our children are a spicy mix of my Romanian and Lithuanian background and her Italian and Argentine roots, worldly, Modern Orthodox and hip. My brother Aharon, seated on the far left, is a powerful rabbi influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav. He and his wife Chava Dena excel in Jewish outreach to twenty-something singles near Toronto, where they live with their two young daughters. He is living proof that you can have s’micha and still wear jeans.

Next brother, on the far right, is Yom Tov. I guess it’s appropriate that he’s sitting on the far right. He’s the frumest person I have ever met, other than his wife Leah, and yet he insists to me that he’s not frum. He is raising his eight amazing kids near Mea Shearim in Jerusalem and has dedicated his life to loving the Jewish people with Torah and song. If Charedim ever needed a poster child it’s right now; and I elect my brother. Finally, my youngest brother Joey and his wife Jen are raising their two boys (and another on the way!) in San Diego. These rambunctious guys are a potent mix of Glaser/Berman genes and Jennifer’s Dutch and Indonesian beauty. Their kids attend a Reform Hebrew school and they belong to both Reform and Conservative synagogues. They have a beautiful Shabbat ceremony in their home every Friday night, have an epic Sukkah in their lush suburban backyard and serve as role models to their fortunate friends.

I’m sharing this gory detail to point out that in spite of our many differences we find common ground and celebrate our love for one another. Yes, there are frustrating moments like dealing with degrees of kashrut on Pesach and accepted sleeve length. Certain cousins hug the opposite sex, others can’t be touched. We have to negotiate how to attend extended family simchas when they fall on Shabbat but we ALWAYS go. The cousins may come from three countries and dress differently but perceive they are one family. Jennifer told me that her kids went into mourning when their Chassidic cousins returned to Israel. We know that together we are strong and we need desperately each other and we have far more in common than those details that divide us. Sound familiar? This is the story of the Jewish people. We are like five fingers on one hand.

My dad has had a recurring mantra throughout his life. He wants his four boys to get along. Any time we are bickering or if any of us is in need, my dad gets on the phone and prods us to call and check in with the relevant brother. He is a fan of intervention and has taught us the value of facing issues and not sweeping our pain under the rug. I intuit that God feels the same way with God’s own children. Our internal strife as a people creates disunity in the heavens. Want to make God happy? Get God’s chosen people on the same page, not just tolerating each other but looking out for and loving one another.

Back to Beit Shemesh, the answer, I believe has to come from responding to radical hatred with radical love for all Jews. We have to redouble our efforts to find common ground, to expose our unity in YouTube videos highlighting our cooperation. The overwhelming majority of Charedim are peace loving and tolerant and they must be first in line to fill the airwaves with their outrage and protest in the streets. More than ever, they need to leave their cocoons and hit the streets looking for relationships with those less religious. My family thrives even amidst our myriad theological conflicts. Spending time together forces biases and stereotypes on the table, requiring that we find solutions to survive. The problems start when we are only functioning in isolation from one another. Imagine the kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s Name) if the response to this current media-fueled debacle becomes a worldwide campaign for reconciliation between our various movements.

Clearly, healing for the Beit Shemesh community must begin

with the punishment of the perpetrators of this desecration. They cannot continue to abuse the system and avoid the consequences of the ripple effect of their insensitivity. One of the basic seven laws of humanity is to set up a system of courts and uphold justice. Israeli police cannot tiptoe around the offenders for fear of Charedi riots. There must be teeth in the punishment of hate crimes for us to hold up our heads up as a Light unto Nations. As the Midrash says, ”Whoever is kind to the cruel will end up being cruel to the kind.” Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet of the UK stated, “We must be intolerant in order to defend tolerance, or unkind in order to defend kindness, or hateful in order to defend what we love. Such ‘acts of terror’ have no place in any democratic society, let alone a Jewish State, whose “ways are kind ways, and all her paths are peace.”

Mirroring the diversity of Jewish people, the Glaser family is a diverse tapestry of colorful personalities. The backside of any tapestry is a chaotic series of clashing threads and knots. The media, in its effort to be newsworthy and controversial, directs our gaze at the knots of life. Our job as a people is to focus our attention on the heavenly view of the tapestry, on the smoothly presented work of art that is our national destiny. There must be recrimination for those who choose to destroy our work of art.   But at the same time we can make it our personal responsibility to tie more knots, weave more patterns and repair the rent masterpiece.

It is not by coincidence that the code of Jewish law that guides Jewish lives is called the Shulchan Aruch, the set table. Our golden path, halacha, can resemble a sumptuous banquet that would make anyone salivate, whetting their appetite for more. A true tzadik has magnetism and warmth, a harmonious, peaceful neshama where the inside is at parity with the outside. Righteousness is not determined by wearing long black coats, beards and peyot. Let our generation be known as master chefs, those who create a heaven on earth, a feast of life grounded in tradition and filled with love and compassion. This is the Judaism that is in our grasp. This is the Judaism that is beyond denominations. Let us become the role models that will inspire our children and children’s children. God can handle affronts to God. Our job on earth is to look out for each other.


The Reform Biennial: The Good, the Bad and the Plenary

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

 by Sam Glaser

 I am writing this newsletter on the road during my 2011 Chanukah tour. It is as varied an itinerary as can be imagined in the Jewish world; a whirlwind of performing for Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, religious and day schools and a retirement home. This is my eighteenth Chanukah on the road, a time that is often difficult since I am gone for weeks rather than my typical every-other-weekend schedule, but is also the period when I relish in the joy of having so much time to interact with out-of-town friends old and new and reflect on the year gone by.

I began this adventure at the new Gaylord National Convention Center, a mega hotel complex just south of Washington DC that easily housed the 6000 delegates of the Reform Biennial. I have performed at several of these events but this one felt special. It ran like a well-oiled machine with a record number of participants and myriad opportunities for study, conducting the business of the movement and power-schmoozing. An impressive list of my musical peers was on hand to add a creative touch to the proceedings and a well stocked exhibit hall of Judaica from around the world was a shopper’s delight. I couldn’t walk more than a few feet without being embraced by the membership and clergy of synagogues where I have performed over the years.

 There were two highlights of the conference for me. One was the climax of Craig Taubman’s standing-room-only concert when he invited me to the stage to sing a spiritual version Maoz Tzur. It takes a big man to open up a very tight set list to let another artist share the spotlight. For me, it was a moment of redemption. My own concert earlier that day was scheduled during a plethora of breakout sessions and so the numbers in the audience were limited. I have a suspicion that those individuals that program the concert slots aren’t quite sure what to make of their frum, tzitzit-wearing friend Sam, in spite of the fact that most of my shows on my annual 50 city tours are in non-Orthodox synagogues. That day happened to be my birthday, and I was questioning the wisdom of accepting the invitation to attend in the first place rather than celebrating with my family. Having the chance to share in the intense spirit of a packed house for a show unopposed by other programming gave me and hopefully the audience a powerful high. I’m grateful to Craig for this gift.

 The other highlight was a pair of late night jams. I had just finished a midnight hour and a half kumzitz where I led a continuous medley of all tunes Jewish, Beatles and Broadway. With little strength left after such a long day I wandered through the lobby on the way back to my room. There I saw a group of the new wave of immensely talented young Jewish musicians who had just been kicked out of the lobby bar after last call. We started singing and were asked to find somewhere else to make noise. I dragged them back to the stage where the other kumzitz had just ended and we began another few hours of going around the circle sharing new musical creations with one another. Every musician had either a keyboard, guitar or percussion in hand and lent their voices to one another’s songs. The collaboration was organic and the support and love for one another was palpable. I must say I have renewed hope that in spite of the economics of downloads, loss of our distributors and financially ravaged synagogues, there is a HUGE future in Jewish music.

Plenary sessions can be inspiring or a grind. Imagine attending two three-hour banquets per day but you don’t even get the tepid chicken dinner. These were the programs where Obama, Eric Cantor, Ehud Barak and Natan Sharansky held court. I’ve been to enough Biennials and GA conferences to predict the exact script of each of these speeches. The politicians impress the audience with teleprompter readings of exactly what the constituent population wants to hear, pausing at preset moments for applause and standing ovations, posing for the photo with the movement leaders and then running to the waiting helicopter. Yes, it’s exciting to be in the room with the political giants of our day. But the succession of humorless soundbites leaves one wishing for a left turn, a bit of levity, a novel idea. The rest of the plenary sessions were chock full of congratulations for incoming or outgoing movement executives, showcasing programming and waiting for videos that usually didn’t work. No one was forcing me to be there. I attended the plenaries because I deeply want to see innovations, to be inspired, to feel hopeful for this largest movement on the American Jewish scene.

 A few things really got my goat. Over the days of the conference I heard many times references to the Reform’s iconic principle of “informed choice.” Informed choice requires that the chooser have all the possibilities at his or her disposal. It also requires a Jewishly educated laity. Real pluralism tolerates and engages all aspects of the spectrum of the Jewish people. Instead, I found many speakers to be defensive, taking a stand against tradition and using the word Reform to excess. In other words, rather than just say, I’m a Jew, the phrase continuously repeated was, “since I’m a Reform Jew,” “as Reform Jews we…” or, “I am proud to be a Reform Jew.” Jewish pride is great, but in many cases the speakers missed the chance to bring the conference a feeling of belonging to the greater whole of our glorious people.

 This idea of pluralism also must take into account the presence of Reform Jews with right wing leanings. I heard closet conservatives whispering amongst themselves in fear of political backlash. The AIPAC meet and greet was nearly empty in spite of the free cocktails. Applause for Republican Congressman Eric Cantor was guarded. Discouraging words are seldom heard in the interest of political correctness. Where is the famous Reform openness and tolerance here?

 While I’m venting, the basic food groups of the Jewish menu such as tefillin, respect for the laws of Shabbat or kashrut were absent. I asked if there were any provisions for kosher meals and the few provided had been sold out in advance. No kosher deli booth among the multitude of dining options, nothing with a hechsher for the many exhibitors, visitors and attendees who might appreciate such a concession. I lived on store bought bagels and salad for the duration of the conference. Attendees had to reach into their wallets over the course of Shabbat and cell phones were plentiful. I heard lots of calls for outreach…what would it hurt to have some outreach towards those on the traditional end of the spectrum?

 I know some of my readers are thinking: “you idiot! If you don’t like it, go to the Chabad convention next time.” But that’s missing the point.   I have seen in my short career the “running for the exit” of my generation. The URJ youth director informed me that 80% of Reform kids leave Judaism after Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Gone. For good. Only 15% of those that identify as Reform Jews report any involvement at all in Jewish organizational life. More than half say they have not attended a synagogue within the past year and cannot read Hebrew. Ours is a generation that needs the power of a living Torah and the skeletal support system of mitzvot on which to hang the flesh of our spiritual lives. If it works for Orthodoxy throughout the millennia, there must be something to it. A strong Reform Judaism that has a grasp of these crucial fundamentals and includes them in the wealth of Jewish choices offered will be a movement that will attract American youth.   My friends, this isn’t Reform vs. Conservative vs. Orthodox. Any failure of the Reform movement is the failure of Judaism.

 I was brought up in the Reform/Conservative realm and can attest to the fact that there is a way to ensure vibrant Judaism in the present and continuity in the future. Reform Jews are amongst the most dynamic, forward thinking, innovative and challenging of our people. They have the civic passion of Avraham while Orthodox Jews have the stringency of Yitzchak. Now is the time to come together in balance like Yaakov, with vibrant education, great music, and a love rather than fear of tradition. I know personally the power of Reform camping, prayer, social justice. I sang into the night with the new generation of teens and twenty-something leaders, educators and musicians. What’s done is done…but let’s get this new generation hip to mitzvot, giving them tools to have a full Shabbat every week, rejoice in the power of the holidays, to see that tefillin are cool and that opting for “pork sliders” and shrimp sushi is opting out.

 The departing leader of the movement, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, gave a fascinating presidential sermon on Shabbat. His daughter has become a Modern Orthodox Jew. He said the following:

 ”When I look at Adina, I see someone who has put God and Torah at the center of her life. In her high school days, she would often challenge me. Judaism is of transcendent importance or it is not, she would say. And if you don’t believe in your gut that Judaism matters to an existing God, why bother?…Do I regret her religious choices? Absolutely not. She has chosen a path that I would not choose, but it is a worthy path. We continue our discussions, which are both vigorous and loving. And every time we do so, I think about the need to respect religious approaches other than my own. This is a subject on which I need reminding, from time to time. I am a combative person; I see myself as a defender of Reform Judaism; I am quick to offer a fierce defense of my liberal principles. But sitting across from my daughter and knowing the thoughtfulness of her convictions, it is respect that I feel and express; and I remind myself to stress the authenticity of my beliefs rather than what I may see as the shortcomings of hers. This above all is what I have learned from my daughter: that if we hope to engage our children, we will need to provide those answers – answers that are religiously compelling and intellectually engaging, as well as authentically Reform…this means making it clear that as Reform Jews, there are things that God expects of us. This means saying that ritual opens us to the sacred and gives structure to the holy. This means affirming our belief that if ritual dies, Judaism dies; it is only a matter of time. This means proclaiming that Shabbat is a God-given duty, even as we know that there are many, many ways for a Jew to fulfill that duty.”

 May Rabbi Yoffie’s wisdom permeate liberal Judaism. Let us give our kids real “informed choice” and let the chips fall where they may. Let us open the gates of tolerance to all branches of Judaism and not just to LGBT’s and the intermarried. If any movement in Judaism is going to make radical changes it will be Reform. They have done so as they have shifted to a Zionist platform and evolved from Classical Reform to a movement that was able to adopt the latest batch of Ten Principles and davens with the beautiful Mishkan T’fila siddur. I’d like to be first in line to work with the Reform movement on a task force to create true pluralism, informed choice and full spectrum Jewish education. It may be too late for the millions that have chosen to disregard the chosen people. But for those incredible young folks who were singing with me at Biennial into the wee hours of the night of their love for God, let’s give them a fighting chance at having Jewish grandchildren. Is it fair that only Rabbi Yoffie be assured of such a luxury?

The United States of Israel

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2011

by Sam Glaser

America IsraelAs Thanksgiving rolls around, I’ve been reflecting on just why it is that turkey and Thanksgiving are both called hodu in Hebrew, and what comes to mind is how much we Jews in America have to be grateful for and how our destinies are intertwined. Thanks to the wisdom of fathers of the constitution, Jews were given a sanctuary in the West where they could flourish in freedom. As a people, we are living proof of the power of free markets, access to education and social mobility. My grandpa came to this country as a penniless teenager from a “one-horse town” in Transylvania. In the very next generation his three sons rose to prominence: a graduate from Harvard Law, a garment industry tycoon and an attorney/opera impresario. As remarkable as our family saga is, we are certainly not alone.  This past year on my concert tour I enjoyed an eye-opening view of the depth of this symbiotic relationship between the Land of the Free and the People of the Book.

Last Purim it was my daughter Sarah’s turn to join me on a business trip. My travels took me to Philly for a few shows in Mainline and Yardley and I made sure we had a full day to do fun stuff in between. The natural thing to do in the city of brotherly love is to run the Rocky Steps,

SamSarahPhillyvisit Independence Hall and for us kosher consumers, hit the vegan dim sum place downtown. One thing that I didn’t expect was to be embraced by the Jewish angle everywhere we turned. Sure, the Liberty Bell quotes our Torah, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land…” but the full realization of our contribution was apparent after visiting the two most prominent tourist traps in the center of town. One is the hi-tech Constitution Center where Jewish ideology is credited in guiding the vision of our founding fathers. They were deeply religious men that took their cues from the bible and even considered making Hebrew the national tongue. Some of the tourists, upon seeing my kippah stated: “we love the Jewish people” or “we stand with Israel.” Of course the Jews that stopped us said, “oh, do you know ‘so and so’ from Sherman Oaks?” We saw exhibits that listed prominent Jews in government, building the economy and marching for civil rights. I could see the pride in Sarah’s fifth-grade eyes as she looked for clues of her heritage in this beautifully realized testimony to our grand American democratic experiment.

Sarah4PresidentAcross the street is the spanking new National Museum of American Jewish History. It’s a stunning 100,000 square foot, five story, state-of-the-art nachas factory for members of the tribe. We began the historical journey on the fourth floor in the mid-1600′s and emerged a few hours later in the present day where we pondered Irving Berlin’s piano, Spielberg’s films and Sandy Koufax’s mitt. I think this multimedia exploration of Jewish accomplishment should be mandatory viewing for all Americans; anti-Semitic bias fades in the light of contributions we’ve made or the degree in which Judaism has informed this country’s values. My Reform friends shared our enthusiasm at the intense degree of Jewish pride furnished by the experience. My Orthodox friends shuddered in horror at the $100 million plus bill that otherwise could have financed Philly Jewish day schools for perpetuity.

Fast forward from Purim to Yom Ha-ki-Purim. I had the great thrill of introducing my family to the wonder of Washington DC during my new gig leading High Holidays at Temple Emanuel in Virginia Beach. Rosh Hashana weekend coincided with the annual VB end of summer Neptune Festival. Our mile long walk to shul along the beach boardwalk took us through a busy art festival with live rock and roll on every third block. Hundreds of food stands beckoned with treif delights. My daughter remarked, “so much food and nothing’s kosher?” Sure enough, at the end of grub row was the Sabra booth where handsome young Israelis danced around while distributing free chumus and pita chips! Halleluyah!

With a week to wander Virginia before Yom Kippur I guided my family on a historic journey to Colonial Williamsburg and then continued north through Richmond up to our friend’s home in Potomac. For kids from LA where “really old stuff” is from the 1960′s, visiting these 1700′s neighborhoods was quite a treat. Well in advance of the trip I worked hard to assemble an overflowing itinerary and booked the various sights with the help of my congressman, Henry Waxman. He was able to secure for us tours of the galleries of Senate and Congress and the Supreme Court, plus a “never tell me the odds” moment: we won the lottery to obtain the rare ticket into the White House where we enjoyed a personal tour from the resident military officers and we met the Obama’s dog, Bo! Following that, my best buddy Chuck’s brother, who is a captain in the Navy, welcomed us for a two-hour insider view of the Pentagon.

One cannot visit DC and not hit the requisite monuments: we marveled at the Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, WWII and Vietnam memorials and witnessed the beautiful new Martin Luther King statue the week of it’s public unveiling. Yes, we got to know the underground Metro very well. Finally, we powered the museums: Holocaust, National Gallery, American Art, Portrait Gallery, National Sculpture Garden, Natural History and last but not least,

our favorite, the Spy Museum! We went bowling, shopped in trendy Georgetown, visited Chinatown and the historic 6th and I synagogue, hiked to the spectacular Great Falls National Park and somehow did all this in four whirlwind days.

I’m reporting this travelogue to my dear readers not so you pity my exhausted children, but to highlight the Jewish presence in our nation’s capitol. One obvious landmark is the National Museum of the Holocaust, perhaps the most compelling testimony to the horror of Nazism on the planet. My point is that this museum isn’t hidden in a JCC. It’s one of the nineteen official Smithsonian museums and 90% of the attendees are not Jewish. Not only are we Jews free to pursue our faith in this country, but also on that imposing central mall, we occupy a place of honor, geographically and spiritually. The Smithsonian art galleries feature Chagall and Modigliani right up there with the Monets and Renoirs. We watched senators in action and my kids marveled that the two representatives from our state are proud Jewish women. By chance (is it ever really chance?) during our half hour in the Congressional gallery, the bill on the floor was an attempt by LA big business to do away with Clean Air Act provisions and was being challenged by our MOT, Congressman Waxman. Even the Spy Museum had a healthy helping of tales of the Mossad and sadly,

displays describing Jonathan Pollard and Ethel and Julius Rosenberg. A few blocks from the Lincoln Memorial lies perhaps the most important Jewish site of all: Eli’s Restaurant, a glatt kosher eatery where we rested our tired feet and feasted every night before heading back to Potomac on the Metro.

These two centuries have witnessed the Jewish people leading unprecedented gilded lives in the Golden Medina. We have struggled for acceptance, marched for tolerance and enjoyed breakthroughs in every field. The Jews are perhaps the best evidence for the potential of the cherished American value of freedom. Given the chance, the Jews manage to excel in every vocation, from Broadway to boxing, garments to gambling, physics to physique.  Jews represent .01% of the global population and 20% of the Nobel prizes, including five laureates in 2011 alone. For the past century, Jewish Hollywood has defined the American Dream and exported that mythology to a world hungry for hope.

It is my prayer that we baffle the demographers that preach our demise with a Jewish renaissance in our beloved home away from Homeland. The answer for us Jews is simple. Affiliate, propagate, reach out, focus on one mitzvah at time, and have fun in the process. No need to reinvent the wheel. The Jewish People have the answer for survival and the United States, by adopting our mission statement, will God-willing continue to share our mission as a light unto nations. Have a happy Thanksgiving.

NewCAJE OutRAJE

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011
 

by Sam Glaser

I recently returned from the NewCAJE conference, the nascent incarnation of the Coalition for Advancement in Jewish Education.  We gathered at the American Hebrew Academy campus in sunny and steamy Greensboro, NC for five days of celebration, study and connection.  I offered an hour and a half workshop everyday and had

newcajethe rare gift of speaking about spiritual subjects close to my heart to students who were attentive and hungry for the information.  I enjoyed the chance to hear both the veterans in Jewish music perform in addition to sampling the hot, upcoming talent.  I went to amazing lectures, relished in stories from master storytellers and listened in wonderment to a fifty-voice choir that formed over the course of the conference.  And every night, from midnight till 3am, the musician insomniacs gathered in a “kumzitz mafia” jam session of outrageous proportions.

My own concert was on closing night.  I can’t describe the feeling of performing to an audience that already knows every lyric of my songs.  I asked to keep the houselights up so that I could reflect the joy visible on the faces of those whom I’ve grown to love, who have supported me onsamNchicksthis twenty-year odyssey as a Jewish composer. These are the community leaders who have rallied to bring me to their congregations, who cherish my CDs, who share my music with everyone they know.  Many of them met me when I was single and have followed my life through my engagement, marriage and rollercoaster experience as the father of three.  Scarcely a CAJE meal goes by without my having to break out pictures of the family.

It was at my first CAJE in 1992 that I met Debbie Friedman.  I had sung her songs since I was a kid at camp and now I had the chance to share the stage with her.  It just as well could have been Paul McCartney.  Well, almost. That year Julie Silver and I were the new artists debuting on the big USC stage. Just before my set the power went out and I had to sing my new Hineni song for 2000 people a capella. Concert organizers Craig Taubman and Doug Cotler pushed me out on the stage. Later Julie shared her gorgeous Sim Shalom.  I gave out my four-song demo cassette to everyone I met and started samNDebgetting invitations to perform out of town. Amazing! This year NewCAJE gave me a taste of new artists Noah Aronson and Max Jared, among others, about whom I will rave and support in their journeys.

At any given CAJE conference many of the presenters are neophytes in their field. But what other chances will they have to hone their craft in such a loving, forgiving milieu?  Veteran educators like the holy Rav Yosef Liebowitz come every year because CAJE-niks are among his best market for the distance learning that he offers from his home in Israel.  Judaica and booksellers flock to merchandise at the expo, attracted by a captive audience of dedicated Jews who will share the wares with friends back home.  I’m confident that Joel Grishaver wouldn’t have such a flourishing Torah Aura publishing company if not for CAJE, Nancy Katz wouldn’t be covering the country in painted silk and Bruce David’s amazing stained glass wouldn’t grace so many sanctuaries.

Something unique about this conference is its emphasis on pluralism.  Reform, Conservative and Orthodox learn, dine and sing together under one roof.  For most it’s the ONLY time they might witness such harmony and tolerance.  Ethics of the Fathers reminds us that a wise person is one who learns from everyone.  Only at CAJE do I really see this precept in full bloom.  CAJE is nothing less than the potential of a world redeemed. Everyone is a bit uncomfortable and everyone grows.  Girls in short shorts are confronted by the long coated mikvah man.  Orthodox rabbis become unwilling members of a flash mob that breaks out in the dining hall.  It’s easy to say in the comfort of one’s own movement that “we are all in this together.”  But CAJE isn’t the Biennial or OU conference.  It’s a true spiritual coalition, where all the colorful members of the tribe have something to add.

I have performed and taught at this conference some nineteen times.  CAJE has become a benchmark in my year, the start of my post-summer touring season and a good excuse to finish new recordings. Traditionally, upwards of 1500 educators, rabbis, cantors, composers, storytellers and artists meet at a roving series of university campuses for this special week of sharing, learning and song.  Perhaps the most compelling reason samNsingersthat they return is the camaraderie.  There is no price tag one can put on belonging to such an esteemed, generous family.  Tragically, teachers are usually on the low end of the socio-economic totem pole.  The individuals that we empower to bring the newest generations into the fold can barely afford to live in the neighborhoods of the synagogues they serve.  CAJE gives these righteous individuals a chance to stand up and be recognized and appreciated.  It’s renewing, refreshing and rewarding.  Some chastise the organization and say it’s nothing more than Jewish summer camp. But if summer camp is the “great white hope” for our kids, then why can’t the teachers of our students have their moment in the sun?

Now I’m going to get on my soapbox.  In March of 2009 CAJE went bankrupt.  It was half a million dollars in debt and still the international Jewish community let it fail.  True, this was in the aftermath of economic meltdown and Madoff.  Yes, there was too much overhead and they should have screamed louder for help.But for a statistically infinitesimal percentage of the total given to Jewish causes, CAJE could have been revived.  Individual benefactors sponsor operas, wings of University buildings and MRI machines for much more.  Who will take a stand for Jewish education?  Where are our heroes?

NewCAJE emerged out of the ashes last year. Thanks to the gumption of CAJE veterans like Cherie Koller-Fox, the conference is wobbling on new legs.  Recently Cherie was overjoyed that a $9000 matching grant was established. She’s counting on underpaid teachers to come up with funds to keep this dream alive.  My friends, NewCAJE needs $900,000 to make this happen. $9,000?  Oy!  Where are the Jewish Federations of North America?  How about a national Bureau of Jewish Education percentage of funds to this cause?  Most teachers used to have a source of funds from their synagogue or day school for annual enrichment programs.  Professional development is a cost of doing business!  This must be reinstituted so more teachers can attend. Jewish benefactors of universities need to come forward and cover the conference costs at their home institutions.  Giving opportunities for wealthy individuals abound, with naming rights!  For example, subsidizing the young leadership program, college program, new teacher recognition, veteran teacher awards, childcare, evening entertainment, fine arts.

I finished my NewCAJE concert with a rendition of Debbie Friedman’s moving Tfilat Haderech. It’s the very song that I sang with my fellow musicians at her gravesite after everyone else had left the funeral.  It’s the song I chose to sing at the Los Angeles commemoration of her Shloshim.  It will be the only “cover tune” on my next Jewish CD.  I brought with me the brand new instrumental tracks that I had just recorded with my band and set up some high quality stereo mics to record the NewCAJE audience on an endless series of tearful “amens” at the conclusion of the song.  Please listen to the track.  Hear the love shared by this amazing group of teachers.  Hear how much we miss our Debbie.  Hear how much we need and support each other.  Hear how much we need your help to spread the word.  Thanks for listening.

War of Worldcraft

Tuesday, April 12th, 2011

by Sam Glaser

 

 

WoWarcraftI’m trying to understand why I’m so perturbed by my kids wasting time glued to a screen. Perhaps it’s because my wife and I brought them into the world with the hope that they might better appreciate the gift of life.  Or at least ride their bikes once in a while. As adolescents they see the “real world” as the music, videos and TV shows that they voraciously consume. All the Jewish stuff they have to deal with in day school is a burden to be endured until they can get back online. Plugging in is a divine right.  After all, they will live forever, have all of their needs met and perish the thought of having a vacant minute.  In this generation you’re nobody until you have the latest screens of all shapes and sizes.  Entertainment options from Avatar to Jackass to funny pet videos on YouTube compete for their attention on aptly named iphones, ipads and imacs.

 

We won the battle easily when our children were younger.  We cut off our cable and except for the occasional movie night, our home was TV free.  Then something changed about five years ago.  YouTube was founded.  Bootleg websites started up with TV and film programming including feature films still in theaters. Disney.com and Nickelodeon.com became 24/7 outlets for their shows and suddenly the computers that we had in each room for their homework became TVs.  Battle lost.

 

But we had not yet met our true nemesis.  My eleven-year-old daughter opened a Facebook account to shmooze with friends, play online games and post her scores.  During her one hour TV allotment each day (ha ha!) she plays the games, watches a show and chats with mariofriends…simultaneously. I can leave for the evening and return to find her in the exact same position.  She can handle piano practice for ten minutes but as soon as it’s time to work out a tough passage I can see her desperation to unplug her brain in front of the screen.

 

Now I realize Facebook is for lightweights.  The real addicts have something much more powerful. It’s called World of Warcraft.  As in other role playing games, WOW allows my boys to wander an alien world populated by characters manned by players from around the world. They get credits and booty for kills and strive valiantly to get their creature up to the 85th level of power.  While it’s nice to see my boys cooperating to negotiate the game, I don’t appreciate that left to their own devices they would never leave the house.  After all, we live in Southern California.  They might as well live in Rochester.

 

One flaw in the gaming action is that you can’t just shut if off mid-battle.  My kids team up with other players to take down more powerful creatures and to abandon the quest is considered disloyal.  They risk losing “honor” points.  Poor parents worldwide who are calling their sons to dinner or trying to get them to brush their teeth are faced with, “not now, Dad, I can’t get away.”  That’s right, they are honoring their faceless online teammates rather than their flesh and blood parents.  Can you imagine? We hit the breaking point last week.  My oldest had once again “forgotten” he had a test, played WOW all night and then wouldn’t turn it off when my wife was going ballistic.

 

When we closed their account and banned WOW from our home my younger son seethed, “I love World of Warcraft MORE than you!”  Now they are sneaking out to 7-11 to buy game playing cards and hijacking any Wi-Fi they can find.   Anything to stay in the game.  We’re thinking it’s time for an intervention.  Yes, I’m exaggerating.  They’ll grow out of this, just like they did Pokemon, b’ezrat Hashem!

 

I think part of my opposition to this addiction is that it is so contrary to the Jewish values we desperately are trying to impart.  It’s not just the fact that my kids are annihilating virtual humanoids for fun and profit.  My wife and I try to model altruistic behavior, helping those in need, giving tzedakah, entertaining guests on Shabbat.  I run around the globe trying to increase enthusiasm for Yiddishkeit, connecting people with each other and with God through the vehicle of music. There are not enough minutes of the day to accomplish this task, let alone keep a family together and pay the bills.  Why are my kids in such great need of escape?  How can we engage them in appreciating their legacy?

 

The Jewish People are players in a grand scheme I call a “war of worldcraft.”  We are in the midst of a 3500 year peer-to-peer networking phenomenon unrivaled in history.  With courage and unrivaled stubbornness, we cleave to our ancient texts and way of life, hoping to rub off on those around us.  The Torah predicts that we will be an eternalLight Unto Nationspeople and remain few in number and yet will impact all of mankind by wandering the globe. I would argue that God’s Light Unto Nations experiment is working rather well; here is one of my favorite quotes:

 

According to historian Thomas Cahill, “The Jews started it all – and by “it” I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make all of us, Jew and Gentile, believer and atheist, tick.  Without the Jews, we would see the world with different eyes, hear with different ears, even feel with different feelings…the role of the Jews, the inventors of Western culture, is also singular: there is simply no one else remotely like them; theirs is a unique vocation.  Indeed, as we shall see, the very idea of vocation, of a personal destiny, is a Jewish idea.”

 

Pesach is a time to break free of those entities that enslave us, to get back on track with our national goal of worldcraft.  Thankfully Pharaoh is gone from the stage of history, but servitude is still with us.  We are trapped in our quest for elusive wealth, societal status, vocational advancement, material acquisition.  We are badgered by bosses, teachers, parents and peers.  We are stuck in ruts of our own making, forever battling inner demons, addictions and bad habits.  We come into this holiday well aware that the issues we complained about last year will likely be with us next year.  Does that fill you with confidence that you might enjoy real freedom this year? How can we have a breakthrough this season?

 

The opportunities during Pesach are manifold.  By edict of the Torah it must occur in the spring.  Renewal and rebirth are in the air.  Pesach is our national homecoming.  We press reset, reconvene with our people, reprioritize.  First we have to clear out the chametz.  All that yummy challah, Oreos, single malt…it’s got to go.  The rabbis tell us that the chametz represents our ego.  Big bread = big ego.  For a week we eat humble pie.  Humility is first base.  Humility gets you on the playing field.  When we aren’t full of ourselves and our entitlements, we create a space to allow for God’s peace, for transformation.

 

Next we unplug. On seder night we get together with our families, have a celebratory meal, tell our story.  Anytime I’m teaching a workshop and see people drifting off, I launch into a story.  We love stories!  Make the Pesach story real, for adults and children.  Act it out.  Wear costumes. Seder PlateDemonstrate the plagues with marshmallow hail, throw rubber frogs, wear animal masks and die on the floor for pestilence.  Just like Shabbat meals, the three ingredients for a great seder are fun, fun and fun. The key line is “b’chol dor vador…” in every generation we must see ourselves in the Exodus.  This isn’t a commemoration of something that happened to distant relatives.  It’s our story in perpetuity, in every age, with every enemy of our people that seeks the destruction of our holy mission of tikkun olam.

 

Note that Moses isn’t mentioned much in the Hagadah. This is God’s night. Pesach recalls a time when we were in our infancy as a people.  After womblike protection during the nine months of plagues we were carried through the desert by God’s grace.  We often forget that the song Let My People Go omits the end of the sentence (that they may serve me.)  In other words, on Passover, we relate to God as a tender, loving parent. Freedom is irrelevant without Torah, the instructions for life. It’s the laws, the holy pathways that God gives us that are our true freedom.  We have a simple choice: to serve God or serve man.  Choose wisely.

 

The classic seder songs were chosen by our sages for good reasons. Four Questions: Ask real questions! Inspire your kids to ask their own questions. Become a seeker of good answers. Dayenu: 15 steps of the seder parallels the 15 verses of the song; breaking down our salvation into multiple steps makes us more grateful for each miracle. Chad Gadya: there is a purpose to this grand arc of our history.  L’shana Haba’ah: we’re still in exile!  Don’t get too comfortable…healing the world is your responsibility. Finally, we finish the night with the recitation of Hallel.  It’s unlike any Hallel the rest of the year.  First of all, it’s at night and it’s woven into the meal. Secondly, we don’t introduce it with the standard blessing.  Why?  Because we don’t need to set up the mitzvah of its recitation like we normally do.  On the seder night, if we’ve done the work of clearing out our ego, eating the bread of affliction, drinking four cups of wine and singing at the top of our lungs, we are in such an exalted state that Hallel is a spontaneous outpouring of praise.  As natural as breathing.

 

If you don’t get it right the first night, well, you get to try again the next!  Holding on to the inspiration of the seder is hard work.  Make it a powerful memory!  Be a ham, drink liberally and stay up late!  A few years back I celebrated with my family in Jerusalem.  We joined my brother and his many children for a night of music and laughter that lasted until 4am. Then my brother and I wandered the streets of his shtetl; I was dressed as Pharaoh, he was my Jewish slave and our kids followed closely as we searched for lazy Jews to beat with bulrushes.  None of us will ever forget it.

 

Amazing events and the resulting inspiration are fleeting.  Somehow we have to hang on to the revelations, to internalize them and allow them to transform us.  We go into Pesach overwhelmed by the cleaning and cooking, overburdened with the rat race, oversaturated by the media.  Let’s finish the week transformed and relaxed, with new focus and commitment.  Imagine getting stuck driving through a storm and walking through the dark seeking shelter. Once in a while there’s a flash of lightning that illuminates our way.  That flash is the seder.  We can use that brilliant moment to light the way through the darkness and confusion we encounter the rest of the year.

 

Pesach gets us back in touch with the big picture.  It reminds us to treasure humility and an open heart; that the genius is in the details: in small acts of kindness, or observing seemingly small mitzvot like not over-bakingExodusmatzah by even a moment or dipping delicate greens in salt water.  We reinforce the concept that we were redeemed and are continuously redeemed from servitude so that we may serve God with love. The crowning moment of the Exodus is the revelation of God’s will in the Torah; this profound gift necessitates that we take the time to grapple with its demands.  When all is said and done we have to sing, at the top of our lungs, from the depths of our hearts.  And most importantly, we can’t let distractions like World of Warcraft derail us from our critical goal of serving as soldiers in the “war of worldcraft.”