Posts Tagged ‘music’

Life on the Fringe

Friday, October 31st, 2014

By Sam Glaser

I experienced my first taste of yeshiva learning when I was a twenty-something wanna-be rock star in LA.  After perusing an attractive brochure that appeared in the mail, I applied for the all-expenses-paid scholarship to study in Jerusalem.  Aish HaTorah provided an incredible curriculum with a dozen brilliant rabbis that taught us hour by hour in an Ottoman Empire study hall  perched atop the Old City walls.  I considered the millennia-old alleyways comprising the “shuk” my personal playground and had the Western Wall as my front yard.  The neophytes were never expected to join the yeshiva prayer services but since I had a fair grasp of the basics from Hebrew School I would often don my tallis (or tallit, meaning a prayer shawl) given to me at my Bar Mitzvah and join the minyan (prayer service.)

At one point one of my peers announced, “Sam, you don’t need to wear that tallis here.”  “Why not?” I responded. “I feel more comfortable praying in this thing.”  My friend then sat me down and gently explained that according to Ashkenazi tradition, men don’t wear a tallis until they are married.  I looked around the minyan and saw that he was right.  “But what about the last paragraph of the Shema?  I need a tallis to kiss the tzitztit, right?”  “Look, Sam,” he replied, “this way the single ladies on the other side of the mechitza (room divider) know who the single men are.”  That was all I needed to hear…I never wore a tallis again until I was married.

I enjoyed four months of intense learning and growth on that formative trip.  I was on fire!  Loving Torah study, loving Jerusalem, perceiving God’s presence from one end of the universe to the other.  Then Passover arrived and everything changed.  My first seder was with one of my favorite rabbis and it lasted nearly till dawn.  I learned so many new songs, some of which I still sing today.  All the study in preparation for the big night allowed me to connect to the Hagadah in the deepest way.  While I adored the Reform-style seders at my Grandpa Bill and Grandma Zetta’s home in Sacramento as I grew up, I never had an intellectual/spiritual marathon anything like this.  Afterwards, my fellow yeshiva bochers (students) passed out for a few hours and then the rabbi directed us back to the Old City.  For some reason he thought it would be funny to send us down the road to Hebron, in the opposite direction from where we had to go.  In our dress shoes.  Not funny.

Then I needed to find a second seder the next night since I am a Diaspora Jew (the locals only have to do one.) I remember having to shlep all over the Rova (Jewish Quarter) in search of a certain visiting American family.  Thankfully I found the place and the gracious host treated us royally and gave us an eye-opening overview of the Jewish calendar.  He explained the deeper reasons for the counting of the Omer and the juxtaposition of the Pesach holiday with Shavuot.  One of my fellow students turned to me and said, “Sam, you know no one is going to want to hear your music for the next month and a half.”  Of course I didn’t believe him.  Judaism without music…how could that be?  Well, the next day I verified it with my rabbi and now had perfect clarity that the time had arrived to go back to my LA recording studio and sports car.

My last Shabbat at the kotel was bittersweet.

While touching the cool, ancient stones of the Wall, I prayed an abbreviated service on my own since I was already running late for lunch. How could I leave this magical place, this “Jewish Disneyland?” It felt like I had learned more in those four months than in four years at my university.  But then there was also that feeling of homesickness, missing my family and longing for my beachside apartment.  One by one, my rabbis pulled me aside to discourage me from going back to LA so soon.  Particularly Rabbi Weinberg, my beloved Rosh Yeshiva.  “C’mon Sam, give us a year,” he implored, looking at me with that trademark gleam in his eye.

As I stood there at the kotel that final day I remember thinking, “God it’s been so good getting to know you.  I am so grateful for this chance to learn and to celebrate my Judaism in this incredible country.  I love you.  Thank you.”  Tears started streaming down my face.  I realized that I had been touched for life; that this knowledge of the truth and power of Torah was now a part of me.  There would be no going back.  I said a few passages in the Pseukei D’zimra (Psalms of Praise) and then the Shema. “I really wish I had my tallis on right now,” I muttered.  “I feel naked without it.”  Just then I heard footsteps behind me.  Before I could turn around, a man with an intimidating beard placed an oversized tallis over my shoulders.  Wow…now that’s service!  He motioned that I should come over and join a minyan at the back of the kotel plaza.

As I recovered from my shock I reluctantly followed the man, still not sure what he wanted from me.  Rabbi Sheinberger, a kabbalist and famous kotel personality indicated that I should be the one to serve as hagbah (to lift the Torah at the end of the public reading.)  This is a big honor!  I had no idea why he picked me but I stepped right up, grasped the worn wooden handles and thrust that beautiful scroll as high as my 6’3 frame would allow.  As I spun around allowing all to see the crisp calligraphy I recalled the Rosh Yeshiva saying that here in Jerusalem reaching God is a local phone call.

My next connection with a tallis would be at my wedding seven years later.  I sent my Israel-bound mom on a mission to purchase the tallis of my dreams.  She returned with a simple black and white, super lightweight, extra large garment and “sold” it to my fiancé since the custom is for the wife to give the tallis to her new husband.  That sunny Sunday afternoon we stretched it atop four poles and stood underneath as a cavalcade of seven illustrious LA rabbis gave us our blessings.  Now whenever I wear it I feel the hug of my wife as well as the warmth of God’s “wings” holding me close.

When one wraps oneself up in a tallis there there is sweet prayer that is said, Ma Yakar.  Since I found it difficult to hold a book while surrounding myself in the flowing fabric I simply wrote the text into a song to allow me to memorize the words.

“Clothing me in the shadow of Your wings

Shelter me in the comfort of Your home

Light of life, surrounding me with love

In Your arms I’ll never be alone”

When we gather the four corners before saying the Shema we ask that God collect Jews from the four corners of the earth in peace.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach told me that he collects the corners deliberately and lovingly as if he’s gathering all the Children of Israel together in a warm embrace.  So I do it the same way.  During the Shema we kiss the fringes every time we mention the word tzitzit.  It’s a very intimate act that’s been performed by legions of brutish, sleepy men every morning for millennia.

The “forget me knot” fringes tell a story of their own:  the numerical value (gematria) of the word tzitzit is 600.  Add to that the eight strings and five knots in each corner and you get to that mystical number of 613, the sum total of commandments throughout the Torah. Furthermore, one of the strings is dyed blue with the ink of a certain snail (although today most people don’t have this blue thread.)  The idea is that you see that beautiful aqua blue which reminds you of the sea, which reminds you of the sky, which reminds you of the “heavenly throne.” In other words, tzitzit remind us that by observing our breathtaking natural world we can extrapolate the presence of the Creator and concretize that relationship with the observance of our 613 commandments.

Since the tallis is typically worn only during the morning service there is a way to stay connected to the mitzvah all day:  I wear a “tallit katan,” a small t-shirt style cotton garment under my shirt.  Some tuck the fringes in to maintain a low profile.  I say, let them hang out!  I celebrate my tzitzit! After all, the mitzvah is based on SEEING them and then connecting to God and the commandments.  I think that the tallis katan serves as a subtle badge of honor; when you see someone wearing them, you can be pretty sure they are deeply respectful of Torah and scrupulous with mitzvot.  The fact is that it was a challenge for this surf short/t-shirt wearing California kid to add another layer of clothing everyday.  I can corroborate the Ethics of the Fathers, which states, “according to the effort is the reward.”

Since I’m always on the move I’m pretty tough on my fringes.  For that reason I learned to weave my own tzitzit, a skill that I usually practice on long airplane flights.  The people sitting next to me think I’m doing some bizarre crochet.  I try to weave with mindfulness and carefully follow the tradition of winding the string in between knots 7, 8, 11 and 13 times, which hints towards the metaphysical values of those numbers.  I like to emphasize to my curious seat mates that wearing fringes is an optional commandment; we only have to place them on four-cornered garments. Unless you are living in Mexico and typically wear a poncho, it’s pretty rare to find such angular clothing.  Therefore, by actively seeking out a garment with distinct corners, we are making the powerful statement that we desire to connect with the Almighty all day long.

There is an amusing coda to the aforementioned story: during a recent concert tour in Israel I wound up in Rabbi Scheinberger’s Friday night minyan at the wall.  After the spirited davening I asked the rabbi if he remembered the incident when he called a young stranger from across the kotel plaza to be hagbah.  He didn’t recall the day but remarked, “well, that makes sense…I like giving Hagbah to tall guys.”

My relationship with my prayer shawl and tallis katan is a loving one, as long as the temperature doesn’t get too hot!  Wearing them is a privilege that I anticipated from childhood when I played with the fringes of my dad’s tallis at our synagogue.  Whereas I used to say that I never wanted to be so forthright with my Judaism, displaying this round-the-clock four-cornered garment has become a celebrated part of my life. Believe it or not, I have some wonderful fans in the deaf community that have shared with me that the sign language gesture for “Sam Glaser” is two hands at the waist with fluttering fingers pointing down.  Keep your eyes open next time you’re at an airport.  You may see me at one of the gates wearing my black and white superhero cape, doing my part to save humanity.

Musical Thunder Down Under

Friday, August 1st, 2014

by Sam Glaser

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

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

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

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

 My hosts for the Australian Jewish Choral Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“God, I wanted for it to be one way

But I see that it’s not Your will

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

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

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

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

Good night!

(If you made it to the end of this, my longest blogpost ever, please consider sending me an email at and telling me what you think of it.)

In Search of Hidden Miracles

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

By Sam Glaser

The other night over tofu curry my wife was explaining the concept of fiscal vs. calendar years to my kids. Times they are a-changing: my seventeen-year-old Jesse just opened his own E-Trade account so that he can play the market on his own. He used to hunt bugs in the backyard; now he’s studying corporate cash flow! She told him that most individuals in the US seem to follow the January to December calendar model, making January the back to work month following a holiday vacation and a drunken New Years Eve. My dad’s swimwear business went summer to summer since we shipped everything by May and then had to figure out what to do the next season.

We then discussed that most synagogues work on a fiscal year that begins with the High Holidays since that’s when they put on the “big show” for the crowds of the penitent and do most of their fundraising. That schedule holds true in my business also since my gigs follow the ebb and flow of synagogue life. It seems to make sense to start the Jewish calendar year on Rosh Hashana, literally the “head of the year,” but indeed, that’s not how it goes in the bible. In fact, just as we are about to leave Egypt with great signs and wonders, our first commandment as a nation is to keep a calendar. Once we become free men and women, we are personally accountable for the passage of our time and must learn to use it wisely. We also have to know when the fifteenth of the month is so that we can properly conduct our national homecoming party, the seder. Therefore the Jewish year actually begins in Nissan, the month of Pesach, which makes this month, Adar, the last month of the year and both a time to party and a season of reckoning.

What exactly we’re supposed to be feeling in this final month of the calendar is concealed behind the mask of our beloved Adar holiday, Purim. Yes, it’s a great holiday for kids but the real magic requires deeper analysis. The scroll that we are commanded to read, Megilat Esther is one of the final entries in the chronology of the Jewish biblical canon and interestingly, has no mention of God’s name. We start the year with the Pesach Haggadah and it’s manifold recitations of gratitude to God for the plethora of miracles performed on our behalf. Missing from this text is the mention of the story’s hero, Moshe! By the end of the Jewish calendar year, no discussion of God and it’s all about Queen Esther. What has changed? Evidently over the Jewish year we move from emphasis to God’s revealed hand in our redemption (Exodus) to a focus on the action of individuals with God operating behind the scene (Esther). I think the message here is that God is always with us even when that isn’t clear, and that we’ve got to get into the game.

The rabbis teach that the ten plagues in Egypt transpired over a nine-month period. This was our national gestation; we morph from Avraham and Sarah’s mishpocha (family) into a great, holy nation. Over the course of the next few millennia we read about the fits and starts of our spiritual adolescence traveling to and living in Israel and then finally, by the time of Esther, we renew our covenant as adults. No more need for coercion, no more need to have Mount Sinai held over our heads, we accept the yoke of the commandments willingly and with joy, knowing that God’s intimate Presence follows us wherever we wander. In fact, the title of our text holds the answer to the puzzle of Jewish survival through this long exile: Megilat Esther can be translated as “revealing the hidden,” it’s a lesson plan in adopting a world view where we perceive God’s hand behind all events.

Therefore, the vibe of this month of Adar is to bask in the emunah (faith) that we have crafted over the Jewish calendar year. Every holiday that transpires, beginning with our national homecoming (Pesach), reenacting the receiving of Torah (Shavuot) and then the High Holidays, serves to build this invisible shield of Divine love and protection. By the time we’re getting ready for Purim we rejoice in the seemingly “God-less” story knowing firmly in our hearts that God’s grace is behind all the events in our lives. In fact, the word emunah alludes to “craftsmanship,” sharing the same root as the word “amanut,” the arts and crafts that we used to do at camp. The subliminal effect of full immersion in the Jewish holiday cycle forms a level of belief that is real, tactile, or as my Rosh Yeshiva used to say, offers “five finger clarity.”

One of the gifts of Judaism is the feeling that we are part of a big-picture national destiny, that time is marching towards a goal and we are here as Jews to do our part to bring that ultimate tikkun olam, or fixing of the world. When one is focused on a greater goal, the day-to-day mishaps become trivial. This eschatological passion has kept the Jews on track through millennia of abuse and deprivation. As Monty Python’s Black Knight might have said, “it’s just a flesh wound.” That’s because in our hearts we know we’re on an important mission as a people and that God is cleverly guiding history towards a powerful goal. When Queen Esther is given the chance by Uncle Mordechai to be the hero, he warns her: if you don’t take a stand here, our salvation will come from somewhere else. In other words, as Jews we can opt in to this great adventure or relegate ourselves to the sidelines. God will get the job done regardless. I say: let’s get on the playing field and go for it! My generation is sadly, for the most part, opting out and it is this bitter fact that keeps me packing my bags for yet another trip rather than sitting in the comfort of my recording studio.

There’s another aspect to this evolution that began with overt miracles to God’s working subtly behind the scene. Imagine that you are imprisoned and have a prison guard right outside the cell. Obviously with the watchful guard on the scene you are on your best behavior. When the guard goes on rounds, however, that’s when you can do headstands, scrawl graffiti or go back to digging that escape hole with a spoon. The God of Nissan is an overwhelming presence that limits our freedom of choice, whereas the God of Adar gives us the space to express the fullness of our human gift of choice. I believe that all history is following this same principle and more than ever we live in age where we are stratified into believers and “secular.” That intelligent people can deny God’s presence fills me with mirth. Just look at how powerful God is, like the guard on his rounds, giving us the freedom to perceive God, or not. Amazing!

I also see a remarkable shift of the power center of humanity moving from a single leader into the hands of the masses. In fact, Judaism teaches that we are on a continuous down-slope of leadership as we move farther from Sinai. But there is a simultaneous elevation of the individual as we move towards our ultimate redemption. The internet is one of the best examples of this modern revolution of self-empowerment. As of 2014 the majority of folks in the developed world have smartphones in their pockets. That means they have Google readily available for any question under the sun, not to mention the over a million remarkable apps at their bidding. When our greatest leader Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Mt. Sinai his face was glowing. His light was so bright that he had to wear a mask just to deal with the regular folk. Perhaps Moshe had to die before they went into the Land of Israel so that the Jews would learn to stand on their own two feet and become leaders in their own right. Hold up a candle in daylight and it’s light is irrelevant…but in a darkened room it can light the way. Fast forward three millennia and we have democracy, ipads and near total literacy. Our leaders may not be as monumental as those of the bible or even those of our previous generations but we live at a time when more than ever, every individual soul can shine.

The most important theme of this, our final month of the year, is that of joy. Living in a state of simple faith brings on the greatest joy. The month of Adar is the capitol of joy and Purim is its headquarters. At the end of days our sages tell us that Purim will be one of the only holidays that we celebrate. Because it’s all about joy in the end. We’re commanded to lessen our joy in the month of Av since we commemorate the loss of our national sovereignty and our beloved Temple. When Adar comes in we’re told to increase our joy. Reading between the lines reveals that we must ALWAYS be joyous. Lessening joy means we’re still serving God with joy! All the disasters foretold in our Torah occur because we forget to serve God with joy. When our service becomes a burden…look out! The true goal of Adar is seeing that the seeming “bad” breaks in our lives are all for our good, that we must accept them without despair. Jews can never despair. Gam zeh l’tova…this is also for the good. It’s one level to have acceptance. The Adar challenge is to accept pain with JOY.

Seven times every nineteen years our rabbis instituted a system of leap years to keep our lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar. This is required because according to the Torah, Nissan, the season of our redemption, must occur in the spring. Some argue that the rabbis chose the month of Adar to double because it is the last month of the year. I believe that there is more to it. If one is choosing which month to double, make it the most joyous of months! Imagine a double Av…yuck! Furthermore, when we get the chance to go through an experience a second time we can enjoy it so much more. We may have “been there, done that.” But if we take advantage of even more wisdom and perspective the second time around it’s much more powerful. In this case, Adar 2 can double our joyful emunah!  The Talmud debates whether it is better to seize the day and celebrate Purim in the first Adar. It then concludes that it is more important to celebrate in the second month of Adar in order to maintain its thirty-day proximity to Pesach. That way our holidays of redemption at the end and beginning of our canonic saga are juxtaposed. Just like we go right from finishing the Torah on Simchat Torah to starting immediately with Breshit (Genesis), we flow from our cycle of God’s hiddeness right into a deeper appreciation of God’s light revealed.

I urge you to go to a place where Purim is celebrated with joyful abandon. If you live in LA…just walk Pico Boulevard. Take advantage of the transformative power of the four mitzvot on this special day: hear the megila, give substantially to the needy, give a few items of food as a token of friendship and eat a hearty meal at the end of the day. For many of us, intoxication gets us to a place where the heart is opened, we love more readily and tears of joy can flow. For some of us getting intoxicated is a mistake. I find that when I’ve had a few l’chaims my empathy muscle is stronger and charity becomes more natural. Maybewalk over to a 7-11 and take care of the people outside. Acknowledge the miracle of God’s stewardship in the your life. Take a stand for a friend with a gift of food, the gift of time and a patient ear. Be deeply grateful for the feeling of belongingness to this remarkable nation. Make this Purim the day you emulate Queen Esther, becoming an integral part of the solution to the issues that face our people and the entire world.

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.

The Art of Letting Go

Thursday, July 26th, 2012

by Sam Glaser

I’d like to share a revelation that I had during a camping trip in awe-inspiring Kings Canyon, CA last week.  I spent much of Shabbat afternoon by a wild river. There’s not much else you can do at a campsite with a small eruv around the tents on a long, hot summer day. Over the course of several miles the rushing water warms from a numbing glacial chill to a balmy 75 degrees. A few dear friends and I walked among the rocks, found perfect places to dip our feet and occasionally submerge to cool off. After a few lazy hours we felt at one with the flow, relaxed and open. During these rare moments of peace I try to ask the deep, dark questions that rarely see daylight. My new friend Frank was on hand to help me with one quandary that had been nagging me.

Rambam tells us that it is cruel to face adversity and not ask why such a thing might be happening. I had pulled a muscle in my calf a few weeks earlier while skateboarding with my son. We were watching the pros at the X Games and then doing some freestyle ourselves. It finally got better and then I managed to re-injure it on a Kings Canyon hike, just when I reached full mobility. Oy…another two weeks of limping? So why now, why my calf, and why the re-injury? Frank believes that revisiting the same affliction helps one recognize that he or she didn’t learn the lesson the first time. I never thought much about my calf strain…these things “just happen” when you over extend, right?

One thing that’s been on my mind is the imminent departure of my oldest son who is now a senior in high school. My wife and I are awakening to the fact that the next family vacation will be the last with all of us together, at least for a while. Soon there will be a missing person at our dinner table. And then another kid will join him, then another. We are hearing the footsteps of Empty Nest Syndrome, and my reaction is to greedily hold on to each moment. I’m shooting more pictures than ever, trying to pack in memorable activities, filling my son’s head with words of guidance, boosting confidence and issuing warnings. Simultaneously I am grappling for traction in a topsy-turvy economy where music is often the first line item cut from disappearing budgets and downloads prevail. I’m learning that my reaction to all these issues is really the same: hold on for dear life, hoard my assets, maintain status quo, wear a convincing smile.

As I expressed these insights I told Frank, “I’m

trying to hold onto my kids just like I’m trying to hold onto this water.” As I reached into the river for handfuls of water it just escaped through the cracks in my fingers and continued on its inevitable descent. I sobbed tears of sadness and relief as I acknowledged this bittersweet pain that I have been carrying inside.

When we feel the need to grab so much we send a message to the Universe: I don’t have what I need, I’m living in fear, and I’m desperate. Holding on creates tension; imagine a fist clenched tightly closed, a contorted bronze sculpture calcified in a defensive, protective pose. That’s me. Where there is no movement there is no grace, no flexibility. Our sages teach us to be supple like the river reed. A dry, brittle twig will break under pressure. Stay liquid, stay open, and stay available. Just like that river flows effortlessly towards Fresno, I must be at peace with change to allow the Divine flow to nurture me.

I’m not sure why that gastrocnemius muscle is called a calf, but we can learn a lot from the mention of the calf in our text, specifically the golden variety. Frank and I discussed the biblical scene of an entire people losing faith in their leader, panicking, creating a replacement deity. Do you see the connection? Panic, anxiety and melancholy cripple one’s faith. Even the afterglow of Divine revelation at Sinai wasn’t enough to keep the Jewish People connected. How much more so do we fall in this generation when current circumstances conspire to annihilate our faith. Bottom line: I am a man of faith who has no faith. I run around the country to fifty cities a year singing songs of love for God and yet my personal faith in

God’s ability to sustain me and keep my family together is crumbling. Rather than serving as an example of holiness and living at peace with the Universe, open to whatever God has in store, I am a frightened child trying to protect all my toys from the neighborhood bully.

My kids will spend a year in Israel, go to college, marry and propagate the species, God willing! That’s what we want! As parents we are archers, pulling back the bow with all our strength and launching our beloved offspring into the fray, using the best aim we can muster. Then they are flying. Separate from us. Leaving us. They will follow their own voice, make their mark on the world, stand on their own two feet. Hopefully they are standing on our proverbial shoulders, with as expansive a view as we can provide. To try to stop the process is like trying to dam up a rushing river. You can try to pile up stones in a Sisyphean rage…or just let the water do what it’s going to do anyway.

In my career, I will continue to have challenges and they will force me to innovate, create partnerships and grow. Why is it that I can counsel friends with clarity, seeing the rich horizons that lay just beyond, and for myself I see darkness? One of my buddies on the camping trip is an actor and yoga instructor. He is 37 years old and says he can’t marry his girlfriend until he has a stable income. Did I mention that he’s an actor and yoga instructor? God wants us happily married! The flow will come! Of course God will continue to look out for my family! Of course I will succeed! Like everyone else, God has given me a unique set of gifts, a piece of the global puzzle that only I possess. God has a purpose for me. I have to make the effort, but I must remember that God will finish the task. Trying to do it all is the act of a pagan. I have God on my team!

One of our nights in the campground we went to the ranger led astronomy lecture. We were astounded to learn of the vastness of space, the size of the great celestial bodies, the mind-stretching distances in the universe. Our sun is just one of over 200 BILLION stars in our Milky Way galaxy, and the Milky Way is just one of over an estimated billion galaxies. For all of our human accomplishments we still haven’t set foot on a single planet in our own quaint solar system. Around the campfire we were marveling that the same God that brought about the Big Bang lovingly created our brains and bodies. God creates new suns in explosive supernovae and still “sheps nachas” when I wrap my tefillin.

After the lecture Ranger Bob brought us to a clearing in the forest where we could peer into the pitch-black new moon sky with a sixteen-inch mirror telescope. My friends, I saw a global cluster, the Whirlpool Galaxy and “eye of God” Ring Nebula with my own eyes! All of these celestial bodies have a specific place in the universe, predictable orbits that they follow, so reliable that we can use their light to steer our ships through the night. All of creation is on a path, with atoms in ordered arrays, electrons and protons spinning around nuclei, trees arching towards the sun, ants marching in single file, pelicans drafting off each other’s wingtips. Why should I dread any aspect of my own path, my lifecycle? Thankfully the Jewish People have been given the gift of a long and winding road of 613 mitzvot, in a system called Halacha, the path. Jewish law can be seen as oppressive and burdensome, or as a collection of helpful spiritual signposts to keep us joyful and inspired on the annual orbit of the Jewish year.

When I am resisting change and anxious about the future, I lose the Divine flow and close myself off to perceiving the path of peace. Judaism has

amazing tools to stay on track but I can testify that it is possible to live within halacha and become a robot. I think the key is focusing on filling our lives with kindness to others and gratitude to our Creator. I am grateful for the time God has allotted me to be with my children. I am grateful for vacations and National Parks. I am grateful for stars, rivers and friends. I am grateful for the air that I breathe. I am grateful for my wife, my children, my parents, my extended family. I am grateful to be Jewish. I am grateful for skateboards, skis, guitars and gravity. I am grateful for challenges to overcome. I pray that all of us learn the art of letting go, prying open our hearts to the messages of Heaven and finding our true path. Thanks to a river, a telescope and a new friend, I am a bit closer to finding my own.

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 you are going to get some random website. Or worse. 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.


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.

Losing Debbie

Friday, January 28th, 2011

by Sam Glaser

Limmud sounded like a good idea this year.  This revolutionary British organization was celebrating its 30th anniversary and Debbie Friedman and I were among those honored to be invited.  Limmud is the foremost conference worldwide for lay people of all denominations to spend a week engrossed in Torah study and Jewish culture.  Some 2500 Yidden show up annually to the University of Warwick, England during the last week of the year.  The explosive growth of this grass-roots phenomenon has now spread to forty cities worldwide.  I have performed at US, UK and Australian versions of the conference and love the chance to see Jewish unity fully lived rather than merely theoretical.  When Chanukah is “early,” it is generally safe for me to fill the week of Xmas with this conference since my Chanukah tour is over mid-month.

What I didn’t anticipate was the fact that my November and December would be booked to the hilt.  Twenty cities in two months is enough to make any grown man ardently long for his family, bed and favorite toilet.  I had a three-day turnaround in LA after an east coast swing and then I boarded a ten-hour transatlantic flight.  British Airways sold every seat on the 747.  Luck would have it that I was seated next to an oversized filmmaker from Brussels named Michael Goldstein.  Large world, well managed…we hit it off and spoke of the opportunities in Jewish life for hours until he fell asleep on my shoulder.  Needless to say, I arrived exhausted in frozen England the day after a four-day blizzard shut down Heathrow.  An endless array of white patchwork fields spilled into cobalt blue seas as we descended over the United Kingdom.  Once on the ground we had a two hour wait for a two hour bus ride. I took solace in the fact that at least I’d be able to spend some quality time with Debbie.

What made this whirlwind week different from other conferences I’ve done with Debbie was the fact that she didn’t have “handlers.” Usually there are protective, mothering fans that smother her with affection and ensure that she doesn’t overdo it.  This time, Debbie was totally in the mix.  Teaching, singing in the ad hoc choir, performing and hanging out at the inevitable late night jams until the wee hours.  Several nights in a row, literally past three in the morning, insomniac musicians huddled in a circle with a dozen guitars, dumbeks, tambourines and iphone pianos and sang every Jewish, Beatles, Cat Stevens, Stevie Wonder and Carole King song we could think of.  Thanks to the miracle of ubiquitous internet access, anytime we couldn’t remember the lyrics, someone was always ready with a PDA linked to the right words.  Often I am thrust into a leadership role at these kumzitzes in order to manage segues and land in ideal singing keys.  At Limmud, however, the leadership was shared by a dozen songleading masters…sometimes Debbie would start something and then calling the next tune would pass organically to another person.  We enjoyed an unspoken clarity on when the exact time transpired to move onto something new and over a four hour period covered just about every genre known to Western Man.

Debbie GtrDebbie’s last official concert was everything that we fans wanted.  All the hits, the crowd singing at the top of our lungs, tears aplenty at her epic ballads. Her voice was frail but she still hit the notes.  Her humor was spontaneous and spot on and of course her trademark issues with guitar tuning created several classic improvised moments.  Our beloved EJ Cohen was there to interpret both of our shows with her flowing, artful bi-lingual sign language.  Debbie asked that no one video, photograph or facebook about the show.  Just to be present, to be with her.  Of course she sang Misheberach for us and then us for her.  Little did we know.

The next night Debbie came to my concert with a black eye.  She was walking with a tortured gait and had slipped on the ice. Interesting that when it slips below freezing, London Fog turns into icy mist, coating the sidewalks with a treacherous layer of thin ice.  Hearing the British audiences sing along with my songs with a cockney accent was a true highlight.  It’s been said that accent doesn’t carry through in singing.  Wrong again!  After my show I managed to sell nearly all my CDs and then hung out at the mosh pit of a bar scene with the young folks.  I saw Debbie sitting there alone and available.  I promise that this never would have happened at any of the 17 CAJE conferences I did with her.  I sat down on the steps beside her and we spoke of new projects and her tale of woe caring for her ailing mother and the scarcity of gigs.  I didn’t realize that she had moved to Southern California a few months earlier to be close to her ima, and I was happy at the prospect that we might be able to spend some time together.

Over two thousand people enjoyed a star studded closing gala featuring an amazing ad hoc choir assembled over the course of the week.  Following my Hineni song, conductor extraordinaire, Stephen Glass, presented a moving tribute to Limmud, sung by the choir and featuring Debbie and me on the opening verses.  I held her hand throughout and at the end of our portion of the song she gave me a warm, beautiful, maternal smile that I will never forget.  We were often called upon to do these programs; at the GA conference, CAJE and Halleli at the Gibson Amphitheater.  I realize that we make an odd couple for a number of reasons.  But we are truly singing the same song, with the same goal of getting our fellow Jew invested in a relationship with a loving God.

I flew home after a full week of near all-nighters, singing until my voice was like sandpaper, teaching every day, and too many experiments with the eclectic beers on tap.  Thrashed is the best word I can think of.  A friend at my first Shabbas meal back in LA suggested I do a full week liver cleanse and I took him up on it.  No carbohydrates, soda, caffeine, Advil, meat, booze, etc.  I usually can power out my work after my kids go to bed.  I found myself exhausted at ten pm.  If this trip to the ice planet Hoth took such a toll on me, imagine what it did to my delicate friend Debbie.  She contracted serious pneumonia and didn’t have the resources to fight it.  The entire Jewish world (at least the non-Orthodox affiliated segment) held prayer vigils and sing-along’s to appeal to the Creator of the Universe to give Debbie another chance.  But this was to be her time.  The shocking news sent chills down my spine. Jerry Kaye’s Facebook post uttered the impossible simply and finally.

Heartbreak.  Tears.  Shock.  Disbelief.  Sadness.  Then all of them over again and all together.  The letters, condolences and memories poured in on Facebook, Hanashir Listserve and email.  I called many of my Jewish musician peers just to hear their voices and get perspective.  I was slammed in the studio that week and it was so hard to focus on anything.  I posted this at the height of my grief:

“I’m broken hearted. Our dear friend, mentor and spiritual ima has left the world. I can’t imagine what a beautiful, holy place she is in right now. How many of us did she touch with her sweetness, with her direct channel to God’s music. I will always sing for her and with her wherever I go.  Every thing I do I think, wow… Debbie can’t do that now.  I’m stoic and then crying again.  I just tried to explain to my kids which songs she wrote that they know and then broke down again.  I’m still not sure what losing Debbie means.  I don’t think any of us know. OK.  I’m crying again.  We lost her in Parshat Beshalach, Shabbat Shira.  She’s dancing with Miryam. No question. The seas are parting.  She opened up the sea for us Jewish musicians.  She showed us our potential.  She showed us how to open up the hearts of our audiences to hear God’s music.  How the concert or song session was not about us singing, but about lifting the spirits of everyone in the room, getting them to sing, to feel and connect. Last week I got to sing with her, to hold her hand, see her smile.  What a gift.”

I tried to figure out why I was so affected.  Debbie and I saw each other just a few times a year.  We came from different worlds, different coasts, different theologies.  She often made jokes about my move to Orthodoxy.  The only people who like to check if I am wearing tzitzit are one of my Aish rabbis, Craig Taubman and Debbie Friedman.  I realized that the core of my mourning was the feeling of the loss of a mentor.  Debbie was one of the few artists that worked at her Jewish music full time without a day gig.   When I was trying so hard to break into the business with my first album, she had 8 CDs in the Tara Music’s top 50.  She showed me what was possible in my life.  Moreover, she used her position to create opportunities for other composers and songleaders.  She was the master and we were her students.  She proved to us that there were no barriers to entry; not gender, sexual preference, handicap or level of education.  What mattered most was talent and tenacity and getting yourself out of the way so that God could speak through you.

I remember my second CAJE conference in 1993 when Debbie was leading a final jam session the last night.  I was thinking, “this kumbaya nonsense has got to stop!  It’s time to rock!”  Yes, I was rash and impetuous, and over the years I learned the magic of her soothing music and the power of its simplicity.  Like a great Shlomo Carlebach tune, Debbie’s songs grab you immediately and stick in your head, resurfacing every time you are innocently eating a latkeh, planting a tree or teaching the aleph-bet.

A few years ago I was in Debbie’s Manhattan apartment hanging out and making music.  She has an amazing piano and we sang and shmoozed and spoke of hopes and fears.  Even brilliant Debbie could feel vulnerable and question if she was making a difference.  I told her that I was living on the edge…three kids in private school and a considerable mortgage riding on the back of a sole wage earner musician dad.  That all my relatives thought I was nuts for choosing my field.  She said, “Sam, if times are ever tight and you need help, I will be there for you.  I will give you half of the money I get in my gigs to help you out.”  I laughed at her gesture and she looked at me with dire seriousness.  “Sam, I’m not kidding.  You need to be doing what you are doing.  And I will be there when you call on me.”

I sobbed throughout her funeral.  It’s the music that really gets to me.  Every song had me reaching for more kleenex.  Of course I wanted to be one of those chosen to sing.  But I’m not sure I could have found my voice through the tears.  Seeing the Collings guitar that I had played the week before on top of her casket was so shocking.  We had to be reminded that this ceremony was not for the musicians or the Reform movement, it was really for her immediate family that was grieving in the front row.  The audience was a who’s who in Jewish music.  Sad that it took the loss of a peer to get us together.

More moving was the graveside service.  A thousand people came to the memorial but only a few hundred drove to the internment.  The Jewish custom of the mourners filling in the grave is so perfect.  We bury our dead.  It’s so final and real.  We sang her songs as we shoveled.  I cried with her mother and her dear sister.  They were a real team and now they had lost their captain.  We comforted the mourners and then everybody left.  Except the musicians.  No one told us to stay.  I can only speak for myself.  I couldn’t leave her.  I just stood their crying, contemplating the world without her, focusing on the moment so that I could perceive her liberated neshama and not get pulled into a petty conversation.  When I came to, I looked around and I saw a dozen of my fellow musicians standing in random places on the grass in the golden light of the setting sun.  Wordlessly, we all started coming into a circle around her kever.  We joined hands, swayed and sobbed.  Wow.

As I drove home I felt a powerful determination sweep over me.  Not to settle for mediocrity in my life, in my career.  To force open the gates of possibility for Jewish music and the Jewish people.  To reach our non-Jewish friends with the gift of our message of hope, prayer and sanctity.  Mortality came sweeping down on my complacency like a tidal wave.  How many years do I have left to change the world?  To sing, perform, record, travel?  My twenty-one CDs have been a defense against feelings of insignificance.  But it’s not enough to put out albums.  I must use music as a stepping stone to take a stand for all Jewish people and our allies.  I must open the financial barriers that limit our expression, that stifle this renaissance.  Music is a gateway to transcendence and unity between nations.  Debbie Friedman started the fire and I must inspire my peers to turn this flame into a conflagration.

Debbie, thank you for setting the stage, for taking the lead, for teaching us, for striving through your pain and suffering to continue to inspire us.  Thanks for tolerating me and loving me.  Thanks for your amazing songs that have changed the world.    Most importantly, thanks for singing with me and being my friend.  I miss you so much.