Posts Tagged ‘Sam Glaser’

Middot: The Measure of a Mensch

Friday, April 21st, 2017

by Sam Glaser


One of the benefits of producing recordings for clients is that work is never boring. Everyday is as different as the singers, songwriters and bands that avail themselves of my services. This particular week I’m producing a single for an Australian non-profit, music for sports teams, an album for a budding female heavy metal rocker and a folk/rock project for a cantor from the Washington DC area. I have a new client about whom I’m very excited: I’ll be producing the musical soundtrack for an educational project in the UK called Loving Classroom. The founder of this program, Rabbi David Geffen, realizes that Judaism’s great teachings in terms of improving character traits and interpersonal relationships, must be shared with the world. He is doing just that, one school at a time.

The Jewish Nation has contributed profoundly to the sciences, politics and arts, but our most crucial gift is disseminating methods of building character. Judaism is the original self-help seminar. We’ve been offering personal growth secrets long before Andrew Carnegie, EST and Tony Robbins. Rabbi Geffen is in the first stages of encouraging teachers and administrators to refine students’ character traits as a prerequisite to improving math or English test scores. His client schools have already documented marked results in the reduction of bullying, cliques and vandalism. The Loving Classroom curriculum emphasizes our human interconnectedness, our belongingness to a greater whole, which he calls the “humanity being.” The eight core lessons discuss the basic middot (character traits) of respect, compassion, listening, kindness, gratitude, love, care and friendship. When students endeavor to reach mastery in these areas, the result is a “loving classroom” and eventually as they matriculate, a loving world.

Middot comes from the word “measure.” We are measured by our middot. Alternatively, each of our character traits must be “measured” or balanced, within limits. For example, if we are too charitable we may neglect our own needs, too compassionate in justice means we are letting murderers go free, too strict and we don’t cut others slack. Any given middah isn’t good or bad until it gets extreme. Finding this balance is our real work, and when we see that one side is off kilter, we just have to emphasize the other side of the continuum to restore equilibrium. Easier said than done! Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the founder of the Mussar Movement (concerned with enhancing moral and ethical conduct) states that repairing one bad trait is harder than learning the entire Talmud. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying! Our Joy of Judaism is at stake! Rambam maintains that imbalanced character traits create a veil that screens out the potential for holiness in our lives. Maximizing  holiness is our foundational mission statement and our channel to true joy. Yes, we have a lot of work to do.

The illustrious commentator Rashi maintains that the Torah should have begun with the first laws given to the nation in the book of Exodus, at the cusp of our liberation from Egypt. So then why does God opt to include the adventures of the Avot (patriarchs and matriarchs) in Genesis? Rashi responds: so that we can learn about their middot (character traits). In other words, our newfound freedom and the gift of the Torah had to be preceded with learning how to be a mensch (a real human). The Talmud echoes this priority, stating that “derech eretz kadma Torah” (common decency comes before Torah wisdom).  All the brilliant laws of Torah are irrelevant if they don’t result in creating a kind, just, compassionate society. Conversely, intellect without proper character development is a recipe for disaster. The great mystic, Rabbi Chaim Vital, writes that there is no specific mitzvah for character refinement in the Torah because improving middot is a prerequisite for the acquisition of Torah. The Vilna Gaon seconds the motion: he states that the very purpose of our lives, our “field to work,” is to break our bad traits and inculcate good ones.

This emphasis of character over all other virtues fills the narrative of Genesis.

Avraham rebels against the status quo but becomes an icon of kindness and radical hospitality. He intuits the importance of good middot since he sees that coming closer to the One True God is accomplished by emulating Godly acts. Avraham’s servant Eliezer, when searching for a potential mate for Yitzchak, sets up a convoluted scenario to ascertain which prospective girl will be the one. The test consists of finding someone who will not only show kindness to him, but also to his animals. Rivkah miraculously wins the contest and her superlative middot make her a perfect candidate to fill the late Sarah’s shoes, or rather, her tent. The legacy of greatness is set in stone with the addition of matriarchs Rachel and Leah, providing a genetic predisposition towards grace and resolve for all who follow. As each subsequent generation in the Torah is challenged with the mantle of leadership, it is always the quality of middot that determines who carries the torch.

Ask any shadchan (matchmaker) what are the three most important characteristics of a potential spouse and the answer will be middot, middot, middot. In our community, the first question asked by parents regarding a child’s choice of friends is, “How are his/her middot?” The ultimate nachas (Jewish pride) results from hearing that one’s offspring instigated an act of compassion. With our own children, my wife and I have marveled at these occasional accomplishments. Max, our very social eldest child, had large groups of friends “kicking back” at our home every Shabbat afternoon. We loved that the gang chose to chill under our roof, but that was only because Max was so careful to monitor their activities so that they didn’t damage the house, raid the refrigerator or disturb my beloved Shabbas nap. Jesse was fiercely loyal to his friends and had no patience for the antics of class bullies. When he saw someone getting picked on, he would rally for the victim at the expense of his own health and popularity. Sarah noticed that when birthdays were announced in the morning davening, some girls got enthusiastic cheers and gifts and others were barely applauded. She took it upon herself to bake her gourmet cupcakes for EVERY member of the class so that no one would ever feel left out. Yes, we were thrilled to hear that our kids were on the dean’s list. But it’s these middot victory moments that are truly carved in our consciousness and earned our greatest praise.

Proper middot are emphasized in chinuch (education) not only for interpersonal harmony. Our sages teach that God operates middah k’neged middah, measure for measure. God deals with us in the precise manner that we deal with others. When we are compassionate, we are rewarded with compassion. When we are judgmental of others, strict judgment results. So too with cruelty, impatience, aggression and bitterness. We must judge to the side of merit! Avoid anger at all costs! The importance of nurturing good middot is a primary reason to moderate the intrusion of popular culture in our lives. The media thrives on sensationalism, gossip, violence, criticism and extremism. One may choose to stay current on the films winning Oscars and the songs winning Grammys. But ideally, for every input that glorifies negative middot, we need one that emphasizes good middot. Hence the existence of the Mussar Vaad.

A Mussar Vaad is a group meeting or class that systematically analyzes specific middot. Some spend a few weeks on any given middah, some a year on each. Many vaadim are “locked in,” in that once the group is established, it cannot be joined by others. That allows the group to grow together over the years without distraction. They often are separated by gender to allow the unique needs of each sex to be addressed. Text study is carefully selected to reinforce the importance and application of the specific middah and the passages are exhaustively reviewed to inculcate the message. The goal is to settle for nothing less than heroic character, to emulate the patriarchs and matriarchs in the quest for ultimate human nobility.

The director of the International Organization of Mussar Vaadim, Rabbi Leib Kelemen, travels from Jerusalem to many cities in the U.S. each month to lead these transformative workshops. I have learned with this gifted teacher and author on many an occasion and wish that my erratic schedule would have permitted commitment to one of his groups. I have watched my friends in the program reach great heights in their personal growth. I realize that those commitments that I make in my own tikkun middot are fragile. I do grow, but very slowly, largely because I do not have the infrastructure that a vaad might provide. For those of us who cannot fulfill all those New Year’s Resolutions and are frustrated with the same old, same old each Rosh Hashana, perhaps a Mussar Vaad is in your future! One of my friends responded to my interest in the vaad by saying, “Sam, if you apply the same amount of effort to acts of loving-kindness, the world will be in an even better place.” In mention this to clarify that not everyone is a fan of mussar.

Assuming you don’t have the time to dedicate to a vaad, what’s the next best option? Simply work on one middah at a time. The best way to figure out where to start is to contemplate which middah you have the hardest time keeping in balance. Once you deduce whether it’s anger, impatience, laziness, narcissism, selfishness, callousness or whatever, learn to focus on the appropriate counterpart. Right after you say Modeh Ani in the morning, contemplate how joy, patience, selflessness and compassion will fill your day. There are multiple sources of lists of middot on which we can concentrate. Perhaps the most famous is the “Forty-Eight Ways to Wisdom” enumerated in chapter six of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). This is the fount from which my Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Noah Weinberg drew so much inspiration. Another source is an ethical program that influenced Benjamin Franklin, Rabbi Mendel of Satanov’s Cheshbon Hanefesh (moral accounting), which outlines thirteen key middot towards which we should strive. Incorporating all of these is praiseworthy, but our main task is in mastering those that offset our darker inclinations.

Whether you realize it or not, Jews believe in reincarnation. We are on a multiple lifetime odyssey of tikkun middot. The areas of character that you already have wired are those that you’ve “fixed” in other lifetimes. Those where you are challenged are the ones you have to work on now. Might as well start today – this is your life’s work! As I’ve heard my friend David Sacks ask, “Are we living life or is life living us?” Take the bull by the horns! We’re going through this lifetime anyway, we might as well get the most out of it. Think of the power you can have if you master the weak links in your personality. Think of how incredible that gift might be for yourself and to all those in your sphere of influence.

Techniques for transformation: keep written track of the times you blow it, where you are humiliated, embarrassed or disappointed with yourself. Then you will have a running list of the areas in which you need to focus. Ideally you will find a capable rabbi or wise friend to advise you throughout the process. As the Rambam suggests, when you feel the old response brewing, focus on the opposite of that approach. For example, rather than getting angry, turning red, talking fast and loud…become super chill. Take deep breaths, count to ten, speak slowly or not at all. As I tell my children, it takes two to tango. Be the one who brings peace, who can tone down a volatile situation. Rabbi Zelig Pliskin recommends “reframing.” Imagine that someone you respect has just entered the room; certainly you would not be acting with such rash behavior in their presence. If you are prone to lose your temper when you get hungry, eat an apple or granola bar before you get home and face the family. If you cuss out everyone on the highway, leave yourself an extra fifteen minutes for the trip or take Uber! We are not helpless. We are not robots. We can grow, we can transform our behavior. Perhaps the most important technique is earnest prayer. We must ask for God’s help in the task since as Rabbi Kelemen suggests, it’s impossible to change without a miracle taking place. When we have a sustained middah victory, it propels us into a realm of heroism where anything is possible.

In the Possible You seminar that I lead with my brother Yom Tov, we acknowledge that there are middot that we have learned to emphasize habitually, simply to survive childhood. We may be overly generous because we felt unloved as kids and now, without realizing it, we are on a constant quest to be loved. We may be the brave, overachieving warrior because we felt scared or helpless when we were younger. The detailed work of this seminar is to shed light on these middot in which we excel, exposing the origin of the behavior. Once we understand why we do what we do, we can then continue to excel in that area with “license” to do so, not because we are following some intangible, automatic life script but instead we operate with full awareness. We are still using our strengths, but we are doing so with deliberation, not as an insecure child but as a noble, mature adult.

Speaking of Yom Tov, I’m amazed at the remarkable job he and his wife Leah have done instilling excellent middot in their eight children. They appreciate the uniqueness of each child and calibrate their parenting efforts accordingly. They have a challenging task of bringing their secular past into their Chassidic future, taking the cream of Western thought and mixing in the unapologetic Charedi worldview that they have undertaken. They see where the Chassidic system falls short and are unafraid to modulate their children’s chinuch appropriately. Most importantly, they encourage each child to follow his or her own heart, allowing for the blossoming of their interests and strengths while keeping them on the derech (path) of righteousness. One might think that having lots of kids results in neglect and relentless competition for parent’s attention, in other words, poor middot. However, if the parents properly model good middot then the younger children learn from their elder siblings. In turn, the elder children grow up as middot supermodels and are of level of maturity that allows them to marry at eighteen, as did my eldest niece, Ruti.

I will conclude with a saga of a recent trip with Yom Tov’s family to illustrate their excellent middot and share a surprising “large world, well managed” moment.

One Spring night Yom Tov called me in desperation from Jerusalem. The time was

nearing for his once every five years family trip to the States to visit grandparents. When the airfare alone is $15,000, he must maximize the impact of these rare excursions. On this trip, Yom Tov wanted to fulfill a lifelong dream of exposing his offspring to the wonder of Southern Utah’s magnificent national parks. I had the privilege of turning him onto these treasures when I was a student at University of Colorado. Five years my junior, Yom Tov joined me on many of my cross country drives from L.A. and we’d explore, hike, and four wheel drive our way across this magnificent red rock wilderness. Yom Tov was worried that he couldn’t adequately plan the itinerary, transportation and lodging for his large brood, all within a tight budget. I relished in the opportunity to help out since I have had so much experience navigating these environs.

I put together a ten-day whirlwind tour of Zion, Bryce, Antelope and Grand Canyons for the family plus the new son-in-law and baby. At the request of the kids, I arranged for the last day to include a day of skiing at the nearby red rock resort of Brian Head. I secured a massive, centrally located home on the outskirts of Zion and rented a twelve-passenger van. I planned out age appropriate hikes for each day as well as all terrain vehicle, zip lining and horseback riding activities. By the time I was finished, I realized that this was a trip I could not miss. I love these kids like my own and couldn’t imagine not going! That said, a trip like this would have been living hell with a group with less than exemplary middot. I knew that teamwork, enthusiasm and generosity would rule the day, so I cleared my studio schedule and volunteered my services as tour guide and photographer.

I learned early on how difficult it was to get twelve people motivated. Just packing up the car was a painful ordeal, not to mention the frequent stops for urination and three hours of misery at the St. George, Utah Wal-Mart. You’d think these people had never seen a big box store! Somehow we found room for four carts of groceries in a van that already was packed to the brim, thanks to the willingness of the menschy kids to be tightly packed in and have little ones on laps. We finally arrived in our mountaintop palace and everyone scrambled to find beds, without incident.

The next morning was utterly hectic. We were going to explore the insanely photogenic Checkerboard Mesa area of Zion National Park but I couldn’t get the family in the car. Breakfast was a whole production and the sandwich assembly line took over an hour. Each time we were about to roll away and sing our traditional “We’re Off on the Morning Train” song, someone else needed to pee or forgot a sweater. When we did hit the trail, everyone was in great spirits and the four and six year olds were just as gung ho as their older siblings. Once again, the excellent middot of these kids ensured that the older helped the younger and everyone shared the provisions sweetly. They even posed for photos on cue. I led the big kids and Yom Tov on a fantastic near vertical exploration of the easily climbed rock faces and we then angled down through a daunting canyon to catch the rest of the group back at the car. Later that afternoon we explored the main canyon of the spectacular park and Uncle Sam gave every child a budget to buy shiny rocks and geodes in a rustic rock shop. I noted that several of the kids opted to use their allotment to buy gifts for friends rather than for their own bookshelves.

Thankfully the weather cooperated grandly and our week was filled with once-in-a-lifetime adventures. One highlight for me was our hike along the Queen’s Garden loop of Bryce Canyon. After lunch our group split up, leaving me to pick up the rear with Sruli, the adorable four-year-old. What goes down must come up…at the base of the canyon we then had to walk a few miles back up to the ridge and this poor kid was exhausted. I had the pleasure to walk slowly with him and share his sense of wonder, perceiving the pinecones, squirrels, clouds and rocks through his innocent eyes. From time to time I tried to carry him but he was just too heavy; we made it to the end of the trail hours after everyone had finished but no one complained. When his big brother saw him struggling to walk, he galloped down the trail and put lucky Sruli up on his shoulders. Another hike took us from a dirt road at the apex of Zion Park along three miles of single track to Inspiration Point. The view was dizzying as we peered down the two thousand foot red, orange and yellow cliffs into the spectacularly verdant Virgin River gorge. Renting ATVs is always an adventure but with eight kids it’s a whole new ball game. Each one had their own vehicle and all had their share of near calamities. I took the youngest three kids on a four passenger Polaris and got a kick out of making them scream by driving especially crazily.

Here is the “large world, well managed” moment: after packing up the van on the final morning, we headed out an hour north to the Brian Head ski area. I had never visited this resort, preferring to travel to “real” areas like Park City and Snowbird a few hours further. Amidst the red rock is this small but adequate facility that still had plenty of snow on this end of April weekday. On the way, I mentioned to my brother that after skiing we were going to need to find a Jacuzzi before endeavoring to drive the eight-hours back home. I then called my parents back in L.A. to say hello. My mom said, “Did you know that your brother Joey took his family to a ski area called Brian Head for a few days? They arrived last night.” Our brother is at the same ski area? On the same day? A place that none of us had ever been before? Without knowing that we were going there? Really? Sure enough, we spent the day with Joey and his wife Jennifer and their three adorable kids. The cousins had a blast together. I got to play super uncle, initiating my Israeli family to winter sports and dashing about to keep everyone’s skis on. When I couldn’t stand having Sruli skiing between my legs another minute, Joey and I bailed the kids with Leah so that we could explore the advanced runs. Best of all, at the end of the day, all fifteen of us crammed into Joey’s balcony Jacuzzi for a good soak and a beer.

The story isn’t over. As we were about to leave, Jennifer got a call that her dear stepfather was on his last legs. He had been suffering for the past year and it was clear that his time was up. She panicked, sobbed and told Joey he would have to take her several hours back to Las Vegas immediately. Well, that was exactly the direction we were going. We were able to do the mitzvah of helping her spend time with her father during his last hours and to comfort her on the way. We also got to salvage Joey and the kid’s vacation. Jenn was tormented having to leave her family in Utah; we attempted to soothe her by reminding her that even if this was a false alarm, she wouldn’t want to look back on this event and regret that she didn’t motivate to be with her dad. We got to the Vegas airport just in time for her flight and she was able to be there with him in his last hours and serve as a source of comfort for her mother and siblings.

Tikkun middot is hard work. But it is the very task that we were place on this planet to accomplish. We all want to become experts at life. No expert gets credentials overnight! Judaism has all the techniques to realize our dreams of self-control, personal power, nobility. We just have to put in the time. Rabbi Hillel asserts that the primary mitzvah of the Torah is “Love your neighbor as yourself.” One way to understand this precept is that love of self is the prerequisite to loving others. When we master those shortcomings that we all have, we gain self-respect. When we gain self-respect we gain the respect of others and the ability to be outward focused, able to truly radiate love. Rabbi Salanter used to say, “I wanted to change the world but it was too hard, so I tried to change my city. I couldn’t do that so I tried to change my family. I finally realized I could only change myself.” Michael Jackson sang a similar refrain in our generation: “I’m starting with the man in the mirror, I’m asking him to change his ways. No message could have been any clearer: if you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change.”


Sukkot vs. Halloween

Friday, November 18th, 2016
by Sam Glaser
The month of October unleashes a tension of sorts in our predominantly Jewish Pico-Robertson neighborhood.  Nearly every house sports a gaily decorated sukkah, many placed on front lawns for all to see.  As one walks a bit farther from Pico Blvd, macabre Halloween decorations take over the facades of the local homes.   Jewish kids must grapple with a continuum of responses to trick-or-treating: for the far right, it’s as if the holiday doesn’t exist. Modern Orthodox might allow their kids to make the rounds on their street in search of kosher candy and haunted houses but downplay any outward signs of participation.  Sadly, Jews of other denominations are more likely to be carrying a light saber than a lulav.
I grew up loving Halloween and scarcely knew Sukkot existed.  For us Brentwood kids, Halloween had no religious connotation whatsoever.   Instead it was a night of after-hours fun when we normally would be stuck indoors doing homework.  We relished in the sense of mischief and mystery as we wandered the darkened streets, stopping at any given household when we needed another sugar fix.  As we grew older, All Hallows Eve became an excuse to party.  At the University of Colorado, Boulder or UC Santa Barbara, my brothers and I made certain that Halloween was an epic night to remember.  Since I garnered only positive associations with this American pastime, I allowed my kids to wander the neighborhood in search of candy.  We would then buy their treasure trove of sweets back from them so they wouldn’t destroy their teeth.  Better $10 for them than $1000 for the dentist.  Friends knew that I would happily accept a gift of a Corona when I arrived with my brood on erev Halloween.  My wife generally stayed home to supply the trick-or-treaters with chocolate and once in a while we’d hit an adult after hours party in our Purim costumes.  Sukkot occupies such a primal place in our family life that I didn’t worry about confusing priorities.
Some may argue that the two holidays occupy opposite ends of the spectrum.  Whereas Halloween features themes of death and evil, Sukkot celebrates life, the bounty of the harvest, the joy of God’s protective love.  I have found, however, that there are many similarities between our autumnal celebration and deathly commemorations in other cultures.  According to Rabbi Dr. Raphael Zarum, with whom I had the pleasure to learn on many occasions in the UK, the Chumash refers to this holiday as the Festival of Booths and Chag Ha’asif, the festival of the ingathering.  The annual harvest tribute implies that the last crops have been removed from the earth as it descends into the death-state of winter.  We see this word asif-ingathering several other times in the text, usually pertaining to the passing of our biblical heroes as they are “gathered to their people.”  Therefore if we substitute death for ingathering, Chag Ha’asif becomes the Festival of Death.  Whoa!  Furthermore, each night of Sukkot we welcome these blessed dead ancestors as Ushpizin or honored guests into our thatched hut.  Spooky, right?
Versions of our Sukkot harvest/mortality celebration are echoed in festivals around the world.  Samhain is of Gaelic origins and like Jewish holidays, it begins in the evening. This progenitor of Halloween results from the ancient Irish belief that this period is one when the boundary between this world and the next is most easily crossed.  Think of corridors in between states of reality in The Matrix, or as we learn in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), “This world is like a corridor before the world to come.” Mexico’s Day of the Dead is a multiday holiday around Halloween that allows folks to pray and remember family and friends and bless their spiritual journey.  Our Sukkot celebration ends with Sh’mini Atzeret during which we offer a Yahrzeit service to allow the congregation to do pretty much the same thing.  Pitru Paksha is a two-week holiday for Hindus that falls during the autumnal equinox.  Much like our Kaddish, the ritual is regarded as compulsory to ensure that the soul of the ancestor goes to heaven.
Perhaps the central connection with mortality on Sukkot is the nature of the schach that forms the sukkah’s roof.  It cannot be made from living vegetation, in other words, a leafy tree branch hovering over your sukkah that is still anchored to its roots renders it posul (invalid for use).  Schach must be adama, vegetation cut off from the ground, dead and disconnected.  One lesson we learn from this use of refuse to complete our sukkah: just like true teshuva can turn our mistakes into mitzvot, we take a waste product, put it on top of the walls of our sukkah and fulfill a mitzvah!  Adam, or mankind, comes from the same root as the vegetation, adama.  Both terms indicate origins from the earth.  Just like the schach must be dead, so too will we die, hopefully returning to the earth after one hundred-twenty wonderful years.   The vision of our sukkah’s schach renders us humble with a potent reminder of our fragility.  Halacha states that the schach cannot be layered so heavily that it occludes the view of the stars above.  In other words, while we have an awareness of our mortality, we can keep our eyes on the stars, on our eternity, or as Rabbi Leibele Eiger says, the aforementioned gift of living with permanent impermanence.
Further morbid connections with this holiday of joy: ironically, the “megilah” of this season is Kohelet (Ecclesiastes,) the morose tome authored by King Solomon in his old age.  This book suggests cheery concepts like: it is “better to attend a house of mourning rather than one of feasting,” “a time to be born, a time to die” and “the day of death is better than the day of birth.” Kohelet is related to the word k’hilah, or congregation, or a “gathering.”  Oy…there’s that ingathering again!  For the Haftorah on Shabbat during the festival we read about the bloody, apocalyptic battle of Gog and Magog and our duty to bury the dead in the aftermath.  Feeling happy and joyous yet?  One might think that all these reminders of our mortality would render the Jewish People somber and sullen.  No!  It’s quite the opposite.  The Torah reminds us three times that this is our ultimate season of joy, our Z’man Simchateynu.  Jews maintain that real simcha is about facing reality.  The end of life is part of life, and the cycle continues.  We believe that accomplishment outranks potential.  Rather than despair, we are commanded to dwell in the sukkah with our best furnishings, singing songs, eating on our finest china, sleeping in comfort.  We may be mortal…but as King Solomon says: we should enjoy our life, enjoy our spouse, enjoy our Torah study; in other words, just have fun with it!
David Sacks quotes Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach who states that spending time in the sukkah is like getting a Divine hug.  After all the davening, judgment, apologizing and fasting, not to mention all the effort cooking and getting the sukkah together, we really need a hug!  A kosher sukkah can have two-and-a-half, three or four walls.  One might think that only a four-walled hut would do the trick, but just like the shape of the Hebrew letters of the word sukkah indicate (Spell it out), these three configurations are all acceptable.  David Sacks mentions that this may be the case since we may not always feel the “hug” of God’s presence.  Sometimes it’s overt -that’s the four-wall version.  But other times when the hug seems absent, just like the missing walls, we know God is still there.  Yom Kippur is commonly associated with fear or awe of God.  Sukkot represents the flip side of the coin, love of God.  Love of God wins!  Is it any wonder that Jews are estranged from their heritage?  They flock to the synagogue for the intensity of Kol Nidre but miss out on the hug, the loving, amazing holiday of Sukkot.
One might argue that we enter the realm of near-death on Yom Kippur when we abstain from human needs like food, drink, relations and luxuries in the effort to become angelic for the day.  We have just spent the ten days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur in limbo with the Book of Life open and our fate undecided.  Perhaps we remain in this angelic state during the Sukkot, not quite in the land of the living throughout the week, and then we launch into the mystical bonus holiday of Sh’mini Atzeret.  Therefore Sukkot can be seen as a week off from re-entering our day-to-day lives.  Our old life is over, we are forgiven for any misdeeds and the book is sealed on Yom Kippur, then we hover in this spiritual state between years in order to comprehensively inculcate our palpable relationship with the Eternal.  This is the true goal of Tishrei: to leave the holy month with a refilled reservoir of spirituality to replenish us over the course of the other eleven months of the calendar.
The inner dimension of our autumnal festival communicates the importance living with joy in all of life’s circumstances. We don’t hide from the reality of our temporal existence.  We know we only have so many times around on this annual holiday ferris wheel and hopefully we grow a little more with each revolution.  At the end of Sukkot we finish the holiday-infused period with mad rejoicing with our Torah, seven circles or hakafot during the ecstatic celebration of Simchat Torah.  We commemorate the cycle of life not in speech but with our dancing feet.
At the conclusion of our recent seven-hour Simchat Torah marathon I joined my friend Saul Blinkoff’s family for lunch at the shul barbeque.  We marveled at the depth and pageantry of the event.  We agreed how much we had benefitted by investing fully in the month of Tishrei in all its particulars.  We realized that only with such commitment to details does true catharsis take place.  As Kohelet concludes, “The conclusion of the matter: have awe of God and keep God’s commandments, for this is the duty of man.” As we finished our double burgers Saul said: “You don’t need a huge crowd for this holiday.  You just need to be with your family.”  We feel so blessed to be part of a connected, happy community.  At this time of year, Halloween is a blast, but Jews deserve to take a step beyond trick-or-treating, zombies and hangovers.  Our own Chag Ha’asif is the true formula for a year of the spirit.

Yom Kippur: Dances with Angels

Tuesday, August 30th, 2016

By Sam Glaser

I spent my first Yom Kippur away from my folks at my university’s Hillel House. I remember looking out the window at the deep blue Colorado sky longingly, feeling trapped and irritated. The rabbi was doing his best to make the services interesting, but there was far too much Hebrew and far too much melancholy. I burst out of that building at the first opportunity and never returned. Shortly after graduating I was offered a lucrative gig singing in a High Holiday octet at Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills. I figured that if I had to be stuck in the synagogue, I might as well be getting paid. I spent the next eight years harmonizing with a wonderful group of fellow Jewish singers and soaking up the incredible melodies and techniques of our fearless leader, Cantor Baruch Cohon. Towards the end of the hunger-fest that is Yom Kippur I would torment my fellow bass with descriptions of all the food that I was excited to eat at my Aunt Sharon’s traditional break-fast meal. One year he retaliated by surreptitiously placing a napkin from Subway in my Neilah (closing service) sheet music.

Around the time my Jewish music career started to take off, I received my first invitation to serve as chazzan in congregations around the country. Each year I slaved over my machzor during the month of Elul to get in shape for the holidays, confirming that important maxim “according to the effort is the reward.” With such intense preparation my High Holidays became powerful spiritual peak experiences, culminating in a Yom Kippur service where I would truly feel transcendent. Rosh Hashanah is about declaring God’s kingship and praying for personal and communal blessing over the next year. It is also about seeing old friends, schmoozing and lots of delicious food. Yom Kippur is all business. You’ve seen everyone already, there are no meals to interrupt the flow, and you can relax into the dramatic script of the services. Just in case you aren’t already written in the Book of Life, you have twenty-five hours to get real with any shortcomings between you and the Boss and plead for clemency.

My most memorable Yom Kippur occurred not in the month of Tishrei but in the month of Elul. That was my personal Yom Kippur, otherwise known as my wedding day. On August 29th, 1993 I fasted until the late afternoon, eating my first bite only after the chuppah while in our yichud room. Just like the Day of Atonement, our tradition dictates that couples abstain from food and drink, the focus is on the gravity of the day and grooms wear a pure white kittle. To keep me focused I elected my brother Yom Tov (who at that point was still a clean-shaven Yeshiva neophyte) to be my shomer (the guard that assists the groom). He guided me through the long list of “Al Chets,” the Yom Kippur confessional that we recite during the Sh’moneh Esrei. Most importantly, he had me precede my Mincha prayers with a detailed accounting of everyone I could remember wronging, every ex-girlfriend scorned, every bridge burnt. Needless to say, I was sobbing in a quiet corner of the wedding hall for quite some time, alarming my guests who were awaiting my return back at the Tish. In hindsight I should have pursued this intense introspection well before there were so many cameras commemorating my tear-stained face. Of course, as soon as I composed myself, I was thrust in the midst of a stampede of black-suited men on the way to see my wife for the first time in a week. The sight of her seated like a bejeweled princess, the woman of my dreams who would be mine, re-ignited that flow of joyous tears.

Yom Kippur is considered the Sabbath of Sabbaths. This means that it is the holiest day of the year. It is the only holiday that trumps the imperative of feasting on the Sabbath. Both Yom Kippur and Tisha B’av are full twenty-five hour fasts where we begin at sundown and conclude the next evening when it’s dark. There are five primary restrictions on these days: eating and drinking, bathing or washing, applying creams and lotions, intimacy with our spouse and wearing leather footwear. For this reason you will see otherwise elegantly dressed congregants busting out Crocs and Converse All Stars. Leather belts or jackets are fine; this prohibition is about abstaining from luxury, not animal rights. I personally am thrilled to not have to stand for hours in my dress shoes. It’s important to note that those unable to fast for medical reasons have a mitzvah to eat…we must live by the commandments!

The net effect of these limitations is that we have the chance to be angels for the day. Angels have no bodily needs; they only exist to fulfill God’s will. So too with the penitent on Yom Kippur. Ideally, we truly invest in the power of the day and transcend the need for nutrition. With only these precious hours to depart from our bodily limitations and enter the realm of the spirit, it’s a shame to waste even a minute focusing on what is lacking. So don’t spend the afternoon kvetching that you’re starving! During the rest of the year we whisper the mantra of the angels, the Baruch Shem Kavod sentence right after the Sh’ma. On Yom Kippur, now that we’re angels and can say it aloud, really say it! Since I’m the chazzan, I make a special effort to conserve my energy so that I am not sweating any more than I need to. After all, I need all the saliva I can muster to lead the prayers through the last note of Neilah. Therefore, I avoid schmoozing during breaks and I rest at the synagogue rather than strolling outside. This avoidance of small talk and recreation is something that I recommend for everyone.

Yom Kippur is the anniversary of Moses’ delivery of the second set of the Luchot (Tablets). It is a day of Divine compassion and forgiveness for eternity. When Moshe smashed the first set after the egregious sin of the Golden Calf, the Israelites weren’t quite sure if that first commandment, “I am God, your God” was still in effect. When we saw that the second set had this phrase intact, we knew that God would be our God forever. This is the true gift of the day.

This individual and collective reconnection with our Creator and the whitewashing of our mistakes requires only that we engage in heartfelt teshuva (return). After the reconciliation opportunities afforded by the month of Elul, Rosh Hashanah and the week before Yom Kippur, we are truly ready for unmitigated spiritual closeness without pretense. Chazal (our sages) recommend the following four-step teshuva process for each of our shortcomings. First we come clean: we search our hearts and acknowledge those times we fell short and express regret for having distanced ourselves from our true potential. Then we commit to stopping that damaging action and the callous behavior that got us to that point in the first place. Then we verbalize the mistake and ask God forgiveness, and finally, resolve not to repeat the action in the future. Just in case you can’t remember when you have transgressed, we repeat the litany of the forty-four Al Chet statements ten full times over the course of the holiday. Now you can see why you might need that full twenty-five hours in shul! Here’s a elucidation of the list to make it more meaningful.

The miraculous ability of Yom Kippur to inspire teshuva offers us the chance to have a clean slate with which to begin the new year. How often in life do we really get a fresh start? Never! Only within the realm of God’s infinite love, compassion and patience is this ever possible. Teshuva goes beyond having the list of transgressions torn up. Those transgressions can become mitzvahs! If that mistake you made gives you the impetus to improve, then it becomes the source of your growth and is acknowledged accordingly.

Down here on earth, teshuva is a bit more involved. After all, praying with all your heart will not whitewash the times you lost your temper and yelled at your loved ones. It will not make your business indiscretions go away. It will not make things better with friends whom you have disappointed. For all the mortals in your life, this four-stage process of teshuva must be enlisted for anyone that you’ve wronged, preferably before the holiday begins. The rabbis recommend that you sincerely apologize until forgiveness is given, and if our victim cannot find it in his or her heart to forgive after the third attempt, you are off the hook. Not forgiving someone is itself an aveirah (sin). Harboring grudges has been described as “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Just make your hishtadlut to apologize to your chevra, especially those closest to you and your Yom Kippur will be complete.

Just to make sense of the litany of tefilot, here’s an overview of the basic structure of the holiday. It begins with a mid-afternoon weekday minyan for Mincha that includes the confessional in the Sh’moneh Esrei, just in case you do not merit to survive until Yom Kippur. Leave yourself some time for the lengthy prayer, Tefila Zaka, which should be said before nightfall and is a great way to get in the mood of forgiveness. Then you scarf down a sumptuous meal in anticipation of the fast. I recommend that caffeine addicts reduce their intake gradually over the week after Rosh Hashanah so they don’t skid through the Yom Tov with a gnarly headache. On the other hand, there’s always caffeine suppositories! Make sure you take your last sip of water just before sundown and then you’re officially “in.” I once made the mistake of eating a huge dinner and then a second snack back at the synagogue since I usually get there early to get the bimah (pulpit) set up. I washed down that extra sandwich with a pint of water and nearly launched a Technicolor yawn a few minutes later at the first note of Kol Nidrei. Now that would have been a spectacle!

Kol Nidrei is recited with a beloved, haunting melody that is surprisingly universal. It is perhaps the most beautiful setting of a contractual document ever. We ask to be absolved of all sins in advance! Each service other than Ma’ariv includes the confessional both in the silent Amidah and the repetition. Each time we read the lines of Ashamnu and Al Chet we engage in symbolic self-flagellation by lightly beating our chest with our fist. The morning service is much like any Shabbat service but includes a Yizkor memorial section during the Torah service. During the lengthy Mussaf the cantor includes a recounting of the original Yom Kippur rite of the Cohanim in the Holy of Holies.   Then there is a short break of five minutes to a few hours depending on how long the morning prayers take, and on to the Mincha service where the Book of Jonah is read.   The reluctant prophet Jonah is here to remind you that you can’t run away from God or from your personal tafkid, your calling.   As the sun is setting, a unique fifth service transpires called Neilah. It’s your last chance to dance…as an angel on Yom Kippur. Most stand throughout the entire service, much like the last inning a tied game of the World Series. Once the proverbial gates close and our decree is sealed, we exalt in the sounding of a triumphant Tekiah Gedolah (long shofar blast). Just when you thought you couldn’t pray another minute, a final weekday Ma’ariv is recited and then Havdalah. Now you can eat!

So what about Purim? The Torah tells us that every holiday has a balance of physical and spiritual, with heartfelt davening and serious banquets. This demonstrates that we are supposed to conduct our lives elevating the needs of both body and spirit. The exceptions are Yom Kippur, which is purely spiritual, and Purim which, with its costumes, partying and feasting, is all physical. The liturgy refers to Yom Kippur as Yom Hakippurim which can be translated as “a day like Purim.” Interestingly, the celebration of Purim begins with a fast, and the solemnity of Yom Kippur begins with a feast.   On one we elevate ourselves with indulgence, the other with abstinence. As Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov points out, it’s harder to achieve holiness in a state of inebriation so Purim requires more effort and is therefore a greater holiday! On Purim we drink until we cannot distinguish between Baruch Mordechai (blessed is Mordechai) and Arur Haman (cursed is Haman). The secret of Purim? They are both the same! No alcohol required; the gematria (numerology) of each phrase adds up to 502! In other words, good and evil come from the same source. God gives us an active inclination toward evil so that we have a sense of victory for choosing good. Like Purim, on Yom Kippur this distinction comes into sharp focus; we perceive that our transgressions can be the very engine that drives us towards goodness.

I’ll finish with a story. A benevolent king, beloved by his subjects, had a favored eldest son who all assumed would someday reign. The king and queen showered all their children with love and affection, giving them the best of life’s delicacies. As the oldest son grew, the king did his best to teach him leadership skills, diplomacy and kindness. He was concerned that perhaps the “easy life” in the palace had softened his children’s resolve and tenaciousness; indeed, they had never wanted for anything. Furthermore, he was unsure if they could handle the trials of leadership and the temptations of power. So when his oldest son grew to marriageable age, the king sent him on a journey to a distant kingdom. He gave his son enough to survive but wanted him to interact with the world anonymously, without the trappings of vast wealth. Unbeknownst to the son, the king sent a trusted knight to watch over him from a distance. As soon as they were settled the king instructed the knight to send a prostitute to seduce his son. Thankfully, the son resisted her advances and retained his regal purity. Upon hearing the report, the king rejoiced and sent word that the son could return from the voyage in order to be trained for the mantle of leadership.

When Yom Kippur comes around we are faced with the litany of tests that we have failed. Our sages teach that God created teshuva before God created the world. Rather than allowing our mistakes to initiate a downward spiral of depression, we have an invaluable mechanism to reboot our Divine connection. God provides tests not to sabotage us, but to give us the chance to use our freedom of choice to act Godly, and then bask in the glory of our victory.  This is why Yom Kippur is a holiday, a joyous day, a Yom Tov.  This is why on this day we are dancing with the angels.  On Yom Kippur we truly perceive the essence of God’s oneness.  Just as Purim allows us to see that our evil and good inclinations come from the same source, so too does Yom Kippur reveal the hidden opportunities within our most profound challenges. The goal of our annual tefila-teshuva marathon is that next time we face these challenges, we get it right. May we turn all our aveirot into mitzvot, may we turn our mourning into dancing, our sackcloth into garments of joy.

The Joy of Struggle

Tuesday, August 9th, 2016
By Sam Glaser
For most of us, summer is a carefree time. As one Jew wrote: “Summertime, and the living is easy.” We all have sweet memories of summer vacations at camp or road trips adventures with the family. Thanks to our agrarian past, schools had to offer a few months off so that the kids could help with the harvest. Nowadays our kids use that time to forget everything they learned the previous semester. For Jews, there’s one wrinkle in the enjoyment of the long, hot days of our beloved summer. Just in case we are having too much fun at the beach, the spoilsport rabbis of yore gave us three weeks of semi-mourning smack dab in the middle of waterslide season.

The Three Weeks serve as an “ice bucket challenge” to cool us off amidst our summertime frolicking. We are commanded to always serve God with joy, in every situation, everyday. During this short period of time, however, we “lessen” our joy by refraining from such things as live music, weddings and haircuts. Minor inconveniences, but just like preparing for the happier holidays, they make a difference in our day-to-day, just enough so that we acquire a sense of mourning that begins with the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz and peaks in the observance of Tisha B’Av (the Ninth of Av.) This day is the saddest on the entire Jewish calendar and commemorates the destruction of our Temples and other assorted calamities throughout history. Our experience of the Ninth of Av is intensified thanks to the three-week gradual integration of the tragic loss of Jewish influence and cohesiveness when our Temple was destroyed. I’d like to examine the purpose of struggle and hardship in the Jewish experience and hopefully find a silver lining behind our personal and collective tribulations.

Everyone knows the saga of the boy who found a caterpillar and put it in a cage as a new pet. Soon he observed the fascinating metamorphosis as the caterpillar disappeared within a cocoon. Just as he assumed that his prized pet was dead he noticed a small hole in the cocoon…just as he was promised, a butterfly was trying to emerge! At one point he noticed that it was stuck so he took a scissors and ever so carefully opened the hole a bit wider so the new creature could emerge. Sure enough the butterfly appeared with a large swollen body and small, misshapen wings. Days went by and those wings never grew. The malformed butterfly spent its last days crawling around the cage and the boy learned that the wings only develop when the butterfly mounts a tenacious struggle to escape its cocoon. His misguided act of kindness led to the creature’s doom. The lesson is, of course, that life’s struggles make us strong and give us the ability to fly. This is the period when we acknowledge 3500 years of Jewish suffering, hopefully perceiving that it has made us stronger. On the personal level, when you are in a tough situation, practice choosing the situation! Embrace it. You may ask for God’s kindness to make the pain go away, but realize that this challenge is a gift from God to help you grow. I know…easier said than done.

Last month I had a bit too much fun with the kids at shul. I love getting mobbed by the local children who know I that I’m a big kid who will happily chase them to their heart’s content. At one point I had a line of kids waiting to be swung by Sam the human swing. All went well until later that evening when I felt a funky twinge in my neck that sent tingles down to my thumb and forefinger. Sure enough, the next day I couldn’t sit down without immediate pain. I couldn’t work, I couldn’t drive and I became an ornery grouch. I opted for massage and chiropractic, both of which gave me relief, until I tried to sit down again. I was inconsolable in this place of darkness. I felt like my career was over, that I’d never be able to ski or bike, that without yoga my body would plunge into a downward spiral. No one could convince me otherwise. Thankfully a few weeks later I was scheduled to perform in Reno and at the High Sierra Music Festival. I wasn’t sure how I would pull it off but remarkably, after five days without deadlines in my studio or enduring LA traffic I was cured, thank God! Perhaps it was the magic of the soul-enriching Sierras. I emerged with a new “no piggyback ride” policy and a reminder that it’s much easier to be grateful for life challenges after the fact.

I recently enjoyed a mid-summer hike with my brother Yom Tov. We set out on a favorite LA trail that hugs a mostly dry riverbed as it ascends through stands of sycamore and oak. The trail then departs the shade of the riparian zone with switchbacks that lead to a series of rocks with panoramic views that we have named Shipwreck, Hawk and Eagle. As we gingerly avoided the poison oak that arched towards our exposed legs, we discussed the struggle of the typical artist. Is a life filled with obstacles a prerequisite for great art? I remarked that I noticed that in the wonderful autobiographies by Sting and Joe Jackson that their early years were fraught with financial and familial turmoil. Both authors chose to end the books with the first taste of stardom. In other words, once these singers hit easy street, their lives no longer offered the challenges that made for compelling reading.

As we crested the apex of Hawk Rock I mentioned to my brother that I often wonder why it is that God has opted to maintain the two of us on a financial precipice throughout our adult lives. While we enjoy frequent miraculous salvations from destitution, this situation engenders stress and worry especially for our beloved wives. I have discovered that the more I “go for it” in my career, the more I reap such salvation. Month to month we always seem to make it, establishing for me the clarity that in spite of a modest bank account one can live abundantly with joy and bitachon (trust in God.) Perhaps it’s due to my limited funds that God’s providence is readily apparent! My brother responded with a teaching of the Rosh Yeshiva of Aish HaTorah, z”l: God keeps the emissaries that are doing God’s work hungry. In other words, if they are self-satisfied with the riches of life, they will opt for retirement on the beach instead of life on the road or a career in education. When Aish was in dire financial straits the Rosh Yeshiva launched on a multi-year tour of the Diaspora to teach and fundraise. He pointed out to his frustrated acolytes back in Jerusalem that without the cash flow issues, all those people around the world would not have been touched by his presence. When I pondered this reality, I realized that my brother is right. Would I fly to destinations around the globe for my concerts and workshops, enduring the pressure of deadlines and the physical and emotional pain of travel if I didn’t have to? Or would I move my family to a chateau in Fiji and forget the woes of the world?

Life disconnected from life’s vicissitudes does not make for great art. Perhaps that’s why many successful musicians are never able to top their debut album. That precious early repertoire typically chronicles the adventures in the trenches as the artist claws for recognition. The sophomore release often fails to recreate this degree of emotional intensity and without radical reinvention, the performer joins the heap of “one hit wonders.” Great artists take us on a ride as they chase a personal vision, never satisfied with the status quo. We marvel as Picasso transitions from Blue to Rose, from Cubism to Surrealism or as Miles Davis pushes the boundaries of jazz regardless of the critic’s disdain. Miles lambasts those who imitate others or who at the sunset their careers, “ape” themselves. In other words, having nothing novel to offer, they simply perform an endless greatest hits package into their retirement. He stated, “if you’re trying to ape…you don’t have anything to give the world, you might as well be dead.” The message is simple: celebrate the process, don’t settle for the same old same old, remember that all the drama in your life is your life, learn to perfect the art of making lemonade out of lemons.

All of us, in whichever career we have chosen, can be artists. An artist seeks to deliver the best at all times, no matter who is paying, without regard to impressing anyone. A true artist isn’t afraid of individuality, of performing his or her task with total integrity. Artists are known to be extremists, defying convention, standing out from the crowd. In Judaism we can approach our faith as an artist, crafting a unique relationship with the Creator, painting our personal practice with nuances that customize our religious experience to match our predilections, all within the rubric of Halacha (Jewish law.) We can each be extremists in our own way, choosing those mitzvot that speak to us and making them our raison d’etre. According to famed Surrealist Marcel Duchamp, the artist defines art, and by extension the artist defines who and what they are. In other words, if we decide we are an artist, then we are! While Rambam may encourage the middle path, the “shvil hazahav,” in some ways we must become extremists, fashioning our lives as daring artists, pushing the boundaries in those areas in which we hear a calling.

We are naturally attracted to extremes, to polarities that go beyond our personal experience. Only these extremes have the velocity to become ingrained in our consciousness that is already overflowing with input. My Aunt Lynnie taught me this important lesson when I was a child. She had returned from a tropical vacation at Club Med with a gift of three beautiful shells for our family. As she explained how she scuba dived to find these treasures she reported about the people on her trip that she really liked and a few that she found obnoxious. I then queried about all the other people that she must have met but didn’t mention. She responded with a lesson on the bell shaped curve: only those individuals that delight or disgust you are going to be remembered. This begs the question: how do you want to be remembered? What unique communal contribution will mark your having visited this planet?

The same paradigm is extant in my memories of grade school. Those peers that made a lasting impression were extreme in some way. Extremely athletic, beautiful, talented, smart, extremely kind or extremely annoying! I too was extreme in my own way; when I run into my teachers after all these years, I find that they usually remember me. I was a devious class clown and had no tolerance for mediocrity. Some teachers loved me, some despised me, but all had an opinion. I thrived with magnanimous teachers who understood that my perfectly timed joke or clever prank was never malicious but only intended to get a laugh and get me some attention. Others chose to do battle and therefore I got kicked out of nearly every educational institution that I attended. One of my Hebrew School teachers, Michael Waterman, admitted to me that his rowdiest students were the ones who went farthest in life. They had the gall to take on the establishment, to stick their necks out, often possessing natural self-confidence, quick reflexes and the ability to defuse dry, overly serious situations. This begs the question whether as parents we should always be pressuring our children to fit in, to toe the line.

Rabbi Natan Lopes Cardozo named his venerable Jerusalem-based institution the Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu. He emphasizes that Avraham’s quintessential trait wasn’t necessarily chesed (kindness.) It was his utter refusal to accept a substandard status quo. Only when he was willing to accept the role of rebel, regardless of the reaction of his family and society, was he able to follow his unfettered logic to the revolutionary conclusion of Ethical Monotheism: that a loving, unique Presence is intimately involved in our lives and created the world for our pleasure. The Beth Midrash of Avraham Avinu recognizes and uplifts the holy rebel. Rabbi Cardozo insists that we keep kosher as an act of disobedience against eating like an animal, that we join a community in prayer as an act of rebellion against the tendency to think one can go it alone, we use the mikvah to protest against our society’s obsession with sex. This is quite the opposite of the current tendency of “religious” communities to commit to mitzvot in order to fit in or to please a wrathful deity.

Sadly, the typical “Moshe Rabeinu” Talmudic style of study creates a “safety in numbers” reluctance to challenge and innovate. This is the modus operandi of the Charedi world, and it is quick to decapitate any rebel that refuses to or cannot toe the line. Rebbes feel that they cannot reward the “bad” boys, and paranoid families are forced to excommunicate lest they endanger the shidduch opportunities for well-behaved siblings, God forbid. Is it any wonder that there is a epidemic of “off the derech” youth (those abandoning traditional Judaism,) many of whom are like zoo animals released in the wild, without the basics of street smarts or secular education to survive in society at large. My brother Rabbi Yom Tov states that Orthodox youth are given 90% of Torah. What they are missing is the first 10%: the “why” of Judaism: why we do mitzvot, why we serve God, why we are different from the other nations of the world, why we merit redemption. Picture that butterfly without the chance to fight its way out of the cocoon. Without a personal engagement with the WHY of Judaism, observance can become rote and meaningless.

Clearly all the movements in Judaism are facing unprecedented challenges. The answer to our collective salvation lies in offering every individual the permission to dedicate his or her individuality to the service of the Jewish people and ensuring that service to God is artistic, mindful and joyful. The struggles that our people face are like those of the butterfly…we are writhing and striving and competing, building and breaking and building again. While it is hard to perceive the merit of setbacks, the challenges we face are creating the most powerful, beautiful wings, wings that allow us to soar in this greatest adventure of human history.


Simcha: The Joy Inside My Tears

Monday, April 18th, 2016
by Sam Glaser

Webster’s defines joy, or simcha as the emotion evoked by well being, success or good fortune, or to experience great pleasure or delight. Judaism defines simcha with a bit more nuance.  Joy results from anticipating a bright future.  We are a People whose survival in every generation is wholly reliant on miracles.  By nature we are optimists.  Our national anthem is Hatikvah (The Hope.)  David Ben Gurion summed up our penchant for positive thinking in the famous phrase, “Anyone who doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist.”  We maintain that simcha is the natural state of being alive.  Just look at young kids who are playful, ebullient, laugh easily and recover quickly when they are hurt.  They are ecstatic simply playing hide and seek, building a sand castle or eating ice cream.  They haven’t yet learned to be morose, critical and pessimistic. Reclaiming joy requires learning to perceive God’s hand in our lives and rediscovering the precious inner child that we all possess.

Happiness is a solo pleasure, joy a group dynamic.  We can mow over each other in our quest for happiness whereas joy is a communal state of flow with the Universe.  Big, fat Jewish weddings are the ultimate joy-fests.  Seeing a great movie makes you happy, doing a great mitzvah brings joy. Want to increase your joy?  Help others in need, dance at a simcha, ponder the great gift of your friends and family.  Do the things you love to do with those you care about.  And if they are too busy, do them yourself!
Tonight I brought home Chinese food for the family.  I battled traffic, waited for a parking spot, spent a fortune and then was rebuked by my daughter for buying things that she doesn’t like.  In her angst she marched off to her bedroom without eating a bite.  That doesn’t make me want to run out to a restaurant next time…let her eat cereal!  The formula is simple: when we acknowledge the good in our lives, God gives us more.  Unfortunately the converse is also true. God wants to give us the maximum pleasure possible!  Gratitude is the key to the simcha treasury.  Our responsibility to respond to the miracle of our lives with joy is a mentioned eighty-eight times in our Tanach (bible.)  The terrible curses visited on the Israelites occur because they didn’t “serve their God with joy.” I’ve heard it said that parents are as joyful as their least happy child.  So too with our Creator.
Joy doesn’t result from events or good news; rather it is a long term pleasure that springs forth from an attitude that every moment is a growth opportunity.  When we expend negative energy over life’s little problems, we make “lack” our focus.  In every situation we can learn to say “Gam zeh l’tova,” (this is also for the good.)  Rabbi Noah Weinberg used to say that joyous people are problem solvers, not problem sufferers.  It’s a glass-half-full thing.  Have you ever set out on an adventure with a complainer?  Oy vey!  It’s not too big a challenge to be a critic, to point out the things that “suck.”  Why rock the joy boat with a snarky remark? A joy connoisseur learns to squelch the temptation to rain on the parade and instead is a ray of sunshine for everyone in his or her midst.
As we mature we accumulate years of hurt and disappointment that render us defensive and
 numb.  We erect filters that keep us from feeling life’s barbs too keenly in order to prevent further emotional injuries.  As a result we slowly grow cynical and become harder to impress.  With the media feeding us a constant stream of bad news, “fact-filled” gossip and clever criticism we can’t help but withdraw further into a stoic shell.  This is the stubborn, invisible barrier that we have to carve away to regain access to that vulnerable inner child.  One of the best ways to get back our joy is to reclaim our ability to cry.
I seem to have inherited my father’s ability to cry.  Any nachas moment results in my father reaching both of his open hands up to stroke his tear-soaked face.  Any mention of his late father whom he lost when he was only thirty-two brings on the same reflex.  He typically claims that there must be smoke in the air. Most of the weddings I play with my band are for total strangers.  I still crymy eyes out at every bedeken when the groom veils his bride and during the chuppah (ceremony under the canopy.)  I’m so moved at the creation of a new “bayis ne’eman B’yisrael” (faithful home among the Jewish People.)  I also relive the sweet memory of my own nuptials.  Seeing me cry turns my kids inside out.  They have to grapple with their own sympathetic tear response and they typically resist with all their might.  I think it’s a good thing that they have learned that big boys do indeed cry.  Robert Frost said: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.”
Our family had a beloved elderly neighbor who was like a grandmother to our children.  Evelyn was a regular at our Shabbas table and frequently called me to reset clocks or install new gadgets.  She was strong and sensible until she finally succumbed to congestive heart failure at the age of ninety-two.  My wife and I decided that hers would be the first funeral that our children would attend.  Evelyn’s offspring beautifully eulogized her but focused a dry-eyed list of anecdotes and her accomplishments in the community.  Then I was asked to speak and sing Keyl Maley Rachamim, the prayer for the soul of the departed.  I couldn’t help but sob throughout my short speech, setting off a chain reaction of tears throughout the mortuary.  Even though she lived a full life I was broken at the thought of her leaving us.  Sometimes we need permission to cry.  I will never forget the vision of my children suddenly in touch with their own grief as they sobbed in the pews.
The crying reflex has much in common with intimate relations.  You have to stay in the moment and remain connected.  With tears, most adults train themselves to stifle the flow, to catch the emotion before it gets out of hand.  To reclaim joy we have to fight that tendency!  When we’re in the bedroom with our beloved we have to remain present or we can lose the drive.  It’s easy to psyche yourself out and wreck the moment.  And if you are trying to get your groove back once it’s gone, it may never return.  So too with tears.  Once we squelch that emotion we have missed the opportunity to have that cleansing catharsis that comes only after a crying jag.
It may seem counterintuitive but I believe that the ability to cry is on the same side of the continuum as the ability to feel great joy.  This is what Stevie Wonder meant in his song The Joy Inside My Tears.  This is the LIFE side of the spectrum, where we feel emotions deeply and allow our sensitivity pendulum to swing to the apex.  The other side of the continuum is the DEATH side.  This is typified by aloof behavior, stoicism, keeping it “cool.”  Reaching the “brass ring” in the Joy of Judaism requires heroic efforts to choose life!
Last month I had a powerful reminder of the preciousness of tears and the fast connection between tears of pain and joy.  Israel has always been the land of contrasts: adamantly secular vs. ultra-religious, arid desert vs. verdant swampland, right wing hawks vs. left wing doves.  On a recent trip this dichotomy was never more pronounced.  The people of “shalom,” living within the Land of Milk and Honey is in the midst of what is known as the “Knife Intifada.”  Every day during my trip there was another horrifying incident, often on the very streets where I had been walking.  I arrived in the country to perform, shoot a video and enjoy my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah.  What a gift to be enjoying a simcha in Israel with my extended family.  Just breathing the springtime air was enough to fill my soul with delirious joy.  And then the sobering news, everyday.
I made several trips to the Kotel over the course of my two-week trip.  Of course my prayers were sincere but I never felt that I was truly connecting.  After all, with the ferocious randomness of these daily murders, I should certainly feel the pain of the nation and be crying my eyes out.  But no tears came.  Yes, the onslaught of bad news saddened me but inside I remained unmoved and therefore felt deeply unsettled.

Toward the end of my second week I enjoyed a pre-Shabbat mountain bike ride with my brother and nephew.  After the adventure we quickly rode back to their neighborhood to get into the mikvah just before it closed.  Taking a mikvah has been an Erev Shabbat minhag (custom) of mine for over a decade.  I love the feeling of the sweltering water relaxing my muscles and easing my mind.  I emerge purified and mellow, cleansed and ready to enter the realm of sweet holiness that defines our seventh day.  Typically I dunk multiple times for an extended period, testing the limits of my breath, enjoying the stillness and silence underwater.  This time I felt something shift.  It was a tear welling up; a tiny hint of the emotion that I was hoping would come when I was praying at the Wall.

I immediately felt that visceral response of reclaiming my “manliness” as I choked off the impulse to cry.  This failsafe measure is a vestige of a time, perhaps, when I was chased through the schoolyard as a second grader and then teased when I burst into tears.  Or how I cried through my first and only fistfight.  I won the fight but lost the battle; my peers would always remind me how I cried like a baby while I was swinging.  I know many women that stifle the urge to cry.  I know many more men who have lost the ability completely.
As soon as I went back underwater in the mikvah I felt the tears coming back.  How interesting that as soon as I returned to the surface my mind wandered to happier, more “normal” thoughts.  The third time I dunked I just let it flow.  The tears came hard.  Soon I was screaming underwater.  At the top of my lungs.  I don’t think it was audible in the mikvah chamber but some of the Chassidim were looking at me funny.  Then I went back under and screamed again. Raw, primal, agonized screams.  I screamed in anger for the victims.  I screamed at the senselessness of the violence.  I screamed for the legions of brainwashed souls who believe that killing innocents is a good deed.  Then I screamed even more for the children who as of that afternoon will NEVER have their father back.  They will never see him at the Shabbat table, never get his praise, never share a lifecycle event, never feel his loving hug.  I screamed for the unspeakable damage that will outlast generations.  I cried what felt like a gallon of tears for the widows, for the communities, for the Jewish People.  Only NOW could I walk down to the Kotel and truly feel unified with that remarkably diverse assortment of my beautiful fellow Jews for the Friday night prayers.

My friends, I urge you to become connoisseurs of joy.  We do so by reclaiming the ability to cry.  Feel life deeply.  Let reality rock your world rather than retreating in cynicism, self-medication or avoidance.  Reclaim your inner child by recognizing the layers of filters that you have subconsciously erected to keep you safe.  Focus on your blessings and respond to the myriad gifts in your life with an outpouring of gratitude.  Do something that you love to do everyday.  Participate fully in lifecycle events and increase your quota of communal commitment.  Get plenty of sleep so that you’re not a grouch.  And finally, learn all you can about your heritage so that you are filled with wonderment at your great fortune to be a part of God’s master plan of tikkun olam, the healing of the world.

The Gift of Music

Thursday, March 31st, 2016

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 missing in action or at best, piecemeal.

I grew up in a public Jr. and Sr. high school environment with three full time music teachers. One dedicated to orchestra and band, one to choirs and the third to musical theater and drama. I interfaced with all of them at varying points and always had a home base of dedicated fellow nerd musicians with whom I could hang out. We were offered the chance to perform, to broaden our musical horizons and to have wholesome fun pursuing a craft we enjoyed. We could rent any instrument we wanted to try and felt both camaraderie and competition with fellow players when seeking the best “chair” in the ensemble. I got to be a soloist with Madrigals, got to share my new songs I had written with Concert Choir, played the king in The King and I and Pharaoh in Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat. Obviously none of this would have happened without a music program. I am who I am thanks to these great teachers, especially Carole Kasier, Linda Badran and Joel Lish at Paul Revere and Palisades High.

My own children, on the other hand enjoyed a sporadic half hour weekly singing experience in their Jewish elementary school led by yours truly. That minimal musical exposure tapered down to nothing at all at the middle school level. And this was at a large, popular Beverly Hills-based institution. For the annual fundraising banquet the school would schedule a few rehearsals and put the reluctant student body on risers to sing a selection of cacophonous numbers for their doting parents. I’ve observed that the emphasis on music for any given day school is inversely proportional to the degree of religiosity. All this from the people that brought the world the Song of Songs, King David’s Psalms and the art of Betzalel. In our LA Jewish high school there would have been absolutely no music program had I not taken a personal stand and initiated jazz/rock bands for both the boys and girls campuses. You can imagine the sorry state of these bands since there is no pre-high school instrumental music program in any of the feeder schools. That said, I take my job seriously and by year’s end am able to whip them into functioning bands with full concert-length sets that we perform for the community.

Even those students not destined to a career in music benefit immeasurably from music programs. According to the National Association for Music Education, music training enhances the development of language and reasoning, builds memorization capability, increases hand-eye coordination and perhaps most importantly, offers students a sense of achievement that can engender a lifetime of confidence and success. I find the students in my own ensembles have to transition from solo players to musicians in a band. This requires the crucial skill of teamwork, supporting peers that are differently abled and learning how to keep the “groove” even in the tough parts of the song. They acquire a sense of discipline in order to master their instrument on top of their demanding dual curriculum. Also, I’ve noticed that my students have learned to become risk takers. They have been compelled to reach beyond their perceived limits, trying things like taking solos or performing in unfamiliar genres. Clearly there is more taking place than learning a few notes on a page.

Last year I spent a few weeks performing in Australia and saw a fantastic model of music
education and its impact on the community. I managed to squeeze in concerts in four schools, three synagogues and participate in two major conferences. Everywhere I went music was the centerpiece of the experience rather than the afterthought. Each one of the schools offered a more awe inspiring, successful arts programs than I could ever imagine. Clearly the private institutions are in competition with the public schools to offer the best education not only in academics but also the arts. The net result is a musically intelligent society that values creativity and the full breadth of musical expression. Australians have made music a priority not necessarily to bolster the ranks of symphony-level performers but instead to raise the creative sparks of the populace. I witnessed a city of light and dreams…and that wasn’t just because I was there during the Vivid Sydney light/music week!

We live in an interconnected world where we must equip our young people to appreciate more than cold academics. We must inspire them to combine art into their technology, creativity into their commerce, humanity into their relationships. Don’t stand idly by while your local administration slashes the arts. Sponsor charities like Charity Music and Education Through Music. May America embrace arts education so that we can be proud of our creatively literate population and the cultural renaissance that will ensue.

The Gift of Israel

Monday, February 1st, 2016

By Sam Glaser

Any discussion of Judaism must include mention of Israel. Israel is part of a powerful interdependent triad that includes God and Torah. All Jews are part of Israel, we are the Children of Israel, offspring of Jacob/Israel and we are also united as Israel, the Jewish community. This heavenly “belongingness” is hinted to throughout scripture; when our biblical heroes die they are “gathered to their people.” Furthermore, we are all spiritually unified with Israel the geographic entity. This tiny country is not just another global travel destination for Jews; most feel a palpable sense of holiness and a sense of being home. When I walk the land on my annual trips I feel joy in my step and a hard to suppress drive to hug everyone I see. It’s not uncommon for seemingly casual trips to the Promised Land to result in radical spiritual transformation for unsuspecting Jewish tourists. This is the source of the power of programs like Birthright, Gap Year and Aish’s Jerusalem Fellowships. This is why folks like my younger brother, a visiting surfer dude from Southern California, checked out a yeshiva in Jerusalem for the first time and decided never to leave.

A year after my brother got to Israel I had the opportunity to spend a month in the Holy Land to study, perform, and most importantly, to verify that my brother wasn’t brainwashed. I was recently engaged and used the experience to bone up on “chassan classes” (workshops with the Rosh Yeshiva for new grooms.) I found my brother in excellent shape, happy and resolved to pursue a path of holiness. He was anything but brainwashed! He suggested that I go to the kotel and find a Lubavitcher named Guru Gil who might show me the biblical instruments that he had hand crafted. Sure enough I found Gil (Rabbi Gutman Locks) joyfully wrapping tefillin on any willing tourist. I told him of my musical predilection and he offered to serenade me on his handmade harps and lyres right after Shabbat. Gil acquired the guru moniker because he followed his spiritual muse to India and acquired enlightenment and many followers in the process. At one point he led a commune in Baja California, the very location where I’m writing this essay. After coming to an intellectual and spiritual dead end with capitalism, Hinduism and Christianity, Gil was marooned with his unexplored heritage while visiting the Holy Land. He found that the countless hours of meditation didn’t hold a candle to simple outreach to other Jews with acts of kindness and became a giant in Torah.

That Motzei Shabbat I found my way to Gil’s Old City apartment and took my seat in his spacious living room with a half a dozen other guests. He gave us a booze-enhanced concoction and asked us to relax as we turned our chairs to face the Temple Mount. As he prepared to pluck his harp, I felt serene and buzzed and was ready for whatever vision the music might summon. He told us to direct our attention to the vortex of holiness that springs from the foundation stone of the Holy of Holies, the fount of Torah that we speak of emanating from Zion in the Psalm “Ki Mitziyon tetzei Torah.”

At first I was dwelling on the beautiful pentatonic tuning of the finely crafted instrument. Eventually I was able to venture beyond the physics of the note interactions and allowed the sustaining strings to evoke visions of iridescent grandeur. No, he didn’t feed us hallucinogens! I envisioned a black and white vortex spinning up from this crucial singular point, black fire on white fire, culminating in two heavenly orbs. These swirling orbs were fiery crimson and the deepest indigo and at one point the two separate spheres combined in an explosion of incendiary, regal violet. It was clear to me that these colliding circumferences were the imminent combinations of the souls of my fiancé and me. I felt a deep knowing that our union was heaven sent and that there was purpose and importance to our combined, yet unknown mission. Whatever that mission would be, I felt clarity that it would center around directing the attention of K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish nation, to this wellspring of holiness originating in Zion but available wherever hearts are open. On the day we met, my wife’s very spiritual roommate reported that she perceived two brilliant orbs joining together…I felt privileged that God had given me the gift of seeing the same vision.

Every single day in the life of the Observant Jew revolves around Israel. The quest of Aliyah is the persistent back-story of each of our festive occasions. The Shabbat liturgy repeatedly mentions the importance of remembering our origin story, namely, the formation of our nation in Egypt and subsequent wandering in the desert on the way to Israel. With all this emphasis on where we began, it begs the question, “Where are we going? The Jewish People clearly are working on more than getting to the next meal or surviving yet another Arab attack. What is it we are striving for? Why are we anchored to this strip of land in the hostile Mid-East? Why are the nations that surround us taking up arms in every generation? What do they want from us? What do we want for ourselves?

The Torah leaves us on a cliffhanger with these questions largely unanswered. Moshe dies on the border and the Jewish People wait for his successor Joshua’s lead to make the conquest of the Promised Land. One has to delve into the Torah’s sequel, known as Nevi’im, or the prophetic writings, to get the full picture of our mission statement. From the time of the settling of the land until the two exiles, Jewish history appears like a grand sine wave, with the apex of peace, faith and invincibility leading to a nadir of self indulgence, decadence and defeat and then back again. Much like our turbulent wanderings in the desert, we go from dutiful service to complaints and dissension, repeatedly testing God’s patience until destruction ensues. Each time on this hopefully finite cycle we gain more insight into what it might take to stay on top and the process begins yet again.

With the devastating conquest of the Romans and destruction of the Second Temple it appears that the jig is up. The Torah’s prophecies of the Jew’s utter despair, remaining few in number and serving a protracted sentence wandering the nations is tragically fulfilled. It seems all is lost; our mission has failed and we are now orphans of history without a homeland or hope. However, we receive certain guarantees in this ultimate exile in which we are still entrenched. We are assured that God will be with us, that the Torah will always be accessible and that at some distant point we will all come home. Our grand story is still very much alive, only now we have left our nest to spread our message to all the nations. After 2000 years of remarkable influence in every corner of the globe we have returned to our homeland with great signs and wonders. History continues to unfold in our Internet age with Israel at the forefront of current events in every day’s news broadcast.

Israel serves as the punching bag for the world’s malevolent obsession with Jewish exceptionalism. Our detractors seethe with envy and struggle to knock us down from our supernatural, unprecedented eternity. That a persecuted nation without a land should survive the millennia and still ask the “four questions” at the seder table and celebrate in fragile sukkot? That this “disgraced” people should commit the ultimate chutzpah of coming back to their land to create a flourishing first-world country amidst medieval, violent tribal monarchies? Who can tolerate such brazen behavior from these annoying Jews?

When searching for Israel on a globe it becomes immediately apparent that in spite of the excess of press received it is truly tiny and vulnerable. Smaller than the state of New Jersey, there isn’t sufficient space on the map to indicate the name of the country so “Israel” floats in the Mediterranean with an arrow pointing to a small, shapeless chip of paint. This geographic perspective also clarifies the logic behind God’s choice of a homeland for God’s treasured nation. If our purpose is to merely survive intact then we could have been located in the Amazonian jungle. But if our mission is to influence the world with the truth of ethical monotheism, it makes sense to locate our capitol at the crossroads of the world. Indeed Israel is directly in the trade route of both North to South and East to West movement between Eurasia and Africa. Israel’s centrality is not only geopolitical, it is geological: before the Suez Canal was dug, a raindrop falling in the Israeli hills would flow to either the Pacific or the Atlantic ocean.

There is also logic to God choosing a land without abundant natural resources. With no land-based oil reserves, limited mining opportunities and an inadequate water supply, the residents of the land are forced to innovate and thereby apply those innovations to all areas of life, the very engine of the “light unto nations.” Whereas the Nile was the ever-flowing body of water for the boastful Pharaonic deities, our Jewish homeland could never rely on grandiose self-satisfaction; the trickle that is the Jordan River leaves us perpetually dependent on God’s compassion in the form of rain to survive. This beneficent dependence is the crux of the fundamental spiritual message that we spread while dwelling at the crossroads of the world.

The initial journey to the Promised Land started with an element of surprise and mystery. Avraham’s first commandment was “Lech L’cha” or “go for/to yourself” to a land that I will show you. Within the initial call to action is a requirement of trust, coupled with a reassurance that all will go well. This simple lesson can inspire every Jewish journey; we go forth into the unknown with faith that God is by our side, every journey is a revelation both of the external world and our own personal topography. Soon after reaching the land, further tests challenge our patriarch. Famine strikes, requiring that Avraham seek refuge in Egypt, and then he is told that his progeny will serve as slaves in a strange land before their miraculous deliverance. Indeed, Isaac struggles to get along with the locals and his attempts to establish permanence by digging wells in often in jeopardy. Avraham’s grandson Yaakov acquires for our nation the name Israel at the breaking point of his wrestling match with an angel. The lesson is that the Land will be won only with effort and suffering, those crucial elements that are required to make any conquest meaningful. Our patriarchs set the stage for the tenacious determination that possession of this spiritual terrain requires.

The Dalai Lama opted to study the Jewish people to understand the method for surviving exile. He learned that all of our holidays center on the relationship with Israel and that all our central prayers include requests for a strong, vital homeland. We face Jerusalem as we pray and even salute the attributes of Israel every time we utter thanks for a slice of bread. Since the destruction of our Holy Temple we leave a part of a new house incomplete, symbolically break a glass at wedding, and sing Im Eshkacheich Yerushalayim (If I forget thee, Jerusalem) at a b’rit milah. Once a year we sit on the floor in shoddy clothes crying fresh tears for our vanquished kingdom. As Napoleon famously said, “A nation that cries for its Temple for 2000 years surely will see it rebuilt.”

To travel to Israel today is to take ownership of this cosmic miracle of the modern Israeli State. I implore my audiences around the world to make THIS the year that they venture on the very the steps of our forefathers and four mothers. We take spiritual ownership of the land not by talking about it but by walking about it. I emphasize the wonder of the various waves of immigration from around the globe over the course of this past century. As of 2016 the majority of the world’s Jews live in Israel! Let us make aliyah not because we are persecuted but because we are inspired by our Judaism to want it all! Israel has everything! Spiritual and material riches await! From tropical reefs to arid desert, lush fields to snow capped mountains. There are Jews from every corner of the earth, every skin color, every degree of observance, flourishing in every occupation. For the action sports minded: surfable waves, river rafting, rock climbing, world-class mountain biking and even skiing. Whatever you seek, Israel delivers!

The Jewish People are still wandering the desert, the desert of ignorance and brutality, attempting to sow the seeds of loving-kindness, justice and charity. The forces of evil in the form of Islamic fundamentalism, anti-Semitism, BDS, holocaust denial, are no match for the vast power of the Jewish spirit. We are engaged in a mission of world redemption and in the process are struggling to influence in a patient, loving manner while maintaining our unique identity. The trials of each generation seem one and the same, largely because they are eternal: to hold on to the dream of freedom against all odds, to keep the faith and keep our focus, to teach, touch and entertain, to find laughter amidst tears and in times of defeat, to pick ourselves up and strive once again. This is the mission of the Jewish People for the benefit of all mankind, the true gift of Israel.

I wanted to finish this essay with a pair of powerful moments that I experienced this week. One of the great gifts in life is getting “winks” from God. Everyone gets them from time to time. We often call them small miracles or coincidences. I have taught my kids to say “large world, well managed” instead of “small world” when they happen. I got two profound winks over the past several days that I’d like to share. One instance occurred while skiing with my boys in the promised land of Vail, CO. I was going to travel to Toronto for a Shabbaton and my sons had to get back to Yeshiva University in NYC after their winter break. Why not ski Colorado on the way? We flew to Denver and drove a few hours to get five days in this ski paradise that I believe has no equal. We timed it well: every day from first run to closing time we were flying down the slopes blanketed with fresh powder, impossibly blue skies and no crowds.

On our last day on the hill I was hopeful to meet up with one of my good college buddies who has moved to the Vail area. Unfortunately, my iPhone kept freezing up and we were unable to touch base. At about 1pm we were doing laps on one of my favorite runs, The Star in the remote Blue Sky Basin area in Vail’s famed Back Bowls. My son Max is quite the kamikaze (almost as fast as his dad!) and was flying just behind me when he caught air off of a lip and unfortunately did not see a diminutive fifty-year-old woman cruising on the other side of him. He tackled her midair and they tumbled together about a half dozen times. I watched the whole thing and was utterly horrified. I slammed on the brakes and the woman’s friend screamed at me to call ski patrol and find her friends with whom they were skiing. When I saw that Max was OK, I told him to wait with her and exchange information and then Jesse and I flew down in search of the woman’s compatriots. We didn’t find them but thankfully by the time we rode the lift back up the ski patrol had arrived and was loading the poor pummeled woman in a toboggan, mostly as a precaution. Who was waiting with Max? My college friend Brian Ogawa, the guy I was looking for! Yes, it was Brian’s friend that my son mowed down. This was not how we hoped to connect…but this “large world, well managed” moment gave us both a serious jolt of wonderment. Thank God, the woman is fine and Max escaped with a bruised leg and an important lesson of the need for a bit more caution.

Soon thereafter, following four days among the “frozen chosen” leading a Shabbaton for the largest synagogue in North America, Beth Tzedec, Toronto, I led a community Rockin’ Youth concert on Sunday and then flew directly to Cabo San Lucas to deliver a Tu Bish’vat jam for Chabad of Cabo. Yes, it’s been a decadent week! My wife and daughter flew down from LA to join me for some fun in the sun and thankfully Chabad has delivered delicious meals to our hotel everyday. Today I opted to do a dive in the nearby city of La Paz in order to experience a very rare treat in the underwater world: swimming with the largest fish in the sea, the whale shark. Jacques Cousteau calls this unique gulf “the world’s aquarium.” The local dive boats charge around $200 a person for the trip but one can find local Panga boat captains willing to do the same thing for about $20, especially if you have your own gear.

I expected the Sea of Cortez to be much calmer than the Pacific side of the peninsula but sure enough once past the breakwater we were tossed about by 6-10 foot whitecaps. After about forty minutes of turbulent travel, the captain announced to the Mexican tourists and me that it was time to suit up. I noticed that only I was getting ready. “What?” I stammered, “You folks aren’t getting in?” “No,” they replied. They weren’t crazy enough to jump in the water with these 30-foot plus creatures lurking about the depths. “Oh, great,” I thought, “I’m on my own!” When a vast grey shadow longer than our boat cruised by, the captain yelled, “Now!” I plunged into the roiling depths and swam towards the looming spotted skin of the leviathan before me. The whale shark was slowly ambling by and seemed to be keeping pace with my panicked strokes as I attempted to keep up. I travelled alongside with the beast only a few feet away! I attempted to avoid the mouth that could have swallowed a Smart Car and also ensured that I steered clear of the tail that could have smacked me unconscious. After fifteen minutes or so of matching it’s pace I could no longer keep up and so I flagged down the vessel to pick me up. This crazy experiment repeated another three times as we trolled the area.

My forth dive in the water was the most transformative. I was now slightly more relaxed, as relaxed as one could be alone in turbulent surf with a sea monster! At least now I attempted to film the adventure with my GoPro camera, whereas before I was too freaked out to remember to breathe! At one point, the shark that I was chasing met up with a fellow giant and they affectionately rubbed heads against one another. For the first time I was able to just enjoy the scene without having to frantically keep up and I felt an uncanny sense of union with these peaceful creatures and with all of creation. I then followed the smaller of the two beasts for a while and finally flagged down the boat. When I flipped onto the safety of the deck I looked back at the sea to say farewell to my new friend and the shark rolled on its side and WAVED its six-foot long pectoral fin at us. I’m totally serious! And not just once…but for about twenty seconds! Yes, I’m still freaked out. And yes, that was a powerful wink from the Creator of the Universe Who LOVES when God’s beloved human partners enjoy creation.

Halacha: The Chok’s On You

Wednesday, December 23rd, 2015
by Sam Glaser

Joanne Atkinson was everything a young piano student could want in a teacher.  She was humble, upbeat and encouraging.  Never harsh, never demanding.  If there was a piece to which I didn’t relate or which was too intricate, she allowed me to move on, no problem.  She also instituted a separate music theory class for her more advanced students, allowing me to grasp such concepts as classical harmony, counterpoint and transcription. Then my Bar Mitzvah tutor, Aryell Cohen intervened. He told my mom, “Sammy has something special and he needs a REAL teacher.”  Immediately thereafter my five-year love affair with Joanne ceased and I now was faced with the tyranny of Aryell’s German teacher (she-who-must-not-be-named) who lived with a pair of Dobermans and Bosendorfers in the Hollywood Hills.  Now I was chastised if I didn’t perfect my repertoire or scolded if I flubbed my dexterity exercises.  She didn’t really believe in my ability to “make it” as a pianist and regularly reminded me.  The creaky turn-of-the-century wooden home felt eerily haunted and it reeked of the food she cooked for her pampered pets.  I had to wash my hands before stroking her beloved 88’s and God Forbid I ever touch my shoes and then touch the keyboard!  She even denied my mother entry, making her shiver in the dark in our family station wagon waiting for me to finish each lesson.  Talk about dedication…thanks mom!

In spite of the horrors of enduring this caustic spinster, I did learn to take my art more seriously.  I developed practice techniques that I utilize to this day.  Yes, it was shocking not to be praised and coddled, but thanks to her unremitting tutelage, I tackled pieces that I likely would not have entertained had I remained with the effervescent Mrs. Atkinson.  After about a year of this torture I rebelled, telling my parents that now that I was a man (of 13!) I had decided to quit the piano and take up guitar.  Of course I still used the piano for songwriting and it wasn’t long before I was back, having found great teachers in David Kaminer who taught me how to rock, and then in my senior year, Dick Fister, who enlightened me on the finer points of jazz.  While it was liberating to learn to jam and improvise, I can safely say that I never again worked on my craft with that same degree of discipline as my year with the tyrant.
In hindsight I realize that what the cantankerous teacher truly gave me was the gift of appreciating how to harness my creative energy.  My innate ability was meaningless without the imposed structure. This insight helped me understand the value of the “harness” that the Jewish People has used to thrive through the millennia.  We call it Halacha (the path one walks,) or Jewish law and the multitude of constraints on our supposed freedom actually serve to give us direction and purpose, to coordinate our human efforts towards a greater goal.  Trying on the “yoke of heaven” sounds like a burden that no one would want.  Save that stuff for the religious fanatics or masochists! Surely no one wants a yoke around his or her neck.  Especially this beach loving, quasi-hippie California kid. But a yoke allows oxen to plow and thereby bring sustenance and hopefully abundance into the world. These rules and regulations are really our freedom, the secret of true success, a wellspring of pleasure and joy.  Mastering halacha seems like a dry, empty endeavor, but incorporating it into one’s life turns the most mundane acts like getting dressed, eating and interacting with others into profound moments of spiritual significance. I want to dedicate this month’s newsletter to developing an appreciation for the finer points of Jewish law and it’s various subdivisions. Bear with me…this overview requires a bit of vocabulary.
We begin with a primary distinction, the Written and the Oral law.  The written law is based on the legal sections of the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) and the oral is based on the teaching of Moses and subsequent commentators.  Although there is disagreement on the exact numbering, all of our sages agree that there are 613 official mitzvot in the written text.  These are divided into 248 positive (Thou Shalt) and 365 (Shalt Not) commandments.  The “Oral Torah” elaborates on how we do these 613.  Clearly there is more to the divinely inspired script than one can find in print; several passages of the Torah indicate that Moses perceived celestial diagrams and was not just taking dictation.  Around the year 217 CE Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi committed this orally transmitted tradition to writing in order to preserve it for posterity.  His work is a terse six-book set called the Mishnah.  Over the next 400 years the commentaries on the Mishnah were compiled in the expansive 63-volume Gemara.  Together the Mishnah and Gemara form the Talmud.  Got it?  As an example, let’s assume that you want the rules to build a sukkah. The written law succinctly states that all citizens of Israel have to dwell in booths for seven days. The oral law elucidates exactly what the parameters of such a booth should look like, who exactly is obligated, what to do if it rains, what activities comprise “dwelling” in the sukkah, etc.  Yes, every last detail has been covered!  Our sages maintain that both written and oral law are binding, and that the inspiration for all of the legalese as espoused by the commentators stems from the original revelation at Mt. Sinai.
Next we have a further distinction in our legal code: these biblical written and oral laws are called D’oraita, and laws introduced by the sages are called rabbinic or D’rabbanan.  Examples of rabbinic laws are the mitzvot to light Shabbat candles or to celebrate Purim.  These are not part of the original 613 mitzvot but we refer to them as mitzvot nonetheless.  The fact is that we live in a rabbinic world in that most of the laws that we observe in our daily lives are from the rabbis.  Just like the logo on the side of the LA Police cruisers states, “To protect and serve,” our concerned rabbis have instituted multifarious gezerot (fences) to keep us from trampling on the D’oraita commandments and takanot (decrees) for the public welfare.  Even though we may feel that we already have plenty, these “extra” laws are for our own good. Furthermore, each community has minhagim (customs) that can acquire the force of law when the majority adopts them.  Wearing a kippah is an example of one of these.  Without a Temple, priests and sacrifices these days, there are only 369 of the original 613 that we can do.  Not to worry: the rabbis have given us plenty more mitzvot to keep us busy!
Within the Written Law there are three categories.  The first is Mishpatim, from the word mishpat (judgment.)  These are the rational laws, the social ordinances that are intuitive, those that any functioning society might require.  Just remember that word mishpat: these are the laws that you could figure out using your own “judgment.”  Do not murder or steal are two of the mishpatim, for example.  The next category is called Chukim, or Chok in singular.  A chok is a superrational law, one that cannot be understood using human reason.  The laws of kashrut and family purity are in this class of chukim.  Yes, we can analyze why certain foods are off limits, but the fact is we are left with a best guess and never truly know.  That’s right, even though quality USDA pork chops will not give us trichinosis at this juncture of history, they are still verboten.  Assuming that we know better than the Master of the Universe is naïve and even foolhardy. Observing chukim is simply an act of love, a deep connecting with a Creator Who has the ultimate perspective, Who gave these laws for a reason that we may not ever grasp. In spite of the fact that we don’t understand, we observe chukim because we love and trust the Lawgiver.  This is the secret of that powerful formula “Na’aseh v’nishmah” (we will do and then we will understand) that we collectively uttered at Sinai.  Clearly we intuited that only performing mitzvot we understand would undermine the relationship, signifying a lack of trust by second guessing God’s ability to nurture us.
Finally there is a category called Edut, or those mitzvot that are testimonial in nature, declaring God’s power and guidance of history.  These are the laws like the observance of Shabbat and our major holidays.  The details of performing Mishpatim, Chukim and Edut are bandied about in animated conversations recorded in the Talmud, an intimidating Aramaic text that requires seven and a half years to complete by reading one complicated page at a time.  Thankfully we have a number of compilations that summarize the tachlis (bottom line) of Jewish law so that we don’t have to spend a decade looking up the proper blessing for a banana.  The primary text that enjoys universal hegemony is the Shulchan Aruch (set table) compiled by Talmudic genius Yosef Caro while he lived in Tsfat in 1555.  Caro had the misfortune of being born in Toledo, Spain in 1488; he and his family were victims of the expulsion in 1492.  They immigrated to Portugal only to be sent packing in the Portugese expulsion of 1497.  Like Maimonides he had to study while on the run.  Remarkably, his exposition of Jewish law still stands to this day; there is scarcely a home without a copy of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, an abridged version of his code.  Ashkenazim get their specific angle on observance through Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan’s (the Chofetz Chaim) Mishna B’rura (the clarified teaching,) a text that I have taken great joy in studying over the years.  Sephardim get their unique insights from kabbalist Rabbi Yosef Hayim’s halachic masterpiece, Ben Ish Chai (the son of the man who lives.)  Both of these texts appeared in the 1800’s and remain the trusted references in the Jewish world.
With the advent of the Internet and quality English books like Artscroll’s new Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (that includes the clarification of the Mishna B’rura) it’s tempting to avoid bothering one’s rabbi with a shyla (question.)  I pity our overburdened rav who gets cornered every time he teaches or during spare moments on Shabbat by earnest congregants with urgent questions.  The fact is, however, that this is why we have a rabbi!  Ideally your rabbi knows you well and can advise you based on your unique circumstances and idiosyncrasies.  Jewish law is not monolithic.  It is highly flexible and your skilled rabbi will know just what you are ready for…or not.  Furthermore, there is far greater leniency in the enforcement of D’rabbanan as opposed to D’oraita.  Any time I ask Rabbi Cohen a shyla I see him pause to reflect on the origin of the commandment in question and guide me accordingly.  The interpretation of halacha is also geographically dependent; a case in point is when my younger brother Aharon moved from our community to the other side of town (the Hancock Park area.) He was told to find another posek (a rabbi who specializes in halachic issues) in his new domain.  Indeed, every locale has its own nuanced framework that only a local rabbi can know.
Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) details the exacting chain of transmission of Torah law from Sinai to the present day.  You can rest assured that this immense quantity of Jewish “how to’s” is not the invention of some crafty rabbis along the way.  Illustrating the veracity of our canon is beyond the scope of this essay but I assure you that the information is available.  While it seems that there are so many disagreements in the Talmud, there is one important fact that cannot be overlooked: the rabbis of the Talmud agree on nearly all the major precepts handed down in that chain of transmission.  They are just arguing the finer points, the seemingly insignificant “hairsplitting” details that shed light on the ultimate truth of any given matter.  God refers to us in the Torah as a “stiff necked people.”  We get especially stubborn in our search for truth and we do not budge from our time-tested beliefs.  I believe this is also the reason why we have over fifty synagogues within a one-mile radius in our LA-based shtetl.  It’s not that we don’t get along…it’s just that each subset of our multinational nation has a deep love for specific minhagim and whenever possible, prefers not to compromise.
Familiarizing yourself with and observing Jewish law offers access to the highest realms of spirituality.  While it seems like the People of the Book spend too much time reading to impact the world, the fact is that our devotion to the understanding and carrying out of God’s truth as revealed in our Torah profoundly affects reality.  Just like a smile is contagious, so too is there a ripple effect from each mitzvah performed.  In the end, all laws are mysterious chukim.  We will never understand the inner workings of God’s great plans for humanity.  But by studying the “owner’s manual” we can become acquainted with the Creator and align our will with God’s will for the Chosen People.  When we do, as Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach said, we are “dreaming God’s dreams.”  Judaism is a religion of life, of this world.  Yes, there are rewards in the next world beyond our imagination for every mitzvah.  But the real payoff is in the here and now, in the form of living with deep meaning, optimal relationships with all those you encounter, emotional and physical well being and most importantly, a sweet song of joy and holiness accompanying your daily dance with the Almighty.
Halacha seems daunting but only when studied from a distance.  Put that analytical, college-trained logic aside for a while and try on a chok for size.  Go ahead and do the research…but you will never understand the reason for the mitzvot.  You may feel foolish or feel like you are entertaining antiquated superstitions.  But then something clicks inside and you feel a sense of connection with your heritage.  Then you try another mitzvah and that leads to another.  Soon you are using your God-given power of choice to choose God.  Then you realize you want to soak up every mitzvah opportunity and you have a lot to learn.  At last, the chok’s on you!  Early in my life I learned that true art requires the imposition of order upon chaos, shaping a collection of random notes into a masterpiece.  All of us can develop the expertise to master our own instrument, playing our own unique role with diligence and passion, capably contributing to the sublime symphony of creation.

Redemption Song

Friday, October 30th, 2015

by Sam Glaser

I had the pleasure of leading the 5776 High Holiday prayers for a wonderful congregation, Beth El Yardley, just north of Philly and feel like I have a whole new family in the area.  My wife and two of our kids came with me on the adventure, Sarah on the flight with us from LA and Jesse on the train from New York where he is a freshman at Yeshiva University. I’d like to think they came to support their dear old dad but in fact they were lured primarily with the promise of rest and relaxation at a Central Virginia lake with prime waterskiing conditions where friends of ours have a home. After two sweet days of Rosh Hashana prayers we stuffed our bags into a rented Chevy Malibu and braved four hours on the I95, choosing to drive in the middle of the night rather than endure the traffic which was exacerbated thanks to the Pope’s east coast visit. Following a delicious week of water sports and family time I returned to Philadelphia well rehearsed and suntanned, prepared to enter the vocal marathon that is Yom Kippur.  Once again I experienced the annual cantorial miracle: somehow without any food and drink God enabled me to daven in top form over the course of twenty-five hours, baruch Hashem!

We got back to LA just in time for Shabbat and then Sukkot started on Sunday night. Needless to say, holiday preparations were somewhat rushed. Thankfully my son Jesse volunteered a hand to help me get the sukkah up and running. LA weather was relentlessly hot and yet I feel there is no cooler place to be than in a sukkah. The meals with dear friends were sublime, the davening filled with ecstatic song and dance and each night I fell asleep under the schach (organic sukkah roof material) while watching the full moon slowly arc across the desert sky. I realized that I was experiencing a view that our ancestors have enjoyed for millennia. Yes, we Jews are still living in sukkot, on a panoramic journey from exile to redemption.

When we left Egypt we made forty-two stops over the course of our forty-year march to the Promised Land. In each place we set up our sukkot and enjoyed the protection from the elements in the form of divinely placed clouds that shielded us from all dangers. According to Kabbalah we all are reincarnated from these same brave, wandering Jews.   How remarkable that the Jewish People are still wandering; sojourning in modern cities around the globe instead encampments in the desert, hopefully spreading the light of ethical monotheism on the way, engaging in tikkun olam, sharing our spiritual gift with all nations. Sukkot reminds us that life has purpose and direction, that we come from humble origins and that there is indeed a fabulous destination.

Once, on the flight to a Shabbaton that I was leading in Knoxville, TN, I was pouring over Farbrengen, a hip Chabad publication that used to arrive on my doorstep several times a year. An article by Rabbi Heschel Greenberg entitled “The Mysterious Logic of Mashiach” particularly interested me. The Mashiach (messiah) word has always given me the willies. A human being ushering in a “golden age” sounds like science fiction. Furthermore I am highly resistant to change and any talk of such sudden transformation fills me with foreboding. Most of us growing up in a politically correct world inherit the value of moral relativism: nothing is absolute, no one really has the truth, no one can tell us what to do…especially some fanatic who calls himself Mashiach! This article took the reader on a step-by-step explanation of why the belief in a messianic age is absolutely normal, spans all cultures and bridges the religious and secular divide. Christians pray for Jesus to come back, Muslims wait for the Mahdi, Capitalists place their faith in science to perfect the world and Communists attempt to create an atheist worker’s utopia. And why shouldn’t it be an individual that ushers in this messianic age? After all, enterprising upstarts who choose to open the eyes of a blinded populace rather than accept the status quo have launched every revolution in human history.

The article provided such a paradigm shift that I spent the entire flight preparing a talk on the Jewish concept of the messianic age for my Knoxville victims. I even peppered my Saturday night concert with songs inspired by eschatological themes. I thought the presentation was important and interesting and no, I never got invited back. The fact is that no one wants to discuss the messiah except for Chassisdim, who end every d’var Torah with “and Mashiach should come speedily in our days.” Even many Modern Orthodox avoid the subject, as if the announcement of Mashiach would affect their real estate holdings or require that they wear shtreimels. The Conservative movement is undecided (surprise, surprise) and Reform has confidently voided mention of a messiah in its principles and liturgy. And yet, Maimonides, the great rationalist, considered the belief in the coming of Mashiach to be one of the thirteen core principles of our faith. Judaism maintains that mitzvot are cumulative, every act of kindness and love reverberates through the universe and leaves and indelible imprint. Whereas evil dissipates and is forgotten, goodness is rooted in eternity. Given this precept, we should be outraged that the messianic age isn’t here yet. As one sweaty, slightly inebriated friend said to me amidst the revelry on Simchat Torah, “We’re such nice people! What is God waiting for?”

The era of the messianic redemption will come speedily, much like our exodus from Egypt transpired with such great haste that we couldn’t even wait for our bread to bake. But it will only seem sudden. The roots of this transformation go back to the life of Avraham, the survival of his nephew Lot, the heroism of Ruth and the birth of King David. Our third exile is ending in the miraculous homecoming party that is the modern State of Israel. The seeds of Torah have now been sown worldwide with more people studying in more locations than ever in history. Jews exert undo influence in business and media and Jewish parlance is the lingua franca of Western Civilization. Maimonides views the advent of Christianity as an integral vehicle to spread awareness of monotheism and messianism to all nations. Science and technology have given us PCs, iPhones and the Internet; we realize more than ever that we are all connected and inter-dependent. Whereas it seemed that the former Soviet Union collapsed overnight, it’s demise had been festering over decades. So too will this “new age” seemingly spring upon us, leaving us shocked and surprised and even laughing at the degree of transition. Only in the aftermath will we be able look back and perceive the steady progression towards our yet unimaginable destiny.

So hopefully by now you see that discussing the messiah is very Jewish and very normal. It isn’t a crutch or a fairy tale but is our raison d’être as a nation. Working towards redemption gives our lives direction and meaning and assuages Jewish suffering over the millennia when it is seen as a function of this ultimate goal. Even the agnostics among us possess God-given messianic impulses. Just like we know we have a pulse, we know we are driven towards making the world better, to fostering the triumph of good over evil. We entertain this phenomenon every time we see a movie where the hero wins! God has given us this incredible drive towards tikkun olam…we are willing to sacrifice our lives to make it happen. Ask a Darwinian evolutionist to explain that! I believe this drive is universal but is particularly active in the Jewish neshama. God has instilled it within us so that we will not accept mediocrity, we don’t stand idly by our neighbor’s blood, we can’t rest until we accomplish something monumental. So yes, we have to discuss our redemption destiny, pray for it and in the words of Maimonides, wait daily for its coming. The Talmud echoes this sentiment; it states that one of the first questions with which we are challenged when we leave this mortal coil is, “Did you yearn for the arrival of the Messiah?”

A prerequisite for redemption is that we desire redemption. That’s a byproduct of our powerful gift of free choice. Unfortunately we have been in exile so long we have lost the yearning to flourish in our own land. We get so comfortable in our suburban refugee camps that we forget that we’re only “passing through.” The price of immersion in the Diaspora is a disconnection with our essential mission statement to be a “light unto nations.” Even Israelis lose focus and pray to reach the Promised Land of Hollywood or the Golden Medina of New York. Tragically, reaching a state of peace and tranquility with our Arab cousins in the Middle East seems more distant than ever. Perhaps God is trying to nudge Israelis to an awareness that davening for Mashiach is the only way; in the words of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, “We are stuck in a very unfortunate position, we try to move to right, left, forward, retreat and the way is blocked…we are surrounded on every side…there is one direction, however, that is not closed: upward.”

What should we expect from this imminent spiritual revolution? According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, “The age of Mashiach is not something separate from our times. It is pieced together from everything we do now, and all that we know of shall remain. Only the negativity will vanish, and the Godliness within each thing will be obvious to see.” The promise of our Torah is that our heart will be circumcised. Yes, our heart has a foreskin and no we won’t need a Mohel. This impediment to spirituality is the voice that tells you “maybe there is no God” or “no one will care if I don’t claim cash on my taxes.” That inclination to do the wrong thing, the Yetzer Harah, is a gift from God so that we grow from the lifelong struggle over lethargy and self-centeredness and feel a sense of triumph whenever we are victorious. That’s what we are going to lose. We will be less egotistical, narcissistic, selfish and miserly. We will unite as a Jewish People and with total clarity of God’s presence, denominational strife will vanish. (Of course, there will still be that synagogue in which we won’t set foot.) Mashiach will be a charismatic, brilliant, world famous leader who becomes the undisputed king of Israel. Hard to imagine the Knesset unanimous about anything, but that’s the idea. Just as an example of the messiah’s power: war will cease to exist AND Israel’s borders will expand. According to Rabbi Manis Friedman, we will be continuously head over heels in love with our Creator, spouse, children and fellow humans, seeing only a unified state of reality and the deepest inner beauty. Sounds a lot like a summer music festival but without the drugs.

And that brings us full circle back to Sukkot. We pray for Mashiach three times a day in our Amidah, every time we eat bread, every time we say the Aleynu prayer. But the capitol of messiah awareness is during this holiday when we leave our fortified homes to live in a fragile hut protected only by God’s grace. Passover corresponds with the First Temple, Shavuot with the Second and Sukkot with the Third Temple that will be built by Mashiach. Sukkot is also known as Chag Ha’asif, the gathering holiday when we collect the bounty of our harvest in gratitude to our Heavenly Provider. Asif also refers to the joyful gathering of Jews during the holiday and the ultimate gathering when we are all brought on “wings of eagles (read El Al)” at the time of our redemption. Over Sukkot we read the prophet Zechariah’s frightening prediction of wars that will precede this age of everlasting peace. The name of the leader of the enemy camp is Gog, which can be translated as roof. It’s the roof people, those who put their faith in technology and material wealth, versus us, the schach people, those who know that ultimately God is the true source of security. The nations that survive this ultimate battle will join the Jewish People in Israel to rejoice and give thanks every Sukkot. Some folks don’t want to wait for Mashiach; one of the highlights of Sukkot in the Holy Land is witnessing the hundred thousand gentile pilgrims who parade through the streets of Jerusalem at this time every year.

Let me conclude with a sweet story I heard this Sukkot from the brilliant and eloquent Rabbi Tzvi Freeman who has made the Happy Minyan his home base. Right before candlelighting on Sh’mini Atzeret, the holiday that immediately follows the week of Sukkot, the rabbi’s son was in our local Marriott and overheard the discussion of a family from Israel with a clerk at the front desk. They had a reservation but no credit card with them and the clerk was adamant that they could not check in without it. The rabbi’s son seized the opportunity to do an amazing mitzvah: he approached the panicked couple and offered to get a credit card so that they could check in. He sprinted home and asked his dad for the car keys so that he could hurry back with the credit card. Rabbi Freeman told his son that he would take care of it…he wanted the mitzvah for himself! But his son insisted and followed through with this heroic act. In the aftermath the rabbi realized it was a far superior mitzvah with his son doing the action. After all, he learned such sacred behavior from his exalted parents, and what nachas for the parents to see that their son was not just doing the minimum but was actively elaborating on this opportunity for chesed (kindness.)

The rabbi then reflected on the incredible pride that God must feel for his treasured nation on Simchat Torah. We take our beloved Torah out of the ark and dance with it all night in interwoven, chaotic circles of joyful abandon. That’s right…we dance with a book! What other nation dances with books? We have never been commanded to do so. It’s “just a custom.” But what a custom! Just like the rabbi’s son took Divine service to a new, innovative level, that’s what we do on this most blissful of holidays. May all of us go beyond the letter of the law and bring our utmost to our holy service; that’s the type of nachas that will surely speed the day of our redemption.

So don’t be afraid of Mashiach. Call it Tikkun Olam, call it the New World Order. Take a few minutes in your prayers, after you ask for all the “me” stuff like health and livelihood, and pour your heart out to the Almighty that there has been ENOUGH suffering in the world and it’s time for peace. Be CHUTZPADIK! God, please, don’t make us wait any more. Let no one else go hungry, let no on else become a victim of senseless violence, protect the weak, protect our planet. Help us now! Heal us now! Please, God. Amen.

Musical Thunder Down Under

Monday, October 26th, 2015

by Sam Glaser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, I wanted for it to be one way

But I see that it’s not Your will

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

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

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

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

Good night!