Posts Tagged ‘Shavuot’

Minor League Jewish Holidays

Sunday, May 10th, 2015

by Sam Glaser

A summary of every Jewish holiday:

 “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!

-Alan King

“I got a job on Madison Avenue in New York…and they fired me cause I took off too many Jewish holidays!”

-Woody Allen

 As soon as the Passover seders have passed, most are happy to NOT celebrate so much for a while.  And yet, there are another six days of matzah munching and another dozen holidays in the space of a month and a half.  Who needs to work?  Several important commemorations dot the calendar during the seven weeks leading up to the anniversary of receiving the Torah, Shavuot. I felt that any description of the Jewish festive cycle must make mention of these milestones that are typically left out of the holiday hall of fame.  Therefore, for this chapter I’m cramming in all of the lesser blips on the radar so that you don’t miss out on any of the fun.

The 15/16th of Nissan:

The Passover Seders…it’s matzah time!

The 16th of Nissan:
As soon as the first day of Pesach is over we start a special period called S’firat Ha’omer, where we count the forty-nine days until Shavuot, which occurs on the fiftieth day.  Forty-nine is a crucial number in Judaism; since the number seven runs throughout the fabric of reality, logically seven squared is also significant.

In the days of the Temple a certain measurement known as an “omer” of barley was offered on the second day of Pesach. Then we would start the countdown, building up our excitement for the climactic event of human history in the year 2448, the first Shavuot at Mount Sinai. Eventually this period became associated with the various permutations of the seven kabbalistic s’firot (Godly emanations through which God interacts with the world.)  This daily roadmap of spiritual growth opportunities allows us to refine our character traits to prepare for the ultimate “kabbalah,” personally receiving the Torah.  These days we commemorate this count with a simple blessing and then a counting of our own each night.  It’s a tremendous burden to remember to count every single day…if we miss even one, we can no longer make the blessing the rest of the nights!  God forbid I miss out on a chance to make a blessing!  I’m very grateful for technology to keep me in the mix: I get an email every day to remind me and my iphone siddur concludes the ma’ariv service with a listing of the proper day.

During Rabbi Akiva’s time, the Talmud tells us that 12,000 pairs of his students died during S’firat Ha’omer since they didn’t treat each other with proper respect.  Therefore this period became associated with an awareness of the importance of achdut (Jewish unity) and a state of semi-mourning.  Celebrations like weddings, bar/bat mitzvah parties, concerts or even niceties like the joy of a shave or haircut are prohibited.  The bottom line is that what should have been a time of joyous anticipation is now subdued.  I must admit that these restrictions are somewhat of a bummer, especially for frum musicians.  With no parties or events in need of live music, many hunker down in the studio or take extended vacations, wondering how they will pay the rent come June.  The one exception to the rule is singing without instruments and thanks to this leniency, grateful a capella groups sell lots of albums this time of year.

The 17th of Nissan:

The intermediate days of Passover begin as soon as the second day (or the first day in Israel) of the holiday has ended.  Yes, it’s still officially Pesach!  The status of these four intermediate “Chol Hamo’ed” days is one of festive nature but most types of work can be done.  Our prayers are of the weekday variety with special holiday insertions, plus the addition of a celebratory Hallel, Torah reading and Mussaf.  That means that the whole week one is spending a lot of time in shul!  FYI: Chol Hamo’ed also takes place during the week of Sukkot in the fall.  Many in the working world attempt to keep their jobs intact by showing up in the office normally, or as normal as one can appear when munching matzah at the lunch break.  I think it’s best (and the rabbis agree,) if at all possible to take the time off, to relax and enjoy day trips with friends and family.  We love the fact that the amusement parks, hiking spots and beaches are empty, unless of course Passover coincides with Spring Break.  There are certain restrictions in place to keep a sense of the sacred…check with your favorite rabbi for details.  The Shabbat of Chol Hamoed is a unique collision of holiday joy and Sabbath sanctity.  The services are usually particularly sweet and are enhanced with the public reading of the evocative love poetry of Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs.

21st/22nd of Nissan:

The last two days of the week of Pesach:  These days are treated with the same restrictions as any Jewish holiday.  There are no special observances other than the pleasure of hearing the Torah portion featuring the splitting of the Red Sea read on the anniversary of our crossing.  The eighth day of the holiday is one of a few times per year that we stop to remember those loved ones who have left the earth in a short memorial ceremony called Yizkor.  Since I’m typically leading Passover programs around the country, these extra two days after a busy week of concerts for Chol Hamo’ed offer much needed r&r.  If you have the opportunity to share the final meal of the eighth day with Chassidim you will be treated to another four cups of wine and plenty of song and spirit during their annual “Mashiach Seudah.” This festive meal echoes the themes of the Haftorah reading of the day, which heralds the imminent arrival of the Messiah.

 The 26th of Nissan:

The first of the many commemorations on the heels of Pesach is Yom HaShoah.  This date was chosen by the Israeli government to memorialize the six million since it is close to the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, representing the indomitable Jewish spirit, even though the uprising was doomed.  Whereas the Orthodox world maintains that Tisha B’av covers all the maladies throughout history, I think it is appropriate that the Holocaust has it’s own milestone to keep the memory fresh.  While it is much more of an event in the Holy Land, Diaspora organizations typically hold memorials featuring survivor testimonials, and it is also the day that over 10,000 participants on the annual March of the Living meet in Auschwitz. I am often asked to perform songs like my Born To Remember or One Hand, One Heart songs at ceremonial gatherings and I appreciate the opportunity to help my fellow Jews connect both to the vast destruction and the miracle of our survival.

 The 1st and 2nd of Iyar:

The next special day is actually one that occurs every month.  Rosh Chodesh (head of the month) and is the celebration of the new moon/new month.  This mitzvah is the very first commandment given to the Jews as a free people in Egypt.  In other words, now that we are no longer slaves, not only are we accountable for how we spend our time, but we also have the opportunity to sanctify it.  The first month we had the chance to commemorate in Egypt was Nissan, and knowing when Rosh Chodesh occurred gave us the chronological awareness of when to take the lamb for the Passover sacrifice and then which day the seder (and exodus) would occur.  Two weeks after the full moon on Nissan ushers in Pesach it’s time for the next Rosh Chodesh, this time for the month of Iyar.

Rosh Chodesh is formally announced during the Torah service on the prior Shabbat.  Leading that “Shabbat Mevarchim” service is one of my favorite pieces of chazzanut and is always a happy moment for the community, not only for the optimism with which we greet the new month, but also because in many synagogues in our neighborhood it means that there will be a sumptuous free lunch.  One of the beautiful aspects of Rosh Chodesh is that determining the precise day was the job of the Sanhedrin; in other words, it was up to mankind to determine exactly when our sacred holidays take place.  The Sabbath comes every week but the holidays are a powerful sign of man’s partnership in the destiny of the universe.

 Rosh Chodesh prayer service includes Hallel and a special Mussaf.  Hallel is a series of King David’s Psalms that describe our national redemption, God’s love for the Jewish People and how we reciprocate with dutiful partnership and gratitude. Yes, you should buy my Hallel album to get into the feeling and memorize the words!  These poetic verses are typically sung with abandon and have served as a beacon of hope in our long exile.

The primary theme of Rosh Chodesh is the

miracle of the eternal Jewish People, how like the moon we wax and wane over the millennia but keep on shining.  Chodesh is also closely related to the word for newness, chadash.  The fact that we follow a lunar-based calendar demonstrates that we emphasize the importance of welcoming newness in our lives.  New insights, fresh inspiration, renewed hope and of course, new music.  Rosh Chodesh is also known as the women’s holiday; according to the Talmud it is a special day of the spirit given to women as a reward for their unwavering faith throughout the ages.

The 3rd of Iyar:

Yom Hazikaron is Israel’s official Memorial Day for the remembrance of those who fell in war or in acts of terrorism. Back in 1951 the Israel government declared that it was best to separate the ecstatic celebration of Independence Day from the mourning and memory, so Yom Hazikaron was moved to the day before.  One-minute sirens are sounded at the start of the day at 8pm and then again the following morning at 11am when the official ceremonies begin.  This practice of solemnity before jubilation heightens the awareness of the price paid for Jewish independence.   For Modern Orthodox in the Diaspora the two are juxtaposed at large scale public gatherings in most cities during the early evening of the third of Iyar.  Typically the events consist of an array of sweet but poorly rehearsed school choirs singing memorial dirges that segue into songs of victory.  The requisite theme colors are blue and white, local dignitaries utter sound bites of support and then everyone sings a very moving Hatikvah together.

The 4th of Iyar:

Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day is a serious party throughout the Land of Israel.  Crowds gather for concerts and dancing and proudly display Israeli flags on their apartments, cars and bodies.  BBQ’s abound and an interesting custom of bashing strangers on the head with squeaky plastic hammers has evolved.  Since we usually don’t have that day off in the Diaspora the commemorations are typically moved to the Sunday before or after with gala concerts taking place in large outdoor settings.  Yom Ha’atzmaut is an amazing time of Jewish unity since love for Israel is one thing upon which all Jews can agree.  I love seeing all my holy brothers and sisters from the four corners of the earth rejoicing together and that experience alone is worth braving the traffic and heat at the local events. Most synagogues have special morning services to commemorate the day and include Hallel to acknowledge the miraculous nature of Israel’s founding.

The 14th of Iyar:

Pesach Sheni is perhaps the dimmest blip on the annual holiday radar.  Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach called it the “capitol of second chances” since its initiation came as a result of spiritually impure individuals arguing to Moses that they too had a right to a Passover celebration.  God established that the month after the official seder would be the designated time when such individuals could bring the offering to the Temple.  Nowadays most forget about the holiday until it’s time to utter the penitential Tachanun prayers in the morning service and the rabbi reminds everyone, to their immense relief, that thanks to Pesach Sheni they can be skipped.

The 18th of Iyar:

Lag B’omer is an acronym of the Hebrew letters lamed and gimel, signifying the 33rd day of the counting of the omer.  The day commemorates the yahrzeit of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the great mystic who popularized the esoteric teachings of Kabbalah in his text, the Zohar.  He commanded his disciples to rejoice on this day and therefore parties replete with bonfires, concerts and dancing erupt throughout the world in celebration of his life and the revelation of the hidden secrets of Torah.  Also, according to tradition the aforementioned tragedy with Rabbi Akiva’s students ended on this day so most Jews welcome the end of the mourning aspect of the S’firat Ha’omer period.

My brother Yom Tov makes an annual pilgrimage to the site of Rabbi Shimon’s grave in Meron where hundreds of thousands of Chassidim dance in an all night bacchanalian frenzy.  Many save the official third birthday first haircut of their boys for this event.  Here in the States I am usually leading a citywide jam session sponsored by Chabad, attended mostly by young adults.  These outdoor gigs are always rowdy and amusing. One local LA rabbi who hired me to do his event on the beach insisted that I bring my full PA system.  I wasn’t excited about the combination of my expensive electronics, drunken revelers and sand, but I acquiesced.  Sure enough he had dragged hundreds of feet of extension cords across the bike path so that I could properly crank it up. Of course before the first note sounded the local authorities promptly put an end to this negligent behavior.  I then had to scramble to find a local friend with a guitar and endeavored to make hundreds of people happy without the help of amplification.

The 28th of Iyar:

Yom Yerushalayim commemorates the reunification of Jerusalem following the 1967 Six Day War.  Many remember this time as the apex of international Jewish pride and unity.  For all of us who have spent time in the holy city and feel so connected and at home while wandering it’s golden pathways, we relish in this day to dwell upon her triumphs.  Religious Zionists insist that the recitation of Hallel is even more pertinent on this day than Israel Independence Day.  While not widely celebrated outside of Israel it is often occasion for public gatherings and concerts, especially on the milestone years.

The 1st of Sivan:

Rosh Chodesh once again!  That makes for a total of a dozen “holidays” for your enjoyment between the seders and Shavuot on the 6th/7th of Sivan.  Welcome to the Minor Leagues!  Whoever said “it is hard to be a Jew” clearly missed the point; being Jewish is a PARTY!  I hope to celebrate with all of you together in Jerusalem, speedily in our day.

Ode to the 8-Track

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011
by Sam Glaser


8TrackGrowing up in suburban America during the 60’s included a certain rite of passage: as you drove down the freeways, if you wanted to hear your favorite songs, you needed an 8-track tape player in the dash.  In one clunky cassette about the size of six iphones, a CD worth of material would play in gorgeous stereo. There were a few caveats.  You couldn’t rewind.  And when you least expected it, a metallic piece of tape signaled that it was time for the tape head to switch tracks.  That meant a somber moment of silence in the middle of movements, sometimes in the middle of your favorite song.  It wasn’t ideal but it was certainly more graceful than trying to balance your record player when changing lanes.


About three times a year our family would load up into our nine passenger Olds Vista Cruiser, equipped with skylights, a 450cc V8 and a trusty tape deck.On our way to Lake Tahoe, Arizona or Colorado we would sing at the top of our lungs with our favorite thirty-two 8-track tapes. That’s all that would fit in the black vinyl carrying case and that’s about all the music we owned.  We had several Beatles albums, War, Tower of Power, Carole King, Roberta Flack, Joni Mitchell, Temptations,vista cruiserShostakovich and Beethoven’s 5thsymphonies and assorted musicals.  This was also the car that became my college ride at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  A favorite collegiate pastime was stuffing the car with a dozen freshmen from the dorms, cranking the tunes and doing donuts in the Safeway parking lot on snowy nights.


I’d like to share an epiphany I had at an LA Philharmonic concert last week.  It was a perfect, sunny spring Sunday and I was knee deep in over thirty vocal arrangements for the half dozen CDs I am juggling for clients.  I was about to embark on 25 hours of background vocal sessions with some of the finest singing specialists that I know.  These sessions aren’t cheap to run and I wanted to make sure that every piece was ready to go with all the vocal parts, lyrics and recording templates prepared.  Midday I glanced at my calendar and remembered that the LA Phil was presenting a matinee of Beethoven’s 5th at 2pm.  One voice in my head said: “Sam, just buckle down and get these charts done.”  The victorious voice said: “you deserve a break today…” I hadn’t heard this immortal masterpiece in years and I couldn’t pass up the pleasure of hearing it performed by one of the greatest orchestras in the world in Disney Hall, one of the greatest concert halls ever constructed.


No, I didn’t have tickets.  And no, that doesn’t matter. There are always seats.  I have a maxim that is particularly relevant in an entertainment town like LA: you don’t get in the show if you don’t go.  In other words, “if you build it, he will come.”  I found an amazing seat for cheap just beforeDisney Hallthe show started and was treated to a few hours of symphonic bliss. Beethoven’s 5thaffects me in the most visceral way. It’s just not that I share my birthday with the great composer…I have memorized every last passage intimately and during the concert I had to force myself not to conduct.  I was even ready for that measure mid-movement when my family 8-track tape would clunk as it switched to the next section.


Here’s the epiphany.  I grew up getting to know certain pieces of music very deeply.  The power of knowing every crevice of my records or the wow and flutter of every 8-track creates an unmistakable magic when I revisit that music.  Repetition and commitment deepens the experience…and isn’t depth what we want out of life? After the concert I wandered downtown LA uplifted, recharged and filled with a sense of possibilities.  Rather than go right back to work I crossed the street and visited the Museum of Contemporary Art.  What a collection!  I must be a fan since I knew the names of most artists without having to look at the descriptions. The most powerful (and valuable) pieces of art are those where the creator limited him or herself to a certain medium and theme.  Rothko’s rectangles of sultry color. Jackson Pollack’s monochrome splatters.  Jasper John’s maps and flags.


My children on the other hand have grown up with unrefined chaos in the form of millions of YouTube videos, online games and the App Store.  All geared for a five-minute attention span.  They don’t leave home without the iPod/iPad.  Unlimited songs for free forever. And thousands more appearing daily.  It’s impossible to keep up with what’s new and knowing what’s hot is increasingly irrelevant.  There will be something hotter in a few hours.  With the landscape changing so radically everyday, there is no opportunity to make a deep musical connection.  Other than my songs, which my kids are forced to listen to just by living here, their musical diet is as fickle as KISS FM.ipad2


The repercussions are significant.  Are our kids processing relationships in the same way?  Instant satisfaction online does not translate well in “meat-space.”  A great conversation takes hours to nurture before one reaches revelatory territory.   So too with friendships, professional experience and reputations. There is no quick fix for the test of time.  If we didn’t kick the kids out of the house, their play dates would consist of observing each other texting, playing video games or watching The 70’s Show.  My son tries to hide his distraction when his phone vibrates with a new text. Over 2500 a month.  I smile as he fumbles for where he left off in the discussion.


One of my favorite rabbis, Natan Lopes Cardozo from Jerusalem, comments on the essential difference between Beethoven and Bach.  Bach was a dutiful adherent to the “rules” of music in his days.  In spite of his discipline we hear vast creativity within the confines of this Baroque construct.  Beethoven, on the other hand, broke with these accepted rules and liberated music much the way the Beatles rescued rock and roll from the doo-wop of the 50’s.  Not to dis ole Ludwig V. but there is a certain power in Bach’s approach.  Cardozo quotes the philosopher Goethe stating, “In limitation does the master really prove himself and it is only the law which can provide us with freedom.”


Does this sound familiar?  As we march from Pesach to Shavuot, echoing the steps of our forefathers on their way from Egypt to Sinai, we relive the reality that true freedom is within the confines of Torah.  Learning a musical instrument takes tremendous discipline and hours of practice.  Learning to live as a Jew takes a lifetime of study to master the instrument of the soul. Like Bach, within the yoke of our Torah, we compress our creativity; we deepen our context and explode in our human potential.


ShavuotSinai was our wedding day.  Our exclusive covenant with the Creator of the Universe. Marriage is the melding of two hearts together into an altogether new entity.  Thanks to the exclusion of all other potential mates, a couple has the chance to blossom into a symbiotic oneness.  Thanks to our willingness to discard idol worship and focus on the laws of Torah, we explode into the full blossoming of our potential as members of God’s holy nation.  It’s no surprise that Jewish law is called halacha, or path.  It’s a pathway, not a goal in and of itself.  By striving to sensitize ourselves to this path we hear God’s voice, feel God’s love supporting our every step.


Once a week we have the chance to recreate our commitment to our heavenly “spouse.” I have led nearly a thousand Shabbatons over the past twenty years. That seems to be my specialty, and anyone who has attended can testify that I take the celebration of Shabbat very seriously.   I, too, am driven to distraction, overwhelmed by data, news, economics and electronics. My friends, Shabbat is the very antidote to the iPod.  It’s the antidote to shallow connections with people, God, music, life.  Thanks to the restrictions of the day we are forced to deepen our focus on those things we can do, which are praying, eating, and spending quality time with one another.  That’s it.  Deep interactions, deep (and sometimes very long) prayers, great food accompanied by song, stories and laughter.  Shabbat serves as a bookend to a week of superficiality.   It gives context to the chaos, a refuge from the rat race.  Now I can’t imagine life without it.


Sixty years ago the 8-track tape made our favorite music portable.  A product of a simpler time, it allowed us to deepen our experience with the few dozen “desert island” albums we couldn’t live without.   It sowed the seeds for other such miraculous revolutions that allow us to keep our music close at hand.  Now I have a compass, chronograph, 12 feature films, a siddur, bible, hundreds of books, GPS, a word processor, camera, newspaper, web-browser, games and a jukebox in my pocket.  Yes, it’s a phone too.  Funny how with 1500 songs I still listen to the same 32 albums.  I have 4,300 Facebook friends but I still call my parents with big issues.  I love having choices. I don’t want to go back to my 8-track repertoire. But I’ll take my friendships deep, my food cooked with love and my God on God’s own terms.


Life After Shavuot

Monday, June 1st, 2009

by Sam Glaser
June 2009

The week before Shavuot made my head spin. I had a few wonderful shows in Northern California and then returned to LA to sing the National Anthem and G-d Bless America at the Dodger-Mets game. Yes, the Dodgers won. The next night I regaled 1200 people at the Beverly Hilton and then drove to San Diego to perform at a beautiful Torah dedication parade and concert. I made it home with an hour to go before candlelighting, hugged my wife and kids and dashed off to shul for the afternoon services for Erev Shavuot.

This is when things got interesting. You see, I have a few rabbis with whom I REALLY connect. Rare individuals that see the big picture, have such a deep knowledge of text and “live” their learning. Shavuot with Rabbi Simcha Weinberg was enlightening to say the least. We learned almost continuously over the three-day weekend. That night he spoke at services and then resumed teaching from 11pm until 5am. The topic, near and dear to my heart, was Hallel! After a powerful sunrise Shachrit (morning service) we picked it up again for the second night of the holiday, which this year also happened to be Shabbat. More inspired classes, incredible celebratory meals and then a final class Sunday Night. I felt like I was opened up, inside out. Firing on all cylinders. With a new enthusiasm for the “same ole'” prayers, new eyes to see the colors of life.

You might wonder what Hashem had in store for me now that I had spiritually awakened from my day-to-day daze. Monday morning I opened up my studio, turned on the various racks of audio gear and started my trusty Mac. My first move is usually to check my email. Since I had been away I had hundreds begging for attention. Two of them caught my eye, both with the heading “Baruch Dayan HaEmet,” or, Blessed is the True Judge. These are the emails that I never want to read. This is the phrase that Jewish people utter when they hear shocking news, usually upon hearing about someone’s death. Just when you might say “oh, it’s not fair” or “where was G-d?” we insist that G-d knows exactly what’s going on and that even though we might not understand, this tragedy is also His will.

Two of our dear friends lost their wives. Unrelated incidents, strangers to one another, one suddenly, one gradually. But both were young mothers, each with three young children. Strikingly beautiful women, righteous, beacons of charity and kindness in their communities. Two agonizing funerals. Intense shiva minyanim (first week of mourning prayers.) After the first funeral I was asked to lead the prayers at the mother’s home. I should have never agreed: I screamed and sobbed throughout the service, starting and stopping and trying again. When acknowledging their guests the husbands would bravely tell anecdotes about their wives and then convulse again in misery. Speechless friends and family watched as prepubescent kids struggled with kaddish.

Midweek I went to the first game of the Laker-Magic finals with my brother Joey. Yes, life is for the living. The energy was palpable as the crowd jumped to its feet with every heroic basket. Such miraculous coordination, control and perseverance. Such a din that I resorted to earplugs halfway through the game. Afterwards, I went to hear some of the greatest musicians in world play at an LA nightclub. No exaggeration. David Garfield led his septet through the brambles of some of the thorniest charts imaginable, bringing waves of unbridled pleasure to this music lover. Spontaneous melodies soaring over the deepest grooves. Seemingly impossible dexterity coupled with restraint and subtlety. Again I was brought to tears, but this time they were the tears joy.

I decided to drive home the long way, over the canyon, rather than the more expedient freeway. At the top I pulled off at a beautiful wilderness area, the headquarters of the environmental group Tree People, and prayed the evening prayer under a nearly full moon. As I pondered the night sky against the shadows of towering pines I had a realization: while dating my wife, the first party that I saw her throw was a benefit for Tree People. I watched her grace and beauty shine as she catered to her guests and made sure every detail was perfect. That’s when I knew she was the one.

We also have three kids. My wife is the light of my life, beloved in our extended family and treasured in our community. The tragedies of the week hit too close to home. How did this figure in G-d’s plan? Where is the “beneficent kindness” in this daunting sadness?

A year and a half ago I played an incredible wedding at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. Everything was done right…the lighting, décor, flowers, huge crowd…I realized that a clip of their wedding video would be perfect to enhance my “Sam at Your Simcha” page on my new website. But how to find the bride after all this time? This week I started my research and eventually tracked down her brother’s email address. I contacted him and received the reply “which sister are you talking about?” The next day I responded and then a few hours later the sister I was looking for sent me an email. She was contacting me to get the sheet music for one of the songs that I had sung for the processional; I could tell from the context that she had no idea that I was trying to find her. I laughed as I explained the coincidence and we both agreed that we don’t necessarily live in a “small world” but instead that it’s a “large world, well managed.”

The same G-d that orchestrated this “coincidence” also arranged for these two women to pass on this week. This is the same G-d that created the universe, that gave the Torah to the Jewish people, that is helping each of us to navigate our lives. This can be our kavanah (focus) every time we say the Sh’ma. We are always receiving divine messages, heavenly love notes. Shavuot is here to open our hearts to this reality and to encourage us to keep the conversation alive. Please, my friends, let’s not go back to sleep.