by Sam Glaser
I had one of the most uplifting weeks of my life. Such powerful concerts and interactions. Wonderful audiences in New York, New Jersey and St. Louis. I finished this leg of the tour at the General Assembly Conference, the flagship meeting of Jewish Federations from around North America, feeling optimistic and empowered.
The host city to the conference, New Orleans, has got the character thing buttoned up. This is no franchised, gentrified urban setting. The birthplace of jazz is still nurturing the art form for new generations. From the reek of Bourbon Street to the stately mansions of the Garden District, this is a town that keeps you moving, grooving and awestruck. Katrina is still very much in the foreground of the NOLA consciousness but the emphasis is on rebirth and civic pride. My friend who put me up (and put up with me) was a DJ at the classic jazz station WWOZ during his college years. That makes him an authority on the hottest musicians and the clubs they haunt, to which we hopped to and fro nightly. I’m not sure if the locals were sober enough to notice that every third guy had a kippah on.
Once in a while I pull off a trifecta on the road. That is to say, I perform on any given leg of my annual tour in synagogues of all Jewish denominations. This ten-day rally is the ultimate example of the fact that I may not fit into any one box but reap the dividends of a broad perspective of the Jewish world. This week I gave a concert at the stately Touro Synagogue, a proud Reform landmark, and then sang for the Conservative to Modern Orthodox crowd at the New Orleans Hebrew Day School. In New Jersey I led the davening for the amazing Aish HaTorah Partners Conference, a gathering of 750 black-hatted rabbis and their friends from around the world. In New York my brother Yom Tov and I gave a concert for Chassidim in Boro Park, then on to St. Louis where I worked with three day schools, led a Shabbaton and a concert at a popular outreach synagogue. My policy is to sing for all Jews, wherever they may be, and my personal mitzvah, my Letter in the Torah if you will, is to inspire audiences to be more connected with Israel, each other and their Creator.
So you can see why I arrived at the GA all pumped up. Over 4,000 delegates in suits wandered the vast square footage of the Sheraton and Marriott hotels downtown. For eighteen years I have been performing and speaking at Federation-sponsored concerts and fundraisers and seem to know a lot of the players. From the frantic exhibit hall to the ad hoc kosher deli in one of the ballrooms, there was an old friend around every corner. The GA is the Superbowl of Jewish geography! One of the highlights of these high profile conferences is getting to sit in on the plenary sessions and hear in person the most powerful speakers in the world.
I was particularly excited to hear Benjamin Netanyahu speak and managed to find an old friend with an extra seat in the front row. But the Federation mavens weren’t going to let an opportunity pass to motivate this captive audience. The myriad opening speakers were so dynamic and uplifting that the Israel Prime Minister seemed anticlimactic. One young man, Moises Lemor inspired us with his saga of growing up in a Zionist family in Peru, making Aliyah solo and serving proudly in the IDF. I was brought to tears by a young Hungarian woman who found out that she was Jewish as a fifteen year old at her father’s funeral. One comment in particular touched me so deeply that I transcribed it in my iphone: upon discovering her heritage she then took the opportunity to “unwrap Judaism like a treasure.” It made me wonder if we should deny American Jewish kids any connection with their heritage until they are mature enough to value it, and only then inspire their newfound love affair to blossom.
I hope the previous paragraphs set the stage for my ebullience at this moment. I was basking in the immense potential of the collapse of the walls that divide us as a people. Uplifted by powerful prayer, music, great speakers, and great friends from a week on the road. Jewish unity not just a concept, but a palpable reality. And then it began. Netanyahu unleashed a fear mongering speech almost word for word as dramatic and futile as the one I heard at the past few GA’s. He bemoaned the Iranian nuclear threat, the advancing trend of the de-legitimization of Israel and the difficulty of negotiating peace with a partner that will not recognize the Jewish state. He pointed to failure of Herzl’s tenuous dream that the rebirth of the Jewish state would end anti-Semitism. I felt my smile diminish and I was once again in this state of Reuters/AP/CNN induced ennui.
Then the terrorism began. A young woman just a few rows behind me stood up and started chanting that the “settlements delegitimize Israel.” She continued to scream while robust African-American guards dragged her a few hundred yards to the back exit. The other four hecklers timed their nefarious attack with every-five-minute precision. The leader of the Jewish people could only stand there in silence and frustration. The crowd attempted to drown out the perpetrators with screams of their own, which only furthered the degree of damage. I felt like my insides were turned to jelly with pain and outrage at each affront. It was bad enough that all decorum was lost. But these were young idealistic Jews who didn’t hesitate to resort to deliver such a “low blow” to the proceedings. I’ve never seen a better excuse to deploy a taser. We can be our own worst enemy.
After the speech I hung my head low and limped out of the imposing ballroom. I spoke of my shock to one of my peers in the Jewish music scene. His response was that while he didn’t like the interruptions, he was glad that the kids had their moment of protest. Boy, I felt very alone. The Arabs we can handle. But a threat from within? I suddenly felt connected with that peculiar “V’lamalshinim” paragraph in our Shmoneh Esrai prayer. Composed as the 19th blessing of an 18 blessing suite, it pinpoints the dire threat of Jews that act as informers, that endanger the well-being of the nation, that corrode the integrity of our common Jewish heart. Yes, at times our nation is deserving of criticism, but to actively sow the seeds of hatred, distrust and revenge among our friends and enemies is folly. Note that there is no blessing to thwart foreign enemies. Internal strife is the only thing that can bring us down. “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who breaks enemies and humbles wanton sinners.”
Today I read in the LA Times of another blight on our future. The movement to boycott top-name artists and ensembles that want to perform in Israel is led by one Ofer Neiman and his fellow Israeli saboteurs. They protest publicly, picket concerts, launch campaigns on the web and seek to embarrass the acts into cancelling their appearances. The Israeli government refers to this internal mischief as “cultural terrorism.” Rock stars that risk stirring up the waters and upsetting fans are quick to cancel. There have even been anonymous threats against the artist’s children! Don’t they see that they are emboldening the radicals that plot our death, throwing kerosene on the flames of world opinion, causing irreparable dissention from within?
This is a time of polarization. If the Holocaust taught us anything it is that doing nothing, just standing idly by, is the root crime. Elton John, Rihanna, Rod Stewart, Metallica and Ozzy Osborne broke the boycott and performed anyway. That fact makes me want to go out and buy some heavy metal. Elvis Costello, Santana, the Pixies and Gil Scott-Heron cancelled. Red Shoes and Smooth will never sound as good to me. This is a time to take a stand, to visit Israel, to defend Israel, to buy Israeli products, to support organizations like AIPAC and Stand With Us.
I’m reminded of the old joke about the two elderly Jewish men on the park bench. (I know, many jokes start like this!) One is reading the Jerusalem Post and he looks over and is shocked to see his friend reading a radical Arab paper. “How can you do that?” he cried. His friend replied, “You read about Jews being persecuted, attacked, assimilated. I read that Jews own the banks, control the media and rule the world!” The lesson I came away with last week is that in the macro sense we are being brow beaten in the media, face intense threats from our neighbors and are paralyzed with hopelessness on many fronts. In the micro realm, however, there is room for celebration. Amazing new organizations are galvanizing young Jews. Witness the strength of the internet to unite and inform. Birthright, Ramah, Aish, Chabad, Jewlicious, PJ Library, NFTY, Nefesh B’Nefesh. Want to regain the feeling that anything is possible for the Jewish people? Don’t watch CNN or read the New York or LA Times. Don’t get your online news from AP and Reuters. Instead, try researching the Jewish Community Heroes, the accomplishments of the Joint Distribution Committee, IDF field hospitals, Tomchai Shabbas, JLTV, Israeli High Tech.
Better yet, slip on some headphones and listen to some good spiritual Jewish music. It will heal your soul and make your heart soar. Satisfaction guaranteed.