Of Expectations

January 23rd, 2013

As surely was the case for millions worldwide, I experienced a myriad of emotions as I watched the television broadcast of this week’s Inaugural Ceremonies.

Many of the musical presentations were Cheesecake Factory delicious to my ears. What a glorious day for chordal choices – from the blissful yearnings of James Taylor’s humble rendition of “America The Beautiful” to the genius musical arrangement of “Battle Hymn Of The Republic” sung by the Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir – a miraculous ensemble which incorporates only a few professional singers, instead choosing to raise-up former crack-addicts, homeless people and even a few lawyers.

If you missed that performance, stop reading this column NOW – I mean it. Navigate to Youtube and put in “Brooklyn Tabernacle Choir sings Battle Hymn Of The Republic”. Scroll down to the video posted by TPMTV or by Culturemix 1- they seem to have the best audio mixes. Then turn off the television, quiet the dog and listen to how a woman named Carol Cymbala and a man named Jason Michael Webb were guided to compose the musical arrangement of their lives.

I’ll wait.

If I’ve ever questioned the power of music, the potential of humanity living together in harmony, or how lucky I am to live in this great country, there’s my answer.

Along with the euphoria, I felt an immense sense of pride and gratitude. And along the way, the thought of “expectations” came to mind.

Watching this potpourri of our fellow citizens determinedly engaging firsthand in this momentous event, I began to wonder what expectations I should have of myself over the coming year. At this point in my life, what can I realistically expect from myself? Will I be more a participant or spectator? Will I embrace life more than ever or retreat to the sidelines? What should I expect of my willingness, my beliefs, my character?

Obviously I expect to be honest: life’s too short for lying and denying. Every time I’m less than truthful to myself or anyone else, it never turns out well.

I should expect myself to be fair. Whenever I’m treated unfairly, more often than not I react with resentment or self-pity. Knowing how debilitating those feelings are, how can I purposefully infuse them on anyone else?

Even though it seems obvious, I should remind myself to be kind. No one likes being inappropriately diminished or purposefully unacknowledged. That it takes no more effort to be acknowledging rather than dismissive is undeniable, and I always feel better afterward.

I should expect myself be focused, pragmatic and avoid envy. Someone once said that ideas, courage and determination are the stuff that dreams are made of. Focus and reality can be another matter, but for this year, I expect myself to be clear about setting my goals and staying focused – and no matter ever my age, to keep reaching for my dreams.

I should expect myself to be wise yet teachable, trusting and loving, and to be accepting, willing to be of service and kind to my mind and body.

Most of all I should expect myself to ultimately arrive at gratitude for each and every blessing in my precious, precious life.

I think these expectations are part of what the Ages are trying to teach me, sealed by an assurance that Almighty God really does love and adore all of us, and wants only to guide us to live our most fulfilled, meaningful lives.

Thank you Mrs. Cymbala and Mr. Webb for touching my artistic soul. I expect myself to do the best I can to return the favor.


A Question Of Acceptance

June 22nd, 2012

I’ve never much liked the word “acceptance” – not the general umbrella of evaluating others’ philosophies of course – but rather in terms of daily life choices. It always conjured-up feelings of compromise or resignation or defeat.

“The runner accepted that he couldn’t go any further in the race…. the dancer accepted that she’d never become a prima ballerina…. the patient accepted the finality of the doctor’s diagnosis”.

Why shouldn’t a sprinter resolve to get up earlier, exercise more and train harder so that next time maybe he will win that 10K?

If she really wants it badly enough, why shouldn’t a dancer devote years at the barre and fight for a role in “Swan Lake”?

And isn’t it good common sense to get a second and a third opinion in light of a serious diagnosis? We’re constantly reminded that, despite their years of training, doctors aren’t gods. How many times do we hear stories of patients overcoming the odds and living for decades beyond their physician’s estimations?

Who doesn’t like a story of courage and determination?  At last count, that video of a dowdy-yet-destined-for-success Susan Boyle singing “I Dreamed A Dream” has logged over ninety-five million views.  And along with ten megapixel pictures of our friends’ latest sushi plates and trips to Aruba, aren’t our Facebook pages and emails also peppered with daily recitations of inspiration and encouragement to buck the odds?

But lately I’ve become aware of another concept of acceptance.

A book to which many of my friends subscribe suggests that, in an alternate form of thinking, acceptance may be a good thing. It goes so far as to say that it actually may be an answer to a lot of my problems.

It suggests that whenever I’m agitated, it’s probably because I find some person, place, thing or situation – some fact of life – to be unacceptable. Furthermore, it says that I’ll probably find little peace in my heart and mind until I accept them as being exactly the way they’re supposed to be at the moment. It further suggests that nothing happens by mistake in God’s world, and that the very key to my happiness may lie in accepting life on life’s terms – concentrating not so much on what needs to be changed in the world as on what needs to be changed in me and my attitudes.

At first glance, it’s confusing, but the last part helps make it clear. Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean I have to be defeated. It doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t work for my dreams and goals or have courage in my convictions. But it does mean that I don’t serve myself well when I spend my time worrying about, obsessing over and resenting other people’s lives.

A runner who obsesses over the other guy who’s faster, rather than working on improving his own skills, risks defeating only himself.  A dancer who drowns in envy at the success of another performer, rather than working to be the best she can be on her own, lessens her chances to fulfill her dreams. A patient with a difficult diagnosis who succumbs to self-pity and resentment risks blinding himself to the everyday miracles which make each moment of all of our lives so precious.

I recently read that a basic tenet of living a good life is continually seeking a balance of our priorities. It seems clear that another key to living my best life may also include finding a balance of acceptance.


Tom Swift Gives Service

November 28th, 2011

More than a century ago, the first of a collective of authors adapted the pseudonym “Victor Appleton” and began writing novels about a fictional character named Tom Swift. The hero was a young inventor who, over the years, prophetically envisioned portable movie cameras, diesel locomotives, house trailers, motorcycles and sending photos by phone – all long before the technologies were in place.

But even the Appleton authors could never have foreseen the technological universe in which you and I live today. We’re a gadget-laden, keyboard-tapping, button-pushing society with instant gratification expectations; knock-you-dead miracles are an everyday occurrence packaged in the latest app on the newest tablet or touch screen.

And with the flick of a switch we’re privy to celebrities’ misbehaviors, gourmet recipes for Strawberry Shish Kebab, remote robotic cancer surgeries and live video from the Western Wall.

It’s truly a miraculous time to be alive.

But as our physical world compulsively compresses to accommodate our bedroom computer screens, I’m wondering if the landscape of our everyday lives is in danger of  becoming more narrow.  While many folks use the tools of technology to enlarge the scope of their day, we’re under siege from a staggering epidemic of isolation.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t unintentionally killed an hour or a morning having gotten sucked into a view of the world through cyber eyes. And in many cases, that’s not a bad thing: we’re digesting information at record pace and constantly nudging that eleventh percent of our grey matter into action.

But when those hours turn into days and the days into nights, maybe we need to find a better way – and there’s no better path than getting out into real life.

Recently I had the opportunity to lead a group of volunteer singers performing on a Sunday morning for  residents at the Jewish Home For The Aged in Reseda, California.

I gotta tell you – there’s nothing like it.  There’s nothing like switching off the screens, getting dressed and going out into the world and interacting with our fellow human beings. There’s nothing like seeing another person’s face light- up from our efforts.

And there’s nothing like giving service – real one-on-one, face-to-face service.  It may not be as conveniently titillating as an hour on Yahoo, but it’s us living our own best lives instead of vicariously living someone else’s.

As this new year draws to a close, along with lusting after the latest technological wonders, maybe we’ll also recognize them for their potential negative impact and be appropriately wise in our choices. I’m boldly certain that none of us will have deathbed regrets of wishing we’d spent more time on our technology.

It’s a great world out there, and the opportunities are waiting for us – now. Isolating be damned: there’s people to help and lives to be lived.

Here’s to a healthy, happy New Year for you and all those you hold dear.


Being Enough

August 5th, 2011

During the era in which I graduated, Fairfax High School was known as “the Jewish high school”.

Located at the corner of Fairfax and Melrose in the Borscht Belt section of L.A., the school was nestled in a pre-Hip Melrose Avenue pocket of small Orthodox synagogues, assorted bookstores, Cantor’s Restaurant and a nifty record shop called Norty’s.

Recently I attended a small get-together noting the forty-fifth anniversary of my class’ graduation. Honestly, I really hadn’t much wanted to go, but as she so often does these days, my fiance’ gently pushed me in the right direction.

Upon arrival, I decided that as long as I was there, I may as well try to learn something from the experience. I decided to be more of a listener than a talker and try to get a handle on how some of my fellow classmates have really turned out.

For the most part, it was an easy tactic: given the opportunity, most folks jump at the chance to talk uninterrupted about themselves. To be fair, they also wanted to know about me, but it still wasn’t hard to keep the ball mostly in their court.

Fairfax had always been known as a breeding ground for academic achievers, and this sampling has lived-up to expectations. One gentleman is a longtime administrator at UCLA., and another at MIT. A third has his own consulting firm up North and a fourth is a renown Doctor and legislator who’s on the verge of completing his second book.

I heard stories of estimable achievements, exotic travels, impending retirement plans, and saw pictures of beautiful grown children and grandchildren fostered by tri-decade marriages.

Truth to be told, I had an enjoyable time. These are all good people living good lives. Surprisingly, my overwhelming emotion was… pride. Rightfully or not, I felt proud for them. They are fine people who contribute to the American fabric and stay the path.

When last I went to one of these events, about ten years ago, my reaction was a different one. Hearing of the others’ more mainstream experiences and successes, I remember coming away with an embarrassing sense of envy and resentment. “Why had their lives seemingly gone so much smoother than mine? How come their material possessions so dwarfed mine? Jeez, I feel like such a failure next to some of them…”

But not this time.

Though nothing’s really changed on our varied life’s paths, I began to notice a new pattern developing in the conversations. After achievements were outlined and Smart Phone pictures replaced in pockets, the topic seemed to inevitably turn to spirituality. And it’s no surprise, is it? As we get older, it’s natural to think more about our own mortality and a Bigger Picture.

Knowing that I’m co-founder and Music Director of a synagogue congregation, some of the guys seemed comfortable wanting to share their  spiritual status with me. One told of embracing a philosophy which combines aspects of Buddhism and Judaism. Another has regular meetings at his house specifically to discuss Matters Spiritual. A third hasn’t had much of a religious affiliation, but revealed that lately he’s been feeling a strong pull to get back to his roots.

And as they spoke, I was reminded of our real common bond: God.

I must confess that I talked a lot about the members of my congregation. I didn’t quite brag about them… well, I guess the truth is that I really did.

I talked about this miraculous congregation of which I’m so blessed to be a part. I talked about five hundred people at every Sabbath service and fifteen hundred at High Holy Day services. I marveled at the membership’s continued willingness to let me do my art at their services, and what a holy extended family we all are.

I shared about the miracles and recovery I’ve seen in our community nurtured by our synagogue, and how we continue to grow by impressive numbers. And in each case, I saw a look of nodding recognition in my friends’ eyes. Whether they actually did or not, I’d like to think they kinda “got” who I am.

I walked away from the get-together with a serene sense of pride and gratitude for what my life has become. And yet again I was reminded that conjuring-up feelings of being less than someone else is usually just a misguided, self-defeating waste of time.

We’re all Children of Almighty God, possessing of daily opportunities to grow, improve and lead meaningful lives. As long as we continually dedicate ourselves to those goals, I believe that in God’s eyes, I’m enough – you’re enough – we’re all good enough.

Apparently Fairfax High still had something to teach me.

Thank You, God.



God Doesn’t Play Favorites

May 25th, 2011

Truth to be told, I noted the stroke of midnight heralding the onset of May 21 with some sense of trepidation. Although I’d never heard of Harold Camping before a few months ago, I found myself thinking about him on and off throughout last weekend.

It was hard to avoid, right? There he was on every news website and t.v. broadcast: that crinkly face with the stammering delivery telling us over and over again that we were about to lose everything we hold dear – our families, our friends, our homes, our lives – everything was about to be gone.

And to boot, despite whether or not we had tried to live useful, God-based lives – despite whether or not we had tried our best to be good parents, dedicated mates and reliable friends – if we didn’t see things through the same spiritual funnel as Harold Camping, we were about to burn in the fires of hell for eternity.

At this point I’d normally make a sarcastic remark and go for a laugh, but not this time. I don’t think it’s funny, and to tell you the truth, I’m a little annoyed about the whole thing.

I have no idea if and when the world is coming to an end, but I’ll tell you this: I don’t think God plays favorites.

I’m far too woefully ignorant of the specifics of religious philosophies other than my own to enter into a dissertation worthy of your time. To boot, I can’t quote scriptures of either Testament to support any of my opinions.

But apparently there’s an unending slew of others who can, and they’ve got no problem letting you and I know that they’ve got the answer and we’d better darn well get on board before it’s too late.

In the last several years I’ve been fortunate to interact with clergy of many different faiths. I’ve got cherished letters on my wall from Pastors of African Methodist Episcopal churches, and recently the spiritual leader of my synagogue and I participated in an interfaith Passover dinner where we worshipped with Muslims and Christians in a spirit of real, genuine brotherhood.

And I can tell you that, for the most part, none of these honorable people felt compelled to harangue me with threats of “their way or the highway”.  Do they support their religion’s beliefs? Of course. Do they stand in front of their congregations and advocate their religion’s precepts? Absolutely.

But along with their convictions, they appear – at least to my eyes – to harbor a sense of tolerance rather than a sense of damnation. They are the antithesis of fear-mongering weasels like Harold Camping.

I don’t understand why so many in this world fight so hard to prove they’re right. I’m sure some shrinks in the audience could explain, but I still don’t understand why so many need to feel spiritually superior to their brothers. You know the posture: “… well, I really do like you, and you probably are a nice person, but as much as I wish it weren’t so, you’re going to hell because you don’t believe the way I do.”

And I don’t understand the most ironically horrific of all policies: “I’ll kill you because you don’t worship God the way I do.”

Given that this is my column, I’m gonna pull rank and share what I’ve been taught:

I’ve learned that God loves all of us, and I’ve come to believe that He wants us to lead the best lives we can and act with integrity, courage and absolute faith in Him. He wants us to show-up for our religion of choice and be the best partners, parents, friends, co-workers and citizens of the world we can be.

I’ve been taught that He expects us to be humble yet appropriately assertive, and work tirelessly to be loving service to others. He rejoices when we are living our most meaningful lives, and He’d like us to do everything we can to make this world a better place.

And I don’t share the belief that there’s only one path to Heaven, nor that God requires everyone to fit through only one door.

Lately it seems like every heretic on the planet has a platform and a goal to manipulate and terrify us. And who knows? Maybe some of them are right – maybe we’re all going to hell in a hand basket.

But one way or another, I remain firm in my most basic belief:

God doesn’t play favorites.


Life Turns On A Dime

April 26th, 2011

“Life turns on a dime”.

We’ve all heard the expression before: a slang summary of the fragility of our lives, warning us that our taken-for-granted norms can change in a heartbeat.

As I’ve alluded to previously in this space, I’ve been doing bout with some health issues – just as everyone does at some point. No reason for going into boring physiological specifics, suffice it to say that one ailment’s been triggering others.

Bottom line is that last Monday on a visit to a sinus doctor, I suddenly found myself in a wheelchair being transported down to an Emergency Room, in the midst of what was diagnosed as “a full blown asthma attack”.

It’s been a fear all my life, prompted by witnessing the emphysemic decline which led to my Dad’s passing a half century ago at the age of fifty-two. It’s how our minds work, right? Despite the fact that my teenage flirtations with wussy cigarette brands like Virginia Slims and True Blue faded faster than a season of “The Soupy Sales Show”, nevertheless I’ve always been secretly waiting for the other asthmatic shoe to drop.

So last Monday, there I was. And the first question from the ER doctor was, “Have you ever been intubated?” I asked what that meant and heard terms like “voluntary coma” and “breathing machine”.

That’s all, brother.

But I think it turned out O.K., at least for the time being. Nothing approaching intubation was necessary, and after four hours, three asthmatic-standard breathing treatments and enough steroids to make Barry Bonds water at the mouth, I was released back into the world, primed to fight another day.

I’m writing about this because it appears there were lessons to be learned and I think I got some of ’em.

Lesson #1: For the most part, in this instance I practiced what I preach, and I’m grateful and proud of myself.

At some point when things looked most frightening, instead of panicking, by some miracle I made a better choice. I remembered that lately I seem to have no trouble blabbing to the world that I’ve got a God of my understanding who’s my partner in life. I tell anyone who’ll listen that He’s the One in control, not me. I’ve made a commitment to accept His Will be done, not mine – no matter what.  My only responsibility is to be the best man I can be, and to keep open the lines of communication between us by praying as regularly as possible.

Lesson #2: Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.

Illness brings misery – no question about it. But its impact on me is measured by my acceptance that nothing, repeat nothing happens by mistake in God’s World. If I accept what’s happening to me as a planned part of my life’s journey, I need not waste time and energy in “Why me’s?” or resentment or anger. When I make those choices, the most unmanageable experiences somehow seem to become more manageable.

Lesson #3: Excessive fear is a masochistic waste of time and energy.

I realized this week that dwelling in dire scenarios is voluntary punishment, and every time I start to get sucked in, I can choose to opt out a little. I can write about my fears, talk to others about them and oust them from the crevasses of my brain instead of letting them fester in isolation and darkness.

So.. after a week of learning, but still wondering if the doctors were gonna find out what the heck’s going on (hey, I’m human, O.K.?), my guy called.

Turns out he did a culture and there’s pills that kill the bacterial S.O.B.’s that’ve been causing all this stuff. And though there’s no guarantees, he says that if I take them religiously for a couple weeks, I’ve got a good chance of feeling a lot better.

I like that phrase: “take them religiously”.

Life does turn on a dime. But with every rotation there’s an opportunity to grow and enrich my soul. And as painful as those spurts might be, I think I still oughta thank God for the opportunities to view alternate scenes from His ultimate Big Picture for me.

Thank You God for the infinite blessings in my life – along with those hard-earned lessons.

I’m better.


And If Not Now, When?

March 25th, 2011

Last night we got the news that a friend had passed away unexpectedly. As sad as the occurrence is, it felt especially tragic because he had become decidedly overweight and dropped dead before his thirty-ninth birthday.

What do you say about a life snuffed out so early?

You and I know that morbid obesity is of epidemic proportions in this society. Year by year we are collectively getting fatter and fatter, and it’s killing us.

And is it any wonder? All we need do is turn on a television to witness a parade of imbecilic corporate shills bombarding us with culinary hemlock in the guise of good times and instant gratification. The assault is endless: clowns and come-to-life bubbleheads and stoners – even buffed-out guys with drool spilling down their chins to hipper-than-hip voiceovers of “Don’t bother me, I’m eating”.

The implication is clear: it’s O.K. to call that pizza guy at 11 P.M. because, after all, you deserve a break today. And tomorrow and the day after, if you live that long.

And on the other side of the coin, there’s the multi-billion dollar weight loss industry. Anyone for a Thigh Master or a Lap Band surgery? C’mon everyone – sing along: “let your new life begin” while some factory surgeon is cutting you open and wrapping plastic around your intestines.

I know, I know: not everyone out there is a conscienceless twit looking to victimize fat people. Witness the spectacle of “The Biggest Loser” to get a firsthand look at how compulsive eating ravages the human body beyond recognition. And there’s the in-shape trainers alternately screaming at or crying with the victims. Are they well intended? Who knows? One thing for sure: Jillian Michaels ain’t having any trouble paying her mortgage.

I suspect that I’m so emotionally impacted by all this because I’m a compulsive eater.

I’ve been one since I was a kid. My proclivity is to eat – and eat and eat. If I’m happy, I want to eat. If I’m sad, I want to eat. If I’m frightened, envious, angry or resentful, I want to eat.

To all you “normies” out there, it sounds crazy, right? What could possibly make someone want to ingest obscene amounts of food which would eventually render them disfigured and societal outcasts? Sure, everyone likes an ice cream sundae once in a while, but dude, where’s your sense of control? Don’t you have any dignity?

My only answer is this: think of it like alcoholism. Why does an alcoholic keep drinking to the point of oblivion? Why can’t he just stop when he’s had enough? It’s the same with a compulsive eater – I promise you. There’s no internal measuring stick for what’s enough – there just isn’t.

And make no mistake about it: every – repeat every significantly overweight person you see is a compulsive eater, whether they want to admit it or not.

I hadn’t planned to write about this. To tell you the truth, I’m sitting here dressed to go to the gym and I’m eager to get there. By God’s grace, today I’m eating healthy. I’m in a spiritual program of recovery and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. I’m getting in shape and life is good.

But it hasn’t always been like this. Those who are longtime members of my synagogue have witnessed me on a pulpit struggling with my disease – and it is a disease, make no mistake – on a public platform for years.

But today I’m angry. I’m angry because that kid ate himself to death instead of choosing to get help: thirty-eight years old and he’s done.

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say it the way I’m thinking it: if you’re a compulsive eater – and you know in your heart if you are – there is a solution. Despite what anyone else tells you, you’ve got a disease, just as sure as if you had, God forbid, cancer.

There is treatment and it doesn’t cost a dime. There are fellowships where you can find relief, a day at a time. All you need is an admission that your life has become so crippled and demoralized by your eating that you just can’t take it anymore. Your only expenditure need be a real, sincere willingness to admit that you can’t do it on your own, and you’ll go from there.

And the best thing about it is that the corporate sponsor is God – the same Almighty God which gives us all the infinite blessings in our lives.

Don’t die early if you can help it.

Don’t con yourself into thinking you’ve got time to put it off, because you don’t.

Life is too precious – don’t wait another minute. You owe it to yourself and your family.

There’s a quote attributed to a scholarly rabbi named Hillel which, in Hebrew, reads “V’im lo achshav ay’matai”.

Translation: “And if not now, when?”


Compulsive Eaters Anonymous – H.O.W.       http://www.ceahow.org

Overeaters Anonymous                                 http://www.oa.org


Just For Today: Service

February 27th, 2011

One of my favorite meditations, titled “Just For Today”, suggests that each day of my life I should find a way to do someone a good turn. It warns however, that if anyone finds out about the effort, it won’t count.

I’ve decided that this one time I’m gonna violate the code. I’m doing it because I’m convinced that I’ll fail the assignment if I don’t share the lesson.

My friend Suzanne is a woman who I’d guess is in her mid-thirties. She’s a pretty blonde, and makes an impact when she walks in a room. She’s bright, articulate and inspires everyone she meets.

She’s also blind.

Recently Suzanne called and told me of a dilemma. Like me, she’s a participant in the Recovery community. Her problem at hand was a lack of brail or audio versions of many of the readings in our particular program. As is her way, she wanted to do something about it, and wondered if I’d be willing to record myself reading some of the materials.

I’ve long harbored an intention of doing some reading for sight-impaired people, but never got around to it. So when she made the request, I jumped at it.

A week later, eleven CD’s – ten hours of recorded literature now exist. Suzanne intends to use them to reach out to people in the sight-impaired community who suffer from similar self-destructive compulsions. Others will be helped, and I got a chance to be a part of it.

I tell you this because, for about a year, I’ve been in recovery doldrums. I’ve found myself overcome by my Obsession of Choice, not finding strength to get back on my particular wagon. I’ve had spurts of clarity, but more often than not the insidious disease has been wrapping itself around me and constricting my life. I’ve prayed repeatedly for willingness to take the actions I need to take, but relief has been long in coming.

Apparently God decided I was finally ready.

The process of recording involved total immersion in the materials. For seven days and nights I was reading all the questions, reciting all the prayers and absorbing all the wisdom the program has to offer. Despite having been a participant for over sixteen years, I read things I’ve never read before, and learned things I’ve never known.

For my willingness, my God drilled into my head a thousand reminders of how much He loves me, and that I need never be alone with my addiction again. He told me in the most clear-cut Holy Voice – over and over – that there indeed is a solution to my troubles.

I feel so much better. For today, the compulsion has been lifted, and I’m convinced that every day I show up for others, I stand a far better chance of showing up for myself.

It’s really true: service absolutely is its own reward.

“Just for today, I will be unafraid. Especially I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful, and to believe that as I give to the world, so the world will give to me.”

Thank you, Suzanne.

Thank you, God.

Remembering Debbie Friedman

January 17th, 2011

I’ve been thinking this week about when the founding rabbi of my synagogue first approached me many years ago about being the Music Director of this new congregation he was starting.

Surely such an offer was the last thing on my mind, and I was blunt with him in saying that I really knew far more about pop and soul music than things Judaic.

Nevertheless, I agreed to give it a try.

I realize now it was one of the pivotal moments in my life, and truthfully I had some small instinct that something profound was happening. But immediately afterward, I still thought to myself, “What the hell have I gotten into?”

Other than a few perfunctory holiday and celebratory songs, I knew nothing of contemporary Jewish music. I’d been to Jewish day camps at the Westside Jewish Community Center in L.A. as a kid, but never had any experiences of sitting-around-the-campfire singing eclectic Jewish songs

“What’s required musically in a Sabbath service?” I wondered. “What are the prayers – and more importantly, what are the melodies? I don’t speak Hebrew – how am I going to do this?”

A few weeks later the rabbi came to my home accompanied by a lay song leader familiar with the liturgy. I asked him to play and sing everything we’d need for a service – I’d record it all on my Radio Shack cassette recorder and then set about learning it.

And then I braced myself for the worst. “What if I hate this stuff? How am I gonna relate musically? Jeez, what if I fail at this?” I considered the possibility that there might be a special spot in hell for Ignorant Jewish Studio Musicians Who Let God Down.

But then the song leader started singing a version of the “V’ahavta” prayer – which commands that “… we shall love the Lord Thy God with all our hearts”. Amazingly, along with the obligatory Hebrew, the musical setting also had English words too!

And the melody was accessible – a little more Peter, Paul and Mary-ish than I cared for, but nevertheless, I knew right away I could get it. I looked at my kids’ mother – who eventually became the synagogue’s first cantorial soloist – and we knew it. And as more and more of the prayers and songs came forward, the vision of what I was going to do musically with this synagogue began to reveal itself.

I’m writing of this because so much of the music we heard that night was written by composer/performer Debbie Friedman, who passed away on January 9th.

I’m sad that I never made the effort to meet Debbie. I’ve read as many obituaries as I could get my hands on, and I spoke with one of her Music Directors. He gave me some insight into who the woman was behind the music, and I’m grateful. But the phrase he used which I most remember is “… that when she began to sing, she became transformed. She became the music and the music became her.”

Turns out both Debbie and I were children of kosher butchers. Turns out that she sometimes used annoyance and frustration as motivators for some of her best work – a method with which I’m also familiar.

Apparently it all started for her when she attended a synagogue in St. Paul and found the services, in her words, “boring. I realized the rabbi was talking, the choir was singing, but nobody was doing anything. There was no participation.”

So she did something about it. She began setting prayers to original contemporary folksy musical settings, and she began incorporating English translations into the lyrics. And in the process, she changed the face of modern Judaism.

Much of my life I’d often felt like a “less-than Jew”. I’d stand in services surrounded by Hebraically-schooled congregants chanting prayers at machine-gun pace, feeling like I had no right to be there. I became convinced that if the mezuzah around my neck could talk, it probably would’ve said it was ashamed to be seen with me.

I also had a real case of resentment and envy with contemporary Christian music. How come they could write in English? How come they could rock people’s socks off in worship? How come they could use all kinds of instruments and create arrangements and music that felt motivating and contemporary and relevant?

And Debbie got that.  I think she had some of the same feelings.

All these years later, much of that’s subsided. Envy has no place in a House of God and worship needn’t be a passive experience – for anyone. I realize that, along with honoring and cherishing the language and traditions and music of our forefathers, every one of us has the right to pray – and the right to know what we’re saying while we’re saying it.

Every one of us has the right to talk to God and question God and thank God and sing to God with our own clarity and our own truths.

As my choir and band and I performed Debbie’s “Sh’ma V’ahavta” and “Mi Shebeirach” and “L’chi Lach” and “Oseh Shalom” at services last Friday, I began to recognize how this single woman has affected the Judaic experience of thousands and thousands of people all over the world.

Had it not been for Debbie and her melodies and translations and compositions, I really don’t know if I’d have moved forward into what has become some of my life’s most important work. Elaborating the arrangements on her simple, elegant words and melodies encouraged me to write my own Jewish music and has helped enrich my personal artistic and spiritual panoramas.

At the end of the service, as the entire congregation stood arm-in-arm together singing Debbie’s “T’fillat Haderech” – like thousands of other congregations – I considered the impact that one daughter of a kosher butcher, a Joan Baez-looking troubador with an admittedly average voice – but with an annoyed genius tenacity – has made on our world.

Rest in peace, Debbie.

I owe you big time, and I pray that I continue doing my best to pay it forward.

Hopes For The New Year

December 24th, 2010

As 2010 draws to a close, it’s a good time to look forward and think about our goals for the future and where we’re at in our lives. As Jews we traditionally do such contemplation at High Holidays, but there’s no denying that we also think such thoughts at this time of the worldwide New Year.

New Years signals opportunities for new beginnings. It’s really not different from any other day, but just like our birthday, it seems to magically grant us a blank slate to redefine some aspects of who we are. Alongside resolutions to exercise more, take a college extension class, or fill-in-the-blank, I wonder how each of us will live better lives in 2011?

Will we try harder to act with integrity? Will we be more organized and will we work smarter?

Will we be more kind? Will we take more responsibility for our actions and try harder to correct our mistakes?

Will we recognize more opportunities to be of service to others, and will we act on them?

Will we be better listeners and better learners, and will we take more time to be insightful and empathetic?

Will we be more loving and will we pray more often?

And will we try harder to recognize and be grateful for the infinite blessings in our daily lives?

Too often I’m distracted by the cacophony of my day, and far too many Holy Little Gifts get by me. You know the ones I’m talking about: the majesty of God’s handiwork, the uniqueness in everyone around us, the look of ecstasy in the faces of children at play… there’s a million of ’em.

Whether it’s a tire salesman fixing my flat for nothing and saying, “I hope the rest of your day is a better one”; or before an appointment, the love of my life driving over dinner to me in little plastic containers so I don’t have to wait too long to eat… I hope none of those treasured moments get by me this year.

I have a feeling that God’s Hand is in everything we do – in every experience we have. As a result, I think this will be another year of limitless opportunities for all of us.

In the contemplative culture of the Sixties I remember hearing countless debates questioning the meaning of life and the secret to happiness. All these years later, the best answer I’ve got is that in order to be happy, I must live a life with meaning.

Here’s to a year for all of us of renewed faith, serenity, fulfilled goals and living our happiest, most meaningful lives.