Judaism - Prayer, Living in Jerusalem, Music

The Beatle and the Havdallah Candle

Bonnaroo. Standing in a field surrounded by 90,000 people in the sweltering Tennessee heat, I counted down the minutes. Only 120 left until I was certain that my life was going to change.

Rewind a year to that same field in Tennessee – no doubt surrounded by many of the same people – and I’ve just seen Radiohead perform a set that quite literally knocked the words out of my mouth and left me silent. Trying to describe the experience as we walked back to our campsites, almost everyone was left searching for words that would do justice to the transcendent musical experience we had all shared. I don’t use the word transcendent lightly. It was – quite literally – an experience that elevated me to new heights. After hours, it seemed that most people had settled on beautiful as the only word that accurately reflected the concert. Turning to a friend, I proclaimed “Well now I’m screwed. No concert will ever be better than that.”

I was wrong.

With 120 minutes left until Paul McCartney was set to take the stage, my body tingled in anticipation. I was going to see and hear a Beatle sing to me.

I grew up with The Beatles constantly in my ears. My parents fed my sister and me a regular dose of classic rock, folk, and classical music, but it was The Beatles who were the staple soundtrack of my childhood, enjoying a weekly set every Sunday out of our old-school, wooden stereo speakers.

So when Macca took the stage and played over three hours worth of thirty-eight songs, I knew nothing would ever be the same. Radiohead’s mind-penetrating experimental music be damned, this was the original stuff. You can search elsewhere if you’d like a musical review of the show; this one’s more spiritual.

Towards the end of Paul’s sonically blistering (he can still wail on “Helter Skelter”) and emotionally moving (I dare any grown man not to shed tears when he sings “Here Today”) set, as fireworks exploded in the sky above me and 90,000 people sang “Naaaah, na na na na na naaaaah, na na na naaaaah…,” I was completely caught off guard. Like a punch to the soul, my body and brain united in a reaction to the experience. While Radiohead left me speechless looking for adjectives to describe the concert, Paul McCartney completely took over my body, soul, and brain.

Before that day, I can’t recall a moment in my life when I physically felt this way. Some people call these sensations hokey, hippy, or crunchy-granola. Fine. Let it be. All I can vouch for is that something for me changed, as my body reacted to the experience:

  • I felt a complete sense of oneness with the 90,000 people around me. Simultaneously and without contradiction, I also felt as though I wasn’t standing in a crowd of strangers, but was the only one who the music was being played for.
  • I felt pure thankfulness for being in that singular moment. For me, that was directed towards God. For others, it may have been to someone or something else. But the moment for me was one of sincere spirituality that was directly tied to my own personal theology.
  • Feeling the experience coursing through my veins and sending shivers up and down my spine, I questioned why anyone would need the help of drugs, when you can experience a full-body-high naturally. As it happens, it turns out there’s some science behind this. But for me, it went far beyond biology.

At the end of the set – recalling our Radiohead experience a year earlier – I turned to my friend with a bittersweet look on my face and said, “Well, shit. Nothing in life will ever be the same. It’s all downhill from here.”

I was wrong.

Last night, exactly a month after seeing McCartney, my body was hit with the same sensations of oneness and thankfulness.

With sweet music ringing in my ears and a leaping flame in front of my eyes, my body was thrown back to that field in Tennessee. Yet I couldn’t have been further from there. Here, in the center of Jerusalem, as my classmates and I marked the end of Shabbat and the beginning of our formal schooling on our paths to becoming Rabbis, Cantors, and Educators, my body and soul reacted again to an experience in a shocking way. I felt at one with the 40 souls surrounding me, united in the journey ahead of us. I felt a supreme sense of thanks to God for bringing me to this moment in time. Blessed to experience that soul-punching sensation again, the two central foci of my life – music and Judaism – were united in a way that I couldn’t have expected.

That this moment occurred during a Havdallah service is particularly serendipitous, as the ceremony is a multi-sensory experience that – much like Radiohead and McCartney – has the power to cut straight to the human soul. The sight of the flame, the smell of the spices, the sweetness of the wine, and the beauty of the melodies give our body a lingering sensation of the neshama  – the soul – of shabbat.

It seems to me that it’s no surprise that music and Jewish spirituality have the power to biologically affect our bodies in similar ways. Reb Nachman of Bratslav said that the most direct way humans can attach ourselves to God is through music and song. Chassidut teaches that every neshama has its own melody before making the descent into the human world.

Lucky that I get to spend an entire year of spiritual and musical growth with this group of people, I only wish I could say the same for my relationship with Paul McCartney…

Life, Music, Philosophy

The backbeat

I love listening to songs I’ve heard thousands of times, songs I’ve listened to for over a decade, and having that moment when I hear a tiny new part in the music that I hadn’t caught before. I’m fortunate that this happens startlingly often for me.

Isn’t that kind of what life should really be like? Slightly cheesy, but totally profound and moving?

Judaism - General, Life, Music, Politics

Leonard Cohen’s “psycho-religious” Jewish Journey, Part II

This is a brief follow up to an earlier post about Leonard Cohen‘s incredible Jewish Journey and status in my books as an all around kick-ass dude.

It seems The Forward generally agrees with me that this is a man who should not be ignored. In an article this week, the Jewish paper covered an interesting incident that transpired outside on of his Radio City concerts.

Turns out that instead of a camp-out for tickets, it was the myopic and hypocritical anti-Israel throngs who were making noise outside of Radio City, in an attempt to boycott his concert (did they have tickets? Was it really a boycott if they never had tickets?) and hold a rally, all in a vein attempt to get Cohen to cancel an upcoming concert date in Israel.

I’ve got three things to say:

1. Cohen is exactly the kind of person who these protesters should be encouraging to go to Israel. He is unsatisfied with the status quo, is an ardent supporter of a two-state solution and equal rights, and regularly uses his music to rouse the populous out of dormancy. They should charter a jet and send his ass into Jerusalem right now.

2. Political ponderings aside, the Forward article makes an interesting (and very brief) statement about the differences between Canadian and American Jewry. Check this excerpt out:

Born and raised in Montreal, where he attended Orthodox day schools through high school, Cohen is one of a trio of iconic figures in the city’s intensely ethnic Jewish culture, along with late novelist Mordecai Richler and poet A.M. Klein. All three became towering figures in Canada’s general culture through writings that were deeply suffused with their Jewish experience, in much the same way as American writers such as Philip Roth and Saul Bellow. Unlike the Americans, however, the three Canadians remained deeply engaged with Judaism and the Jewish community throughout their lives.

3. Any article that includes the phrase “a live psychodrama of his psycho-religious career” is worth reading. Check it out.

Canada, Judaism - Camp, Music, Uncategorized

The Art of the Jewish Journey

This post is cross posted to the URJ KESHER Blog, where I’m also a contributor. They’ve got good stuff there, too.

Leonard Cohen – prolific songwriter, singer, musician, poet, novelist, and philosopher – is a music hero. He’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, and the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. He is also a Companion of the Order of Canada – our country’s highest civilian honour. These aren’t mere platitudes bestowed without good reason: his career spans six decades and is unwaveringly progressing; Lou Reed, front-man of The Velvet Underground, has labeled Cohen as being amongst “the highest and most influential echelon of songwriters.” Not bad for an observant Jew from the Montreal suburbs.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admittedly love his music, but what has impresses me most about Cohen is his desire to infuse his connection to Judaism in all that he creates. For him, Judaism isn’t just one sphere of many in his life, it is a ubiquitous reality. Listen to his music, read his poems, or watch him on stage, and it is clear that a Jewish stream flows through all he does. In his music and poetry, Cohen has incorporated Machzor liturgy, Torah ethics, and Tanakh stories (think the opening verse of “Hallelujah”). He also observes Shabbat, even while on tour. Impressive.

And yet, there are those who would accuse him of reneging against his Judaism. You see, Leonard Cohen also embraces a Zen-oriented lifestyle which – for some – is sufficient grounds to expunge him from the Jewish people. Heavy.

In his 2006 “Book of Longing,” Cohen responds to these accusations with poetic eloquence:

Anyone who says
I’m not a Jew
is not a Jew
I’m very sorry
but this is final.

The pen is mightier, indeed.

It seems to me that Leonard Cohen offers a pretty good model of pluralistic Judaism. His argument that a monolithic interpretation of Judaism is inherently antithetical to what Judaism is about is almost Talmudic in its essence. It bears a close resemblance to the oft quoted passage “shiv’im panim laTorah,” that “there are seventy faces to the Torah” (B’midbar Rabbah 13:15). Many Jews could learn from Cohen.

It also seems to me that this man would fit in well at Jewish camp – a place where Judaism isn’t just one sphere of life; isn’t just an item from 10:00-11:00 on the schedule; isn’t confined to the sanctuary or the library. Judaism at our camps is effervescent. Certainly, it manifests itself in different individual ways – music, sports, programming, environmentalism, prayer, and yes, Torah study – but it is most definitely akin to the life Cohen leads: omnipresent and profound.

At our camps, we embrace the notion that there is no monolithic definition of Judaism, or what it means to live a Jewish life. We know that the beauty of Judaism is that every Jew has the ability to find a different, unique face of the Torah and see it in their own way, even while we are all learning and living from the same Book. If Cohen went to a URJ Camp, nobody would tell him he’s not a Jew. Here, we embrace the journey that is Judaism.

So go find some of Leonard’s music or writings, and spend some time with them. Truly, there is a Jewish journey within his art.

Canada, Music, Theatre

“Stephen, the arts is the economy, stupid…”

So says Karl Pruner, president of ACTRA Toronto to PM Stephen Harper. Well said, Karl.

In the midst of Harper’s sniper fire at Canadian Arts and Culture, it is easy to forget that arts and the economy are greatly intertwined. See what I mean here and here and here. And especially here. Or maybe if you want a clear visual of the inseparable ties between the arts and the economy, just whip out your wallet. Find a twenty dollar bill and take a look at the back of it…

Harper and the Conservatives have created a black and white scenario where it’s arts and culture vs. the economy. This is typical conservative polarizing at its worst. But let’s pretend just for a moment that this is actually how life works… The Arts vs. The Economy… What would you choose? Actress Leah Pinsent, has this to say:

“We don’t visit Rome, Japan or Africa to learn about their economies. We go to experience their culture… It is culture, not economics, that truly makes a nation. If we as Canadians are left only with other people’s stories .. then what can we be proud of? There will be nothing left to be proud of…”

The only thing that Pinsent misses is that the arts are part and parcel of the Canadian economy. And yes, the economy should clearly be of paramount importance. But arts and culture – like every other industry – are entitled to be supported by the very government and country that they themselves support. Canadian music and theatre are no more part of a niche industry than the Ford auto plant in Windsor is. Pruner bluntly evokes the question that I’ve been pondering:

“Why is it we talk about investing in the auto sector, investing in the energy sector, and handouts to the arts? Are we tired of this? I think so.”

So while Harper would like you to believe that “ordinary folks don’t care about arts,” (his words) let’s stop pretending that arts and culture aren’t intermingled in the genetic makeup of Canada’s economic infrastructure. Let’s stop pretending that this is a black and white issue and that Harper’s already made the right choice for us. And while we’re at it, let’s stop pretending that there’s such thing as an “ordinary” Canadian. Because there isn’t, anymore than there’s such a definable thing as “Canadian arts” or “the Canadian economy.”

Mr. Harper: Canadian arts, the economy, and Canadians themselves are complex things, not reducible to single lines in a budget as you would have the electorate believe. Try expanding your mind a little.