On Performing, Living, Writing and Serving with Joy: An Interview with L.A.’s Own Sam Glaser
by Devorah Talia Gordon
Singer, songwriter, teacher, and now author Sam Glaser has touched the lives of thousands of Jews worldwide. He has been performing for over 30 years in the Jewish world, typically in synagogues and Jewish Community Centers, but has appeared at venues such as Dodger Stadium, on Broadway, and at the White House. Named one of the top ten Jewish performers in the United States by Moment Magazine, Sam has fans who run the gamut of the Jewish world, from Reform to Yeshivishe, from Conservative to Chassidishe.
The Jewish Home caught up with Sam to talk about Judaism, teaching, performing, and his first book, entitled, The Joy of Judaism: A Practical Guide to Spiritual Living using Judaism’s Timeless Teachings (Shefa Press 2019, 420 pages). This epic undertaking contains ten sections, and each section has anywhere from six to twelve chapters. We’re talking more than 360 pages, before the appendices. Glaser’s book covers the gamut, from life cycle events, holidays, parenting, marriage, Jewish institutions, bitachon, prayer, etc. And of course: music.
DTG: Where did the idea of this book come from? And how long did it take to write?
SG: Nine years ago, at CAJE [Coalition for Advancement in Jewish Educators conference] the publisher of Moment Magazine, Michael Monheit, was next to me on the elliptical trainer. He said he’d been watching me relate to Jewish educators and rabbis of all denominations and asked me to write things that the rabbis could use in their sermons.
I thought about what I want to say; I feel that it is a tremendous time of urgency. I think as a Jewish community we are asleep to the degree of assimilation and intermarriage. People aren’t feeling it or seeing it in our frum neighborhoods. But I am on the road every other week, to Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox communities. It is not just theoretical.
When I got into observant Judaism in my 20s, I wanted my peers to share in my excitement. We don’t need to go elsewhere to Buddhism, yoga, and all that—we have it all, 3000 years of it. In The Joy of Judaism, I wanted to express this enthusiasm in an exciting overview of Jewish spiritual living. This “whole megillah” is from my perspective as I encountered Yiddishkeit. I made a decision to work on it one day a month, writing a 2500-word chapter. The first draft took nine years, then another year of editing.
DTG: Who were your first musical inspirations?
SG: Music was my most profound influence in the first 20 years of my life. I was raised with continuous music in my household: the L.A. Philharmonic, jazz, and Motown. I was a Camp Ramah kid—with Debbie Friedman and Shlomo Carlebach songs and chazzanut at Sinai Temple. I was inspired by the greats of rock-n-roll, Billy Joel, Elton John, Stevie Wonder.
DTG: It was a great idea to add a link at the beginning of each chapter to your music online connected to each chapter.
SG: It is all part of the plan—to encourage people to grow, to learn. Many connect spiritually to music. I have 25 albums out, and that is how I interact with the world: through music. So, each chapter starts with a free download of a relevant song.
Another great feature of the book is “The Four Questions,” at the close of each chapter. These questions are a tool for the reader to think deeper about the chapter, to take the ideas presented and apply them to his life.
DTG: The book is filled with inspiring stories, which you use to illustrate each lesson. How did you keep all these stories over the years? Did you save them somehow?
SG: When you travel solo you have a need to connect to people; stories were a byproduct of the writing process. I also recognize when I am doing a workshop, when I start pontificating, peoples’ eyes will start to glaze over, they get tired—you always get them back with a song or a story. Stories are crucial. Thank G-d I remember the good ones.
DTG: I know you as a musician and performer, only after reading the book was I more acquainted with your role as a teacher. Can you talk about that?
SG: The first time I attended the CAJE Conference was in 1992, at USC. There were 2000 educators there, and I had been trying to get people into the clubs to hear my band play. Here I was with a crowd that truly wanted to hear me, hungry for Jewish music. I had found a market. I did workshops at CAJE every year, and that spawned doing all the other major conferences. The great part of doing retreats is I can perform and teach. I love to teach, but I don’t teach about music. I want klal Yisrael to learn Torah lishmah. I talk about things like parashah, halachah, the Ten Commandments. I have great teachers in Pico, and those like Rav Noah [Weinberg], zt’l, from Aish, and that’s what I want to share. I feel that I am an “undercover agent” because in these venues, there is little rabbinic Torah. When I am brought to a community, I let the people choose what I teach. I direct them to the dozens of options on my website. Let them choose. If the community is involved, and the more the merrier, the more successful it is. Of course, teaching and performing at Chabad is one of my mainstays.
DTG: Just glancing at your sample tour schedule from the past 13 years is dizzying (check out the book’s appendix!). You were away every other weekend. How do you balance all the traveling and performing you do with your family and community life?
SG: My family knew I hit the road so often because I was on a mission, there was something important I was trying to do. I was trying to answer the needs of klal Yisrael. It was my parnassah, as well. It wasn’t easy, I had those pangs of missing my family. When you are busy doing your tafkid, you are in it and time flies. You don’t ruminate. When I was home, we had guests at almost every Shabbos meal. We do our best kiruv at the Shabbos table. Hosting was something people did in Israel so we thought, We can do it in L.A. We felt we had something special to offer. My wife is an expert in creating a gourmet experience, and I could lead a table with songs and divrei Torah. People have a tendency to keep the kids at a kids’ table, but we always had the kids next to me on both sides and made sure they were part of it.
DTG: You write a lot about your immediate and extended family, with great stories and pictures (check out the family portrait on page 247). You write of “our vast differences in observance,” (from Chassidic to Modern Orthodox to Reform/Conservative) yet you have an “unbreakable, loving bond.” Can you talk about this bond, and about achdut, in general?
SG: I have three younger brothers. I thought Yom Tov would enjoy a little time at Aish after graduating college, so I filled out a scholarship form for him. He connected in such a fundamental way and now he touches thousands of people. Then our brother in between, Aharon got semicha, too. My mom, of course, kashered her home when we became religious.
In his book, Glaser writes, “…Our family finds common ground and makes a point of expressing our love for one another… We know that together we are strong and have far more in common than those picayune details that divide us. Does this sound familiar? This is the story of the Jewish people. We are truly an extended family.” Glaser also writes about the importance of presenting a united front not only to gentiles, but also to unaffiliated Jews. “The world judges God by watching the Jews,” Glaser reminds us that we bring glory to God’s name by loving each other.
DTG: You play to all walks of Jewish life and have fans in every sector. This can be challenging, I imagine. How have you managed this?
SG: Of my peers who play this circuit I am on, I don’t know of others who are shomer Shabbat. I can’t go from place to place on Shabbos. I have to explain to them my davening is acapella. There are some potential clients who can’t wrap their brains around it, these synagogues don’t feel they can reach people without the live music [which is so common now]. There are Saturday night challenges also, of course. And I need kosher food. It’s interesting what some people consider kosher! I try to make it as easy as possible. A lot of time I am buying what I need, like tuna and bagels in a supermarket. When there are no homes or hotels close to the synagogue, I have stayed on air mattresses in rabbis’ studies. Like Shlomo Carlebach, who would be out there wherever he needed to go, my motto is “Wherever there are Jews you’ll find me.” We are witnessing a “velvet genocide.” Let’s get in there and do what we can.
DTG: What is your goal?
SG: Our beautiful brothers and sisters tend to farm out the heavy lifting to clergy, thinking the rabbi will pray for them, the cantor will sing for them. I teach that we don’t have to rewrite the manual. We have incredible instructions for living. We just need to reread our notes! I encourage growth through mitzvot. Taking baby steps is the best way to go. Take it on and it will lead to more, mitzvah goreret mitzvah. Also, you can’t tear yourself away from community. Everyone has challenges where they live but that doesn’t mean they are off the hook; they have to learn how to connect on their own, to learn and daven. I say: Take a chance with Hashem, act as if this G-d thing is real. Try it!
I believe the chukkim are “emunah pellets” we can take. People think they are ancient and irrelevant, but by performing Hashem’s will when we don’t understand it, it launches you!
If you have a balloon with holes it won’t fly. Patch up the holes, the excuses, and you have a balloon that can take you to the stratosphere.
DTG: What was your greatest struggle in becoming observant?
SG: One of my struggles was worrying that I would become a clone. I didn’t want to be a freak. I wanted to walk a fine line between “You-ish” and Jewish; I wanted to fully invest in Judaism, but I didn’t want to lose my uniqueness. I know many people who were completely disassociating from their past. That never resonated with me. Hashem gave us our unique past to get us where we are now. I believe all of us have something crucial to add.
DTG: What was your greatest thrill in becoming observant?
SG: A relationship with the Creator of Heaven and Earth is so powerful. I have always had a sense of wonder for the natural world, spending so much time in the outdoors, skiing and surfing, biking, etc. I see life as one big organic whole, and I’m able to take the natural experience and connect it to G-d. I have always felt gratitude for what I have, and davening gave me a channel for my enthusiasm. I love being part of the frum world, getting grabbed for a minyan by the lockers at Disneyland. I can go to any shul, I love it! I can barely contain my excitement!
DTG: What advice would you give someone becoming more observant?
SG: You have to relax, start with what you already do, you just do it better, with more kavanah. Slow down, particularly when davening. It’s not just Breslovers who need to talk to Hashem: we need to have an openness and bring G-d our issues and make our relationship real. We all could use simchah. The verse says: “Ivdu es Hashem b’simchah—serve Hashem with joy.” The klallot (curses) come because we don’t serve Him with joy. We have to remember that.
Sam’s joy is contagious; when reading the book, his enthusiasm shines through, while the friendly tone and personal stories allow the reader get to know Sam well. This would be a great gift for any Jew on the spectrum of observance, from unaffiliated to Orthodox. Any Jewish reader—with their mind and heart open—will be inspired by The Joy of Judaism. To purchase The Joy of Judaism, go to www.joyofjudasim.com or amazon.com For more on Sam Glaser, see www.samglaser.com