Bridging denominations, this Jewish musician puts the ‘soul’ in music
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'My music is very upbeat and spirited -- it’s the music of a Jewish optimist'

Bridging denominations, this Jewish musician puts the ‘soul’ in music

For over 25 years Sam Glaser has taken Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach's lead and brought his heartfelt melodies to where the 'yidden' are

Sam Glaser in concert. (Courtesy)
Sam Glaser in concert. (Courtesy)

LOS ANGELES, California — In a garage-turned-recording studio, Sam Glaser spends his days — and many nights — producing albums for himself and others. On the road, however, this married father of three has an alter-ego, performing upwards of 50 shows a year in as many cities.

His current tour, “Live 25,” marks a quarter-century of performing Jewish rock across the country at shuls, schools, banquets, fundraisers and the occasional concert hall. His shows are a combination of hand-clapping singalong moments, prayerful reflection and powerful Jewish pop-rock show tunes. A collection of recordings dating back to 1989 parallels his touring history.

“I’m typically on the road every other weekend,” Glaser told The Times of Israel. “It’s just been the way it is.”

On a recent sunny southern California day, with song birds chirping in the background, Glaser swivels in his desk chair, a psychedelic screensaver sending hypnotic waves across a flatscreen behind him.

Glaser’s soulful music is upbeat and polished, resonating with the influence of the music he heard growing up: “Broadway, Motown, and the great singer-songwriter piano players like Billy Joel, Elton John, Carole King, Stevie Wonder, and the Beatles,” Glaser says.

“I play keyboards all day,” he explains, hitting a series of notes that punctuate his sentences as a reporter notices a bright light in the corner. “I find it mandatory for a studio to have a lava lamp.”

While the sounds of his studio are booming, the feel-good music stays pretty well-contained in his sound-proofed set up. A labyrinth of monitors, speakers, keyboards for typing as well as playing, are arranged around him — as are compressors, limiters and even an old reel-to-reel machine.

“It’s for visuals now because nobody brings in reels any more,” Glaser says. “The whole world is in the digital world these days.” And with that last word, Glaser begins to sing, “Nobody’s much into analog. You can’t even find the tape.”

The gregarious Glaser, 54, is a self-described optimist who works at home in simple clothing: a t-shirt, track pants and a kippa. In addition to music, he is working on a massive tome of Jewish life entitled, for now, “The Joy of Judaism.”

Singer Sam Glaser celebrates 25 years on the road. 'It’s not about music. Music is a mashal for me.' (Facebook)
Singer Sam Glaser celebrates 25 years on the road. ‘It’s not about music. Music is a mashal for me.’ (Facebook)

“It’s a treatise for living Jewish life with enthusiasm,” Glaser says, dropping in the Hebrew word for teaching. “It’s not about music. Music is a mashal [allegory] for me.”

Raised non-observant, his dream was not to become a Jewish brand.

“My primary influences come from the secular world because I was raised on what is now called classic rock,” says Glaser, who grew up in Pacific Palisades overlooking the ocean. “It was tempered with classical music. I was a regular attendee with my mom at the LA Philharmonic.”

He credits his mother, a pianist, with sharing her love of music.

“She pushed me,” Glaser says. “I got a healthy influence of jazz in high school. I was in a band. I got hit by musical theater growing up. My mom was really into that. She liked theater. It was playing in the house all the time. My music is a combination of all those.”

Like the late Shlomo Carlebach, Glaser often picks up local performers on the road to join him onstage.

When asked about his influences, Glaser says, “Shlomo was certainly one,” referring to the years between 1989 and Carlebach’s death in 1994.

“I got to be his accompanist on the West Coast whenever he would play out here. So I had many really wonderful opportunities to spend time with him, learn Torah with him and play gigs.”

Glaser hopes to make Israel his home one day. “I was hanging with Shlomo one time and he said, ‘Sam, your nigginum [melodies] are so high. You have to be ready because someday soon the messiah is going to come up to you and say, ‘How did you know my niggunim?’”

The eldest of four sons, Glaser’s brother Yom Tov is a Hasidic rabbi living in Jerusalem, and makes cameos in his videos. To discuss his long-term love of Jewish music, Glaser sat down for this extensive interview with The Times of Israel.

You say, “Godliness fills my concerts.” What does that mean?

One of the things I’m trying to accomplish in my concerts is to give people a peak musical experience that hits all of their emotional fronts — incredible joy, incredible melancholy, touching deep memories, with common denominator songs and then launching them into my enthusiastic music so that they can also feel that sense of tremendous enthusiasm and joy.

How do your concerts usually begin?

It depends on my mood. Sometimes it’s an upbeat number like my “Modeh Ani” or “Across the River” — something that is one of the more popular songs in my repertoire that I know will hook people and set the stage that they are in for a relaxed great time.

What songs make up your finale?

I often finish off my concerts with songs about Jerusalem, songs about Israel. I really feel like the miracle of the Promised Land is the fulfillment of millennia of prayer and is proof that with prayer anything is possible.

What distinguishes your music?

My stuff is very soul-based and, I hope, authentic. It comes from being deeply invested in Judaism, living a Jewish life, mitzvot, interacting with the world Jewish community, and a deep-seated drive that I have to bring people together and offer a message of hope. Shlomo Carlebach was offering a sense of renewal after the Holocaust to a battered people. My experience is of a world that is welcoming to Jews, a world without anti-Semtism, a world of powerful Judaism, powerful communities, great summer camp memories and a thriving synagogue. So my music is very upbeat and spirited. Not cynical, not intellectual. It’s the music of a Jewish optimist.

‘All I’m doing as a producer is trying to recreate that initial inspiration that I heard’

Where does your inspiration come from?

I don’t know. And I can’t control it. I wake up hearing a melody. My dreams have soundtracks. All I’m doing as a producer is trying to recreate that initial inspiration that I heard. So I’ll get up and sing it in the MP3 recorder or write it down and I’m singing all the parts of all the different instruments that I’m playing and then I’ll go back to sleep. Once in a while, I’ll stay up all night and finish it if I think it’s worthy.

Which of your songs felt worthy of staying up all night?

For example, “One Hand, One Heart.” It’s a heavy song about terrorism.

I never know where it’s coming from. Sometimes they’re rock songs. Sometimes they’re country songs. Sometimes klezmer niggunim. Every third day, I’m writing another song. I have thousands of songs…

What really gets me excited is to discuss the opportunity for what I call “hineni” moments, Jewish awakenings through the system of mitzvot.

What is your understanding of mitzvot?

You could really take almost any mitzvah and find a way to inject that into one’s life. Everybody’s got a different point of entry. The most important thing is to see the mitzvot not as “good deeds” or as burdensome desires of a distant deity for us to complete but as points of connection with eternity. So that every time you’re giving charity or putting on a tallit, you’re entering this ephemeral world of connection and the more you take those baby steps into our ancient system of Judaism that is thousands of years old, the more you are making your spirituality palpable and real.

How does spirituality influence your music?

I grew up with spirituality being something distant, like, a Buddhist in a monastery. I found my spirituality in nature, for sure. I’m an action sports freak, mountain biking, skiing, and surfing. My greatest days are outdoors in gorgeous settings… I really do believe that we find God in nature.

‘Where is God? Wherever you let God in’

How does kabbalat Shabbat play into that idea?

Kabbalat Shabbat is our new service. It is only 600 years old. All the psalms they chose are about nature: rivers clapping hands, and thunders and cedars. We have to take the ecstasy of those organic nature experiences and inject them into our workshop. It’s at those times that our ego is automatically nullified in the face of the grandeur of God’s natural world. As the Koktzker Rebbe says, “Where is God? Wherever you let God in.”

Godliness naturally fills the vacuum. And you create a vacuum by going into a nature experience. It sublimates the ego in the face of the poppies of Big Sur or a snowy winter scene.

Where do you fall on the spectrum of Jewish identity?

I’m Orthodox, shomer mitzvot. I put on tefillin every day and daven [pray] three times a day… We’re members of four shuls: Aish, Happy Minyan, Chabad of Beverlywood and Knesset Israel, a tiny little shul down the street here. I really like going to big shuls. I’m often reluctantly forced to lead. I walk in and I’m asked to lead. I’m often just exhausted. I’m just back from the road or I’m always burning the candle at both ends in the studio here but I always say yes. That’s my policy.

What do you enjoy about performing for Jews across movements?

I try to be a bridge between denominations. I’m terribly pained when I see them splitting apart. I believe we have far more that unites us than divides us as a people. I like to be the guy with tzitzit that kids at Reform Jewish summer camp see, and I get questions from the Orthodox about what’s happening in the other denominations. And my fellow Orthodox musicians ask me about leads in that part of the business because they want gigs outside of the Orthodox world.

‘I try to be a bridge between denominations’

How do you feel about “kol isha,” prohibitions against women singing in public?

I have asked the shayla [rabbinic halachic inquiry] with my rav as any nice Orthodox boy must do, and because I’m in the industry as a full-time musician and producer it’s really a non-issue for me. I sing on stage with women. My Jewish albums, because I want to make them palatable for Orthodox Hasidic fans, I don’t put women on my albums.

Cover of Sam Glaser's 25th anniversary tribute album, 'Stages.' (Courtesy)
Cover of Sam Glaser’s 25th anniversary tribute album, ‘Stages.’ (Courtesy)

Your 25th anniversary double-CD tribute album is an exception to that rule. Why is that?

The tribute album culled artists, mostly of the Conservative and Reform world, who have performed my music. So that is the only exception in my canon. But it’s a tribute album. It’s not one of my own personal releases.

It includes recordings from your teenage daughter and your Hasidic brother. How did that happen?

Had my brother known in the beginning he may not have wanted to be on the album at all. When I started out in this business, one of the things I gleaned from Rabbi Carlebach is the imperative of going wherever Jews are and meeting them on their terms so I don’t have to sacrifice my own personal observance to be in the milieu of where Jews are. And in America, Jews are in the Reform and Conservative movements where women are singing and women are rabbis and cantors and a lot of people who take on mitzvot feel like they have to whitewash their past. I don’t feel that at all. I grew up on the Reform and Conservative movements. There is value in all movements. All movements have strengths and weaknesses. Orthodox is not exempt from having issues.

At one point, I was slammed by a few local rabbis for working with the University of Judaism, now known as American Jewish University, because I became their music director at one point. I started asking shaylas to my rabbi and other rabbis in the community and I got a variety of responses but the one that I thought was the most cogent and aware was from Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, one of the great leaders of our day. He said, “The question is not whether you should be there. It’s that you must be there. By virtue of the fact that you can touch even one neshama [soul] you must be there.”

My model in this business was Rabbi Carlebach who was running to ashrams and churches and synagogues of all denominations and finding Yidden who were yearning for spirituality. He gave them the chance to anchor it in something Jewish. That’s what I like to do. That’s what I try to do.

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