(B)logarhythm

Really Listening...

Occasionally, my professional work pays parental dividends...

Tonight, an hour after his bedtime, Zach (age 9) came down the stairs declaring that something was urgently wrong with his piano music. 

(When my kids were younger, I wrote and recorded a short album of piano lullabies to help them sleep through the night. The lullabies play through powered speakers in their bedroom, keeping the kids calm and helping to dampen the noise from the Brooklyn streets below. I keep the album up on Spotify for easy access when we travel, and they listen to it most nights as part of their bedtime ritual.)

I followed Zach up to his bedroom. He brought over his iPad, opened up Spotify, and clicked on a specific track in his "Daddy's Relaxing Piano Lullabies" playlist. 

We listened together until he quickly stopped the song.

Zach: "Did you hear it? It's *that* note. That one note. Every time it comes, it makes me crazy. It's keeping me up."

(He seemed quite serious about the whole thing.)

Me: "Sweetie... I'm pretty sure it sounded just fine."

I scrolled back and replayed the passage, and he pointed out the very same note. We listened again, but I still didn't hear anything unusual.

Rubbing his eyes, he yawned that "the note was really-seriously-super-screechy-weird-sounding before... but... it's much better now."

(I smiled, quietly amused by this apparent exercise in bedtime-avoidance.)

As all was now apparently resolved, I tucked him back into his bed, kissed his forehead, and said goodnight. He held onto my hand and asked me if I'd lie down with him until he fell asleep. So, I restarted the Spotify playlist and curled up beside him.

About 5 minutes later, I sat straight up.

The poor kid was reacting to specific piano pitches from the recording that interacted with the correlative resonant frequencies of his bedroom. When we knelt by the door with his iPad, everything sounded fine. When we lay down in his bed, "that one note" popped out like an angry glockenspiel.

In the end, after a quick dance with the equalizer, my boy was quietly snoring once again....

And as I closed his door, I promised myself that I'd listen a little more critically next time... not to the music, but to my child. 

- AudioDad, out.

#DaddyITB

 

The Freedom to Believe

The season of our unleavening cometh, and with it, my most important Passover ritual…

 

Tonight, I’ll sit with my kids for our annual viewing of The Prince of Egypt.

 

While we always choose to participate in a seder with friends and family, the film seems to reach them more deeply than the ritual. I reminded them today that Pesach is coming fast, and my youngest exclaimed “WE’RE GONNA WATCH THAT MOVIE!!”

 

(Please don’t tell my Bubbe.)

 

I refuse to lie to my kids (except about the hard truth that I did, in fact, quietly replace our family’s pet fish multiple times over the course of several years … [Daddy? Why did Dorothy turn blue?]  In the past, they’ve asked me if I believe in God, and I’ve always told them that I do. And now, as they approach the halfway point of their grade school years, their questions are becoming more pointed.

 

My truth: I believe in God. (Most days.)

 

And, I haven’t yet come to understand what this actually means.

 

I am acutely aware that I am part of something bigger than myself, bigger than all of us. I can feel that. I do feel that. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. I sense it when I pray, when I cry, when I make love. I feel it with abundance in my professional work, in those moments when I’m focused on trying to help others feel that same connection.

 

For me, the real challenge lies in the grey area between what I believe and how I believe…

 

I want to trust in this powerful spirituality to which I’ve been exposed, whether I’ve encountered it through conversation, formal study, or private learning. I really, really do…

 

Sometimes, I just can’t.

 

I often wonder… am I missing something that others are not?

 

Yesterday, I had lunch with a friend/rabbi who good-naturedly described his Passover voyage to Monsey, NY to stock his kitchen for the holiday. Some of the broader details weren’t entirely new to me – I’ve kept a kosher kitchen at home in the past - but I found his tale of this annual pilgrimage (and its implication of serious commitment to halachic minutiae as demonstrated by most of the market’s customers) to be quite amazing.

 

I left our meal repeating the same question in my mind: How much is enough?

 

Thousands and thousands make the trek to this Monsey grocery to buy hard-to-find items like kosher-for-Pesach dish soap. [*Note: the OU says Pesach-certified dish soap is not actually necessary, but nonetheless, you can buy it, and lots of people do…]

 

I can’t help but wonder: Am I simply not holding up my end of my God-relationship because the highest levels of ritual observance are not particularly meaningful to me? (To be clear: I intend no disrespect toward those who make such choices. I’m actually caught up in a mix of wonderment and mild jealousy… I wish that the minutia moved me more, and I am mildly envious of the enculturation that fertilizes the absolute conviction evident in such cases).

 

Or, am I simply still reeling from that weekend in high school when I first read Maimonides’ The Guide for the Perplexed, and encountered a God-concept that I found to be both deeply resonant and fiercely challenging?

 

The more I grow, the less I know.

 

The world is pretty screwed up for all of us these days. I need not review why… I, like you, can’t help but be aware of our current global state. Whatever your leanings, whether you’re a socio-political southpaw or otherwise, you are most certainly drenched from the daily onslaught of opinion that rains down on all of us.

 

At once, we push and pull at the lines that demarcate our liberty. We march, we rally, we despair, we resolve. We mourn our dead. We dream that tomorrow will be different, that we will escape the reign of whatever modern-day (occasionally orange) Pharaoh that aims to re-enact the ancient tale of our personal and communal enslavement in a dystopian fashion.

 

As evidenced by our long human history, this is a cyclical narrative, a story trapped in its own retelling… an ancient tome, now conveniently downloadable to your Kindle in an all-new translation.

 

Our lives are not simple; not cut and dry, nor black and white. (Apologies to those in our community who happen to prefer that color scheme.)

 

Our text teaches us that the Israelites grew weary of their desert journey (sans GPS), and suffered from what Steven Lee has aptly termed “the deadly disease of spiritual amnesia.”

 

Having spent some significant time internally reflecting on this, I have managed to distill my internal monologue down to this small piece of personal Torah:

 

 

When we shield ourselves from the challenges faced by others…

 

When we surround ourselves with insular comfort at the expense of global citizenship…

 

When we focus solely on the me at the expense of the we...

 

… that is when we've lost God.

 

 

When we open our hearts to the entirety of our divine humanity…

 

When we refuse to accept our world as it is…

 

When we turn our thoughts to the physical, spiritual, and emotional emancipation of every soul that walks this earth…

 

… that is when God will be found.

 

 

 

May this season of freedom, however we personally choose to embrace it, inspire us to recognize that our story, like our freedom, belongs to all of humanity.

 

Ken yehi ratzon - May it be so.

 

Chag sameach.

 

-jn

Thoughts on 2016, Life, Death, God, and Everything…

 

 

Tough year.

And, apparently it's even going to be just a bit longer than usual.

Today, just a few days before New Year’s Eve, I’m struck by the tone of the messages I’m seeing on social media.

“Go to HELL, 2016!” seems to be a consistent sentiment this afternoon. We certainly lost lots of folks this past year. Like so many, I adored Prince, George Michael, Leonard Cohen, Glen Frey, George Martin, David Bowie…

We use these annual trips around the sun to mark our journeys, like pencil lines on an old wall that measure our children’s growth in inches (or centimeters, if you’ve an affinity for the Europeans). Such small, little units of demarcation…

As our secular year winds down, we become readily aware of our upcoming transition. We make our resolutions and plan for the future, determined to lose weight, to read more, to give more charity, to refocus our attention on what really matters... and we pause to remember those who no longer join us on the journey.

I am a Jew, and I am a global citizen. Perhaps you are as well. This NYE, I‘m going to try to find connective lines between the secular and spiritual New Year holidays, to bring some of the internal clarity I experience during Rosh Hashana into my communal / secular New Year’s Eve experience, and to infuse my next celebration of Rosh Hashana with a revitalized focus on the well-being of the global community, particularly through a commitment to social action and communal engagement.

Jews have a unique situation to navigate in this case. New Year’s Eve isn't our only new year's holiday (or, in my experience, even our most important one). The differences between Rosh Hashana (the “Head of the Year”) and New Year’s Eve are plentiful. Nonetheless, the similarities and connections between the two are striking.

I spend each Rosh Hashana on the bima at the 92nd St. Y in NYC, where I provide the music and liturgical chanting for the congregation. I‘m fortunate that my clergy partner for the holidays is Rabbi Elka Abrahamson. Rabbi Abrahamson is wise, calm, and experienced, and she brings tremendous depth and thought to our community of 100k+ worshippers around the world. She guides ourcongregation through the sounds of the shofar, its hallowing and deeply resonant tones pulling us toward our collective center.

This New Year’s Eve, I’ll celebrate at Madison Square Garden, enjoying the music of a favorite band, dancing, singing, and ringing in the secular new year with a different type of joy. In Saturday’s show, the role of the shofar will be played by an electric guitar, and my clergy for the evening will consist of four improvising musicians who very well might choose to play a 5/8 version of “Avinu Malkeinu" (if I’m lucky).

While NYE and Rosh Hashana do feel dissimilar in most respects, many of us seek strikingly similar things from these two holidays. We desire a line in the sand that we can cross, a division between past and future. We search for a clean slate, a concrete opportunity to cast off what has happened before, and to approach what lies ahead with clarity, purpose, and a sense of wholeness.

Perhaps, Rosh Hashana is our internal new year. Our hearts are subject to self-examination, and our internal compasses are adjusted. We grapple with who we have become, and many of us begin preparing to fast and atone on Yom Kippur.

Alternatively, December 31 provides us the chance to transition in a broad, ultra-communal way; it offers us the opportunity to cross a line along with the combined populace of the planet. Each hour, the new year arrives for a new slice of our world; each sixty minutes
brings a new start for a segment of our global community. We are, at that time, as close to Am Echad (one people) as we ever are.

Judaism is alive. It is living and changing and growing all the time. If you cannot see that, your eyes are not open. Closing ourselves off from the joy of the larger, world-wide community is no longer a viable path to global citizenship.

When midnight arrives on January 1, and the world reaches to pull itself close, we will be gifted a moment… our moment. Allow yourself a chance to pause, to breathe, and to be grateful.

 

For one night, most of this broken, agitated world will come together in joy and song and spirit.

 

And in the midst of that global gathering, we will know that we are One.

 

Bayom hahu (and on that day)…

 

 

On Freedom...

 

Ready?

Full Stop.

Take a breath.

 

Now, ask yourself this:

“Am I free?”

 

[Insert pause for self-reflection here.]

 

I think I’ve asked myself that question thousands of times in the past year. Obviously, I enjoy a level of freedom unheard of in other parts of the world; I exercise free will, I make (hopefully good) choices, and I decide what kind of relationship I want to maintain with both those I love and those who I hope to grow to love. Nonetheless, I still ask myself the question all the time.

 

I don’t ask because my rights have been restricted, or my personal freedoms have been constrained. I simply ask because I’m so, so scared.

Hard truth: We’re all scared.

 

[To be clear: if you’re not scared, you’re not paying attention.]

 

Globally, we’re scared of losing sight of who we hope to be. We’re scared of passive acquiescence replacing the fire of necessary resistance, scared of the very foundation of our global community enduring tremendous damage, and scared of our society regressing to a time when we undoubtedly experienced an inferior form of freedom. Big picture: our collective sense of self is bending under the weight of fear, and our anxiety has reached a peak level we have not known in years.

 

Like you, I’m also scared on a personal level. I’m scared that the personal growth and extraordinary happiness I’ve discovered in the past year will somehow leave me. Scared that the person I want to become will never be free of the fears and doubts I’ve tried to leave behind. Scared that I’ll continue to live in subtle fear of the ones who’ve hurt me deeply in the past, those lingering antagonists who still occasionally call my name aloud if only to see me shiver as I look back over my shoulder…

 

I need this Pesach so badly. I need it because I need to be reminded.

 

Passover speaks to the ongoing relationship between individual acts of courage and faith and communal acts of love and positive intentionality. It sheds light on the triangular relationship that exists between faith, freedom, and action. A community cannot be redeemed without the strength of its individuals. And, an individual will struggle to find redemption without the embrace of a community.

Pesach reminds us that things will only begin to get better when we each take an active role in making it better. We must stand up and speak out, and not retreat quietly down the path of shrugged-shoulders and averted eyes.

 

I've thought deeply in the past few weeks about what it means to stand up and to speak out in the context of my own work. Last week, I drew deeply from my circle of friends and brought together a band of twelve extraordinary musicians to spend the day talking, learning, and making music together in New York City. In this safe space of community and creativity, we laughed, jammed, and connected deeply to the music and to each other. Arranged in a circle, we recorded a medley of Avadim Hayinu (a traditional Pesach melody) and Wade in the Water (a widely-known African-American spiritual), material that illustrated the core narrative of our discussion that day: The story of freedom belongs to everyone, and the only way forward is together.

 

I'm so grateful that our experience was captured on film, and that I can share it with you now. Click here to check it out.

 

On Monday evening, millions of souls will gather around the Seder table to read these words aloud:

 

Avadim hayinu, ata b’nei chorin.

Once, we were slaves. Now, we are free.

 

Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will.

 

 

 

The Return (not that you knew I left...)

So, I’m back. I mean, you may not have noticed that I took off. I didn’t vanish, just took a step away from the full-throttle lifestyle that is professional music as I watched me slowly lose myself.

It’s wild to look back. Four years on a Broadway show that wasn’t, and an off-Broadway show that was. A long (long), difficult divorce, with love, resources, and much family lost. An incredible twist of fate, and love and family found. Two (now four) amazing children. Five moves. Records. Thousands of shows, and probably twice as many flights.

Slowly, over that time, my gas tank emptied, and I eventually found myself without the strength to get out of bed. 

But then, suddenly, I bounced.

And now, ohhhh man. Watch out.

I remember what this was like from before the storm. Waking up, overwhelmed and excited with the endless possibilities held by the day ahead. And, it’s wild, but I'm experiencing that feeling again.

Love is here. Music is pouring. Words are flowing. And, ideas… oh the ideas… are streaming in an almost explosive manner.

There is bright light ahead. 

So, I’m not sure if you’ve missed me, or if you even noticed I left.

But I did, and I’m back.

And, it’s going to be amazing.

 

You ain’t seen nothing yet.

 

I love you.

j