Sam Glaser didn’t start out planning to be a Jewish musician.
That he would be a musician at all was not a surprise. “I’ve been involved with music ever since I was a little kid,” he said. “I was practically born playing the piano.” His mother is a pianist and his father plays the trumpet, “so it was just a natural thing to do in my household.
“I’m the oldest of four brothers, and we always had a big table, and music all around it,” he continued.
“When I was a kid, 7 years old, I wrote songs. That kind of freaked my parents out. I was supposed to write a poem at school, but I would come home and write lyrics.
“I always heard music in my head.”
Mr. Glaser will play a concert of Chanukah music for the whole family on Sunday in Emerson.
Mr. Glaser grew up in Los Angeles, where he still lives. He began arranging music for local bands when he was in junior high and high school, and he was a music major at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Then he transferred to the University of Colorado, where he studied business and – wait for it – music, “because I wanted a regular four-year school,” he said. He always wrote songs, and he opened a recording studio, “with the intention of producing music for other people, but with the hidden agenda of producing my own.
“I’m not sure if I chose music, or if music chose me,” he said.
None of this music was Jewish, though. Mr. Glaser grew up in a Jewish home, but his interest in Jewish things was “a casualty of my pre-bar mitzvah education,” he said ruefully.
Then, somehow, that changed. In those pre-Birthright Israel years, Mr. Glaser was given a free yearlong trip to Israel, and he studied at the Aish HaTorah yeshivah in Jerusalem for four months. “It’s a place for Americans with little or no background, like me,” he said. “It gave us a real love of Israel.
“The classes were totally out of this world. I really loved it.”
As he became drawn into the Jewish world, he started practicing Judaism more. “I was incorporating Shabbat into my life, starting to wrap tefillin, starting to pray as an adult – not just the rudimentary stuff I had learned as a Hebrew school student.
“And it started to affect my music,” he said.
In 1991, Mr. Glaser began writing his first Jewish music. The first piece was for an album Capitol Records released to benefit Operation Exodus. Next, he was asked to write music for Hallel for services at Camp Ramah in Ojai, California. “I had to figure out what Hallel was,” he said. (Hallel is a joyful addition to a standard prayer service, recited on festivals and at the start of Jewish months; it is made up of psalms of praise to God.) Next, he was invited to be part of a think tank from the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, an LA-based group that commissions music; the group sent him to Israel. Craig Taubman, another very well-known Jewish composer and performer, recorded some of his songs, and CAJE, the Jewish educators’ group, asked him to sing for the first of what ended up being 17 conferences.
That did it.
He was a Jewish musician. There was no longer any way around that profound and by that time entirely welcome truth.
Mr. Glaser writes much of his own material, but he also has recorded some of the classic Jewish songs; he is spurred on by his realization that many of the standards, the absolute birthright of Jewish kids, are being forgotten. Those songs – they include, among many others, “Erev Shel Shoshanim,” ” Kol HaOlam Kulo,” “Bashana Haba’a,” and “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” – “were the great common denominator songs of my childhood,” Mr. Glaser said. “I have made it part of my mission to keep them alive.”
Mr. Glaser is proud of his ability to move freely between the different streams that make up today’s American Jewish world. He is now on an 18-city tour “that is indicative of how broad it is,” he said; in the Washington/Baltimore area, he performed at both Bethesda Hebrew Congregation, which is Renewal, and Chabad of Potomac. He also sang at a Conservative shul, and at a concert for seniors. “I am going to the Reform Biennial, and I played the OU conference,” he said. “Thank God, I’ve got fans in all movements.
“That’s extremely important to me.”
He talked about a recent wedding in Nashville, where the groom, Avi Spielman of Teaneck, married a young woman whose family is Persian, and the wedding combined Ashkenazic, Sephardic, northern, and southern Jewish strains into one wild, ecstatic whole.
“There is something so powerful about a real Jewish community,” Mr. Glaser said.
Yael Spielman of Teaneck, the groom’s mother, agreed. She thought that the spark Mr. Glaser’s music added to the fuel that was the joint community was tremendously powerful; not only did she rave about the wedding, but also about Mr. Glaser.
“Sam has a real gift for sensing what the crowd is capable of, and taking that energy to another level,” she said. “It was like a mosh pit. People were lifting each other up and dancing. The dance floor was never empty. No one sat down to eat!
“It’s all about the beat, about the level of intensity. It was just all there.”
|Who: Sam Glaser
What: Will play a concert for Chanukah
When: Sunday, November 24, from 10:15 to noon
Where: Congregation B’nai Israel, 53 Palisade Avenue, Emerson
Why: To celebrate the Festival of Lights with the entire community. Everyone is invited – parents, families, people of all ages.
How: Admission is free. For information, call (201) 265-2272 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information: Mr. Glaser’s website is www.samglaser.com