Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson
Radio Show Transcript – August 27, 2000
Rabbi Simon Jacobson: Welcome to Toward a Meaningful Life. We’re here every Sunday from 6-7pm talking about meaningful topics and subjects that matter to you and to me and to everyone around.
We live in a time of paradox. On one hand there is material prosperity and people seem to be happy on so many different levels. Yet on the other hand there is a deep spiritual search—you can even say a level of misery beneath the surface that so many of us experience.
As such, the hunger is very profound and the paradox is very deep. So I decided to do a topic that deals with paradoxes and with that search, and the different ways we satisfy that search. So the topic tonight is music. The role of music. I guess it’s no accident that music is identified with soul; they call it soul and spirit.
I’d like to begin with a very beautiful parable. They say that when G-d created the universe, He consulted with the angels and said, “When I create the human race, should I give them the gift of music—the ability to sing, the ability to play, the ability to dance?”
Remember, music is its own language. It’s not just a conventional language. So G-d asked: Should I give humans the power to sing and to play melodies.
And the angels, obviously being very elitist, answered, “No. Don’t give it to the human race because they will abuse it. They’ll commercialize it. They’ll make it into a business. They won’t know how to appreciate its angelic, divine nature.
“Give us music and we will sing Your praises, we will sing Your song. We will know how to appreciate it.”
And G-d considered their opinion, but then overruled them and said, “No. I will give the gift of music to them, the gift of song, because I want them to have something to remember Me with. That even when they’re stuck in their own straits and when they’re locked in their material place, they should have something that can lift them up, that can lift their spirits up to another place.”
It’s interesting that music should be identified in such a fashion, like wings that help lift our spirits, our souls. As a matter of fact, in Kabbalistic thought, there’s a question that’s asked, “How do souls travel?” We know how bodies travel. If you want to get from one place to another you have legs and you move from one place to another. Or you take a vehicle—an automobile, a taxi, a subway, an airplane, a ship—we have many ways to move about.
But how does a soul move? Remember, a soul doesn’t have legs and a soul does not fit into a car or another container like that. The Kabbalah gives a very fascinating answer: that every soul needs a song to travel with. For a soul to move from one place to another, it needs a melody, a song. And only with that song can it move.
As a matter of fact, in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, there were fifteen steps called Shir HaMaalos. Fifteen psalms that King David sang correspond to those fifteen steps and to go from one step to the next you needed a song to sing. Also, the Levites, the composers of music in the time of the Temple, would compose different songs.
I know people who travel hundreds of thousands of miles a year. They’ve got frequent flyer mileage and all of that. But they don’t move one inch spiritually.
And I know people who perhaps sit in the same place, but spiritually they’re moving millions of miles. You see that even in the birth of the jazz movement in this country. In general, music was always a voice of rebellion, a voice of outrage. People often sing as a result of oppression.
And those are the people who maybe couldn’t move. They couldn’t even afford getting a ticket on an airplane or on a boat, but they were able to move miles and miles because they had song and spirit.
Perhaps even the oppression itself was a catalyst, a springboard, for that music. So I don’t think it’s an accident in our day and time—something which is unprecedented—that music has become an industry, especially for the youth, the young generation. That was never the case.
In the days of classical music of the great composers in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, music was a powerful force but it wasn’t a fad, it wasn’t a craze, it didn’t have the popularity that it has today. Perhaps one of the reasons for that is that our generation so craves for spirit, for soul, and music is a way to speak to G-d.
Whether we call it as such is not the issue. The point of the matter is, it’s a language of the soul. That’s what I would like to say as an introduction, and to talk about that a little more I’d like to introduce a special guest, a good friend, but as well as a good friend, a professional musician who has been in the rock and roll industry for quite some time. His name is Peter Himmelman. We have him here live (over the phone) as a guest from California.
To introduce him, Peter Himmelman is a well-acclaimed musician. He just received an ASCAP award for the musical score that he does for “Judging Amy.” He’s been featured on all the major circuits from MTV to Leno to Letterman and so on, and has released eight albums, some by major labels, and is an acclaimed artist who has his own following. He performs all over the country, including here in New York. He has a very interesting following because of his wit and his improvisational skills, besides from his musical abilities.
So how did we get to know each other? First of all, let me welcome him here. Hi Peter, you’re on the air.
Peter Himmelman: I believe I’m here. That was a really good talk about music from a Rabbi. I think if this whole Rabbinic thing doesn’t work out, maybe you want to get a job as an A&R guy at Sony or something.
Jacobson: So how did you get into music and not into the Rabbinate?
Himmelman: Well, where I grew up in Minneapolis, the best thing about my Rabbi was that, first of all, my Rabbi had a nice goatee. One of the striking things about this guy is that his wife, a heavyset woman, made excellent chocolate chip cookies, of which I’m sure she partook, and that’s pretty much all I can remember about a Rabbi. I knew there must be more to a Rabbi than goatees and chocolate chip cookies. But at that point it wasn’t inspiring enough for me to go into the Rabbinate.
I mean I could grow my own goatee at fifteen and make my own cookies shortly thereafter, so…
Jacobson: So when did you first pick up a guitar?
Himmelman: I started becoming really interested in music… I would listen to my sister’s record collection (she was six years old) and she had records of the Beatles, and I was probably five years old, and all the hits, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” you know, the original Beatles had just came out. I just really thought that was great. There was something about it.
And it couldn’t have been that the Beatles were just hyped up as the new fad because I had never seen them or anything. I heard all their music, along with Mitch Miller and Burl Ives. They was pretty good but the Beatles were something special. In other words, they really did have something that was attractive, even to an unbiased five-year-old.
And there were other songs. It fascinates me now looking back that even at a very young age, I had strong likes and dislikes, the same way that I do now. Things either attracted me musically or repelled me, and looking back at the things that I liked back then—bands like Credence Clearwater Revival, Jimi Hendrix—they’re bands that I still like today.
I was a sophisticated seven-year-old.
Jacobson: I should say for the audience, Peter and I know each other (we’re not strangers) I met Peter back in New York in 1985. We had just met, and I was giving a class to people from the arts, entertainment, music industry, and Peter walked in, this tall lanky guy from drawling Minnesota.
Himmelman: Do I still have that drawl?
Jacobson: I don’t know. It’s a drawl. I don’t know where it’s from.
Himmelman: Your father thought that I might have been mentally ill in some way or just mentally slow because the way I speak is so much slower than you New Yorkers.
Jacobson: So it was a very interesting interface when we hit it off, using my introduction before about music and soul and spirit, I found it fascinating that I, coming from a traditional background where spirituality is very much a part of the system, but it is a traditional background, and Peter coming from a place that had been turned off from Judaism, with goatees or chocolate chip cookies, or whatever, the bureaucracy of it, and we were really able to communicate.
So I want to ask you this. When you started playing music in a more serious way, how would you describe the soul connection? Are there words for it or is it just that music has its own language? Is there a way to bridge the two worlds? Can you describe the spiritual journey you went through, or you still go through, when you play or listen? How do you see music in the context of a spiritual thing, in other words, do you identify with that parable that I mentioned before about music being like the wings and a way for a soul to move from one place to the next?
Himmelman: Well, there are a number of great parables. Before I speak about how I identify personally, I’m going to give another parable, or a metaphor. Somebody told me this once. The reason that music is the art form that’s become so popular as opposed to sculpture or painting for that matter, is that it is the art form with the least amount of physicality. For example, architecture, if you can consider that an art form, is huge, it’s material. Sculpture is a little bit more refined, but it’s still dealing with materiality. Painting is a light refracting material which depicts things in a physical world. And then you have music which has no physical substance at all.
For that reason, perhaps, it’s the art form that most instantaneously has an effect on a person, you could say on a spiritual level.
For me, growing up not using the term soul or spirit, and for that matter people have all sorts of stereotypes that they can come and apply to those terms, so what I found moving when I hear a live band, for example, a rock band (which is somehow the music that I most readily respond to) is this irrepressible laughter that I would sometimes get that would fill up my body and I guess you could say my soul to such an extent that it was actually such a surprise. I never had such a powerful experience. I could not repress my laughter for the way that all the instruments played together with each other, the way they were connected.
And I used to get that when I was a kid, and very infrequently now that I’ve become older and jaded. It still happens to me occasionally where I’ll get that sense of utter delight and joy and surprise from music. Sometimes I’ll be able to cry from music more easily than a painting perhaps.
Jacobson: But think for a moment from a secular point of view, taking G-d out of the picture for a moment, how do you think human beings would have innovated a language like that? Where did it come from? Did you ever think about who was the first person who sang a song and under what circumstances?
Himmelman: You know, somebody would hear birds and people learn by imitation, so it would be natural to hear a bird, for example, or a howling wolf or something and try to imitate that. Certainly the sound of rain and rhythms could be imitated. Beating out rhythms on logs and taking a piece of stretched out skin and turning it into a string and hearing it drone, sounding something like the wind.
I would imagine the first thing was trying to imitate sounds in nature. To have them at their disposal. Like the wind sound, or I’d like to hear that sound even when the wind isn’t whipping up, I can play it on a string of some sort.
Jacobson: Okay, we’re going to take a short break and we’ll be right back.
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We’re back. By the way, that music that you’re listening to (Peter I’m sure you recognize it) is actually a song of Peter’s called “Impermanent Things,” and that’s the musical introduction to that song.
Do you have your guitar with you by the way?
Himmelman: It’s nearby.
Jacobson: Always within arm’s reach. My question to you is this. Rosh Hashanah is coming up. And on Rosh Hashanah they blow the shofar in the synagogues. A shofar is a wind instrument, a simple sound instrument, a ram’s horn that’s carved out and people blow.
As a kid, did you ever identify the shofar with music?
Himmelman: It wasn’t so much music. I don’t even know if I consider it music today, but it certainly is. But it’s really a haunting sound. I guess its role is to pierce through and make you come back to your senses, remember things and priorities and get everything straight. It’s just a raw sound that’s such a primitive, final sound. But I think it really works well.
Jacobson: The reason I ask is that you were speaking about the sounds of nature and emulating them, and that’s what brought me to that. I wonder again (even though we know each other I never asked you this), the most inspirational songs that you’ve come up with from your heart and soul, did they come in times of pain or in times of joy? In other words, is one or another more powerful when it comes to song and music?
Himmelman: Well it’s easier for me and for most songwriters that I know to write songs in times of pain. In essence, it could come down to when you’re feeling happy and contented, you have no reason to rush to the soothing balm of music. You almost don’t even need it—you don’t need the medicine.
It’s harder for me to write a convincing happy song. Even at my shows I’ll ask sort of a rhetorical question, “Would you like to hear something happy or sort of a solemn dirge?”
Jacobson: You sound a little solemn now, you know. You’re in California, we’re in New York. We’re supposed to be the serious ones, and I’m the Rabbi here and you sound really serious. You sound like you’re about to play for a funeral!
Himmelman: Why thank you. It’s a bit earlier here, too, isn’t it, and I just had some cereal that’s sitting like lead in my stomach, weighing me down.
Jacobson: I’d like to welcome Phillip Namanworth who just came into the studio.
Namanworth: Hi Peter.
Himmelman: Now Phillip. He can be energetic.
Jacobson: I don’t know if I ever shared this with you, Peter, but I want to tell you something. In Chassidic thought it talks about the difference between music of the East and music of the West, that Arabic music is very melancholy and haunting because Ishmael, the son of Abraham, comes from chessed (the attribute of kindness), and therefore, their pleasure, their delight, and entertainment, comes from the opposite. So their songs are very gevurahdik, from the gevurah (the attribute of strictness) side of things.
And Western music comes from Eisav, the son of Isaac. Western music is much more upbeat because they come from gevurah, so their entertainment and their pleasure comes from the opposite extreme which is chessed.
Himmelman: I have to tell you that when I was in Israel a couple of week ago I was really in love with that Arabic music on the radio station. I was tuned in all the time. But who knows? I’d better check my genealogy.
Jacobson: Peter, the first time you came to see me, if I remember, the next day you called me and said that you had composed a song. Do you remember the name of the song? I remember.
Himmelman: Yeah? Well, what was it?
Jacobson: It’s called “Blue Shadows.” Why don’t you tell us the circumstances how you met me. I always find that pretty cool.
Himmelman: Well, the whole story works out well. I have four children and sometimes I say that the kids were born as a result of this blues singer who I think died of alcohol poisoning in Minneapolis. How could that come to be, one asks? And I said, well, this guy’s name was Doug Maynard, a blues singer in Minneapolis, and he was really revered by a lot of people in a way. I got to know him and he introduced me to this lawyer who was I think doing something in the music business in Minneapolis. He introduced me to another lawyer in New York and that lawyer introduced me to a record producer/musician named Kenny Vance. How come you didn’t get Kenny on this show?
And Kenny Vance was supposed to come listen to my show down at the Ritz in New York City, listen to my band, and give me an appraisal of what he thought about the band. After the show, it was a pretty good show, this really tall guy comes up to me and goes, “I don’t really know what to tell you about what I just saw.”
And I’m thinking, “Well, who asked you?” It wasn’t told to me that some tall guy was going to appraise my show. And I’m thinking, “Who is this guy? Get him out of here.” But then I got to know him and really fell in love with him, and Kenny Vance knows a lot of people in New York. I’m sure many of your listeners know Kenny as well. He’s one of these people that’s like a hub, a conduit, to a million other people. I think there are 14 of those type of people in the world and he’s one of them.
Anyway, he said, “I know a lot of people in this town.” And he started naming names, but not in a bragging way, kind of in a funny matter of fact way. He named all the names of all the people in the entertainment business and he was trying to freak me out. And he said, “But today I’m going to introduce you to my main connection, a religious Jew in Brooklyn.”
And we drove in his white BMW over the Manhattan Bridge, and as I looked back at the lights of Manhattan as we were crossing over to Brooklyn, I realized that this was one of those auspicious moments in my life—there have been 14 of those too—I’m looking at my 15th today, and then we went to your house. And I wasn’t turned off to Judaism because of the goatee and the chocolate chip cookies, I always knew there was something about it. I just hadn’t found it in Minnesota.
And because I’d never seen anyone who kept the Sabbath or kept kosher, I wasn’t prejudiced against it either, that was the good thing. It just was like some archaic tradition from a Sholom Aleichem story.
And so I went to your house, Simon, and you started talking, and I was ready for this Jewish thing. Just like you spoke about music, in a way that a musician spoke about it, you understood it, I felt you weren’t coming up with some ancient, irrelevant subject, you were coming up with something very important. As a hook line, as I’ve told you before, that really hooked me in, other people have not found it as fascinating or as moving as me because it’s probably just germane to my personal experience, you started talking about a tzaddik, and a tzaddik is not just like Herb Goldstein, “What a tzaddik, what a wonderful guy,” but a real definition of a tzadik, someone for whom there is no selfishness, everything is an act of giving. It would be hard for me to even imagine that such a person exists.
And you were saying, “For such a person, anything is possible.”
And I thought, well listen, anything’s possible. Look at this guy with a beard saying anything is possible. And I said, well, can he fly? I thought I’d give you the ultimate challenge. I thought maybe you’d just break down and weep at the authority of my questioning, but you didn’t weep, you didn’t even pause, you said, “I personally never saw some fly, but the point is, to the tzaddik, is there a greater miracle in flying say 30-40 feet above the surface of the earth, or walking on it? From a tzaddik’s point of view, the miracle is equally as great.”
And I thought, wow, if that’s Judaism, if it had anything to talk about the miracle of mundane, day-to-day existence, which you don’t see it beat out of you by popular culture (and people always try to sell you things and paying your mortgage), I said, this is really for me.
And it was not far for me to start taking on more Jewish observance. At the same time, when I was meeting you, I was also having my record playing on MTV, and I got a record deal which I had been working on for years and years with Island Records. A lot of things came together at one time. I always wanted to be a rock star, but at the same time, I always felt that I wanted to somehow be involved in something Jewish. I went to Israel with my advance money, and my mother thought I’d flipped out, everyone thought I’d really flipped out, except the guys in my band, who knew, “Yeah, he’s going to Israel to get some tefillin.” And I did this right away when I got the record deal, and the first thing I did was come to the record company president and say, “Oh by the way, I can’t play on Friday night.”
And he started laughing. He actually laughed because I was somewhat of a funny guy. I still am but not in the morning I guess. He thought I was just joking because why would you want to be a rock star on the one hand, you know, people just dying to aggrandize themselves and blow their egos out of proportion. How could you just say I wouldn’t tour on a certain night of the week? They’re giving you hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars and you’re saying you’re not going to take that for tour support?
He had a big tour planned. There was a tour with Rod Stewart that was big at the time. And I said, “Well you know I can’t do that because I keep this thing called the Shabbos.” And this guy literally laughed because it was really funny. You got to be kidding.
Jacobson: And you did this before Senator Joseph Lieberman.
Himmelman: Yeah. Well, that’s another story. My wife and I were in Israel when that story broke, and she said, “Well, what do you think?” and we looked at each other and said, “It’s somewhat what you’re thinking. It’s kind of vindication for the way we’ve been living our lives.” I mean it’s impossible to do it in rock and keep Shabbos just like it’s impossible to do it in politics.
And yet here is a precedent for it having been done. You know, I’ve had a very successful career balancing my belief and my family life and not compromising my music at all.
Jacobson: And I know personally the challenges that you’ve faced. I want to hear some more and I want to hear you play something.
Himmelman: You want me to play something over the phone, huh?
Jacobson: Why not? But let’s first take a little break and then when we come back I want to hear more about the challenges you faced.
(Announcement break for Rabbi Jacobson’s weekly Wednesday Night class at 346 W. 89th St., corner Riverside Drive in Manhattan at 8pm)
Jacobson: Okay we’re back. Peter, it’s such a pleasure to talk to you this way because in a way it’s like a reunion. Even though we do talk, to reminisce is quite powerful.
Himmelman: And you’re asking good questions. I never heard you asking me these things.
Jacobson: Look, we’re on radio here. We’d better do something right! Thank you very much—after 16 years you tell me that I began to ask the right questions?! It took a long time. Okay, let me ask Phillip, how have you dealt with that integration issue now that it’s come up?
Namanworth: First let me say hi to Peter. I always remember when we used to come out to Simon’s, one of the first times we had Purim out there together…
Himmelman: That was the first time…
Namanworth: And we went over to 770 and everyone was saying, “You gotta see the Rebbe,” and we didn’t know what was happening. We were standing outside the building peering in the windows. Do you remember?
Himmelman: I sure do.
Namanworth: We were saying, “What is this? Who is this Rebbe?” Thousands of guys in black coats. I thought we were being invaded, like the Martians, and we’re standing out there in our dungarees and our whatever. It was great.
Himmelman: And the food is so good.
Namanworth: Right. That’s the main thing.
Jacobson: Okay, let’s talk about Phillip. Phillip is a singer-songwriter and a great blues player. I guess for some reason, soul, music and Judaism all come together so I was asking about your integration.
Namanworth: Well I think I made a good move when I first started coming to you and I decided I was going to take on some of this stuff. The first thing I did was say, “I’m not going to play on Shabbos anymore, because any job that comes in on Shabbos is not my job, it’s not for me.” I think that vis-à-vis a lot of my friends who did things in a different order, it really helped.
But over the years, as Peter said, I have my bottom line and that’s what I do. If you want me to play blues, rock and roll, if you want me to write a song for the theater, great. But come Friday, I’m out of here, I’ll be back Saturday night.
I remember writing a film score with Kenny Vance, who also introduced me, which I can thank Kenny for, writing a film score, and then right before Shabbos lighting candles in the studio, and the engineer said, “Where are you guys going?” And I said, “It’s Shabbos, we’ve got to go,” and the director looked at me like, “Are you kidding?” And I said, “No, I’ll see you after Shabbos.”
In fact, a funny thing happened on a score that Kenny and I recently wrote for a movie called “Looking for an Echo,” I was out there and helping with the sound on live recording and it was a scene at a Bar Mitzvah, but I’m the only one there wearing real tzitzis. I’ve got a yarmulke on but it’s my yarmulke, you know what I mean, it’s not a casting thing, and one of the producers comes over to me and says, “I see you’re wearing your tzitzis out,” you know like “What are you doing?” and I said “It’s okay. That’s what I do…”
Later on, everyone went to eat and I had my blue freeze bag with me, and they’re eating off the thing and I take out my food and the guys are watching me eat the kosher food… but the bottom line was at the end of the day I really helped them work on a scene and get the sound right and conduct the whole thing that wasn’t going exactly right, and they all came over and we were all hugging each other, and you know, it really didn’t matter.
I think in our business, in any business, people want to see the performer live up to his responsibility as a musician, as a person, and that’s the bottom line. The other stuff doesn’t make any difference, especially when you’re in trouble.
Himmelman: Yeah, on that note, I was once mixing an album down in Memphis. I told this mixer engineer who we flew in from LA, you know, and I said I can’t start mixing till after the Sabbath, which you have to look for three stars. And then you know that it’s over.
And he’s out there looking. And he said, “Well, I guess it’s better looking for three stars than looking for three grams of blow.” That’s what he said to me. Right. At the end of the day, if the music sounds good, who cares?
Jacobson: So, Peter, I’d be honored to hear something from you. Something soulful, anything moving.
Himmelman: Over the phone like that?
Jacobson: Why not?
Himmelman: I guess. Do you have a guitar pick near you?
Namanworth: I do, but I can’t get it to you over the line.
Himmelman: Okay, I’ll put the phone on the stand here. I think I’ll play your theme song which you never hear the lyrics to, which really irks me. No, it doesn’t irk me that much.
Jacobson: Don’t worry. We’re getting there.
Himmelman: It’s called “All These Impermanent Things.” It’s music of the East, not of the West. (Plays a song… click here for the lyrics).
Jacobson: That was great, Peter.
Himmelman: I have this studio that I can just record something and blow the music out to anybody all over the world in one second with just a touch of a button. You couldn’t have even dreamed of that five years ago.
Jacobson: You’ll get a website as well, Peter, is that correct?
Himmelman: Well, I’m working on it. There’s a Himmelman-fan website.
Jacobson: What’s the address?
Himmelman: You can type “Peter Himmelman” in one of those search engines and you can come up with a lot of things. But there’s a new Peter Himmelman website that’s under construction. A massive one.
Jacobson: Is it larger than you?
Himmelman: Much larger. A hundred of me can fit in it easily and comfortably.
Jacobson: So where is it up to?
Himmelman: It’s www.peterhimmelman.com. It will be up in a few weeks. It’s got a lot of music. You can get live webcasts from my studio, interviews, photo albums, those kinds of things.
Jacobson: Okay, we’re going to take another break and then we’ll be right back.
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Jacobson: Okay, let me ask you both a question from your perspectives. If you could sum it up in one sentence—I’ll speak as the cynic or the skeptic—since you guys are so Shabbos observant and do the letter of the law, do you think that it’s really possible that musicians across the board will be able to straddle the fence as they say and integrate these two worlds, or are you guys just anomalies and are just able to have the ability to on the one hand follow, so to speak, the letter of law of tradition in Judaism, build families, and at the same time be spiritual and soulful and musical? What do you think?
Himmelman: Well, I think that to be effective, music has to always be slightly radical, it has to have a certain edge of radicalism, it has to break the status quo. As a skeptic, from your point of view, you look at these guys who keep the laws of Shabbos and may say, “Well, that’s very staid and antiquated and really right-wing and conformist.” I can understand why you’d say that, but to me, that’s the final frontier of radicalism: overcoming your own desire for fame and money and an easy pace and shaping yourself to sort of fight against your own, as they say in Hebrew, yetzer hara, your own selfish desires. In other words, putting on more nose rings and nipple rings, it might appear to you, as a skeptic, to be a radical statement. To me, it’s sort of tired. It doesn’t point to radicalism, it points more to a conformist nature.
Jacobson: Fascinating! What do you think Phillip?
Namanworth: You know, Peter, you once said something I loved, you said, “I’m doing the most radical thing in the world. I’m believing in G-d. This whole music business and everything is functioning on this material plane, and I’m radical. I’m following my inner self.” And I agree with you.
Himmelman: Well, I would just like to amend that. I try to be radical. I mean, to be actually a radical is to be like a tzaddik, to be living in that radical world where you’re saying—and what’s the most radical proclamation of all—is to say that the physical world is not reality, though it appears to be. The pull of it is incredible. It’s something more than meets the physical eye.
And I can’t say that I’ve succeeded at being that radical. I try.
Namanworth: I remember another thing you once said. We’ve been friends for a long time; do you mind me quoting you?
Jacobson: Rabbi Peter!
Namanworth: I remember someone once said to you, “You’re a baal teshuvah,” and you said, “No, I’m a baal taaiva!” (Meaning, you’re not a master of return [to G-d], you’re a master of desires.”
Himmelman: Right. Someone said that baal teshuvah means people who have returned to the Jewish faith, and it literally means that you’re a master of that process of return. So I never call myself a baal teshuvah. It almost gives me goosebumps. It’s like calling yourself a genius or something. I’m definitely not a master of the return, I’ll tell you that.
Namanworth: It’s a good thing that there’s a fine line between genius and madness, ‘cause I’m never sure which side I’m straddling myself with my own kind of songs. To me, I was at a Shabbaton with Rabbi Jacobson last week and he asked me to speak, and the name of my talk was, “From Hinduism, to Sesame Street, to Yiddishkeit: Hearing Your Own Inner Music.” And I guess the thing was that my own inner music and the music that I play and write is all the same music. There are different expressions of the same self in this world, and when you think of “Shema Yisroel, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Echod,” [“Hear O Israel, the L-rd thy G-d, the L-rd is One”] this whole world is one fabric, one piece. Now I haven’t mastered the seeing of that, but some part deep inside me knows that. For me, not to play on Shabbos is not a contradiction because that’s not happening on Shabbos for me because there’s something in me that has returned to another place that wouldn’t do that. Don’t think I haven’t been tempted. You know, in the jingle business I got $10,000 when I sang for an hour, and when you have to tell somebody no, it’s not so easy.
But to me, I’ve learned over the years that it’s all one kind of music, and if I can give up who I think I am, if I get out of my own way, I really have learned to try to be myself, and the only way I can judge that is the effect it has on the people around me.
Jacobson: What do you think about this thought, Peter and Phillip? It says in the Zohar, interestingly, that when the Jews were in the wilderness, the mon, the bread from heaven, would fall every day of the week and they gathered it. On the Sabbath, they were not supposed to gather. But in the Zohar it says that the creation of that bread in heaven happens on the Shabbos. It’s formulated and created then, and then the six days just actualize it. So the blessing occurs then.
I was thinking about it as you were both speaking about Shabbos and music, that perhaps Shabbos is not just a day when we take off from music, but maybe it’s a day of creating inner music that when your soul speaks to you, when you don’t use that physical instrument, when you can’t rely and depend on any type of physical manifestation, it allows you the ability to reach into your own soul and let your soul play the music, and as soon as Shabbos ends, you can begin to manifest it in the six days in the physical plane. Does that resonate to you guys?
Namanworth: I can’t tell you how many times after Shabbos has ended, I’ve finished songs that I was stuck on. It wasn’t like I was saying, “I’m going to give myself a rest,” but the music just came to me after struggling for days and days on different songs, that something was there that was never there before, because I’ve been in my own way. And then when I got out of my own way on Shabbos to really be myself, whatever was there could be and express itself.
Jacobson: Peter, do you think there could be a trend that maybe people who do keep Shabbos, maybe their music gets more enhanced and even more powerful?
Himmelman: Well, I hate to be the cynic here, the skeptic, but I would say that it’s very possible that your music would get a lot worse before it gets better. I know certain people who started keeping Shabbos—myself included—and the music that comes out is kind of weak. In other words, you find “Well, I can’t really say that now that I’m a religious Jew,” you know, I don’t really want to write about feelings about a certain thing, I’d better write about Shabbos candles. You know, it sort of stifles the creative process.
It’s I think a stage along the way. To contradict to a certain extent what you’re saying about, well maybe not necessarily contradict, but to add my feelings about the inner music that’s created on Shabbos, well, I wrote many songs that I think are really good before I even thought about keeping Shabbos.
In other words, if you’re going into Shabbos thinking it’s going to help your songwriting, forget it. That’s not the incentive to keep Shabbos. I think that there is an inner music formed, but it’s of a sublime nature, and I don’t believe that I’ve fully reached those “musics” that are formed on Shabbos. In other words, the Zohar says that the mon was created on Shabbos, and you’re saying that perhaps the music is created as well, there’s a certain blessing there, but it’s so sublime. I think (and I’m just being frank) I’m still working on music that’s not as deep as that music. I don’t think I’ve ever come up with anything quite that deep as the music that’s made on Shabbos.
Jacobson: That’s fair. Very good. You know, when you talk about music and soul, there have to be parallels. You talk about radicalism. The most radical statement in the Torah of course is that there is nothing but G-d. And yet you see musicians who are really burned out either through drug overdoses or who went so high they just couldn’t return. How do you see that search for G-d, Judaism and soul through music? Are there parallels? I mean, the challenges are quite obvious.
Himmelman: Well, I think the parallels are there. I definitely think that almost all the musicians that I know that are really good, and by good I mean that they’re technically proficient enough to manifest their deep ideas. In other words, they’re not just skimming the surface and doing things by rote. They all believe in G-d. They’re all firm believers in G-d.
Whether or not somebody’s in the position to actually implement serious potentially frightening changes in their lifestyle, and one of the most frightening is: I am not going to work on this night, which is Friday night, which in music is usually one of the more lucrative nights, it’s a huge leap of faith to say I’m not going to do this. It doesn’t make any sense. It absolutely defies logic.
I can’t say that it’s any great thing that I possess, any greater intelligence whatsoever that allowed me to do it, I think it’s just a matter of a certain grace, a certain blessing that I had, just to be allowed to be able to do that.
The other thing about people on drugs and music, especially with jazz musicians, somebody once told me, it’s not that they use drugs (these jazz musicians in the late 50s) to try to reach creative levels, it’s that their creativity was so intense, it was pouring out at all times, it was that they couldn’t sleep, they couldn’t get away from it. It was almost a haunting pressure, and they needed a drug as a release from the music, not the other way around.
Jacobson: That’s quite interesting.
Himmelman: Yeah. Not that I’m anywhere near that level, but I certainly have had experiences where the creativity just won’t stop. It’s near to driving me nuts. And the insomnia that ensues for nights and nights at a time, and just hearing music and just thinking about it.
Jacobson: You know, Peter, one of my favorite analogies from music is that music is the paradox of structure that defies structure. On one hand there are that many musical notes on the scale…
Himmelman: It’s such a beautiful metaphor—music and Jewish observance. One of the metaphors that I once constructed to talk to musicians was that there’s two pianists, for example, and one is of a school that’s very free, he will not be confined by any structure, convention, whatsoever. His nature is pure freedom. And he claims to be able to express any idea. He’s unencumbered by anything. And another musician comes around and says, “Well, I’m structured and I’ve been playing the way people have been playing all the time for hundreds of years.” And it turns out that the musician who’s completely free and unencumbered by structure can’t play anything. And the person who has gone through the structure has the ability to manifest the infinite through that structure.
Jacobson: Well, that’s amazing Peter. So I want to thank you both, Peter and Phillip, thank you very much. This has been Toward a Meaningful Life with Simon Jacobson. See you next Sunday at 6pm.