News and Views on Jews and Music

Paul Wieder photo 2013

Paul Wieder is putting Jewish music on your playlist! Plus updates on Jewish music festivals, reviews of Jewish music websites and blogs, and insights from Jewish music producers and promoters. Let’s make Jewish music part of your well-balanced musical diet!

News and Views on Jews and Music

What’s Jewish about...reggae?

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Summer seems to be the right time to talk about this upbeat, uplifting tropical music.

Reggae has two main sources for its inspiration -- life on the island of Jamaica, and the religion there, Rastafari. That word itself is Amharic, the language of Ethiopia, which is a Semitic tongue. The Hebrew equivalent would be Rosh-Tiferet, also meaning the "Leader (literally, "head") who is Revered." This is the title they give to King Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia.

Rastafari is based on Ethiopian Christianity, but the faith is steeped in the Five Books of Moses. They refer to God as "Jah," one of the Jewish names for God, as in "Hallelujah."

Reggae's best-known performer, Bob Marley, named an entire album for his song Exodus. Like Rastafari practitioners in general, he saw the goal of life as a rejection of the shallow materialism of Babylon, as in his song " Chant Down Babylon," and embracing of the high, pure aspirations of Zion, as in "Zion Train." Babylon, of course, is a famous Jewish place of exile, while Zion is our homeland.

Other Marley songs refer to such Jewish terms as Almighty and Hallelujah, Adam and Eve, Noah, Solomon, and Samson. He also quotes Psalm 121 and Proverbs, and refers to the book of prophets. On his last album, he has a song called "Stiff-Necked Fools," a reference to God's chiding of the Jews as a "stiff-necked people" (Shmot/Exodus 32:9).

Bunny Wailer is one of the Wailers-- both Marley's backing band and artists in their own right. Jewish references in Bunny's songs run from the beginning of the Torah-- The Creation-- to right near the end-- The Book of Jeremiah.

Marley's other followers also refer many times to the Jewish story. Desmond Dekker compares the plight of the poor to that of the Israelites in Egyptian slavery. He also has a song titled "Honor Your Mother and Father, with lyrics taken from the Ten Commandments.

Dennis Brown, in one song,"Africa," refers to both the "lion of Judah" and the "roots of David." In others, he refers to God as Creator, and quotes the 23rd Psalm. He also performs a song based on "By the Waters of Babylon," in this case called " Rivers of Babylon."

Yet another reggae band, The Congos, makes even more Torah references. They especially like the Exodus story, mentioning Moses, Passover, and the Ark of the Covenant. But they cover everyone from Joseph to Daniel, and groups from the Children of Israel to the residents of Sodom and Gomorra.

One Brooklyn-based reggae singer-songwriter goes so far as to call himself Dr. Israel and wear and Magen David when performing. Every song on his debut album is a Torah reference: Deborah, Enoch, Job, Adam and Eve, Solomon and Sheba, David and Goliath, and Psalm 87. His most recent album has a song, " Tetze" with a Hebrew title and lyrics.

Still other reggae performers refer to Torah heroes-- Jacob, Aaron, even Shadrach, Mishach, and Abednego. The full lyrics to these songs, and others with Torah sources, can be found here.

The core reggae record studio, Island Records, was founded in Jamaica in 1959 by Christopher Percy Gordon Blackwell, who went by just "Chris." At 22, Blackwell became one off the first to record ska music, of which reggae is an offshoot. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, of which he is an inductee, calls Chris Blackwell "the single person most responsible for turning the world on to reggae music." Blackwell was Jewish--in fact, his mother was Sephardic.

Bob Marley recorded for Island, as did his backing group The Wailers, and the compilation titled Island Reggae Greats shows who else did, too: Jimmy Cliff, Lee "Scratch" Perry, Steel Pulse, Burning Spear, Toots and the Maytals and Sly and Robbie, for starters.

Meanwhile, many Jewish performers have embraced reggae and worked Jewish themes into it. Most famous, of course, is Matisyahu. He appears with Dr. Israel and others in the documentary Awake Zion about the similarities of Jewish and Rasta culture. But he is hardly the first or only Jewish musician to delve into reggae.

Alan Eder has two albums with reggae versions of Jewish holiday songs: Reggae Passover and Reggae Chanukah. Alan Eder has a Masters in African Music Performance and won a Fulbright to study this music in Nigeria. He later attended a seder and was so struck by its similar themes of redemption and freedom he began to merge the cultures through music.

Another pioneer in this field is David "Solid" Gould. His Adonai and I album so impressed John Zorn, Gould began to record for Zorn's Tzadik label. Just don't confuse that with Zadik, a newer Jewish reggae outfit.

King Django merges not just Jewish themes and images but Jewish music-- namely, klezmer--and reggae on the album Roots and Culture. It's probably the only place to hear "Night Boat to Cairo" by the ska band Madness… in Yiddish. That's not online, but his swingin' Lomir Ale Zingen is. Another band to mix these two sounds even named their act KlezSka; the lead keyboardist, Glenn Tamir, goes by the stage name Skavanagila.

The most outlandish character to marry these two worlds is Ari Ben Moses. He began performing as Ari Lehman… and as an actor. In fact, he played the killer Jason Voorhees in the first Friday the 13th movie. He then went into music, becoming the reggae keyboardist Ari Ben Moses, touring the US, Europe and West Africa, and recording with Tuff Gong Records, another key reggae studio. He married, settled in Chicago, and formed the Ari Ben Moses Band, which had several Jewish numbers. His current band plays horror-fan conventions-- it's called First Jason.

But Ron Wiseman has one of the longest careers in this subgenre. He has a dozen albums with titles like State of Judea, Israel Experience, and Kedusha, and he has recorded with poet Allen Ginsberg.

Reggae has always been popular in sunny Israel, and the influx of Ethiopian musicians has made it even more so. One Israeli reggae act-- that perform in Hebrew, Amharic, and English-- are

Zvuloon Dub System. Others are the non-Ethiopians Rasta Power, Rasdan, and Ketem Paz, whose lead singer is a Chasid. And then there is Alula Tzadik, who merges the musics of his birthplace (Ethiopia), his heritage (Jewish), and his inspiration (Marley) to make a unique sound. His story is as powerful as his message.

Nor is Jewish reggae strictly a man's game. Meet Queen Makedah from tropical, um, Kansas City. Born in the 1970s, she had a recording contract by 16, discovered Bob Marley, visited Israel, and has since recorded several albums, including one called Peace Process.

Reggae's themes are of suffering, but also of redemption from that anguish through reliance on oneself, one's community, the examples set by Biblical ancestors, and God. Sounds… familiar.

Israel Solidarity Day also a music fe(a)st

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Four great acts are performing this year for JUF's Israel Solidarity Day at Ravinia on May 3.

First up, "fer der kinder" as we say, is Rick Recht. He quickly established himself as the brightest star of his generation of American Jewish musicians with his stunning 1999 debut, Tov.

Since, he has dropped several outstanding albums… founded Jewish Rock Radio, which streams today's best Jewish popular music online… and become a driving force behind Songleader Boot Camp, a crash course for Jewish musicians. Lately, he has been doing a ton of great kids' music, some of which has been distributed though the PJ Library. And it is in this capacity- helping the 5-and-under set burn off breakfast so they can sit still through lunch- that this tireless singer-songwriter-songleader comes to Israel Solidarity Day. He goes on at 11:00.

Here is my interview with Rick.

Then comes the 'adorkable' a cappela ensemble The Maccabeats. They took over YouTube a few years back with their "Candlelight" video (a parody of the dance hit "Dynamite") but, unlike many viral-video champs, kept the flame alive. While many of their silly rewrites revolve around Jewish holidays- like their latest, a multi-genre-spanning take on "Dayenu"- many other numbers are tender and moving… like "Home," filmed in Israel. They go on at noon.

Here is my interview with one of the Maccabeats.

At 2:30, the Jamman Drum Circle takes the stage. They hand out, well, hand drums to dozens of participants and lead them in ecstatic renditions of traditional Jewish and Israeli favorites.

As if all of this were not enough, the headliners are Israeli superstars Hadag Nachash. Their name, which translates to "the fish snake," is actually a spoonerized pun (made by switching the initial sounds of a pair of words- "take a shower" spoonerizes to "shake a tower") on the Israeli term for "new driver." Fittingly, one of their biggest hits, from their platinum 2004 album, is a series of rapped bumper sticker slogans. While nominally a hip-hop act, they rap over funk beats provided by a full band. Their six albums plea for peace and acceptance. They are also noted for collaborating with other major Jewish musicians, like Matisyahu. Their 2006 release was named Album of the Year at the Israeli Music Awards; its song "Hine Ani Ba" landed on the soundtrack of Adam Sandler's movie about a Mossad agent, You Don't Mess with the Zohan. Most recently, their song "Lo Maspik" was used in the video game The Sims 3: Late Night.

…And here is my review of Hadag Nachash's 2005 House of Blues concert, along with some quotes from the band's members.

See you at Israel Solidarity Day on May 3. I'll be the one introducing my four-year-old to Israeli hip-hop.

Jewish music this spring

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We've already had Jewish music and acting legend Theodore Bikel here in Chicago back in February, and the spring of 2015 brings even more great Jewish music and musicians:

Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi will be honored for his 25 years of service to Anshe Emet Synagogue on Sunday, March 8. The evening- titled "Opa! L'Chaim!" in reference to the cantor's Greek and Jewish heritage- will be held at the Ravenswood Event Center.

Andy Statman is coming to City Winery on March 16. This multitalented performer is a premier klezmer clarinetist and a premier bluegrass mandolin player. I asked him about that dichotomy when I interviewed him. As percussionist Larry Eagle explained, "Andy will be playing his clarinet and the Jewish spaces in our music will be touched upon- it won't be just bluegrass-flavored music."

Mama Doni, the best Jewish children's musician out there right now, is transitioning to adult music with her Nefesh Mountain bluegrass album. She is performing at a PJ Library concert called "Passover" Palooza on March 22 at the Highland Park Community House. (Hear my interview with her here.)

Israeli clarinet and sax virtuoso Anat Cohen brings her jazzy quartet to City Winery on April 10. She is has mastered the major American standards, but also many songs from around the world.  

Neil Diamond, still truckin' at 74, is coming back to the United Center on April 14.

Also, there is an electronic musician coming on April 17 to the Concord Music Hall; no definitive evidence that he's Jewish except for his stage name, Shlohmo.

Baladino is a quintet from Israel. "Baladi" means "from the land" in Arabic and "Ladino" is the language of the Sephardi Jews. Their music likewise combines these elements. They will be coming through Chicago, performing on April 17 at Insitituto Cervantes, on April 20 at Mayne Stage, and for the Israeli Consulate on April 27. (Also, they will be a quartet while in the States.)

On May 6, the Mizrahi anniversary celebration continues with the Dr. Arnold H. Kaplan Concert 2015 at the synagogue, with "Alberto Mizrahi and Friends: A Global Melange of Music." Special guests will include several visiting cantors, plus Grammy winner Howard Levy on piano and harmonica.

Tina Karol, born Tatyana Grigoryevna Liberman, represented Ukraine in the Eurovision music contest. She brings her multi-lingual, multi-cultural show and her Katy Perry-like pipes to Evanston Auditorium on May 9.

Looking ahead to summer… Idina Menzel will sing that song from Frozen and probably a song or two from Wicked at the Pritzker Pavillion, but not until August 16. Still, tickets will go quickly, so I thought I'd go ahead and (deep breath) let you know… let you knooooow…

What’s Jewish about… country music?

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Kinky Friedman is easily the most openly Jewish of country stars; he calls his backing band The Texas Jewboys, for one thing. And he has songs like "Ride 'Em, Jewboy" (that's Willie Nelson singing it) and his signature "They Ain't Makin' Jews like Jesus Anymore." But even if the discussion about Jews in country music starts with Kinky Friedman, it doesn't end there. Or with Borat, either.

In the world of mainstream country, there is one Jewish singer who stands head and shoulders above the rest. Literally- he's 6-foot-7. His name is Roy Benson, and he's the leader of the massive band called Asleep at the Wheel. They play Western swing, which takes country songs and adds a big-band swing, or they also run it the other way, taking classic swing or pop tunes and country-fying them.

Another country-like genre is bluegrass. So much Jewish music is being made in this mode that there is a sub-genre called- you guessed it- "Jewgrass." Its pioneers are no less than mandolin virtuosi David Grisman and Andy Statman. So far they have two albums out in their Songs of Our Fathers series, in which they give the bluegrass treatment to Jewish classics.

Statman is also famous as a klezmer clarinetist, so he is likely a fan of the Klezmer Mountain Boys (a pun on the band Yonder Mountain), founded by Klezmatics clarinetist Margo Leverett. Rabbi Bruce Adler also performs Jewish bluegrass, noting that he's "been a mountain man ever since the Israelites stood at Mount Sinai."

On a local note, Noam Pikelny is a banjo player who went to the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, studied country music, ate some lox, and ended up in a band called Leftover Salmon. He was also in Punch Brothers, and was recently nominated for a Grammy for his bluegrass banjo work.

And then there is Lucky Break, whose website describes them as "a band of veteran bluegrass singers and instrumentalists who combine the stark beauty of Appalachian music with Shabbat Z'mirot." But if you prefer a more Texas-style approach to your country-music Friday night service, you can find that at a congregation near Austin, because Shabbat at Shoal Creek is exactly that.

There are some Jewish performers who like to explore country among other sounds, like children's singer Mama Doni and the Albuquerque-based Rabbi Joe Black. But Texas-dwelling Robbi Sherwin has several albums of Jewish music, most of which are country-inflected.

The expression "Jewish songwriter" is pretty much a cliché, and that stands true even in Nashville. Daniel Antopolsky's story is so interesting they are making a documentary about it.

Arnold Rosenthal bills himself as "The world's first Jewish country singer," although as we have seen some might take issue with that. And Billy Kirsch has had his songs performed by Wynonna Judd, Kenny Rogers, and Alabama.

Jewish rock musicians who have dipped their toe in the Nashville River include Bob Dylan, with his classic albums John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. More recently, Neil Diamond visited Nashville to record Tennessee Moon, which included a country-fried remake of his standby "Kentucky Woman." And Simon and Garfunkel adopted a country sound for the track "Keep the Customer Satisfied," on their classic Bridge Over Troubled Water album.

Even Jewish actresses perform country music. Barbi Benton (born Barbara Klein) was a Hee-Haw regular. And Mare Winningham (born Mary) revealed her country pipes in the movie Georgia; she has since converted to Judaism and recorded the Jewish country album Refuge Rock Sublime

But you don't have to be Jewish to perform Jewish country music. Charlie Daniels, of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" fame, is a big Israel booster, and has performed HaTikva in concert. In Israel, where they know a thing or two about violin playing.

For a more comprehensive look at the Jewish contribution to country music, here is a longer piece clocking in at (an appropriate) 18 pages.

Jews love country music- especially bluegrass- so much, some Jewish filmmakers even directed a whole movie about it, so we'll close with Jewish actor Time Blake Nelson singing a song from that soundtrack.  Turns out, the answer to the question "O Brother, where art thou?" is "In a country-music video."

8 Lights, 8 Sounds: It’s the Chanukah Wrap-Up!

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It's Chanukah, so it's time to party like it's 1999, which is the first year I wrote a Chanukah Wrap-Up. Much of my articles on Jewish music, including these reviews, have since migrated online, but the idea is the same- these are the best Jewish CDs produced this year to give as Chanukah gifts:

 Allan Sherman: There is Nothing Like a Lox
A musical companion to the recent biography Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman. The CD recovers, as its subtitle indicates, "the lost song parodies" by the guy who came between Mickey Katz and Tom Lehrer on the one hand and Weird Al Yankovic and Andy Samberg on the other. The selections largely mock Broadway standards, from South Pacific (the title track and "Younger than Springsteen"), Music Man ("Seventy-Six Sol Cohens"), and Finian's Rainbow ("How Are Things with Uncle Morris?"). If you have all of Sherman's My Son albums and even Live!!! (Hoping You Are the Same), your collection also needs this.

Pharaoh's Daughter: Dumiyah 
(The title is Hebrew for "silence.") One of the best Jewish music acts of all time returns (finally!) with another scintillating collection. This is only their sixth album since their 1999 debut-their most recent being 2007's Haran. Musically, it harkens back to the album that put them on the map, Out of the Reeds, with its grounding in traditional Sephardi and Mizrachi melodies and Jewish scripture and poetry but also modern electronic sensibilities; their "Maoz Tzur" and "Hanerot" wink and flicker like Chanukah candles. The instrument selection tells the story- shofars and santurs (Persian dulcimers) harmonize with synthesizers and electric guitars. Basya Schechter, the ensemble's driving force and insinuating voice, seems incapable of writing or singing a wrong note. This is love at first listen.

Maya Johanna Menachem and Shay Tochner: Ain't Going Nowhere 
Nine of 14 tracks are by Bob Dylan, the rest by Leonard Cohen. Menachem, who performed at the Jewish Arts Festival this past summer, also has a CD of Irish tunes and another to some of the other 1960s folksingers. This is unexpected, since she bills herself as an Israeli artist. Or maybe we should stop worrying about borders and simply enjoy this latter-day Judy Collins and the delicate guitar accompaniment of Shay Tochner, beautifully interpreting some of the best songs by the some of the best songwriters. (Can we request a Paul Simon tribute next?) 

 The Afro-Semitic Experience: Jazz Souls on Fire
A Jewish bassist and an African-American pianist walk into a bar… On their previous outings, the duo and their ensemble have explored civil rights history, the Exodus ideal, and the power of memory, and how these have infused both the Jewish and black experiences. Here, they simply (and complexly!) jam to their favorite composers: Pharaoh Saunders, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and others, interspersed with klezmer melodies, Jewish prayers, and gospel spirituals. The sound is joyous, even raucous, just-plain-big… and altogether- in all senses of the word- righteous.

 Joanie Leeds and the Nightlights: Good Egg
Oh, yeah, you might want to get a kid a Chanukah gift, too. Well, why should kids have to suffer with mediocre music when they can listen to great stuff like this, which exposes kids to rock, reggae, swing, and other fun sounds. Leeds really gets the world of kids, with songs like "Food Fight," "Dino on the Upper West Side," and even "Germs." "Confusing Costume" is about having role models who are not cartoon princesses, and so is "With My Dad." And "Kid's Place" dreams up a paradise with low shelves and parents who don't spell words to keep kids in the dark.  While it's not technically a Jewish album (one song even mentions-gasp!- Santa) Leeds has been a regular at Jewish events like the recent PJ Library anniversary. The title track is rife with "egg" puns like "egg-static" and "egg-cellent," but they forgot the best one to describe their album: "eggs-ilarating"!

Paul Shapiro: Shofarot Verses 
Of course the shofar is the most Jewish horn, but second place goes either to the trumpet as played by Frank London or the sax in the hands of John Zorn and Paul Shapiro. This is Shapiro's fourth CD for Tzadik (Zorn's label). "Hashivenu," the softly soulful solo that opens the CD, gives way to the Broadway-via-Second-Avenue "Get Me to the Shul on Time" and the Dick-Dale-at-the-Deli "Surfin' Salami." Then "Ashamnu" breaks down that Yom Kippur prayer with an actual shofar wailing in the background.  The rest of the album oscillates between those two poles- the ridiculously sublime and the sublimely ridiculous. Oh, and that's Marc Ribot's guitar slashing through everything.

Linda Hirschhorn: Amazed 
Hirschhorn founded the all-women's chorus called Vocolot. Her new CD, however, is a solo effort titled Amazed. In fact, she has recorded as many solo albums as ensemble ones. Here, she explores the theme of awe; the songs have words like "love," "dreaming," "mercy" and "spirit" in the titles, reflecting her lifelong interest in exploring spirituality through  music. The arrangements range from doo-wop to folk, soul, world, and Carly Simon-like pop. They are nearly all acoustic, with the notable exception of the blues number "Some Love." Hirschhorn's voice is lovely, but is also deployed with great control and expressiveness. The album overall is the work of a skillful, experienced pro who knows exactly what she wants to say and how. She is strong enough to open up and, as she puts it, "stay amazed."

The Sy Kushner Jewish Music Ensemble: Klez, Kush & Son 
They're still making new klezmer music! Sy Kushner's first performance came the same year as his bar mitzvah, in 1953. He's still playing the accordion, only now his son Aaron is playing the sax at his side. How do you keep your sound fresh after decades? Well, you combine it with other things like marches, waltzes, and Middle-Eastern drums to make songs like "Merengklez" (merengue + klezmer), "Horalgar" (hora + bulgar). For another, you find inspiration in new life experiences. And then you can just experiment; "Decaklez" is written in the 10/8 time signature and changes keys twice. Even with all of these forward-leaning elements, the music remains stately and affecting - especially the elegant "Stratford Waltz," which belongs in a movie's falling-in-love scene.

Even if you don't have time to decorate for Chanukah, between peeling potatoes and wrapping gifts, putting on some great Jewish music turns and ordinary get-together into a Festival of De-Lights. (Sorry, that catchy Joannie Leeds CD has me stuck in pun mode…) Chag Chanukah Same'ach!

FourTelling a magical, musical weekend

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For two days in December, Congregation B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim (BJBE) in Deerfield will move very close to the center of the Jewish musical universe. On those two days- December 5-6- four of the most important women in the Jewish music scene will all be artists-in-residence.

Folk singer-songwriters Julie Silver, Beth Schafer, and Peri Smilow, and Internet sensation Michelle Citrin will join on stage on Saturday, Dec. 6, at 7:30 for a concert they have titled Four Telling. But that historic performance is just the culmination of a weekend of musical magic.

It begins on Dec. 5, when Beth Schafer leads Friday night services. A cantor in her native Orlando, Schafer is also a songwriter and recording artist with seven albums of original material.

She played at center court for the Orlando Magic, and for Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign; in 2006, she won the American Idol Faithbased Competition, beating out dozens of Christian-rock bands.

The following day, Peri Smilow and Julie Silver lead Shabbat services. Both are singer-songwriters in the Debbie Friedman tradition. Smilow's debut album was released in 1992; she has performed throughout the English-speaking world, as well as in Israel and even Singapore. Her album The Freedom Music Project featured a youth choir with both black and Jewish singers, performing the music of Passover and the Civil Rights movement; it received national media attention. Her current album, Blessings, was inspired by her surviving cancer. Smilow also has a Master's degree in education from Harvard, and has spent a quarter-century working with disadvantaged children.

Julie Silver just released her ninth, celebrating her, yes, silver anniversary in Jewish music. She is from Massachusetts, but lives in southern California. Like Friedman before her, Silver has found her songs being woven into the fabric of camp, services, and Jewish life altogether. Her career highlights include her Chanukah album hitting the Billboard charts, singing a duet with Helen Hunt, performing the National Anthem at Fenway Park, and acting opposite Bette Midler. (Oh, and her partner, Mary Connelly, produces the Ellen show.)

Michelle Citrin, who will join the others onstage Saturday night, is best known for her cheeky music videos like "20 Things to Do with Matzah," "Shake Your Grogger" and the "Call Me Maybe" parody "Call Your Zeyde." She is also capable of soulful poignancy, as on such tracks as "Someday" and "If I Fall." Her songwriting skills, emotional delivery, and winking sense of humor have taken her around the world, including Israel, and onto national TV and the pages of TIME magazine, with accolades from Billboard, VH-1, and Sony. After many EPs, her debut LP is on its way.

Jewish music fans- do not miss this show, as close as you might ever get to a Jewish Lilith Fair! See you there.

For more information, contact BJBE at (847) 940-7575 or visit; for tickets, visit

'It was 20 years ago today ...'

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I started working at the Jewish United Fund in 1994, on Oct. 10, a day after my birthday. In that time, I’ve had two marriages, three kids, three pets, eight places of residence … and one place of work.

I could tell you the story of how I came to work here, or how I got my internship here when I was still in college even before officially becoming an employee. But these stories — funny as parts of them are — would only be interesting if you knew the people involved.

I could tell you about all the Jewish history I have witnessed while here — American, Israeli, European, even African. I was in our old office building – just blocks away from the Sears Tower – on 9/11. I was here when the Ethiopian Jews were rescued to Israel. I was here when the Soviet Jews were rescued to Israel, America and elsewhere. I have been here through war in Israel, and peace … and then war again.

I could tell you about all the amazing people I have met. Some were dedicated volunteers. Some were active philanthropists. Some were entertainers or politicians, and even the ones whose politics I disagreed with were completely in line with JUF’s mission of providing help and, admittedly, very personable and nice. I could name-drop enough A-listers I have heard, interviewed and shaken hands with to warrant its own article.

When I had just graduated college, John, the foreman in my dad’s custom furniture, shop asked me a question:

“I never went to college,” he said, “So what did you learn? I don’t mean stuff I could look up in a book. I mean what did you learn?”

This made me think for a second.

“I learned that some people don’t want your help,” I finally replied, “And that sometimes even if you ask, the answer is ‘No.’”

He smiled wryly. “It was worth it. I wish I had known those things at your age.”

So in the spirit of John’s question, here is what I have learned in 20 years at JUF:

I learned that the capacity for human beings to hope is limitless. I have seen, over and over in my years here, natural disasters devastating a town, here or abroad. But every time, JUF raises money and sends volunteers, and Israel sends a field hospital and recovery crew. We don’t know these people. We just know that they are people, and that we can help.

I learned that societal acceptance and economic prosperity create a positive feedback loop. The more open a society is, the better off it tends to be financially. Openness leads to possibility and opportunity, which lead to inventiveness and adventurousness in academics, the arts, the sciences, and commerce. Once it’s OK to be who you are, you can become who you want, and bring everyone along for the ride. The opposite environment — oppression, intolerance, and just-plain-bullying — creates the opposite, negative result.

I learned that people will always surprise you. You never know how people will react, what they will say, or if their beliefs are consistent or predictable. So it’s best to be honest and give people the chance to be kind. It’s also best to really listen — almost every time I have mentally finished someone else’s sentence, I’ve been wrong.

I learned that everyone pretty much agrees on what the problems facing society are; they just have different ways of trying to solve those problems. They are coming at the same issue from another angle, and until you trace their beliefs and methods back to their sources, you are never going to appreciate that. You can’t ever argue people out of their beliefs, even with evidence. What you can do is find out why they hold those views so strongly (hint: it’s usually fear) and then work to remove that fear.

I learned that while individuals can inspire, it is groups that accomplish, especially big things.

I learned that all the good intentions in the world cannot feed one hungry person, but even one dollar can.

I learned that any excuse is good enough to avoid helping, and any reason is good enough to start.

I learned that hate is usually the result of ignorance, and that culture — including cuisine, music, and other arts — is far from inessential and dismissible. Experiencing another’s culture, distinct as it may seem from one’s own, is the best tool for forming friendships across barriers. With every “Oh! We do that, too!” the barriers are revealed to be much smaller than we’d imagined.

I learned that when you believe in other people, and say so, it helps them believe in themselves.

I learned that Judaism works. Something about this set of rules and rituals and stories and songs and judges and jesters — all swirled together in an alchemy of uncertain proportions — led to the creation of the Jewish people, one of the most productive and resilient groups planet Earth has ever hosted. Even with every empire throwing all its laws and armies at us, we are still here, and they are in museums (that we are on the boards of). And not just here, but thriving and contributing to the world well beyond what the some might presume our percentage of the population capable.

The title of this post, of course, also opens the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. That album contains the question: “Will you still need me when I’m 64?” I hope the problems that JUF addresses — poverty, persecution, passivity — are all solved by then. But in case they are not, I know that JUF will still be here, just as it has been since 1900 (and I think I know what longevity is), holding up the banner of hope.


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