Awakenings That Led Me To Observant Judaism

Awakenings That Led Me To Observant Judaism

The Miracle-Working Teddy Bear

A year after my dad died, and a year before our rock band, Sussman Lawrence left for New York City, I received a call from a woman named Ruth Grosh asking if I’d be willing to write some songs for a therapeutic teddy bear she’d dreamed up called Spinoza Bear. Ruth, a bona fide subversive by nature, named her ursine brainchild after Baruch Spinoza, the heretical 16th century Sephardic Jewish philosopher. Spinoza was seen as harmful to, and at odds with, the views of the Jewish establishment of Amsterdam at the time. Eventually, both he and his writings were placed under a religious ban called a charem by the Dutch Jewish community he lived and worked in. Aside from the fact that he was reviled for his modernist views, no one had much bad to say about him personally, except that, “he was fond of watching spiders chase flies.”

Ruth Grosh was New Age before anyone had heard the term. I heard she’s currently living among native tribes people in northern British Columbia and has changed her name to Rachel Owa. I don’t know this for fact, but I can imagine that with Rachel’s innate zeal for life, she has for many years been the first to enter the sweat lodge, the first to imbibe each season’s ceremonial peyote, and the first to have exultant visions of flying amongst flocks of crimson crows in some light-filled, astral realm.

Back when she was still Ruth, she commissioned me to write several songs, which played off a battery-operated tape deck that fit into a zippered pouch beneath the soft brown fur of the bear’s stomach. A red heart-shaped knob on the bear’s chest served as the on-off switch. By today’s standards, the technology would seem crude, but at the time, with just a modicum of suspension of disbelief, it was possible to feel that the voice of the bear along with the music, were issuing directly from its cheery muzzle. As to whom to hire to be the voice of Spinoza Bear, it was decided after some deliberation that not only would I write and sing the songs, I should also be the kind, concerned voice of the bear itself.

Each of the dozen or so cassette tapes that were eventually recorded had themes of self-empowerment, a kind of you-can-make-it-if-you-try bent. After just two years, the bear became a huge success; not as some plebeian, retail teddy, but as something greater. Spinoza Bear soon found its way into hospitals, health clinics, and centers for healing of all kinds. By holding the bear and listening closely to its stories and songs of wellness and inner-light, rape victims, grief stricken parents, bone-lonely pensioners, autistic kids, as well as children on cancer wards all across America, found it possible to relieve some of their pain and fear.

Aside from the good works, the bear provided me with twenty grand in seed money that our band used to set sail for New York City in the spring of 1985.

We were five new wave rockers in an Oldsmobile Regal Vista Cruiser wagon, and two roadies in a spanking new Dodge cube van. The van, which we were overjoyed to discover, had been hastily christened from bumper to bumper with graffiti sometime during our 45 minute debut set at CBGBs, the legendary East Village rock and roll club only days after arriving on the East Coast.

Given the high cost of living in New York City, New Jersey seemed the next best thing. As it turned out, there were very few homeowners interested in renting a house to a rock and roll band. As always, necessity insisted I be both resourceful and deceitful. I hatched a plan, which involved my calling on a middle-aged real estate agent named Carol that we’d found advertising in the Bergen County Gazette. When I finally got her on the line, I explained to her that we were five medical students, enrolled that fall at nearby Rutgers University, and in need of a quiet place to live and study.

The following morning, as the rest of the guys waited outside in the Oldsmobile, my cousin Jeff, our band’s gifted keyboard player, and I, showed up at Carol’s office in suits and ties we’d purchased at a local thrift shop, and carrying responsible looking brief cases. I had boned up on some medical terms as well, orthopedic surgical techniques mostly, in case she needed proof of our actually being medical students. But there had been no need. We had the cash and seemed honest enough; ‘honest enough’ to let her know that a few of us were also part time musicians and that there might be some music playing –quietly of course– from time to time, just to ease the strain of our intense studies.

Two days later, Jeff and I woke up early, signed the lease papers, and pulled our now multi-hued, invective laden, cube van into the driveway of 133 Busteed Drive in Midland Park, New Jersey.

Trying for as much discretion as possible, lest the neighbors notice anything out of the ordinary, we backed the van up to the garage, lugged the gear up a short flight of stairs, and into a large, unfurnished living room. Once upstairs, we began unloading beer stained amplifiers, at least a dozen guitar cases, a drum set packed tightly into three large metal flight cases, assorted keyboards, and an entire PA and lighting rig. Aside from some bad scrapes in the hardwood floor and a gaping hole or two in the walls on our way in, the load-in was accomplished with speed and efficiency. We were up and practicing by late afternoon, our new wave rock blaring fast and loud into the New Jersey autumn night.

A month after settling into our band house, (we’d dubbed it Busteed Manor), Ruth reached me at dinnertime by long distance, in the squalor of our band house collective. I took the receiver, as far out of the kitchen as the pigtail cord would allow, to be able to hear her over the din of our noisy supper of turkey ham, boiled white rice, and Progresso soup.

After some catching up, she gently let me know me that some psychic friends had explained to her that I had just a few months left on the planet. “What!” I said, “they told you I was gonna die?” Ruth was practiced at this kind of thing it seemed, although her nonchalance about my imminent demise didn’t make me feel any less concerned. “They asked me to find out if you’d like to come in for a free consultation,” she said. I was due to fly back to Minneapolis later that week anyway, and I figured I might as well find out what all this planet-leaving shit was about.

The Psychic Tag Team

Back home, on the morning of my appointment with the psychics, I found my mother, who was normally quite composed, flitting around the kitchen and singing quietly to herself. She had agreed to a lunch date that afternoon with the contra bass player from the Minnesota symphony, her first since my dad died almost two years before.

“Does this blouse look good on me?” she asked. “Be honest.” “Yeah, it looks great,” I said.

To be perfectly honest, I was uncomfortable in the extreme watching my mother dart around the house like a schoolgirl, primping for a date with some dude who wasn’t my dad. True, it’d been two years since he’d died and given all that she’d been through, it wasn’t like she didn’t deserve to live a little. After all, I thought, it was just lunch. But the more I saw of this weird, giddy side of her, the less I liked it. A car honked. It was Ruth.

She and I rode wordlessly as Japanese New Age wooden flutes intoned from her car stereo. We arrived after twenty minutes at the northern suburb of Brooklyn Center and Ruth parked her car near a long row of newly built town houses. A man and a woman in their mid-forties greeted us at the front door, both smiling in a scary, off-putting way. They appeared to be a kind of husband and wife psychic tag-team, and they rushed headlong into the consultation by asking if I’d like to give them some names of people I knew.

“We’ll be able to tell you all about them,” the woman said, and smiled again. I thought it was just some cheesy method of showing off their psychic abilities. “The first names are enough,” said the man.

My cousin Jeff is a musical genius, a pianist of remarkable facility, who’s had to contend with neuromuscular tics most of his life. I figured I’d start the game with him.

“OK, let’s go with Jeff,” I said.

The two psychics were seated facing one another in cheap leather armchairs. In an instant, they were both precisely mimicking my cousin’s facial tics. I recognized each of them from the names Jeff and I had given them. When Jeff’s thumbs bent downward spasmodically, we called it “Southerner.” When his palms flexed upwards in a sort of hand-waving motion, we called it, “Reckless Greeter.” In another, with his eyebrows pinched together, lips compressed, and eyes blinking, Jeff looked like someone who was very curious about his environment. We called that one “Curious Man.” His most frequent tic was also his most unsettling. We called that one “Round The World.” It involved his eyeballs rolling uncontrollably in their sockets. Suddenly, to my astonishment the corners of both of the psychic’s mouths had formed narrow half smiles. Their eyebrows began squeezing together; their eyes were blinking –open-shut-open-shut–perfectly mimicking Jeff’s Curious Man.

“The music, he can’t stop the music,” the woman shouted in excitement. Her husband, whose hands then began a remarkable imitation of Reckless Greeter added, “Yes, good god the music! Can’t you feel it just pouring out of him?”

I was thinking this had to be some kind of brilliant trick, albeit a devilish one. It was astonishing yes, but I wasn’t yet convinced that they were real. Next, I said the name, “Beverly,” my mother’s, and they both giggled. It’s disconcerting to see adults giggle at any time, but when a pair of middle-aged psychics giggle at the mention of your bereaved mother’s name, well, it’s triply so.

“She’s doing something she feels guilty about,” the woman offered.

“Yes,” said the man. “Something she’s afraid of doing, but it seems to us that she’s also very excited.”

Almost in unison, the psychics said, “She’s acting like a little schoolgirl today!”

How in hell could they have known what I’d just experienced myself for the first time in my life that very morning? If these two freaks had wanted my undivided attention, they sure as hell had it now.

The room fell silent. I didn’t dare speak. They had officially scared the living shit out of me with their last trick. Soon, they broached the subject I’d come all this way to talk about.

“Is it your wish to leave the planet?” the woman asked, more casually than I would have imagined possible for someone questioning a fellow human being about whether they wanted to live or die.

I paused and breathed deeply for a minute or so. It was a question I stopped and thought about longer than a mentally stable person might have.

“No,” I finally told them, “I have no intention of leaving anytime soon.”

This seemed to relieve them and the man said, “The reason we’ve been so concerned about you is that we believe music is more important to you than you may be aware. It represents your very essence and by working as single-mindedly as you have to get a record deal, with the kind of music you’ve been making with your band, you’ve been cheapening and compromising your integrity. You’ve been, in a sense, unfaithful to your muse. That’s what’s causing this spiritual disconnect and, should it continue, my wife and I both feel like it will shorten your stay here.”

His wife took over. “What you need to do is to uncover a deeper, more honest expression in your music, something closer to the bone. We know you love the blues and reggae. We think it’ll be helpful to start playing music you love, rather than music you think will sell.”

By this time, tears were spilling down my cheeks. “There’s this song,” I began telling them, “that I wrote for my dad over two years ago on Father’s Day, that almost no one has heard. It’s something that was written with the sole intention of connecting with him before he died. It’s on a cassette tape, just sitting there on a shelf in my closet.”

“Why not put that song out as your next single,” the man said.

I was suddenly speechless. Why had I never thought of this? It was such a simple, yet profound idea. I flew back to New Jersey, determined to release, not just the one song, but an entire album, dedicated to my dad.

The guys picked me up in the Oldsmobile at Newark airport the next day. We were standing around the luggage carousel waiting for my bags when I told them I was going to record a solo record, a tribute to my father, whom they all loved and respected.

My band mates understood that this was something I needed to do. They also knew it wasn’t just talk. A solo album, produced for whatever reasons, also signaled the possibility that the –one for all and all for one–ethos of the band may well have been coming to end. Nevertheless, the guys played their hearts out on the record and by doing so, tacitly gave me their blessings and their assurances that whatever happened with it would be for the best.

The recording featured the song I’d written for my dad and it eventually became my debut album, This Father’s Day, for Island Records.

Its release also became a powerful catalyst for me personally. It took me from where I had been, locked up in pain and confusion, to some other, more hopeful place. Even before my meeting with the psychics, I thought I’d gotten beyond most of the hurt, that it was simply time to grit my teeth and persevere; it had been two years for God’s sake. But I was mistaken. The process of mending broken hearts is never as pat as that. As much as I needed to forget, to emerge clear-eyed from the jumble and rawness of my father’s death, I knew I’d have to face my worst fears again and again. But I felt ready. I also knew, in a way I hadn’t before, that I really didn’t want to die.

Heat and Motion Reclaimed

I know now that my father is with me in whatever way it is that a spirit hovers with those they love and leave behind. I also understand that he was proud of me then, and that somehow, he is proud of me still. In many ways his death, painful as it was, gave me a bridge to traverse some of the petty concerns I might have otherwise gotten wrapped up in as a young man.

While he was suffering in the last five years of his life, I found myself in a totally different state of mind than my friends and band mates, who, in spite of their own challenges, were for the most part, blithely moving through their young lives. I’m not saying pain made me wise or anything like that, it’s just that it can, for those willing to accept its hard lessons, provide a bit of perspective, shine some light on what’s sacred and what’s less so.

During those years in my early twenties I was working very hard to become famous, whatever that might have meant. I felt that I needed to reach some level of achievement before my dad died. I suppose I was conducting a search for miracles. It’s no wonder. For my family and for me at least, miracles seemed to have been in very short supply back then.

It’s miracles after all, that compel us forward, that encourage us to move with some degree of willingness into the next day. But, despite what we might believe, it’s hardly ever the big ones that truly move us. The sea can split, we can win the lottery –we can even become rock-stars, and still, those phenomenal circumstances are never what matters most. In the end, the only miracle worth wishing for is the ability to be made cognizant of the smallest splendors, the most inconsequential truths, and the overlooked rhythms that connect us to the people and things we love.

I felt a kind of heat rising up around me in those days after my father died, a sense that what had long been static was now stuttering back into motion. There was a pleasant strangeness to the feeling, but like many things that at first strike us as unusual, it wasn’t wholly unfamiliar either. I’d felt that same unnamable sensation, lying awake in my bed in the dark as a young child, focusing on individual moonlit snowflakes as they fell outside my window. I felt it again in Jerusalem, at nine years old, when I first touched the sunbaked stones of the Western Wall. I felt it the first time I’d snorkeled in the Red Sea and became drunk from sheer beauty. I felt it the frigid November morning we buried my father and then for a second time, almost two decades later, the summer my sister Susie died in a car crash on a Wisconsin highway. I felt it on the evening I finally met my wife, and again, the moment when each of my children were born.

The circumstances were wildly varying, but in each instance there was a sense of being taken from one place to another, of inertia finally giving way to movement. It was as if my mundane life had cracked open and I saw, arrayed in front of me, something of the unseen hand that forms and directs the universe.

My first experiences in Crown Heights, Brooklyn at age 27, in those years after my father died were catalytic; a Rabbi named Simon Jacobson had posed a single question and it too, set me into motion: “Why is walking on the surface of the Earth any more miraculous than flying above it?” he’d asked.

The idea that the world is a wondrous, mysterious place –even as we are destined to walk on the mundane surface of it, even if we cannot truly fly–is both a liberating and comforting notion to me. Being attuned to wonder is my natural state and my preferred condition. Perhaps it’s natural for each of us. But why then, are so many moments not imbued with this sense of the miraculous? Why is there such a divide between barely sensing and deeply feeling?

What I did know in the autumn of 1987, with a certainty I hadn’t known before –perhaps couldn’t have known–was that I needed to get married. I had awakened to the idea that there was nothing I was doing with my life, not my music, not my friendships, not my finally getting that almighty record deal, more important than finding the right woman to create a family with, and to live out my days with. I also knew that to do this, I would need to create a powerful forcing frame for myself, not one that would constrict or limit me, but one that would allow me to channel my outsized ego and my creative proclivities towards a more productive ends than I’d ever dreamed possible.

Eventually, I made a sort of pact with myself, a silent, personal agreement. It came down to this simple declaration: The next time I sleep with a woman it will be with my wife.

This meant of course, that I had to extricate myself from my longtime girlfriend. Though she was someone I was, and still am, extremely fond of, despite how hard I tried, I could never envision her as a lifetime partner or the mother of my children. Since our arrangement was somewhat nebulous –at least from my point of view– this new, self-imposed structure also meant that I’d have to cut off any contact with any of the other women with whom I was having casual sex. In short, I had to make a fundamental cultural and emotional shift. I would need to wean myself away from years of assumptions about the very nature of what a modern male/female relationship meant. I would have to forge a new way of looking at women, at my role as a man, and at the world at large.

It became clear to me that the freedom I had always longed for could be obtained only through the somewhat paradoxical means of setting limits, delaying gratification, and cutting away many experiences that an all-pervasive consumerist culture had been (and continues to be) hell-bent on selling. If you’ll allow me, I’ll explain this further, by way of metaphor.

Music By Subtraction

Music is among the most transcendent of all art forms, both for the performer and for the listener. Since it has no form or substance, it can easily serve as a model for the boundlessness of spirituality. But, as anyone who has mastered a musical instrument knows, musical ideas are expressed almost exclusively by means of structure and restriction, words very few of us would correlate with freedom.

At first glance, this seems like a paradox. How could something as liberating and intangible as music be based on restriction? Not only is music based on restriction, I’d go so far as to say that, aside from the existence of raw sound –elemental white noise if you will –the only other thing that allows music to take place, the only thing that differentiates it from this pure noise, are the musician’s choices as to what sounds get left behind. In this sense, music comes about, not by choosing notes, but by the elimination of notes. Take a look at the idea in this, somewhat, inverse manner: Only by rejecting all other sonic choices, are we left with the ones we truly desire. To make music, we don’t add, we subtract.

Here’s how something as commonplace as the key signature of a particular piece of music also reflects this idea. Unless you were trying to achieve a harsh atonal musical effect, you wouldn’t want to be playing in the key of Bb while your key signature called for you to be playing in A major. The ensuing “music” would sound like chaotic racket to most people. The time signatures of compositions, along with their tempos, which require that a particular note last only so long and that it be played at a particular speed, also function with this same principal of creation by negation. Avoiding the time signature, or playing at any speed, without regard for the overall tempo, is another good way to produce only noise.

It is only through adherence to the limiting factors of time and tempo that music can take shape. In that same sense, if it weren’t for the constraint of playing only certain keys on a piano, and thereby negating all other choices, you would hear only the aforementioned, noise. Anyone who has heard his or her toddler pounding away on a piano knows exactly what this sounds like.

Surprisingly, most, if not all, musical instruments also work on this principle of restriction. The trumpet, for example, is based upon compression and restriction. If the air a player blows into the trumpet’s mouthpiece weren’t compressed and regulated by the embouchure, the only sound you’d be able to hear would be a soft wind-like noise, passing through the horn.

As I became more and more immersed in the wisdom of Jewish thought and practice, the idea of freedom-in-structure became clearer and ever more personally relevant. If it was true for music I wondered, how much more so must it be true for all of life itself? And given that human sexuality, (whether or not the participants engaged in a sexual act are conscious of it), concerns the creation of life, it occurred to me that causing dissonance in that most meaningful –dare I say mystical arena of life –was something I definitely needed to avoid.

I knew I had to place a set of restrictions on myself in order to make music out of my life, as opposed to just raw sound. Although this conception of the universe felt new to me, new in the sense that it was radically different from the one I’d been acting on for so many years, it wasn’t unfamiliar. Without my knowing it, I had undergone an awakening. I became alert to a perspective I recalled vaguely, even from my earliest childhood. It was as if I could see something important forming (though what it was, was still unclear) out of a barely examined and often fleeting sliver of thought. All at once, the world around me seemed to feel very much as it did when I was a child. I could remember clearly, lying feverish in bed, waiting for sleep, with every last thing in the world unknown and unexplained.

It was frightening as an adult, to feel these thoughts growing stronger and more pervasive, but it also felt safe in ways –as though there’d been a kind of revelation, one which seemed to say: “Peter, son of David, there is a purpose to everything you’ve experienced in the recent past and everything you see before you now. Twenty-seven years ago you came down to inhabit another plane. You’ve descended from where your father is now, a world of souls, where everything is as intangible as thought, and as abstract and formless as light. From this moment on there are things you must do and ways you must act.”

The mantra, live without restrictions, which had guided me for most of my life, seemed at that point, to be leading me only to chaos. I believed I could, and must do better for myself. My most fervent wish was no longer to become a rock star, it was to create my own family, one that could become a replacement for the one I’d been missing, the one that had changed so drastically when my father died.

So, in a tour bus rolling across the American continent, I did the three most practical things I could think of; I stuck to my private pact, I dreamed, and I prayed several times a day to an unseen Deity for strength and for love.


Peter Himmelman

Peter Himmelman is a Grammy and Emmy nominated rock and roll musician, visual artist, author, film composer, and speaker. Peter's new book, Let Me Out (Unlock your creative mind and bring your ideas to life) is available here.

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