Wednesday, June 09, 2010

The Other Paul

I've always liked Paul Shaffer. I once heard him say regarding his showbiz persona, "I mock it, I am it..." Yes. He has a groundedness and humility in him, bordering on insecurity. In an unrelated, or maybe very related note he is a proud Jew. He grew up affiliated with an Orthodox shul. A couple of weeks ago I had the book (minus the jacket cover) on my desk at work. A student saw it and read the name off the spine. "Oh, he's that guy that goes to our shul." I was surprised. I knew that he was meticulous about saying kaddish for his father. But this, this I'd never heard. "He goes?" Student Julia said that he comes to Lincoln Square Synagogue from time to time, in addition to - of course - always being there on the High Holidays. His book confirms this big time.

"I attend shul. I'm a member of an Orthodox congregation where my son Will is scheduled to celebrate his bar mitzvah a few years from now. That's important to me. It was important to both me and Cathy that she convert to Judaism before we married. My faith, and the tradition that informs it, is a vital part of my life." We'll Be Here For The rest Of Our Lives, page 309.
And then comes this surprise. Touching mussar about our liturgy and nussach, from sincere Paul Shaffer:
Here's something quirky about my relationship to modern Orthodox Judaism. As you might expect, it involves music. At my current shul, most of the traditional centuries-old prayer melodies - the same melodies I learned and loved as a child in Thunder Bay - are being replaced by melodies written by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. Carlebach, who died in 1994, was a gifted composer who gave a modern folksy spin to Hebraic music. Some have compared him to Dylan. His motifs became hugely popular among younger Orthodox Jews. In many shuls around the world, they have actually replaced the ancient melodic tunes.
This doesn't thrill me. And though I know it sounds strange for me - lover of rock and roll and defender of all genres of pop music - to hold such a staunchly traditional view, I just want to hear the melodies I first heard when I entered the synagogue as a boy, those same melodies that filled the hearts of my ancestors. Today those melodies fill my heart with a love linked to the history of a people who have suffered and survived. I need for those haunting melodies to survive. I need those haunting melodies for strength. (pages 309-310)


Blogger MNUnterberg said...


June 9, 2010 at 1:33 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

I know! Isn't it?

I saw Paul once in central Park and he seemed kind, cool, natural.

June 9, 2010 at 2:39 PM  
Anonymous Minnesota Mamaleh said...

this is so, so interesting! i'm inspired to read the book and learn more about him. maybe i'm a tad bit embarrassed that i haven't sought out more info on the mn even though my husband and i are avid dave fans? thanks for the tip and book recommendation! this was an excellent book review! :)

June 9, 2010 at 9:26 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

I like the book alot. Sometimes I pick excerpts and people like them and then don't like the rest of the book.

Shaffer is very into the Rat Pack, and the Jerry Lewis Telethon. When Sammy Davis Jr. was on Letterman he called him up and called him Shmuel, because that's what the Rat Pack called him!

There's a great story about Sammy. Paul insisted that he hear a song before they did it together on the show. But Sammy wanted to just do it. After Sammy heard it, he said it was great and then added something like, "Imagine how much fun we could have had if I hadn't heard it now."

Paul had the same experience on several occasions, being told to chill. But on one occasion James Brown told him that he did a good job and that Paul's gig was a hard one because he had "the pressure of time."

One of the people that got miffed at Paul on more than one occasion for directing the blues and not just letting it be was Eric Clapton.

The start and the end of the book both talk about Paul and shul - so its definitely important to him.

I will always remember his friendliness to me one Sunday in Central park.

June 9, 2010 at 11:53 PM  
Blogger kishke said...

I suspect it's generally the less committed who require the old tunes more. The truly committed Jews have a lot more real religion to satisfy them, so they don't make such a big deal about the old tunes. Also, they've been going to shul for years and years and are eager for something new.

June 13, 2010 at 6:14 PM  
Blogger Howard said...

Oh boy, did Paul touch on a pet peeve of mine. I don't mind an occasional Carlebach davening or one or two Carlebach numbers inserted, but the wholesale replacement of the "MiSinai" Nusach is a distressing trend. (That's a huge issue with the shuls we go to in Jerusalem, where we have an apartment; if I wanted to daven for the amud and do the very beautiful, traditional Kabbalat Shabbat, they'd yank me.) Amazing that a guy like Schaffer could be so sensitive to this issue and be so right!

June 16, 2010 at 10:52 AM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thanks for the divergent views K and H.

In some circles, these days I think it's mainly Chasidish, they wouldn't dream of changing nusach. Paul, IMHO, gets it.

I think - rather than posting again - I will add more Paul Shaffer related material here. I finished the book and loved it.

Here's another quote that struck me. I believe him:

"When I learned that he (David Letterman) required a quintuple bypas, I immediately called the chief rabbi of the state of Israel to make a m'shabeirach, a special prayer for the sick." The rabbi (I'm guessing it was Rabbi Lau - NF) said, "I'm praying as we speak." Paul concludes, "The prayer worked, and Dave came through like a champ."

I trust my source that told me that Shaffer's shul is Lincoln Square, but recent reliable sources have led me to tweak that. He has an apartment in the city but his main home is in Mount Kisko.

The Mount Kisco Hebrew Congregation (Orthodox) is proud to have him as a member (and I guess that's the shul he refers to in the quote in this post), as evidenced by excerpt from their 2008 newsletter:

"For the last hour of the party, kids, parents and grandparents - among them synagoguemembers Paul Shaffer with a bongo and Lew Soloff of Blood, Sweat & Tears with atrumpet - joined in a rousing medley of holiday and Yiddish tunes."

June 16, 2010 at 11:16 AM  
Anonymous Jordan Hirsch said...

I have met Paul at the Mt. Kisco Shul. He is a very down to earth guy. (A little initimidating playing for him and Lew Soloff, who davened there then too). By the way, I totally agree with him about the davening.

June 16, 2010 at 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Lion of Zion said...

i don't quite agree with the specifics of what kishke wrote, but i agree with his sentiments.

there is a difference between nostaligia and religion, and i suspect that for some irregular shulgoers the former is more important than the latter. (not to say that all regular shul goers go for the right reasons and with the proper sentiments)

i personally know of more than one shul where the regular members wanted to get rid of the hazzan or a choir for the yamim hanoraim, but the once-a-year people wanted to retain them.

(this comment was not about Paul Shaffer, about whom i know nothing and never heard of)

June 16, 2010 at 12:41 PM  
Blogger Ben the Bass said...

I believe that Kishke is right and not right. There is certainly a beauty in the old. Yet, there is also a need for new. The "fresh" melodies of Carlebach and others spark zest in those who have heard the old ones too many times. Both are important. "Eilu v'Eilu Divrei Elokim Hayim."

June 16, 2010 at 1:14 PM  
Anonymous Dov said...

I don't think it's as simple as "Eilu V'Eilu" (which is not in itself a simple concept). How can we compare what's known as "MiSinai" (which goes back at least centuries, according to the Maharil, and perhaps longer), instituted by Early Achronim (or Rishonim, or Tannaim or even Leviim or, literally, MiSinai) to (inarguably beautiful) folk songs from the 1950's and later? (BTW, I much prefer the nigunim he wrote while he was alive to the many he composed after his death).

I loved Carlebach's davening...when HE davened...because it came from his (overflowing) heart (avodah she'b'lev). What we hear now is Carlebach for the sake of Carlebach, often faster than intended, sometimes not even appropos to the words.

And then there's normative halacha that dictates AT LEAST certain modalities for certain passages (as per Cantor Sherwood Goffin's formulation for which I can't find the reference just now).

Bottom line: We don't just do things because they feel good. Davening is a conversation with God; the music of Davening is meant to inspire us to have a meaningful conversation. And while there's room for improv - just as there is in most areas of halacha - there's also a baseline. We should know where the line is before we consider crossing it.

June 16, 2010 at 4:43 PM  
Blogger rabbi neil fleischmann said...

Thanks for sharing your opinions and experiences, guys.

Jordan, cool that you played with Paul Shaffer. He was nice when I met him too. I get the intimidation thing, he is a great talent. Hope you are well.

LoZ - Thanks for your well articulated thoughts and good for you that you don't know who Paul Shaffer is.

Ben - Good point - well put, I'm a big fan of seeing both sides.

Dov - Well thought out and presented position.

June 18, 2010 at 12:35 PM  
Blogger kishke said...

Let me clarify: With regard to nusach, I'm a stickler for precision. I get annoyed when the shliach tzibur can't do the nusach right. As Dov says, nusach has ancient roots, and I wouldn't dream of changing it. Neginah, though, is another story. Much of singing that people are nostalgic for is of quite recent vingtage; the last 50-60 years. The point of neginah, so far as I'm concerned, is to inject some heartfeltness and beauty into the davening, and that's done best with niggunim people enjoy. I learned a few years in a very traditional yeshiva, where you had to sing the traditional Lecha Dodi and Keil Adon, both boring, uninspiring niggunim. The strange thing was that the "tradition" was only about 30 years old, from when the yeshiva was founded, at about WWII. It was a great relief when they finally changed the rule and allowed a choice of niggunim.

I like Lion of Zion's turn of phrase: nostalgia is not religion. That's pretty much what I meant, only better worded.

June 20, 2010 at 11:52 AM  

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