On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Under the Sky - Parashat Vayeishev

In this week's Torah portion, as Joseph searches for his brothers, he also seeks the shalom (peace) that comes with rebuilding their relationship. How can we, too, find shalom through connecting with one another? Rabbi Jacobs sits down with Israeli musician David Broza, an intercultural bridge-builder himself, to answer this question and learn about how he found his shalom through music and connecting with others.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks, he has a guest.

And this week, he is joined again by singer, songwriter, and social activist David Broza. It went so well the first time they spoke, they decided there was more to say. They spoke about Parashat Vayeshev, and really what it means to create stories anew. This one is a bit longer than 10 minutes, but David sings for us again. And it's worth listening all the way till the end.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Vayeshev from the Book of Genesis. We begin the four parshiyot that tell the amazing story of Joseph. And it is also for this parashah that we have the incredible blessing of welcoming David Broza back to the podcast, to help us get inside of one of the most remarkable stories and to think a little bit about how we tell stories. So welcome back, David.

[David Broza] Thank you, Rick. It's so great to be back here. I didn't know I'd be back from the first time, but I really like sharing this time with you and the stories that you bring up.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Thank you.

[David Broza] Let's see what it evokes.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] All right. Well, first I've got to start with a little family story.

[David Broza] OK.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] So my middle son is a David.

[David Broza] How many kids do you have?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Three.

[David Broza] OK.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Three, so at his bar mitzvah, in my drasha to him, I said, there's some pretty famous Davids in the world. Now, you're going to just pay attention. There's this guy in the Bible-- he's pretty good.

[David Broza] The best.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] And my teacher, David Hartman, of blessed memory, one of the great philosophers of Judaism. I threw in David Justice, who used to play for the Yankees, a big baseball fan. But I built to David Broza.

[David Broza] Really?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Who-- you had been a part of our family from the time we lived in Israel to here. And I told him about the essential qualities of the people who have the name David and hoped that he would take some of the best of those qualities, but also find his own qualities. So I just start with a little love and appreciation--

[David Broza] That's very sweet.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] --that comes from a little David to our David.

[David Broza] How old is he now?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] He's 27, doing his thing and growing into the name David.

[David Broza] OK.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] So one day, one day, one day. So can we just start-- the story of Joseph starts-- he's a 17-year-old kid, and he grows up in front of us. It's also a story that starts in Israel and ends in the diaspora. It's got all these different things.

[David Broza] In Egypt.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Yeah, well, outside the land, right? Can we just think for a little bit about your growing up? Because it's a powerful story. Born in Haifa.

[David Broza] Right.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] There's Spain, there's England.

[David Broza] Right.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] There's US. Can you just say something about how you grew up, in such a rich family of people, and strong personalities?

[David Broza] Right.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] And Joseph-- remember, he's this guy who-- he's precocious. I mean, he's also not so easily liked by his brothers. That's putting it mildly. But I think we get a window into what growing up is, how complicated, how important it is. And we get a little look at Joseph. Could we get just a little window?

[David Broza] Well, I think these changes like versus living in one town, in one neighborhood, in one city, for your entire life, or even one country, living in, or being thrown into another reality, in another land, with other languages, with other people, with the sense of traditions, can either shape your life or break your life. It's not-- there is no definite positivity to it or negativity.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] There's something that everybody takes from it. I can attest from my own life. So I was born in Haifa, but I really wasn't there for very long. And it's funny, I was born in Haifa, but when I was six months old, my parents, my father came on a mission to-- as part of the bonds-- we're talking about 1955-- to the United States. And we lived in New York City for about two years.

[David Broza] My sister was born here. So I learned how to walk in Central Park. And there's photographs of me being here. I don't remember any of that.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Was Hebrew your first language?

[David Broza] Hebrew was my language, yeah, but then they spoke English around, too. My father was English-born. Arrived in Palestine in 1934 with his family. His father moved in to open the first bank, the Anglo-Palestine Bank in Israel, which is Bank Leumi now. So they grew up-- 1934, and remained in Israel. He was 10 years old then.

But always, the Englishman in him was very evident. You couldn't get rid of it. And my mother too, who was a Sabra, born in Tel Aviv, in 1927, in Bialik Street, right in the heart of Tel Aviv then. And her mother was from Rehovot. And they were pioneers from 1882. They moved and they established Rehovot, among the families that established.

But her father was-- Major Aron, as he was known, Wellesley Aron, was English-born, also, and came to Palestine in 1925. There was a lot of Anglo-Saxon, I guess, culture in the air, although Hebrew was the dominant language.

Then we moved, at the age of four, I moved-- I went back to Israel at the age of three, moved to Tel Aviv just age of four-plus. And stayed until in Tel Aviv till this very day. But when I was 12, my parents moved for some years to Madrid, Spain.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs]  So Joseph, in the Torah portion, he really grows into himself outside the land.

[David Broza] Right.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] As you said, it stretches him. And there's pain too, because he's broken off from his family. And yet, it allows him potentially to be influenced by different languages, different cultures, different experiences. Would you say you were shaped also by the time in Spain that kind of--

[David Broza] Absolutely.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] --formed-- that was a critical-- Joseph is 17 when we meet him.

[David Broza] I was 12.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] OK.

[David Broza] But it doesn't matter how old you are. Since your-- first of all, I'm thrown into a country that speaks Spanish. I have no clue what that is. I don't know anybody there. I'm brought into an English school, called Runnymede College-- very English. I don't speak English. So basically, I reinvent myself, I guess as Joseph would.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] You reinvent yourself. And it's right after the Six Days War. Now in my class, next to me is sitting the daughter of the Jordanian ambassador. On the right side of me, the Egyptian ambassador. And behind me is the Syrian ambassador's son.

[David Broza] I'm like surrounded by-- just like Israel, I'm surrounded by all these-- and they're not very friendly, especially after Six Days War. There's the Iraqi ambassador's daughter.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Whoa, whoa, whoa.

[David Broza] You understand? Trouble. And it's a class, we're barely 15 kids in the class. So it's really small. The whole school is 45 kids.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] So maybe you learned how to be a bridge builder, already, go back in school.

[David Broza] I don't know, but I was getting into a lot of trouble there. They were teasing me all the time. And they were getting on to me. And I would sometimes have to react. And the headmaster calls me and says, you're going to have to learn how to be more diplomatic about your actions. Keep the fights to the battlefield and all.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] You figured it out. So let's-- can we move to how we tell a story. The Torah, this is arguably one of the most sustained narratives in the entire Torah. Because it really describes this little boy. We watch him grow up before our eyes. He struggles, and then he keeps rising, rising, rising. You tell these amazing stories. You're a storyteller. The Torah also is chanted. Sometimes we tell the story through a beautiful musical chant. How do you approach telling a story in a song? And how might you relate to even the way that Torah tells stories? Is it at the heart of what you do? Is it a piece?

[David Broza] It has become that. I never had aspirations to become a musician to start with. I was a painter. I was always painting, very-- that's a lonely-- a lonely kind of a vocation. But once I became an artist, writing music, I obviously had to deliver stories. And I've always loved poetry. I don't know why, since I was a young kid. I was a teenager. I was an avid reader of, in Spanish, Federico García Lorca, Antonio Machado, these great Spanish poets. And, of course, I read American poetry. And I loved history. And history is storytelling. So I suppose that is something that was embedded into my personality. But I also come from a home where my father was a great storyteller. And my grandfather, even better. So I grew up in that environment of having to tell the story.

The thing is, just like them, though, all the stories I tell-- not through song-- the stories I tell, I have lived them. And I've also encountered moments where people would say, that's too wild to have lived that. They say, really? And then thank God, I have witnesses in everything. I'm not alone. But sometimes I ask myself if it's real. And I know it is real. Because I throw myself into situations. I mean, through my old-- as I get older and I'm coming to the United States for the first time, and I want to know how, if at all, I may connect to this country on a cultural level, my inclination is to go straight into the poetry. And I find myself immersed in American poetry, deeply. But that's not enough, because. I want to meet those poets. So I want to meet all the characters in the Bible, as we speak now, in the Torah. I want to meet them through the books. And it throws me into corners of this country, the United States, that most people that I know have never even-- don't even know where these places are, and if they do, they've never been there, and they probably never will be. There's no reason for them to be.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] For sure, for sure.

[David Broza] And to me, it enriches me.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Can you take one-- I mean, right now in my ear, I've got a number of your songs. Mitachat Lashamayim is one of the ones I come back to all the time. Can you take us inside how that unfolded? These stories are you, you're in these stories. How did that work?

[David Broza] So let me let me ask you, I've never done this, but let me ask you, as an interpreter of the Torah, for example, so what does Mitachat Lashamayim convey to you? Where does it come from? What is the story?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] The story feels like, we came here, we came from somewhere. So I love that. And there's love inside of it. It's a love story.

[David Broza] Oh, love.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] And I--

[David Broza] I'm just curious, I'm not putting you on the spot.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] To me, it's a love story. And when I hear it, again, I don't-- I hear my own story.

[David Broza] OK.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Right? Isn't that part of what we hear and why it resonates, right? Because it's not just-- it's your story, but it resonates--

[David Broza] But it's also the poet Meir Ariel, may he rest in peace. He was a great, great, great singer-songwriter and innovator of the language, of Hebrew. And of course, a real scholar of Talmud and Torah, and everything. And you find a lot of that in his lyrics, hidden, the words that he chooses.

But this story, the story of Mitachat Lashamayim is somewhat bizarre. I don't know how long we have, but I can give you the 7,000-mile story versus the 15,000-mile one.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Perfect.

[David Broza] I'm touring in Texas. It's 1990. Just before the Gulf War starts, and I'm finishing a tour. They're wrapping up. And I get a message waiting for me at one of the hotels, if you can call it a hotel. I was at the level of motels, if you call it a motel.

And there's a message waiting for me there from a wonderful poet that I've gotten to know over the years in America. Her name is Heather McHugh. And she says, that if I want to meet her she'll be-- for the next five days or so, she's going to be in a little town, little village, in the northeastern corner of the United States, called Eastport, Maine. That's the furthest, most northeastern point on the map, just underneath Canada.

And I'm in Texas. And we ain't flying, we're driving. So I've got a partner, Pete Winer-- may he rest in peace too. He was my buddy for 13 years on the road. He says, yeah, Broza, we can do it. We ain't stopping at home. We're going to drive straight through. It's going to take us three days. Whatever.

So it takes us three days. And we get to Eastport, Maine. And she says in the message, I'll meet you at the post office. Just let me know when you're there, they'll know to find me. We get to the post office, and there's a message waiting for us. And it says, Broza, I'm really sorry, I had to fly to Seattle.

And we don't have mobile phones then, you know. So now I'm stuck in Eastport, Maine. Why did I drive all this way for a poet? But she says there's a phone number. His name is Toby Mostel. It turns out he's the son of Zero Mostel, the great actor.

And he's happy to have you come stay in his house. I give him a call. We go stay in his house. He's an artist. He left New York because he inherited two grand 9-foot Steinways, and all the art, the Modigliani, and the Picassos his father had in the house, and he couldn't keep the house in New York. It was too costly. So they moved to Eastport, Maine, as many artists have, by the way. It's a great colony over there.

And we go to his house. And he says, Broza, you can come here, but if you'd like to give a concert, you can come to the local gym. And the people of the town would love to hear you. So we set it up in a minute or two. And we go to the gym, and we play. And this all leading to you, to the song.

And then he invites everybody over to his house for dinner. I mean, dozens of people come. We all have pizza and wine. And I keep singing. In the house, he's got a lot of animals. Some of them are tortoises, I mean huge, huge. Like the size of a table. They're walking around on the floor and they bite you, and they push you.

And there's birds. It's like Dr. Doolittle. It's like birds. And he's a sculptor. And his wife is also in the arts. And it's a wonderful night, very Bohemian. And I'm in seventh heaven. I forgot about Heather McHugh's departure. And when the evening is over, he puts us on an army cot just underneath one of the Steinways.

So I'm sleeping in there. And about 5 o'clock in the morning, I feel my bed is walking. I don't know what to do. And before I know it, there's a big shove and I'm thrown off onto the floor. And it's the tortoise-- turtle, a huge turtle. And I think that's damn-- this is horrible.

And I look out. And there's this blue sky, a real big sky. And it's already like, I don't know, subzero degrees outside. It's October. And I'm so out of it, I pick up my guitar and I go like this--



(SINGING) This is the end, the end of the beginning. And I'm changing with the winds of time.

And I start writing. And instantly, I write the song. Somewhat desperate. I finish writing the song, pack up. We, on the way out of Eastport, Maine, we pick up-- this is not kosher, but still a great one, a lobster, fresh lobster sandwich at McDonald's. It's the only one, I guess, in the country that serves it. I had to. Forgive me.

And we drive back to New York. It's a 12-hour drive to New York City. And that's where I'm based, in New Jersey. And I'm about to record an album called Stolen Kiss. Now, the war-- three months later, the war breaks out, the Gulf War.

And my good friend, the poet Meir Ariel can't stand the pressure. He's been there a few days already, a couple of scuds falling, missiles fall on Tel Aviv. He picks up his suitcase. Calls me, says, we're coming over. Can we stay in your house-- his whole family. My house is tiny. I live in a bungalow, a tiny little house in New Jersey.

Sure enough, they come with the family. And as I'm recording every day, I go back to the studio, coming back and forth, and I'm just humming this thing, (SINGING) "The end of the beginning." And his son Shachav is saying, what is that?

I said, nothing. It's just a song I'm trying to work on. He says, why don't you sing it in Hebrew? I say, it's in English. He says, did you tell my dad?

I said, no. He says, give it to him. So I record it on a little cassette and I call Meir, in the house. And the house is really busy and full of people. There's no quiet moment. So he goes to the bathroom. Shuts himself there.

15 minutes later, he comes with--



Banu lechan
mitachat lashamayim
shnayim - k'mo zug einayim
Yesh lanu zman
mitachat hashamayim
beinataim - anu od kan

At va'ani
At va'ani
At va'ani
vehamitah harechava
latet ahava

Lailah va'yom
Lailah va'yom
Lailah va'yom
vehachiyuch mitnatzel
she'hu mitatzel.

Banu lechan
mitachat lashamayim
shnayim - k'mo zug einayim
Yesh lanu zman
mitachat hashamayim
beinataim - anu od kan

Shneinu echad
shneinu echad
shneinu echad
echad shalem ve'agol
shalem ve'gadol

Boi niten
Boi niten
Boi niten
ani eten lach latet
latet li latet lach

Velamrot hapa'ar
velamrot hake'ev
velamrot hatza'ar
ani ohev

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] And the story. And the story, which takes a whole new dimension to the song.

[David Broza] Of course.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Puts it into place. It's so powerful. Wow.

[David Broza] Great.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] So a last thought, in the Torah portion, we have actually the beginning of asking people, mashalicha?

[David Broza] Oh, really?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Yeah. How are you? Right? That's what we'd say, in a more formal way, we saw people. So it turns out that Joseph is commanded to go out and to check on his brothers. But the way that it's said isn't just go check on your brothers or go see what's going on--

[David Broza] We're in Canaan. Or where are they?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] They're out pasturing the flocks. But the phrase is "go see-- Raah eh et ha shalom la simcha  Go look and find the shalom." So I love that it's a question of how-- is it peaceful with you? Is there shalom with you?

For Joseph, there was very little shalom at that moment. And for the brothers. And you just told a story in that amazing song, [HEBREW], about the Gulf War, and scud missiles. And by the way, as we're talking, rockets continue--

[David Broza] Right.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] --to fly from Gaza. So how is it that we find a little shalom in the middle of this world that we are living in, which feels like it's coming apart at the seams any given day? But we ask each other, is there a little shalom? And how do we find that? Grow it, and also spread it?

And it's a little question. It's not like a big complicated thing.

[David Broza] Not at all. Very simple.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] It's like this, come on.

[David Broza] Well, if you look at history, it's never been any different. It's always been complicated. But as you say, it's falling apart at the seams. But we're not in the seams, we're right in the middle. Our life is not the seams. Our life is the world itself, our world. And in our world, we always strive and have to work towards that peaceful shalom. To live in a life worthy living. And I'm not saying we have the tools-- or we do have the tools, but I'm not saying we're using all the tools we have, because when you're desperate, and in despair, when you're sad, when you're being attacked, you don't have time to think out your actions on a day-to-day basis, even when you cross the street. You haven't checked all the tools you've got, you're just crossing the street. And trouble could be in the middle of crossing.

So I think the world is falling apart, but you have to concentrate on yourself in your immediate world, and try to make sure that everything around you is at peace. And these are your brothers, or your neighbors, immediate neighbors. And I think that's maybe something that you can talk about. And we can try and understand better as to why is this story meaningful at all? Because he's coming from maybe apart, where for the brothers, that's the seams that's falling apart. But he's walking into the heart of it all, reconnecting with his brothers, and hopefully looking for peace amongst them and with them. It's what family's about.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Beautiful, beautiful. He also says, when he encounters this random guy out there as he's looking around, and he says, what are you looking for? And he says, et acha anim let tah kesh I'm looking for my brothers, my people, my family. I'm looking to get connected. And I think we're at a moment, particularly thinking about some of the distances that right now are in the middle of the Jewish people, we're trying to find our way back to feel more connected.

[David Broza] It's emotional, though. It's a psychological and emotional distance.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] It's deeply emotional. And you're one of these bridge people, because you are-- I'm just going to say it, at home here. You are fluent in all things American.

[David Broza] Almost.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Good, bad, or indifferent, that's true. You're fluent in all things Israel. Probably the same about Spain. So as we talk about some of those gaps, I think your music and who you are helps to bridge some of those gaps and to open us to not look at our brothers and sisters from a distance, but get up close.

[David Broza] I hope so.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] And know and create deeper connection, which is what Joseph takes a lifetime to discover.

[David Broza] Me too. And I'm 64.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] You're a young guy.

[David Broza] I've taken a long time to get to where I feel I'm in control and I accept-- it's not a responsibility, but I accept somewhat the mission or accept the intent when I play music. And I'm so-- and therefore, I'm at the height of my happiness, or at peace with myself when I'm performing, always, and when I'm playing. So I strive and I aspire to play as much as I can every day without exception. A big argument I once had with Rebbe Lou, the chief rabbi of the Lubavitch in England at the time, about my right to play on Shabbat, but that's for next time.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] You got it. There will be a next time, I pray. Because it is just more-- it's not only more exciting to look at our tradition through your eyes, but also to your experience and through your music, it's a gift to all of us. So the Torah portion's all about Joseph, but this conversation is all about David.

[David Broza] Well, I have to read more into the Joseph story, because obviously there's connectivity. And there's a lot to learn from these things. And to place myself in those stories as every person does, when one reads a story, could be a learning process. I love that.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Keep telling those stories. Keep singing them. Keep stretching us. Keep building bridges from your school class with the different ambassador's kids all around you.

[David Broza] Oh, yeah.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] You're still in that moment, David. That's still who you are. And you're surrounded by all of us. Keep building those bridges, and the music, the music, the music opens our hearts. It opens possibilities. Thank you for all that you do and all that you are.

[David Broza] Thank you.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review, or share the podcast with a friend.

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On the Other Hand-- 10 Minutes of Torah, is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, l'hitroat!