The Jewish Education of Eddie Vedder

Today begins Lollapalooza, the weekend-long music festival. I won’t be attending and I’ve never attended a Lollapalooza festival. However, just hearing the name “Lollapalooza” brings back memories from twenty years ago.

In the summer of 1992, I was a 16-year-old on a Jewish teen trip called USY on Wheels. We were halfway into the trip when we arrived in Palo Alto, California. Our bus of 42 teens and four counselors pulled into the parking lot of our hotel and we immediately realized that we weren’t the only tour bus in the parking lot. There were rows upon rows of fancy luxury tour buses with beautiful designs covering their entire exterior. It was only when we entered the hotel to check in to our rooms that we learned that all of the performers of Lollapalooza were guests of the same hotel.

Waiting for the elevator I encountered Anthony Kiedis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I talked to him for a few minutes in front of the hotel elevator, until he explained that he was losing his voice from all of these back-to-back shows and needed to get some hot tea and go to bed. I remember laughing at the fact that this hard rocker with a reputation for partying was going to call it a night around 11:30 pm.

One of the other members of the Chili Peppers turned to our group and told us not to do anything stupid at the hotel. Not thirty seconds later did we attempt to pack as many of us as possible into one elevator only to find ourselves stuck between floors. Fortunately for us, our bus driver’s husband was a firefighter and managed to save us before the local fire department arrived.

That Saturday morning following our Shabbat services, a number of teens from our group met Pearl Jam front man Eddie Vedder by the hotel pool. Pearl Jam would soon become my favorite rock band (which it is to this day), but back in the summer of 1992 I hadn’t even heard of them.

Some of the teens in our group from New York had already become devoted fans of Pearl Jam and immediately recognized Eddie Vedder. Vedder and his girlfriend at the time, who had purple hair, were on their way to the tennis courts to hit some balls. While it was a USY policy not to use cameras on Shabbat, some of the teens in our group took pictures with Eddie Vedder. Some even had him autograph their paperback prayer books.

When one of our counselors saw what was transpiring, things got interesting. The counselors explained to Eddie Vedder that we were a Jewish teenage group that was not supposed to be taking photographs on the Jewish Sabbath. Vedder pointed to his girlfriend and told the group that she was partially Jewish and that he respected our religious observance.

One of the counselors told him that he and his girlfriend were invited to join us for our afternoon study session. (It is a tradition in the summer time to study Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Sages, on Shabbat afternoon.) The teens who had their prayer books autographed were reprimanded and then Eddie Vedder went on his way.

If the story ended there, it would have made for a great anecdote of my summer experience. But twenty minutes into our study session in walked Eddie Vedder with his girlfriend. The teenagers began whispering and pointing to the back of the room at the surprise guest. What was usually a boring study session would became memorable.

Vedder and his girlfriend sat in the back of the room listening as we discussed Jewish values and theology. About thirty minutes went by and they decided they wanted to leave so Eddie Vedder raised his hand and said something bizarre about the existence of cows. We all sat there bewildered. (In fairness, it might have been an intelligent observation but it was lost on us teens.)

We left the hotel on Sunday and said our goodbyes to our new friends, which included rock stars, roadies and groupies. As our tour bus pulled away from the hotel parking lot we snapped our final photos of the tour buses.

At the first highway rest stop I got off the bus, walked inside the store and purchased Pearl Jam’s “Ten” on CD. I would listen to that album thousands of times over the next decade. And I would come back to it many times in the decade that followed. Eddie Vedder’s music spoke to me during the rest of my teen years and into college.

Last year to mark the twentieth anniversary of the release of “Ten,” Cameron Crowe produced a documentary called “Pearl Jam Twenty.” Watching the DVD at home late one night recently, I thought back to the memorable and life changing summer I spent on a tour bus out West twenty years ago. While I didn’t even know who Eddie Vedder was as he sat in the back of the room at our Shabbat afternoon study session, just knowing that I had learned Torah with Eddie Vedder brought chills to my spine. I don’t know if he ever studied Torah again after that one afternoon, but I sure feel blessed and honored to have witnessed the Jewish education of Eddie Vedder.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Know Before Whom You Stand: Learning from Everyone

These words are displayed over the ark containing the Torah scrolls in many synagogues: Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed (“Know Before Whom You Stand”). Thousands of Jewish people see this reminder in front of them while sitting in synagogue. Of course, the phrase reminds us to keep in mind that we stand before God while we pray in synagogue and it calls to mind the scene in Exodus when Moses appeared before God at the Burning Bush.

I thought of these words yesterday while reading an article in the New York Times about the recent armed robbery of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer at his Caribbean vacation home. The article goes on to discuss the anonymity that the Supreme Court justices enjoy and the relative lack of security provided to them. The article concludes with a true story that demonstrates just how anonymous these justices are. “One day, Justice [John Paul] Stevens was walking outside the court when tourists stopped him. They wanted to know if he would mind moving out of the way so they could take a good photograph of the Supreme Court.”

These tourists had no idea that they could have enjoyed the memorable experience of meeting one of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, but instead they were left with a photograph of a building in which this justice sits and makes history while ruling on the most important legal cases of our time. I couldn’t help but laugh while reading this story. I recalled the famous Yehuda Amichai poem, “Tourists”:

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

What a shame that those tourists in our nation’s capital didn’t recognize Justice Stephens. Too often we don’t take the time to recognize the important people in front of us and what they have to offer. Here’s another true story that shows how easy it is to ignore the wonder right in front of our noses:

On a cold January morning in 2007, a man sat at a Metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them commuting to work. The story goes that after three minutes, a middle aged man finally noticed the musician but he only slowed down to listen for a few seconds. Some people stopped to toss some money in his collection till, but most simply ignored the violinist. The individual who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy, but his mother hurried him along. In all he collected $32, but no one really stopped to enjoy his music. When he finished, no one applauded.

Turns out that this wasn’t just any violinist playing on any violin. This wasn’t a beggar looking to make some quick lunch money either. The violinist was Joshua Bell, who only days earlier had sold out at a Boston theatre where the average ticket was $100. In the subway, Bell was playing one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth $3.5 million. The Washington Post conducted this as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. (The video of Joshua Bell playing violin in the subway station is below.)

Why don’t we recognize people’s gifts when they are right in front of us? We have a reminder that we’re standing before God when we pray in a synagogue, but perhaps it would be helpful to have this reminder when we stand before other human beings. In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is wise? He who learns from all people.”

I have found that many Jewish people are hesitant to learn from other Jews who are of different denominations than their own. We can all learn from those around us and oftentimes, we are forced to think in new and different ways when we keep an open mind to those who think differently than us. While the teacher in front of you may not look like you or dress like you, I encourage you to remember before whom you stand. It is a child of God who, in the words of the sage Ben Zoma, may make you wise.

One of the gifts of the Internet is that we have much more access to the wisdom of teachers from around the world. Every teacher who offers his or her Torah via the Internet is a “rabbi without borders.” It is so important that we are all open to learning from others. We just never know when that human being in front of us will be a Supreme Court justice, a world renown musician, or a great teacher who will forever change our life.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller