Last September, FAU’s Klezmer Company Orchestra performed a pair of jazz-klezmer fusion concerts at the Caldwell Theatre to celebrate the occasion of the American Jewish New Year. It was a family affair, with KCO maestro Aaron Kula joined onstage by his brother Irwin, a renowned rabbi and author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messages of Life,” who shared his messages of peace and compassion.
Both performances of the concert/spoken-word hybrid sold out, prompting the Kula brothers to join forces again this year in new and improved program Sunday at the Crest Theatre at Old School Square. The outspoken and influential Irwin Kula, whose national television credits include “The Today Show,” “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “The O’Reilly Factor,” spent a half-hour with Boca Raton to discuss the upcoming Jewish New Year celebration, his call for a “new God,” political polarization in America and more.
What is it like working with your brother on these events?
In some ways, it’s a dream come true to be able to work with your brother. My brother’s incredibly creative, and in many ways, he does in music what I do with Jewish wisdom. He mixes and blends and bends and he creates something new, and makes an existing tradition more accessible and more usable to help anyone in their lives flourish.
What will you be addressing in your presentation?
When you’re celebrating a new year, whether that’s a secular year or a spiritual year, you have to look back a little bit and try to ask, “What is it that we need most right now in order to make the best of the year to come?” I think there are two themes I think I’ll be weaving through. One is that there is a lot of pain in this society. And we need more compassion. And we need more hope. And we need more experiences of joy that we share with each other. So I’m going to be nurturing compassion and hope on one side.
And the other peace we need is that there is an incredible polarization in this society – incredible hostility between groups and the way in which people with very different opinions on where the country should go are arguing and speaking to one another. And there aren’t any solutions that will come from this sort of polarization. So one of the other themes I’ll be weaving through is to remember our common story, our common dreams.
And there will be a number of interactive guided imageries, interactive experiences that, along with the music, are going to allow people to speak to each other – literally, in the midst of a concert – in ways that maybe they haven’t, and offer each other blessings, and invite them to think about the partial truths of the sides they most deeply disagree with.
You once wrote about a “Time for a New God.” What would this new God embody and what would it be replacing?
The fastest growing demographic in the religious landscape of America, according to a Pew study, is the demographic group called “none.” And that’s not atheist, it’s not agnostic – it’s people who are no longer affiliated with existing religious institutions. They no longer feel the existing inherited religious traditions and creeds and dogmas speak to them. It’s to that group that I’m saying there’s a time for a new God. We’ll always have a God. The question is, what kind of God? And it seems to me that for many people, the conventional God in the sky who rewards and punishes, the conventional God who controls every single thing, the anthropomorphic God – for many people, that God has died.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a sense of meaning or purpose in our lives, that we don’t have the sense that we’re part of something larger, that we’re part of a reality that is so much bigger than us, that’s part of a 14-billion-year journey. Time for a new God means that it’s time to recover the experience behind the word God. Don’t let the word God go.
To my ears, you don’t sound controversial, but in some circles, you’re known as a provocative rabbi.
I try not to be provocative on purpose. What I try to do is to be honest and genuine to my own experience and to my understanding of an ancient tradition I’ve been gifted with; I’m an eighth-generation rabbi. And I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything. I think the people who are overly provoked need to look very seriously at why so few people are attending religious institutions, why so few people are practicing the inherited practices, and this isn’t only a Jewish question – this is a question for all religious communities in this country. The fastest growing demographic is “none.” If churches and synagogues and hemorrhaging in memberships, if Catholic parishes are closing down churches and schools, if there are not enough priests, if there are not enough jobs for rabbis, if liberal churches are closing every week in this country, then religious leadership ought to be asking, “what really is the job we’re supposed to get done? And are we getting that job done?”
It’s very simple: The job religion is supposed to do is to help human beings flourish. People are going to find other things, and some of those things will not help them flourish and do damage, and some of them will not be the things we teach. Religious leaders have a choice. We want to refashion and reimagine our traditions to help people flourish.
Who would you consider to be the biggest obstruction to your cause and what you believe in, be it a person, a group, an ideology, anything?
Actually, what’s really interesting is that I don’t think there are any major obstacles. One of the things I’ve learned, especially in the last six or seven years of traveling around the country, is that the more important thing is not to engage in fights. It’s not about trying to convince people who disagree. If something is working for someone, I have no interest in undermining that. If it’s helping them flourish, and to be more compassionate, and to be better people, I’m all for it. I’m not interested in fighting with anybody. What I do is speak to people, offer my wisdom, and if people “buy it,” so to speak, if it works for them, then fine. I’m trying to invite people to stop fighting about the things they disagree about and share what works for them with each other.
I have no major fights in the American Jewish community. The people with whom I most deeply disagree, whether they are traditionalists or whether they’re on the right, it doesn’t matter. I have friendships everywhere there. And the most important thing is to be able to understand the partial truth of the opinion with which you disagree. So with the people I disagree with most, I can often argue their position better than they can argue their position. The really interesting thing is not to fight with people, but to find those places where your teaching will naturally take hold.
There’s a lot of different kinds of food; there’s Italian food and Korean food and Japanese food – I live on the Upper West Side, so there really is a lot food. My job isn’t that everybody has to like every kind of food. What’s amazing about the human experience isn’t that we need 2,000 calories. What’s amazing about the human experience is all the different foods we have created as human beings to satisfy our need to eat. And I don’t need to diss someone else’s food to be able to enjoy my food.
I’ve heard so many people, when discussing politics, say that the division has never been this bad in their lifetimes, and that the two sides just stare at each other from the trenches. Granted, it’s an election year, but will anything change after November?
First of all, I do not believe it’s the worst it’s ever been. This country’s been through a Civil War. We’ve been through race riots. We have been through much more serious conflicts. We’ve had conventions where there were riots outside the streets. We don’t have that right now.
So it turns out it’s less polarized in many ways than it has been historically. But what’s changed is that the center has decided to be entertained by the extremes rather than actually getting off the couch and getting involved politically. So there’s a reason why the extremes are controlling the debate, and that has to do also with cable TV, etc. So they’re less polarized than at other times in history – there’s no violence in the streets – but it turns out the volume seems a lot higher. The middle has decided to be entertained by Fox or MSNBC, because it’s very entertaining to watch crazy people. It’s very entertaining to watch people do ideological somersaults. But then they wind up controlling the debate.
Of course, it was a landmark breakthrough in 2008 when Barack Obama became the black president, and it would have been a breakthrough if Hillary Clinton had become the first female president. But I rarely hear any talk that we’ve never had a Jewish president in the history of this republic. What are your thoughts on that? And when do you think it will happen?
When Joseph Lieberman was a vice presidential candidate, there was a lot of talk, and there’s always talk in the minority community, and we count Jewish politicians and the number of Jewish senators. My sense is that in the next 30 or 40 years, there will be a Jewish president. I think the larger issue regarding that is how little anti-Semitism there is in this country. It’s a very unique country in the Jewish historical experience. There simply has never been a country so open and so engaged with Jews as the United States of America.
I’m a little concerned about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran, or vice versa. What are your thoughts on these rumors; is it saber-rattling, or is there more to it?
I’m not privy to the inside communications between the United States and Israel. My sense is that it would be very bad if Iran had nuclear weapons, but that this isn’t fundamentally an Israel-only story. This is a story for a lot of countries – if you’re the U.S., if you’re Saudi Arabia, you do not want Iran to have nuclear weapons. This is a global story. Israel has an essential role in this, because the only country in the U.N. that has been labeled out and named out to be destroyed by another country in the U.N. is Israel, by Iran. So that is a very serious thing. But it’s not fundamentally an Israel story.
I hope Israel does not attack. The leading military people in Israel are split on this. The previous head of the Mossad said that Israel shouldn’t attack. So I think there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes planning, and I think there is a lot of saber-rattling.
You’ve been ranked in the top ten numerous times in Newsweek’s list of the Most Influential Rabbis. Is there a competitiveness in your community, like there is on awards shows, to see who will be nominated and who will be No. 1?
If I’m 100 percent honest about that, it’s one of those things where, we all know it doesn’t really mean that much, but it’s always fun to be on the list. I don’t think there’s a heavy-duty competitiveness. Not every rabbi knows every other rabbi. And it’s a somewhat idiosyncratic measure. But like anything, if you’re a public leader, and you care about having your wisdom permeate the culture and having the opportunity to offer up your wisdom, you do want any kind of good publicity. And it is good publicity. So it both means nothing, and it’s a very nice thing.
The Klezmer Company Orchestra and Irwin Kula’s American Jewish New Year Celebration will be at 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 9 at the Crest Theatre at Old School Square, 51 N. Swinton Ave., Delray Beach. Tickets are $26 to $36. Call 561/243-7922 or visit oldschool.org.