Humans of TCGMC: Ben Pollack
December 6, 2o18: This week, I was honored to speak with Ben Pollack, whose spiritual life has been influenced by both Judaism and Hinduism. As our concert weekend for “A Million Reasons to Believe” commences, I encourage you to listen to Ben’s wise words. As he says, there is something for everyone in this year’s holiday concert, and we encourage you to seek meaning for yourselves through our mixture of musical stories.
We thank Gerald Gurss for his vision, his leadership, and his strength, and we wish him well at his first concert as the Artistic Director of the TCGMC. Happy singing, family! – Josh Elmore
JOSH: WE HAVE A PRETTY EXCITING CONCERT SEASON COMING UP – A MILLION REASONS TO BELIEVE – AND I UNDERSTAND THAT YOU HAVE A PRETTY UNIQUE RELIGIOUS BACKGROUND. SO FIRST, COULD YOU TELL ME ABOUT YOUR CHILDHOOD? HOW WERE YOU RAISED?
BEN: Religiously I was raised Jewish. I grew up knowing that both my parents are Jewish, so it’s not a multi faith/interfaith house. My mother comes from … a very conservative Jewish household, and my dad comes from Long Island Jews – a very reform background.
JOSH: FOR OUR READERS WHO DON’T KNOW THE DIFFERENCE, COULD YOU HELP US?
BEN: Within Judaism, there’s the three major branches of the faith, very similar to the Christian denominations. There’s the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform. Orthodox being the hardcore people you see on the streets with the black hats and the curly sideburns. Then there’s the Conservative Jews, who follow the teachings on a stricter notice, but use it as guidelines, rather than strict rules. Then there’s the Reform Jews, who are considered the liberal, progressive Jews.
JOSH: DO YOU PERSONALLY IDENTIFY WITH ONE OF THOSE LABELS?
BEN: In our family, we were raised very Reform – pretty liberal.
JOSH: HOW HAVE YOU MAINTAINED YOUR SENSE OF JEWISH IDENTITY OVER THE YEARS?
BEN: I’ve always been connected to the Jewish faith. Up until fourth grade, I went to a Jewish day school, so literally half the day was spent in Hebrew and the other in English. I learned about Jewish culture, Jewish traditions, the entire culture of the Jewish faith for the first half of the day. When we moved to Iowa [from New York], we stayed connected with the Jewish community. It’s actually a fairly large community in our town…. So I stayed pretty well connected. I used to teach Hebrew school in my teen years, and probably in my early twenties, I didn’t so much distance myself, but didn’t really focus on my faith. Within the last couple of years, I’ve been working to come back to my faith.
JOSH: WHAT’S THAT PROCESS BEEN LIKE FOR YOU? HAVE YOU CONNECTED WITH THE COMMUNITY IN MINNEAPOLIS?
BEN: I first went to the synagogue on 24th – Temple Beth Israel – because I had seen pictures. One of, probably, the most beautiful synagogues in the Midwest. Recently I’ve transitions to Shir Tikva, which is a lot more progressive. My rabbi is gay, married, has two daughters. The cantor is a lesbian, so I identify very strongly with both of my communities.
JOSH: I UNDERSTAND – AND PLEASE CORRECT ME IF I’M WRONG – THAT YOU’VE DABBLED IN OTHER TYPES OF SPIRITUAL BELIEFS AS WELL.
JOSH: TELL ME ABOUT THAT.
BEN: Along with being raised religiously Jewish, I always kind of joke and say that I was raised religiously Jewish, but spiritually Hindu. Growing up, my mother, ever since she was 18, has been practicing a form of meditation…
JOSH: IS THERE A NAME FOR IT?
BEN: Yes, it’s transcendental meditation that was created by the same guru that taught The Beatles in the 60’s. The song “Across the Universe” is actually using words from this teacher. So ever since I was five, I’ve been practicing meditation twice a day.
JOSH: WHAT DOES THAT INVOLVE FOR YOU?
BEN: So starting from 5 to 10, it’s a walking mantra, so basically repeating a phrase in your head over and over again while walking around as a child. At 10 years old, you start your sitting technique, which is where you just sit quietly, eyes closed, and practice your mantra. I think when I was 16, I learned the advanced technique, which is sort of another level of the meditation. It takes me about… I usually meditate about 40 minutes to an hour twice a day. Usually once when I wake up and before I go to sleep.
JOSH: ON A LIGHTER NOTE, I COULDN’T HELP BUT LAUGH A BIT WHEN YOU WERE TALKING ABOUT THE MEDITATION A 5 TO 10-YEAR OLD DOES, JUST WALKING AROUND CHANTING. WAS THAT BORING FOR YOU AS A CHILD? IT SEEMS TO BE PRETTY DIFFICULT.
BEN: No, I mean it’s… my mom would actually be like, “Okay, you have to do this in this part of the house.” So it would be like my mom’s bedroom, my sister’s bedroom, the guest bedroom, and I could wander through all those rooms. And you’re not doing much but walking and focusing. And as a child who most likely had ADHD, that was actually kind of cool because I was able to practice the meditation while being active, which kept me from losing the focus on the meditation.
JOSH: SO AS YOU GREW TO DO THE MORE ADVANCED MEDITATIONS, WHAT DID IT OFFER YOU EMOTIONALLY, SPIRITUALLY, PHYSICALLY? WHAT IS THE GOAL OF THIS PARTICULAR TYPE OF MEDITATION?
BEN: This meditation is used as a stress-relieving technique. Staying calm, level headed, focused, being alert to your present situation, which was crucial for me. I was diagnosed severely ADHD, and they put me on the medications, and it messed with my head. I would always feel groggy, and essentially it would turn me into a vegetable. I felt disconnected from my own self. Practicing the medication, I now essentially don’t take any medication for it, but I’m able to keep it under control.
JOSH: THE INTERFAITH WAY THAT YOU’VE LIVED YOUR LIFE, BECAUSE YOU HAVE THE SPIRITUALITY COMING FROM HINDUISM, RIGHT?
JOSH: FROM THE GURU…
BEN: It’s the ancient Hindus…
JOSH: …MIXING OF COURSE WITH THE SPIRITUALITY WITH A MONOTHEISTIC RELIGION LIKE JUDAISM, WHICH HAS SUCH A SIGNIFICANT CULTURAL HISTORY – HOW DO THINK THOSE THINGS INTERSECT IN YOUR LIFE?
BEN: They actually really go hand in hand. It’s kind of funny, because people ask “Oh, the meditation based in Hinduism, that’s polytheistic…. Essentially, Judaism talks about worshipping false idols. How are you able to reconcile the two? And for me, the meditation isn’t religious. It’s more a technique – a skill that I use. Growing up, I’m able to reconcile the two because one is not a religious teaching – it’s a series of guidelines to help you live your life… which serves to enrich the spiritual, the religious, experience of Judaism, because I’m able to tie the principles of Judaism to aspects of my own life, using those same Vedic principles.
JOSH: I SUPPOSE THE BIG QUESTION I’M GETTING TO, IS, KNOWING YOUR SPIRITUAL AND RELIGIOUS FOUNDATIONS, I UNDERSTAND THAT THIS CONCERT IS PROBABLY VERY DIFFICULT AT TIMES FOR YOU. CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT THE REACTIONS YOU’RE HAVING TO THE MUSIC WE’RE PERFORMING?
BEN: One in particular that definitely jumps to the front of my mind is “Even When He Is Silent,” That one, as I’m sure you saw in the all day rehearsal, I was a mess. The words to that piece are said to have been written on the wall of a concentration camp. The phrase, “I believe in God, even when He is silent. I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.” It’s that idea of literally faith. I love that the piece balances essentially balances all the elements of God, and Judaism, with also, incidentally, the elements of Hinduism, where everything is based in very specific elements of nature, like the sun, the moon. For me, it strikes on every level of my spirituality and my religion, which is why it was very difficult for me to sing and get through. That’s why it holds so much beauty as a piece.
JOSH: WHY DO YOU THINK IT’S SO IMPORTANT THAT WE INCLUDED THIS PIECE IN A CONCERT THAT IS TRADITIONALLY FULL OF CHRISTMAS – OR HOLIDAY MUSIC. IT’S SUCH A SERIOUS PIECE. WHAT WOULD YOU WANT THE AUDIENCE TO TAKE FROM LISTENING TO IT?
BEN: One thing I’ve found is that it’s very difficult to find actual Hanukkah music. It’s either some trivial song written by a non-Jew, which is very fun and frivolous, or it’s very traditional in that it’s short. A lot of Jewish melodies are short, and they don’t really talk much to that element of the holiday. This piece speaks of the hope, of the true blend of the religion and spirituality, which I think is so important in this time, because it really speaks to anybody. It was commissioned by St. Olaf College and performed in Norway from a traditionally Christian chorus, but it so beautifully speaks to the element of hope that is so crucial during this time – especially in the current climate of our world.
JOSH: IN CASE SOME PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT IN THE CHORUS, WHO ARE ATTENDING THE CONCERT, OR SOMEONE’S MOM, ARE LISTENING, IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE THAT YOU WOULD TELL THEM AS WE PERFORM THIS VERY CHALLENGING MUSIC?
BEN: I would say the biggest thing is that no matter what religion you are, no matter what faith you practice, this concert has something for everybody. My mom… during the holiday season, she doesn’t want to hear just Christmas music – she wants to hear a mix. This concert has a mix of everything: it’s not just Hanukkah music, it’s not just Christmas music. We also have a few African pieces in our repertoire that we’ve pulled out throughout the years. It’s definitely a very eclectic combinations of songs. We’re singing a piece about the Holocaust. We’re singing a song about Passover, indirectly. It’s really a nice blend. And, of course, there’s the fun and campy, frivolous numbers.
JOSH: ARE YOU THINKING OF “REVENGE OF THE EGGNOG?”