At the White House Hanukkah Reception

This past Wednesday, my husband and I were privileged to attend the White House Hanukkah reception:

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Here’s how it all happened. The Friday before, I received an invitation:

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I immediately called my husband. Do we drop everything and attend, or would it be too crazy to go in and out of Washington for the day (we live in Denver, CO) and have to make last-minute arrangement for our three kids? If we went, I would even have to cancel a gig, which I was not excited about. I put it out on my Facebook page and was surprised that everyone – even staunch Republicans (except for one person) – urged me to go.

We thought about it over shabbat and, by Saturday night, we had decided to go. I mean, c’mon, how many times is one invited to the White House? So, I RSVP’d and submitted our social security numbers and other private information. As one friend of mine who was also invited said, “I thought it might be a scam but the risk seemed worth it.”

Of course, I had no idea what to wear. I put this out on Facebook, too. A friend from D.C. urged me to wear a suit. Others thought I should wear a black dress or a cocktail dress. But for a mid-day party? Aren’t those just for evening affairs?

SPOILER ALERT: In the end I went with the black dress:

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With all of the arrangements in place, we woke up at the crack of dawn on Wednesday, put on our fancy clothes, and caught our flight to D.C. without so much as a carry-on bag. As the plane was about to take off, we read the news that Alan Gross, an American Jew, had been released from the Cuban jail in which he had been held for five years. Amazing.

We arrived in D.C. around noon and, knowing that the invitation was for 2:00 PM with doors opening at 1:30, we opted to stop for lunch on the way. After all, would there be food at a mid-afternoon party or just drinks? It was after lunch, so we thought it would be safer to eat some lunch before we went because we would have to zip back to the airport right after the event and we were worried we wouldn’t have a chance to eat all day.

So, we stopped for a sandwich and arrived at the White house at 1:45. We were met by a line of hundreds of people, all in black (I was the one in the yellow coat). Luckily, temps were in the 50’s that day.

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Standing on that line was an opportunity to meet some interesting people (there were about 500 attendees to the reception, followed by another 500 or so that same evening). It was also then that we learned that Alan Gross’ release was actualIy a coda to a much larger story of America normalizing relations with Cuba. We recognized a few people in the line and even ran into a friend who arrived with a man we had never met (every invitation was for the invitee plus one guest). The gentleman showed us a Cuban cigar and told us that he was going to present it to President Obama at the party in honor of the day’s big news. My husband and I nodded politely but were both thinking “That’s crazy and there’s no way he’ll be able to do that.” Wrong. Check out this story on ABC News.

After about an hour, we made it though through security and into the party. Did I mention that we were a bit late because we stopped for lunch? Another mistake. There was a delicious spread of latkas (“I have heard the latkes here are outstanding. Am I wrong?” President Obama quipped. “Not as good as your mom’s, but they’re good.”), sushi, lamb chops, desserts, drinks, you name it. We had just eaten lunch so I just had a few sushi rolls and my husband didn’t eat a thing.

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I even think it’s safe to say that the spread was kosher enough for any Jew (OK, fine: most Jews):

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We spent our time marveling at everything – the red room, the green room, all the portraits of the presidents and first spouses, the Steinway piano, the miniature candy White House. We just soaked it all in. Christmas was everywhere.

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At some point, everyone started getting into place to hear the President speak.  We must have waited for him to come in for about an hour. During that time we met a lovely couple from Delaware who looked to be in their 80’s and had been Biden supporters from the beginning. We met a former Congressman and we saw some old friends. We were standing right in front of Alan Gross’ sister-in-law who made sure someone had taken her as their guest to the party so she could pressure President Obama to release her brother-in-law. As fate would have it, in the end she was there just to celebrate his release and to thank the President.

Soon, the President and First Lady arrived:

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The President spoke beautifully about the mitzvah of “pidyon shivuyim,” releasing the captives, and of America’s renewed relationship with Cuba. Rabbi Bradley Sharvit Artson spoke eloquently as well and led a candle-lighting ceremony. Two students from the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem, a Jewish-Arab school that was recently attacked by arsonists, lit a menorah that the students there had made:

IMG_3267Here is a video of the candle-lighting ceremony:

I don’t think the next part was in the script but somebody began singing Maoz Tsur, a traditional Hanukkah song, and we all joined in and sang it together:

It was an incredible moment, in part because the tunes for lighting the Hanukkah candles and Maoz Tsur are so widespread among ashkenazi Jews that almost everybody was singing. It felt unifying and powerful. I was even quoted in the next day’s New York Times saying, “I found it moving, given Jewish history, to perform the ritual of lighting the menorah and singing the blessings together at the White House. It wasn’t that long ago that Jews were not in a position to do that.”

After the Obamas left, we shmoozed a bit more and took a bunch more pictures. We couldn’t help but laugh at the fact that there was a line to get a picture with President Clinton’s portrait while, across the way, President Bush’s portrait sat lonely (that obviously changes, depending on the administration).

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At about 5:00 PM, we headed out to the Metro and went straight back to the airport. We checked in on our kids and learned that everything had gone smoothly back at home.

We were home by 11:45PM with nothing but pictures and memories.

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(Oh, and this napkin.)

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Head Shot Lo Res

Julie Geller is a singer/songwriter who is saving the world one song at a time by writing original, uplifting, positive music. You can watch her latest videos here. Sign up for free monthly music at www.JulieGeller.com.

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The Story Behind the Song “You’re With Me” (Or, Why Gradual is Awesome)

If you’ve listened to the song You’re With Me, you won’t be surprised to learn where the inspiration came from: the ocean.

I live in Colorado, a land-locked state, so it is always kind of a big deal to get to visit the ocean.

I wrote this song a few years back when I was visiting Los Angeles. I spent the afternoon at the ocean and the next morning it poured out of me. It was one of the first times I traveled out of my state to play a concert. I felt like I was on the cusp of something big.

Looking back, was I? Not really.

For years I’ve felt like I’ve been on the cusp of something big. But truthfully, nothing big has happened to me in my career yet. From the beginning, it’s all been about gradual growth.

I learned about the beauty of gradual twelve years ago when I signed up to do  a Century Ride (biking 100 miles in one day) with Team In Training. I was scared out of my wits to do it but I somehow pushed myself to sign up. I think the most I had biked before that was twelve miles and I figured that if signed up with them (I had to raise a bunch of money to do it) that they would train me for the ride.

And train me they did.

But it wasn’t rocket science. The first Sunday we rode 20 miles. The next Sunday we rode 30, then 40, then 50 all the way until we reached 100. It was awesome because what had at first seemed unreachable – biking 30 miles in a day, say – by the end became my new norm. That day I became someone who can bike 100 miles in a day. That’s huge to have that knowledge and confidence inside me.

For years I’ve run three miles and not a step more. I couldn’t even fathom running father than that. But one day this summer a friend invited me to run four miles, so that quickly became my new norm. So, why not run six? If I can do six, then how about eight? What about ten? Then… bam! I just ran a half marathon. Now my new norm is someone who can run 13 miles at a time. That’s in me. Again, huge.

And so it’s been with my career: With every concert I’ve played I learned a little something and have gotten a little better. Over the years I’ve gradually gotten better gigs, been given better opportunities, gotten more press, built a fan base, and on and on. The steps have for the most part been incremental and manageable.

So, will that huge bump up come at some point? Maybe.

But for now I’m sitting tight with my ol’ buddy Gradual.

Head Shot Lo ResJulie Geller is a singer/songwriter who is saving the world one song at a time by writing original, uplifting, positive music in English and Hebrew. You can watch her latest videos here. Sign up for free monthly music at www.JulieGeller.com.

The Story Behind the Song “Hareini Mochel (I Forgive)”

Last year, a friend asked me to set part of the Bedtime Shema – an extended version of the traditional shema prayer that we say at bedtime – to music. When I looked it over carefully, the opening line jumped out at me:

I hereby forgive anyone who has angered me, provoked me, or sinned against me.
(Hareini mochel lichol mi shehichis vihiknit oti oh shechatah kinegdi)

What moved me so much about this prayer is that we are offering forgiveness to people we perceive as having hurt us throughout the day and they are not even present. We are in our beds, on our own, offering forgiveness and the people who hurt us are not even there.

What this indicated to me was that forgiveness has less to do with the one who harmed us than it has to do with ourselves. We forgive others not to let them off the hook but to allow ourselves to continue to live our lives without the burden of carrying around hatred and anger. 

I had been mulling over these words and their implication when, driving home that same week, I heard the following story on NPR:

Jennifer Thompson was raped in 1984 and she identified Ronald Cotton as her attacker. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. He served 11 years before he was exonerated by DNA evidence, and the perpetrator, who had died in prison serving time for another crime, was identified.

When Jennifer came to terms with the fact that Ronald Cotton was innocent, she said, “I knew how to be a victim of sexual violence… and now I became an offender… Fear set in and it just took hold of me, and you know, terrified that at any minute he was going to spring up behind any dark corner and want to set the record straight and, you know, hurt me or take something away from me.”

Even though some of her friends tried to convince her otherwise, she knew she had to meet Ronald.

It took two years until they met face to face. Jennifer said that, We met in a small church not far from where I’d been raped 13 years before. And as soon as he walked into the room, and I just started to cry, he just immediately gave me forgiveness. And it was the first time, truly, in 13 years that I could physically feel myself starting to heal. And oddly enough, it should be the one person that I had learned to hate so much during that time that would teach me about grace and mercy, and it was the most amazing – outside of the birth of my children, it was the most amazing experience of my life.”

I drove around listening to Jennifer’s story, crying. (You can read and/or listen to the full story here.)

Years before, I had come across The Forgiveness Project. On this website are stories of people who have been victims of heinous crimes, whose family members have been murdered, who have lived through wars – and they have all chosen to forgive their perpetrators. In the words of one woman, “They wouldn’t know if I felt hate toward them and the only person it was hurting was me.” These stories moved me deeply and made me begin to think very seriously about forgiveness. If people who had lived through the unspeakable had forgiven, it gave me hope that I could find it in my heart to forgive others for ways in which I perceived that they had hurt me. 

So, here we are in the aseret yimei teshuvah – the ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) – the day in which we ask God to forgive our own shortcomings and allow us to live in spite of them. This forgiveness work is real, and it’s deep and it’s very serious. And you can’t fake it. 

I know I’m still carrying some unecessary stuff around. I feel pretty clear with people I see regularly because we can deal with things as they come up. We mess up, we apologize and talk about it, and we move on. But, often I bump into someone I haven’t seen for a long time and I realize that I’m still carrying around some sort of old grudge against them. “Let go,” I gently tell myself. “It’s OK. You don’t have to carry this around any longer.”

So here’s my blessing for us all: May we each break through this week, lighten our load, let go of some old or new grudge, choose acceptance over anger, love over fear.

Shana tova,
Julie

Got Grit?

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When I was on the Inca Trail last week, I felt strong, confident, sure-footed.

But most of all, I felt like I had grit.

I remember a conversation I had with my father eleven years ago. He told me about a friend of his who could do anything. You need something done, you call this guy and he’ll do it. New roof? Sure. Want to open a restaurant? He’ll help you. Taxes? Whatever. He’ll say yes and then he’ll figure out how to do it. I remember telling my dad that, although I desperately wanted to be that type of person, I just couldn’t be that way. Something was stopping me from saying yes to opportunities. Maybe I wanted to do things perfectly, or maybe I just didn’t have the confidence to know that I could deliver on things. I’m not sure.

So, there I was on the trail last week. I wasn’t the one in the best shape.

But I kept up.

I was right up there with the best of them. My thinking was, “If someone’s going to do this, then why not me?”

So, of everything I’ve learned in my 30’s, I’d say becoming a person who isn’t afraid to say yes is what has changed the most.

I’ve got grit now and there’s no stopping that.

The Missing Piece: The Story Behind the Song “Ana Avda (I am Your Servant)”

PART ONE:
Before Passover of this year, I was putting together a concert/workshop on the theme of moving from slavery to freedom in our lives.  I needed a Jewish song about freedom but couldn’t think of one. So, I asked on Facebook whether anybody had ideas for words about freedom that I could set to music.

Within minutes, my friend Rabbi Avi Heller responded with the following words: “Ana avda dikudsha brich hu (I am the servant of the Holy One, blessed be He).” These words are taken from the Aramaic prayer we say before removing the Torah from the ark on shabbat and festival mornings.

I thought about it and realized that, indeed, these words are the essence of freedom. When you are a slave to your highest purpose in this world, you are free from being a slave to anything else. You don’t have to be a slave to money, fame, what others say, societal expectations, or anything. You are following your highest purpose and that is all you need.

So I set the words “Ana avda,” a shortened version of that sentence, to music.

PART TWO:
Two years ago, I was in the park with my daughter when I received some scary news over the phone. I was afraid. Instinctively, I started chanting the following words to myself: “I am Your servant, I am Your servant” over and over again. It calmed me down.

But, the song itself was strange. It had no beginning and no end.

It didn’t go anywhere.

PART THREE:
Last week I was driving home with my family. As we were transitioning out of the activities of the day into the evening, I started thinking about how I was going to finish up recording Ana Avda that night.

Out of nowhere, that unused, two year-old melody for “I am Your servant” popped into my head.

“Oh my God!” I exclaimed out loud. “This song goes with Ana Avda!”

When we got home, I ran to the piano to see if the melodies to Ana Avda and I am Your Servant worked together. They did. So, that night, I recorded the last part of the song, “I am Your servant.”

The last piece of the song that I had written two years prior.

The missing piece that I hadn’t known was missing.

Don’t Be So Afraid to Copy

A Chicago-based musician I had never met emailed me out of the blue last week. He had come across my website and wanted to know if I would share the name of my web designer with him.  He wanted to use the same template for his website.

Did I send him the information? Of course. But why? Aren’t I afraid of having someone else out there who is doing the same thing as I am using the same website? Not at all.

I guarantee you that, once he builds his website, you won’t know where he got it from. Once he adds his content and energy to it, it will feel like him, not me. 

Before I shot my last music video, I had my camera operator study a music video that I admire. Although in many ways we copied that video, the energy of my video is completely different.  I don’t think it would ever occur to anybody who has seen both videos that they are in any way related.

So, that’s one way to make art: admire, copy, make it your own.

Don’t be afraid to co-opt.

Head Shot Lo ResJulie Geller is a singer/songwriter who is saving the world one song at a time by writing original, uplifting, positive music in English and Hebrew. You can watch her latest videos here. Sign up for free monthly music at www.JulieGeller.com.

 

“Of Course I Can Do it. I’m JR!”

This morning, as I was taking my daughter out of the car at her nursery school, my foot hit the curb behind me and my flip flop fell off my foot and straight down into the sewer grate. I looked down, couldn’t even see it, and immediately realized that my shoe was lost forever. It was so strange that I just started laughing. 

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As I walked into my daughter’s school with only one shoe on, I ran into a friend of mine and, giggling, told her what had happened to my flip flop. “Oh well, time to buy new shoes,” she said.JR, the custodian of the school, overheard our conversation and asked, “Do you want me to get it out for you?”“You can?” I asked, incredulously.“Of course I can,” he said, “I’m JR

And then, he proceeded to make a hook out of a wire hanger and, before I even finished dropping my daughter off in her classroom, presented me with my missing shoe.

Now, did JR do anything that I couldn’t have done? No. Did he use technical skills that I don’t possess? No. Frankly, I could have taken a hanger and done the same thing. But it never occurred to me. Instead, I immediately started to rearrange my morning to allow for a stop at the store to buy new flip flops.

But JR knew that if there was a problem then he could fix it.  It’s part of his self-identity, at least in the realm of this type of problems.

So, what is it about some people? Why do some of us feel that we can solve anything that comes our way – and then proceed to – while others give up?

I have this attitude professionally.  I often accept gigs that I’m not qualified for and trust that I’ll figure it out when the time comes. And, for the most part, I always do. But I don’t have this attitude in every arena of my life.

So, the question I’m mulling over today is: How do I become more like JR, more of the time? Next time there’s a seemingly intractable problem, I want to be able to say, “Of course I have a solution. I’m Julie.”

ImageJulie Geller is a singer/songwriter who is saving the world one song at a time by writing original, uplifting, positive music in English and Hebrew. You can watch her latest videos here. Sign up for free monthly music at www.JulieGeller.com