Dr./Rabbi/Professor/Musician Shaul Magid will be in Boulder this weekend for a series of talks, lectures, and a musical program, from November 30-December 2. The full schedule of events can be found here. The weekend “Essential Questions-Authentic Answers” includes talks at CU, Congregations Har HaShem and Bonai Shalom as well as a musical program at the Boulder JCC on Saturday night, December 2. All the programs are open to everyone in the community, you do not need to be a member of any hosting organization to participate, though some programs do have a registration.
“It’s usually when a speaker or scholar is willing to be vulnerable that I perk up my ears. Dr Shaul Magid is personable, scholarly, and vulnerable,” said Wayne Zerkin, when asked how the committee came to select Shaul Magid to come to Boulder. “His courage to ask provocative questions and give creative and imaginative answers, will enthrall and captivate Boulder’s educated and unique community.”
We reached out to Shaul to ask a few questions about his past and his recent experience on campus. Some answers have been edited for length.
You have a very interesting “Jewish Journey” looking back, what is one chapter or incident that remains the most surprising or impactful?
I think there are two important moments for me worth noting. One was taking my 1972 VW minibus to live in New Mexico in 1977. I met some people in Santa Fe who were practicing macrobiotics and Japanese medicine. I became a part of their small commune/community and was exposed to a real sense of counter-cultural living, studying, and living close to the land that I never experienced before. It made me believe that there was another way to live than the one I was brought up with. It gave me a real sense that I was part of something bigger than myself and that living “otherwise” was a real possibility.
The second event was meeting Dovid Din, an enigmatic Hasidic rabbi who introduced me to haredi Judaism, to Israel, and to a life of mitzvot that transformed who I was and who I envisioned myself to be. I can safely say I would not be who I am without having met him.
Have you always been a musician? How did you get introduced to the banjo? How does music enhance your connection to the Divine?
My father was a jazz drummer and I played drums as an adolescent, as well as guitar. I took up the banjo in 2006 I think because I needed to do something new. For a while, I studied Mississippi Delta guitar with a teacher in Greenwich Village who was really a banjo player. When I was looking for a banjo teacher in Bloomington, Indiana, a town that had a pretty robust old-time music scene, I found a teacher, and then a few months later a virtuoso banjo player, Ken Perlman moved into town and I started studying with him. I have been studying with him for over a decade now and banjo is very integral to my life. I can’t really say how it relates to my engagement with the divine, but music in general is like a language. Once you know it, you can communicate on a different level, play with people, learn a new repertoire, and come in contact with a new culture and history, in my case old-time Appalachian music. It just feels like another layer of how to live in this world.
One of your talks is about the future of Jewish life in America. American Jews have been more concerned than ever. What brings you hope and comfort in these dark times?
I think the future of American Jews is in how we reconceive Judaism and revive a religion that speaks to our social, political, and spiritual needs. I am very worried that the Jewish national project of Zionism has overtaken our sense of Jewish identity. We are diaspora Jews. Israel is the country we choose not to live in. We can support it, we can love it, we can visit, but Judaism has to speak to us here as Americans, and if Jewish nationalism becomes a substitute for a new way to live Judaism, and not just Jewishly.
We hear in the news about conflict and strife on college campuses – what are you seeing that gives you the most hope?
I live on a college campus, this year, Harvard University, and I am in constant contact with students of all stripes. The Hamas massacre and Israel’s response have caused much turmoil for many Jewish students and Muslim students. There have been threats and a general feeling of vulnerability. What gives me hope is this young generation of students is energized, they are dedicated, and many are activists. They believe in many different and conflicting things but I feel a sense of purpose and commitment to make the world better that I have not seen in decades of teaching in universities. Among Jewish students, I think they are reconceptualizing their Jewishness, their Judaism, and their place in the world. It is not the Judaism of their parents, it’s often not synagogue-based, but it is real, deep, and informed. These are troubling times. But the younger generation seems to be up to the task. I feel honored to have a vocation where I can watch this happen and contribute to their work. In that, I feel truly blessed.