By Yochanan Gordon
My Interview with Author and Musician David Green
The 5TJT offices are situated above of one of the local Judaica stores. Often, instead of descending the staircase that leads directly out of our office building, I’ll make a quick detour through the sefarim store to see what is new on the shelves. A couple of weeks ago, I made the planned detour and spent a few minutes surveying the shelves towards the back of the store where the new sefarim are positioned. Although I’m generally less interested in the new English titles I walked to the front on my way out of the store, looking toward the new English-book section, whereupon a new book seemed to be vying for my attention.
It was a modern, artsy book with the title Pictures of Your Soul, written by David Green with photographs by Rabbi Moshe Schlass. The cover features someone holding up a smartphone, as if taking a selfie, with a flame flickering in place of a person. The flame is the soul of man, as the verse states: “The fire of G-d is the soul of man,” and this is a book dedicated to introducing both novice and master to the spiritual makeup of his or her soul, culled from a wide variety of sifrei penimiyus such as Ramchal, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, and with a stronger focus on the Sefer HaTanya, the magnum opus of the first Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
In the interview below you will have an opportunity to become acquainted with the author and to get an inside view of the process that led to the publication of his book. However, by way of introduction, I wanted to dedicate a few words to the importance of a work of this nature. A person consists of a body and a soul. Likewise, everything to some degree possesses a body and a soul, including the Torah that we learn. To the degree that a person is able to discern the light of his soul and his Creator within the Torah that he is studying, it is to that degree that he has achieved the oneness that is the Torah, the Jew, and G-d. This compartmentalization of the Torah into a body and a soul corresponds to the two levels with which a person can understand Torah—seeing and hearing. When we hear something, our attention is fixed to the details, one word at a time, until the full picture emerges. Seeing, by contrast, gives us a unified picture of what we are looking at initially, requiring a sustained view in order to discern the specificities of the picture that is being looked at.
It is the combination of Torah and visualization that makes this book so unique. The lessons themselves paint a picture—the picture of each person studying its words, seeking to find themselves within it. It takes a disciplined and trained eye to see pictures within worded pages. As such, the photographs that accompany each lesson serve to add a dimension to this redemptive philosophy that hasn’t been done before.
I don’t end up reviewing most of the sefarim and books that I buy. This is one of the few times that I felt compelled to do this. I cannot recommend this book enough. Written in such a clear and lucid manner, in an easy format, with breathtaking photographs illuminating each lesson, this is a book that can be used as the basis for a family study session around the dinner table or a topic of conversation around the Shabbos table as a way of inspiring growth on a familial level.
Please enjoy my interview with Rabbi David Green.
Yochanan Gordon: Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your upbringing, and your exposure to the subject matter that you dedicated this book to.
Rabbi David Green: I grew up in Toronto, not frum, and was in the music business as a songwriter at the young age of 16. I then studied music composition and Indiana U in Bloomington. After a lot of questioning, I went to Israel to escape the distorted artsy culture of music school to find myself and a more soulful expression of my music. I found both by learning in yeshiva and performing and recording a lot of music in the early 1980s. I did semichah after learning with a rav at the Mir.
I taught beginners on many programs including Aish, Ohr Somayach, Neve Yerushalayim, Jam, JLE, Maor, and a number of other visiting groups in Israel. I lived in the Old City in my early years of marriage. Years later I wrote my first book, A Book about You, which deals with helping people find their individuality. When I first came to yeshiva, I was bothered by how frum people seemed to all be the same. As I learned more Chassidus, I found the opposite. Everyone has a different tafkid and personality and Hashem wants us to use the gifts he gave us in order to serve Him in our own way within the parameters of Torah and mitzvos. Meanwhile, I wrote an album called Journey to the Real You. The songs and lyrics are woven throughout my first book with QR codes connecting the reader to the songs being quoted.
After teaching for over 30 years, I had formulated a series of classes, which I was teaching at Neve in a cycle of six weeks. The classes were based not on how or why to become frum. Rather, it was about what Torah has to say about what people were struggling with at the time they were sitting in front of me in class. Topics such as loneliness, self-esteem, inner awareness, making major life choices, how to find your soulmate, and more. I found that all the classes were tied together by the need for people to discover who they really are. Those classes became the basis for my first book, A Book about You, and my album, Journey to the Real You. I created a multimedia seminar that I taught at a number of seminaries and gap-year yeshivas. The content included music, video, speaking, and a personality quiz. A big part of knowing who you are is knowing what you are. By knowing that the soul is the most essential part of who you are, it will contribute to the “journey to the real you.” Pictures of your soul take you back to that basic question and explore how to grow, even from a very low place, should someone be struggling with their spiritual awareness and identity.
I don’t want to brag. But as an artist, I have also spent time in the film industry. I won a CableACE award, the Cannes Film Festival for Deadly Currents, a movie about the Arab–Israel conflict and the bias in the media, and the Health and Medical film festival for a movie starring Martin Short which was distributed by Disney.
For parnassah, I invent and patent technology. I sold my company Side by Side over 20 years ago and I am working to sell my edensoles.com technology to one of the major shoe companies.
I now live in Ramat Beit Shemesh, happily married with eight kids and 16 grandkids. I learn in a morning kollel at Aish Kodesh and work on my business in the afternoons as well as Avnei Chein, an organization I co-founded, which helps individuals and families suffering from a mental health crisis (avneichein.org).
YG: Wow, there is a lot to unpack within that answer. While you certainly aren’t the first secularly*born-and-raised person to embrace a deep chassidic life, everyone has their own unique story. Please expound a little about the impetus which led to your epiphany.
DG: I can give you my story, but no one really knows why they became frum. Hashem puts the right or wrong people in front of you and you have to make choices. I lived a hypocritical life. Mainly dated non-Jewish girls. My non-Jewish girlfriend drove in her pickup truck to Yom Kippur services on campus. Kol Nidrei was played on the cello by an amazing performer. But having grown up going a few times a year to a Conservative synagogue, I became turned off by the cello and left. Then I started thinking, Why was I turned off by the cello when my non-Jewish girlfriend drove me in her pickup truck on Yom Kippur? Like my Kotzker lineage (which I didn’t know of at the time), I was proud to be authentic, yet I was living a life of contradiction. There is no inner peace when you are living on the fence, unable to make strong choices and live with them to the fullest. It was time to go to where I could work out this inner battle, which included putting my music into a healthy context for living a happy life.
So, I took off the summer to go to Israel where I could sort out my life. I needed a place where I could fight out the issues with the rabbis, and I heard about Aish, where I found myself with a room full of guys all prepared to prove the rabbis to be wrong. I didn’t become frum overnight. It was too bizarre a transition. But eventually my inner voice of truth had to admit that I was living on the fence again, and one day when standing on the rooftop of my dorm overlooking the Kotel, I looked around and had this strong realization that it was time to integrate what was real. Meanwhile, I seemed to be drawn after the more mystical aspects of learning. Derech Hashem was a massive influence. Everything seemed so real: the people I learned with and the ideas I was learning as I got deeper into the Torah learning were all fitting together like a beautiful painting of emes.
Then I started going to chassidic tischen in Meah Shearim. I found my home in Slonim where I heard a tisch by the Nesivos Shalom followed by singing niggunim downstairs in a dark room with hundreds of chassidim. I was taught in music school all about the creative strides of composers like Schoenberg and Stravinsky. Slonim was way ahead. Totally atonal melodies yet with deep soul flowing through them. This perhaps was as powerful as any class I had attended. The debates among my fellow students, attending homes for Shabbos of people that were sincere in the Torah life, and other numerous factors all played a role.
No one made me frum. A big puzzle was placed in front of me, and I had to put the pieces together emotionally, intellectually, and honestly. We are complex beings influenced by so many overlapping factors. Thank G-d, I was given the gift to find my way back home. Listen to my song “Long Journey.”
YG: Your characterization of yeshiva boys looking more or less the same is an interesting one. The mainstream yeshiva curriculum is focused mainly on the study of the body of the Torah to the exclusion of the soul. Your book is titled Pictures of Your Soul. In my life I have had a deep interest in introducing the light of chassidus into the mainstream yeshivas, where I was educated. What, in your estimation, is the apprehension on the part of the faculty in allowing that?
DG: Before I answer, there are more than chassidim learning about Kabbalah and the soul so I have a bit of a hard time defining the question as you did. I agree 100% that the mainstream yeshiva world is for some reason resistant to delve into such a fundamental part of Torah. Shouldn’t “what are you” be Judaism 101? We wake up saying Elokei neshamah. Are we supposed to ignore those words and rush to the next berachah? People who understand Jewish religious history may be better equipped to answer this question, but it could be that the division between chassidus and mainstream yeshivas was easily identified by topics such as working directly on your soul awareness. Although things now are far more integrated, I still feel that when I am learning Gemara, I am being praised for doing that which is the ultimate avodas Hashem. Perhaps, but why should that minimize my own dveykus which comes more naturally though other channels that are more central to chassidus.
The somewhat political battle doesn’t faze many ba’alei teshuvah that much due to our coming to Torah through an open mind. Unfortunately, there are those who think that they must adopt the approach they came through the door with, but in general you find diversity in the ba’al teshuvah world. This is a contribution which I believe we are making in the mainstream frum world. Keeping an open mind is critical, as well as opening the closed-mindedness that limits people’s spiritual growth. I hope my book will be read by a wide range of people who will take the time to discover the true, happy being inside. We care too much about what our neighbor thinks, leaving out the amazing gifts that Hashem is telling us is inside of us all.
YG: For many people, the approbations on a book are in some ways more important than the content of the book itself, or shall I say is the key to the first door enabling them access to the content contained therein. You have compiled very impressive, and strategic, approbations. While I am not familiar with all the personalities, I was curious as to the nature of your relationships with Rav Weinberger and Rabbi Friedman, who happens to be a cousin of mine.
DG: Rav Weinberger is someone I have gotten to know mainly through a number of his talmidim who made aliyah to Ramat Beit Shemesh where we all have been part of the Aish Kodesh community here in Israel. We met in person here at the Herensteins’ home and I have been in touch with him a few times since. Like so many others, I am a big fan of his and his teaching. I thought he would be a perfect person to give an endorsement because of his popularity and obvious love for the type of Chassidic and practical application of the ideas I discuss in the book.
Rabbi Friedman is a unique, independent thinker whom I really wanted to have edit the book to make sure that all the Tanya content was accurate. After an online meeting, he ended up reading the book with the understanding that my goal was to make the soul more tangible to the reader. In the end he made no changes and sent me the endorsement. Thank you, Rav Manis.
Rabbi Yaacov Haber is my rav and has a big following. There was no question about including him in the haskamos. David Hancock, a gentile publisher, CEO of Morgan Stanley, wanted to publish the book, but the printing was going to be way too costly for their business model. He was fascinated by the book so I included his endorsement to communicate that this book can be appreciated by a wide audience. He is republishing a revised version of my first book, A Book about You. I expect to see it in secular bookstores too—and, who knows, maybe even in airport bookstores.
YG: The “neo-Chassidic” movement, for lack of a better term, has continued to burgeon over the last number of years. Many talented teachers of Torah in all languages, but especially in English, continue to succeed at conveying some of the most profound Chassidic and even Kabbalistic ideas to broad audiences. What value does this book have toward someone who is studying these ideas at an advanced level and even able to varying degrees to apply the teachings in their own lives?
DG: I believe that any advanced content should not have to sacrifice being understood by beginners. The advanced reader should only enjoy a slight review of the basics to be able to enjoy a deeper look at the matter. Meanwhile, I don’t alienate beginners from being able to grasp more advanced ideas. They apply to all of us. We all have a soul and our awareness of its centrality in our lives should not be limited only to those who have delved into deep Kabbalistic esoteric learning. I strongly believe and have seen how many beginners wake up when exposed to learning about what the soul is and how to get in touch with it in a relatable way. People confuse how frum you are with how advanced your knowledge may be about spiritual matters. Many people are dedicated ovdei Hashem who could still greatly benefit from a book that makes them more experientially aware of their soul and how to grow to the next level.
Although the concepts are deep, I hope to have a few copies at every Chabad house and other outreach centers around the world.
YG: The deep and penetrating content that fills every page of this book aside, the photographs by Moshe Schlass that accompany each lesson are breathtaking and add a valuable component to the work as a whole. I should mention that my family goes back a long way with Rabbi Schlass, I have even spent Shabbos in his house overlooking the Kotel. What is your relationship with Rabbi Schlass and what was the process that led him to get involved in this project?
DG: Back in the 1980s I also lived in the Old City, just down the street from Moshe. We became friends and I even brought my siblings to him to be inspired by his dynamic personality and perceptive ability to speak to the hearts of people. I also had him teach on a student program that I was running. The course was called “A Taste of the Mitzvos.” Each class took another mitzvah and showed how deep and meaningful it was. About four years ago, my brother-in-law showed me some amazing photographs on his phone. They were Moshe’s Facebook posts. I knew he was a painter, but I had no idea that he was such a talented photographer. What a perfect fit with my book! I quickly got hold of him. He was and still is overjoyed by the idea of his photos being used to convey the ideas from the Tanya. I spent hundreds of hours going through tens of thousands of pictures on a big hard drive. Moshe’s optimism has helped keep me working hard on getting the book finished and sharing it with the world.
YG: The Alter Rebbe, in his introduction to the Tanya, mentions that the Sefer HaTanya, which a lot of the lessons in this book are based upon, was created in lieu of Yechidus, which was and has always been a unique feature in the relationship between a Rebbe and a chassid. He dedicates some space there analyzing the virtues and vices of reading lessons in books rather than hearing them unambiguously directly from a teacher. He quotes the Talmudic aphorism “Hearing is in no way comparable to seeing.” Upon initially seeing this book in my local sefarim store it was this feature that jumped out at me as something that sets this book apart from any other book or sefer of this nature. Was that your intention?
DG: Yes, my intention was to take something we can’t literally see, and try to convey what it is in imagery, using both illustrations and powerful photographs. The challenge is that the pictures are so beautiful, I am afraid of them overshadowing the important written content of the book. I don’t mind if it becomes a coffee-table book, as long as people still treat it as a sefer to be read from cover to cover.
YG: Just a cursory look through this book reveals the fact that you have an impressive mastery of extremely deep concepts. But more than that, it seems like you spend a lot of time meditating on them, which would seem to lead to your ability to distill it in such a clear and comprehensive manner. What advice can you give to people who connect with the intellectual or philosophical aspects of this tome who are seeking to make it a real part of their day-to-day life?
DG: In a number of points in the book, I stop and try to get the reader to focus inside and meditate on the ideas being written about. As a musician, it is very natural to do this, but in my years of teaching, I have not been afraid of taking my students through meditations focusing on the content of my classes. We tend to be scared to step into such an experiential space; yet, for many people it is what they thirst for more than explanations of ideas. They want to experience their real self, the soul in real time. My advice is to dig for a gold mine where you know there is one to be found. We all know we have a soul, so by digging deeper into ourselves we will inevitably find the treasure we are all looking for. Don’t be scared to find that which will ultimately make you a happier person with a sincere connection to G-d.
YG: It seems as if each lesson in this book is self-contained, and I think that is an important feature that allows people to read it at an incremental pace, with a focus on each page individually. Is there a more general picture that emerges upon completion of the full book? Bring us into the process of what it was like choosing the lessons that you did and if there was a sequence at heart from one lesson to the next.
DG: The questions are all written to sound almost like they can’t be answered due to the fact that they are trying to make what seems intangible explained by concrete answers. I wanted people to be aware and in touch with their soul and how to grow though the ups and downs of real life. I therefore asked the questions knowing that Tanya was going to provide the answers. So in a way, the answers came to me before the questions. I just had to define them in terms of where even a beginner would be intrigued by them. At first the book may appear to be only about what the soul is and how we got it, but there is a big part of the book dedicated to how to grow from an intellectual path as well as a more intuitive emotional path of inner awareness.
YG: I would be remiss not to mention your music, which, to be quite honest, I have not yet been exposed to. However, it seems as if your music is another medium through which you convey these ideas. What is your background in music? Do you write and perform all the music on your own? Where is it available to those who would like to download it?
DG: I have been a musician as far back as I can remember. I spent years in the music business, including being a staff writer for A&M records. I worked with some of the biggest names in the biz. Then I went to one of the top music schools, Indiana University–Bloomington where I developed my composition skills, orchestration and arranging. When I went to yeshiva in Israel, I had a jazz band that shared the stage every motzaei Shabbos with the Diaspora yeshiva band. Meanwhile I was doing a lot of writing and recording for various projects. About ten years ago, I was put in touch with Ronny Vance, former president of David Gefen Records. He helped connect me to some of the best musicians in the Tel Aviv music scene. That’s when I recorded my first album, Journey to the Real You, which was all about the content of my first book titled A Book about You. A few years ago, I recorded another album Empty Spaces.
Both albums are available on Spotify, Apple Music, and hundreds of other streaming apps. Look up David H Green or visit realyouproject.com to listen and watch some of my music videos and online course, Kabbalistic personality quiz, and more, including a preview of Pictures of Your Soul. I continue to use my music along with film production to share my teaching in person and online.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.