Tennis and Light (Part 1)

Posted on December 10th, 2018 by

What do Hanukkah and tennis have to do with each other?  It turns out, plenty.

A dear friend of my spouse’s and mine is a musical genius.  There is no other way to put it. During our 25 year concert career, he played on many of our 14 recordings and recording release concerts and wove magic into every part he created. We would sit in the studio control booth listening to him lay down tracks on his piano or Hammond B3 or melodica and sometimes scream with disbelief, “How did he DO that??? It’s perfect for what the song wants!”

He has been on Saturday Night Live, The Tonight Show, and The Late Show with David Letterman. And you probably would not recognize his name though he has been the keyboard player in many bands you would instantly know.

And he is Jewish.

We forged a musical and personal friendship with him that has endured long after we stopped touring six years ago.

This past week, over coffee, we were talking about parenting (he has two teen daughters and we have one). And the Shabbat (Jewish Sabbath).  He and his family observe Shabbat weekly. From sunset Friday until three stars are visible in the sky Saturday. No creative work. No cooking, scrubbing, errands in the car, no electronics (that means no tv, cell phones, social media.  Zero.). Everything shuts down. And opens up.

Like everyone else, he has challenges as a parent.  He says things he wishes he would have said differently.  He gets angry. His daughters get angry. (One moment, he says, his daughter will say “You are the best dad in the world” and the next she will say, “You are terrible at parenting!”  To which he answers, “They didn’t give me a manual! I’m making this up as I go!”). They butt heads like most parents and children. He apologizes. They apologize. They start again.  Stronger.

But every Friday night, no matter what has happened in their lives, everything comes to a halt and they have their Shabbat meal together.  And spend the night in the living room talking into the wee hours, reading, sometimes even just being together in silence. And he says it is the most beautiful time of the week for all of them.  A day of true rest. It is counter-cultural.

This has cost him.  Plenty. Friday nights are gold to musicians.  It is unheard of not to play. He has lost income, prestigious gigs, and has irritated musicians and bookers who do not share his understanding of why this is important.

He does not begrudge others who play on Fridays nor judge anyone else for the choices they make. Including Leandra and me, who are not Jewish and played hundreds of concerts on Friday nights and, now that we are not in music as a career, still nevertheless go about our lives without much pause.

He hasn’t always done this, but he has for the past two decades. But the seed was planted in 1987. The band he was in was poised for stardom. They had risen in popularity and critical acclaim. His best friend from when they were little kids was the band leader and had chosen to be an observant Jew in this particular way. Their management knew not to schedule concerts on Friday nights.

Then came the call from Sting.  World tour. Stadiums and arenas. One solid year.  Opening act for 164 concerts in front of millions of people.  It would have catapulted them into the world spotlight and probably to great fame, fortune, and even greater critical acclaim.  They said they would love to do it. But they couldn’t play Fridays. Would Sting’s management consider that?

No.

And there you have it.

So, on Friday nights, his family continues to gather.  They are like yours and mine, with the same struggles, heartaches, joys, financial worries.  And love.

Hanukkah is the celebration of light conquering darkness.  Of staying true to your principles and roots. Of knowing that some things are more important than gold.

What does this have to do with tennis?

My friend and his family are counter cultural, even in the wider Jewish community.  But it works for them. What we want to continue to promote at TLC is also counter cultural.  We love to win but we value other things above that. The things we can control. Positive Attitude.  Full Effort. Good Sportsmanship. The Three Crowns ℠.  We are not perfect at it and make many mistakes.  

But what we hope we can give to our campers is a foundation, that no matter how the world pushes winning at all cost, there is another way, where you can keep your integrity intact, even while competing as hard as you can to win. Where you value your opponent as much as you value yourself. Where you take pauses for a minute during your day to be grateful for the people and things in your life that make them more fulfilling.  Where you push yourself to be your best, but rest in the knowledge that playing well and winning are out of your control.

This is not a popular stance in the world at large, or for many in the world of tennis.

But it brings light.  We believe that.

We all get to ask:  what will I sacrifice to bring light to this world?  My friend’s answer is different than mine.

But if our separate answers together build a more just and peaceful world and game, it sends the same message:  Bringing light to the world or to the court is a choice. I hope you choose light this season of many lights. Happy Hannukkah to all our campers who celebrate this light.

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16 Comments

  1. Amy Braun Steinhauser says:

    I knew it was Jeff at “B3 Hammond.” What a beautiful story. But I’ll be the dog in the manger and wonder, does following your dreams only work if you’re financially stable? Or …?

    • Neal says:

      Yes, Amy. I agree it does. And he chose to be less financially stable. I suspect, but would have to ask him, that if he had to choose to give up his interpretation of the Shabbat or his music career because it was no longer financially viable in this situation, he would have given up his music career. Not music. His music career. Therein lies the difference, I think.

  2. DIANE MARSH says:

    Beautiful, inspiring story, Neal.

  3. BARBARA LEWIS says:

    A beautiful story, but I totally disagree with your friend giving up an incredible opportunity. First of all, most of the Jewish laws are totally antiquated. In the 10 years I spent in Sunday school and Hebrew school, a year on a kibbutz in Israel and going to services almost every Saturday before I was an adult, I don’t ever remember reading or studying or hearing the Rabbi tell us that we should abandon our dreams and goals. And, why is Shabbat celebrated from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. Seems mighty convenient that the Jews picked the weekend. I doubt god would care if Monday or Tuesday or any other day was the day we chose. Neal, please don’t take this as anything other than I’m spouting because I’m feeling sad that your friend didn’t tour with Sting 🙂

    • Neal Hagberg says:

      Hi Barb, for my friend, it was the right choice. I spoke with him yesterday, after he read what I wrote, when he agreed to let me publish this, and he said the richness he feels setting aside this day is far greater to him than any tour could ever be, and he has no regrets. Though it is not what I would choose, for him, it brings him life and order and an escape from the mad rush of life. I see the positive impact it has had on him, having known him before and after he chose this way. He is, of course, sad that not all of his dreams could come true, but guess what? Had he toured with Sting, he would have never met the incomparable Neal & Leandra, lol. ;). Like I wrote, he doesn’t begrudge anyone else the way they live their lives and would, I think, fully support you in saying you think its nuts. But we’re all a little nuts in our own way, I think.

      • BARBARA LEWIS says:

        Being friends with you and Leandra is one of the major joys of my life, so if that was one of the perks for giving up touring then it was worth it and I say this with genuine sincerity.

      • Neal Hagberg says:

        back at you on your being a joy in our life. Life works in funny ways, doesn’t it?

  4. Joycy Hagberg says:

    Love, love, love this. So much I didn’t know about Jeff ❤️
    And remember, Neal… December 13 is Santa Lucia Day … Sweden’s Festival of Lights 😊

  5. Elly Black says:

    Awwwww man!! How do you come up with these beautiful, inspiring and poignant conversations every month.

    All the best to you and your wonderful crew at TLC in 2019 Neal!

    Elly and Rial (as in crocodile)!!

  6. Ann Manning says:

    Beautiful post and wonderful reminders.
    Thank you!

  7. Neal Hagberg says:

    Thanks, Rozan, greeting to your clan!

  8. Rozan says:

    Beautifully said, as always, Neal!