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Alex Clare: Changing in Public

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SUMMARY

In this episode of the 18Forty Podcast, we talk to Alex Clare – singer and baal teshuva – about changing identity and what if questions.

Alex was a rising music star who left the music industry to pursue a religious life – what’s known as a baal teshuva – then returned following international commercial success. He has faced many life-changing choices, and so has experience with navigating change in a healthy way.

  • How can one ensure that the changes they make are navigated healthily?
  • What if one regrets the choices they have made?
  • Is it useful to think about what if questions?

Tune in to hear a conversation about healthy change and what if questions.

References:
Love’s Executioner by Irvin Yalom
Grendel by John Gardner
What Ifs of Jewish History by Gavriel Rosenfeld
A Student’s Obligation by the Piaseczno rebbe
The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel

Alex Clare is an award-winning singer, songwriter, and producer. His song “Too Close” went double platinum in the United States and was in the top-ten in five different countries. Alex, a native of the UK, made the decision to become a religious Jew several years ago, and now resides in Jerusalem, where he creates music inspired by his spiritual life. Alex’s personal path to religion, and his decision to become an Orthodox Jew, has intrigued many, and he joins us to talk about music, religion, and the complex road to growth.

David Bashevkin:

Hello, and welcome to the 18Forty Podcast, where each month we explore a different topic, balancing modern sensibilities with traditional sensitivities, to give you new approaches to timeless, Jewish ideas. I’m your host, David Bashevkin, and this month we’re exploring change, part of that larger topic known as teshuva, returning to our essential religious identity. This podcast is part of a larger exploration of those big, juicy, Jewish ideas. So be sure to check out 18Forty.org, that’s 1-8-F-O-R-T-Y.org, where you can find videos, articles, and recommended readings.

One of my favorite questions to ask and consider is what if. What if things went differently? What if I had been raised in a different community? What if I had gone to different educational institutions, perhaps a different high school, a different yeshiva? What if I married somebody else? How would my life look differently? And I think, though we don’t like asking that question, I think it stands at the heart of how we conceptualize our own changes in our lives. Very often we look at the life that we live now, and we go back and say, “Well, what would have been if I went into a different profession? What happens if I worked at a different company? What about the community I live in?” There are so many of these major decisions that make up who we are, that very often we look back and we wonder, we ask ourselves: what are the decisions that essentially contribute to who we are today? And this obviously is a major trope of sorts in all Hollywood films, people reflecting on their lives, probably most famously by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront.

Marlon Brando:

You don’t understand, I could have had class. I could’ve been a contender. I could have been somebody instead of a bum. Which is what I am, let’s face it.

David Bashevkin:

And whether it’s Marlon Brando On the Waterfront, or for me, more famously, that famous Seinfeld episode when Newman has Kramer on the stand. I’m not going to go through all the hijinks of what got them to that moment, you’ll have to review that episode on your own, but in his classic exasperation, Newman reaches out and says the following to Kramer:

Newman:

But you never became a banker, did you, Mr. Kramer? Why? Why did you fail?

Kramer:

I don’t know.

Newman:

It is because you hated your father and you would do anything to displease him. Isn’t that true?

David Bashevkin:

Regardless of what decisions we ask this question about, I think this is a question that is baked into the way that we look at the world, whether it’s the what ifs that we ask in sports, what would have been if the Portland Trailblazers had drafted Michael Jordan. They passed over him and drafted Sam Bowie. What if somebody else was cast in a favorite television show of ours? What if somebody else played Jim on The Office? Or probably most famously in history, we think, what would have been if somebody went back and assassinated baby Hitler? Would we have seen a Holocaust? What would have been of major historical events? If the South would have won the Civil War, how would America have looked differently? There are a lot of questions that we ask in history, and this is known as alternative history.

But I’m not asking in those larger history questions. I think that this question stands at the heart of how we conceptualize our individual identity. There is a wonderful book called Love’s Executioner by Irvin Yalom that I love to quote, specifically from the prologue, where he lays out, what are the principles that allow people to be successful in their own emotional inquiries in therapy? And he lays out four principles, but I’m only going to share one. You’ll have to buy the book to read the rest. But in that prologue, he writes about freedom and the necessity to make decisions. He writes as follows: “Though the word ‘responsible’ may be used in a variety of ways, I prefer Sartre’s definition.” Obviously I don’t know if I’m pronouncing the great existential Sartre’s last name correctly, but I’m going to go for it anyways. I love mispronouncing names, that seems to be a recurring theme on this podcast.

“But I prefer,” he writes, “Sartre’s definition: to be responsible is to be the author of, each of us thus being the author of his or her own life. We are free to be anything but unfree. We are, Sartre would say, condemned to freedom.” And this is at the heart of decision making. This is at the heart of the pain of decision-making. He writes, “Decisions are difficult for many reasons, some reaching down into the very socket of being. John Gardner, in his novel Grendel, tells of a wise man who sums up his meditation on life’s mysteries in two simple, but terrible postulates. Things fade, alternatives exclude. Decision invariably involves renunciation. For every yes there must be a no, each decision eliminating or killing other options. Thus, the word ‘decide’ means slay, as in homicide or suicide.”

And ever since I read that line about the word “deciding” coming from that word “homicide” or “suicide,” because we are cutting off from these alternatives as we create ourselves, I think a lot of that teshuva process, of the roads that we do not take, the changes that we weren’t able to make, that linger in the past, and we may wonder how our life would look differently had I made a different decision, I’ve always been struck by the fact that, at least in Hebrew, the Jewish word for “decide,” “bocher,” or “bechira,” which means free will or choice, has the very same letters as the words “charav” or “churban,” which means to destroy. Because I think the very act of self-creation is forged in the cauldron of decision-making, of cutting off those other possibilities where our sense of self emerges.

But it’s not an accident that for many people, we still are left wondering and lingering that what if question. What if I had done things differently? What if I didn’t embrace a renewed perspective or relationship? Whether it’s with religion, with a spouse, with our community, with our family. And there’s a wonderful book, I hope one day to write more about this, it’s called The What Ifs of Jewish History by Gavriel Rosenfeld. And he writes over there about the historical questions that we ask, why we ask what if. And he’s talking more generally about history, but in the introduction, he narrows in on the individual level and writes as follows: “The primary reason why we ask what if lies in the broader area of human psychology. It is in our very nature as human beings to wonder what if. At various junctures in our lives, we may speculate about what might have happened if certain events had or had not occurred in our past. What if we lived in a different place, attended a different school, taken a different job, married a different spouse? When we ask such questions, we are really expressing our feelings about the present. We’re either grateful that things worked out as they did, or we regret that they did not occur differently.”

And while this book is about the larger historical concerns about world history, I think this is equally true in the what if questions that we use to construct our individual history. And I think it is a referendum, a rumination, or a reflection, on the presence that we all have, and our relationships to decision-making in general. And to me, this stands at the heart of the teshuva process, of what religious change is all about, because ultimately we are condemned to freedom. We are condemned to live with our own choices, and figuring out how the life that we live in present day today can be forged in the best way possible to make more positive future lives for ourselves. I think a lot about the verse that we use to describe to teshuva, at least according to the Ramban, or as he’s known, Nachmanides. The Ramban looks at the verse in Parshas Netzavim that says “lo bashamayim hi,” the Torah is not in Heaven. And the Ramban extrapolates from this verse, “lo bashamayim,” it is not in heaven, he says this is talking about to teshuva, our capacity, almost the fact that we are condemned to make these decisions and to live by these decisions.

However, I heard a beautiful explanation I believe from my teacher Rav Ari Waxman in the name of his teacher, Rav Moshe Shapiro, who has a homiletical take on this principle of lo bashamayim hi. He says it’s not just to be read bashamayim, meaning in the heavens – shamayim literally means heavens – but in Hebrew, the word “there,” meaning sham, if you put it in plural would mean shamim, all of the there’s in your life. That very often we look at our lives and we say, “If only I was over there, if only I got that job, if only I had that spouse, if only I lived in that community, if only I had those children.” We have all of these there’s in our life.

We have all of these shams in our lives. And we point to them and we say, if only I was over there, then I would be able to live a positive and healthy life. And what the Torah is saying is that all of those shams, all of those shamim, all of the there’s in our life, don’t look over there. Lo bashamayim hi, it’s not over there. You have the capacity where you are right now in the present to recreate the underlying values of your life. Don’t look elsewhere, look in the present moment where you are right now, and find a pathway forward. And that’s why I am so excited for our conversation with Alex Clare. You may remember Alex Clare from his billboard topping, I think it rose to top 10 in the United States, his song Too Close.

I remember when the song came out, and I was always fascinated by the fact that Alex, who really reconstructed his religious identity prior to the song, and you’ll hear his entire story, was left looking at a what if question. What if he did go on tour on Shabbos and didn’t embrace his Jewish identity? How would his life look differently? What were the events that contributed to the life that he lives now? And how does he make peace? Not just make peace, but embrace the fact of his current religious identity, even knowing that at times it can conflict with the musical path that he had originally – he’s still making unbelievable music, though obviously there are constraints in his ability to tour on Shabbos and all of these things that we discuss.

And I found in Alex a remarkable sophistication with the way that he looks at his own life. And I was particularly impressed, and even moved, from the fact that much of his religious journey was done in the public eye. He became quite famous, and as a religious Jew, for the whole world to see. And very often when we are placed in those positions, and it doesn’t just mean world famous, I see this in NCSY, I see this in high schools. Sometimes when you get this reputation as the person who’s becoming very religious, very frum, very Orthodox, whatever it is, you serve as the prototype and example for others. And it places a pressure on how you construct your own identity, because you know so many people are watching.

Very often, and we discussed this in the podcast, people who are under that public eye can crumble, because it’s hard to discover your own authenticity when so many people are watching. But I think that lingering question of what if is dealt with in a masterful way by Alex, somebody who I’ve had the privilege to meet in person, and is just a really healthy example of somebody who embraced a religious identity, even knowing that his earlier path in music would have led him probably to a great larger amount of fame or notoriety, whatever it is, all this great stuff, but embraced a present. Doesn’t look at all of the shams in his life, all of the there’s, and really has the capacity, strength, and creativity of self creation in the present moment, where he is right now. So it is my absolute pleasure to introduce our conversation with Alex Clare.

Welcome my friends. It is my absolute pleasure to introduce someone who I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting once in person at a Yarchei Kallah –

Alex Clare:

Just once?

David Bashevkin:

Just once, at an NCSY event. He came in and it was really just one of the most uplifting and inspiring experiences. And I am so excited to introduce today for our conversation about rebuilding, reforming, and re-imagining one’s religious identity, the real gritty process of teshuva, repentance. It is my pleasure to introduce my friend, Alex Clare.

Alex Clare:

Hi there.

David Bashevkin:

Alex, I am so excited to speak with you today. I hope it’s okay if I call you Alex, is that what you –

Alex Clare:

That’s my name. I wouldn’t want to be called anything else.

David Bashevkin:

Okay, fantastic. Fantastic. So you came on the scene many years ago, but people all still remember your music. You had an incredible song called Too Close, which was on the billboards, it was in commercials. I don’t want to begin with that song. I want to begin with, what was your religious identity? Explain to me where you grew up and who you were as a person before this song really became a part of the public consciousness.

Alex Clare:

So I grew up in London, in the UK, in South London. Born in 1985, grew up in a place called Bromley. My neighborhood was called Bromley. Bromley is famous for a few people. David Bowie was from Bromley, so he was a musical hero growing up. And also Thomas Crapper, the inventor of the flushable toilet. They’re Bromley’s two most famous sons.

David Bashevkin:

It’s so funny, I was born in 1985 also. And I always say, in the town my father grew up, and I go through the same list, it’s not as popular as yours, but my father grew up in the same town as the inventors of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. So we each have our hometown fun facts.

Alex Clare:

I mean, very secular upbringing. Not even really traditional I think. It was quite, I wouldn’t say atheistic, God forbid, but it was not a priority in my life growing up, in the conventional sense, anyway. I got very into the music scene in London as a teenager playing drums, playing percussion, then playing guitar, and writing music. And slowly that lifestyle as a teenager drew me away from education. And it was fantastic, it was a lot of fun, partying and playing around the UK, and then eventually Europe and America. Yeah. I mean, spirituality definitely came more into my life… As a teenager, I had a big interest in learning Hebrew. I really wanted to try and understand it properly for non-religious reasons, just because I felt like I should learn Hebrew. And later on, being that I enjoyed Tanakh, I thought as a songwriter, I loved the melancholy and the drama and everything else that was in there. And slowly, slowly started –

David Bashevkin:

Would it be fair to say that… Would it be fair to say, I’m sorry to jump in, that at that point in your life, music was a spiritual endeavor?

Alex Clare:

It was an everything endeavor. It wasn’t just spirituality, it was physicality as well. It was really where I found my fulfillment, and where I wanted to grow. And I was in an environment that was very, very supportive of that. All my friends were musicians. Everyone I aspired to be was a musician. The environ was such an intensive creative space. The music scene in London in the late nineties, early two thousands, was a very, very good and potent environment if you wanted to learn how to create and be involved in music of any type. Yes. It wasn’t just my spiritual goal, but my life goal as well.

David Bashevkin:

And in those early years, would you think of yourself as successful? Meaning, where was your music career in those early heady years? Who were your associates? Were you part of –

Alex Clare:

I was part of a scene. Yeah. I mean, it was a very diverse scene. On one hand you had the electronic music guys who come from Southeast London where I come from. And then I moved to North London to Camden Town when I was 18 years old. And I was associating with… The amount of people in that scene at that time who went on to win Grammys and become billboard artists, it’s ridiculous. Everyone from Florence and the Machine, Mumford & Sons, Amy Winehouse.

David Bashevkin:

And you knew these people in that scene?

Alex Clare:

Yeah. For sure.

David Bashevkin:

You guys were all –

Alex Clare:

We were all playing the same clubs, all the same bars. Amy was a few years ahead of everybody else. And again, she came from a more conventional jazz background. But Florence and the Machine, yeah, knew her. Mumford & Sons, they were playing on the same scene, same indie rock venues. Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

There are two timelines, and I’m thinking a lot about the alternate timelines, which we’ll get to in a moment, but take me through your religious timeline. When would you say you began to really explore reinventing your religious identity, and why would you do that?

Alex Clare:

Like most baalei teshuva, if you find me a baal teshuva, a returnee to Judaism, who hasn’t had some sort of catastrophic or traumatic event, I’m always very surprised. For me, in my early twenties, I went through a real traumatic experience in that world of music with the people I was involved with, and it was a very negative environment to be in. And I think that –

David Bashevkin:

I don’t want to press you on that.

Alex Clare:

It’s okay.

David Bashevkin:

Can you explain a little bit what you mean by that? You don’t have to share.

Alex Clare:

Drugs, alcohol, hedonism. People who are thrust into the path of celebrity and fame. A whole gamut of my social group were, on the outside, exceptionally successful people, but on the inside, really suffering and going through a lot of pain. And being in that environment, a really toxic environment for one or another, a better expression. I think being in that world really started to shake up my perspective on what I wanted out of life. And I wanted to have a good life and have a set of values, have a spiritual existence of some sort. And I found that in my early twenties very much in Judaism, and very much in Hasidic thought specifically. It really helped to shape me and give me a foundation, a basis of spirituality, or a spiritual framework where I could grow.

David Bashevkin:

And where did you find that? Meaning, you’re playing clubs, you’re in a scene with Amy Winehouse, and Florence and the Machine, and Mumford & Sons. I assume none of them introduced you to Hasidic thought, unless I’m wrong. So where did that come from?

Alex Clare:

Again, I grew up in a fairly secular background, but a lot of my friends growing up were much more traditional than I was. And I came from a fairly unconventional background. My parents got divorced when I was quite… It’s not so unconventional nowadays. Is it really? My parents got divorced when I was very young, and there wasn’t so much stability at home. And my friends in my teens and in my early twenties, who were really the bedrock, and gave me a more comfortable environment to be in, were my friends who were, not necessarily daati religious, so to speak, but more traditional than myself.

And I had that exposure to Shabbat, and to the chagim, to the festivals. And it seemed like a good, wholesome, meaningful place to aspire to. Therefore I really started getting into, around that time period of about 20, 22, although I was playing on the music scene in London, Friday night dinners at my friend’s house before I went out to a nightclub to play or to party.

David Bashevkin:

And at this point on the timeline, because we’re operating on two timelines, so you’re becoming interested, intrigued, almost, curious about that world of Jewish values and Jewish living. You haven’t dramatically embraced it at that point, it sounds like. You were dabbling.

Alex Clare:

Not yet.

David Bashevkin:

And at this point in your music timeline, where were you musically?

Alex Clare:

I was going up and up and up. I was doing more studio work, getting sessions with some very good producers and other musicians, and making a name for myself on the live scene in London as well at that time, getting noticed. And success was on its way. I was still very much at the beginning of the process, but the two timelines do run in a parallel trajectory.

David Bashevkin:

Yeah. So I want to fast forward to the, let’s call the nexus event, to borrow a term from comic books, which is when a timeline is disrupted. Tell me about the disruption in your religious timeline. Do you think there was a moment where you decided, “I am starting on a different path. I am no longer going to be a part of this scene.” And then we’ll afterwards talk about the music timeline of when you broke out onto the international scene.

Alex Clare:

Sure. It was very gradual. I’m not such an extreme person, and it was a very, very gradual process. I never was completely divorced from the scene. Even when I started keeping Shabbat, I was still very much involved in the scene, I just stopped playing Friday nights and Saturday days. The nexus event where there started to be some level of conflict between the two worlds was actually later, after I signed my first major record deal. I was keeping Shabbat and I was growing in my religious observance, let’s say. And it was really during that time period when I’d signed my first major record deal, and I’d already made my first album, that’s when the two worlds really collided, when the two worlds became fairly incongruous together.

David Bashevkin:

What made it incongruous? Meaning, tell me, where were you? What was the moment happened? You’re a musician, and all of a sudden you had this song that I assume you composed earlier, Too Close, which maybe we’ll even play a teeny tiny clip of just so people know exactly, it’s instantly recognizable. What was going on in your religious life when you discovered that you are no longer in the London music scene, but your music is now in the international music scene?

Alex Clare:

The funny thing is, by the time my music came onto the international music scene, I’d actually left the music industry and I was in yeshiva in Jerusalem. That’s what’s so crazy. I actually had left the music industry, obviously temporarily, but I was fairly jaded with the whole experience of… The conflict for me was really between Shabbat observance and performance. And it got to a point where the record label couldn’t really compromise anymore, because every opportunity they were getting for me was on a Friday night, and I just had to keep turning it down. Eventually the relationship broke down to a point where it wasn’t so manageable anymore, I got dropped because of that. Which is okay, I get it. I wasn’t making them any money. I left the music industry, went to yeshiva. And when I was on my way to yeshiva, that’s when I found out that Microsoft wanted to use my music for an ad campaign.

David Bashevkin:

Microsoft, the company you may be familiar with, from their greatest hits such as Windows. Yeah, they’re pretty well known. And your song was featured in a Microsoft ad, that was the breakthrough?

Alex Clare:

That was the big international breakthrough. I’d had success in Europe, in the Netherlands, specifically in the UK, but I hadn’t had any top 40 success. It was all bubbling away as an emerging artist, strong on the live scene, but I hadn’t yet had that big push. When I was in yeshiva, studying in Jerusalem, that’s when Too Close really, really blew up and changed my life in ways that I would never would have imagined.

David Bashevkin:

So if I would have asked Alex Clare, and I think this like 2011, this is 10 years ago?

Alex Clare:

It was released in 2011, but it became a success in 2012, a year after it was released.

David Bashevkin:

If I would have asked you a month before it was picked up by Microsoft, and I would have found you in yeshiva, and I would have come over to you and see this really cool looking person from London. I’m sure you were doing wonderful things. And I would’ve said, “What do you plan on doing? What’s the game plan?” What do you think you would have answered?

Alex Clare:

I’d probably have said, “I’m going to sit here in yeshiva.” That’s what I probably would have said at that time. I really was so –

David Bashevkin:

That was the plan? You wanted to learn.

Alex Clare:

That was the plan. I was so jaded with the music industry. When I had my first meeting with my first lawyer… In the music industry you need two things to succeed, and they’re not music, they’re an accountant and a lawyer. When I met my first lawyer, he told me, he said, “You have to appreciate, Alex, the music industry is two things, there’s music, and then there’s business. And for sensitive people who are creative people, that paradox can be very, very difficult.” And it always resonated with me. And I got to a point where I really was fed up with the music industry, not with creativity, not with music itself. Even studying in yeshiva, I was still playing and writing music, I just couldn’t be bothered with the actual business side of things anymore, because it just seemed at the time to be an impossibility to make a life in that world.

David Bashevkin:

So when you got this breakthrough moment, this nexus event, shall we, and now you are on the world scene, are you excited? Are you nervous? Meaning, right now, your timeline is diverging. You’ve picked a side, said, “I’m going to study in yeshiva.” And now you’re being pulled back, like that famous scene in Godfather Part III, they keep pulling me back in. What was –

Alex Clare:

No one ever talks about famous moments in Godfather Part III, by the way. Number one and number two, maybe, but number three?

David Bashevkin:

Number three, right when I come out, they pull me back in. And you got pulled in in a really public way. And again, I don’t want to project my own emotional constitution on your story, but I could imagine some anxiety, hesitance, you’re being pushed out back into a world that you made peace with leaving. So what were you feeling at that moment?

Alex Clare:

I had a few realizations. One is that I think I had to be happy to let that moment go. It’s only when I was no longer attached to the concept of being a famous musician or being even a successful musician, when I was no longer attached to that concept, I think that’s really when the siyata dishmaya, the spiritual benefits and the physical benefits really came about, because I was willing to let go of it. I think I saw that, and then once the opportunity came to have a financially successful career in music, to be a person who could actually make a living from it, that was a big eye opener, a big eye opener. And I’ve always been very close to the Chabad school of Hasidic thought, which definitely focuses much more on taking things of the world, of a seemingly profane nature, and sanctifying them.

So for me, to be a person like me who would be involved in the music industry, and to go back into it with that in mind, was a good outlook. In the beginning, I think that it made the decision quite easy. And when I spoke through with my mentors at the time, they were all very supportive, and were like, “You got to do it. You got to do it. It’s very obvious that this is happening now for a reason. And if it’s an opportunity that’s going to disappear, you have to do it.”

David Bashevkin:

So what I am so fascinated by is the notion of what’s called by historians alternative history. Alternative history are those what if questions, what would have happened if somebody went back in a time machine and assassinated Hitler, or broke up the Civil War before it started? There are all these points in history where you can ask, what if things had gone differently? And I’m curious for you the role of alternative history in your life. How often do you find yourself thinking or questioning the authenticity of the path you took, and the path that you let go? Meaning, had you not been religious at that moment, and you dove into this song that got this big boost from Microsoft, you could be living a radically different life.

And everybody has an alternative history to themselves. Everybody has moments in their life that, if they would have gone a different way, would have definitely unfolded. And there could be lingering senses of doubt or regret or concern. Few people have it as starkly as you do. And I’m curious what you do to contend with the full embrace of the lifestyle and religious commitments that you have, knowing that you have an alternative timeline lurking just right next to you.

Alex Clare:

That’s an interesting point. There are two very well known and very well experienced types of situations that people have in their mental health, anxiety and depression being the two most common. Anxiety, obviously being worried about what’s going to happen next, what’s going to happen in the future, and depression being more focused on what’s happened in the past. For me, I’m much more of an anxious person than a depressed person. I’m more of a person who’s focused on what am I going to do next, what’s happening in the future? I think faith plays a massive part in dealing with that and finding some solace in that. But for me, the what ifs and the maybes, I try not to think about it too much.

I’ve had big, big blessings, and they really, I try not to count them, because there’s been a few and I would like some more. I have so many friends who’ve gone through so much. If you went through my phone book from 15 years ago, such a large percentage of the people who are in there aren’t alive anymore, or have taken paths which just led to some level of negativity. And I think for me, I don’t know where I’d be if I’d have taken a different turn or different journey. I think I had a good head on my shoulders and good emotional states, a good heart. I could deal with those pitfalls and things that were thrown at me. I really think that, although yes, there probably is an alternative history and alternative timeline, I have to definitely live with the one that I’ve chosen and the one that I’m given, and make the absolute most of that, without dwelling too much on what happened in the past, or what could have happened because of things that happened in the past.

David Bashevkin:

I’ll read you this quote, this is from an absolutely brilliant book, which is about the what ifs of Jewish history. And I’ve quoted it a few times. It’s from the introduction by Gavriel Rosenfeld. And he writes, “Perhaps the primary reason why we ask what if lies in the broader area of human psychology. It is our very nature as human beings to wonder what if. At various junctures in our lives, we may speculate about what might have happened if certain events had or had not occurred in our past. What if we lived in a different place? What if we attended a different school, taken a different job, married a different spouse? When we ask such questions, we are really expressing feelings about the present. We are either grateful that things worked out as they did, or we regret that they did not occur differently.”

And that’s why I’m so fascinated by your approach, because not everybody has the challenge that you have to ask a very clear what if question. But my layered question on this is that you spoke about going all in, and that when it was more hedonistic and the negativity. How did you prevent yourself, and you’ll forgive me for phrasing the question the way I am, because obviously I’m a lover of Judaism, what prevented you from not going all in in an unhealthy way in your religious development? Meaning –

Alex Clare:

I think in my religious development, I did go in unhealthily. Teshuva is such a process that anyone who goes in perfectly, it’s not really a teshuva. But the process of teshuva itself is not perfect. It’s a very broken, bumpy road, where it really attracts extreme personalities. And I think there have been times, and I really have gone into things like, bang, let’s learn 15 hours a day. Daven at netz every single day, I’m going to go to the ritual area and go to the mikvah everyday. Doing all these very, very heavy things. And a part of my teshuva process itself is actually to try and come back from a lot of those places which I don’t think were very healthy. I really don’t think they’re very healthy.

And I live in Jerusalem. We see a lot of very religious people here and it’s this very special place. But because of that process of growth most people are going through, it is not a smooth journey. I don’t know anyone who’s really gone for a really smooth journey with it. You’d have to have good people around you and supportive people, and have the right role models. Because I know I’ve gone to certain extremes in my religious journey, and that’s, again, part of the learning process.

David Bashevkin:

If I’m understanding you correctly, a lot of times we talk particularly about the process of becoming what’s known as a baal teshuva, somebody who was secular background, and now they’re religious. We look at it as this binary, this before and after.

Alex Clare:

A lot of people do.

David Bashevkin:

I used to not be, and now I am. And that doesn’t sound to me like what you went through. Explain to me how even after the change, you still were developed. Explained to me practically what that means.

Alex Clare:

I don’t think it’s so binary for anybody, really. If it is, I’d love to talk to these people. Anyone who comes out of the process normal and balanced. Yeah. If you dig deeply, and if people are really honest with themselves, there’s a lot going on there. I’m not a psychologist, although I’ve spoken to quite a few of them over the years. And I really am intrigued by the process and what people go through. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, of blessed memory, he was very anti the baal teshuva movement in the conventional sense of the word, because he very much felt that people were unique and special. And often, when people are going through a process of change and a process of growth, they begin to resent some parts of themselves from their past, certain memories. And they want to divorce themselves from themselves completely, because it’s painful to face and to deal with those things. And in the process, they end up white washing or deleting their personality, or the things that make them truly unique, which is traumatic. Not traumatic, it’s really trying to deal with the trauma in a way of just throwing a bucket of sand over and being like, “Yep, this is fine. I’ll move on now.”

David Bashevkin:

This is fine.

Alex Clare:

This is fine. We’re good. We’ll just put him over there. All that stuff, or compartmentalize it. But a person, myself, I can’t… You can live a little bit like that for a while, but eventually, the cognitive dissonance just doesn’t work anymore. And the repression of feelings and traumas, you have to do something with it.

David Bashevkin:

So could you explain… I’m sorry I keep pushing for an example. Give me an example of something that you committed yourself to, that you took upon yourself following your embrace of Yiddishkeit, of Judaism, that you later, maybe your grasp softened a little bit, or maybe you let go of it completely. We spoke about letting go, about your music career. Sometimes you need to almost let go of your religious commitments for the sake of your religious life. Do you have any concrete examples of when you did that or why you did that?

Alex Clare:

Goodness me. Things that I’ve done? There’s lists. I have to feel if I’m comfortable sharing them. But there are a lot of things I’ve undertaken over the years. A lot of things I’ve been able to keep consistently, certain hidurim, certain aspects of different biblical commandments that I’ve tried to do in a better way, or in a more stringent way. I think generally, if a person undertakes any stringency and it causes anything negative for another person in your life, as a stringency it’s obviously not a positive thing. People being very stringent in kashrut, in the laws of kosher food, in the laws of tefillin – people should pray and be happy to, but if that’s going to infringe or affect other people negatively, then it’s probably not the best path for a person to take.

David Bashevkin:

At any point in your journey, I’m curious, and we will come back to this, because really what I’m trying to explore is the messiness and complexity of this process. Would you characterize, after you really embraced and started living a religious lifestyle, would you say that you still had moments or periods where you had doubts or concerns about your ability to translate this into the rest of your life?

Alex Clare:

For me, I was all in, and I am all in. The biggest struggle I had in my career was not just in my career, also in my personal life, was explaining to members of my family about the level of kashrut I’d be keeping, or to explain to my record company, I have to keep this thing called Shabbat. That does come with certain challenges, but there is a basic requirement that I was so in love, and so overwhelmed, and a person has to be when beginning the process, that excitement and that passion is really the thing that builds up the steam to push you forward in the process. Even though that steam may… The pressure may drop a little bit later on, and hopefully it will, to a more balanced and happy place.

But it was never so challenging for me. Maybe I’m an extreme person, maybe I’m, well, slightly fanatical. Apart from the material outcomes, which most people would see them as fairly negative, losing a job because of it, that didn’t seem to me to be as important. Just like creating music for me, creating music, it’s nice to make a living from it, but I didn’t start creating music because I wanted to make money. I started making music because it just felt like a really good thing to do.

David Bashevkin:

One question that’s been on my mind, particularly recently, is how you view the Jewish communities – I want to be generous in my description, but I’m going to use the word almost obsession with fame and with celebrity. Particularly in the Jewish community, there’s a fascination with Jews who are famous, with Jews who break out into the public consciousness. And for you, as a baal teshuva who came to the observant Jewish community much later in life, it’s really a two-pronged curiosity that I have. Number one, didn’t this place a great deal of pressure on your journey? That you have the whole Orthodox community in particular, having you as a poster child, and, “He’s our guy.” This was right after, and I hope it’s okay to mention, this was right after Matisyahu became public. He’s on talk shows, he’s all in the public.

And he later left, and now the Orthodox community is looking at you. And they’re saying, “Okay. We need you. You’re our guy, you’re the poster child of our people.” I assume we’re coming to you for guidance and all this stuff, to figure out this, they want these sophisticated, inspiring ideas, and here you are, a person just figuring it out. How did you balance looking at the community you joined, and their… Again, I feel bad to use the word. I don’t want to use the word “obsession,” their excitement with fame. A very normal human excitement with fame. And secondly, aside from the public nature of your evolution, and how people were rooting for you, I’m curious how in general, that you left a world and joined an Orthodox world, to then see that the very world that you joined, a lot of people are into the world of you left. They’re still enamored and excited by it. How do you think about those two things, the public nature of your religious evolution and the general excitement by celebrity?

Alex Clare:

It’s not just in the religious Jewish world, but across the Jewish world. When you find out somebody’s Jewish, it always makes you, “Oh, that’s nice. He’s one of us.” There’s a sense of connection. We’re all part of this one big nation, this one big people. And it feels good when… In the UK just now, in England, we’re in the finals of the soccer. You have that sense of unity and connection. And I think all people have that, all peoples have that. But because we’re such a small people, we’re a small people but we’re such a prominent people, when we find out somebody is Jewish, it’s a nice feeling, it’s a sense of connection and a sense of pride. It goes the other way as well. When you find out someone’s done something which isn’t so great, and it causes a sense of, “Oh, this hurts a little bit.” We all have that sense of connection, and it’s a very sweet, lovely thing.

The problem I have encountered, especially in the early days is, you don’t want to let people down. You don’t want to let yourself down, don’t want to let other people down. And guilt is not a really good tool for personal growth. A sense of shame, or whatever, is not a good tool for personal growth, for the individual or for the people around them who… We spoke about Mr. Miller earlier. And I think it was a part of his journey. And what he went through from the Jewish community really shaped and pushed him away a little bit, because expectations. People see the image and the representation of what a person is and totally forget the fact that they’re human beings who have complex emotions and feelings and life experiences that are shaping them and pushing them to make the decisions they’re making. And it can be very, very uncomfortable.

I felt in London, it’s a very traditional community. When I was in the process of becoming closer to the community, and I moved to Golders Green, it was a very, in a word in Yiddish, it’s “heimish”. Heimish place, very friendly, very sweet, innocent and nice. I never felt too much pressure. My biggest pressure on myself was, I don’t want to let people down. I don’t want to let people down. And I realized that that isn’t… It’s good to be a part of a group and to be part of a family, so to speak, but it can affect how a person makes decisions, makes the right decisions for them. And I’ve become more aware of that. Obviously now I live in Jerusalem, which is the center for world Judaism. And one of the nicest things about being here is that apart from the American students and a few Israelis, I have quite a large level of anonymity, and just sneak around –

David Bashevkin:

Meah Shearim, they weren’t necessarily in the music industry, not the one you were in at least.

Alex Clare:

Exactly. Exactly. So that helps in a way. I had a little bit more space, ironically, here than I did in the US or in the UK, which is really nice. So it’s important. People need to have their personal space. I’ve seen different articles written about my journey and about me, and very few of them have got all the details quite correct. Because they’re trying to use it essentially as a marketing tool. Let’s make this guy the poster boy for authentic Judaism. And I have no interest in being the poster boy for authentic Judaism. I’d rather just go sit on a hill somewhere and learn a little bit, it’ll be much more fun.

David Bashevkin:

Tell me, because I’m really moved by just the rawness and simplicity of not letting anybody down. And I have felt that, I think whether or not you’re a celebrity, or whether or not you are famous, everybody has an audience where they feel that a part of their identity is being perpetuated, because they don’t want to let anybody down. And I’m curious for you, do you have specific moments where you started to feel that emotion bubble up, of either a choice you were going to make or decided not to make, because in the back of your head, I’m going to let people down?

Alex Clare:

Do you mean in terms of things I was going to do for the good or for the bad? That’s the question.

David Bashevkin:

I mean, decisions you were going to make, after you’re now a part of this religious community, and you still feel this sense of –

Alex Clare:

For sure. I mean, the priority really is the relationship a person has with God, and the relationship a person has with himself. That has to be the most guiding principle there is. How’s this going to affect my… What’s going to happen to me in the future, and my meaningful relationship with the creator of the world? It can be used as a tool, I suppose. And there have been a few moments where you’re like… Once my band played a practical joke on me, which I’m not going to go into great detail, but they told me to meet them at a certain place.

David Bashevkin:

Go into a little bit of detail.

Alex Clare:

They told me to meet me in a place which shared a name with a place in London which is a bar. But in another city in Europe, it’s not a bar, it’s something else. And they thought it was very funny, and it was. But when I came up to the door and I realized, I was like, “Oh no. I really shouldn’t be here.” And as I walked away at the moment, at that time I was in the top 10 in Germany. And as I walked away, someone recognized me, and it was this moment of just like, “What am I doing here? Why did I come to this?” There are those moments in life where you’re about to step into something, and whether it’s… And again, that’s part of the teshuva process, to think, “Am I going to let myself down if I get involved in certain things?” That’s really the most important thing to ask yourself.

But communal pressure and communal responsibility is a very strong concept. To not separate yourself off from your community, to try and be connected to your community. And that does come with certain responsibilities. But it’s a struggle. It’s a real struggle to satisfy other people and keep other people happy, because really, you do have to look after number one to some extent. For your own mental health and for your own sanity. Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

This is the part two of being in the public square, as somebody who was really renowned and also went through this process of teshuva. I’m curious whether or not you have students and people coming up to you for advice. And maybe they don’t look at you as a rebbe or a formal teacher, but they look at you as a guide of sorts. And I’m curious, what advice do you give to people who are navigating that religious reinvention? What do you tell them given your own experiences and your own journey?

Alex Clare:

The three Hs. You got to be healthy, happy, then holy. To tell someone, taking care of yourself physically, taking care of yourself mentally is a prerequisite before you can do things in avodas Hashem, in being a spiritual person. And that really has to be, you have to make that some sort of a priority. So I try and tell people that. If they come and ask for advice, it varies. The things people ask me, they vary, and they’re pretty diverse. If they ask me about things to do with the music industry, I usually tell them straight up, “Go become an accountant. Just don’t bother. Don’t bother.” To make music because you want to make music. If you want business advice, I can’t give it to you. If it’s things in spirituality, again, it’s case by case, depends what the person’s asking. Yeah.

David Bashevkin:

Is that your idea? The three Hs, healthy then happy then holy. What a beautiful idea.

Alex Clare:

It’s actually my wife’s. My wife has always had this as a war cry. These have to be your priorities. There’s enough unhappy religious people in the world across all religions. And to use religions as the excuse or the reason for their unhappiness because they’re scared of whatever the alternatives would be, yeah, it’s sad. So healthy, happy, holy.

David Bashevkin:

I absolutely love that. We have a little bit more time before we get into the rapid fire questions. I want to ask you to really return back to one point that we touched upon, which is the way our community reacts to depictions of people leaving. You are, again, whether you embrace it or not, and it sounds like you have just the healthiest disposition and relationship to your own story. You appreciate what it does for other people, you let it sit there, but you don’t get too enmeshed in it. A lot of times in our community, and particularly when we had mentioned Matisyahu, but it’s happening now on Netflix, there is a sensationalism, not of people coming to Judaism, but the media loves stories of people leaving Judaism.

And I’m curious, for you in particular, as somebody who made this choice to leave the world that they are now going back into, the leaving the community that you joined, what is your personal perspective on the way the Jewish community, and I’m talking really about the Orthodox community, how they react, or how should they react to such stories? I want to add on this little kneitch. When you joined the community, I feel like nobody tells baalei teshuva, people who reinvent themselves religiously, “Oh, by the way, there’s this whole sub community, this parallel world of the de-baal teshuva.” Yeah. The people who leave, the people who… And that could be startling for somebody like yourself, to see that there’s this whole sub demographic of people who leave. What advice would you give the community to the way they react? And how did you understand this and process it as somebody who was joining?

Alex Clare:

So there’s a wonderful book called Chovos Hatalmidim, by the Piaseczno rebbe. In the introduction to this book, he discusses what will happen in the future with all these people who have left. And he says in very plain and serious language that it’s not really their fault. It’s really the people who were their teachers, the people who didn’t give them the love and the support, we have to understand where the responsibility is. If anyone wants to read that book, I highly recommend it. [crosstalk 01:00:24]. It’s A Student’s Obligation, I think it’s called in English?

The introduction is fantastic. And the introduction is written specifically for the parents and for the teachers, which is wonderful. What a way to write a book? This is a book for children, for young adults who are studying and growing, but the first chapters of the book are all focused on the teachers. And it says in strong language about what will be in the future when the salvation comes to the world, and there’ll be a big question asked, “Where are my sheep? Where are the kids? Where are they?” I learned that sefer very early on in my journey, and it had a very big influence on me. And the courage that somebody has to have to not live with the pain that they’ve experienced, and to leave the world that they’ve grown up in, they relieve their security blanket, and try and live a sincere life according to them, it’s very brave, it’s very painful.

And I think trying to have understanding for those people, what they’ve gone through that brought them to that decision, and when you go on to have your own children, and have younger people who you’ll have an influence on, your best to give them the love and support that they need to fall in love with Yiddishkeit. That a person should be so connected to their relationship with Hashem, that they shouldn’t feel that they have to leave. It should be something important for them and meaningful. You can’t speak case by case, this happens all the time that people leave and people come –

David Bashevkin:

Do have friends who left?

Alex Clare:

Yeah. Sure. For sure. Many. And I think even baalei teshuva who were really strong people, who for many different reasons, why they just couldn’t do it anymore. And people who grew up in more conventional ultra-Orthodox worlds, who have been through that process, and I love and support. What else are you supposed to say or give to these people? Just a hug and just be there for them. You don’t have to be a kanoy. Who are you beings zealous for? Who’s it going to help down the line, you? Certainly not. To have a negative feeling towards another person because of their lifestyle choices, I think that’s a terrible place to be. I think it’s the contradiction to spirituality, the exact opposite of everything I would want to get out of my connection to God and my connection to the Torah, I hope would never bring me to that place.

David Bashevkin:

I cannot thank you enough. And I really just look at your journey, and the fact that, I think in many ways it is still ongoing, and it is not this static, ossified status, but something that’s quite organic and fluid and still unfolding, is so healthy, so happy, and so holy. And it’s really refreshing to hear. I always close my interviews with a little bit more rapid fire questions. My first question is, what books, you’ve already mentioned one, The Student’s Obligation, originally translated from Chovos Hatalmidim. What books do you attribute, specifically the healthiness, that sense of space and self care that you give yourself in your own journey, who do you think were the formative books or thinkers that contributed to who you are today?

Alex Clare:

Sure. I think in terms of thinkers, I think I have to start with the Baal Hatanya. I think learning the Tanya and learning his discourses that he wrote over his lifetime have had a huge influence on me. That’s definitely one of them. Specifically, Igeres Hateshuva, the section of the Tanya which deals with teshuva. It starts off very, very zealous, and very matter of fact about the different types of atonement that have to be done for different transgressions, or the lack of fulfilling positive commandments in the Torah. Very, very heavy. And it’s very focused on that. And by the end of it, it goes into this beautiful dialogue, not dialogue, a monologue about we always tend to think in terms of flesh and blood.

We think of the world in a very narrow-minded, egocentric perspective. And we assume that if a person does something wrong multiple times, two or three times, you maybe will forgive them, but fourth and fifth and sixth, you’re going to say it’s okay? And the Tanya says, look, you’re not dealing with human beings here. We’re dealing with God. And a person’s growth is really about his relationship to Hashem. And to understand that God is infinite, he’s ein sof. There’s no restrictions there. So just as he is not restricted, so to that continual sense of love, we can’t ever really begin to fathom what he feels for us. And that book, the Igeres Hateshuva, that really had a big influence.

Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Habitachon, The Gate of Trust, as it’s translated, also I think is a central reading for anyone who’s in the process, because we have doubts. Every human being, we question and we challenge. And to reassure and to bolster a person, it’s important to read literature which is reassuring in a positive sense. And I think Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Habitachon, The Gate of Trust in the book Obligations of the Heart, I think that has a big responsibility in getting me to where I am. Thinkers, I have a lot of thanks for Heschel. Actually I’m frum in a way because of Abraham Joshua Heschel. Not a conventional Orthodox thinker, but he had a student –

David Bashevkin:

No, he was a big influence on me too. I’m so happy you mentioned him.

Alex Clare:

So the funny thing is it’s totally indirect. When I was early on in my process of growth and becoming frum, I hadn’t even started yet actually, I was just curious. And I said to an old friend of my father’s, who was a lady called Zahava Hannan, she was a student of Heschel, and I told her I was thinking of going to university to study comparative religions, theology, something like that. And she gave me a few books of Heschel, but she said something very profound to me. She said, “If you want to understand religiosity, don’t go study it; live it. You want to experience it, and that’s what you need to do.” And she actually had a big influence on me.

David Bashevkin:

Was there a particular book from Heschel that played a –

Alex Clare:

I think The Sabbath really helped.

David Bashevkin:

The Sabbath?

Alex Clare:

Yeah, for sure. That’s a great book. I know he’s a very controversial figure, and I don’t necessarily –

David Bashevkin:

Only in some circles.

Alex Clare:

You’re right.

David Bashevkin:

I grew up with it, and I think it’s an absolutely fabulous… I think other people have tried to do their own version of The Sabbath, and no one’s really come close to his prose and the way that infuse that poetic religious language. Those are –

Alex Clare:

It’s poetic and religious, but it doesn’t feel ostentatious. There are other writers, great thought thinkers who’ve written in English language. And I think sometimes the books, they can come out a little bit academic. So to have a simple, sweet connection, I think Heschel really gets that. So that had a big influence early on in my journey. Other books, other things to think about? I mean –

David Bashevkin:

You gave a bunch of recommendations, I don’t want to put too much pressure on you. Those were great. Those were actually great.

Alex Clare:

They’re really good. Yeah. So I think also Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, I think a lot of his writing, I knew Rabbi Adin, and he was a very special thinker, and a very unique personality. Yeah, he was fantastic. Anything written by Steinsaltz you’ll enjoy. I enjoy anyway.

David Bashevkin:

I could not agree with you more. My second question I always ask is, if somebody gave you a great deal of money and allowed you to take a sabbatical from any responsibilities to go back to school or write a book, go back to school and get a PhD, write a book, what do you think the subject and title of that book or PhD would be?

Alex Clare:

Oh my goodness me. To be honest, I feel like I’ve been given a sabbatical. I do feel that I’m fortunate to be able to have a day where I can learn and I can create music. If there was a book that I was going to write, gosh, what would it be about? What would it be about? Rav Pinchas Scheinberg says in one of his books on shalom bayis, marital bliss, that we talk about things that we struggle with, that the human tongue is like the fingernail, it can check the validity or the precision of a sharpened blade. The tongue is really the way that we articulate that. So maybe if I wrote a book, it’d be about something that I struggle with, to try and understand it on a deeper level, to refine that. So there’s so many things I could write a book about, if that was the case, because I’ve got so many struggles. There’s so many things that I scratch my head at.

Raising children would be something that I would probably write a book at so I can figure out how to do that. Teaching myself to stop being so impulsive and more thoughtful. I think a book about understanding there’s a difference between thoughts and feelings, and how those two interplay with each other. And I think –

David Bashevkin:

You could sign me up for any of those. They all sound lovely. And I appreciate that we know, whenever that book, God willing, comes out, we’ll know it’s something that you really struggled and deliberated on from that personal place.

Alex Clare:

Okay, good.

David Bashevkin:

My last question is always, because of my curiosity with people’s schedules, I always like to know, what time do you go to sleep, and what time do you wake up in the morning?

Alex Clare:

Oh, wow. I’m a night person. I’m a night person. I have young children. So the one time I have peace to really focus on stuff is usually late at night. Yeah. And I get up when they wake me up usually.

David Bashevkin:

Give me the specifics. Ballpark it, what time are you going to sleep on an average night?

Alex Clare:

So I usually go to sleep at about 1:00 in the morning, and I usually get up at about 7:00, which is not bad, not extreme.

David Bashevkin:

Not terrible at all. Similar to my own schedule. I cannot thank you enough. And I really find your story, with all of its complexity, with all of its timelines, to be so moving and inspiring. And just the way in which you embody the identity for so many people. Not in a way of letting anybody down, but in a way of just a model for what it means to be an authentic human being is really something I find remarkable and uplifting. And I cannot thank you enough for spending time speaking today.

Alex Clare:

It’s a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.

David Bashevkin:

One thing that came up in our interview, and it’s based on that fascinating Disney Plus show, that I don’t know anybody’s actually watched, called Loki. Loki is set in this fantastical world where there’s one timeline that this agency has to protect. And there’s something called a nexus event that disrupts, it’s so large that it disrupts the very timeline of the universe. And these events are called nexus events that actually change the very timeline of existence. And I think whether or not you’ve watched the show, I think we’ve all experienced nexus events in our lives, those large, disruptive events that break off and chart a new alternative history in our own lives.

And I think it’s worth reflecting on, what are the nexus events that you’ve experienced in your life? What are the major disruptions that precipitated thoughts of change, or maybe charting a new course in your own timeline, in your own narrative, in your own trajectory? Whether or not you watch the show, I think the question of those large nexus events is worth considering and reflecting on in how they apply and are manifest in our own personal lives.

So thank you so much for listening. It wouldn’t be a Jewish podcast without a little bit of Jewish guilt. So please, if you enjoyed this episode, subscribe, rate, review. Tell your friends about it. It really helps us reach new listeners and continue putting out great content. If you’d like to learn more about this topic, or some of the other great ones we’ve covered in the past, be sure to check out 18Forty.org. That’s the number 1-8, followed by the word “forty,” F-O-R-T-Y.org, 18Forty.org, where you can also find videos, articles, and recommended readings. Thank you so much for listening, and stay curious, my friends.