Rabbi Steve Leder: “Say I love you, a lot!”

Say I love you, a lot! One of the nice changes the pandemic has brought to me is that I find it easier to say I love you more often and to more people. I have felt that love in the past but not fully expressed it. Saying I love you to others places us […]

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Say I love you, a lot! One of the nice changes the pandemic has brought to me is that I find it easier to say I love you more often and to more people. I have felt that love in the past but not fully expressed it. Saying I love you to others places us in the world in a very beautiful way.

Often when we refer to wellness, we assume that we are talking about physical wellbeing. But one can be physically very healthy but still be unwell, emotionally or mentally. What are the steps we can take to cultivate optimal wellness in all areas of our life; to develop Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing?

As a part of our series about “How We Can Do To Cultivate Our Mental, Physical, Emotional, & Spiritual Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Steve Leder, senior rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. After receiving his degree in writing and graduating cum laude from Northwestern University, and spending time studying at Trinity College, Oxford University, Leder received a master’s degree in Hebrew letters in 1986 and rabbinical ordination in 1987 from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of three books: The Extraordinary Nature of Ordinary Things, More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul, and the bestseller More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

My parents were 17 and 18 when they got married, both escaping abusive homes, and had five children before they were 30. We all lived in a three-bedroom house with one bathroom in a little suburb of Minneapolis called Saint Louis Park. My parents were pretty strict and seemed to know less about parenting than most. My dad and uncle owned a junkyard together and all five of us kids worked there in one capacity or another. It was an understated, blue-collar life.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

When I was fourteen I got into trouble. I was playing drums in a rock band, smoking pot every day and generally flying under my parents’ radar because I was the fourth of five and they had their hands full just getting the most basic parenting tasks taken care of. I got arrested for shoplifting record albums at Target and that’s when my parents woke up and realized they needed to engage and that my peer group needed to change. Along with our family rabbi, who they respected, they decided to send me to a Jewish summer camp in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. That decision changed my life forever. That was where I really fell in love with being Jewish and where, for the first time, I met rabbis who were “normal.” The idea that there were rabbis who were young, wore jeans and t-shirts and could throw a baseball, was a revelation to me. They seemed learned, wise and fulfilled, and that is when I decided I would be like them when I grew up. I never looked back after that.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

As I mentioned, I was mostly screwing around and not taking school seriously when I was 14. I was mostly bored by school at that age. But there was one teacher who really dialed into me and paid attention to me in a way no other teacher had. Her name was Sandi Marrinson. She was the speech and drama teacher and her class was a place where I felt free to express myself and where I was exposed to literature and plays that spoke to me and seemed to really matter. She recognized my writing and speaking ability and nurtured both. She even drove me to the University of Minnesota library to check out plays, read them and then discuss them with her. Neither of my parents went to college and they were very unsophisticated about education, culture and the arts. In fact, creative pursuits were ridiculed as a waste of time. But Sandi encouraged me and helped me lean into my talents. One of the greatest moments of my life was when I gave a speech a few years ago in Saint Paul, Minnesota and I saw that Sandi was in the audience. I asked her to stand and I was able to thank her publicly for being the teacher who most made me who I am. She and I were both crying and it was a beautiful moment — as if we were the only two people in the room. I will never forget her.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

I am hard on myself and have never thought of a mistake as funny or interesting. I wish I could…

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I distinctly remember reading Eli Wiesel’s Night in my tiny basement bedroom during a cold, dark Minnesota winter when I was 12 years old. Not only did the book blow my mind in terms of learning about the Holocaust, but as importantly, it was then I realized that a personal story could also be a universal story; that our individual truths are also part of a larger, collective truth.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

I have so many because my father spoke and taught mostly through Yiddish aphorisms. One that comes to mind is “Az mischtuptis, gatis.” Which means, “If you push, it goes.” Now you have to understand that my dad was a pretty crude guy and the expression was definitely a double entendre which most of his were. But what he was trying to teach me was that success depends mostly on effort and you just have to keep trying, keep trying, keep trying… That advice has taken me far and given me the strength to keep going when things are tough.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

There are two. The first is the launch of my new book The Beauty of What Remains; How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift. At its core, it is a book about loss and grief, which I think the entire world is dealing with as a result of the pandemic and as a result of the simple fact that to be human is to love and grieve. The second is a new building we are finishing this winter at our campus in the heart of Los Angeles. It was designed by Pritzker Prize winner Rem Koolhaas and his associate Shohei Shigematsu. It is absolutely spectacular. I am very proud and very relieved it will soon be finished and open for all of Los Angeles to enjoy. Raising the money to get it built was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. But my dad was right, “Az mischtuptis, gatis.”

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. In this interview series we’d like to discuss cultivating wellness habits in four areas of our lives, Mental wellness, Physical wellness, Emotional wellness, & Spiritual wellness. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or experience, can you share with our readers three good habits that can lead to optimum mental wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

First, be in therapy. I think it was Marshall McLuhan who said, “I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t the fish.” In other words, we are so close to our own lives, so much a part of our own experience that we actually have no real perspective on it. A fish only discovers water when it is yanked out of it. We too need help stepping away and taking a good look at ourselves, our behavior, our fears and failings. The right therapist and a real commitment to the process has made all the difference for me. I started taking therapy more seriously after I was in a terrible car accident that injured my back and forced me to endure tremendous pain before and after spinal surgery. The pain and unfairness of it all caused some depression. Thankfully, that pushed me into therapy and enabled me to grow and change for the better.

Second, exercise and enjoy nature. There is something, at least for me, incredibly healing about being in nature. I love the quiet, the way I feel both small and large in nature, the exercise, the beauty — it all adds up to a rebalancing of the body and soul that are essential for good mental health.

Third, double down on your relationships. I find my mental health is at its best when I really lean into my relationships with the people I love most — my wife, my kids, and a handful of dear friends. They pierce the isolation, they make me laugh and they let me know I am cared for and cared about.

Do you have a specific type of meditation practice or Yoga practice that you have found helpful? We’d love to hear about it.

Being a rabbi, I pray — a lot. There is a series of prayers I recite every morning and they center me for the day. Jewish prayer is mostly about expressing awe and gratitude. Going through the day with a greater sense of awe and gratitude is a pretty good way to live. Additionally, after my father died, I followed the Jewish law of saying the mourner’s prayer for him three times a day for eleven months. It rescued me from despair many, many times.

Thank you for that. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum physical wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

First, get outside every day and move. Nature, sun, wind, birdsongs, and walking, walking, walking are often the best medicine for the body and soul.

Two, eat less. I hate dieting, everyone hates dieting. I have found that my weight depends less on what I eat than on how much I eat. So, try to eat less. That way you can still enjoy fattening foods but not get fat.

Three, stretch. On days I don’t have time or motivation to really exercise I find that even five minutes of stretching helps me feel better. The older I get, the more I realize that flexibility (both physical and metaphorical) is increasingly important.

Do you have any particular thoughts about healthy eating? We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?

The main blockage is the prevalence of unhealthy food. Unhealthy food is everywhere — in commercials, on social media, in every aisle of every grocery store, on every street in urban areas — there are unhealthy temptations and choices. In addition to portion control, I find that when I don’t let unhealthy food into the house, I crave it a lot less. This is sort of counterintuitive. You would think that if it isn’t there I would miss it. But I find that the less unhealthy choices I have available to me, the less I miss unhealthy food.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum emotional wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

First and most important of all is tending to your relationships. By that I mean if you have hurt someone or someone has hurt you, take care of that unfinished business. I never really feel well emotionally if I know that I owe someone an apology or that someone has hurt me and feels no remorse. Face these fallings out and your emotional wellness will improve for sure.

Second, say I love you, a lot! One of the nice changes the pandemic has brought to me is that I find it easier to say I love you more often and to more people. I have felt that love in the past but not fully expressed it. Saying I love you to others places us in the world in a very beautiful way.

Third, help someone. There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “If you want to be happy for an hour, take a nap. If you want to be happy for a day, go fishing. If you want to be happy for a month, get married. If you want to be happy for a year, inherit a fortune. But if you want to be happy for a lifetime, help another person.” Our own wellness depends in no small measure upon how much we are concerned with the wellness of others.

Finally, can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum spiritual wellness? Please share a story or example for each.

To me, spirituality and spiritual wellness are what come from sanctifying the mundane. Einstein said there are two ways to live, as if everything is amazing or as if nothing is amazing. I prefer to live as if everything is amazing. Awe, wonder, and gratitude for that which brings us awe and wonder are the stuff of spirituality and spiritual wellness. I am the kind of person who is amazed by seeing a ripe tomato or a perfect avocado slice, or a cloud, a bug, water pouring out of the tap — you name it, I can be amazed by it. Much wisdom and good flows from the ability to count our blessings, even the seemingly small ones and even in the midst of darkness.

Do you have any particular thoughts about how being “in nature” can help us to cultivate spiritual wellness?

As I mentioned before, in addition to the quiet of nature (and we all know how hard it is to find quiet in our daily, hurried up lives) which is so healing, nature also has a way of helping us feel ennobled and large, yet humble and small at the same time. I am noble and great and powerful, and I am also only human, and vulnerable and only a small part of something very, very big and eternal — embracing and living within that duality is the key to a healthy, happy life.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

The movement would be to end the objectification of others. In my view, the root of all evil is the objectification of the other. The moment we treat others like objects for our own use, the moment we fail to recognize the humanity in others, is the moment evil is born and where it thrives.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Bob Dylan, hands down. He and I are both from Minnesota and both Jewish. I knew some of his family growing up and his daughter is married to one of my closest childhood friends. When I was a teenager his fame was a sign to me that it was possible to get out of Minnesota and succeed with little more than words and creativity. I admire that he does not seem to worry about being like other people and that he models the saying in the Talmud “Say little and do much.”

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Most important of all, please read my new book The Beauty of What Remains; How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift. It’s published by Penguin Random House and available on Amazon, bookstores, etc., and is hopefully going to move people and help them embrace not just the pain of loss, but also the beauty and depth of love it reveals. Second, follow me on Instagram @Steve_Leder. Finally, watch me on the Today Show every couple of months.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

It’s my honor, truly.

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