My lunch with Lefsetz

Do you know about Bob Lefsetz? He is a middle-age guru living in Santa Monica. For 25 years, he’s been commenting on our culture in an idiosyncratic independent newsletter — first in hard copy, then in an e-mail newsletter and now in an online blog.
November 4, 2011

Do you know about Bob Lefsetz? 

He is a middle-age guru living in Santa Monica.  For 25 years, he’s been commenting on our culture in an idiosyncratic independent newsletter — first in hard copy, then in an e-mail newsletter and now in an online blog. 

I first heard of him through Howard Stern, who often reads aloud from The Lefsetz Letter on air. Stern is one of the most astute satirists and social commentators this country has ever produced, so I figured if he’s paying attention to Lefsetz, I should, too.

I started subscribing to Lefsetz’s newsletter, and now, every day, I get a concise essay in my in-box that helps me figure out where the world is going.

We all need that help. The old ways of communicating are irrevocably broken.  We all now music, radio, movies and newspapers will never be the same.  But what is also clear is that the digital revolution is changing the ways we organize politically—see Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street—and the way we organize in faith communities.

This week The New York Times reported that the most “Liked” page on Facebook is called the Jesus Daily, run by a diet doctor and visited by some 10 million people.  In an age when Jesus (or Moses) can pop into your in box before breakfast, when more than 43 million people on Facebook are fans of at least one page categorized as religious, the rules of how we transmit tradition are as ripe for rewriting as the rules for making it in the music business.

“It’s a brand new game,” Lefsetz wrote recently. “The Internet is not going away, we are not going back to three networks and no cable. There will only be more entertainment options. You can reach everybody, but it’s almost impossible to get them to pay attention. How do you get them to pay attention? By not doing it the same way everybody else does. By reinventing yourself.”

The wisdom of this struck me as hard-won and provocative — and true. I wanted to meet Lefsetz, but figured he lived in some kind of blogger’s lair in Manhattan. Then I Googled and found out Bob Lefsetz lives two miles from me, in Santa Monica.

When I invited him to lunch, he began by telling me he’s not that Jewish.

It happens all the time: I want to interview someone, and they feel they need to apologize for their level of religious observance.

I told Bob Lefsetz not to worry. All he had to do was talk, and to leave the Jewish up to me.

So we met in Brentwood.

Lefsetz is pushing 60, balding — imagine if Wallace Shawn were unafraid to seem “too Jewish.” He grew up in Connecticut, went to Middlebury College, then law school and did time as a music industry executive. He started the newsletter in 1986, and that’s where he found his niche: as insider/outsider, standing apart from the scrum, pouring his passion for music and culture into figuring out how it works best.

“The pros make it look easy,” writes Lefsetz in a typical post. “But don’t believe it is. Even if you could hit the basket, try doing it during the playoffs, like Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant. They don’t choke under pressure, they’re even better in competition!”

Or this, from Lefetz’s advice to young musicians: “You’ve got to want it. It’s got to permeate every cell in your body. Because it’s just that hard to make it. The pitfalls are plenty. The setbacks are huge. The abuse is heaped upon you. You must have an inner light that keeps you going no matter what.”

Passion is the bottom line for Lefsetz — he admires it in others’ work, understands it as essential to success and embodies it when he speaks. Our interview took place at Mach speed, with Lefsetz stressing every sentence, veering into tangents and into cul-de-sacs, launching into arias.

We started talking about the impact of the Internet — I think — and he practically jumped across the table.

“This is why the Web is revolutionary!” he said. “There’s a Web site for every topic known to man. There’s someone who LIVES that. They are a bigger expert than anyone in the mainstream media. The mainstream media are generalists. In today’s era, when anybody can reach anybody, it’s an era of TRUTH.”

I’m not exactly sure what the Internet means, either. But, I asked Lefsetz, since we seem to be at a point where we can communicate anything to anyone, how do we do it effectively; how do we do it successfully?

Lefsetz’s metaphor-of-choice is the music industry, which I know nothing about, but his lessons are universal, apropos to all of us who are trying to get a message across. 

“The major labels were successful, because they had a monopoly,” he said. “In 1965, when the Stones released ‘Satisfaction,’ there’s nobody who didn’t know it. Now you don’t have to listen to anything you don’t want. 

“Now everybody gets to play,” he said. “But the stuff doesn’t sell. … So how do I reach more people? That’s the question. We’ve developed a culture that says everyone is entitled to a certain level of success. That’s just not true. The public decides. There’s less and less money in the niche … but it’s really about emotional connection, and that’s the stories you tell.”

Lefsetz took a breath, then raised his voice again.

“All that matters is emotional connection.”

I realized, then, that even though Lefsetz traffics in cultural ephemera — the 1’s and 0’s that make up digital music and media — he is keyed in to enduring, lasting values. Here’s this self-proclaimed barely-a-Jew whose newsletter is a kind of daily Midrash—a commentary on what really matters, amid all the noise and verbiage that doesn’t.

As I pondered my theory, Lefsetz took a bite of his burger, then started to explain Lefsetz.

“I had two peak experiences in my life,” he said.  “One I won’t mention. The other was going to summer camp. Camp Laurelwood in East Madison, run by the New Haven Jewish Community Center. My years there were one of the two peaks of my life — 99.8 percent of the kids were Jews, with a commonality of values. What I learned was you can question and still be a Member of the Tribe. I don’t want to be outside the world. But you can question and still be a part of it. That’s my philosophy of life.”

It’s fitting that Lefsetz’s remaining strong tribal connection is the annual High Holiday on Live365 Internet Radio from Temple Emanu-el in New York.  He likes his religion like he likes his music—digitally.

Passion, truth, persistence. Courage, loyalty and curiosity —  those are the truths The Lefsetz Letter illustrates time and again. Yes, it’s a new, new world.  But the only way to navigate it well is with the old values.

“We live in an era of assimilation,” Lefsetz told me. “But we also live in an era when everything our parents said was true.”

A truncated and far less adequate version of this column appeared in the 11/3/11 print edition of The Jewish Journal.

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