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Highway 9 conversion

RYAN SLABAUGHsummit daily news
Summit Daily/Ryan Slabaugh
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SILVERTHORNE – “I’m not here to save anybody,” says Milton Kapner, which seems like only a half-truth on this Tuesday morning. He holds a crucifix in his left hand and, with his right, waves to a man driving a diesel truck through the busiest intersection in Summit County. Kapner, who also goes by “Brother Nathaniel,” wears a black robe, white gloves and a pair of well-kept New Balance running shoes. The diesel driver honks and waves back.”Today’s a little quiet,” he explains. “Some days, it gets quite noisy.”If you’ve seen him, you would remember. Since December, four days a week, Kapner has strolled down Highway 9 in Silverthorne, strutting with his crucifix like a boombox in Harlem. He spins, twirls, waves, flashes peace signs and raises his fist like the revolution is only days away. He starts around 7 a.m. and finishes two hours later. Brother Nathaniel, 56, then spends the rest of the day in his Leadville home, in quiet, unless he wants to head downhill in the evenings to inspire those caught in rush hour. Overall, while it’s quiet he desires, it’s the same quiet he’s spent most of the past few years resisting … that, and our PC nation.

Milton was born on Sept. 5, 1950, to Solomon and Rebecca Kapner, both Jewish, but both accepting of other ideas. In the Bible, Solomon, whose name means “Messenger of God” in Hebrew, was given beauty in exchange for his acts of faith. The gift, for the Kapners, was a middle-class house in a mixed suburb in Pittsburgh. Poor, black, white, Christian – neighbors were neighbors and the term “politically correct” had yet to reach its tentacles into middle America. Religion was a Sunday activity and, every day, Milton said the Lord’s Prayer before school started. Even during Christmas, Milton would join his Catholic friends in going door-to-door, singing Christmas carols. “And here I was, supposed to be this Jewish kid,” he joked.Kapner gained an early affinity for Christmas songs, despite his own religion’s views that Christmas, well, was based on a lie. His father didn’t help. On Christmas, when most kids were tripping over themselves to open gifts, his father would put on Ed Ames’ “Oh Holy Night” and ask the whole family to join in on the melody, when Ames would belt out, “Fall on your knees …” This obscure devotion ultimately would be the spark for a major conversion in Milton’s life, and help guide him toward the Highway 9 street corner he stands on today.

In 1968, during the Summer of Love, along with a few million other people his age, Kapner followed the counter-culture movement. He left Pittsburgh, grew out his hair and a beard, and decided to study music composition at the Art Institute of California. He played guitar in a rock band called “Rebecca and the Sunnybrook Farmers,” which benefited from some choice contacts made at the music school. Between 1968 and 1971, the band opened for Jethro Tull, Alice Cooper, and Blood, Sweat and Tears, to name a few. A review from a West Coast magazine called the psychedelic feel, “Eclectic, almost to a fault.””I had met Frank Zappa before he died,” Kapner said. “He was a genius. I admire Hendrix, too, the way he wore all those colors. This was the generation we lived in. Now, the kids and the bands all wear black,” he said, pointing to his own garment. “Are they depressed?”Right on cue, he met the love of his life, a violinist named Ilene Novig. She refused to marry him, however, so Kapner looked East and away from California. Alone and searching, he cut his hair, shaved his beard and, as he put it, “started groping to find something.”With the spiritual momentum of the psychedelic movement long faded, Kapner moved back to Pittsburgh and took a job selling industrial chemicals, fertilizers, paints, cleaners … anything to help a factory stay clean. Along the way, he also became active in “Jews for Jesus”, whose goal is to convince Jews that Jesus is the Messiah, and landed a huge account, U.S. Steel.As a salesman, he set his own hours, met his quota and earned a six-figure salary. “I was good,” he said. “I did this for 25 years and met people from all walks of life. I had a very broad customer base – Christians, atheists, blacks, whites. I guess I learned through that, you better treat people as individuals.”In Pittsburgh, he joined a few friends on the street handing out information about Jews for Jesus, or Messianic Jews. “I was dedicated, but I still had a day job,” he said. Still searching, Kapner decided he needed to try the East Coast. California and Pittsburgh would only be stops along his spiritual quest, not the destination.



In 1987, he transferred to a new job in Boston working as a salesman for State Chemical Company. “That’s when things really started happening for me,” Kapner said. “I wanted a challenge and Boston seemed to be more exciting. I lived right next door to Paul Revere’s park on Salem Street.”There, he opened big accounts with the electrical companies and continued to build up a healthy lifestyle. He was heralded for his work with big money but, just when he was reaching the peak of his career, he dropped all of it – the money, the job, the city he lived in, and his friends, including Jews for Jesus.A monk in ColoradoIn 1988, a refreshed Kapner found himself under water. In the gothic hallways of the Russian Orthodox Christian Church, he discovered his spiritual home and asked to be baptized.”There was a mystical event that entered into me,” he said. “Something internally changed inside me. Be quiet. Go deeper into Christ. Be still. Let it come over you. Be receptive. Don’t be a salesman …”That idea, “Don’t be a salesman,” distracted him enough that he spent the next four years losing his accounts, missing financial goals and, along the way, coming to an understanding with himself. When the day finally came, he gave his notice at work. One of the company’s best salesmen wanted to become a monk.

“You’re a salesman. Pray on Sundays,” they’d quip.”I’m just not into it,” he’d reply.So in 1992, Kapner joined the Transfiguration Monastery in Brookline, Mass., which had 30 monks and controlled all aspects of his life. At 7 a.m., they started work on religious pictures and other goods they would sell to fund the monastery. Instead of selling industrial cleaners, he made incense.”It brought me back to the hippie days,” he explained. “It was like living on a commune.” Each day, he would attend a service at 4 p.m., which was followed by a meal at 6 p.m. A midnight liturgy usually lasted until 4 a.m., after which the monk would rest until rising again at 7 a.m.The routine, however, didn’t fit his developing personality, so he moved on. Father Isaac, the head of the Brookline monastery, would only call him “eccentric,” when interviewed for the story; he wouldn’t comment any further. Brother Nathaniel doesn’t deny the eccentric claim.”I moved to a new monastery in Buena Vista in 2003, which was much smaller, only like five monks,” Kapner said. “It was way back in the mountains and very secluded, which was very good for someone like me who just wants a whole lot of quiet. It was perfect.”



He spent the next two years removed from society, from the news, from everything “modern.” His desire for this life, however, returned when a parishioner visited the monastery and asked if he had heard the news about Wal-Mart and Christmas.’War against Christmas’In 2005, Wal-Mart announced it would replace all “Merry Christmas” signs with “Happy Holidays.” It also meant the chain would stop playing traditional Christmas songs over the intercom.The bad news sent Kapner into his Bishop’s room, to begin a new chapter in his life.”I told my Bishop, this is a war on Christmas,” Kapner said. “This is a war on Christ. I don’t know if Jesus wants me to do something, I don’t know if you want me to do anything, but I’m doing something.”

Turns out, the monastery and the church would have rather kept him quiet. There is nothing orthodox in a vocal protest movement. Forced or not (Kapner wouldn’t say), he moved away from the monastery, living on his pension, away from people who would rather he minister quietly. Instead, he got an apartment in Leadville and decided to live off the pension built up from his years in sales.”I watch my expenses. I got myself ready. I prayed,” he said. “I went on the internet and read the news for the first time in years. I wanted to get back in touch with the world.”Finally, after Kapner had read more about Wal-Mart in an online chatroom, his life began to piece itself back together. The groping stopped. His next move surprised even him. He walked into the Wal-Mart in Frisco and starting singing “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” in the aisles.”The customers sang with me, the clerks were singing with me, but the store manager finally didn’t know what to do, and finally asked me to stop. He had to do his job. … But my point got across,” he said.And that’s also when Kapner hired a lawyer. He understood that his message would alienate many folks, who would turn to the police to keep him away from Wal-Marts and street corners.One of his first run-ins came in Breckenridge, on a snowbank where he sang “Joy to the World,” certainly not a criminal act. Alas, someone called the police, who showed up and asked him for his ID.

“I showed him that, but I also showed them my lawyer’s card,” he said, managing a smirk. “The police’s jaws dropped – this nut has a lawyer?”Another time, a pastor came up to him with a critical voice. “He asked me, ‘Is this how Jesus dressed?’ I said, ‘He dressed like a Hebrew. I’m a monk.'”On other occasions along the highway, he gets the finger and shrugs it off. When pressed, though, he relaxes and calls the past year “overwhelmingly positive.” It’s not hard to understand why. If you spend a few hours with him at the busy street corner, you’ll notice the positive energy he receives back. Folks honk and wave. Some park their car and start up a conversation. It’s that connection with people that will keep him returning to Silverthorne – a place he now calls his home, despite living in Leadville – and continuing to brighten the days of those who, most of all, are surprised at an older man, dressed like a monk, twirling and jigging to a silent music.”We’re all dissatisfied with some things, or many things,” Kapner said. “We’re all trying to make ends meet. Wars, this problem, that problem. I say, ‘Hey everybody, here’s Jesus Christ. Let’s dance.'”Ryan Slabaugh can be contacted at (970) 668-4618, or at rslabaugh@summitdaily.com.


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