I am what I am, it is what it is. Fuck you.
Lou Reed (in 2013): 1942-2013
RED SHIRLEY (Shulamit Rabinowitz) by LOU REED AND RALPH GIBSON (the great photographer) – dedicated to Rostowicz, a 1000 year old Jewish town wiped out by the Nazis.
Lou Reed, the ultimate counter-Jew
Noah Efron bought the ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ 45 with his bar mitzvah money. Decades later, he pays tribute to the Jew who broke all the rules.
this story is by Noah Efron
For a yeshiva kid, the lurid world those lyrics described was magnetic – at turns attracting and repelling. “Holly came from Miami, F.L.A./Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A./Plucked her eyebrows on the way/Shaved her legs and then he was a she.” Lying on our backs in my deep pile carpet, my friends and I parsed the song with Talmudic rigor, tracking allusions and decoding references. It wasn’t the gender-bending (or the sex, or the drugs) that stunned us – we were 13, after all, and a kid learned stuff in the playground – it was Reed’s bemused acceptance of all this, his artless affection for freaks, junkies and misfits.
Of course, it made all the difference, to buchers like us, that Reed was a Jew. Reed became our counter-Jew. The Judaism of our rabbis was the Judaism of following rules. Reed was a Jew who broke rules. The Judaism of our rabbis was one of self-control and self-denial. Reed sang haunting love-songs to heroin. In our Judaism, tradition was what mattered. To Reed, it was originality. The Judaism we’d know taught rectitude; Reed’s attitude was screw that. Our Judaism shunned anyone beyond the four-ells of our narrow world; Reed loved transvestites.
It didn’t take long to realize that Reed was not alone. As I studied his back-catalogue and fell hopelessly in love with the Velvet Underground, I discovered other counter-Jews like him: Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Abby Hoffman, Ellen Willis, Philip Roth, Shulamith Firestone, Allen Ginsberg and many more. Reed and these others, through some strange alchemy, had transmuted my implacable tradition into music and humor and whimsy and poetry and prose and, above all else, passion.
Max Weber, the great sociologist, wrote that religions may be dominated by priests or by prophets. Priests uphold the status quo. Prophets subvert it. Lou Reed was my prophet. He showed me that rules are made to be broken as well as followed, that traditions are made to be upended as well as preserved, that fealty is owed to the weird and foreign as well as the familiar and familial, that there is what to learn from sin as well as virtue. It is too fancy to say that I’ve spent forty year trying to balance the rabbis and Reed, but only by a little.
Right now, just hours after learning of his passing, it seems fair to say that, thanks to Lou Reed, my life (like that of so many others) was saved by Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Baruch Dayan Emet.
Noah Efron is the host of the “Promised Podcast” on TLV1. He is a fellow of Shaharit, a think-tank for new Israeli politics, and has served on Tel Aviv’s City Council. He teaches at Bar Ilan University, where he was the founding chair of the Program in Science, Technology & Society. He has served as the President of the Israeli Society for History & Philosophy of Science, as a member of the Executive Committee of the International Society for Science and Religion, and of the Advisory Board of the Columbia University Center for Science and Religion.
Efron has been a member of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, the Dibner Institute for History of Science and Technology at MIT and a Fellow at Harvard University. He is the author of Real Jews: Secular, Ultra-orthodox and the Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel and, most recently, of Judaism & Science: A Historical Introduction. His essays have appeared in dozens of newspapers, magazines and journals.
Efron played bass for an ill-fated band called Liquid Plumr. He has run marathons, slowly, on three continents. He lives in Tel Aviv with his wife, daughter, son, bunny and dog.
from The Forward
Lou Reed: The Punk Soul of an Underground Jew
Of all the tributes following the death this week of Lou Reed, the transgressive, subversive bard of the street-wild and deviant, one of the strangest is this celebration by British journalist Tom Gross, which appeared online in the National Review. Yes, that National Review—the conservative journal founded by the high priest of upper-crust propriety, William F. Buckley.
Perhaps even more than other American-Jewish rock stars such as Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, Lou Reed was fiercely proud of being Jewish — and included lyrics on behalf of Israel and against anti-Semitism in some of his songs.
I mention Reed’s Jewishness because not a single obituary I have read of him in the mainstream press mentions it, when for Reed it was an important factor.
The evidence Gross offers consists mainly of the mockingly bitter song “Good Evening, Mr. Waldheim,” from Reed’s 1989 album New York. But that’s actually plenty—only a handful of major American rockers have recorded even a single statement as proudly Jewish. (I think of Paul Simon’s “Silent Eyes,” Randy Newman’s “Dixie Flyer,” Bob Dylan’s “Neighborhood Bully” — and, arguably, “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Father of Night.” Others?)
At the same time, Gross is right to note that Reed appeared in Israel several times. He wasn’t quite the “frequent visitor to the country” that Gross makes him out to be, but he performed there repeatedly: he gave concerts in 1994 and 2000 and joined his wife Laurie Anderson on stage for a few numbers during her Tel Aviv concerts in 2008 (video after the jump). Not many American pop stars have appeared in Israel so frequently (though Dylan matched him—concerts in 1987, 1993 and 2011—and several private visits).
And though Gross doesn’t mention it, Reed involved himself in a public way in recent years in New York’s emerging downtown Jewish culture. That’s described lovingly in this appreciation in The Jewish Week by Reed’s friend, impresario Michael Dorf. Among other things, Dorf describes Reed’s appearances as the Wise Son at Dorf’s annual Passover Seder at the Knitting Factory.
What’s most curious about the National Review piece is how it’s captured imaginations on the right with its image of Reed the defiant battler against anti-Semitism. It’s been cited by several right-wing blogs, including the Breitbart-linked Big Hollywood and Islam-bashing arch-conservative Debbie Schlussel. Schlussel’s piece is particularly wacky — she seems delighted that Reed “defied” the boycotters to play Israel, though she’s dubious of what she presumes are his leftie leanings, wary of his counter-cultural ethos and judges him.
Punk rock’s secret Jewish roots
Punk rock’s most revered founders include a yeshiva alum named Tamas Erdelyi and a Bronx Jew known as Richard Blum – or, Tommy Ramone and Handsome Dick Manitoba.
Punk rock’s most revered founders include a yeshiva alum named Tamas Erdelyi and a Bronx Jew known to his family as Richard Blum.
No, they weren’t managers, producers or label honchos; Erdelyi and Blum are living legends of the mid-1970s punk rock scene, widely celebrated for their bands? revolutionary three-chord masterpieces.
Both men are also better known by their stage names, Tommy Ramone and Handsome Dick Manitoba.
Ramone, the sole surviving member of the Ramones, and Manitoba, frontman for the Dictators, were hardly the only Jews to shape the movement, as a capacity crowd learned in a program at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, located in Manhattan?s Chelsea area. Lenny Kaye, who’s a guitarist for the Patti Smith Group, and Blondie co-founder Chris Stein joined Manitoba and Ramone in a panel discussion on ?Loud, Fast Jews? of New York punk rock.
Kaye, who also served as moderator, warmed up the panelists by asking about their family backgrounds and bar mitzvah memories before moving on to more difficult topics, such as the movement?s controversial appropriation of Nazi imagery. But one central question pervaded the evening?s discussion: How much did Jewish culture influence punk rock?
As the musicians acknowledged, it seems counterintuitive to draw parallels between Judaism and punk: The stereotypes attached to each culture seem mutually exclusive. “You don?t expect Jews to be good in the scuffle of anti-establishment movements,” Kaye said. “Jews were groomed for white-collar jobs.? His parents did not consider making music a “real job,? he recalled. ?Jews aren’t supposed to be tough guys,? Manitoba added. “They?re supposed to go to school and be nebbishy.”
Although Jews have made countless contributions to American popular music, Harold Steinblatt, YIVO?s director of cultural affairs and the June 11 event’s organizer, noted that punk was unusual because so many of its progenitors were Jewish.
New York’s pioneering punk scene found its headquarters at CBGB, an East Village dive that served as both performance space and clubhouse before it closed in 2006. The bar?s proprietor, Hilly Kristal, along with CBGB’s fixture and the city?s central punk icon, Joey Ramone (né Jeffrey Hyman), was born into a Jewish family. So was the genre?s forefather, Lou Reed. British punk?s notorious ringmaster Malcolm McLaren is the son of shmatte factory owners. Is this merely a coincidence, or is there something particularly Jewish about the music itself?
“There is a sense of being an outsider in music,” Kaye said, just as growing up in a religious minority may have isolated some Jews who became punks. In a later phone interview, he also cited the cultural influences he had derived from Judaism ? “a love of the minor key, a sense of community and clan.” The setting for the music was important, too, he said, because ?CBGB?s was a kind of strange ghetto with its own vocabulary and customs.?
Panelists also praised the influence of Jewish artists, entertainers and activists on punk music. Ramone credited Bill Gaines’s Mad Magazine and pulpy EC Comics for teaching him that “sometimes being outrageous is important.” Kaye pointed to the Jewish radical tradition and the folk music of Israeli kibbutzim, while Manitoba reminisced about the Catskills comedians of his youth. “I?m sure that what I spit back has a little Shecky Greene in it,” he admitted, chuckling.
But Stein – and all the panelists, to varying degrees ? worried about overstating the connection between punk and Jewish religion and identity. “My Jewishness has always been there, but it’s not an integral part of me,” he said. Raised in Brooklyn’s Flatbush area by secular parents, Stein dismissed punk’s ties to Judaism as “just another facet for people to analyze.”
Perhaps because so many punks assumed stage names in the ’70s, most were unaware of how many other Jews participated in the scene until 2006, when Steven Lee Beeber published “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk” (Chicago Review Press). As Kaye explained, musicians were so wrapped up in absorbing and creating various religious modes of rock ‘n’ roll that individuals’ cultural and spiritual backgrounds seemed beside the point.
Sometimes, what Kaye referred to as punk’s use of “shock imagery” even could appear to be antisemitic. Yet when bands referenced Nazism, as Manitoba?s Dictators did in their song “Master Race Rock” (1975), the intent was to satirize and reclaim noxious words and images. “There’s a cathartic effect when you take your deepest fear,” Ramone told the audience, “and either make humor of it, or, in an artistic sense,” transform it. Ramone believes that few artists were truly antisemitic, although he never endorsed plastering swastikas on everything from clothing to concert fliers. “The whole thing that became called punk ? we never had any control over it,” he said.
Manitoba compared the use of Third Reich imagery by punk rock bands to Mel Brooks’s films, which poke fun at Nazis. During the panel, he confessed to crying when he watched “Schindler’s List,” and said he would be upset to learn that ?Master Race Rock? hurt anyone. Later, in the phone interview, he told of visiting Arturo Vega, the designer famous for creating the Ramones logo, who had an Andy Warhol swastika painting hanging on his wall. “It was his idea of art. I didn?t like it, but I laughed at Mel Brooks,” Manitoba said. “?There really is no universal morality for what is truly funny.”
Judy Berman is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn.
Though few people would associate punk rock with Judaism, the punk movement was created by Jews from Brooklyn and Queens.
by Saul Austerlitz
Is punk Jewish? At first glance, what music could be less (stereotypically) Jewish? Punk rock, in its classic, Sex Pistols-and-Ramones form, was all about simplicity, rebelliousness, anti-intellectualism, and shock value. Its foremost practitioners kitted themselves out in matching swastikas or dressed like a white-ethnic biker gang straight out of “The Wild One,” but it was essential to the project of punk that its musicians appear brutish, Neanderthal, evil–anything but bookish, or well-spoken, or worst of all, nice.
And yet, as Steven Lee Beeber documents in his book “The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s,” New York punk was primarily a movement led by Jewish boys (and a few girls) from solidly middle-class families, born and raised in the outer boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn but drawn to Manhattan’s club scene like a moth to a flame. The sons and daughters of shopowners and accountants rebelling against their parents’ comfortable but too-confined existences–what could be more familiarly, soothingly American? But what is the significance of the Jewish angle, if there is one at all?
The facts undoubtedly bear out a significant over-representation of Jews in the first wave of New York punks. Lou Reed, Joey and Tommy Ramone, Suicide’s Martin Rev and Alan Vega, Jonathan Richman, Patti Smith Group guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell, Blondie’s Chris Stein, CBGB’s founder Hilly Kristal–the list of Jewish punk notables is lengthy, and impressive. According to Beeber, the common thread for many of these Jewish punks was a desire to overturn the stereotype of the feeble, brainy Jew, the yeshiva student or the bespectacled clerk, replacing him with a brawny Jew in closer touch with his inner beast, and intent on shocking society out of its narcotized comfort.
The new punk Jew was inspired in equal parts by the warriors of the Israel Defense Forces, the comic-book superheroes scripted by an earlier generation of Jewish artists, and an instinctive revulsion at the musical excesses of contemporaries. Stripping down to essences after the overblown pompousness of rock in the mid-1970’s, punk cut away everything it saw as being unnecessary, including any prior identity. Punk was not merely a musical genre; it was a rebirth, with each newfound punk reborn in the movement, baptized in the flaming guitars and pogoing bass. How could punks be punks, and be Jewish too?
Beeber’s book sees punk as a specifically Jewish outgrowth of post-Holocaust awareness–and shame. A new generation of Jewish boys sought to express their horror at the concentration camps by caustically embracing fascist aesthetics and an iconography of raw power. Rather than sink into what they saw as a mire of self-pity and narcissistic victimhood over six million dead, the Jewish punks preferred to rock out with swastikas, pose meaningfully with Nazi flags, and do their utmost to shock the living daylights out of their parents. Seeing the Holocaust as a moment of tragic weakness, the Jewish punks sought to never be weak again.
Or so Beeber says. The punk movement was never quite as uniform as Beeber has it, nor was its Jewish component as explicitly Jewish as he makes it out to be. Key figures like Tommy Ramone preferred to keep their Jewish identity in the shadows, preferring a white-ethnic, outer-boroughs style hilariously dubbed “Juido.” Moreover, being an all-embracing, all-encompassing lifestyle more than a mere musical distinction, punk sought to displace Judaism, as it displaced any religious or cultural affiliation. Punk was a calling, a source of meaning, and a religion of its own. To point out that there were many Jewish punks is akin to pointing out that there were many Jewish Communists; while true, it ignores the fact of the newer identity essentially canceling out the older.
The punks kept faith with Judaism less in the ideas they espoused than in the position they took vis-à-vis mainstream society. Having far more in common with their immigrant parents and grandparents than they might have been comfortable, or familiar, with, the Jewish punks simultaneously sought to maintain their status as a people apart, divorced from mainstream culture, while desperately in search of the approval of that very same uncomprehending mass. What, after all, was the significance of the punks’ embrace of Nazi culture and other similarly toxic aesthetic motifs, if not an angry response to the seeming inability of the bourgeoisie to grasp the nature of their revolution?
The Jewish punks, like their immigrant forebears, sought to fit in and stand out, to be celebrated and to be ignored. Like their predecessors, the punks also flocked to the dingy, crime-ridden, tenement-dotted city, only in far smaller numbers, and as a lifestyle choice, rather than because there was nowhere else to go. For the punks, the very nature of their beliefs made them a people apart, divorced from society at large, and yet, deep in the marrow of their bones was a clamorous urge to be celebrated, and to be accepted.
How apropos, then, that so many of the New York punks were also Jewish. Punk may not have been Jewish, but its push-and-pull dynamic regarding American culture at large might as well have been.
Saul Austerlitz, a writer and film critic living in New York City, is a frequent contributor to Beliefnet. He is the author of “Money for Nothing: A History of the Music Video from the Beatles to the White Stripes.”
Punk On The Rocks: Q&A With Steven Lee Beeber
When most people think of Jewish music, their immediate thoughts most likely to go to Fiddler on the Roof rather than The Velvet Underground. Steven Lee Beeber wants to change all that. Beeber is the author of the 2007 book The Heebie-Jeebies At CBGBc: The Secret History of Jewish Punk, which explores the high rate of Jewish participation in the New York punk scene along with the influence of Jewish culture on the resulting music. A professor at the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies at Emerson College and editor of the anthology Awake! A Reader For The Sleepless, Beeber’s writing has been featured in publications like MOJO, Spin, Jewcy and Conduit. Hot on the heels of Heebie-Jeebies‘ German translation, Beeber took some time out to answer some questions about punk rock, Hollywood and holiday music.
OurStage: What made you want to write a book about the role that Jews played in the formation of punk?
Steven Lee Beeber: As I’ve grown older, I’ve become more interested in my origins. The further you go, the more you realize where it was you actually began. While thinking about issues related to this, I suddenly stumbled on the insight that Lou Reed, Jonathan Richman and Joey Ramone were a kind of Jewish trinity of pre- and early punk. Then it hit me that Bob Dylan and Tuli Kupferberg (of The Fugs) — two more extremely pivotal pre-punk figures — were the same. When I put together that the common thread uniting all of these was New York (Richman’s Modern Lovers, though based in Boston, made their name there), it suddenly also hit me that punk began in that city. Thinking about Lenny Bruce’s comment that “It doesn’t matter if you’re Catholic, if you live in New York you’re Jewish,” I became intrigued. Once I realized that Lenny was a kind of Jewish patron saint to the early punks, that many of those punks actually happened to be Jewish and that, most importantly, punk was the only real rock movement (as opposed to jazz, folk and hip hop) to come out of NY, I was on my way. Combine the use of Nazi imagery, ironic humor, Jewish jokes and a leftist embrace of downtrodden outsiders and the plot thickens further. From there I started doing some serious research and what I found astounded me.
OS: In Heebie-Jeebies, you mention that there were a number of members of the punk and pre-punk scene who weren’t exactly forthcoming about their Jewishness. Did you find that punk’s Jewish bent was secret to fans and artists alike?
SLB: Yes and no. About half of fans and performers considered it a kind of in-joke, while the other half only came to realize this after the fact. A classic example is The Dictators, five Jewish guys with at least two giant Jewfros who some saw as “the Henny Youngmen of punk” and others as a possible Italian street gang. These Juidoes (Jews “passing” as Italians) were themselves both aware and unaware of their collective Jewishness, singer Handsome Dick Manitoba, for instance, seeing himself as an inheritor of the Jewish Borscht Belt tradition and songwriter Andy Shernoff only feeling Jewish after Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. Perhaps most surprising, though, was the story of Tommy Erdelyi “Ramone,” the original drummer, manager and largely un-credited creative genius behind The Ramones. Tommy was born in Budapest in 1949, only a few years after his parents barely survived the Holocaust. He moved to America with them in 1956 largely due to the continuing anti-Semitism they experienced, and once he arrived here, he was thrown into a far more religiously Jewish world than he had ever known during his secularly Jewish upbringing. As a result, many of his preoccupations with thuggish behavior, the place of outsiders, the use of humor as a weapon and the worthy target of Nazism popped up in his music. Also, as a result, he largely kept his Jewishness to himself, even longtime manager Danny Fields (himself Jewish), being unaware of it until we met.
OS: I read on your blog that Heebie-Jeebies is being made into a documentary. How did this project come about? Will you be talking to some of the same people you interviewed for the book?
SLB: Actually, I may have been a bit premature in announcing this, so perhaps I should only say that negotiations are in the works. With that said, we are definitely planning to interview many of the same people I spoke to for the book, though seeing as there were nearly 150 people total, not all of them. We also will be including unseen archival footage, photos and ephemera, including such items as Heinrich Himmler’s ceremonial sword, now owned by a certain Jewish punk rocker who for now will remain nameless.
OS: While there are enough Christmas hits for radio stations to fill their playlists with every December, the only well known Chanukah-related songs seem to be Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” and the ubiquitous and annoying “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” What Jewish-influenced punk song would you like to see become a holiday standard?
SLB: Good question! Putting aside the fact that the best Christmas songs were written by Jews (White Christmas by Irving Berlin, for instance), and ignoring that Joey Hyman “Ramone” covered Christmas, Baby Please Come Home by Phil Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, I guess I would nominate the punky anthem The Brews by the Hebraically-inclined NOFX. Sample lyrics:
Friday night we’ll be drinkin’ Manishewitz …
Stompin’ shaygetz, screwin’ shiksas …
Cause hey, we’re the Brews
Sportin’ anti-swastika tattoos …
Oi Oi we’re the Brews
The Fairfax ghetto boys skinhead Hebrews
For more about The Heebie-Jeebies At CBGBs: The Secret History of Jewish Punk, click here.
The Ostrich (w. Lou Reed) by The Primitives (1964)
And about Alan Vega and Marty Rev:
by Paul Lester (summarized below)
- Who are Suicide? Marty Rev and Alan Vega (his art) – two Jewish New Yorkers who founded the band after they met in 1971. Vega says: “We were angry and we wanted to wake people up”
- Why are they important? Suicide had a punk-style attitude and violent edge to their music that predated the Sex Pistols by several years. They invented synthesizer rock, paving the way for a host of ’80s and ’90s electro-pop bands
- Who have they influenced? Who haven’t they influenced? Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, New Order and Pet Shop Boys would all probably never have existed without Suicide. U2, REM, Radiohead, and even Bruce Springsteen claim them as heroes.
EXTRA: Alan Vega at the Brooklyn Public Library