Religion

A Jewish rock star reflects on Oct. 7

(RNS) — Do you know what it’s like to fall in love?

I don’t mean falling in love with a romantic partner.

I am talking about the moment of falling in love with a performer — because you know that person gets it and gets you and understands you.

That is what happened to me back in 1991, when a friend of mine played me an album called “From Strength to Strength” by Peter Himmelman.

That title is a biblical quote. It’s what Jews say to each other at significant moments in life: “May you go from strength to strength.”

The best cuts from that album? “Woman With the Strength of 10,000 Men,” “Impermanent Things” and “Mission of My Soul.”

Himmelman imported Jewish theology and text and put it out on alternative radio. I was hooked. I fell in love. Total musical crush.

In 2002, Himmelman was nominated for an Emmy Award for his song “Best Kind of Answer,” which appeared on the CBS series Judging Amy, for which he also composed the score.

He composed the music for the FOX television show Bones through the fourth season.

He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his children’s album, “My Green Kite.”

Himmelman is a rarity in American popular music — an observant Jew who observes Shabbat. Some years ago, he turned down three offers to appear on the Tonight Show because they conflicted with Shabbat or Jewish holidays (he accepted the fourth invitation, for an appearance on Thanksgiving).

Peter Himmelman. (Photo © Jim Hershleder)

Peter Himmelman. (Photo © Jim Hershleder)

He is married to Maria Dylan. She is the daughter of Bob Dylan. They have four children and grandchildren.

You are going to love this podcast. We talk about rock music (my first love), Jewish culture, Jewish identity, spirituality and what it means for Jews to live post-Oct. 7.

We listen to his music as well.

“Grey Is the Most Dangerous Color” criticizes those who try to minimize the horrors of Oct. 7, or perhaps worse, seek to explain and rationalize them.

As you watch the slaughter of babies, will you rationalize it?
Can you call it what it is, or will you sit and analyze it?
You’ve been educated, but your degrees didn’t make you wise
You can’t see the face of evil when it’s right before your eyes …

Himmelman presses the point in his article, “We Are Not All the Same,” in a recent issue of Commentary magazine:

I’ve often had a certain ambivalence about never having gone to college. Today, I have none. When I watch how our once storied universities have stolen the minds of our young people, robbed them of the knowledge of right and wrong, and replaced their common sense with a set of pseudo-values that have no basis in reality, my lack of collegiate sophistication is no longer a source of misgiving, but a beacon of clarity…

What else but an unthinking belief in lies can explain the masses of college students who delight in tearing down posters of kidnapped babies? What else but an unthinking belief in lies allows a person to publicly shout that the rape and torture of young Jewish women is a justified response to “colonialism?” What else but an unthinking belief in lies prods an Ivy League professor to exhort on October 8 — just one day after the worst pogrom since the Holocaust — that he feels “energized” by the sight of burned and beheaded children.

Why do I mention this? I do so because the willful ignorance that rots in the streets of our major cities and in our schools pains me, the Jew-hatred pains me, the small band of outlier Jews who call for an immediate ceasefire pains me — just as it would pain me if those same Jews called for a ceasefire had the Nazis asked for one in the hell of October 1943. October 7 represents a turning point, an existential moment for the world, and in the most immediate sense, for the Jewish people.

In his song, “Impermanent Things,” Himmelman speaks about the temptations of idolatry:

All these impermanent things
Oh how they fool me, dominate and rule me
They keep me waiting here forever
All these impermanent things
Well, their beauty’s never aging but their worthlessness is enraging
You know we always stand alone when we’re together.

You will rarely find a popular song that is as Jewish as that one. Himmelman is singing about the life of the spirit, about knowing the difference between those things that come and go, and those things that will always endure. He is singing to us of the distinction between those things that are fads and will someday pass out of existence, and those things that will always be with us.

His song “The Boat That Carries Us” could have been written for what the Jewish people and others are enduring at this historical moment:

Though the current’s strong, it can’t break our will
Tossed about, we lose no hope
Held fast above by heaven’s rope.

I particularly love this line: “The darkest sky gives way to dawn.”

Himmelman proves a very important truth about American Jews that we need to re-learn every now and then. It is possible and desirable to be affirmatively Jewish and to live in the mainstream of American popular culture. Simultaneously.

We need not choose.

We must not choose.


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