My friend Ethan and I were watching VH1 a couple of summers ago when a video by a new R & B singer named Blu Cantrell came on. She sang about getting revenge on her cheating boyfriend by going "to Nieman Marcus on a shopping spree," and when she sang "oops" and shrugged her shoulders, Ethan and I exclaimed, "She's Jewish!" Blu Cantrell made a facial expression that, according to me and Ethan, "only Jewish women can make." Despite our Internet research, we could find no evidence to support or disprove our theory.
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Like Ethan and me, Guy Oseary, record executive and author of Jews Who Rock, is mildly obsessed with who's Jewish and who isn't.
There are several denominations of Jews in America. The spectrum ranges from Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, who follow the dietary laws and go to temple quite often, to Reform Jews who might go to temple only on the High Holy Days. The vast majority of Jews in America (or so it seems to me) are Cultural Jews. They can relate to the humor and family structure associated with Judaism, but they don't pray or go to temple on a regular basis. Ethan calls himself "Extremely Reformed," while I have proclaimed my faith, "Jewish When Convenient."
Jews Who Rock is perfect for those of us from the Jewish When Convenient clan. We admit to (and even boast about) being Jewish when it means we are cut from the same cloth as Jon Stewart, Bob Dylan, or Jerry Seinfeld, but if a catastrophe happens -- say, a suicide bombing or Kenny G -- we deny any association.
Jews Who Rock is 108 pages long and features mini-bios on dozens of Jewish rock stars and songwriters, arranged in alphabetical order by last name. It also contains the full lyrics to Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song," which is mainly a list of Jews in showbiz. The introduction by Ben Stiller, a cultural Jew, is my favorite part of the book. He describes playing his "first gig" for his teenage band Capital Punishment at his Bar Mitzvah. It is funny and touching. Unfortunately, the rest of the book is as dry as week old matzoh. The facts presented in the page long bios provide basic facts and occasional fun tid-bits but are generally less comprehensive than what you would find on allmusic.com. If Oseary had done a bit more research, he could have uncovered fun, Jewish-themed anecdotes from all of the rockers in the book.
Oseary's criteria for being considered Jewish aren't very strong, as he mentions Madonna as "the most rocking Jew of all." As a Jew When Convenient, it's a bit hypocritical of me to criticize Madonna's fickle Judaism, but I just don't think Madonna Ciccone has what it takes to be a part of the club. The mother of Jesus was Jewish; the Material Girl is not.
Similarly, Courtney Love is included in this book without any explanation of how she qualifies. I know from Adam Sandler's sequel to the Chanukah song that Love is half-Jewish, but I've never seen her mention anything about it in interviews. And what kind of Jewish mother would take heroin when she was pregnant?
The page for each rocker contains a black and white photo, birthdate and real name (if applicable), talent (i.e. singer, guitarist, etc.), "the road to fame," "the music," and "did you know?"
Bizarrely, one of the most famous Jewish rockers, who had a massive hit with "Spirit in the Sky," is not included in this book. Despite the line, "gotta have a friend in Jesus," Norman Greenbaum (how could Oseary leave him out of the book with a name like that?) of Malden, Massachusetts, a town that also spawned Extreme, is Jewish.
The book does contain a few surprise Jews I was proud of:
Mick Jones of the Clash
Malcolm McLaren, who created the Sex Pistols
Nick Feldman of Wang Chung
Barry Man, who co-wrote the song referenced in the title of this review
Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary
Eric Bloom of Blue Öyster Cult
Slash of Guns 'n' Roses
Scott Ian of Anthax
and Warren Zevon
Plus a few I'd rather not be associated with:
Alan Freed, the music exec responsible for "Payola." As my grandmother would say, "I hate a shady Jew."
Justine Frischmann, who must be the world's stupidest person if she dumped Damon Albarn, my dream man
Geddy Lee of Rush
and Wilson Phillips
The book also reminds us of classic Jews like:
The Beastie Boys
Simon and Garfunkel
Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles. "Walk Like an Egyptian," indeed.
Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS
Dee Snider of Twisted Sister
Phil Spector (another shady one...)
Chris Stein of Blondie
Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction writes the afterword in this book, providing a direct contrast to the Cultural Judaism demonstrated by Stiller's intro. Farrell, despite the rampant drug use, womanizing, and tattooing, is a devout Jew who studies the Torah and believes that the characters in the Bible are his ancestors. Although I don't agree with his views, it was a very interesting essay, and I wished the author had asked other artists to describe what their Judaism meant to them.
This book makes a nice novelty gift (Thanks, Charlie!), but it is mainly a superficial laundry list of who's Jewish and who ain't. However, it could prove once and for all that Bruce Springsteen is not Jewish even though your grandmother thinks he is.
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