Hebrew School

A friend in Jesus
October 10, 2007, 1:33 am
Filed under: jews, music | Tags: , , , , , , ,

There seems to have always been an assortment of Jewish people in the arts world who were somewhat fixated on Christ. It goes back at least as early as Chagall’s paintings of crucifixes mixed with shtetl and old testament imagery, and later takes up relevance for me in Leonard Cohen’s depiction of said Jew in his hit song, “Suzanne.” And who could (i.e., couldn’t) forget Dylan’s born-again years when he wrote “Saved,” performing it live with a gospel choir?

It’s in that vein that I want to talk a little bit about Norman Greenbaum. If you are not familiar with his name, you are surely familiar with his ’60s hit “Spirit in the Sky,” which over the years has been featured in a bevy of television ads and movies, and continues to get heavy airplay on mainstream radio’s “classic rock” and “oldies” format stations.

Apart from never having stopped loving this song, I have a certain pride in the fact that Norman is from my hometown of Malden, Massachusetts. (Here’s a picture of my hometown, in case you’re interested. Maybe you’ve been there…)

According to an excellent (highly recommended) interview of Mr. Greenbaum on Jewhoo, and his official website, he had a conventional Jewish upbringing, was bar mitzvah, and went to Hebrew school. (I am guessing it must have been the same one I went to– mine had inkpot holes in the desks– come to think of it he would have probably had the same teachers too!) He loved blues music and gospel and formed a band with some other Jewish kids from his high school. After establishing himself as a musician by occupation, he moved to Petaluma, California, perhaps following in the footsteps of a generation of Jewish socialist chicken farmers who had moved there decades before. Long story short, after hearing a country song about a preacher, he decided to write a song about religion that would reach a mass market, and knew that a lyric like “gotta have a friend in Elohim” wouldn’t fly. Apparently he was onto something, as he is still living off of the royalties today.

It’s hard to say exactly what my own musical kinship with Greenbaum is, or will be. And it’s hard to know exactly how to define him. For all intents and purposes, he was a “one-hit-wonder” pop star, but could you call this “Jewish music?” Maybe what’s most captivating about him is that– like Dylan or Chagall– no one can quite put their finger on what he did.

[Guitar nerds: here’s the secret to how he does the “beep beep beep” in “Spirit.”]


6 Comments so far
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Great post, David. I *never* knew about those socialist chicken farmers in Petaluma! That totally blows my mind, and I’m immediately mailing that story to a buncha people (read: jews).

I always liked “Spirit in the Sky,” and it’s good to hear some of the backstory. I’m surprised John Zorn hasn’t made a record with arrangements of Greenbaum’s oeuvre for cello and glass armonica or whatnot. :)


Comment by Steve Silberman

One time I emailed Norman using the email on his site to see if he ever came back to Malden. He got back to me a day later personally to tell me that he would be back in the Summer and to look in the papers for it (I assume he meant the Malden Evening News). I never looked in the papers, and I guess my purpose wasn’t to track him down and play Keno with him at Oak Grove Variety or something, but just to know that he came back every once in awhile to his roots.

Also, my favorite Dylan religious song is “Man Gave Names to All the Animals” off of Slow Train Coming. It has a great climactic ending that’s both eerie and playful, and sounds really good when you play “Can’t get used to losing you” by the English Beat right after it.

Comment by Brotha

Thanks, Bro. Norman responded within an hour to an email I wrote him yesterday, confirming that he went to Malden Hebrew School (though he can’t recall exactly from memory). He also believes he attended Congregation Beth Israel, Malden’s orthodox synagogue. (Their site seems kinda real estate driven, but still provides a lot of interesting information and history.) Jesus, they have an Eruv now!

Comment by hebrewschool

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