Hebrew School

Norman Greenbaum’s Hebrew School may close
February 26, 2008, 1:19 am
Filed under: jewish, malden | Tags: ,


There’s an editorial today in the Jewish Advocate, a Boston Jewish weekly, about the possible closure of the Hebrew school of my youth, now called the Metro North Regional Hebrew School.

Part of me wants to simply say “good riddance;” Hebrew school for me was little more than a six-year-long speed reading and kosher hot dog eating competition, injected with repetitive song and pedantic, seemingly indisputable utterances of hegemonic notions of Jewishness. And part of me wonders if, without Hebrew school driving me crazy, I’d still have the same inspiration for this project.

What’s definitely saddening to me is the fact that the Jewish kids of my hometown would be overlooked, simply because they are small in number and not the kids of another upscale suburban Jewish community. A lot of the kids I went to Hebrew school with at the time were from low-income families (the school was blocks away from rows of low-rise public housing developments); most of us existed in an economic strata that I would refer to as working class.

It’s also saddening to think that the Hebrew school that Norman Greenbaum attended would close.

More Malden here.


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.”]