Jerusalem rabbi recalls Lou Reed's 'Jewish soul'

Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman says late rock icon and musical pioneer kept his feelings about Judaism private, was connected to his family and Jewish roots.

Lou Reed 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Lou Reed 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Despite feeling at home in Israel and visiting the country a handful of times over the last two decades, Lou Reed kept his feelings about Judaism private, according to a Jerusalem rabbi who befriended the fabled rocker and his wife, performance artist Laurie Anderson.
“I would say that Lou definitely had a Jewish soul, even though he never revealed it to me,” said Rabbi Levi Weiman- Kelman, the spiritual leader of Jerusalem progressive Judaism congregation Kol Haneshama on Wednesday, three days after Reed died in Long Island at the age of 71.
Along with Bob Dylan and Paul Simon, Reed rounded out the American Jewish songwriting triumvirate that helped to redefine popular music in the 1960s, thanks to his work in The Velvet Underground and a long, varied solo career.
“A lot of the obits have identified him as a counter-Jew – a New York hipster who challenged authority and tradition, and yes, that’s him,” added Weiman-Kelman, who showed Reed and Anderson around Jerusalem’s Old City during their last visit to the country in 2011, and dined with the couple on many occasions in Israel and New York.
Lewis Allan Reed was born in Brooklyn to a middle-class Jewish family, but had a troubled youth, and by his teens he was sent by his parents to receive shock therapy aimed at ‘curing’ his bisexuality.
“I think he had quite an unhappy childhood and still had anger toward his parents, and I think he associated that with Jewish stuff,” said Weiman-Kelman. “So he wasn’t really open to talking about his Judaism.”
Still, Reed, who has family in Israel, found different avenues to express his Jewish identity throughout his career and life.
He was a regular attendee of the Downtown Seder at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, asking the traditional Four Questions in original forms.
Reed also gave a nod to his heritage by making a short film in 2010 called Red Shirley about his 99-year-old aunt Shirley Novick, and her experiences fleeing Poland during World War II, settling in New York as a seamstress and Jewish socialist, and eventually marching in Washington in support of the civil rights movement.
“I realized if I didn’t do this, a connection to a lot of things would be lost forever,” Reed told The Wall Street Journal in 2011.
According to Weiman-Kelman, it was a heartfelt work.
“It was an amazing movie and shows he obviously felt some connection to his family and his Jewish roots.”
Another irrefutable connection to his Jewish identity can be found in Reed’s song “Good Evening Mr. Waldheim,” which was released on his 1989 career-height album New York. The raucous song skewers the likes of Rev. Jesse Jackson and former UN secretarygeneral (and Nazi SS officer) Kurt Waldheim for anti-Semitic overtones and cozying up to Nation of Islam leader Lewis Farrakhan and PLO leader Yasser Arafat back when he was still calling for Israel’s destruction.
“The song was reflective of all his work in that he did everything on his own terms – quirky, interesting and challenging,” opined Weiman-Kelman, who first met Reed through Anderson, who performed in Israel for the first time in 1992 in a benefit show for the New Israel Fund.
“She came to Kol Haneshama, and we became best buddies. I would visit her when I went to New York,” said Weiman-Kelman. “After the service, she came up to me and said, ‘Wow, you’re a real performance artist!’ – I thought that was pretty cool coming from her.”
Anderson, who began a relationship with Reed in the 1990s that culminated in their 2008 marriage, accompanied the rocker back to Israel in the late 1990s when he performed with Peter Gabriel at Hayarkon Park in Tel Aviv. The couple came to Jerusalem for dinner at Weiman-Kelman’s home.
“It was the first time I hung out with Lou, and I was having normal conversation, but in my mind was going: ‘This is Lou Reed!’ said Weiman-Kelman.
“I remember we had quite a long, complicated discussion about the origins of circumcision.
“But through all my interaction with him over the years, Lou was like you think he would be – brilliant and a little menacing. A real New Yorker.”