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One on One: Rock'n'roll, Baruch Hashem!
Ruthie Blum Leibowitz
Rock singer and personal trainer Libby voices a message of health, harmony and perseverance.
'You can take the girl out of Monsey," quips Libby, crossing her long, tan, muscular legs, on full display in a pair of ultra-short cut-off jeans, "but you can't take Monsey out of the girl." The rock singer and personal fitness trainer is referring to the Orthodox town in New York where she spent her early childhood, before moving to Flatbush - the Brooklyn neighborhood where she first encountered Jews who desecrated the Sabbath. The indelible mark her religious upbringing continues to leave on the heavy metalist and Wingate graduate - who became a celebrity in Israel in the '80s for her wild, sexy stage presence spiced with "good Jewish girl"isms - is as initially invisible as her age. At 55, Libby (no last name, like Madonna or Sting) looks more like a "funky young babe" than a Shabbat-observant mother of a soon-to-be-married 28-year-old daughter. A large sun-shaped tattoo decorates her upper left arm; a gold hoop dangles from her nose; a mane of waist-length, pitch-black hair cascades down her back; and her style of speech is dotted intermittently with dirty words in English, Hebrew blessings and Yiddish expressions. A self-described "baby-boomer who was fed Zionism intravenously," Libby made aliya in 1979, following in the footsteps of her American-born parents and her older sister, all of whom have since passed away. Countless personal tragedies and illnesses later - as well as two divorces and stints abroad - Libby is back in the Holy Land for good. And to do good works, she says, believing that God gave her certain gifts and put her through certain trials, including a bout with breast cancer, "for a reason." Still, she says that "the reason" is never clear. "It's not up to me to ask why. It's up to me to accept and make the best of it." In an hour-long interview at her home on a moshav near Jerusalem, Libby (nee Sinnet, or, as she says, "tennis spelled backwards") talks about the difficulties of life as a musician in this country - and about her personal journey to synthesize her secular passions with her religious ones. How does a "nice Orthodox girl" transform into a rock singer? I started singing backup at a cafe when I was 17. My parents didn't have a clue of what to do with a little hippy chick. Many parents then had a similar problem. It was the height of the 1960s, after all. You know, "Sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll." We left Monsey when I graduated elementary school and moved to Flatbush. On my first shabbes there, someone invited me home after shul. When I entered their house and saw the TV on and one of the girls blow-drying her hair, I ran out of there screaming. I cried the whole way home and accused my parents of having moved me to hell. I was 12 then, and attended Yeshiva Flatbush. At that time, I was the only shomer shabbes [Shabbat-observant] kid in my class. On the first day of school, somebody tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I'd watched [the TV series] The Adams Family that weekend. And I was like, "Oy! A shanda and a harpa [a scandal and an outrage]!" Because The Adams Family was broadcast on Friday nights. That was the moment I became the class nerd. The only one who didn't watch TV over the weekend. After school, all the boys would throw off their kippot and go across the street to the non-kosher pizza shop. I couldn't even eat in Hebrew National because they were open on Shabbat. And I have always recited the shema. Forever, no matter where I was sleeping, whether in Central Park, tripping my brains out at a Grateful Dead concert, or living in a commune - I always said it. Someone I know in the States called me FFBB -frum from before birth. No matter how you try, you can take the girl out of Monsey, but you can't take Monsey out of the girl. Did you marry an Orthodox boy? Yes, when I was 19. By that time, most of my friends had dropped off the Orthodox tree and become hippies. My first husband was the first kippa-wearing, long-haired guy I'd ever met. This was a safe way to run away from home legally. When did you cease being regarded as a nerd? In college [at the Freshman Program at the Graduate Center of the City of New York]. That was when I started dressing in all kinds of colorful clothes with feathers and stuff. It was also when I first got high. The day that The Beatles's White Album came out in 1969, the first few classes of school were cancelled, because all of our teachers, like us, wanted to line up to buy it. Professors, teachers, kids -- we were all on line at the nearby record store. Later that day, in music class, the teacher lit up a joint and we studied the White Album. Up until then, my only claim to popularity was that I could sing. When I was in eighth grade, my father bought me a transistor radio so I that he and I could listen to the baseball games together. That's when I discovered [the music station] WMCA and Motown records. It was also when I discovered that there were all these girl groups, like Diana Ross and the Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas. During morning minyan, we girls had to go to school to serve coffee and buttered rolls to the boys who were davening shahris: [morning prayers]. So we used to be in the back room with the radio on, and I would sing along with it. I remember that the desks in mishna class had great rhythm when you drummed on them - so I could also disrupt mishna class. But it was those girl groups that saved my life, because I said: "Wow, there's something out there besides zmiros [religious songs] - and girls are performing!" Zmiros were big in my household. My mother was a radio singer, and my sister had a voice like a nightingale. [Her father was an investor.] I remember her coming home from a date with [neo-Hassidic rabbi and singer] Shlomo Carlebach when I was four - she was 11 years older than I - and teaching me to sing the harmony to "Esa Einai," so that she could sing the melody. And then The Beatles came along and I fell in love - with Paul McCartney. The first time he went "ooo," that was it. My parents must have been accepting of that, because they even took me out of Sunday school so I could go to the Plaza Hotel [on The Beatles's first visit to the US] with my "Meet the Beatles" album and scream, "Paul, Paul, Paul!" In the documentary movie about that visit, I'm the fat girl in the crowd. You were fat? I was fat my whole life, darling. Until I was 42, when I discovered weight training. That's how Hashem saved my life. I got breast cancer a month before graduating from Wingate. My first reaction was, "Why now? Please, give me a break." On the other hand, I now know that I'm not a fitness trainer out of choice, but rather because I feel that I have to be one. God didn't just save my life just so I could walk around looking good. You have to be your own warrior. You have to have a working body - a working machine, so that if, God forbid, something happens, your body is already in fighting mode. That's why I believe I didn't lose my hair during chemotherapy treatments. How did you come to study at Wingate? That's a long story, connected to my music career and series of family tragedies. After my first divorce, I started singing at [the defunct bar] Goliath, across from the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. One night, [musicians] Mariano Seguero and Danny Frankel walked in the bar. That's how our band, The Flash, got started - and when I first started to make money. The Flash was a flash. We got famous - I should say infamous - very quickly, thanks to [Israel TV journalist] Uri Cohen-Aharonov, who put us on a 10-minute spot on a Friday-night news program. We became a big hit, performing 32 shows a month - without Shabbat, because I didn't do shows on Shabbat. Then the first Lebanon War broke out, and we were down to two shows a month. The guitar player, Mariano, who wasn't Jewish, was about to be drafted. So he decided to leave the country instead. At that point, there weren't many heavy-metal guitar players in Israel. Besides, it was such a crisis for all of us, that we all stopped performing our music. I didn't even sing in the shower for two years after that. Then my father got cancer, and I went to the States [where he was at that time] for about six months to tend to him. When I returned, there was a Jacob's Ladder Festival. There I met [folk singer] Ted Cooper, and he and I began to sing together. We started doing "Sundays at the Cinematheque." It was a magic time in Israel [the mid-'80s] and a magic time for me personally. We sang together for four years, until splitting up when he left for Canada. That was another crisis, which led to a series of other ventures, among them opening up a bar in Jerusalem in the late '80s. [That lasted for a mere three months. At around the same time, she married her manager/sound man, whom she divorced last year, but with whom she still works professionally.] But then my dad died, and my sister died of skin cancer nine months after that. Then my [17-year-old] daughter had a serious motorbike accident, after which she was in and out of the hospital for a year. The day she got off crutches, we got a call from her father that he was diagnosed with cancer. A year after that, I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and her father called to say that he was terminal. We got up from shiva for her father, and a few weeks after that, I started chemotherapy. But it was when my daughter was in the hospital, Hadassah on Mount Scopus, that I began to go to the gym at the nearby Hyatt Hotel. I would leave my daughter's bedside, and take out all my aggressions on the step machine, working out and crying. When my daughter finally came home, I started going to a different gym [the now defunct Atlant]. That's where I met Anna, the owner, who took me under her wing. After training me personally for a long time, she sent my application to Wingate behind my back. Two weeks before graduation, I was sitting watching TV, and discovered a lump in my breast. Anna took me to my mamography. At the same time, my mother wasn't doing well in the senior citizens' residence where she lived, and I had to put her in a better place. But she didn't have insurance, and it cost an arm and a leg to keep her there. That's when we decided to go back to America - to make money. And because my daughter went there to study. Did you believe God was testing you in some way? I had no idea what He was doing, though I spoke to him quite a bit. We all have our own hells, and little boxes we want to close up and put away. We all have points in our lives when we want to jump off the roof. Most of us get through it, because there's no choice. There's a great midrash I learned about a respected weaver who spent his life making gorgeous, highly regarded tapestries. One day he got inspired, and locked himself away to create a grand masterpiece. Years later, he took it out, and what everybody saw was a mess with no apparent aesthetic logic. The critics, who hated it, asked him what he thought he was doing. To which he responded: "You're not supposed to see something in the tapestry. I am. I'm its creator." That's basically how I look at life. Everything happens for a reason - whether good, bad or ugly, it's mishamayim [divine]. It's not up to me to ask why. It's up to me to accept it and make the best of it. What happened when you went to the US? We put my mother in a residence in Monsey, where she still had many friends - and we moved to a place near Woodstock. [There she worked at "the 'fat farm' that (infamous White House intern) Monica Lewinsky ran away to" - the Vatra Mountain Valley Lodge and Spa in Hunter, New York.] Monsey is much more religious than it was when I was growing up. But the people there still have more tolerance than anybody else around. To them, every Jew counts. I could arrive there in a mini-skirt and be treated with respect. If the world was like Monsey, it would be a better place. Woodstock, on the other hand, was the most disappointing surprise of my life. Living there caused me to realize that back in the '60s when we all preached tolerance, we were only tolerant of people like ourselves. We were very intolerant of anybody else - like [former US president Richard] Dick Nixon. Well, Woodstockians haven't changed a bit. You have to fit into their mold, and I didn't. In what way didn't you "fit into their mold"? I wasn't a democrat or a liberal. I wasn't pro-Palestinian. I was shomer shabbes, not a JewBu or HinJew [slang for Jews who follow Buddhism or Hindu]. I believed in the Torah. I believed in Israel. I believed that Jewish children, as well as Palestinian children, should not be blown up. I didn't believe that the World Trade Center bombings on 9/11 was Israel's fault. Did you miss Israel during that [five-year] period? I never thought I would, but I did. [After living abroad for a while], you realize that the basic difference between Israel and the rest of the world is that Israel is the world's largest dysfunctional family. But it's a family. In the States, people can be very, very nice to you, while stabbing you in the back. And if you're lying destitute on the street, they will walk over you. Whereas in Israel, everybody screams at you and curses you and cuts you off in traffic, but they will always help you. They will not step over you in times of trouble. Is that what triggered your return here? That and the fact that my mother - the main reason I left in the first place - passed away. But, when I returned, I thought my singing career was over, because I had decided that I'd lost my voice. How did you "decide" that you'd regained it? At Mike's Place in Tel Aviv. I went to see a show there, and when I was spotted in the background, I was invited to come up onto the stage. I didn't think I could handle it. But when my toe touched the stage, I was home again. What are your plans now? I want to use my music, like my personal training, to spread a wider message about health - to be a spokesperson for breast cancer awareness - and about being good to each other in society; to stop wasting our energy fighting each other. I want to ask the secular population why, if they can love Palestinians or Blacks, can't they love other Jews? And I want to tell the religious population that if they love God, they should love and respect all his creatures, regardless of the lives they choose to live. I'm also starting to write my own music. My latest song is called "Middle Ground." That's what I think God must have put me on the earth for: to make people be healthy and smile and boogie and love one another. On Oct. 24, at 8 p.m., Libby is having a birthday party/performance at the Syndrome club in Jerusalem, at which the final shoot of a documentary on her life - by Udi Moses and Shelly Gur-Sherman - will be filmed. It is open to the public.
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