The Hollywood director Henry Jaglom once confessed to me: “Every time I pick up a book, I look for only two things – film and Jews”. He acknowledged that the Jewish part of this obsession came from an elderly female relation, prone to shouting at the television: “He’s one! She’s one!”
Jaglom was always amused at those picked out by his relative as Jewish, including unlikely candidates such as Gregory Peck or Cary Grant, two dyed-in-the-wool Wasps if there were any, although allowances can be made for Peck who did star in a serious film about unmasking antisemitism, Gentleman’s Agreement.
Perhaps we can offer Peck honorary Jewish status. But I have fearful news to bring to readers, and I think for some it may come as something of a shock: David Bowie was not Jewish.
Neither were the other two “fame deaths” of the last couple of weeks, the heavy metal rock star Lemmy and the actor Alan Rickman.
Now I get it, I really do, this wistful linking of the Jewish star to the rocket ship of someone’s publicity comet. Why not bask, even subliminally, in the reflected glory of the dear departed genius, to exchange knowing glances about the choice of the name “Ziggy” Stardust, or to quote song lyrics from the time Bowie was dabbling in kabbalah. (“Look, Moshe! Bowie sang a Jewish word! Do ya think? Could be, could be…”)
Or should we look at the undisputed fact that Bowie hung out with echt Jewish rockers such as Bob Dylan and Lou Reed, or even that at one time – like almost anyone with any sense in the music industry, he worked with a Jewish accountant (Laurence Myers)?
That sound you hear, dear readers, is that of distant barrels scraping, as those whose unhappy task it is to render the Jaglom obsession into something solid – mainly American Jewish newspapers – desperately tried this week to find something, anything, to tie Bowie in with the Jews.
Most egregious of these non-stories was the completely ludicrous account of Bowie’s first visit to the United States, in the dark ages of 1971, in which he – gasp! – spent the night with a Jewish family from Maryland.
Breathless, we read that Bowie’s American publicist, Ron Oberman, had invited him to stay overnight at his parents’ home in Silver Spring before going on tour. And Ron’s younger brother Michael, who later became (sigh) a music journalist, got to pick up Bowie at the airport. I’ll lay bets he’s been dining out on that for years: “The night, I, a Jewish person, collected David Bowie from the airport!”
And even then the story gets madder: Michael Oberman reckons that the family took Bowie out to a local steakhouse “where the rocker’s appearance aroused so much attention that they had to close the curtains around their booth”.
But Mark Spitz – no, not the swimmer, do keep up – but a biographer of Bowie – thinks that the family Oberman took Bowie out “to a Jewish deli named Hofberg’s, which was known for its corned beef sandwiches”.
Either way, the Obermans didn’t feed Bowie themselves. How Jewish is that? The barrel-scraping continued with quotes from “The secret Jewish life of David Bowie” – clue, he didn’t have a Jewish life, secret or otherwise – digging up a relationship Bowie’s mother had with a Jewish furrier, Jack Isaac Rosenberg (could he have had a more Jewish name?) which allegedly resulted in the birth of Bowie’s half-brother, Terry Burns.
Irresistibly, here, I was reminded of the line from the late, great Jack Rosenthal’s play The Dustbinmen in which one of his characters is obsessed with the Manchester City player Colin Bell.
After an unexpected encounter with Bell, all the bin man can say is: “He spoke to me. With his mouth”. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is it. Neither of David Bowie’s wives was Jewish; he did not have long-term Jewish girlfriends, or a Jewish manager, or collaborator; he was not a raving anti-Semite – a pause here to draw a veil over Bowie’s very brief flirtation with fascism – and he did play in Israel.
That’s all there is.
We cannot, as the saying goes, and the observant will forgive the analogy, make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and similarly we cannot make David Bowie Jewish even by association, no matter how hard some people try.
Here’s the thing: though it sometimes seems otherwise, not everyone in the world is Jewish.
Please, can’t we leave it like that? Or else we’ll all turn into Henry Jaglom’s aunt, shouting at the TV: “He’s one! She’s one!”