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Me and Lou Reed at the Kotel

Some personal encounters that revealed the rock legend's ambivalent Judaism

Rock legend Lou Reed died this past week. Lou is included in the list of most influential musicians of the Sixties together with two other Jews – Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. Distinct from Dylan and Cohen, most people would find it difficult to sing any of his songs (except for “Walk on the Wild Side” and “Perfect Day”).

He was one of the founders of the rock group “The Velvet Underground” in New York. Andy Warhol adopted them and this made them hugely influential on the New York music scene. After the group broke up, Lou continued to release music that challenged the listener. He was a poet who cared deeply about words and yet the music he played often made the words inaccessible.

I got to know Lou Reed through his wife, the performance artist, Laurie Anderson. In the early 90’s the New Israel Fund brought her to Israel for a series of benefit performances. Even though she is not Jewish (she was raised a Christian and identifies as a Buddhist) she wanted to attend a Shabbat service. They brought her to Kabbalat Shabbat at Kol HaNeshama. The building was just a shell, no doors or windows and it was the dead of winter. At the end of the service she introduced herself. It was the first time she had attended Jewish worship and she experienced it more as an artist than as a worshipper. Her perspective was so interesting! I invited her to come home and that began a warm and close relationship. The very first fund raising event for Kol HaNeshama in New York was held in her loft.

Lou and Laurie got together sometime after that and she insisted on bringing him to Israel (he opened for Peter Gabriel in Taba). They visited Israel as a couple a few times. The last visit was in 2009. We spent a day walking through the Old City. I brought Lou Reed to the Kotel. (I just like writing that sentence.)

Lou grew up in a Jewish home but had a very complicated relationship with his parents that affected his Jewish identity. In many ways he represented a counter Jew in relation to traditional Judaism. The Jewish tradition presents clear boundaries; Lou liked to blur boundaries. He rebelled against authority and charted a unique path for himself. Still there are moments when he clearly identified as a Jew and felt connected to Israel. He made a wonderful short film “Red Shirley” about his 99 year old aunt who was a labor organizer in New York. She describes her childhood in the shtetl and the effect of the Holocaust on her hometown and her family (two sisters came to Palestine).

I am a little surprised by the torrent of tributes being written. It turns out that his unique voice (he literally did have a unique voice) allowed many people to discover their own authentic voices.

May his memory be blessed!

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman is the President of Rabbis for Human Rights. He was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary. He is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Kol Haneshama, which he founded in 1985. The community is a center for progressive Jewish life in Jerusalem and, like Levi, has always been on the forefront of the struggle for religious pluralism and justice in Israel’s highly polarized society.