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October 28, 2013 4:35 pm

Rocker Lou Reed’s Judaism Central to His Identity, Misfit and All (VIDEO)

avatar by Zach Pontz

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Lou Reed performing in 2008. Photo: WikiCommons.

Rock and roll iconoclast Lou Reed died Sunday, aged 71, of an undisclosed cause, and while many of the obituaries dedicated to him have mentioned his Judaism, few delved into how central it was to his identity.

Born Lewis Allan Reed to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, he was once asked by a journalist if he was Jewish, replying, “Of course, aren’t all the best people?”

Tom Gross, of the National Review, writes of his connection to Israel: “He was a frequent visitor to the country, last performing in Tel Aviv in 2008, and his aunt and many cousins live in Haifa and other Israeli towns.”

Recently, a team of researchers named a spider native to Israel after him.

Though much has been made of his statement to journalist Lester Bangs that he didn’t know any Jewish people, with some claiming it was an anti-Semitic comment, it could hardly be taken as literal. In fact, many of his greatest influences were Jews.

Writing of Delmore Schwartz, the acclaimed Jewish poet, who taught Reed while an undergrad at Syracuse University, he wrote: “O Delmore how I miss you. You inspired me to write. You were the greatest man I ever met. You could capture the deepest emotions in the simplest language. Your titles were more than enough to raise the muse of fire on my neck. You were a genius. Doomed.”

Gross also notes that Reed was a central figure of what author Steven Lee Beeber, in his book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk, argued was a key Jewish element to the New York punk-rock movement of the 1970s. Crypto punk rock Jews included Joey Ramone (nee Jeffrey Ross Hyman), Patti Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye, Richard Hell (Richard Lester Meyers), Jonathan Richman, and Blondie’s guitarist Chris Stein.

Though perhaps reticent to embrace his Judaism in public, keeping with his motto that “rock and roll is my God,” that didn’t stop Reed later in life from a public embrace of his heritage. In 2004, at the Downtown Passover Seder, at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Reed performed a work he called “Four More Questions,” based on Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven,” for the Passover crowd.

Watch a video of Lou Reed reciting Four More Questions below:

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  • HaDaR

    Just re-listen to “Good Morning Mr. Waldheim” and you’ll understand Lou Reed. zt”l, deep Jewishness.

  • Claudia

    As he said the best are jewish !!

  • Sandy Brown

    All I remember about Lou Reed was his music. It was never really mentioned that he was Jewish in the UK. And I think that when we were say 22 years old, we were not thinking about whether he was Jewish or not. We did not discuss nationalities so much. We just loved his music. I used to listen to his music a lot when I lived in Holland in 1974. I also saw him in the early 70s at Crystal Palace. RIP Lou. You were a Star!