1940: Rock Star Is Born, Will Cash in Israel Bonds to Buy First Guitar

Jorma Kaukonen, scion of Torah scholars and star of Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane, rediscovered Judaism mainly though his wife's conversion

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Jorma Kaukonen with Jefferson Airplane; shown with fairly long hair, passing his ears, a light-colored T-shirt and holding the lapels of his jacket.
Jorma Kaukonen with Jefferson AirplaneCredit: Wikimedia Commons

December 23, 1940, is the birthdate of Jorma Kaukonen, guitarist extraordinaire, whose ongoing career has included membership in the Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, plus collaboration with many other bands and musicians. Son of a father of Finnish descent and a mother whose parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants to the U.S., Kaukonen in recent years has reconnected with his Jewish heritage, largely by having accompanied his wife through the process of her conversion.

Jorma Ludwik Kaukonen, Jr. was born in Washington, D.C., where his father, Jorma Ludwig Kaukonen, worked for the U.S. State Department. His mother was the former Beatrice Love.

Joplin and the Typewriter Tapes

During his earliest years, when his father was abroad during World War II, Jorma spent a lot of time living with his maternal grandparents, who spoke either Hebrew, Yiddish or Russian when they didn’t want him to know what they were saying.

According to a long piece about Kaukonen by Wayne Robins, published in Tablet last year, his grandmother’s parents had lived on Rockville Settlement, a Baron Hirsch-sponsored Jewish agricultural project in north-central Connecticut, where they raised potatoes and tobacco. His great-grandfather, a Torah scribe named Samuel Levine, was an early leader of the synagogue attended by the family in nearby Ellington, Connecticut.

Hot Tuna, Water SongCredit: YouTube

When as a teenager, Jorma purchased his first electric guitar, it was with money that he had from cashing in Israel Bonds received from his grandmother.

The family traveled a lot during Jorma’s youth, as his father, who specialized in labor affairs, served in U.S. legations in such countries as the Philippines and Pakistan, before returning to Washington. Jorma graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School there in 1959. It was at Wilson that he befriended and formed a band with Jack Casady, who was later the bassist for the Jefferson Airplane, and Kaukonen’s principal partner in Hot Tuna.

Jorma attended Antioch College, in Ohio, before moving to California, where he enrolled in Santa Clara University, and began playing blues guitar in local clubs. In 1964, he accompanied Janis Joplin on a demo recording. Made at his home, the recording has come to be called the “Typewriter Tapes,” because of the typing of his then-wife Margareta that can be heard in the background.

Jefferson Airplane takes off

In 1965, Kaukonen was invited by his onetime Santa Clara classmate Paul Kantner to join a new band he and Marty Balin were organizing in San Francisco. They were soon joined by Jack Casady (Kaukonen’s suggestion) and Grace Slick, after original female lead Signe Toly Anderson left to have a baby.

Jefferson Airplane - Good Shepherd Credit: YouTube

With these core members and a number of other changing personnel, Jefferson Airplane, as they called themselves, made music together until 1972. Kaukonen was lead guitarist and one of the lead singers.

A few years later, he and Casady formed the blues-rock band Hot Tuna, whose changing members have grouped and regrouped continually for the past 45 years. One regular playing with Kaukonen since the early 2000s is mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff, who's also a regular member of the Klezmer Mountain Boys. Though not an observant Jew, Mitterhoff has served as a go-to guy for Kaukonen's Jewish questions.

Such questions began to rise after Kaukonen’s wife, the former Vanessa Lillian, whom he married in 1988, had something of an epiphany when she and Jorma attended a concert by the Klezmer Mountain Boys at a small synagogue in Huntington, West Virginia, around the year 2000.

“Something happened to me, so out of body, I started weeping,” she told Wayne Robins. “Not like somebody-died kind of crying, or I-hurt-myself crying, but it was so deep, like from 100 years ago. I told Jorma, ‘This is the same feeling I had when I met you. I feel like I’m home.’ ”

A short time later, Vanessa got in touch with the Hillel rabbi at Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio, not far from the Fur Peace Ranch, the 115-acre farm where Kaukonen holds guitar workshops, and has a recording studio. Accompanied by Jorma, she underwent conversion with Danielle Leshaw, a Reconstructionist rabbi, and they have remained active in the Jewish community in Athens. They are also raising the daughter they adopted from China as a Jew. Her name is Israel; they call her Izze.

Hot Tuna at MerleFest, 2006. Left to right: Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, and Barry MitterhoffCredit: TedE, Wikimedia Commons