I had two Jewish educations, one undertaken by rabbis, the other by Lou Reed. “Walk on the Wild Side” came out two weeks before my bar mitzvah, and I bought the 45 with cash my parents let me skim from my gift money before it was deposited “for the future.” I put the record on repeat, and played it over and over enough that, forty years later, the lyrics still come easily.
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For a yeshiva kid, the lurid world those lyrics described was magnetic – at turns attracting and repelling. “Holly came from Miami, F.L.A./Hitch-hiked her way across the U.S.A./Plucked her eyebrows on the way/Shaved her legs and then he was a she.” Lying on our backs in my deep pile carpet, my friends and I parsed the song with Talmudic rigor, tracking allusions and decoding references. It wasn’t the gender-bending (or the sex, or the drugs) that stunned us – we were 13, after all, and a kid learned stuff in the playground – it was Reed’s bemused acceptance of all this, his artless affection for freaks, junkies and misfits.
Of course, it made all the difference, to buchers like us, that Reed was a Jew. Reed became our counter-Jew. The Judaism of our rabbis was the Judaism of following rules. Reed was a Jew who broke rules. The Judaism of our rabbis was one of self-control and self-denial. Reed sang haunting love-songs to heroin. In our Judaism, tradition was what mattered. To Reed, it was originality. The Judaism we’d know taught rectitude; Reed’s attitude was screw that. Our Judaism shunned anyone beyond the four-ells of our narrow world; Reed loved transvestites.
It didn’t take long to realize that Reed was not alone. As I studied his back-catalogue and fell hopelessly in love with the Velvet Underground, I discovered other counter-Jews like him: Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Abby Hoffman, Ellen Willis, Philip Roth, Shulamith Firestone, Allen Ginsburg and many more. Reed and these others, through some strange alchemy, had transmuted my implacable tradition into music and humor and whimsy and poetry and prose and, above all else, passion.
Max Weber, the great sociologist, wrote that religions may be dominated by priests or by prophets. Priests uphold the status quo. Prophets subvert it. Lou Reed was my prophet. He showed me that rules are made to be broken as well as followed, that traditions are made to be upended as well as preserved, that fealty is owed to the weird and foreign as well as the familiar and familial, that there is what to learn from sin as well as virtue. It is too fancy to say that I’ve spent forty year trying to balance the rabbis and Reed, but only by a little.
Right now, just hours after learning of his passing, it seems fair to say that, thanks to Lou Reed, my life (like that of so many others) was saved by Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Baruch Dayan Emet.
Noah Efron is the host of the “Promised Podcast” on TLV1, and played bass for the now-defunct band, Liquid Plumr.