David Bowie, who died Sunday after an 18-month battle with cancer, had a complex relationship with Judaism.
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He claimed he was “half-Jewish” when he was not. Yet, he apparently collected Nazi memorabilia. He described his persona, the Thin White Duke, as “a very Aryan, fascist type.” In the title track of his 1974 concept album "Diamond Dogs," he seemingly referenced the Holocaust when he sang, “This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll. This is genocide!”
Two years later, he was notoriously photographed giving what some thought to be a “Heil Hitler” salute as he rode in an open-top Mercedes outside Victoria Station in London. It was then, perhaps as a means of detracting attention from the fuss this caused, that he claimed partial Jewish ancestry.
In "Station to Station," the title track of Bowie's 1976 album, the lyrics were, “Here are we, one magical movement from Kether to Malkuth” – referring to the mystical vessels of divine emanation known in kabbalah as the sefirot.
While Bowie may have discarded the Thin White Duke persona, his fascination with Nazism seemingly did not abate. In his 1983 single “China Girl,” he wrote the following lyrics, which certainly appear to reference the Holocaust:
I stumble into town just like a sacred cow
Visions of swastikas in my head
Plans for everyone
It’s in the whites of my eyes.
But it would be a stretch to say that Bowie was a Nazi sympathizer. On the contrary, he arguably created the ultimate Jewish persona. Like many Jews in history, his stardom was built upon altering his surname – in this case, from Jones to Bowie. At the same time, he kept his recognizably Jewish first name, that of the great biblical king who slew Goliath. Thereafter, he affected the alienated outsider, both as a singer and a screen actor, becoming a musical chameleon, a Zelig-like character, who repeatedly shifted identities from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke.
He simultaneously changed musical styles, embracing the new with gusto, and often being influenced by Jewish artists such as Bob Dylan and Marc Bolan.
In 1969, Bowie wrote his hit “Space Oddity” after seeing the 1968 Stanley Kubrick movie “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The song's title is a play on that of the film, which Kubrick himself described as his “agnostic prayer,” but which can be read as his most biblically inspired work. Perhaps Bowie saw a parallel between his own name and that of the character of the lead astronaut, David Bowman (played by Keir Dullea)? And Bowie, like Bowman, obliquely suggests a harp player – just like its biblical namesake.
In his 2009 movie, "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino used Bowie’s song “Cat People (Putting Out The Fire)” as the musical backdrop to a scene in which a Jewish woman exacts murderous revenge on the Nazis responsible for having her family killed. That sequence can be seen as final fitting tribute to the career of David Bowie.