Shulhouse rock: Rabbi traces Jewish influence on hippie music

How much does Rabbi David Levinsky love rock music? So much so, he once slipped the name of the late Ramones lead singer, Joey Ramone, into a Yom Kippur Yizkor list (of course, he intoned Ramone’s real name, Jeffrey Hyman).

Rabbi David Levinsky

So much so, he wrote his 40-page Ph.D. dissertation on the British punk band the Clash.

And so much so, he is now set to teach classes on the subject starting next week at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. He calls the twin sessions “Jewish Rock ’n’ Roll: Hippie Jews Who Play the Blues.”

In the classes, Levinsky will focus mostly on the hippie scene in San Francisco in the late ’60s and the New York punk scene in the early 1980s.

Along the way he will drop a few Jewish names, such as drummer Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, David Freiberg from Jefferson Starship, Barry Melton of Country Joe and the Fish, Mick Jones (from the rabbi’s favorite band, the Clash), and the aforementioned Ramone.

As director of the JCCSF’s Taube Center for Jewish Life, it makes sense Levinsky would blend his love of Judaism with his passion for rock. That blending led to questions he plans to address in his upcoming classes.

“It’s part of a larger question I thought a lot about,” he says. “If you think about alternative culture, why are there almost always Jews highly active in it? We’re this tiny percentage of the population, yet a statistical anomaly in terms of the Jewish involvement in the music.”

Bob Dylan (left) and the Clash (above).

Screening archival footage and playing songs from the era (drawn from his extensive record collection), Levinsky hopes to answer those questions.

Though he doesn’t want to give away the gist of his lectures, he does say Jewish tradition has found its way into rock ’n’ roll.

“Ultimately there are themes in the music which are not exclusively Jewish themes, but very much Jewish,” he says. “I call it the prophetic tradition, with roots in Isaiah and Amos. Now we use the term ‘tikkun olam.’ ”

That could cover everything from Bob Dylan’s protest folk-rock in the ’60s to contemporary Chassidic neo-reggae master Matisyahu.

Levinsky, 41, doesn’t just talk the rock ’n’ roll talk. He has also walked the walk, even if it was a walk on the wild side: He used to be a touring rock musician.

Growing up in Chicago, he was exposed to all kinds of music, but he cites punk rock as the genre that most appealed to him.

“I played in garage bands in high school, then played in a band in college,” he remembers. “I had a band after college, which was a regional touring band.”

He ultimately settled down, of course, going to rabbinical school and becoming an ordained rabbi. Levinsky served at Keddem, a Reconstructionist congregation in Palo Alto, and has been with the JCCSF for the last year.

But he won’t be in the Bay Area for long. Levinsky has accepted a pulpit position at Chicago Sinai Congregation  in his hometown, and will take up the post later this summer.

That means he’ll pack up the 3,000 albums he has collected over the years. And though he doesn’t see himself as one of those guitar-toting rabbis singing “Bim Bam” during tot Shabbat, he does think rock ’n’ roll is here to stay.

“I put a lot of energy into music,” Levinsky says. “I didn’t end up a rock star, but everything I wanted to do I did: travel and write my own songs. I know how hard it is.”

 

“Jewish Rock ‘n’ Roll: Hippie Jews Who Play the Blues” with Rabbi David Levinsky takes place 7 p.m. Wednesdays, May 13 and 20, at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. The class costs $20-$25. Information: (415) 292-1299 ext. 1175, or www.jccsf.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.