Legendary Kiss frontman Gene Simmons was born in Haifa as Chaim Witz. Bob Dylan (nee Zimmerman) was raised Jewish, briefly dabbled in Christianity, then returned to the tribe. Rush vocalist Geddy Lee’s parents were Jewish refugees from Poland who survived Dachau and Bergen-Belsen.
While popular music fans may be conscious of the religious background of their favorite rock ’n’ roll icons, the general listening public might not be aware of just how many grew up in Jewish families.
Oddly, it might be a lapsed Catholic who can help fill in those blanks. Rock ’n’ roll photojournalist Janet Macoska has been capturing the onstage antics of musicians for the past 35 years. “Jews Rock!,” her photographic exhibit of all things Jewish in rock ’n’ roll, is on display at the Addison-Penzak JCC in Los Gatos through Dec. 13.
The JCC is playing host to Macoska’s photographs of musicians such as Slash of Guns N’ Roses (aka Saul Hudson), Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, Susanna Hoffs and of course, Gene Simmons (who, by the way, liked to stick out his famously lengthy tongue and spit fake blood on unsuspecting photographers if they weren’t careful).
“What I find is that the exhibit conjures up happy memories for people who attended these concerts, people who have seen acts such as Kiss or Simon and Garfunkel, or just listened to their music,” Macoska says.
The touring exhibit, which became a coffee-table book in 2008, was a concept originally conceived by a Jewish fan of Macoska’s work.
The idea came when a businessman ordered a couple of her rock ’n’ roll prints for gifts in 2007. When she personally delivered the shots, the man asked if she’d ever thought of doing an exhibit on Jewish rock singers, and began naming famous Jewish rockers.
“There were so many! And in my head I’m going check, check, check, I’ve photographed them all,” she says. “After more than 30 years in rock ’n’ roll, I’ve been exposed to so much great Jewish talent in this business.”
Macoska immediately began rifling through the physical photo archives in her home in Cleveland, Ohio — eventually plucking out hundreds of prints of Jewish rock stars. The process was laborious — she has decades of images to her name.
Macoska, currently the primary photographer for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, has been snapping pictures since she found a manual camera in her parents’ closet at the age of 10.
She sold her first photograph at age 12 in 1966, a black-and-white image of Sonny and Cher bought by Teen Screen magazine for $2. She got the shot because she was a rock-obsessed tween who hung out at the local radio station, opening fan mail for the DJs and listening in on live music sessions.
By her early 20s Macoska was attending rock concerts nearly every night, taking pictures for publications such as Creem, Rolling Stone, the New York Times and 16 Magazine.
She’s since created two major touring exhibits: her personal retrospective “It’s Always Rock and Roll” and “Jews Rock!” — both of which are currently on display around the country.
Macoska says she originally decided to go with her client’s Jewish rock exhibit idea because she agreed the Jewish undercurrent in rock ’n’ roll was a story that that needed to be told. While she was brought up Catholic, she wasn’t particularly religious — which, she says, led her to explore other religions and beliefs.
“I’m not Jewish, I’m rock ’n’ roll,” she explains, “and rock ’n’ roll wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Jewish entrepreneurs, record producers and musicians. These photos are just the tip of the iceberg.”
As she worked on compiling the “Jews Rock!” exhibit, Macoska got some help from a young assistant rabbi she considers a kindred spirit — both originally from Ohio, both huge music fans, both interested in spreading the word about Jews in rock. Rabbi Brian Leiken of Temple Shalom in Norwalk, Conn., worked closely with Macoska on correctly identifying Jewish musicians and his congregation played host to the first exhibition of “Jews Rock!”
Macoska says her ultimate goal, has been for Jews to be aware of the contributions their people have made.
“I want people to take pride in the fact that all these Jewish musicians were influential in making rock’n’roll the soundtrack of our lives.” Macoska says.
“Jews Rock!” is on display through Dec. 13 at the Addison-Penzak JCC,
14855 Oka Road, Los Gatos. For details, visit www.svjcc.org or www.jewsrock.net.