With dad’s legacy as inspiration, rabbi’s daughter uses music to heal

Hannah Lew is pretty good at dealing with change. As the daughter of the late Rabbi Alan Lew — the longtime spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom who was known for his social justice activism — her family moved “every couple of years” when she was young.

Hannah Lew photo/dillon donovan

“For a lot of my childhood, we lived in New York City during the week, and then went to this congregation in a small town called Monroe, New York, and lived in the basement for Shabbat,” says Lew, a musician and filmmaker.

She and her siblings traveled wherever their father’s work took the family.  “[We] didn’t play sports, and we didn’t go to birthday parties, because they were always on Saturdays. So we had our friends in the city, whose parties we never went to and whose sports teams we weren’t on, and then on weekends it was hanging out in this empty synagogue when services weren’t happening, or playing in the woods there, putting on weird plays for each other,” she says with a laugh. “Being a rabbi’s kid was not always easy.”

Now 33, Lew — who has built a name for herself in San Francisco over the past six years in the post-punk trio Grass Widow (she plays bass and sings) — has experienced a few recent changes of her own: In October, she got married in the historic Log Cabin in San Francisco’s Presidio, in a ceremony officiated by the poet and Zen priest Norman Fischer, who’s “like an uncle” to Lew, as one of her father’s oldest friends. (Alan Lew studied Zen Buddhism for 10 years and was a pioneer in Jewish meditation.)

Less than two weeks later, Lew released the EP “Worms/Year 5772” with a new band, Cold Beat. Whereas Grass Widow’s songs were a collaboration among all the band members, Cold Beat is unabashedly a Lew project — her clear vocals are high in the mix, over guitar, synth and drums provided by bandmates Kyle King, Lillian Maring and Cody Blanchard. The songs themselves are intensely personal, and for good reason.

“After my dad died [in 2009], I kind of needed a space to say things very plainly and cathartically, to say some things that I really couldn’t share with anyone or compromise with anyone on,” says Lew. “So Cold Beat became an outlet for talking about stuff that’s really personal, writing songs conceptually by myself, which I’ve never done — I’ve always been about bouncing things off other people.”

Cold Beat has been playing small venues around the Bay Area since the EP dropped Nov. 5; a Southern California tour is on the docket later this month. They’ll play at the Uptown in Oakland on Jan. 3, and after that Lew says she’ll hole up for the winter and write more songs; she plans to record a full-length album in 2014.

As for drawing on the Hebrew calendar in referencing the year 5772, Lew says that, though she doesn’t feel “connected to religious, congregational Judaism,” her Jewish identity is “something I carry into everything I do” — and she feels her father’s influence on a daily basis. Her mother, writer Sherril Jaffe, still lives in San Francisco.

“I always thought of my dad as Superman,” Lew says. “He set an example for making what you do exactly what you want it to be, not just settling for whatever your title is. He took his position as an opportunity to work for what he cared about, and sometimes that meant sleeping in the park with homeless people and getting arrested.”

He also regularly challenged the language of the Torah and encouraged her, along with sister Malka and brother Steve, to do the same.

“We were always thinking critically about text, and I think my dad’s approach to language definitely influenced my writing,” she says. “We were encouraged to question everything; it was never face value. I never had to just sing a song that I didn’t understand the meaning of, and I feel really lucky that it was always OK to ask what everything was about.”

Perhaps less well known than her family’s mark on Judaism in the Bay Area, says Lew, is the fact that they also were quite musical. Her father wrote songs and played acoustic guitar — she now has the 1960s-era Martin guitar he played — and then there was the Purim he dressed up like Elvis, in a full Elvis suit.

“His whole family was musical,” says Lew. “My bubbe, his mom, was a really good pianist, and there’s a famous story in our family about when she got the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall. Apparently she got up to play and she just froze, and she never played again.

“So in a way I feel like me playing music and challenging myself to share it with people is some weird genetic healing going on,” she says. “In some ways, I’m doing it for my bubbe and my dad.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.