Religion

Why Kinky Friedman still matters

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(RNS) — I had not thought of the name “Kinky Friedman” in decades. And yet, when I heard of his recent death at the age of 79, I had to smile.

Because Kinky was one badass Jewboy.

That was the name of his band — Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. He had a cult following of country-western fans. His music was funny, sardonic and satirical. He had no sacred cows. Part of the joke was that he was a Texas Jewboy, which seemed funny back in the 1970s — that is, until I realized there were plenty of Texas Jewboys, and that given my rabbinical career, I came very close to being one of them.

Kinky would go on to write detective novels, and at one point he ran for the governor of Texas. He was a real character, utterly unforgettable, and we will not forget him.

But, for this rabbi and educator, the most valuable thing about Kinky was how he treated Jewish identity. This is a rarity in American popular music; very few Jewish rock musicians approached that topic. The notable exceptions: the late Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Mattisyahu, and Janis Ian (check out her song “Tattoo,” which is one of the most poignant songs about the Holocaust you will ever hear). 

There was “Ride ’Em Jewboy”:

Ride, ride ’em Jewboy,Ride ’em all around the old corral.I’m, I’m with you boyIf I’ve got to ride six million miles.

Now the smokes from camps are risingSee the helpless creatures on their way.Hey, old pal, ain’t it surprisingHow far you can go before you stay.

Don’t you let the morning blind yaWhen on your sleeve you wore the yeller star.Old memories still live behind ya,Can’t you see by your outfit who you are.

How long will you be driven relentless ’round the world,The blood in the rhythm of the soul…

It was an evocation of Jewish history — the Jew who rides “six million miles,” who is “driven relentless ’round the world.”

But, for these times, Kinky offers us a song that is worth hearing again.

The song is “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.”

Well, a redneck nerd in a bowling shirt
Was a-guzzlin’ Lone Star beer
Talking religion and-uh politics for all the world to hear
“They oughta send you back to Russia, boy
Or New York City, One
You just want to doodle a Christian girl
And you killed God’s only son.”

I said, “Has it occurred to you, you nerd
That that’s not very nice
We Jews believe it was Santa Claus that killed Jesus Christ.”

“You know, you don’t look Jewish,” he said
“Near as I could figger
I had you stamped for a slightly anemic
Well-dressed country Nigga.”

No, they ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore
They don’t turn the other cheek the way they done before
He started in to shoutin’ and a-spittin’ on the floor
“Lord, they ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore.”

When someone dies, it is traditional for the mourners to study a text together.

So, in Kinky’s memory, let’s study that text. In its own way, it is an interesting take on classic antisemitic themes.

First: The stereotyped redneck wants to send Kinky (the Jewboy) back to Russia. That contains a nod to two antisemitic stereotypes: first, that Jews are from Russia, or eastern Europe; in fact, the majority of American Jews can trace their ancestry back to that general neighborhood. Second, that this Jew should go back to Russia, because Jews are Communists. Senator Joe McCarthy could have sung that verse.

Second: “You just want to doodle a Christian girl.” This is the ugly, pornographic stereotype of the over-sexed Jewish man who wants to violate Christian women. That stereotype was alive and well during the Hitler years, when there were laws that forbade intermarriage (and any sexual activity) between Jews and Aryans.

It goes way beyond that. A pernicious antisemitic theme was that Jews controlled the pornography industry, and in fact, were central to a “porn conspiracy.” Feel free to do your own research into this; I am not posting it here.

But here is the key piece: antisemites believed Jewish men were, paradoxically, hyper-masculine, and also, effeminate. It goes to the absurdity and double-binding nature of Jew-hatred.

Third: “You killed God’s only son.” That’s the ancient deicide charge.

Fourth: Forgive the use of the n-word; this was the 1970s. But, the redneck had initially thought the Jew was black. Of course, there are many Black Jews, and Jews of every racial type. We know that.

But, this points to a theme in antisemitic discourse: Jews were not “really” “white.” White supremacists still believe that. Jews were not alone in this racial never-never land; once upon a time, Italians were also deemed not quite white.

But, finally, let’s get to the chorus.

“They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore. They don’t turn the other cheek the way they done before.”

This almost -forgotten line to a country-western song lies at the heart of much of what we have experienced since Oct. 7.

On Oct. 7, and for perhaps a day, the Jewish State had the world’s sympathy. Some of the world; not all of the world. Because the world is comfortable seeing the Jew as a victim.

But, once Israel waged a war against the brutal, evil forces of Hamas — a terror group committed to destroying Israel, killing Jews and a larger war on the West — the sympathy quickly evaporated.

Because, in the heart of hearts of the Western world, our civilization expects that Jews might be sources of wisdom and righteousness, but will also be passive, weak or, at their best, peace-loving and even slightly pacifistic.

In that sense, the world’s idea of the Jew, and who and what the Jews should be, has not journeyed very far since the Middle Ages. Zionism came with several missions — not least among them, to upend the mythology of Jewish powerlessness.

I think many Jews have internalized that view and have trouble with power. Any kind of power, other than intellectual power: military, economic, political.

So, no, in the wake of Oct. 7, Jews did not “turn the other cheek.”

So, now, in Kinky’s memory, I will need to go back and listen to his music again.

“Ride ’em, Jewboy.”

Ride straight into the World to Come.



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