When Scott Benarde, the marketing director at Norton Museum of Art, embarked on his 2003 book “Stars of David: Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Jewish Stories,” he never anticipated the emotional journey on which the book would take him.
“One of the side effects of this whole thing, and I’m really proud of it, is that all of these interviews led to reengagement with many of their family members, because they were trying to find their family Jewish histories,” says Benarde, who interviewed performers such as Janis Ian, Lisa Loeb and Kinky Friedman for his tome.
Here are two of Benarde’s most moving recollections from his time working on “Stars of David.”
“I had great collections of rock music books. Rock encyclopedias were really good resources for researching original names, and I have a really good Jew name detector. One of the best ones I come across was Lee Oskar Levitin. Lee Oskar is the harmonica player in the ‘70s band War. In Levitin is ‘Levit,’ and in ‘Levit’ is ‘Levy.’ So I’m thinking, Oh my God, this guy has to be Jewish, even though he grew up in Denmark.
“I was getting nowhere through his website. One of my friends used to own the Musicians Exchange in Fort Lauderdale, and War had played there several times, and I saw that War had reformed and was going to be playing in the area. My friend gives me the name of one of the guys that’s active in War, and that guy gives me the phone number for Lee Oskar, now living in the state of Washington. I call him up, and I introduce myself, and the first thing he asks me is, “Are you a Lanzmann?” Which is Yiddish for, “Are you a member of the tribe?” He’s very suspicious. He turns out to be the child of Holocaust survivors. And he’s suspicious about why people want to know about his Jewishness. War’s manager and producer were both Jewish, and they didn’t know for a couple of years [about Oskar], because of his experience growing up in a household of Holocaust survivors.
“One of the early interviews I did was with Barry Goldberg, who played with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels. He told me Keith Reed is Jewish, the lyricist for Procol Harum. I get this interview set up with Keith Reed around 2000. I’m working at the JCC in South Palm Beach County at my desk, and to let my subjects know that this was going to be an interview of a different kind, one of my first questions I would often ask is, ‘Tell me about your grandparents,’ so they’d know this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill music interview. For Jewish people, the grandparents are the root of the family. That would also tell you where they came from and what life they came out of.
“There’s a big pause at the other end of the line. He says something like, ‘Why are you asking me that? I said, ‘Well, tell me about your parents.’ He said, ‘I thought this was about music.’ I said, ‘It is, but it’s about the Jewish connection to the music, and how Judaism influenced your life and music.’ He starts to get really upset, and I think I’m going to lose him. I think he’s going to hang up on me. He says, ‘I’m not comfortable with this. I said, ‘I think you’re an important figure in rock history, and I’d really love you to be in the book, and could you please find a way to talk to me?’
“And he says to me, ‘My father was a lawyer in Vienna, Austria, and was arrested on Kristallnacht and thrown in Dachau prison.’ I’ve got chills telling you about this now. And we begin to talk about his father being arrested by the Nazis, and fortunately because it was early in 1938, he spent three months in Dachau and they told him, ‘You can leave the country if you just go.’
“From there, we start talking, and at the end of the interview, I realize that I forgot to ask him about the grandparents. So because it was such an intense, emotional interview, with me trying to keep him on the phone and calmed down, it took me three days to get up the courage to call him back. I said, ‘Could we go back to your grandparents?’ He said, ‘My grandparents disappeared off the face of the Earth, and we never found out what happened to them.’
“It suddenly becomes clear why he didn’t want to answer the question and doesn’t want to talk about it. One of the things I would ask people is, ‘What’s your most Jewish song?’ He names this negative, downer, bummer thing. It’s the only chapter in the book where, for this person, Judaism was all negative.”