: Words : Rocking the Catskills

Rocking the Catskills

Baruch Atah Adonei Elohenu Melech Ha Olom

Ah yeah, that's the holiday . . . that's the Hanukkah robot funk!
Barumpa bump bump, barumpa bump bump . . . beeyach!
Baruch Atah Adonei Elohenu Melech Ha Olom
Right about now gonna drop some Hanukkah science
Yeah, this is it

Although the above lyrics are unrecognizable to all but the completist, they did indeed drip from the lips of a young Beck Hansen, in a 1996 rarity titled "Just Say Noel." And there, revealed in a single spin of the dreidel, is one of the most transcendent and versatile music talents of the past decade.  Beck might be bizarre, but he�s also quintessentially Jewish: hyperverbal, ironic, and always full of soul.

  "If I have children I'll raise them as Jews, because it's a great religion," Beck told the LA Weekly in 2000. Beck became a father last year, to a son named Cosimo Henri. Don't bother sending a gift for the bris, however; Beck's bride, Marissa Ribisi, an actress and the twin sister of actor Giovanni Ribisi, also happens to be a long-standing Scientologist.

Rumors of Beck�s ties with Scientology, the celebrity-embracing church (calling it a cult brings swift and certain legal action, so I won't) have dogged him all his life. His father, David Campbell, follows the church, which claims to give its members supernatural psychic powers and the ability to ward off disease. After years of denying the rumors, Beck himself told The New York Times Magazine in March 2005 that yes, he is a Scientologist,  "It's been useful," he said. "My dad's been doing it since before I was born."

With Tom Cruise or John Travolta it's not so bad, but somehow it's a shame to see an intelligent and talented member of the tribe mixed up in such mishegos. So does this mean goodbye to our favorite folk-rock boychik? Has he been masquerading all this time? A look into his family and influences will reveal at least one facet of the truth.

High Five, more dead than alive!
Rockin' the plastic like a man from the Catskills!
"Rock the Catskills," Odelay, 1997

Beck has deep roots not in the Borscht Belt but on the Lower East Side, where his mother, Bibbe Hansen, was raised by a half-Jewish mother and, briefly, a Jewish stepfather. The blonde, blue-eyed Beck is halachically Jewish by the most diluted of paths: his mother's mother's mother. In fact, Beck's great-great-grandfather on his mother�s side is Abraham Rosenberg, first president of the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union.

Bibbe was best known as a performance artist and a onetime Warhol star, appearing alongside Edie Sedgwick in the film Prison at the tender age of 13. When she was a young self-described "juvenile delinquent," her mother married Jimmy Shapiro, scion of a prominent New York Jewish family. "It was the Fifties and we weren't allowed to join the country club because we were Jews," she said in an Index magazine interview.  "My mother got into a bar brawl in a little upstate town. It was a catfight with some woman who started yelling that the 'lousy kikes are messing up our town�. So my mother hauled off and decked her. I remember getting turned away from hotels back then--they were "restricted" which meant "no Jews". So we were Jewish enough to be discriminated against."

Bek Campbell (teachers changed his first name, and he took on his mother's last name after his parents' divorce) was born on July 8, 1970. He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Los Angeles, raised in bohemia by his mother, who incorporated Jewish traditions including a few years of Hebrew school.

"Passover was the first time I got drunk," he told the zine Plotz in 1997. "We had pretty rowdy Passovers because my mom would invite all her non-Jewish friends over and they brought a party atmosphere with them."

Beck�s father is a noted session musician who has recorded with Aerosmith among others; but he was out of his life early. Beck started making tapes at the age of 10, using found-sound collages as well as his own playing, a magpie style that still marks his music. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade. "I wanted a bar mitzvah," he told the LA Weekly in 2000, but his family couldn't afford it. "When I was a teenager I used to go to synagogue and study Torah with a friend who lived in Tujunga."

At the age of 18, the budding music star boarded a bus back to the East Village. He was a skinny kid with torn jeans, a guitar, and a fierce love of Woody Guthrie, just like the greatest Jewish rock star of all time, Bob Dylan. And like Dylan, he hung around the fringes of a New York scene, the acoustic-punk-confessional-freak show called "anti-folk", before forging a sound all his own. Upon his return to Los Angeles in 1990, Beck was ready to start his own performance career.

 Miracles amaze me
 She looks so Israeli
 Love the way she plays me
 I think I'm going crazy
"Nicotine and Gravy," Midnite Vultures 1999

By 1994 "Loser," with its slide guitar, hip-hop beats, and unstoppable chorus, was all over MTV. Beck quickly signed to Jewish media mogul David Geffen's record label DGC, which released Mellow Gold, his major label debut. Critics and teenage girls alike fell for the album's collage of folk, country, Delta blues, and hip-hop, all accented by Beck�s laid-back, fluent and witty lyrics. And that flowing blond hair. And those blue eyes, as big as satellite dishes. He was the best of both worlds � a male shiksa with a hint of Yid, which escaped in interviews and in rare lyrical turns like "Just Say Noel."

"Yeah, when Jewish girls find out Beck is Jewish they just go crazy," his stepfather, Sean Carrillo, has said, "cause they feel that they can now bring him home to meet the folks.  It's really important to his Jewish girl fans."

Like Dylan, another shy Jewish kid trying on personas, Beck has never been afraid to change it up.  In his most exhilarating transformation, Midnite Vultures, Beck morphed into a Smoove-B style sex god. Onstage in 2000 performing the single "Debra," he writhed on a bed that lowered down from the ceiling, doing a dead-on impersonation of Prince's heated-up falsetto, with a little bit of R.Kelly thrown in. Although the song is equal parts come-on and put-on, it's little recognized as a tribute to glossy-lipped Jewish American Princesses everywhere.

How do we know Debra is Jewish? Well, we don't, but as a libidinal Jewish fan, I'd like to believe it. Let's start with her name, Debra. There is no more common Jewish girl's name. The song offers a few more clues: Beck offers to take his lady out for "a real good meal," a Jewish pick-up line if there ever was one. And where does he plan to dine? Zankou Chicken, a legendary Middle Eastern restaurant in LA that serves lip-smacking, garlicky roasted chicken--perfect for a takeout Shabbat dinner.

Milk and honey, flowing down like money
Bring a poor boy to his knees
"Milk and Honey," Midnite Vultures, 1999

Beck's latest album, Guero, was released in March 2005. Titled after Spanish slang for "white boy," it�s another return to the LA streets of Beck�s childhood, playing with notions of race and identity. As has happened for his last few albums, Guero formed the basis for independent remixes and spin-offs.  Beck has sanctioned many of these homages; with his Jewish background, he recognizes the value of reinterpretation.

"I like to look at things from as many different angles as possible," Beck told the LA Weekly in that same interview. "And one of the things I love about Judaism is that it gives 100 different interpretations of a single line of Torah." Just so, in the Talmudic tradition of rock criticism, it is possible to give 100 different readings of a single line of Beck's music and 100 different reinterpretations of the man's life itself. Hallelujah.

Anya Kamenetz is a freelance writer living in New York City.  She blogs at, and her book, Generation Debt, will be published by Riverhead in February 2006.

Full text of Beck's 1997 interview with Plotz.