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What does it mean to be Jewish? (Behar-Bechukotai – 05/16/20)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

What does it mean to be Jewish?
I must admit that when I heard the news of Little Richard’s death on May 9th, I was not so moved. He was a performer from an earlier generation, and I was only slightly familiar with his music. I learned that he was a rock and roll pioneer and the inspiration for many of the rock greats that arose in the ‘60s and ’70s. Yet, when I read the Forward’s article about him, “He really is Jewish” — Little Richard’s lifelong love affair with Judaism” by Benjamin Ivry,[1] I was deeply moved by his commitment to Judaism. Furthermore, he made me question, what does it really mean to be Jewish?
Little Richard publicly identified as a Jew. In a BBC-TV interview to publicize “The London Rock and Roll Show,” a concert held at Wembley Stadium in August 1972, he described how other talents were inspired by him: “All of them came from me, po’ little bitty me, a lil’ Jewish boy, black bottom, from Georgia.”
Little Richard practiced and lived as a Jew. When American Jewish director Paul Mazursky was filming “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” (1986) and “The Pickle” (1993) which both starred Little Richard, Mazursky noted the actor refused to shoot on a Friday evening. He “figured it was a scam,” so he asked Little Richard’s manager, who “responded with a straight face, ‘He really is Jewish…”
Yet Little Richard was clearly not born Jewish. He grew up in Macon, Georgia, and was raised in evangelical Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal (AME), and Pentecostal churches. In 1957 he enrolled at Oakwood College in Alabama, a black Seventh-day Adventist institution. He was ordained a minister in 1970 and was evangelizing by 1977. At this point in his life, he’s a minister but obviously identified as a Jew as well.
Perhaps there was a time when he officially converted. In October 1985, Little Richard was seriously injured in a car crash. He was treated at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles and as he recovered, one of his bedside visitors was Bob Dylan. Dylan himself was dabbling in Judaism at that time, and may have had an influence on Little Richard. In December 1986, Florida’s “Sun-Sentinel” reported, under the headline LITTLE RICHARD HIGH ON JUDAISM, that the singer “announced that he has converted to Judaism, that he celebrated Rosh Hashanah while on tour in England this fall. He added, ‘I’ve only missed going to synagogue one Saturday for the past year.’”
Little Richard not only practiced, but also believed in the Jewish faith. The following year, Playboy Magazine sent the film director John Waters to interview Little Richard. In response to the question “Are you Jewish now?” he
said: “There’s something I prefer not saying. I will say this. I’m a believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I believe the seventh-day Sabbath is God’s way. I believe we should eat kosher. I was invited to a party night
before last. Rod Stewart’s. I didn’t go, because I open the Sabbath on Friday.”
While I also agree with all those hallowed tenets, I don’t know if I could have refrained from such an invitation. It makes me all the more respect Richard’s devotion.
As a minister, his preaching underlined the importance of racial harmony, idealizing a peaceable kingdom in which people of all origins could live together. He told “Rolling Stone” in May 1970, “You understand, we are all God’s bouquet, we all need each other the same as the birds need air. If a man is hungry, I don’t care if he’s black, white, Jewish or Mexican, you don’t need to go out and talk to him about his hunger. Feed that man; then talk to him about eating again and how to keep eating. I think we need to learn to live together because unity is going to make things happen, and where there’s unity there is strength.” Obviously, he felt Judaism encouraged his beliefs.
I can’t deduce whether Little Richard officially converted to Judaism or not. But does it really matter?
Here is a person who has Jewish beliefs, Jewish pride and Jewish practice. He takes to heart what he believes. Is that not what we are asked, “to serve God with all our heart”?
There’s a famous story about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Chasidic movement. He once asked God to send him to the person who celebrated Shabbat in the best way possible. The Baal Shem got on his wagon, closed his eyes and the horses led him in the right direction. Finally, they stopped at a home along the Polish-German border. Seeing no mezuzah on the door, he knocked anyway. The man of the house opened the door, and the Baal Shem Tov asked him if he could stay for a day, for he couldn’t travel on the Sabbath. The man welcomed in him wholeheartedly. The Baal Shem Tov sees the place is all a bustle, food being prepared and a party ready to take place. That night, as the man served ham, shrimp and other delicacies to his many guests while smoking, laughing and drinking, the Baal Shem Tov started to second guess his horses. After the party was over, he went over to his host and asked, “what was the party for?” He replied that his parents died when he was a young child, but his father’s last words to him were to remember that he’s Jewish and to always honor the Sabbath. The man continued that as a young orphan, he had received no Jewish education, but he honors the Sabbath in great fanfare every week.
With pure service like this from the heart, the Baal Shem Tov understood why this man’s unorthodox Sabbath observance was God’s favorite.
What does it really mean to be a Jew? To live with pride in our Judaism,
to follow our beliefs with our actions, to serve God purely, and to see Judaism as a mechanism for improving the world.
Little Richard’s lively and energetic music, and his ministry on the unity and beauty of humanity certainly strike a resonant chord with all of us, but may we also be inspired by him, a Jew who served God with pride and honor, wholeheartedly.

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