Jewish Journal

A Jewish Visit to Guthrie’s Land

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Dec. 2, 2004 at 7:00 pm


Arlo Guthrie draws a direct line between his beloved bubbe and his Dec. 6 concert, "Holy Ground: The Jewish and Spiritual Songs of Woody Guthrie."

Arlo, the son of the legendary folk singer and composer, says that his father's mother-in-law, Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, inspired Woody's largely unknown lyrics for Chanukah, Holocaust and Jewish children's songs.

These songs will be performed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall by Arlo; his son, Abe; guitarist Gordon Titcomb, and the six-piece Klezmatics, who set the lyrics to music.

Guthrie, 57, whose own career exploded in 1967 with the release of "Alice's Restaurant," recalled growing up as a "Jewish kid" in Brooklyn, with his famous dad and mother -- Woody's second wife -- Marjorie Mazia, a professional dancer.

In preparation for Guthrie's "Hootenanny Bar Mitzvah," his parents hired a "sweet young rabbi" as a tutor, Guthrie told The Journal during a phone interview. The rabbi's name was Meir Kahane, who went on to become the extremist founder of the Jewish Defense League and the Kach political party.

"Rabbi Kahane was a really nice, patient teacher, but shortly after he gave me my lessons, he started going haywire. Maybe I was responsible," Guthrie said with a laugh.

When Mazia abandoned her Jewish husband to marry Woody, "this little guy from Oklahoma," her parents took the news in different ways.

Her father, Isidore Greenblatt, stopped talking to his daughter until the first of her three children with Woody was born.

But Bubbe Aliza took to the new son-in-law right away.

"She was a poet and songwriter in her own right, and she immediately recognized Woody's talent," Guthrie said.

Woody Guthrie himself was aware of the tension between Isidore and Aliza Greenblatt over his marriage and started studying Judaism.

"He wanted to know what he had gotten himself into and, with his typical thoroughness, started reading every book he could find and took courses on Judaism at Brooklyn Community College," Guthrie said of his father.

The grandmother's impact on young Arlo went even deeper.

"We would go to her home on Friday night for Shabbat dinner and she was a great cook. Nobody ever came close to her blintzes," Guthrie reminisced. "She was also a very creative person, a great storyteller, and I loved her stories about growing up in Russia."

Best of all, "She liked me as I was," Guthrie said. "She always thought I was funny and she took great pride in me. She was interested in everything I was interested in. You always hope that someone in your family feels that way about you.

"The first time I performed in Carnegie Hall," he continued, "She sat there in the middle of the front row and just kvelled."

Once bubbe visited the Guthries when they were living on a small farm in Massachusetts, where they kept some goats.

When she arrived, she started crying, and Guthrie asked, "Why are you crying, Bubbe?"

"Because I haven't seen a goat in 75 years," she answered between sobs.

Like Woody, bubbe was an early anti-fascist, who fought for social justice and organized labor, and was an ardent Zionist, as well.

In the early 1950s, the Greenblatts moved to Israel, but when Woody was struck with a severe degenerative disease a few years later they moved back to help take care of the grandchildren.

Woody Guthrie, who wrote some 3,500 songs in 20 years, in addition to books and pamphlets, never heard the Jewish songs performed in his lifetime. It was only after his death that his daughter, Nora, discovered the lyrics and had them set to music. Among Arlo Guthrie's favorites are "Happy, Joyous Chanukah," and, in another mood, a chilling ballad about the sadistic Ilse Koch, "The Bitch of Buchenwald," in the voice of a concentration camp inmate.

"The Holy Ground" concert starts at 8 p.m., Monday, Dec. 6. Tickets ($25-$75) are available at the Walt Disney Concert Hall box office, online at www.LAPhil.com, or by calling (323) 850-2000.


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