Peter Himmelman performs before an Israeli audience.Most American rock stars have fearfully avoided Israel over the past two and half years. But Peter Himmelman isn’t like most American rock stars.
The 44-year-old acclaimed singer/songwriter is one of Israel’s biggest fans. He was the featured act in last October’s ‘Gift to Israel’ solidarity tour which also included klezmer-bluegrass clarinetist Andy Statman and jazz guitarist Steve Hancoff, and has now returned for a series of free shows along with one traditional concert appearance.
Himmelman, whose lyrics are rife with Jewish imagery and spiritual themes and has named albums Gematria and Strength to Strength, dazzled audiences last year with his ragged-but-right rock & roll performed with a makeshift band, his genuinely funny stage rapport, and his fervent zeal for being in Israel among Jews.
But Himmelman says the main beneficiary of his appearances in Israel was himself.
“A kid came up to me and ‘To me your like a hero for coming to Israel,’ he told ISRAEL21c, mimicking the boy’s heavy Israeli accent. “It sure makes you feel good, but it was sort of embarrassing. Because there’s no doubt that I got more out that trip than anyone I played for. I was the beneficiary of that trip, of the passion and the fortitude I saw in the Israelis I met.”
This year, Himmelman, who lives in Los Angeles, brought along his family including his wife Maria (Bob Dylan’s daughter) and his four children aged 13 to 7, for a three week visit.
“I’m not even sure of the itinerary,” Himmelman said with a laugh. “I don’t care, I’ll play for free. I’m coming with my family and we’re staying on a moshav near Netanya where I have relatives. My kids are more excited about traveling than they are fearful about coming to Israel. My mom just left Israel after a visit, and she had such a great time. I talked to her on the phone and I haven’t heard that tone of voice in her in a long time.”
At his one club date last week at Club Tzora near Beit Shemesh, Himmelman and his band put on a solid show for the sold-out crowd of primarily religious American-born Israelis. Wearing a cutoff shirt, head covered by a bandana, and tzitzit hanging out, Himmelman looked like renegade rabbi as led the band through a generous selection of album tracks, improvised tunes in English and in broken Hebrew, and probably the world’s first medley featuring both Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” and “Aveinu Shalom Aleichem.” The audience was riveted by the crackling, energetic performance and asked for more.
In addition to performing live, Himmelman is going to be investing time in Israel on recording a song he wrote especially for this trip, a “We Are the World”- Jewish themed song called “Ahdut” (Solidarity).
“It’s a very cool song, and I’ve got some good people on it – one of the Wallflowers, Marc Cohn,” said Himmelman. “I wrote it to show some solidarity – there’s some lyrics in English and some in Hebrew. I had wanted it to be finished before I came, but I hope to organize some recording session once I’m there. It’s gone through some lyrical changes. I was a little naïve in how Hebrew words resonate. I though ‘Ahdut’ was a great word, but I’ve been hearing from Israelis that it’s really banal, and a cheap political slogan.”
Himmelman said he’s hoping to interest some Israeli musicians into going into the studio with him to add their parts to the song. Artists like Zilber, Dag Nachash and Aviv Geffen have all been approached.
Himmelman’s staunch and vocal Zionism, along with his in-the-open religious observance, puts him squarely against the grain of much of the LA entertainment industry’s apathy or antagonism towards Israel, which gets him angry.
“To be identified Jewishly in this land of assimilation, is perceived by some as a negative strike, which may injure them in the marketplace. To an even more extreme, there’s a subtle sense among some in the entertainment industry of perhaps a new apartheid, and the feeling that they don’t want to support a South African-like regime. This line of thinking really irks me, it drives me nuts,” he said.
An obvious question is then, why doesn’t Himmelman make the plunge and move to Israel, where his heart lies?
“I consider aliya all the time, and I have my eyes open. Making a living is an issue. Right now I’m working on composing music for a show to be aired on the US cable network Showtime. I’m bringing over a portable laptop system and will be working on it here. It’s kind of exciting, and it will be somewhat of a test for doing music wherever I choose. That’s one of my dreams ? sitting around in a moshav and making music, really the culmination of a dream that began when I was a kid,” he said.
“My parents were involved in an aliyah program when I was small, but they didn’t go through with it. My mother recently said, ‘You don’t regret the things you do, you regret the things you didn’t do.” I think she was thinking about their not having come on aliya.”
“My first trip to Israel was in 1968, when I was 8 years old. I remember sitting in Netanya, and there were planes flying over, and they all had Jewish stars on the wings. Coming from Minneapolis, this was a pivotal moment for me and a burgeoning Zionism was formed.”
For Himmelman, the option of creating music in Israel for use in America has become more palatable as technology has developed, and as Himmelman has divided his time between his performing/recording career in which he has released a plethora of well-received discs, and his composing music for film and TV. He received an Emmy nomination for his musical work on the American TV show Judging Amy. He’s also released two successful children’s records, My Best Friend is a Salamander and My Fabulous Plum.
“I got into film and TV scoring at the very beginning before my first record contract in 1986. I would score independent films, fashion shows, commercials, anything that would bring home a paycheck. It became one of my skill sets. I did a Disney film in 1992 Crossing the Bridge it’s a very exciting and lucrative adjunct to my songwriting. It broadens my range and pallet of colors for songwriting. Plus being on the road was not the most workable situation raising four children. I’ve been lucky to be able to leapfrog from one dimension to the other.”