“You know, I bet they’ve never had a table full of Jews in this joint before,” my brother Stuart said to four high school buddies seated with him at the icehouse. All were Jewish, but only one identified as such actively.
They rejected his suggestion, and said he was as usual, captive to a paranoia borne of his hyper-self-consciousness as a Jew.
When the waitress came to take their order, they exchanged niceties and ordered beers all around. As she was about to head off, she hesitated. Stuart knew what was coming.
“You guys aren’t from around here, are you?” she asked.
They were indeed — if, by “here,” she meant Houston. Born and bred, some of them with a Texas drawl to show for it.
“Of course, we are, Jeff said.
“I thought you were maybe from New York.”
Stuart knew what she meant, but he was unsure his friends did, so he offered the waitress the opportunity to remove all subtlety and doubt regarding her intention.
“What do you mean by that? Why from New York?” he asked.
“I don’t know, you just look different, and you talk a little different,” she explained. “I thought maybe y’all were Hebrews.”
For a few painful, lingering moments, they could scarcely avoid the declaration of their alien nature. Texas born and bred, they were “Hebrews” in the lingo of the locals, who resorted to the language of their Christian scriptures to refer to Jews.
Texan and Jewish
When I was an elementary school child wandering the halls of the Jewish Community Center in Houston, I came across a poster of “Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.” To the extent I paid it serious heed, I was dismissive. Glancing at the above picture — which was, I think, the one that appeared on the poster, I can understand why. I had a vague but clear sense that I was, as a Jew — even one in and from Texas — insulated from country music. The concoction Kinky offered seemed odd, and it has taken me years to understand the depth of what he was trying to do.
What I have come to realize is that Kinky’s message hovers somewhere between prescient and prophetic. In a world in which, on one hand, Israel’s legitimacy is once again a subject of discussion in genteel circles, and, on the other, Jews in the United States struggle to reorient themselves in the Red-State America they discovered upon Donald Trump’s election, Kinky’s work is more relevant than ever.
Sometimes subversive, at other times combative, Kinky — through his music, his lyrics, and his persona — demands as a Jew from Texas that most precious human (and Jewish) commodity of recognition, at precisely the place where the Texan is tempted to withhold it. At the same time, he offers a scathing — if implicit — critique of establishment Jewish existence. In this twofold effort, he does as a Jew in Texas precisely what Zionism has tried to do for the Jew in Israel.
From Cowboy to Jewboy
After moving to Texas from Chicago, Kinky’s father, Dr. S. Thomas Friedman, was head of the regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish organization devoted to combating “the defamation of the Jewish people.” I can only imagine his chagrin when his son Richard, enrolled in the prestigious Plan II program at University of Texas at Austin, changed his name to “Kinky” — based on a remark about his curly hair — and founded his band, “Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys.” The name was not merely a riff on the well-known Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Along with his name change, it was also a hint as to what he was after: staking out a place for his Jewish self in the Texas landscape. For as anyone familiar with Texas knows, the diminutive “Jewboy” is one of the myriad of ways in which Texas locals stamp the Jews in their midst as “others.”
The Politics of Refusal: Not Fully Texan, not Fully Jewish
In his “We Refuse the Right to Refuse Service to You,” the balladeer finds himself hungry, because the road house’s owner doesn’t want to serve Jews:
While traveling through the Lone Star State
I lost my lunch before I ate
It happened in a bullet-head café.
I felt my bones begin to crunch
I saw my name on the businessman’s lunch
And the neck who owned the place stepped up to say:
“Hey buddy, are you blind
Say, partner, can’t you read the sign?”
We reserve the right to refuse service to you
Take your business back to Walgreen’s
Have you tried your local zoo?
You smell just like a communist
You come through just like a Jew
We reserve the right to refuse service to you
To be a Texan is to travel the open road, an expansive (and mostly flat) landscape with cities and towns few and far between. The roadside café is a point of relief and convergence, where the long hours of solitary driving melt into an embracing, if temporary, community. Our traveling Jew pulls into the parking lot and steps out of his car and into the song, only to have the local host assert his right of refusal, an act of defiance that is self-assertion-cum-affront. To refuse service is to realize one’s autonomy in a capitalist society — a place where communists most certainly do not belong. So, the Jewboy must return to his place of belonging — perhaps the zoo, perhaps Walgreens, perhaps New York, perhaps Russia (if we go back a generation or two).
Never one to misunderstand an overture — or to risk having his bones crushed by a large Texan, our rejected hero returns to his car and keeps on traveling, in hope of finding refuge in the embrace of his Jewish community. The next verse clarifies that no such thing will transpire:
Well, I walked on in to my House of God
Congregation on the nod
Just chosen folks doing their weekly thing
Hear, O Israel, yes indeed
My book was backwards, couldn’t read
But I got a good rise when I heard that Rabbi sing
“Boruch atoh Adonoi
What the hell are you doing back there, boy?”
We reserve the right to refuse services to you
Your friends are all on welfare -
You call yourself a Jew?
You need your ticket and your tie
To zip your prayers on through
We reserve the right to refuse services unto you.
Kinky deftly speaks out of both sides of his mouth. Out of his Texas side, he touts the ethos of freedom and independence in the right to refuse service. He speaks of the “chosen folks’” “House of God” — an appellation for a Jewish house of worship that wears its Texan roots proudly. Jews, after all, speak of a “beit Knesset,” a House of Assembly.
He also speaks unequivocally out of the Jewish side of his mouth, uttering a caustic message that only Members of the Tribe will understand. The roll call to his sleepy (“on the nod”) audience is clear: he implores Shema Yisrael (loosely translated as “Listen up, Israel”), followed by the Hebrew phrase with which every blessing begins. He manages to find a way to rhyme one of the names of God (Adonoi), with “boy,” thanks to his Ashkenazic-Texas pronunciation. Having garnered the attention of his hometown audience, he can air the dirty laundry. It’s problematic that the book is backwards (i.e., right to left) and that he can’t read it, as he is Jewishly illiterate. But the real problem is that he is estranged from the established community: the rabbi, the mouth of the community who embodies its values, refuses to offer “services” (i.e., worship) to Kinky, because he has betrayed any sense of Jewish self by having friends on welfare. Jews don’t live on ranches (like the real Kinky did and does), nor do they engage in manual labor, live in poverty, or for that matter, sing country music. They shouldn’t even associate with folks who do (i.e., Texans).
The New Breed: The In-Your-Face Texan Jew
Neither an authentic Texan nor an accepted Member of the Tribe, Kinky asserts with gusto and defiance a sense of belonging on the edge, in no-man’s land. His tenor echoes what “Outlaw” Country did to Country music — and what the early Zionists did in Palestine vis-à-vis Diaspora Jewish identity. He stakes out an independent persona that reveals a new kind of Jew, one unashamed of his particularity and even his otherness, asserting this new self in the face of the non-Jew.
This assertion receives its most explicit — and offensive — expression in Kinky’s “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore.” (Regarding the offensive nature of the piece, I would recommend listening to Kinky’s introduction to the version recorded on his “Bi-Polar Tour” album, in which he quotes African American Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s prescient warning about the potential tyranny of political correctness, insofar as it silences biting satire.)
Well, a redneck nerd in a bowling shirt was a-guzzlin’ Lone Star beer
Talking religion and politics for all the world to hear.
“They oughta send you back to Russia, boy, or New York City one
You just want to doodle a Christian girl and you killed God’s only son.”
I said, “Has it occurred to you, you nerd, that that’s not very nice?
We Jews believe it was Santa Claus that killed Jesus Christ.”
“You know, you don’t look Jewish,” he said, “near as I could figure
I had you lamped for a slightly anemic, well-dressed country nigger.”
No, they ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore,
They don’t turn the other cheek the way they done before.
He started in to shoutin’ and a-spittin’ on the floor,
Lord, they ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore.”
He says, “I ain’t a racist but Aristotle Onassis is one Greek we don’t need
And them niggers, Jews and Sigma Nus, all they ever do is breed.
And wops ‘n micks ‘n slopes ‘n spics ‘n spooks are on my list
And there’s one little Heeb from the heart of Texas — is there anyone I missed?”
Well, I hits him with everything I had right square between the eyes.
I says, “I’m gonna getcha, you son of a bitch, for spoutin’ that pack of lies.
If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s an ethnocentric racist;
Now you take back that thing you said ‘bout Aristotle Onassis.”
The song hits hard not just because it punches, but because its blows are delivered with precision. This new Jew continues to do what Jews have always done — namely, identify with the litany of minorities that, like them, are hated. But he does it with newfound bravado, refusing to turn the other cheek. He would rather stay put in the Texas icehouse than return to Russia or New York, and he counters the accusation of killing Christ by pointing the finger at Santa Claus. The decisive blow of the song comes in the form of the fist that the narrator delivers between the eyes of the redneck, felling him — and fending off the insult of Aristotle Onassis. As dust rises from the floorboards, the one left standing is the Heeb from Deep in the Heart of Texas.
Jewish Longing for a Small Plot of Land
Texas is not all roadside joints, bars, and icehouses, and not all Jewish existence transpires in synagogues. What Kinky sings of, longs for, and — to the extent that art can be transformative — tries to help establish, is a no-man’s land between Texas and Jew that is inhabitable. A place where Jews in icehouses are not asked if they’re from New York. Where they’re called Jews, and not Hebrews. And where the Jews do not shy away from staking out their Jewishness, but claim it as their own, and — if necessary — assert it in contradistinction, with Texas bravado and Jewish chutzpah.
There is a small plot of land — more the size of a ranch, by Texas standards — where a whole bunch of Jews are trying to do that collectively: Israel, which is celebrating 70 years of existence these days. It is no surprise that Kinky is a big supporter of Israel, for the Zionist endeavor was to do on a collective level what Kinky does as a Heeb from Texas: to embrace the insults and names — Hebrew, Yid, commie, capitalist, Jewboy — and transform them into a source of defiant self-assertion, to carve out a physical space where a Jew can live an unapologetic existence, to harness the age-old Jewish combination of wit and humor to grapple with the impossibilities of this world for Jews, minorities, and indeed thoughtful human beings (so long as they have a sense of humor).
At the same time, Kinky and classical Zionism share a second front of battle in which they offer against a scathing critique of the Jewish existence that the establishment fosters, asserting previously unconsidered possibilities of Jewish living: as farmers and laborers, cowboys, singers, ad welfare recipients. Perhaps they are Jewishly illiterate, but they assert their place in the Jewish world — and it’s not in the synagogue pews.
For Those in the Blue States
But Zionism became old-school and establishment on its own, as the State of Israel, out of political expedience, joined forces with the established Jewish community. With that, its critical edge, while not entirely lost, has been blunted and hidden in a sheath. In the meantime, non-Zionist, post-ethnic, Jewish alternatives offer their own critique of the Jewish establishment and alternatives to it.
Then something painful happened: Donald Trump was elected, and the clear-sighted realized that they had been guilty of metonym, equating the Blue states with the United States. But there are quite a few Red states — enough to elect a president who rode waves of xenophobia and anti-Semitism into office. Escorted deep into the heart of Red America, finding themselves in places like Charlottesville, these post-ethnic Jewish alternatives discovered themselves to be in the eyes of so many of their red-voting fellow citizens nothing other than (((Jews))), Hebrews. Re-enter ethnicity, re-enter Kinky.
The Heeb from Texas (one of those Red states) teaches us about the difficult negotiation between Jew and Texan. At some level, that is nothing new for the Jew. At least since the Emancipation, we’ve been living our lives in a hyphenated fashion. But Kinky is not interested in living out a hyphenated existence: he wants to be fully Texan and fully Jewish. He blazes a trail in Texas not unlike the clearing that Zionists have tried to establish, and it is here that we would do well, in the broad and painfully bright daylight of Trump’s America, to thank Kinky for his prescience. He has shown us, to borrow from Israel’s national anthem, that not all hope is lost.
A Taste of Redemption: Kinky the Gov, Willie Nelson the Yid
That fully-inhabitable territory does not yet exist. And yet, there are glimmers of its promise.
In 2006, Kinky ran for governor of Texas as an independent, against five other candidates. True, he came in fourth; and true, Texas preferred Rick Perry at its helm. But it also means that Kinky garnered 550,000 votes from Texans who wanted a Heeb to be governor, even a Heeb who had expressed — in word and in deed — an unwillingness to turn the other cheek. Perry, by comparison, won only 1.7 million votes. At some level, those votes hold open a promise that by staking out territory and insisting upon his Jewish being with humor and defiance, Kinky may well be able to cultivate a landscape that can accept, and perhaps even value, him.
The inhabitants of this landscape are also capable of understanding and empathizing with the torturous trail that Kinky, as a Jew, must travel. In “Ride ’Em Jewboy,” Kinky offers a poignant tribute to the Jews murdered in the Shoah. Mixing metaphors and landscapes, the corral and the trail of the Wild West merge with the endless path of suffering of the ever-moving Jewish people; the helpless cattle are now reflected in the eyes of the Jews being herded; the smoke that rises from the cowboy camp mixes seamlessly with the smoke rising from the crematoria of a concentration camps.
The lyrics are powerful, as is Kinky’s rendition of the song. But to hear Willie Nelson’s version of it is doubly captivating, for as his voice issues forth, it becomes clear that the Jewish suffering Kinky has articulated can find an echo of high-fidelity in the goy from Texas.
The Future of the Lone Star State
Israel, too, offers a glimmer of promise — and it is that promise we celebrate on Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. Kinky spends much of his defiance and subversiveness carving out space for himself, the same way Israel spends so much of its resources and energy on the question of existence. Along the way, he has achieved a following of Jews and non-Jews who appreciate him and his path — this, too, like Israel. But receiving the helms of a state — whether Texas or Israel — offers new, higher challenges: not just of existence, but of ideals and of flourishing. Kinky was not elected, but the State of Israel came into existence, so we are offered the opportunity to view the vast and unsightly gulf between its ideals and its reality. There are 364 days/year to work on narrowing that gap, but there’s one to celebrate the opportunities — for success and for failure — afforded by Israel’s existence. Happy Yom Ha’atzmaut.