What is not as well known about Woody is that his wife and children were Jewish; that he raised his children as Jews; and that he wrote songs about Jewish history, Jewish holidays, and the Holocaust.
Guthrie was undoubtedly familiar with Jewish life well before his marriage to Marjorie Mazia, a Martha Graham dancer (1945) and before his move to Coney Island, where the couple lived at 3520 Mermaid Avenue, across the street from Marjorie's parents. His manager was Harold Leventhal, the son of Orthodox Jewish immigrants; his politics were inspired by Ed Robbin, a Jewish editor with The People's World, a Los Angeles newspaper; and Moses (Moe) Asch of Folkways Records, perhaps the chief folklorist to record Woody, had specialized in Jewish liturgical music. His real interest in Jewish lyrics, however, may be traced to the warm relationship he later developed with his mother-in-law, Aliza Waitzman Greenblatt, a prominent Yiddish poet.
Coming to America after illegally fleeing her shtetl in Ozarinetz, Bessarabia in 1900, Greenblatt was an ardent Zionist who established a ZOA branch and served as national president of Pioneer Women. "Bubbe" Greenblatt, who cared for her grandchildren and served Friday night Shabbatdinners to the family, shared Woody's passion for social justice, anti-fascism, and union organizing – all causes dear to the immigrant Jewish community – and they often discussed their artistic projects and critiqued each other's works. Through her, Woody came to identify the Jewish struggle with that of his fellow Okies and other oppressed people about whom he sang.
Enchanted by his immigrant mother-in-law's rituals, stories, and incredible blintzes, Guthrie learned everything he could about the Jewish people, even taking several courses on Judaism at Brooklyn Community College, and his Jewish songs and lyrics were the result of his desire to pass her traditions and observances on to her grandchildren.
He loved living at Coney Island, which enabled him to enjoy the bustling Jewish life on the boardwalk. He would take his young daughter, Cathy Ann, on morning walks there, have breakfast at Nathan's, and watch the old men playing chess while arguing politics in Yiddish. Thus, in "Mermaid Avenue," he wrote:
Mermaid Avenue that's the street, where the lox and bagels meet,
where the hot dog meets the mustard, where the sour meets the sweet;
where the beer flows to the ocean, where the halvah meets the pickle . . .
Guthrie also wrote many Jewish ditties for his children, including Chanukah songs such as "Chanukah Gelt," "Spin Dreydl Spin," "Do The Latke Flip Flip," and "Hanukkah's Flame," in which he wrote:
Hanukkah candlelight, see my flame/ shining on my window's pane/
Come flicker 'cross my glassy glass/ and light each lonesome to pass.
As Woody's daughter Nora tells it, her father wrote most of his Chanukah songs within five days "because he had bookings in December for children's Chanukah parties in assorted Brooklyn community centers."
Some of Guthrie's Jewish-related lyrics were somber and serious, such as those of his chilling ballad about the sadistic Nazi Ilse Koch written in the voice of a concentration camp inmate ("I'm here in Buchenwald, my number's on my skin…") in which he describes seeing chimney smoke, piles of bones, and "lamp shades made from skins." And in "The Many and the Few," Guthrie displays his knowledge of Jewish history during the Babylonian captivity:
My name is King Cyrus, my order I give, you Jews can go back to your home
To build your holy temple again, in the land of Palestine.
We've sung and danced o'er the hot rocky roads, back to Eretz Yisroel's land,
we worked with plow and rake and hoe, and we blessed the works of our hands.
My name is Ezra the Teacher man, I brought my scroll book along
I brought my flock to Yisroel, from that land called Babylon.
I'll read you my Talmud Torah book, and the prophet's dreams to you,
and you'll be fertile and multiply, if you keep your Torah true . . .
In very rare exhibit displayed with this column, Guthrie writes what in retrospect are heartbreaking lyrics for his daughter Cathy Ann in this unpublished April 20, 1946 work shortly before she died in a fire at age four on February 9, 1947 (the print is a bit light, as it was written in pencil):
Cathy on guitar, guitar lays on rug,
and Cathy sits playing on strings and talking: Hm hm hm hm/
This is how the little kitten sounds/ hm hm hm hm/
And this is how the mama cat sounds and the mama cat is in the lake/
hm hm hm/
and the big daddy cat sees the mommy in the water and here is how he sounds/
And he sees hears the little baby cat/ Hm hm hm hm/
And the little baby cat is crying/He is crying on the sand/
He is crying for his Mommy in the water/ mmm mmm mmm/
And the Daddy kitty goes this way/mm mm mm/
And do you know what the daddy cat done?/no?/ mm mm/
No?/Don't you?/Don't you know?/
Did he jump into the water and pull the mama cat out?/
I don't know/ mm mm/
I don't know.
Aliza accepted the non-Jewish Woody as a son-in-law, but Marjorie's more traditional father, Isidore, did not. However, Cathy's tragic death led to a family reconciliation and later, when Guthrie was fighting Huntington's Disease (it eventually killed him), Marjorie's parents moved back to Brooklyn from Israel (they had made aliyahin the early 1950s) to help raise the grandchildren, including Arlo, Joady, and Nora.
Arlo – who later become famous in his own right, writing and performing the classic 18-minute musical monologue "Alice's Restaurant" and performing at Woodstock in 1969 – occasionally sang a song about the lament of his "Bubbe Greenblatt" for Cathy's death, saying it fit a lullaby that Bubbe often sang to the family.
And how's this for a wonderful historical coincidence of the sort I love to feature in my Jewish Press columns: While Arlo's Jewish friends went to Hebrew school, he was given private bar mitzvah lessons by a "sweet young rabbi" who came to the family's home: Meir Kahane
About the Author: Saul Jay Singer, a nationally recognized legal ethicist, serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar. He is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters, and his column appears in The Jewish Press every other week. Mr. Singer welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.