Woody Guthries hootenanny Chanukah coming to Berkeley

los angeles | Legendary folksinger and composer Woody Guthrie left behind a little-known legacy of Chanukah, Holocaust and Jewish children’s songs. His inspiration was Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt, his mother-in-law.

“Holy Ground: The Jewish and Spiritual Songs of Woody Guthrie” will be performed Tuesday, Dec. 7, the first night of Chanukah, by his son Arlo, his grandson Abe, and the six-piece Klezmatics band at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley.

Arlo Guthrie, 57, whose own musical career took off in 1967 with the release of “Alice’s Restaurant,” recalled in a phone interview growing up as a “Jewish kid” in Brooklyn, with his famous dad and his mother, Marjorie Mazia, a professional dancer and Woody’s second wife.

In preparation for Arlo’s “hootenanny bar mitzvah” in 1960, his parents hired a “sweet young rabbi,” as a tutor. 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,” laughed Arlo.

When Marjorie 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 her new son-in-law quickly. “She was a poet and songwriter in her own right, and she immediately recognized Woody’s talent,” said Arlo.

Woody himself was aware of the tension between Isidore and Aliza Greenblatt over his marriage, so he 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,” said Arlo.

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,” Arlo reminisced nostalgically.

“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,” said Arlo. “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 Arlo 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 she was an ardent Zionist, as well.

In the early 1950s, the Greenblatts moved to Israel, but returned a few years later, after Woody was struck with a severe degenerative disease, 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 by the Klezmatics. Among Arlo’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.

“Holy Ground: The Jewish and Spiritual Songs of Woody Guthrie” will be performed 8 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 7 at Zellerbach Hall, U.C. Berkeley campus. Tickets: tickets.berkeley.edu or (510) 642-9988.

Tom Tugend

JTA Los Angeles correspondent