A 43-year-old San Francisco Hanukkah tradition is getting a boost from rocker Perry Farrell of the seminal ’80s and ’90s alternative bands Jane’s Addiction and Porno for Pyros.
The singer — born Peretz Bernstein in 1959 — will be celebrating the first night of the holiday with Chabad at its annual menorah lighting in Union Square, on Sunday, Dec. 2. Afterward, he’s set to perform at the debut “Bill Graham Festival of Lights” benefit concert at the Fillmore, playing music inspired by his interest in messianic prophecies and the end of days as foretold in the Torah.
“I look at this beautiful prophecy, and this beautiful dream that we have, as not only reality, but also as art,” he said.
The concert is a fundraiser for the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation, which supports Chabad of San Francisco’s Bill Graham Menorah Project, the giant menorah lit downtown every year.
“I love the fact that it’s Hanukkah,” Farrell said. “I wish that the whole world liked to see a menorah light up.”
The combination of Chabad and the writer-singer of the Jane’s Addiction hit “Been Caught Stealing” (No. 1 on the Billboard alternative chart in October 2000) is not as strange as it might seem. As the founder of the still-running Lollapalooza music festival, which began in 1991, Farrell has an impeccable rock ’n’ roll resume.
But, said Billy Cohen, producer of the Bill Graham Menorah Project, “He’s also in some ways a very — paradoxically — traditional Jew.”
Farrell said he loves studying the writings of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson and has had a long friendship with Rabbi Yosef Langer of Chabad of San Francisco.
“He’s — I guess you would say — Orthodox,” Farrell said. “And I’m unorthodox.”
Farrell, who was born in Queens, New York, and raised in Miami and Southern California, was close with Bill Graham’s family and also DJed at the first “Purimpalooza” in 1998, which Langer remembers as a fabulous party. The two have stayed connected since then, with Farrell taking part in a handful of menorah lightings in Union Square. He even performed on the Chabad telethon in 2005.
“We’ve learned together,” Langer said. “He wanted to learn Torah, and particularly Kabbalah.”
The Farrell concert fits into the ethos of the Bill Graham menorah, a Chabad-produced event that honors the German-born Holocaust refugee-turned-rock impresario who worked with artists such as the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin and made the Fillmore auditorium the epicenter of the rock revolution.
The Union Square menorah lighting is also a Bay Area institution.
Although public Chabad menorahs are now commonplace, when the first one went up in San Francisco in 1975, it was a controversial move. Only the second public menorah in the country, it was supported financially by Graham, who helped promote the lighting until his 1991 death in a helicopter crash at age 60. Two years later, then-San Francisco Mayor Frank Jordan declared that the first Sunday of Hanukkah would be designated Bill Graham Menorah Day in the city. These days the crowds that come for both the candlelightings and the music, crafts and activities reach the hundreds.
“I think it genuinely succeeds in being that place where the breadth of the Jewish community and the community at-large come together,” Cohen said.
For Langer, it is important that the menorah be outside, where it can be seen.
“That’s where the world is, today. That’s where we touch souls,” he said. “Most people don’t go to synagogue today.”
Producing the menorah lighting and its promotion costs around $40,000 every year, Chabad officials said. At the Fillmore benefit, Farrell, 59, will play music from Kind Heaven Orchestra, a musical project related to his research into messianic prophecies. Langer said the idea of a “kind heaven” is a Jewish one, and something that he discussed with Farrell.
“He phoned me and he said, ‘I want you to tell me about kind heaven and Moshiach now,’” Langer said. Moshiach is the Hebrew word for Messiah.
Farrell said he firmly believes in the prophecies around the messianic era and the end of days — and he thinks he’ll see it in his lifetime.
“I do,” said Farrell. “I have all my faith invested in it. But it’s not difficult. You could not convince me otherwise.”
He believes in the coming of the Messiah, but he also thinks that peace has to come first — and that’s the responsibility of humans.
“We as global citizens really have to get our act together, and I don’t just mean Jewish people. But definitely Jewish people, we have to do better,” Farrell said.
For Farrell, that means reaching out through art and music. Kind Heaven Orchestra is also related to a project Farrell is working on, an upcoming Las Vegas experiential theme park called Kind Heaven that will create a virtual street that is a mish-mash of various elements of Hong Kong, Thailand, Vietnam and Nepal. It’s all part of Farrell’s desire to hasten an era of peace.
“This is what Perry’s trying to do with his music: To make a kind heaven to set the stage for the Messiah — Moshiach,” Langer said.
But first steps first. Farrell will debut material from his upcoming solo album “Kind Heaven” at a Nov. 30 show in Los Angeles, playing with the Kind Heaven Orchestra in what is being billed as part of the Bill Graham Festival of Lights.
Then comes the Dec. 2 show at the Fillmore, on the first night of Hanukkah. On the stage in addition to the Kind Heaven Orchestra will be Balkan Bump (headed by trumpet player Will Magid of San Francisco) and Jerry’s Kosher Deli, a popular local band that plays the music of Jerry Garcia, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, Bob Marley and others.
Langer said this year’s menorah lighting has special resonance after the horrific killings in Pittsburgh, which stunned Jews around the country.
“People don’t know what to do. People don’t know what to say,” he said. “Now is a very appropriate time to point to the menorah. This is a call to action.”