Of Folk, Faith and Famous Father-in-Law

By Rebecca Spence

Published March 11, 2008, issue of March 21, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Peter Himmelman is an eclectic musician who has earned critical accolades for everything from his television show scores to his folk-rock albums. His work scoring the TV series “Judging Amy” garnered him an Emmy nomination in 2002, and just a few months ago, his latest children’s album, “My Green Kite,” was nominated for a Grammy. “The Pigeons Couldn’t Sleep,” Himmelman’s 10th studio album, was released last summer. If that all sounds like enough, it isn’t: Himmelman is currently scoring the Fox series “Bones” and ABC’s “Men in Trees.”

The 48-year-old Santa Monica resident grew up in Minneapolis, where he began his musical career while still in high school. One of his earliest collaborations, the new wave band Sussman Lawrence, recorded two albums before Himmelman went on to a solo career. Since then, Himmelman has successfully navigated the waters of multiple, often wildly different, genres and come out rocking in all of them.

Oh, and he also happens to be Bob Dylan’s son-in-law.

Himmelman recently fielded some questions from the Forward.

Why did you decide to expand into children’s music?

I have four children of my own, and so as they were growing up, it was very natural to me to sing for them and make up songs and stories for them. At one point, a company in the Midwest contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in making a record for children. As every artist knows, there’s nothing more motivating than a deadline and a fee, and so when I got both those things, my first kids’ record, “My Best Friend Is a Salamander,” came into being. I’ve since made four more.

What are the challenges of writing in so many different genres? Does it ever get musically confusing, so to speak, or do the different genres inform one another?

As a rule, I thrive when I’m doing several different projects at once. It doesn’t get confusing for me because I’m able to focus my attention to whatever task is at hand. It’s difficult to explain, but there is a radically different feeling when I go about making music for children as opposed to making music for adults. The same truths are existent in each, but perhaps similar to the way one talks to a child versus the way he would speak with an adult, the metaphors, expressions and context need to be appropriate for each. A third facet of what I do — aside from performance, which is its own unique universe — is composing for film and television. It’s another perspective, which really requires me to adopt a service mentality. That is to say, when I’m making my records, they are really expressions of my personal vision. When I’m composing to picture, I’m primarily serving the needs of the director or the producers. The structure created by helping another person achieve their goals can be very liberating.

How would you define your level of Jewish observance?

I’m not too comfortable with labels in general, but I suppose you wouldn’t be far off if you characterized me as an Orthodox or observant Jew.

Have you always maintained a high level of observance? How were you raised?

I was raised in a home that was very Jewishly aware. My grandma spoke Yiddish, we were very Zionistic and I attended Hebrew school. We went to a Conservative shul in a suburb of Minneapolis. I started becoming more observant in 1986 while living in New York City.

How does your religious observance affect your music?

Since I write mostly about my observations — as opposed to fictional accounts — the prism through which I see the world most definitely affects the music I make.

How has it affected your career?

There have been many missed opportunities to further my career. I’ve turned down several “Tonight Show” engagements and some major tours, but it’s important to remember that nobody forced me to turn these things down. I did it all of my own volition, and though there was a price to pay, I believe that the rewards I continue to get from having success on my own terms have been well worth any short-term sacrifices.

Does being an observant Jew in any way conflict with your role in pop culture? Can they co-exist peacefully, so to speak?

I don’t think I have a role in pop culture. All my roles are played out in my family life and in my community. It would be disingenuous of me to say that I have any role in or any allegiance to pop culture. In fact, it’s something I try to protect myself and my family from. If you mean to ask, can an observant Jew be an artist and make a living creating things, the answer in my opinion is yes, of course. There is no conflict in that.

What do you think of the Matisyahu phenomenon?

I like Matisyahu both as a musician and as a person. I think he’s an extremely talented person who, like any real artist, is on a quest. I’m always anxious to see where it leads.

Given that your father-in-law is Bob Dylan, has he been a particularly influential figure in the development of your music? Has that relationship affected your work?

Every musician from St. Louis to Botswana has been influenced by him. Why would it be any different for me?


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • We try to show things that get less exposed to the public here. We don’t look to document things that are nice or that people would like. We don’t try to show this place as a beautiful place.”
  • A new Gallup poll shows that only 25% of Americans under 35 support the war in #Gaza. Does this statistic worry you?
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.