John Zorn Talks Music, Mysticism and the Messiah as He Turns 60

Exclusive Interview With Singular Outsider Artist

Zorn in the USA: At 60, John Zorn remains an influential voice in avant-garde music.
Heather O'Brien
Zorn in the USA: At 60, John Zorn remains an influential voice in avant-garde music.

By Jerome Chanes

Published July 31, 2013, issue of August 02, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

John Zorn’s East Village apartment is like his music: an exceptionally-concentrated, perfectl- composed space celebrating the artistic experience. Thousands of records and tapes and CDs and books, well-ordered, each tug at the visitor’s elbow for attention.

For many years, John Zorn — composer, performer, arranger, independent music distributor — has been a major voice in the musical avant-garde in America. Zorn, who recently celebrated his 60th birthday and lately has been performing in tributes to his career, has had a powerful and profound impact on contemporary music, particularly in the expression of the Jewish experience through music.

“A family member once told me that I am related to Maimonides, and in a metaphoric sense that’s true,” said Zorn. “We are in the midst of a Jewish cultural renaissance in this country; we are enjoying the greatest time since Maimonides — in fact, this is another era of‘ Maimonides.

What unites us? Whatever else is going on — and there is lots of tension and conflict in the community — we are united in the business of celebrating Jewish creativity. Jewish creativity today has a lot of depth and power and meaning because of all the dreck and schreck that we had to go through to get to where we are today.

“How do I come to my Jewishness? I was raised in a completely secular environment; it was an environment of total alienation and denial when it came to matters Jewish. My parents were brutal when it came to eliminating the past. I came to Jewishness by walking down very different paths. Some of this fertilization happened through my association with many musicians I worked with who were Jewish. But in large measure my experiences in Japan over 10 years, where I was the ‘outsider.’ I couldn’t ‘pass’ as Japanese. I was a Tokyo musician, but I was not accepted; at best I was tolerated. I was the ‘Other.’”

“My experiences as ‘outsider’ in Japan gave new meaning to my experience as a Jew. I learned that I am proud that I am a Jew — and not for the negative reasons of being an ‘outsider.’ Why would a Jew want to identify as a Jew unless there were positive values? It’s not enough in the post-Holocaust world just to cry ‘Holocaust!’”


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!
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • For 22 years, Seeds of Peace has fostered dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian teens in an idyllic camp. But with Israel at war in Gaza, this summer was different. http://jd.fo/p57AB
  • J.J. Goldberg doesn't usually respond to his critics. But this time, he just had to make an exception.
  • 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.