If you think the most Jewish thing Jeff Tweedy ever did was to name a Wilco album “Schmilco,” think again. The truth is that Tweedy — the founder and main creative force behind the indie-rock group Wilco, celebrating its 25th anniversary next year — married a Jewish woman, raised two Jewish boys into manhood, and, in the ultimate sacrifice, surrendered a tip of his birthright to a mohel in a conversion ceremony. Tweedy reveals these and other details in his folksy, self-deprecating, and at times intimate memoir, “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)” (Dutton).
Tweedy first met Sue Miller when she was booking clubs in Chicago in the late 1980s and he was trying to get his then-band, Uncle Tupelo, some gigs in the Windy City. In 1989, Miller opened her own club, Lounge Ax, where Uncle Tupelo performed a half-dozen times or so. Tweedy and Miller began dating in 1991, and they were married four years later.
In his memoir, Tweedy prints a transcript of a conversation with Miller about a baby shower that his mother threw for them at a bowling alley in Tweedy’s hometown of Belleville, Ill. “She invited all of those people I haven’t seen before or since,” recounts Miller. “Those women apparently thought I was deaf, ‘cause they kept whispering really loudly, ‘She’s much older than him, you know.’ [Miller is 10 years older than Tweedy.] And then one of them said, ‘I worked for Jews once. They do everything differently’.” Miller goes on to recount how they served ham at the baby shower and how she ate some in spite of herself – “not because I’m Jewish, I just don’t like it” – and immediately became violently ill. To add insult to injury, the gifts included “a powder-blue leather Precious Moments Bible: New Testament.”
In another interview transcript, Tweedy says to his older son, Spencer, “I was hoping that maybe you could … talk about how I sang ‘Forever Young’ at your bar mitzvah and it was really emotional and sweet, and that makes me a good dad.” That song, by Bob Dylan, is a loose rewrite of the Sabbath blessing over children.
Tweedy, 51, writes about how his son Sammy inspired him to delve deeper into Judaism. “Sammy has challenged me to grow in ways I could have never predicted when I was his age. Susie is Jewish, and both Spencer and Sammy were bar mitzvahed. So when it was Sammy’s turn to start Hebrew school and he began begging to get out of it, I offered to help him by studying with him, and decided I was going to convert. He was bar mitzvahed, and I had a conversion ceremony. It was more involved than I thought it would be on a number of levels, including a level that required a mohel, a storage closet, and a sharp object.”
Among those Tweedy thanks in the book’s acknowledgments is the Emanuel Congregation, the Reform temple in Chicago where all of this presumably took place, and for which Tweedy has often given benefit concerts. There’s even a photo on the synagogue’s website of Tweedy performing at a temple event celebrating the career of Rabbi Emeritus Michael R. Zedek.
Wilco, schmilco, indeed!
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor to the Forward and the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009).
This story "The Secret Jewish History Of Wilco Frontman Jeff Tweedy" was written by Seth Rogovoy.