The secret Jewish history of Sinead O’Connor (and the imaginary rabbi who guided her)
In the wake of the recent publication of Sinéad O’Connor’s memoir, “Rememberings,” most headlines and reviews have focused on her horror story of the time Prince abused her. The real revelation of the book, however, may be how one of the world’s most famous Catholic converts to Islam has had a lifelong, abiding appreciation for Judaism and Jewish people. Specifically, three Jewish people: Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand, both of whom she seems to idolize and after whom she models herself, plus her imaginary, romantic ideal, a “much-fantasized-about” handsome rabbi who would steer her toward Judaism.
It all began — as so many things do — with Elvis Presley. A few months after “the King” died in 1977, 11-year-old O’Connor came downstairs one day and heard “a kind man’s voice singing to a girl that she needn’t cry anymore” (presumably a reference to Dylan’s 1978 single, “Baby, Stop Crying”). O’Connor recounts what happened next: “I go to the record player. I make my brother Joe play it again. I say, ‘Who’s he?’ ‘Bob Dylan.’ I see from the album cover he’s as beautiful as if God blew a breath from Lebanon and it became a man… In my head I call him Lebanon Man. His voice is like a blanket. He’s really tender and he loves girls.”
Dylan eventually became an inspiration for O’Connor, who especially appreciated his straightforwardness and his willingness to express anger in song. “In real life you aren’t allowed to say you’re angry but in music you can say anything,” she writes. “My brother played me a Bob Dylan song called ‘Idiot Wind.’ It’s really angry and he says loads of mean things to someone. It’s really brave. He isn’t pretending to be nice all the time.” In this way, Dylan may have served as much as a role model for O’Connor as an inspiration, and at the height of O’Connor’s career (which was also the nadir of her career), Dylan would indeed play a role.
Perhaps more surprising than her choice of Dylan — like O’Connor, a quintessential musical rebel — as a role model is her love for Barbra Streisand. While O’Connor had a tempestuous relationship with her mother — who, as she recounts in vivid detail, brutally abused her — her mother did possess a terrific music library.
“My favorite singer in all her collection is Barbra Streisand,” writes O’Connor. “I love to watch her movies. I love ‘Hello, Dolly!’ and ‘Funny Girl.’ She’s so beautiful; her nails are so long and she wears cool eyeliner. I love her speaking voice and her singing voice. She doesn’t sing like anyone I’ve ever heard — her voice is way more free, kind of like David Bowie but different, obviously. Both of them sound like wild birds. Everyone else sounds tame. I would love to sing in a musical one day and be like Barbra.” Somehow, unaccountably, her older sister — just a year or so her senior —wound up worshipping Barry Manilow, although, like her younger sister, Eimear O’Connor too chose a Jewish singer with great hair.
But O’Connor’s fascination with Jewishness went deeper, beyond just great Jewish pop stars. She titles one chapter “Sheviti Adonai L’Negdi Tamid,” after a popular phrase drawn from the Book of Psalms, which means “I place God before me always.” As much as “Rememberings” recounts O’Connor’s life in music — although without much deep discussion of that music, unfortunately — it equally traces her spiritual journey, which led her from the Roman Catholicism, Irish-style, into which she was born, through rebellion against the Church as an institution — which included her notorious tearing of a photo of Pope John Paul II on “Saturday Night Live” (almost destroying her career in one single gesture) — through learning about Judaism, being ordained a female priest by a renegade Catholic priest, and shortly thereafter declaring Islam to be the religion she was always searching for.
O’Connor goes into quite some detail about her “Jewish period.” She writes, “I tried to get lessons in Jewish ways of understanding the Scriptures but no one would take me because I’m not Jewish. Nor have I yet found myself that (much-fantasized-about) handsome rabbi who wants to marry me so I have to become Jewish because I truly love him. The closest I’ve been able to get is kabbalah classes with a very kind teacher named Z’ev Ben Shimon Halevi in a small school in gorgeous Regent’s Park.”
O’Connor says that once her single, the Prince-penned “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and the album it came from, “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” went to number one in the U.S., she and Halevi understood that she could not continue her studies. O’Connor puts deep stock in their final session. She writes, “Soon as I arrived for my last lesson, the kabbalah teacher spun me out the classroom door by my elbow, took me into the corridor, and whispered loudly in my ear, ‘You know fame is a cure and the devil is a gentleman?’ I nodded in the affirmative, and he swung me back in, saying, ‘Don’t forget to leave the party before they all get drunk and start fighting.’” Those words would come back to haunt her many a time.
O’Connor has a great perspective on the infamous “Saturday Night Live” incident, which supposedly got her banned from NBC for life. She writes, “A lot of people say or think that tearing up the pope’s photo derailed my career. That’s not how I feel about it. I feel that having a number-one record derailed my career and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track.”
Two weeks later, on October 16, 1992, at Madison Square Garden, O’Connor was one of the artists hand-selected by her hero, Bob Dylan, to perform at his “30th Anniversary Concert Celebration,” alongside such legends of music as George Harrison, Tom Petty, Tracy Chapman, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Wonder, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson. Looking back on being included in such august company, she muses, “I think I’ve been asked because I’ve said in every interview I’ve ever done that he’s been a huge influence on me, spiritually speaking.” O’Connor rehearsed one of Dylan’s so-called “born again” songs, “I Believe in You,” with the evening’s bandleader, the famed Booker T. Jones. Her thoughts at the time: “all I want is for Bob to be proud of it.”
When it came time for O’Connor to take the stage — memories of the “Saturday Night Live” debacle still fresh in people’s minds — she was greeted by a strange crowd noise. At first it was hard to figure out whether or not it was cheering or booing, but whatever it was, it was loud and more than a little unsettling. I was there that night, and I have tried to describe to people what it sounded and felt like at that very moment. Even up in the nosebleed seats, I found it terrifying. O’Connor’s description from where she stood is dead-on accurate to what I witnessed.
She writes, “…there ensues a noise the likes of which I have never heard and can’t describe other than to say it’s like a thunderclap that never ends. The loudest noise I’ve ever heard. Like a sonic riot, as if the sky is ripping apart. It makes me feel really nauseous and almost bursts my eardrums. And for a minute or two I’m not sure the audience members aren’t going to actually riot. They’re clashing so badly already with their voices. How do I know what else might happen?” Kris Kristofferson, who was master of ceremonies for the evening, tried to pacify the crowd, but to no avail. In the end, O’Connor took to the microphone and recited the lyrics to Bob Marley’s “War.” Kristofferson then helped her off the stage and consoled her. She confesses she was “pissed” that Dylan himself did not come out on stage and tell the audience to shut up and let her sing.
Another performer at the Dylan tribute was legendary New York City rock-poet Lou Reed, although O’Connor and Reed didn’t really connect that night. But at a similar event held two years later in Carnegie Hall, this time a birthday tribute for Roger Daltrey of The Who, the two once again shared the stage. She writes, “The only other time I remember being starstruck was when I met Lou Reed, a person I didn’t realize I loved so much until I met him. I had fallen in love with his album ‘New York,’ especially the track called ‘Busload of Faith,’ and I had listened to it a lot.” O’Connor put out feelers about singing backup for Reed, whose family name was originally Rabinowitz until his father changed it to Reed.
O’Connor recalls, “… [T]he next thing I knew, Lou Reed came into my dressing room and started talking to me; I could tell that he thought I was cheeky for asking if I could sing backup vocals. But when he said that yes, I could, all I could see was his mouth moving. I couldn’t hear what he was saying anymore; it all came out like a whirl, whirl, whirl sound, as if I were on an acid trip. … It was like having a panic attack…. I did do the backing vocals for Lou, though I can’t remember even what songs because I was not on planet Earth, I was in heaven somewhere. And then I had a beautiful experience with the same beautiful man not long after.”
O’Connor goes on to tell the story about a TV show she and Reed appeared on in London, a kind of round-robin live music show. No one would look at O’Connor, because “the fashion was to treat me like a crazy person, a pariah, because of what I did on ‘SNL.’” Reed, when he came to the dress rehearsal, made a huge point of ignoring absolutely everybody in the room except O’Connor. “He makes it his business to find me, hangs on to me. He hugs me demonstratively warmly as if we know each other really well. It was a really sweet thing to do because he didn’t have to do that, and it changed the way everybody in there reacted to me… I’ve had a very soft spot in my heart for Mr. Lou Reed ever since and I think about him quite a lot.”
In 1997, O’Connor released a six-song EP that she dedicated to “the people of Israel, Rwanda and Northern Ireland.” She reveals in her memoir that she named the album “Gospel Oak” for the London neighborhood where she saw her therapist six days a week. “His name was Morton Schatzman, a very old Jewish psychiatrist whose dog used to sit at his feet licking its balls. It was so embarrassing while I was sitting there trying to explain what was wrong with me. What I liked about Dr. Schatzman was he said you come to therapy to find out there’s nothing wrong with you…. But I was very, very fond of this man, maybe even madly in love him in lots of ways, as one can often be with one’s therapist. And he was the only person who was nice to me then. I was very lonely, which was why I was going there six days a week. Probably I was lonely because I was a difficult personality.”
Around the year 2000, O’Connor enrolled in college for a brief time to study theology. She was drawn to the books of the prophets, particularly Jeremiah. She writes, “One day I was reading the Song of Solomon quietly to myself while I was waiting for class to start and the teacher came in and bashed his finger on the book and said, ‘You should be writing songs about that.’ And so he inspired my record “Theology”…. I love it. I took virtually all the lyrics from Scripture….” She delineates other song origins, drawn variously from the Book of Psalms, the Song of Solomon, Isaiah, and Job. “I learned the Psalms in the Judaic way, where there are magical uses of the Psalms and how you use them with certain names of God,” she writes. O’Connor named her fourth child Nevi’im Nesta Ali Shane. “Nevi’im” means “prophets”; Nesta was Bob Marley’s given name; Ali was for another hero, the boxer Muhammed Ali; and Shane was for her friend Shane MacGowan, the lead singer of the Pogues.
That Sinéad O’Connor has found so much comfort and inspiration in Jewish scripture and tradition and in the warm embrace of fellow Jewish artists and supporters, and that she has made this such an important thread running through her autobiography, is perhaps the most surprising takeaway from her “Rememberings.”
Seth Rogovoy is a contributing editor at the Forward. The author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet” (Scribner, 2009), he is writing a book about George Harrison.