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Remembering Kinky Friedman, the only country star who bought his clothes from Hadassah

Friedman, whose admirers included Bob Dylan and Nelson Mandela, has died at 79

The songwriter and novelist Kinky Friedman, who died June 26 at age 79, exemplified the essential abiding mystery of Jewish identity.

Born Richard Samet Friedman in Chicago to parents of Russian Jewish origin who moved to Texas to run a children’s camp, he acquired his nickname at the University of Texas at Austin from his classmate Nathan Chavin, as an allusion to Friedman’s Jew-fro hairstyle.

Together Friedman and Chavin would be expelled from the Jewish fraternity Tau Delta Phi for attempting to force the admission of African-American students to the group of undergraduate Jews.

Just over 50 years ago, Friedman formed a band, Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys, mocking the earlier country ensemble Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys. For his first stage appearance, he donned a cowboy shirt with embroidered Stars of David and menorahs. In 1973, Texas Monthly magazine called him the “only recording star in Nashville who buys his clothes at the Hadassah Thrift Shop.”

Retaining an interest in social activism as well as ribaldry, Friedman wrote “We Reserve The Right To Refuse Service To You,” a song juxtaposing a Jewish man’s experience being asked to leave a Texan diner because of his ethnicity.

Recounting an experience widely shared by African Americans a few decades ago, the greasy spoon’s proprietor suggests that being, or looking like, a Jew, was tantamount to being a traitor: “You smell just like a communist,/ You come on through just like a Jew./ We reserve the right to refuse service to you.”

From this outcast status, the following verse of the song depicts rejection of a Jewish man by his fellow Jews. The singer explains that he visited a synagogue, where he was unfamiliar with ritual observance, but he “got a good rise when I heard that Rabbi sing, Boruch atoh Adonoi,” only for the rabbi to interrupt the prayer to interject: “What the hell are you doing back there, boy?”

Another song, “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore,” recounts how a barroom antisemite is trounced by a Jewish cowboy. The song would delight fans like Joanne Greenberg, author of the 1963 novel The King’s Persons about the medieval massacre of the Jewish population of York, the United Kingdom.

A contemporaneous song released in 1973 melded the forlorn, heartbroken aura of country music with modern Jewish history. “Ride ’Em Jewboy” has a haunted tone, in a rural Texas scene with livestock superimposed on the destruction of European Jewry during the Holocaust: “The smokes from the camps are rising/ see the helpless creatures on their way.”

The protagonist is reminded that he “wore the yeller star” like the yellow stars that Jewish residents of Fascist Europe were required to wear before deportation. “Ride ’em Jewboy” effectively moved listeners, and would be recorded by Willie Nelson and sung in concert by Bob Dylan.

Yet Friedman appeared to be most proud of an anecdote he was told about the South African anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, who also apparently favored the song. As Friedman repeatedly told interviewers, he believed that the South African Jewish politician and Mandela ally Helen Suzman had smuggled a cassette of Friedman’s music when she visited Mandela in prison. Mandela confessed that he admired the empathetic message of “Ride ’em Jewboy.”

These and other songs were the product of self-investigation that included early involvement with left wing politics, following in his parent’s footsteps. In June 1953, upon hearing of the execution of the convicted atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the teenaged Friedman wept, according to musicologist Theodore Albrecht.

Just over a decade later, in November 1963, when the Texan Jewish nightclub owner Jack Ruby (born Jacob Leon Rubenstein) shot President Kennedy’s accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, Friedman was entranced. Later lauding Ruby as the “first Texas Jewboy,” Friedman grew to admire a certain interventionism and lack of passivity in the face of Jewish fate, as described with the victims of “Ride ’em Jewboy.”

Among Friedman’s early attempts at activism was to picket his own favorite dining establishments in Texas where black patrons were refused service. By the mid-1960s, the public service-minded Friedman had joined the Peace Corps, and was sent to Borneo.

There, by his own account, he spent most of his time reading the American Jewish author Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22 and drinking tuak, a local rice wine that causes hallucinations among those who overindulge in it. Indeed, a certain amount of hallucinatory inspiration followed Friedman’s performing career thereafter.

He spent the 1980s heavily consuming cocaine, as his biographer Mary Lou Sullivan noted. Friedman referred in code language to the illicit substance as “irving” because the Jewish elder statesman of popular songwriting Irving Berlin wrote “White Christmas” with its allusions to snow, the same color as the cocaine Friedman avidly sniffed.

So addicted was Friedman that he missed professional opportunities by oversleeping after all-night drug sessions. On one such occasion, Friedman told Rolling Stone in 2015, Shel Silverstein, a fellow Chicago-born Jewish songwriter, had proposed a musical collaboration. After Friedman missed their appointment, Silverstein angrily phoned him to say: “That’s why you are where you are.”

Even so, Friedman was admired by a coterie of discerning listeners, including Bob Dylan who invited him to tag along for part of his 1970s Rolling Thunder Revue, where Jewish poet Allen Ginsberg was also among the star acts. Friedman had a good start, signed to Vanguard Records, a label founded by the brothers Maynard and Seymour Solomon.

Yet Friedman’s music career eventually dried up, to be replaced in the 1980s by penning mystery novels with a detective hero named Kinky Friedman. A good amount of Yiddishkeit intrudes in his narratives set in New York City, such as mention of a character’s “offlox-colored slacks,” while another refers to a family dog as a “Jewish shepherd.” When asked if he will return to live musical performance in New York, the fictional Friedman replies about one venue: “I missed performing there like I missed having a mescal worm in my matzo-ball soup,” a reference to a distilled alcoholic beverage made from agave.

Although less intoxicating than Friedman’s arts accomplishments, he would later set aside novel writing for several failed attempts to win political office in Texas, which occupied his later years. If voters asked complex questions during campaign events, he would reply: “Trust me, I’m a Jew: I’ll hire good people.”

At home he devoured biographies, as if trying to delve into others’ lives, as a way to better understand his own. Later waverings included sympathy for right-wing media and candidates. Yet ultimately, Friedman’s vigorous persona epitomized what the blues performer Taj Mahal described as “fearless Texas chutzpah that defied everybody.”

Even as he aged, he continued to share zingers with interviewers, calling himself a “proud Red Sea pedestrian” as an allusion to Judaism, and offering advice in 2001: “Always remember, only two kinds of people can get away with wearing their hats indoors: cowboys and Jews. Try to be one of them.”

To his credit, Richard Samet “Kinky” Friedman always tried to be both.

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