Every year, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inducts new artists into their Hall to showcase legendary musical talents of the last 25+ years. This year’s list of nominees for induction is no exception, and I wanted to take a deep dive into who the Jewish nominees are. Four of the 14 nominees — George Michael, Rage Against the Machine, Soundgarden and Warren Zevon — have Jewish roots!
George Michael discovered his Jewish roots later in life because his Jewish grandmother married a non-Jewish man and raised her children (including Michael’s mother) in the midst of WWII. His grandmother feared what would happen if people knew she was Jewish, so she never told her kids or grandkids. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Michael said of his grandmother, “She thought if [her children] didn’t know that their mother was Jewish, they wouldn’t be at risk.”
Founder and original lead singer of Rage Against the Machine Zack de la Rocha is known for his political activism and Mexican American background, but his father also passed down some Sephardic Jewish heritage as well!
Chris Cornell, the late lead singer of Soundgarden, was born Christopher Boyle but took his Jewish mother Karen Cornell’s maiden when his parents divorced. When asked about religion, Cornell stated he was more of a freethinker than anything and didn’t believe in following one thing too strictly.
Warren Zevon, known for his legendary songwriting and compositions, was the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrant William Zevon. William’s original surname was Zivotofsky, and he was the bookkeeper for LA (Jewish!) mobster Mickey Cohen.
Jewish roots run deep across the musicians already in the Hall of Fame as well, and I thought this would be a good time to highlight them. Although not all of the artists I’ll spotlight claim Judaism as their current, practiced religion, many were brought up in Jewish homes with Jewish parents. A handful of these legendary rockers were children of Holocaust survivors and emigrants from persecuted European countries. Some have spoken about how being Jewish has influenced their music, while others merely see it as part of their upbringing and nothing more. Nevertheless, each of these people made an incredible impact on music and represent Judaism in many different forms.
Alan Freed, inducted in 1986
Freed was known as the first rock and roll disc jockey. He often played Black artists on his radio show, instead of white covers of their songs, and held unsegregated concerts to promote exposure of new musicians.
Bob Dylan, inducted in 1988
Born Robert Allen Zimmerman, Dylan grew up in a close-knit Jewish community. He was bar mitzvahed in 1954, converted to Christianity in the ‘70s and distanced himself from it in the ‘80s. He publicly supported the Chabad movement, and his sons also became bar mitzvah.
Paul Simon & Art Garfunkel, inducted in 1990
Simon and Garfunkel were childhood friends who both grew up in Jewish households and were bar mitzvahed in Queens. Garfunkel is known to still practice, while Simon states that he was raised Jewish but didn’t choose to pursue it as a religion.
Robby Krieger, The Doors, inducted in 1993
Kriegr was born to a Jewish family and even went to Hebrew school when he was young!
Robbie Robertson of The Band, inducted in 1994
Robertson’s mother was Cayuga and Mohawk. He didn’t know that the man she was married to during his early life wasn’t his biological father until he was a teenager, when he found out that his late father was a supposed “Jewish gangster.”
Micky Hart of The Grateful Dead, inducted in 1994
Hart was the only Jewish member of The Grateful Dead and even held seders on tour with special purple suede yarmulkes given to all the guests.
Marty Balin and Jorma Kaukonen of Jefferson Airplane, inducted in 1996
Claims exist that members Spencer Dryden and Paul Kantner were also Jewish. Since Jefferson Airplane broke up, Kaukonen has delved deeper into his Judaism through converting with his wife and being involved with his Jewish community.
Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac, inducted in 1998
After leaving Fleetwood Mac, Green mentioned starting a Jewish band to play all Jewish music; unfortunately for us, he never got the chance to follow through on that vision.
Billy Joel, inducted in 1999
The piano man himself was raised without religion and has stated that he is an atheist, but his Jewish roots are incredibly strong. His father was a successful entrepreneur born in Nuremberg, Germany who emigrated to Switzerland to escape the Nazi regime; he reached America via Cuba due to immigration quotas on German Jews. Joel’s mother was born in Brooklyn and was also Jewish.
Donald Fagen of Steely Dan, inducted in 2001
Fagen attended Bard College where he was a part of a few jazz bands, one of which featured Chevy Chase before he became an actor.
Mick Jones and Joe Strummer of The Clash, inducted in 2003
The Clash also had a Jewish manager, Bernie Rhodes, who fought (and won) with Malcom McLaren to not allow any swastikas on stage even if they were in “punk fashion.”
Joey and Tommy Ramone of The Ramones, inducted in 2002
“Joey Ross Hyman” met “Tamás Erdélyi” in Queens, where the first band they founded together was a garage band called Tangerine Puppets.
Seymour Stein, inducted in 2005
Stein was the co-founder of Sire Records and VP of Warner Bros Records. He signed Madonna in the 80s and later, “the Madonna of the East”, Ofra Haza! In an interview with Tablet Magazine, he said, “I’m very Jewish, I’m very proud of it. I wear it like a badge.”
Chris Stein of Blondie, inducted in 2006
In an interview with The Jewish Chronicle, Stein stated that he wished he knew Yiddish and admired Lenny Bruce for making it sound cool.
David Lee Roth of Van Halen, inducted in 2007
Roth wanted to break down Jewish stereotypes with his look and the vibe of Van Halen, he once stated he wanted to be a sort of “Jewish action figure.”
Leonard Cohen, inducted in 2008
Poet, musician and all-around Jewish king Leonard Cohen has spoken about his Judaism as a part of his music for his entire career. He was raised in an Orthodox household and his paternal grandfather was the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. Most of his songs are riddled with Jewish references and themes.
Jac Holzman, inducted in 2011
Holzman was one of the founders of Electra Records, an American record label that signed bands like The Doors, Carly Simon and Love, to name a few.
Neil Diamond, inducted in 2011
Neil went to high school with Jewish legend Barbra Streisand and later collaborated with her on the song “You Bring Me Flowers.”
The Beastie Boys, inducted in 2012
One of the nine hip hop groups to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Beastie Boys are made up of Michael ‘Mike D’ Diamond, Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch and Adam ‘Adrock’ Horovitz, who were all raised in Jewish households.
Steven Adler of Guns n Roses, inducted in 2012
Adler was originally named “Michael Coletti” after his father, but his mom changed it after she separated from him to honor the Jewish tradition of not naming a child after a living relative.
Geddy Lee of Rush, inducted in 2013
Lee has often stated how much being Jewish influenced his music; the song “Red Sector A” is based on his mother’s experience being liberated from Bergen-Belsen. Lee has stated that he considers himself a Jewish atheist.
Randy Newman, inducted in 2013
Newman was raised in a nonobservant Jewish household. He has publicly proclaimed that he is an atheist and was not even aware of his Jewishness until an antisemitic incident during his childhood.
Lou Adler, inducted in 2013
Adler was born into a Jewish family and produced the great record “Tapestry” by fellow Jew, Carole King.
Max Weinberg of E Street Band (2014)
Weinberg has expressed how his vision for being a good drummer for a band is inspired by the concept of Seder (order).
Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss, inducted in 2014
The other two original band members of Kiss, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, were kicked out of the band after being accused of being antisemitic towards Simmons and Stanley.
Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground, 2015
In 2013, a new genus of velvet spider was found in the Negev Desert. It was named Loureedia annulipes after this Jewish legend.
Trevor Rabin of Yes, inducted in 2017
Rabin loved to sing from a young age and would sing in his synagogue’s choir every Saturday morning.
Mark and David Knopfler of Dire Straits, inducted in 2018
Unlike Joey and Tommy Ramone, Mark and David are really related! Their father was a professional chess player and architect who fled Nazi Germany.
Marc Bolan of T.Rex, inducted in 2020
A glam rock pioneer of the 1970s, Bolan was the son of Ashkenazi Jew Simeon Feld.
And finally, the only Jewish woman to in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Carole King
King (born Klein) is one of only three women (alongside Tina Turner and Stevie Nicks) to have been inducted twice into the Hall of Fame, in 1990 and 2021. She grew up in a Jewish home in Brooklyn, and two of her husbands, Gerry Goffin and Charlie Larkey, were Jewish. She also played a concert with Bob Dylan!