All or none. That’s what is listed under religion on Nora Guthrie’s birth certificate. Even with folksinger Woody Guthrie as a father and a famous Yiddish poet for a grandmother in a densely populated Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., Ms. Guthrie grew up in a household where religion was understood to be a personal connection for each individual.
“Both of my parents’ philosophy when you went to the core was that we all have the same basic motivation which was really to teach about love and caring,” Ms. Guthrie said from her Mt. Kisco, N.Y. office, where she directs the Woody Guthrie Foundation, an organization dedicated to her father’s music and archival work. “Each religion has a different way to do it. That was the core of it all for my parents, and that was my understanding.”
Nora Guthrie and her siblings (including musician Arlo Guthrie) practiced traditional Jewish rituals of Shabbat dinners on Friday nights and celebrated high holidays with their grandparents. Ms. Guthrie will speak about how these new and foreign traditions affected the Oklahoma-born folksinger’s body of work and his own experiences, on Sunday at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.
“There are many important Jews in Woody’s life,” Ms. Guthrie said, naming her mother, her mother’s mother, Aliza Greenblatt, and the man who recorded him for the first time — legendary folk record producer Moses Asch. “The program takes a look at Woody’s connection with Judaism, culture, and food through my mother,” she said.
As a result of this cultural exchange, Mr. Guthrie continued to write his folk songs (including This Land Is Your Land) about everyday working people, but eventually began to focus on Jewish culture, including songs about holidays like Chanukah. He once wrote a song about the entire story of the eight-night celebration. “A song is as long as the story it’s trying to tell,” Ms. Guthrie said was her father’s mantra.
“There was this back and forth between my grandmother teaching him what Judaism is and he transformed that into his own songs in his folk style,” Ms. Guthrie said. “You don’t hear too many Jewish people with a heavy drawl.” She sang a few lyrics from one of his songs, dragging out the syllables so the traditional Yiddish words seemed foreign.
“He had light songs like The Blintze Tree and Nosh Nosh on My Hamantasch,” Ms. Guthrie said, adding that her father loved Jewish cuisine, especially blintzes, “and he had heavy songs about fascism and the Holocaust . . . He was one of the first writers known to write songs about the Holocaust.”
Mr. Guthrie tackled stories coming straight from the presses about concentration camps. “He was never shy on writing on any topic,” Ms. Guthrie said. “Woody treated every story equally as a story that needs to be told. He had a large arm span in the sense that he could embrace extremes . . . in the way that few artists would dare to sing.”
Mr. Guthrie recorded these songs in the late 1940s and into the 1950s, while other artists didn’t start recording music in response to war until the 1960s and 1970s, Ms. Guthrie said. But living in one of the most progressive Jewish areas in the country, Mr. Guthrie was served a real taste of Jewish life in America, something that worked well for his working-man themed songs.
“The point of commonality at that time was that the Jewish culture tended to be very progressive politcallly and was involved in early union strikes,” Ms. Guthrie said; this included her grandparents. “My father wrote hundreds of his songs about unions and there was an absolute coming together at that time in the 1940s.”
A fuse of liberal minds, progressive ideas, Jewish culture, and American beliefs all came together under songs by Mr. Guthrie, she said. “It was a very spiritual experience,” Ms. Guthrie said of growing up. “We were educated in Judiasm . . . but we didn’t practice rituals. We participated because of my grandparents, my brothers had folk bar mitzvah, and we studied Hebrew because my mother wanted us to read our grandmother’s poetry.”
The Guthrie household embraced all religious traditions; the Christmas tree was decorated by the Chanukah fairy and Chanukah gelt (chocolate coins) were placed under the tree as gifts. “It was very inventive and very creative at the end of the day and now here I am, I’m 60 years old, and I’m so glad I was raised with an open heart towards all the religions,” Ms. Guthrie said.
Ms. Guthrie will expand on these stories on Sunday. She will share homemade tapes of Mr. Guthrie singing songs about Judaism with a Western drawl, photographs and movies. Recently, Ms. Guthrie has been working with the band the Klezmatics in recording some of Mr. Guthrie’s old songs about Jewish culture and stories, for which they won a Grammy award.
On one level, the story of Mr. Guthrie is a great New York story, Ms. Guthrie said. But on another level, the story is one of personal discovery for her of a relationship she knew very little about growing up.
“As a kid, as I find out who my bubby was, she was bubby, she sang and cooked, but it wasn’t until 10 years ago that I actually learned from [violinist] Itzhak Perlman that my grandmother was a famous Yiddish writer,” Ms. Guthrie said. “In a way, it’s about how my father taught me who my grandmother was.
“By the end of the story you see this exchange that’s taken place between two like-minded people, the exchange they make culturally and how they each grow from it.”
Woody Guthrie’s Holy Ground: the Yiddish Connection will be presented by Nora Guthrie at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center in Vineyard Haven on Sunday at 7:30 p.m.