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News and Views on Jews and Music

Under-known Jewish songwriters: Dan Bern

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His full last name is "Bernstein," and that's also what he calls his band.

Dan Bern is one of the most bluntly honest of all songwriters, using the right words to mean what he has to say. If he were a movie, he would absolutely be "Rated R." (He does have a kids' album, though, plus a new Rated G Hannukah Songs EP for download.)

Yes, Bern is honest about relationships and sex: "Don't test my love/ Maybe I don't love you all that much." He is honest about social issues and politics: "I would never be so dumb/ To say they stole the election/ They bought the damn thing, fair and square."

And he is honest about religion, including his own Jewish one. The very first song on his debut EP, Dog Boy Van, is "Jerusalem," and it's about Jerusalem Syndrome: "Time to reveal myself/ I am the messiah… Now that I've told you/ I feel a great weight has been lifted/ Dr. Nussbaum was right."

"God Said No," (it starts at the 1:30 mark) on New American Language, is about a conversation with God: "Send me back in time/ Let me find/ The one they call Hitler/ I will bring him down… Obliterate his memory/ God said, 'No.'" Interestingly, God doesn't give His reason as changing the course of history, but that Bern would not follow through: "You would get caught up/ In theory and discussion/ You would let your fears/ Delay and distract you/ You would make friends/ You would take a lover." Finally, God explains, "Time belongs to me/ Time's my secret weapon/ My final advantage." Bern realizes: "Now was all I had."

Then comes the song "Toledo," which deals with American hypocrisy, portending to be so very religious and spiritual while really being commercialized and xenophobic: "Sitting in the Church/ Of the Holy McDonald's… I make my sacred offering/ And I dip my hands in Pepsi/ Sailed off to Virginia/ And expelled all the Jews." This may be a reference to General Order 11, in which then-General Ulysses S. Grant tried to do exactly that, during the Civil War. "And I'm closer to God than I've ever been before," Bern continues, "Painting Karl Marx on every door/ Groucho Marx on every door."

On The Swastika EP, Bern tries to reclaim that sullied symbol: "The Chinese had it for 20,000 years/ The Nazis took it and made it spell tears/ Now I'm decorating my house with it/ My little swastika/ I'm taking it back/ It's not yours anymore/ It's mine now… (it) Stands for Groucho, Harpo, Zeppo, & Chico."

Another song here, that is entirely Jewish, is "Lithuania," about his family's Holocaust story:

"I got one foot in the black-and-white two-dimensional ghosts of Lithuania/ And the other foot in sunny California…  8,000 miles from Lithuania. And if I could escape/ By driving further then I would, but it doesn't get me anyplace new."

He copes with his anger by reveling in Jewish America's contributions to the world: "Sometimes I want to dance on Hitler's grave/ And shout out: 'Groucho Marx, Lenny Bruce, Leonard Cohen, Philip Roth, Bob Dylan, Albert Einstein, Leonard Bernstein, Harry Houdini, Sandy Koufax!'" He continues,  "I say Kristallnacht is over!/ The only broken glass tonight/ Will be from wedding glasses shattered under heels."

Then it gets more personal: "I saw my dad tell jokes, and teach me how to laugh/ Thirty years after his parents, brothers, and sister were all shot/ And know I must go on/ It would be cowardly to stop/ It would be an aberration to do anything else."

On My Country II, we have the song "Sammy's Bat," a reference to Sammy Sosa: "There's a time for playing by the rules and a time to cork your bat." The song is about a dream, in which: "Abraham and Jesus and Mohammed all came down/ Heard there was a meeting down in Bat Sheba town/ Abraham was detained, his passport not in order/ (They) said, 'You got no papers to get across the border."'

On Breathe, the song "Past Belief" is a prayer during a bout of insomnia: "Lord/ Show me a sign… And I'm willing to go on faith/ But I'm past belief."

His most recent release is the family-friendly Hannukah Songs. He starts off with songs about the familiar elements of the holiday, then takes a typical Dan Bern turn with "Waffle House Hannukah," about a Jewish trucker who celebrates Hannukah on the road by varying his hash browns eight ways.  

There are many, many more Dan Bern songs. The Dan Bern Archive has nearly 500, and it is updated through his current album, Drifter. The unpublished songs include Jew from Kentucky, Dan Bern's Christmas Song, and even Lithuania II.

Bern bars no holds, cuts no slack, and leaves no sin unstoned, stoning himself most of all. Listening to a whole album all at once can be upsetting, sometimes even unnerving, but is ultimately cathartic. If you like the comedy of Bill Hicks and Sam Kinison, the novels of Philip Roth and Henry Miller, and the early years of Robert De Niro and Jack Nicholson, Dan Bern is for you.

These songs are the truth. And Dan Bern is one of the few good men who can handle it.

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