Nathan Abrams reviews a new memoir by musician Lenny Kravitz.
‘I am deeply two-sided’, Lenny Kravitz writes in his memoir, Let Love Rule, which recounts the first quarter-century of his life, from birth until the release of his debut album in 1989. That is because of the two halves of his identity: ‘Black and white, Jewish and Christian, Manhattanite and Brooklynite’. The story Kravitz tells is not about his rise to fame (that will come later, he says), but about his background and heritage which influenced his sound.
Leonard Albert Kravitz was born on 26 May 1964 to Sy Kravitz and Roxie Roker. He grew up with two heritages one Russian Jewish and the other African Caribbean. Sy was a former Green Beret who fought in the Korean War. He was a 39-year-old ‘self-assured’ Jewish journalist-producer for NBC news when he met Lennie’s mother, an actress.
Sy and Roxie’s wedding was a humble affair because his parents were heartbroken that their son was marrying a black woman and a gentile to boot, and they refused to attend. They only reconciled when Lennie was born. Talking about his family in a New York Times interview, he said, ‘And he wasn’t religious. As with many Jews in my family at the time, it was all about tradition and keeping that alive, especially after what people in the family had gone through in World War II. But I still got exposed to it, from going to temple and spending the High Holidays with my family at their houses.’
For her part, Roxie’s father hailed from the Bahamas while her mother was born in Georgia.
Lennie grew up with a split identity, as he divided his time between the Upper East Side of Manhattan and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. He writes: ‘Black and white. Jewish and Christian. The Jackson 5 and Led Zeppelin. I accepted my Gemini soul. I owned it. I adored it. Yins and yangs mingled in various parts of my heart and mind, giving me balance and fueling my curiosity and comfort.’
A graduate of NYU, Sy was a sharp dressing and consummate charmer with the gift of the gab who loved music especially jazz and theatre. But his artistic side was dominated by the discipline and order he had learned in the Army. Defined by his military training, Sy was determined to inflict it on Lenny, commanding him to make his bed every morning in a perfect fashion and to keep his room spotlessly clean.
Sy’s parents Joe and Jean Kravitz lived at 3311 Shore Parkway in Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn, a neighbourhood of other Jews of Russian descent. Lennie would visit them often. Kravitz describes the world of Grandma Jean and Grandpa Joe as an alternative universe full of old-world energy, kosher butchers, delis and synagogues.
Grandpa Joe was a well-groomed and sharp dresser with the gold chain with the chai around his neck, the sapphire pinky ring, and the strong scent of cologne. He had dreamed of being an entertainer, imagining himself as Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor, but never made it into show business, ending up, like so many immigrant Jews, in the schmatte business. He was a tailor, hence the name ‘Kravitz’. ‘Unconsciously, I think he nudged me towards his dream. He was the first person to put a microphone in my hand. Grandpa owned a reel-to-reel and love for calling himself singing show tunes. When he got tired, he turned over to me. He taught me songs from Carousel and South Pacific. I picked up the vibe and jumped right in. It was natural, and it was fun.’
Kravitz writes warmly of his Jewish heritage instilled him by his grandparents. When Grandpa Joe wasn’t teaching him about music, ‘Grandma Jean kept the party going by teaching me durak a Russian card game whose name translates to “The Fool”. We would play for hours while I devoured her chopped liver on matzo and kasha varnishkes.’
‘When I become an adult, though, and started watching Woody Allen movies, I recognised my family on screen. That was the Jewish humour that raised me.’
Not everything went smoothly, though. Like his Jewish cousins, he wanted to have a bar mitzvah but unlike them, he had a big Afro which is when he learnt that yarmulkes weren’t made for Afros and he couldn’t get the thing to stay on his head. He was also the only black kid at Hebrew school and felt a little out of place. While the rabbis and the other kids didn’t say anything they didn’t have to. Their looks said it all and Lennie could almost hear them thinking what’s this kid doing here?
He didn’t stay long and the bar mitzvah for never happened but that didn’t keep him away from Jewish tradition, Grandma Jean and Grandpa Joe always had him over for the holidays. He recalls one particular Hanukkah celebration in a big social hall on Long Island where he and his cousins got drunk on a bottle of Manischewitz (a familiar tale to many of us I’m sure).
As he got older, and he started dating, he went out with a Jewish girl called Jane Steinberg and although her parents were liberal Jews they didn’t seem too keen that their daughter was seeing someone black. They persisted nevertheless and she pushed his sense of fashion and also helped him out when he was broke buying an amp for one of the endless bands he was always putting together. That was before he met Lisa Bonet whose mother was white and Jewish, and her father was black which gave them a bond. ‘It was like she was the female version of me,’ he writes.
The most Jewish thing Kravitz did was to change his name. Born Leonard, he grew up being known as ‘Lennie’. Leonard was the regal-sounding names that Jews gave their precious sons in trying to give them a boost towards upward mobility in America.
Kravitz decided that if he was going to go solo, he needed to reinvent himself, and like so many other Jewish entertainers before him, to the point of finding a new name. ‘Lenny Kravitz’ wasn’t working for him: it sounded more like an accountant than a rock musician. ‘The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz had been a popular movie, with Richard Dreyfuss playing a Jewish nerd. I might have been a lot of things, that I was not a nerd. I needed something fresh.’
He chose Romeo Blue.
But he reconsidered this name and thought of calling himself Leonard Kravizky, his grandfather’s last name before Ellis Island. He went back to his birth name only changing the spelling from Lennie to Lenny.
But this was still an oh-so Jewish thing to do. As stand-up comedian Rodney Dangerfield (b. Jacob Cohen), pointed out, ‘All you guys who try to get away from being Jewish by changing your last name always give the secret away for forgetting to change your first name. What kinda goy has first name Lenny?’
Unfortunately, the book says less about the Jewish influences on his later music. For this, one has to turn elsewhere.
He recounts in a New York Times interview, for example, how ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ was one of the first things that knocked him over as a kid. The other was Franz Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis.’ ‘To me, it’s always the storytelling and the colorful ways in which the story is communicated. That’s what keeps me turning the page. I remember The Catcher in the Rye and Metamorphosis really got me in high school. I grew up in New York City and understood the backdrop and how Holden’s mind worked. On the other side, Metamorphosis was completely a fantasy, but it was told in such a graphic way. Those were the first two books that got me going and showed me what great storytelling was like.’
‘I love the voice Holden Caulfield spoke in and the way he described what he was feeling and what was going on in his mind. Believe it or not, it actually helped me with my book ‘Let Love Rule.’ I’m telling a very simple story. I’m not a writer, but it helped me reshuffle things in my head and how I wanted to speak.’
Let Love Rule paints a loving portrait of Lenny’s paternal Jewish family and how it helped form a key part of his identity. Let’s hope that the next instalment tells us about how it influenced his music.
Let Love Rule by Lenny Kravitz is published by Little, Brown priced at £20.