Forty years after his death, Martin Elliot Jaffe reflects on Boby Marley’s Jewish Soul.
My heart pounds a bit as the stage lights dim and after a long pandemic-enforced hiatus we return to the jam night stage of the Winchester in Lakewood, Ohio. Guitarists await the count, the drummer signals me and I launch the three-note deep bass line introducing ‘One Love/One Heart’, a well-known tune by the Jewish reggae master Bob Marley who died of skin cancer in May 1981 at the age of 36. His final record ‘Legacy’ has been on the Billboard top 200 since 1984. His song ‘One Love’ was chosen as the song of the millennium by the BBC.
Marley? Jewish? OK not by the laws of halacha but indulge me as you follow my recent immersion into reggae, Rastafarianism and the Jewish legacy of Marley’s son.
My journey began at the Rocky River, Ohio Public Library. As I browsed the shelves in the music section for musical ideas, I began to think about playing music again in the local coffeehouses and bars. I found a book called Bob Marley and the Golden Age of Reggae 1975-1976: The Photographs of Kim Gottlieb-Walker. On page forty-six, was a huge photo of Mr Marley enveloped in a cloud of marijuana smoke, an open shirt and a large Hebrew chai medallion around his neck. WOW, the King of Reggae is one of our tribe—mind-boggling—well not quite.
Facts first: Bob Marley was not Jewish. His father was Norval, born in 1885, in Clarendon, Jamaica had a Jewish mother, Ellen Broomfield who was of Syrian Jewish background. When he was with Cedella, Bob Marley’s mother, he was 60, the supervisor of a plantation in Jamaica. But Boby Marley did not have a relationship with his father who died of a heart attack when Bob (formal name Nesta) was 12.
Rastafarianism and Judaism
Rastafarianism was founded in Jamaica by Leonard Howell, born an Anglican in Jamaica (1898-1981) Rastafarianism appealed to the oppressed Black colonized population of Jamaica and shared many common themes with biblical Judaism along with its own theology and Christian elements as well. Marley built Old testament themes and Rastafarian elements into his music. As Howell once wrote, ‘A Rastafarian is a Jew by nature being righteous one of principles of dignity and love for God.’
A unique belief of Rastafarians is that Haile Selassie of Ethiopia was a deity, directly descended from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Howell called Selassie, ‘the messiah returned to earth’ and the anti-colonial Black racial identity in a world of oppression resonated in Jamaica.
Old Testament themes are found throughout Marley’s music and according to Benjamin Ivry Rastafarians are drawn to the second book of Torah; Marley’s 1977 song ‘Exodus’ instils the hope that the oppressed will be led to freedom as Moses led the Israelites from Egypt. The line from ‘Redemption Song’ (1979) — ‘my hand made strong by the hand of the almighty’ — is a direct allusion to Genesis 49:24 ‘the arms of his hands were made strong by the hands of the mighty God of Jacob.’
Ziggy Marley: More Jewish Than Bob
Bob’s son Ziggy (David), 52, is married to Orly Agai, an Israeli of Iranian Jewish background and carries on the musical reggae legacy. His wife manages his career and they live in Los Angeles. Ziggy has four children with Orly and in August 2018 his daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah in Jerusalem, during his fourth trip to Israel. As Ziggy recalled, ‘ We were raised in Rastafarian and Jewish culture, Bible, Haile Selassie—this connection is in our soul. I’ve been connected to Israel from when I was a child—we have a spiritual and personal connection and continue to support Israel.’
In 2019 Ziggy was honoured as an ‘ambassador for peace’ by the Creative Community for Peace an organization that asserts on its website to ‘serve as a bridge to peace, artistic freedom and counter the cultural boycott of Israel.
As Ziggy summed up his views on playing music in Israel. ‘We don’t play in Israel for political reasons—we play for people, spread our message of justice and peace for all people.’
Dad would be proud—L’chaim.