You may think it strange for a rabbi to mourn a celebrity’s death, but no one said emotions are rational. There are millions of refugees, millions of people living in hunger, millions trapped in oppression, poverty and disease – yet I indulge myself a moment of sadness at the news that Prince Rodgers Nelson has died.
Prince’s “Purple Rain” was my very first rock concert (St. Paul Civic Center, winter of 1984). Growing up in Minneapolis, especially in the public school system, Prince served as the living, breathing, screaming, dancing, daring, and outlandish contradiction to stereotypes of “Minnesota nice” and Midwestern mush.
Prince was about defying expectations and assumptions. At a height of appreciably less than five feet tall, he made the basketball team at Central High (the alma mater of my brother, Josh). He defied categorizations of race, gender, sexuality, musical genre —you name it. He learned musicianship from Cornbread Harris (father of famed composer and producer Jimmy Jam Harris) and at the MacPhail Center for the Arts, the same downtown center where my brother, sister, daughter, and I all took violin lessons.
And if you’re asking, “So what’s this got to do with the Jews?” I’ll tell you. At least two members of Prince’s band The Revolution are from the Minneapolis Jewish community. The number of engineering, recording, marketing, and session musician jobs he provided to Jewish Twin City folks is the stuff of legend and bragging rights. Jewish musicians who may well have been forced by market pressures to find work elsewhere remained in or were drawn to Minneapolis because of him.
One of Prince’s very first business associates in the music business was Amos Heilicher, for whom the Minneapolis Jewish Day School is named. According to Rabbi Alexander Davis of Beth El Synagogue in St. Louis Park, MN, Prince is reported to have said, “Without Amos Heilicher, there wouldn’t be a music industry in Minneapolis.” If that doesn’t satisfy you, then perhaps you’ll be convinced of Prince’s Jewish bona fides by the fact the he was born at Mount Sinai hospital. Yes, we used to have a Jewish hospital back in the day!
Prince was a genius, not a saint. He could be brash, rude, and selfish. He was a powerful performer, not a paragon of virtue. It is fair to say, however, that his wild persona made people question what we define as virtue and what we decry as vice. All Minnesotans have been challenged to answer the question, “What’s your state famous for other, than below-freezing temperatures, ice hockey and losing the Super Bowl?” To that we say, “Bob Dylan, The Replacements, Husker Du, and Prince!”
There are sadder things, worse things, more pressing things, things more worthy of attention happening in the world than the death of Prince. And now, I’ll return to those things. But if there was anything Prince stood for, it was not apologizing for being yourself—and so I’m not going to apologize for crying at the news of a celebrity death, even when there are other things to cry about.
I’ll never forget that Prince closed out that concert of two-plus hours, 20-plus songs, and umpteen costume changes on a religious note: “Let’s all try to love each other. It’s least we can do.”
“Goodnight, sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”