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Michael Jackson, z”l

Notes on the passing of a star

Sara Ivry
June 26, 2009

Most surprising to some (or to us, anyway) in the coverage of the death of the phenomenally successful and influential pop singer Michael Jackson is the appearance in recent photos of a bendel, the red string bracelet Kabbalah adherents wear to help ward off the evil eye. He reportedly began an on-going exploration of the mystical tradition four years ago, even while speculation arose that the former Jehovah’s Witness had converted to Islam.

The bracelet is but one totem of a relationship with Jews that was, like most everything in the star’s life, rocky. In 1995 he was publicly castigated for lyrics (“Jew me, sue me, everybody do me/ Kick me, kike me, don’t you black or white me”) from the song “They Don’t Care About Us.” Jackson rejected the critique that he espoused anti-Semitism, saying “the song in fact is about the pain of prejudice and hate and is a way to draw attention to social and political problems. I am the voice of the accused and the attacked. I am the voice of everyone. I am the skinhead, I am the Jew, I am the black man, I am the white man,” according to the New York Times. Despite the rebuttal, he changed the lyrics. A second flare-up ten years later renewed speculation about Jackson’s feelings about the Jews when a phone recording of the pop wonder calling two Jewish former business associates “leeches” was leaked.

A reputed loner, Jackson did, apparently, have occasional spiritual advisors—or so Shmuely Boteach suggests in a homage in which the rabbi subtly congratulates himself for accompanying Jackson to Shabbat dinners and services and for introducing him to Elie Wiesel. And David Suissa, the editor of Olam magazine recalls Jackson’s joy at Suissa’s rendition of a Sephardic melody during a meeting in which Jackson agreed to write an article about his childhood for the magazine. The legendary entertainer wrote that his youth “was not an idyllic landscape of memories. My relationship with my father was strained, and my childhood was an emotionally difficult time for me.” For Jackson, difficult times never abated completely.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.