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Being Peter Himmelman

May 9, 2009 | by

A peek inside the Jewish soul of one of today's most talented musicians.

Peter Himmelman is a total trip. Talented rock musician, composer, artist, devoted husband and father, and a Torah observant Jew.

Peter is known throughout the world for his intimate concerts and his music that quite often blend elements of mystical Judaism with personal insight. You can get a whiff of who Peter Himmelman is by looking at the names of his solo albums: This Father's Day, Gematria, Synesthesia, From Strength to Strength and a CD for children, My Best Friend is a Salamander.

Peter also writes music for television and movies. Among his credits are the score and original songs for Dinner and Driving, Liar's Poker and his current project, Judging Amy.

He lives with his wife Maria and their four children in Santa Monica, California. had a great time interviewing at the home of one of our staff there.

I grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota in a suburb called St. Louis Park. They used to call it St. Jewish Park. It had about five percent Jews, which was five percent too many for those who called it St. Jewish Park.

I have an older sister named Nina, whose name used to be Eileen Marie. I have a younger sister named Susie. My brother's name is Paul and my name is Peter Matthew! Actually we had far more Jewish identity than our names would indicate. My Hebrew name is Pesach Mordechai. There's never been a more Jewish name in the history of the name, I am told.

My dad was an entrepreneur. People really liked my dad. He was a big force in people's lives. He was outspoken; he was strong; he was a Marine.

He was also very Jewishly identified, even though he never belonged to Jewish clubs. He also had many close non-Jewish friends so there was a fusion of different worlds.

I felt good about myself as I was growing up. I was the third, and I understand now how it made me who I am. I knew that in order to get accepted or loved, I had to come up with something special. And this probably animates me to this day. I couldn't just be enough; I had to be something. I wasn't any good at sports but music and art just came to me.

I looked up to my brother and my dad who were kind of heroes. My brother used to ride motorcycles and my dad owned a motorcycle shop for a while. Not your average Jewish activities. He was the first guy in the Midwest to introduce Japanese motorcycles. Then two kids got killed on these trails behind a store, and my parents wouldn't let my brother ride anymore. So they took away the motorcycle and in order for it to stick, my dad had to sell the motorcycle store. He wasn't going to have a schism there.

THE POWER OF MUSIC How did your musical journey begin?

Peter Himmelman: When I was 11 or 12, I was playing guitar and I had a band. I was very serious about it and used to practice a lot. I liked to play with other people. It was just a way to get together; it was a way to feel special, too.

My cousin had an electric guitar. I opened that case and the feeling is indescribable. It was so unbelievably beautiful, enticing; it was so powerful, too. Just to open the case and look at it. This hidden thing. It had fur in it, and velvet.

I have that guitar now; it's up on my wall. My dad bought it later -- that and an amp for 150 bucks. But before I got that guitar, I had an acoustic guitar. My dad rigged up this thing with a telephone receiver and a piece of tape and he put it into my sister's stereo. It was kind of electric. I would go over to my friend's house, Andy Kaman. I still play with him now.

He was in fifth grade, I was in sixth grade. He had a drum set. And when we played… sometime there's those moments in life where something's happening that you're embarrassed to smile so much, but you just can't help it, it's irrepressible.

Just once in awhile I get it -- that smile. I don't know what we'd play. I'd hit a string, go boing, boing, bang boing. And he'd play, and it got better. And I wrote songs.

We played at the sixth grade spring concert. Then we played the Cerebral Palsy Benefit. This was a big moment. We had other guys in the band, and we kicked guys out. It was a big thing. And it was cruel too. I was much more cruel as a kid than I am as an adult. It was fierce to play in front of people. You had to get all pumped up and there's a streak of cruelty in everything that I play on stage. If you're a little bit unsure, you'll just be trampled, completely overwhelmed. So you have to have that force. And at the time perhaps, I just didn't know quite what it was, or how to control it. Eventually I was able to temper it.

It probably sounded like garbage, but they were going nuts. I didn't feel like a little kid. I felt as manly as I do now.

We got paid five dollars for the four of us to play this Cerebral Palsy Benefit. This was our first paid gig. It was a huge deal, as big as going on The Tonight Show. I was so worried about seeing all these unusual kids that maybe I'll start laughing unintentionally.

We get there and there was a huge crowd -- adults, kids. One guy was hydro-encephalic, strapped to a thing. One woman was drawing intricate pictures with her foot. Another woman, who was our liaison, had only one layer of skin; I've never seen anything like it. They were reaching out for us. And it was, let me just say, not the least bit funny.

I felt like we had a mission to accomplish. We're here, damn it. We only have seven songs, and we're gonna play them. They loved it. It probably sounded like garbage, but they were going nuts, they didn't want us to stop. It was such a joyous thing, you could tell. I didn't feel like a little kid. I felt as manly as I do now.

I opened up the Beatles songbook after we played all my originals, and we started playing songs. Then we started hanging out and talking frankly about everything and how it feels to have one layer of skin. It was one of the greatest days of my life. And we got paid.

It was also very powerful, especially for a little kid. It wasn't like we went to a theater class and now it was the presentation. It wasn't my mom driving me everyday to this class. This was only my thing. It had no parental involvement whatsoever. This was my song.

I learned from it a sense of getting outside of my own little box, my own little thing. I felt as though I lost myself, as though I was bigger than myself. I was connected to something. There was a purpose.

I lose my sense of purpose all the time now. When you have a great show, you feel a sense of purpose and wonder, and it's just fantastic. You get about two weeks.


When I was eight, my parents decide on a whim to go to Israel. It's cheap, why not? They had no real interest in Israel. They find a treasure trove of cousins that they didn't even know existed. They fall in love with the place, bam. It's winter after the '67 war, so it's right there. In the summer of '68, we all go back and stay for a month.

I come to the Western Wall at eight years old, and I weep like a fool. I was so in.

This absolutely galvanized me. I come to the Western Wall at eight years old, and I weep like a fool. I was so in. They play the songs on the Israeli airlines and I'm crying like a fool. I see the coast. At eight, I'm so in.

My cousin, Adam, who now lives in Israel had this band the Purple Sunset. I saw them play at Mike Feinstein's Bar Mitzvah -- Mike is now the mayor of Santa Monica.

The band was so unbelievably great. I loved Adam, and still do. He played the bass and they played Black Sabbath and things from Tommy. They let me play the tambourine. So I was in. Then Adam started getting into Judaism.

Adam's a subtle thinker so I knew that he must be onto something. Mike and Jill, his older brother and sister, also start getting into Judaism.

I was doing TM and Adam's brother, Mike was going to Chabad , trying to talk to me about meditation.

"Maybe you'd like to meet Rabbi Feller?"

What the heck, why not? So we go and we meet Rabbi Feller.

He was so happy and animated about Judaism. So I thought I'd throw him a curve ball and I said, "I gotta tell you before you start, I don't believe in God."

And his answer was so good. "So you don't believe in God. You can still put on tefillin." So he gave me this little set of tefillin which I used to put on surreptitiously.

Later, the Jewish thing progressed. I got Jewish books. I fought with the tough guy in our school who was always hip checking all the Jews into the lockers. He punched me in the nose. I didn't win the battle, but I'm bleeding, and it felt good. He stopped hip checking all Jews.

Cut to Netanya and the Israeli planes in formation with the Jewish stars on the bottom, on the wings. I'm in, way in.

Cut to present day. I performed in Israel a month or two ago. We're playing at each show with these Israeli stars.

I said that at the end of the show all of us should come on and sing one of these old Jewish songs. Haveinu Shalom Aleichem…When some Israeli superstars told they thought those songs were uncool, I said what the heck do you guys know about what's cool? So I get on stage and I tell the crowd that I'm gonna tell them a little story. I spoke half in English and Hebrew.

At the base of it, it's not Sting, it's not Madonna. It's not a grooving nose ring. It's about Jewish unity. We're all family. I tore the house down, honestly.

When I was a little kid, we flew to Israel on El Al. That music would come on and you'd go nuts and you'd cry. And people were, like, yeah, yeah. But someone in marketing says, "Look, there are too many German tourists; they are offended by it, it's too Jewish. Let's put Sting or Madonna or something." And everyone's going yeah.

I said, forget that. Everyone come out, we're singing Haveinu Shalom Aleichem! We come out and the place goes mad, because at the base of it, it's not Sting, it's not Madonna. It's not a grooving nose ring. It's about Jewish unity…especially now, and they're all singing. They're all clapping. We're all family. I tore the house down, honestly.

I was always very Jewish, even though I had a non-Jewish girlfriend for 11 years. The mind rationalizes anything you want. In my early 20's I move to New York with my band.

Things really changed when my dad died when I was 24. He had in his pocket a tape of a song I wrote for him one Father's Day. It was such a good song that said anything that I've ever wanted to say. But how can you say that's why you write a song? It's like a little veil to hide behind, 'cause otherwise it's too up front you wanna throw up. Time goes on. It's a new wave band. We're getting successful in New York.

I'm desperate to get a record deal. That's all I can think about. It's like idol worship. I take the one song I wrote for my Dad and I surround with other songs that meant a lot to me, as opposed to what the "experts" thought would sell, and I make a record.

That record is called This Father's Day, and my Dad's song is at the end of it. It eventually got picked up by Island Records -- just me, not my band. It got played on MTV, got big record press, Rolling Stone, blah blah blah. Everything started happening.

In the meantime my friend, Kenny Vance, who is trying to produce something for our band, takes me out one night. "Tonight we're gonna go to my main connection," he tells me. Ken is tall and handsome, and he has dated many famous people. Who is his main connection? A religious Jew in Brooklyn.

The last time I saw a religious Jew like this was Rabbi Feller in Minneapolis. True, I used to go in the diamond district and say to the guys in my band, "This is us. Don't you see it?"

But they never had that connection like I did 'cause their moms didn't light Shabbos candles like my mom. It was such a powerful thing. A seemingly little mitzvah is huge.

So Ken brought me to this rabbi, Simon Jacobson. Hundreds of people come every Thursday night to his class. But that night it was just Kenny and I. He says one thing to me and that was it. "What is a tzaddik, a man of God? Have you ever seen a tzaddik fly?" he asks rhetorically. "No," he says, "but what's the difference between flying over the surface of the physical world with all its details and complexity, or walking? It's all the same miracle."

I'd always had a sense that Judaism was important, but I lacked knowledge. Since getting kicked out of confirmation, my education had ended and I never found a teacher to connect to. But I always believe that the miraculous was just below the surface of the mundane. So when this rabbi spoke it resonated with me.

Are you telling me Judaism believes the same thing I do? Bang. It all hit me. The Oneness of it all. The Oneness of the Almighty. The non-Jewish girlfriend goes. I start wanting to get married. I start thinking about soul mates. I'm cleaning the slate to begin again.

My friend, Louie Kemp, says, "You gotta get married. Who can you marry?"

I'm thinking, I don't know, who can I marry?

"Well how about my friend's daughter?"

I know nothing about her. Why would she even wanna be fixed up? Is something wrong with her? Louie's just so great, so pragmatic. "She's beautiful and she's a lawyer," he tells me.

"Well, your beauty and my beauty may be different. I might've gotten religious, but my aesthetic sense didn't all of a sudden disappear."

"She worked at this university restaurant as the hostess. They don't put ugly women as hostesses. I'll talk to my friend and see what we can work up."

One thing leads to another. She already knew who I was from Minneapolis and she goes and buys my album.

I arrive on our first date in this white clown car. I didn't think to have a cool car. Back then I was naive. It was the cheapest car I could get. I didn't have any decent clothes. All my stuff was in New York. As soon as I saw her, bam, I knew, that was it. In one second.

I told my agent that I don't exist when it comes to Shabbos. They were all pretty cool with it. But it was a very difficult job for them to promote a guy who can't play on Friday nights.

This woman had strength and grit and determination. The things that bug me most about her are the things that I love most about her, that keep me impassioned.
I resolved when I met her that I'm gonna be firm about Shabbos. I told the agent, who was Billy Joel's agent at the time, that I don't exist when it comes to Shabbos. You can't offer me more and more money.

They were all pretty cool with it. But it was a very difficult job for them to promote a guy who can't play on Friday nights.

So I started getting seriously into Judaism and Shabbos, and now I have the record deal that I always wanted. The first thing I did with my advance was go to Israel.

"Why are you going to Israel?" my mom wants to know. Everyone thinks I'm nuts. I don't know. I just wanna go to Israel.

At the time it seemed like a billion dollars. They paid me $25,000 for my album which was nothing. In order for me to sign to make my album, I said to the president of Island Records, Lou Maglia, "I know you want me." I had a lot of moxie. "I know I'm in Billboard, I'm in the Rolling Stone, I'm on MTV. I could walk down the block and get you in a bidding war that you're not gonna win. I'll tell you what: sign me today and put out my record as is, as a bonus, and I'll sign with you today."

He says, "All right, we'll meet Chris Blackwell (the owner of Island records) this afternoon."

Next thing I know, Park Avenue Hotel, Chris Blackwell.

"Peter I've seen the video. Good, very good. Welcome aboard Island Records. " Bam.

So I'm Lou's first signing and he's really into it. They want to set up one of these big tours with Rod Stewart. I said to Lou, "Uh, I won't be able to do that tour 'cause I can't play Friday nights."

"You're kidding me? I love it!" He laughed for 15 minutes because I wouldn't get off it. And then he kind of stopped laughing. "You're serious about this?"

I said, "Yeah, it's Shabbos, you know. I don't expect you to understand but it's just something I've been into. If you listen to the music you'll hear where I'm coming from. So no tour." So how has this affected your career?

Peter Himmelman: It's affected it, but the thing that's affected it even more, and it's also a Jewish thing, is my resistance to going on the road for a long period of time now that I have a family. The longest I ever went was 21 days, which for me was horrendous.

That was hugely difficult. But from a perspective of a rock star, it's nothing. Everyone fights to get as much tour support so they can stay out, stay out, stay out. I would fight to do the least possible touring to keep the record going. It's literally a miracle that I have any career.

If I wanted to be really famous, as opposed to successful, I wouldn't have been able to keep Shabbos or have a family in this way, like a real family. But I still have dreams of being huge in some way. I haven't given up my dreams. My dreams have just been reformed.

I always say to my wife and others, going from zero kids to one kid, that was it.

It wasn't like three, four, five kids put me over the edge. The zero to one, the something from nothing, the paradigm shift away from me, my giant ego, my giant self-world, kind of blowing open, going bang -- that was a dream that was beyond the scope of my powers. I couldn't have imagined it. It was like a color not on the color wheel. It's inconceivable.

So the dream reformed itself. What do you think is the impact of your music on the world? How does your relationship with God and Judaism shape your daily work experience?

Peter Himmelman: At its best, my relationship with God allows me to understand that my purpose in making music is to feed and nurture my family, inspire others, and bring joy to God. Of course, this is an ideal. I don't believe I've got the guts to describe how it usually goes. If I have a desire for the way my music impacts the world -- and it's not often that I think of impact on that grandiose a scale -- but since you asked, I believe it would be to help myself and others transcend the moment and see a bit of divinity -- that there is a God that runs the show. Why do you send your children to a religious school?

There is a state of humility where you can feel something coming from a dimension outside oneself. That sense of awe can make me cry.

Peter Himmelman: We send our kids to Jewish schools because we value the traditions of our people and it's one of our life goals to imbue our children with these values. I believe it would be extremely difficult to do this in a public school or non-religious school setting. Obviously, the schools are neither a panacea nor a guarantee of success in this regard, but it's a logical decision given our goals. What advice would you give to someone entering the music industry today?

Peter Himmelman: Getting married would be a great thing. That's number one. Keeps you grounded. Keeps you real. Provided you already have talent.

Then stay up at night and play until you cry. Do something that makes you cry, that makes you weep with awe. There is a state of humility where you can feel something coming from a dimension outside oneself. That recognition, that sense of awe can make me cry. And then make that into something. That will be your thing.

You're already a person that has God-given talent. You know you've been invested with certain strengths. The question is: what moves you to tears of joy or sadness? And then pursue that. I say that to myself, too.
How do you find time to stay up and write to tears? You got a bunch of kids, you got homework, you got a wife, and you got a schedule. Where is the time? You forget that you even should do that. You're already an old fogey. Well how do you find the time for all that and balance it?

Peter Himmelman: Honestly, I don't. I would venture to say that I don't think anybody does. And people that say they do are very suspect. It's a juggling act, and it's not pretty. Balls are falling all the time, and you're picking them up and I guess you have to remember to throw them up in the air again.

It's a work in progress for everybody, that's very sloppy for me, too. You learn a lot from the experience itself, and it's certainly nothing to be arrogant about. It's a path that God just presented you. Everything serendipitously -- this turn, that turn, that phone call. One of the secrets is to be able to lose yourself, your ego -- in the music, in the Torah. Only then can you truly grow and shine.


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