Paul Simon's faith is still hazy after all these years.
At his performance at the DNC, Paul Simon had something else on his wrist.
It was a cross.
Has Paul Simon converted to Christianity? I don’t know. If so, he would hardly be the first iconic Jewish popular musician to go that route. Bob Dylan did – at least, for a while, before returning to Judaism.
Of all Jewish musicians, Paul Simon has always been the “least” Jewish – in his influences and references. As my father asked, after hearing “Mrs. Robinson”: “What are two Jewish boys from Queens doing singing about Jesus [“Jesus loves you more than you will know”]?”
So, I am not surprised by the cross dangling from Paul Simon’s wrist.
For the last five decades, there has been a musical “cross” dangling from Paul Simon’s music.
Early in their career, Simon and Garfunkel recorded several "blatantly Christian" songs:
- “Go Tell It on the Mountain”
- “Blessed” (a musical rendition of a section of Jesus' Sermon on the Mount).
They would follow those up with “7 O’Clock News/Silent Night,” the closing song of “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme,” which juxtaposes the violence of the nightly news with the imagined peace of the night of Jesus’ birth.
It is not as if Paul Simon is completely devoid of Jewish influences. The “Bookends” album is the most “Jewish” album of the 1960s.
- “Save the Life of My Child” is an (unconscious?) musical version of Philip Roth’s classic short story, “The Conversion of the Jews.”
- “Voices of Old People” was recorded at the United Home for Aged Hebrews and the California Home for the Aged in Reseda, California.
- “Fakin’ It." About as Jewish as song can be -- without ever mentioning the word.
Prior to this lifetime, I surely was a tailor.
Look at me.
I own the tailor’s face and hands. I
am the tailor’s face and hands.
I know I’m fakin’ it,
not really makin’ it…
In an interview, Simon mentioned that his grandfather or great-grandfather was also named Paul Simon and that he was, in fact, a tailor.
In that sense, “Fakin’ It” is a parable about the American Jewish immigrant past, and the inability to escape it.
- “Silent Eyes” on “Still Crazy After All These Years,” is a hymn about Jerusalem, and it echoes the biblical book of Lamentations.
- “Hearts and Bones” refers to Paul and his ex-wife, Carrie Fisher, as “one and one half wandering Jews.”
As Simon approached seventy years old, his spiritual longings became more intense, which he admits in a 2012 interview with Christianity Today: "It's [spirituality] something I recognize in myself and that I enjoy, and I don't quite understand it."
Simon's spiritual longings translates into spiritual struggle.
- “Wartime Prayers,” on the “Surprise” album, is cynical about
prayers offered in times of peace are silent conversations, appeals for love,
or love’s release,
in private invocations…
People hungry for the voice of God hear lunatics and liars.
- “The Afterlife” (on “So Beautiful or So What?”) features:
Buddha and Moses and all the noses
From narrow to flat
Had to stand in the line
Just to glimpse the divine
What’cha think about that?
It’s all His design
No one cuts in the line
No one here likes a sneak.
- “Questions for the Angels”: “Who believes in angels? I do. Fools and pilgrims all over the world.”
But, ultimately, Simon finds musical solace in Christianity.
- “Getting Ready for Christmas Day” features a mashup of Simon’s song and a famous sermon given by Reverend J.M Gates of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Atlanta in 1941:
From early in November to the last week of December
I got money matters weighing me down
Oh the music may be merry, but it’s only temporary
I know Santa Claus is coming to town
[From the Reverend Gates sermon]:
Getting ready for Christmas Day.
And let me tell you, namely, the undertaker, he’s getting ready for your body
Not only that, the jailer he’s getting ready for you.
Christmas Day. Hmm? And not only the jailer, but the lawyer, the police force…
- “Love and Hard Times” features God “and his only son” coming to earth for a visit.
Jews might have hoped that Simon would have paid more attention to the Jewish side of things.
But, compared to Dylan, Simon's Jewish offerings are rather thin. Here is why. Simon told an NPR reporter: “I was raised to a degree, enough to be, you know, bar mitzvahed and have that much Jewish education, although I had no interest. None.”
In other words, Paul Simon is like many other Jews who grew up in the 1950s.
It was not a time of deep spirituality.
Just imagine what Paul Simon could have done with Judaism.
Alas, a cross is a cross. And it is our loss.