19610If you were to make a Venn diagram showing the relationship between two groups — Holocaust survivors and rock stars — you’d have one pretty big circle (that would be the survivors) and one smaller one (rock stars, no matter how you define them).
The part where the circles overlap would be very small. It would have one person in it. That would be Genya Ravan, née Genyusha Zelkowitz, aka Goldie Zelkowitz.
She’s back in the news now because of “Rock and Roll Refugee,” a musical about her life that’s just opened for a limited run — through February 14 — at the Royal Family Arts Center at 145 West 46th Street in Manhattan.
To talk to Genya — our convention would be to call her Ms. Ravan, it’s true, but convention and Genya do not live in the same universe — is to laugh uproariously, to ask “What did you just say?” more than once, to feel deeply sad very often, and always to realize that you are in the presence of someone absolutely idiosyncratic, part Lower East Side Jewish stereotype, part 1960s rock chick, part rock royalty, part someone entirely original and unclassifiable.
Unfortunately, many of her funny stories don’t translate well to print, or at least to print in this publication. The sad ones, on the other hand…
Also, to talk to Genya is to have a lot of fun while your fingers race to keep up with her unstoppable flow of words.
So – enough preamble. What did she say?
Genyusha Zelkowitz was born in Poland in 1940. Needless to say, it was a very bad time and place to be an infant Jew. Her memories of her early life are spotty, mainly little images, very few moving pictures, very little narrative, and augmented by very little hard information. “I never got a straight word from my parents about it,” she said. “As soon as I was born my parents” — Yadja and Natan — “gave me away.
“Every time I mentioned anything about it, or tried to ask my mother about it, she would get hysterical, and my father would say ‘don’t ask any more.’ I have two different birthdays, and I chose the one I liked more.
“All I know about the people they gave me to was that they were not Jews, and according to my mother they didn’t do a very good job with me. They kept me in a crib most of the time.
“I had two brothers, and they both died. I don’t know anything about them. The only person who knew anything about them was my sister, who’s older, but she has a total mental block about it. When we came to the United States, someone told my mother to leave it be – sometimes it’s better not to uncover what she may have seen.”
All Genya knows is that her mother “got me back in 1945, 46. I don’t remember anything except that she came in an open truck. I know that she wanted to pass us off as Russians, not Polish Jews.
“My father was in a work camp, and he was in the underground. He is the one who got my sister and my mother and me out of there.
“All I remember is a lot of trains, a lot of travel. There was some sort of camp, I think in Russia, and we escaped. I remember her putting her hand over my mouth.”
They escaped Europe by boat. “The ships were leaving. Some were going to Israel, some to the United States. None of what we did was planned. We just wanted out. I do remember the ship in little flashes. The scariest time was when everyone was hysterical on deck. I think they were doing a fire drill, and a lot of the refugees panicked. I remember that my mother was hysterical, and that made me hysterical.”
Until they got to Ellis Island, Genyusha had been called Genya, a logical but foreign-sounding nickname. “My mother didn’t like it,” Genya said. “Too Polish. We have to make you more American.” So they called her Goldie. “I was Goldie until 1968,” Genya said – but that’s many adventures later.
When they arrived in this country, no one in the family spoke English. “I learned by listening to the radio,” Genya said. “I listened to Danny Stiles — he was the Kat Man — his show would open with cats meowing. It was just like in my backyard, where all the cats were committing suicide.”
(Danny Stiles – who was Jewish and born in Newark — was on the radio from 1947 until he died in 2011, when he was a weekend fixture on WNYC.)
That backyard was on Rivington Street on the Lower East Side, where Goldie had an uneasy, intense, and generally unhappy childhood. Her parents had been sponsored by a family, the Solomons, as well as by HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. The Solomons helped set them up in business, first in a candy store and then in a deli; both businesses failed and the family was poor. “I remember that rent was $35 and sometimes we couldn’t make it,” Genya said.
Even then, decades past its zenith as immigrant central, the Lower East Side was polyglot and poly-aromatic. “I grew up with all the smells of the best foods in the world,” Genya said. “From Hungarian to African to Puerto Rican. You name it. I was brought up with everything near me. It was crowded with refugees, people sitting on stoops. We were in a fourth-floor tenement walkup, and when it was hot we slept on the fire escape. We all knew each other, and it probably was safer than any other place.”
Safety is a relative concept. “I went to public school, P.S. 4 on Rivington Street, and it was like a prison. The first thing I saw in school was someone getting beat up. I knew right away that I had to protect myself.”
She went to Seward Park High School — “I used to call it Sewer Park” — and right away, “a teacher gets beat up. I said I got to get out of here. I can’t watch my back 24/7 like that.”
There were gangs, and Goldie joined one, called the Furies. “I joined them for safety, because otherwise you could get beat up,” she said. How do you join a gang? She laughed. There are no actual membership requirements or applications, she said. “You join them by getting friendly with the bad kids in school.” She began leading a double life.
Her parents were fiercely protective. “I couldn’t even have friends,” Genya said. “I had to be home right after school. It was a tough way to grow up. They might as well have kept me a prisoner. Even when I was in my 40s, my mother always used to ask me ‘Are your doors locked? Are your windows locked?’ She was a very terrified person – and rightly so. She had been a twin, and she saw her twin taken away.” This was one of the few hard facts Genya had about her mother’s Holocaust experiences.
Either despite or perhaps because of how restrictive her parents were, Genya was a wild child. She would leave home looking demure but would put on the black leather jacket she’d stuffed behind the garbage cans and get to school looking tough. “It had my name, Goldie, on it, in gold studs. I was the area’s female James Dean, and I made sure everyone knew it. I had a persona – if you touch me, you’d be killed.
“Meanwhile, if you looked at me wrong, I’d go home and cry. I was a mush. I am a mush.” The difference between now and then? “The persona is gone. I don’t care who knows if I’m a mush. I know who I am.”
Despite her toughness, “I was scared in school, I was scared at home – but then I found my voice. That’s where I got my voice from.
“My favorite song in the world – the song I want to be played at my funeral, the only outside song that we use in the play, I heard then. ‘Lonely Nights’ by the Hearts. The woman who sang lead, Louise Murray, she’s still alive, and I got in touch with her through a friend. I don’t think that she understood what she did for me when I was a child. Not only did she help me learn English, but my whole vocal style is from her.
“She is my idol.”
Genya was married at 16. “My parents arranged it,” she said. “They needed money. They were broke. Irving” — the lucky man, in his late 20s, “who was heir to Garrison Belts, his family manufactured them, they were from Garrison, Brooklyn, and it was major” — “gave them money and cigarettes and bought booze for my father, who was an alcoholic.
“He was a Jewish boy, and my parents were nervous about me,” so they saw him as a lifeline. “Irving asked me to marry him and I said, ‘Look, I don’t love you, but I’ll marry you and we’ll try.’ I wanted out of the tenement. My mother was very clean, but she’d picked up a couch from the street that had bedbugs and we couldn’t get rid of it, and I wouldn’t take it.
“So I married him. It was a big Jewish wedding.”
Six months later, the marriage still unconsummated – she really was not attracted to him, and he was sweet, undemanding, and ever-hopeful – she ran away, riding to California holding onto some guy with a Harley Davidson and a yen for the West Coast. That didn’t last either, but it was great for what it was, she said.
And of course there was the music. The first time she sang onstage, it was the result of a dare; she was in a nightclub and pulled on the leg of the singer, demanding a turn. “I was a natural,” Genya said. “I brought the house down.” She also was completely untrained. “They asked me what key I wanted — and I asked why they wanted my key.”
When the band fired its singer, they asked her to take her place.
“We are all three different people – who we think we are, who we really are, and who we want to be,” Genya said. That’s not something she knew then, though. “The only time I ever came close to being one person was when I was onstage. If I hadn’t become a singer…”
She also was what was called a “cheesecake model” — she was partly dressed. Softcore stuff. She was gorgeous – that’s not her word but the incontrovertible photo evidence.
Goldie’s career moved quickly. She formed an all-girl group called Goldie and the Gingerbreads — her partner was Ginger — and the group flourished for years, making Goldie a rock star (and puzzling listeners who wondered how someone so clearly black, given her sound, could have come by a name like Zelkowitz). She chronicles those years (and much more) in her memoir, “Lollipop Lounge: Memoirs of a Rock and Roll Refugee.” Goldie and the Gingerbreads moved up from smaller clubs to larger ones, and then to Europe, and opened for some of the era’s biggest stars – we’re talking about the 1960s by now, and those stars included the Rolling Stones.
In 1968, Goldie reclaimed Genya as her name. It was real and it was hers, after all. And then one of her friends, who was black, told her that she should take another last name as well, a name that acknowledged the truth of her sound. She decided on Raven – a black bird! – but then chose to use a creative spelling. Why be Raven when she could be Ravan?
In 1969, Genya joined two other musicians, Michael Zager and Aram Schefrin (a Harvard-trained lawyer), two Jewish guys from Passaic, to form Ten Wheel Drive, a jazz fusion band; the band’s first performance was in the fabled Fillmore East. (“We were very big in Jersey,” she offered.) Not only could she sing, but her intense stage presence and edgy outfits (okay, she often covered her breasts with paint rather than, you know, clothes) complemented her voice. The band did very well; interpersonal problems broke them up.
Sid Bernstein, the Jewish impresario who brought the Beatles to the United States, managed Genya for a year, and remained her dear friend for the rest of his life. “He was the best guy in the world,” she said. “There will never be another Sid Bernstein. This man used to make me laugh so much!
“He always watched his diet, so he would live vicariously. He would take my partners and me to the St. Moritz to have ice cream, and he would say, ‘Eat, baby. Eat!’ He’d take us to the Stage Deli – God forbid he’d ever eat anything there.”
Genya’s career is too long, too varied, and too wild, too full of jaw-dropping stories, for a newspaper story possibly to do it justice. She has soldiered through addiction — “I got sober 23 years ago,” she said — and lung cancer — “In 1990 they told me I’d be dead in six months, they got me into Sloan Kettering, and here I am to talk about it.” She’s not always had money, and she’s not always had self-confidence. Even the play about her life highlights just some of it, and her memoir ends a decade ago.
Being Jewish has been a theme throughout her life. When she first started as a musician, she said, she wore a huge Jewish-star ring, just to be sure everybody knew who she was.
She didn’t always feel positive about it. “My parents made me feel like an outcast,” she said. “They’d say that people didn’t like us because we were Jews. I think it’s very typical of European survivors – but it’s no way to bring up a child.”
Her feelings now are much less ambiguous. “The Jewish part of my life is probably more important now than it’s ever been,” Genya said. “I love being Jewish. I love the DNA that’s in me.
“I think that Jews are just born with survival DNA. That’s gotta be stemming from the Egyptian days. I love being Jewish. I wouldn’t change it.”