‘Like the pine trees lining the winding road
I’ve got a name. I’ve got a name.’
Those are the first lines of the Jim Croce song that was released the day after the singer died in a plane crash in September 1973. He was 30 years old.
It sounds Jewish, doesn’t it? It immediately brings to mind Zelda’s famous poem, “Everyone has a name…” And like so many Jim Croce songs, it goes on to consider the reality that our time is limited, and how important it is to make all of it count.
Yes, that sounds anodyne, laid out like that, but consider it in context.
Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes will.
Before Selichot services (see box for details), Rabbi Prouser will offer an evening of Jim Croce.
For three interconnected reasons.
First, “Jim Croce’s Jewishness is unknown to most Jews,” Rabbi Prouser said. “I am looking at the Selichot as a cumulative act of penance. The community should be embracing and celebrating Jews by choice, but we don’t do that very well.
“We should view Jim Croce’s work, like the work of other Jews by choice, as part of our legacy, and of the Jewish national contribution to society.”
Although Rabbi Prouser grew up listening to Jim Croce — one of the benefits of being the youngest child in the family, by many years, is being introduced to all sorts of things that it might take you many years to stumble across on your own — like most people, he had no idea that Croce was Jewish. Croce, after all, is not a conventionally Jewish name.
Croce was not a conventional Jew, but then he was not a conventional person.
He grew up in Philadelphia, in a very Italian, very Roman Catholic family. “The family was very pious,” Rabbi Prouser said. “His father said the rosary every day.” But Jim was not very good at doing what he was told to do — in fact, Croce said that he was terrible at following orders — and Catholicism just didn’t take.
Croce married a Jewish woman, Ingrid Jacobson, but he did not convert for her, Rabbi Prouser said. Not, he added, that there should be any stigma whatsoever attached to converting for marriage, but Croce did not. Jim and Ingrid performed together as a duo, but he “pursued conversion without telling her,” Rabbi Prouser said “At some point they went to her parents and announced that they were planning to marry, and at that point she still didn’t know that he was converting, which means that she was willing to marry him anyway. She said that her parents said mazel tov, and then, after that, he announced that he already had been pursuing conversion.
“There is a story that he was talking about conversion with a friend, after he had to undergo hatafat dam” — circumcision; even if a man is circumcised before conversion, a ritual drop of blood must be drawn from the penis — “and his friend said, ‘You must love Ingrid a lot,’ and he responded by saying, ‘Ingrid had nothing to do with it.’
“He talked about how he was inspired by a rabbi he’d met, and he was drawn to Judaism’s tradition of emphasizing curiosity and inquiry. He said, ‘I never was a good Catholic, with all the questions I have.’
“And he went on to say that anyway, that rabbi had a great record collection.”
The second reason to think about Jim Croce on Selichot is that his yahrzeit is that Sunday night, less than 24 hours after Selichot. He died on September 20, but in 1973 that fell on the 22nd of Elul.
The third reason is the content of his songs.
“So much of what he writes about are themes of the holidays,” Rabbi Prouser said. “‘I’ve Got a Name’ is about embracing what your real values are.
“His song ‘I Am Who I Am’ — that line certainly seems to have a biblical source,” Rabbi Prouser said; he is talking about God telling Moses, at their encounter at the burning but not consumed bush, that God’s name is I Am Who I Am. “That song is all about being fully invested in your life, and acknowledging our mistakes. ‘And if life is for the living/Then why can’t men be real/’Stead of hidin’ in their costumes/Forgettin’ how to feel, forgettin’ how to feel…’
“I look at some of his songs almost like piyyutim, liturgical poems,” Rabbi Prouser said. “This is good stuff for the holidays.”
Although he’s considering most of them for Selichot, there is one that is perfect for Neilah, the service that rouses people, at the end of Yom Kippur, with their senses and emotions heightened, to face the world and their lives. It’s “Hey Tomorrow”:
“Hey tomorrow, where are you goin’
Do you have some room for me
’Cause night is fallin’ and the dawn is callin’
I’ll have a new day if she’ll have me…”
“That is a perfect piyyut for Neilah,” Rabbi Prouser said.
Overall, Rabbi Prouser said, “There is no reason to compare Jim Croce with Solomon, except for this: Traditionally we attribute three books of the Bible to Solomon. Shir haShirim” — that’s the Song of Songs — “Mishle” — the Book of Proverbs — “and Kohelet” — Ecclesiastes. The first expresses the exuberance of young love, the second is written in maturity, and the third is looking back with rueful wisdom. “When he died, at 30, he was still at Shir HaShirim. He was still writing love songs. But in his final letter to his wife, he said he ready to move on, to leave music behind, to write plays and stories.
“He was ready to move on to Mishle.”
The evening will include listening to Jim Croce’s music, and talking both about the music itself and the themes it carries.
It will not be a heavy, gloomy evening. “Selichot should be joyful, not judgmental, celebration, not solemnity,” Rabbi Prouser said. “The Mishna talks about Yom Kippur as being the happiest day of the year, and because Selichot is a foretaste of Yom Kippur, there should be a joyful element; it is not constrained, as Yom Kippur is, with liturgical tradition.”
There will necessarily be an element of sadness in it; Jim Croce died very young, his talent largely untapped, his future crashed to earth. But that, too, that knowledge of life’s beauty and its absolute unpredictability, and the certainty that one day it will end, also is part of the holiday cycle. But, as Jim Croce told us, “I’ll have a new day if she’ll have me.”
Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser
What: Presents “There Ain’t Gonna Be a Next Time This Time: A Jim Croce Selichot”
When: On Saturday, September 1; presentation at 9 p.m., Selichot at 10:30
Where: At Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, 558 High Mountain Road, Franklin Lakes
For more information: Go to
www.tenjfl.org or call (201) 560-0200.