Jewish Telegraph, November 2023
ROCK legend Geddy Lee claims his mother saw it as a “heartbreaking failure” that her three children married out of the faith.
The Rush frontman speaks candidly about his Holocaust survivor parents in his much anticipated memoir My Effin’ Life (Harper, £30), published this week.
Canadian Lee writes: “. . . I consider myself a devout cultural Jew: I love the history, the humour and even some of the food! But a belief in God and organised religion? Not for me.
“A line from Woody Allen’s Love and Death sums up my feelings well: ‘If it turns out that there is a God . . . the worst you can say about him is that basically he’s an underachiever.’
“The fact that all three of Mom’s children would eventually marry out of the faith was, in her mind, a heartbreaking failure of her own parenting skills.
“Even after I’d become an adult, she tried to guilt me back into synagogue: she’d say that by not being observant I was committing a sin against God and betraying my family and all those who’d died in the war. (Jews are really, really good at guilt, no?)
“But it was to no avail. I had prayed for the last time. Surprisingly, once the penny dropped that we were not going to change, she did too.
“It’s a testament to her innate intelligence and maturity that she’d learn to accept and even embrace people for who they are. She’d grow fiercely devoted to her daughters-in-law and adored them unquestioningly till the day she died.
“I find that hugely admirable for someone of her age and with her past, and wonder if I would have had the strength to change as she did.”
Geddy opens the book with the revelation that his birth name wasn’t Gary Weinrib, as everyone believed.
He writes: “You probably know me as Geddy Lee, but my birth name was Gershon Eliezer Weinrib, after my maternal grandfather who was murdered in the Holocaust.
“As per tradition, my mom, her sister and her brother all named their first-born male children in his honour; my two cousins and I, all of us born within a couple of years of one another, were given that same first name, Gershon.”
But when Geddy was 16 and needed to apply for a driver’s licence and a Canadian Federation of Musicians card, he found himself listed on his birth certificate as Gary Lee Weinrib.
He writes: ‘Mom,’ I said, ‘what’s going on here? It says my middle name is Lee, not Lorne!’
“She looked away, thought about it for a moment and said with a sheepish laugh, ‘Oy, takeh. Yah. I tink maybe you vere Lee . . . Your cousin, he was Lorne. I forgot . . .’.”
Geddy devotes a chapter of My Effin’ Life to talk about his parents’ experiences in the Holocaust — a subject he covered in an interview with me in 2012.
His Polish-born parents, Moishe and Manya, met at Auschwitz, but were sent to separate camps.
They were reunited after the war in a displaced persons camp, and emigrated to Halifax, Canada, where they adopted the names Morris and Mary.
Morris died in 1965, when Geddy was 12 — meaning that his barmitzvah the following summer “was devoid of music and dancing”.
He added that his mother, who died in 2021, hated his long hair so much that she commissioned a painting of him for his barmitzvah with short, tidy hair.
“It hung proudly on her wall, perpetuating that Great Lie for almost sixty years,” he wrote.
Geddy also speaks of the antisemitism he faced growing up in the Toronto suburb of Willowdale.
“Not all of those folks were pleased to see a burgeoning Jewish community on their patch,” he writes.
“Antisemitism was still rife in those days, handed down to a fresh new generation of hate-mongering teenagers. The farm boys and other locals were on the lookout for young ethnics like me to terrorise.
“I was a particularly easy target: shy to begin with and self-conscious about my outstanding nose. I’d already been razzed about it from time to time, but the abuse was worse now, and growing my hair long, as I started to at around twelve in my earliest emulation of my rock and roll heroes, further stoked the ire of those goons.”
He added that at school, they would be called “dirty Jews”.
Geddy reveals that when Rush opened for Kiss in the mid-1970s on their American tour, he had started wearing a mezzuza around his neck after vowing to “never let myself be the token Jew again”.
But Kiss’ Israeli-born frontman Gene Simmons told him before a concert in Texas: “You shouldn’t wear that down here. It’s dangerous to advertise you are a Jew.”
Geddy has said he decided to write his memoir because of his mother’s dementia.
“I was driven by a fear of forgetting things, the way my mother was forgetting. Once I got into it, I found it cathartic, and a helpful way of sorting out things from my past,” he told the LA Times.
He also told Toronto Star: “I was thinking a lot about my mom. How I would go to see her and she was not present. It was the war all over again for her.
“She was walking around the apartment and worried about her grandmother. And I was thinking, ‘Oh my God, the grip we have on grey cells is so tenuous’. Maybe this is the time I should write my memories down.”
Another factor in him writing the book was the death in 2020 from brain cancer of Rush drummer Neil Peart.
In an interview with the Shropshire Star, Geddy spoke about the conflict between Israel and Hamas.
“It is a sickening and awful situation,” he said. “As a human being who is also a Jewish person it is very distressing.
“It is just brutal. I do not know what the answer is, but releasing the hostages may be a start.”
Geddy and Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson issued a statement following the attacks on October 7 — resulting in the pair receiving online antisemitic abuse, despite Lifeson not being Jewish.
Geddy is going on a book tour of the UK in December, which includes Sheffield City Hall on December 13 and Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow, the following day.