Helen Reddy
Helen Reddy (Wikimedia Commons)

The singer-songwriter converted to Judaism late in life, only to discover her grandmother was Jewish.

At a time when the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is being celebrated and her loss mourned, there is news of another loss in the community of women long raising issues to secure equal rights.

Singer-lyricist Helen Reddy, known for belting out the words she wrote for “I Am Woman” in the 1970s, died Sept. 29 in Los Angeles.  She was 78 when the notice of her death was posted by her two children, Traci and Jordan, a year after the release of I Am Woman,  a film about the entertainer’s life.

While Justice Ginsburg was working her way through the legal channels of courtrooms, Reddy was working her way through cultural opportunities on concert stages.  Both had ties to Judaism.

During an interview with Reddy in 1999, when she was about to appear at the Macomb Center for the Performing Arts, I learned about her conversion to Judaism as she married for the second time and the way she learned that her maternal grandmother had been Jewish, which, she understood, meant she didn’t have to convert.

A guest at the wedding of her daughter, Traci, revealed the religious background, and Reddy remained very comfortable talking about her spiritual outlook.

“I was raised as a Christian although neither of my parents practiced religion of any kind,” Reddy said and explained that she went to church every Sunday while attending a church-sponsored boarding school.

“Whenever I would ask my mother about her family, her eyes would sort of glaze over, and she’d change the subject. Her mother died before I was born, [and I didn’t know] anything about my mother’s background.”

When Traci married, Reddy learned of her heritage during weekend conversations with a maternal aunt, who had always lived in a distant city. The aunt recalled how Reddy’s grandmother would light the Shabbat candles and travel quite a distance to buy kosher meat. Because the grandmother’s in-laws were Scottish Presbyterians, the woman hid her Jewish practices.

During the JN interview,  Reddy defined herself as more spiritual than religious but explained she enjoyed attending a seder at the home of friends: “I think spirituality is more about what’s in your heart and how you treat people than whether you’re  keeping two sets of dishes.”

Reddy, born to parents acclaimed on the Australian stage, commented on her early beliefs in advising daughters to avoid restricting themselves from careers traditionally held by men.

“I’ve done just about everything [in entertainment], including a TV series, TV specials and movies, and it’s been far beyond anything I’ve ever imagined,” she told me while recalling performing at the ACT IV in Detroit.

Reddy has crossed generations, working on stage with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, Jewel and Janis Ian.

It could seem a twist of fate that this Grammy Award winner, credited by some as writing the words to what has been called the women’s liberation anthem, moved ahead by enhancing the essence of strength shown by her maternal Grammy, who privately held on to Jewish traditions. Reddy sang out, and as in her lyrics, wanted people to hear her roar.


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