The Mystery of Arlo Guthrie’s Lower East Side ‘Hootenanny Bar Mitzvah’

Posted on: May 15th, 2014 at 10:40 am by and
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“Alice’s Restaurant Massacre,” more commonly referred to as “Alice’s Restaurant,” is a classic eighteen-and-a-half minute anti-war satire from the folk music canon, written and recorded by Arlo Guthrie in 1967, and traditionally played on radio stations in the Northeast at noon on Thanksgiving Day. It’s the song that put Arlo on the map, following in the footsteps of his dad, the legendary Woody Guthrie. What probably doesn’t come to mind when you listen to the lyrics is the album’s liner notes, written by producer Harold Leventhal. Therein, Leventhal recounts Arlo’s unique coming of age:

I don’t think I’ll ever forget Arlo’s folk-style Bar Mitzvah, which was held when he was about 13 1/2 years old in a Second Avenue dance studio loft, on New York’s lower East Side. Woody was there. So was Cisco Houston, Pete Seeger, The Weavers, and many others. Arlo was ushered into manhood with songs, finger pickin’, square dancing, harmonica playing, and ritual blessings in what was the first (and probably the only) Hootenanny Bar Mitzvah in history.

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A seemingly innocent, albeit interesting, passage, but one that sparked enough curiosity from Boogie’s folk fan and history buff to keep on digging. Where on the Lower East Side, specifically, was Guthrie’s bar mitzvah held? Was it even a legit bar mitzvah, or was Leventhal’s declaration tongue-in-cheek? Was Arlo, in fact, a practicing member of the faith?

What we found involved conflicting sources and more six degrees of separation than we thought possible. Check it out.

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“Arlo Guthrie: The Warner Reprise Years” By Hank Reineke

The Lower East Side (including the East Village) was a hotbed of folk inspiration back in the ’60s – more or less common knowledge. Arlo was immersed in the scene early on, gaining entry into clubs (despite being underage) thanks to his well-connected parents. His mother, and Woody Guthrie’s second wife, Marjorie Mazia Guthrie, danced and taught for the famous Martha Graham; at home, she provided a Jewish upbringing for Arlo. Though not Jewish himself, Woody additionally found kinship with Marjorie’s mother, the famous Yiddish poet Aliza Greenblatt. Talk about a family stacked with creativity! It’s recently come to light that Woody crafted many unrecorded songs during his lifetime, exploring the heritage and beliefs of Judaism, because of this companionship.

The Guthries agreed that Arlo should have proper tutoring for his bar mitzvah, and hired a “sweet young rabbi,” Guthrie told The Jewish Journal. The rabbi’s name was Meir Kahane, and he went on to become the extremist founder of both the Jewish Defense League and the Kach political party. He was assassinated in a Manhattan ballroom by Al Qaeda in 1990.  “Rabbi Kahane was a really nice, patient teacher,” Guthrie recalled, “but shortly after he started giving me my lessons, he started going haywire. Maybe I was responsible.”

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“Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” By Seth Rogovoy 

But was Arlo’s bar mitzvah the real deal? We were hard-pressed to find any official accounts of the occasion. Also, according to Arlo, it’s a bit speculative. “It was mostly a bunch of guys having fun, mostly my dad’s peers who had shown up,” Guthrie told the LA Times. “My dad was brought in from the hospital. Luckily for me the attention was on him, so I was spared.” He developed a deeper connection with Judaism during his boarding school days in Stockbridge, MA, but ultimately converted to Catholicism in 1977.

And as for the exact location of the famed “bar mitzvah hootenanny,” it unfortunately remains a mystery. There were countless loft dance studios along Second Avenue – after all, it was the 1960s in New York’s most artistic neighborhood. Nowadays, it can dampen the spirits to witness the rapid changes of these neighborhoods, but it is nevertheless heartening to walk down the streets, thinking about the hootenannies that were happening in living rooms above, and knowing that some of the world’s finest creativity has tread these very sidewalks … and will continue to do so (we hope!).

Here are some images of the young Arlo to feast your eyes on.

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