Surprising Connections: ‘Alice’s Restaurant,’ Judaism, and Donald Trump

Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land
Woody Guthrie: This Land Is Your Land

On Thanksgiving Day this year, I was consumed with nostalgia as I watched the PBS replay of the 50th anniversary concert celebrating Arlo Guthrie's eighteen-minute hilarious musical monologue , "Alice's Restaurant Massacree." The song recounts the quirky events that inspired the 1969 film Alice's Restaurant.

The film centers around a group of counter-culture teenage and "20-something" dropouts searching for meaningful identities. The "family," as they were called, found their way to the home of Alice and her husband, Ray Brock, in a deconsecrated church in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

Then Alice opened her famous restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, just a few miles up the road; it helped feed "the family."

Ten years ago, when Alice--then an artist living in Cape Cod---returned to the Berkshires for an exhibit of her artworks, I wrote an article about her Alice's Restaurant reminiscences and her reflections on her life afterwards.

The PBS Special prompted me to again interview Alice Brock and publish an updated article from a 2017 perspective.

I was curious, and I was also seeking a diversion from the relentless Donald Trump news coverage.

But not so fast.

In doing research for the article, I stumbled on two surprising findings: first, a Jewish connection to the Alice's Restaurant story, and then, to my astonishment, a Trump connection.

I knew that both Arlo Guthrie and Alice Brock are Jewish---their mothers were Jewish and both were born in Brooklyn N.Y.

Alice's Jewish mother later financed the purchase of the deconsecrated church in Great Barrington Massachusetts where Alice, her husband and "the family" lived. She also financed the famous restaurant in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Although Alice grew up on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn close to a prominent Synagogue (the Brooklyn Jewish Center), her family was secular. She told me that her only Jewish experiences throughout childhood were eating Jewish foods on several of the holidays,

For Arlo, it was different. He did have a Jewish upbringing, including a bar mitzvah.

Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin reports that Arlo's bar mitzvah, at the Howard Beach Jewish center in Queens, was officiated by Rabbi Meir Kahane, the firebrand leader of the Jewish Defense League. Kahane was assassinated in 1990 at New York City's Marriott East Side Hotel by El Sayyid Nosair, who was linked to Osama bin Laden.

Also noteworthy, as I write this article during Hanukkah 2017, Arlo's father, famed song writer, singer, and social activist, Woody Guthrie, who was not Jewish, wrote several spirited Hanukkah songs, including Honeyky Hanuka (Hanukkah) , Hanukkah Dance , and Nefesh Mountain | Hanukkah's Flame.

And the Trump connection?

In 1950, when Arlo was three years old, the Guthrie family moved into the 2,253-unit Beach Haven Apartment complex in Brooklyn. Beach Haven was built by Donald Trump's father, Fred Trump. It quickly became shockingly clear to Woody Guthrie, whose iconic Americana folk music championed equality and social justice, that Fred Trump was a bigot.

Beach Haven barred African-Americans from renting. The discovery was particularly painful for Woody Guthrie; in 1940 he had penned his signature song, "This Land Is Your land," to celebrate inclusiveness, an America for everyone.

Guthrie's outrage at Fred Trump's racist renting policy prompted him to write a scathing poem that he turned into a song, Old Man Trump. The lost poem was recently discovered by Will Kaufman, professor of American literature and culture at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, while he was researching the Woody Guthrie archives in Tulsa, Oklahoma for a book about Guthrie. The poem opens with these stinging words:

"I suppose that Old Man Trump knows just how much racial hate He stirred up in that bloodpot of human hearts When he drawed that color line Here at his Beach Haven family project"

During the 2016 presidential campaign several performers recorded adaptations of Woodie Guthrie's feisty lyrics about Fred Trump with added words about Donald Trump. A raucous example is "Ain't Got No Home - The Ballad of Old Man Trump"--performed by the New Ash Grove Players.

In 1973, the U.S. government charged Fred Trump, Donald Trump, and the Trump organization with violation of the Fair Housing Act. For their defense the Trumps hired Senator Joseph McCarthy's attorney Roy Cohn, who entered a countersuit against the government (big surprise, Trumps suing those who threaten or expose them). Later a judge threw out the countersuit claim calling it "a waste of paper ," The Trumps then signed a consent agreement to desegregate, but without an admission of guilt,

Donald Trump and Arlo Guthrie, sons of strong-minded men, carried on their fathers' ideologies. Arlo's music and his activism promote social justice just as Woody's did. The Great Barrington church , purchased by Arlo in 1991 serves as a community center dedicated "to cultivate a deeper awareness of culture, humanity and the environment of which we are all a part."

And Donald Trump? His record speaks for itself: his propensity for stiffing contractors , suing adversaries, and dishing out racial and ethnic prejudice, including a report that one of his Atlantic City casinos took black employees off the floor when Donald Trump arrived. In another incident of racism his Trump Plaza casino was fined $200,000 by the New Jersey Casino Control Commission for removing black employees from working around one of the casino's white mob related high rollers. In his book Trumped! The Inside Story of the Real Donald Trump John O'Donnell, a past president and chief operating officer of the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino in Atlantic City, revealed some eyebrow raising racist statements overheard from Donald Trump such as: " I've got black accountants at Trump Castle and at Trump Plaza. Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day."

Arlo Guthrie and Donald Trump verify the cliche': The apple doesn't fall from the tree. They also illustrate that different trees can produce radically different apples, some delicious and others---------? (Fill in the blank)

Bernard Starr, PhD, is a psychologist and professor emeritus at the City University of New York, Brooklyn College. His latest book isJesus, Jews, and Antisemitism in art: How Renaissance Art Erased Jesus’ Jewish Identity & How Today’s Artists Are Restoring It.

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