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I applaud Billy Joel for wearing the yellow Star of David

[additional-authors]
August 22, 2017
Billy-JoelThe author with Billy Joel in 1980.
Billy Joel wearing a yellow Star of David on Aug. 21. Photo by Myrna M. Suarez/Getty Images

Jewish fans of Billy Joel took to social media today to share photos of him wearing yellow Star of David patches on his shirt at his Madison Square Garden concert last night.  It was an obvious protest against the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who’ve been defiling America’s streets of late.  But it also was a not-so-obvious full embrace of his heritage as the son and grandson of German Jews who barely escaped the Holocaust.

For me, it was a particularly heart-warming and emotional moment. I got to know Billy in 1979 when I became news director of WLIR, a highly popular and influential Long Island radio station that had been among the first to play his music.  The singer was a fixture at our studios, he played on our baseball team, he took us out to an Italian restaurant and I did several memorable interviews with him.  He once publicly thanked me for helping him with a charity with which he was involved, and privately told a colleague of mine that he really liked my work.

Given that background, when I heard he was planning to perform in the Soviet Union in 1987, this longtime member of the “Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry” had to speak up.  Although I’d never discussed it with him, I knew that Billy’s father Helmut (later Howard) had escaped Nazi Germany with Billy’s grandparents, making their way from Switzerland to Cuba and eventually, the United States.  Billy’s mother was also Jewish, although his upbringing on Long Island had little Jewish content.

I contacted a mutual friend and asked if he’d get a message to Billy.  I remember the friend asking if I wanted to speak with him on the phone.  I said I preferred to put it down on paper.

I wrote a long, impassioned plea, asking Billy to not tour Russia without speaking about the plight of Soviet Jews, who were just then breaking the chains of their long oppression by the Communist regime.  I reminded him that we both were sons of German Jews who had been fortunate enough to escape the Nazis, and that very few people had spoken up for our families during that dark time.

The mutual friend promised to hand the typed letter to Billy.  There was no response.  A couple of weeks later, just before the tour began, I called to check, and was told that Billy had read it.  He proceeded with the tour, and never said a word about his fellow Jews.

I only spoke to Billy once after that, several years later, and didn’t bring it up. In 2001, I was surprised and pleased to see that he’d participated in a fascinating documentary called “The Joel Files.”  The film depicted the Nazi theft of Billy’s grandfather’s thriving business in Berlin, and showed the musician contemplating the names of his close relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust.

I was impressed and moved that Billy agreed to be part of that project.  And today, 38 years after I first met him, I actually gasped when I saw those photos online, of Billy wearing the yellow star that his relatives were forced to display before being dragged to their tragic deaths.  His ex-wife Christie Brinkley and their daughter Alexa both tweeted their support, with Brinkley writing “Thank you, Billy, for reminding people what was, so it may never be again”. 

I’m sure that seeing thugs marching through the streets of an American city, carrying Nazi-like torches and flags adorned with swastikas, must have infuriated him.  Perhaps being a father of two has affected Billy’s evolving relationship with his family’s history.  Whatever the reasons, I have the utmost respect and admiration for the Piano Man, now that he’s hit exactly the right note.

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