Certainly all you aging baby boomers out there remember this song.
It was 1969 when Spirit in the Sky first hit the airwaves and we used to all sing the chorus:
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
That’s where I’m gonna go when I die
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
As I sang along, the lyrics invoking the name of Jesus confused me since Spirit in the Sky was performed by Norman Greenbaum who had an obvious Jewish sounding last name.
Noticing that, I distinctly remember thinking, “why would someone who was Jewish sing about Jesus?”
Important to note here: I too was Jewish. However, since my parents were totally non-religious, so was I. But there was one aspect of my heritage about which I was totally versed and that was Jews did not believe in Jesus.
My questioning this belief began around the age of 11 as I was singing a Christmas carol in school.
(During the 1960s in my public school everyone sang Christmas carols, regardless of your faith.)
The song which sparked my question was The First Noel, with its chorus, “born is the King of Israel.”
Since my Jewish family did not celebrate Christmas (a real bone of contention with me from a very early age) I began wondering why we ignored this Jewish Jesus who I just learned from a song was “born the King of Israel.”
Prompted by this phrase, I asked my mother, “Why don’t we believe in Jesus if He was born the King of Israel?”
Her scholarly reply was “because we are Jewish.”
Now fast forward a few years, as I am listening to Norman Greenbaum sing:
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with the spirit in the sky
These lyrics, combined with the Christmas carol incident just left me more confused about this “forbidden Jesus,” who was “born the King of Israel” and now I hear is “gonna set me up with the spirit in the sky.”
Throughout my teenage years more seeds of religious curiosity were planted, eventually sprouting into a glorious garden leading me to be baptized, “in the name of Jesus” at the age of 21.
So how many of you practice a faith that is different from the one in which you were born and raised?
Many of you is my guess.
For the record, baby boomers are a relatively religious bunch. According to Pew Research:
Among Baby Boomers, 43% say they are a “strong” member of their religion, a higher share than among younger adults and a lower share than among older ones. Four-in-ten say they attend religious services at least once a week.
Then, a new Gallup study on religion just released this week states:
Although it is always difficult to predict the future, certain trends in the age composition of the American public suggest that religion may become increasingly important in the years to come. This is mostly the result of the fact that the number of Americans who are 65 and older will essentially double over the next 20 years, dramatically increasing the number of older Americans. As long as these aging baby boomers become more religious as they age — following the path of their elders — the average religiousness in the population will go up.
So from Pew and Gallup we learn that Christianity, and this message, as reflected in the Spirit in the Sky lyrics is increasingly striking a chord with aging baby boomers:
Prepare yourself, you know it’s a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He’s gonna recommend you to the spirit in the sky
While researching this piece I discovered some interesting facts.
Mr. “Spirit in the Sky,” Norman Greenbaum was born in 1942 (which means he is NOT a baby boomer) and is from my hometown of Boston.
Since my maternal Grandmother’s maiden name was also Greenbaum and she settled in Boston after arriving from Russia around 1910, is it safe to assume that Norman and I are somehow related?
Furthermore, Wiki has this to say about my newly discovered long lost relative:
Although “Spirit in the Sky” has a clear Christian theme, Greenbaum was, and still is, a practicing Jew. Greenbaum says he was inspired to write the song after watching country singers Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner singing a religious song on television.
Regardless of Norman’s motives in writing his only hit, the song played a role in bringing me to believe that Jesus was and is the Jewish Messiah, “born the King of Israel.”
(And as you can imagine, Dora Greenbaum Cohen’s daughter, my non-religious Jewish mother Gloria Cohen Kahn, was not at all happy about my embracing that Jewish King.)
So please do comment about any family trauma your faith change may have caused and we can all compare notes.