Her Life Was Saved by Rock 'n' Roll: Ellen Willis Espoused the Existential Crises of Rock
When I was in yeshiva, I had, crammed between my bed and the wall of my cockroach-infested dorm room, an AM/FM radio and cassette player on which I listened to contraband music such as R.E.M., Simon & Garfunkel and Pink Floyd. Say what you will about my taste in those days — though I make no apologies — listening to those bands was a protest against the yeshiva’s prohibition of secular music, as well as a window onto a world of culture and feeling beyond the school’s isolated suburban campus.
In her touchstone 1976 essay, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” music and cultural critic Ellen Willis, in recounting her near conversion to Orthodox Judaism, relates a similar episode. It wasn’t that listening to music in itself caused her to reject the overtures of Noach and Dena Weinberg, founders of the Aish HaTorah yeshiva in Jerusalem; rather, it was the life experiences rock music represented that ultimately trumped a religious worldview. “Rock had been a major factor in my recovery [from depression],” she wrote. “It had the power to move me when almost nothing else did.” Or, as the epigraph that introduces the essay’s final section proclaims: “You know her life was saved by rock and roll.”