By Howard Blas
Music fans of a certain age and generation recognize the name Jorma Kaukonen as a founding member of the classic rock groups, Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna. Few realize, however, that the 71-year old guitarist is Jewish — with deep family ties to the Ellington Jewish community.
Jorma Kakounen grew up in Washington, D.C., the son of a Finnish-American father and Jewish mother. Since his father, Jorma Sr, was a State Department official, Kaukonen traveled extensively as a child, including stints in the Philippines and Pakistan.
“Both of my maternal grandparents came from Russia and were Jewish tobacco growers,” he recalls. “They were part of the Ellington Orthodox shul. All the Levines and Dopkins in Ellington are relatives. One of my relatives, Shmuel Levine, even scribed a Torah scroll!”
Kaukonen picked up his first guitar at age 15, and has been an important figure in the music world for more than fifty years. Kaukonen attended Antioch College in Ohio, worked and studied in New York, traveled abroad, then moved to the San Francisco Bay area where he played and taught guitar. A banjo playing friend invited him to join a rock band — which he later helped name — The Jefferson Airplane.
Kaukonen is perhaps best known for his work with Jefferson Airplane, which included such well-known members as Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Jack Casady and Grace Slick, and performed at three of the best known music festivals of the 1960s — Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont. When the band broke up in 1973, Kaukonen and bassist, Casady, formed Hot Tuna. Kaukonen continued to tour with Electric Hot Tuna, Acoustic Hot Tuna, and alone. He remains a highly respected practitioner and teacher of finger-style guitar, as well as an interpreter of roots and blues music.
Kaukonen is also a proud Jew. Though, growing up, he and his family were not particularly observant, his interest in the Jewish religion and Israel has been rekindled in recent years.
“I was born Jewish. I didn’t have a bar mitzvah. We had a seder — in a way. My grandmother, Emma Goldman, would have been considered a hippie, and my grandfather would have been considered Orthodox!” Kakounen told the Ledger in a recent phone interview.
In 1988, Kakounen met Vanessa. They married several months later. It was, ironically, through the Catholic-born Vanessa that the couple became more interested in Judaism. Through a very complex series of events — that began when Vanessa observed her husband’s road manager, Ira Silver, lighting a yahrtzeit candle – Vanessa’s interest in Judaism was sparked. She briefly moved away from this interest, and on a trip to Cabo San Lucas a few years later, discovered a book about kabbalah.
The couple continued exploring Judaism together. Ultimately Vanessa converted to Judaism. Her husband proudly reports that he studied along with Vanessa and actually “reconverted.” The Kakounens live in southeastern Ohio, where they operate the Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp. It is located on 125 acres of fields, woods, hills, and streams in the Appalachian foothills. Kaukonen proudly reports in our interview, “Last night, we hosted a special children’s Rosh Hashanah program at the ranch.” The Kaukonens are very connected to the Hillel at the University of Ohio, and note that they would send their 8-year old daughter, Israel, to Hebrew School, “if there was one within 100 miles!” The Kakounens also receive regular visits from an Ohio Chabad rabbi.
Two years ago, the rock star visited Israel for the first time. At midnight, during the Tel Aviv Hot Tuna concert, fans sang “Happy Birthday” in Hebrew, and he was presented with a birthday cake. He briefly toured Israel, ate chumous at a famous Jaffa restaurant, and put on tefillin at the Kotel. Kakounen looks forward to returning to Israel this winter, with concerts on Dec. 13 in Jerusalem and Dec. 15 in Tel Aviv.
Howard Blas is a freelance writer living in New York City.