Standing 6’1” and wearing a porkpie hat, Peter Himmelman, cuts a noticeable figure. If you were to see him at a party, for instance, you might be drawn to introduce yourself to him. Just don’t try to engage this natural communicator in small talk by asking him what he does. For Himmelman, the question is fraught with complexity.
“I try to not to get into a position where I’d be asked that,” he says half jokingly. “It depends on who’s asking the question, but I guess I’d just say that I’m a creative-type.”
The truth is that Peter Himmelman wears — by virtue of both calling and necessity — many more hats than just his signature porkpie. He is a rock star, a visual artist, a composer for movies and television, a children’s entertainer, and a web series variety show host. Most recently, he’s been focused on his new Big Muse project, by which he works as a creativity and communication mentor for non-profit organizations and for-profit corporations.
The singer-songwriter is also a husband, a father of four grown children ages 17 to 23, and an observant Jew (before there was Matisyahu, there was Peter Himmelman). Last but not least, he’s the son-in-law of the legendary Bob Dylan.
Himmelman is willing to talk about all of these things, except for the last one. Acknowledging only that, “it’s interesting to have close proximity, a front row seat, so to speak, to something so large,” he is reticent to speak about his wife’s father, whose privacy he respects. “The commandment to honor your mother and father extends to your in-laws, as well,” he notes in a phone interview with The Times of Israel from his home in Santa Monica, California.
A bit older and grayer now at the age of 53, but still rocking out, Himmelman has traded in the bandanas and knit caps that would cover his head onstage in his younger days for his “nice accumulation” of dark-colored wool felt hats. The top of his head has been hidden from public view since his mid-20s, when he fell in with Chabad and began observing mitzvot.
‘I wear a yarmulke in normal life, but I always thought the yarmulke was too strong of a sectarian symbol for me to wear while performing’
“I wear a yarmulke in normal life, but I always thought the yarmulke was too strong of a sectarian symbol for me to wear while performing,” Himmelman explains. “And anyway, a yarmulke would fly off my head while I was on stage.”
All the things that come along with covering his head, like daily prayer, not recording or performing on Shabbat and holidays, and observing the laws of Kashrut, meant that from the beginning, Himmelman’s career as a rock musician would take a different trajectory than most. Staying off the tour bus and home with family more than other successful artists has posed challenges, but has also presented unexpected opportunities.
Traveling the beaten path has never been Himmelman’s thing. Having embarked on a musical career at 16 after showing up to an audition for a black Calypso band called Shangoya in his native Minneapolis with an amp he had bought with his bar mitzvah money (he got the gig and never looked back), he never went to college.
“I was so removed from academia,” Himmelman now recalls. “One of my friends was heading off to Brown, which to me was a hue, not a college.” In hindsight, he attributes his lack of focus on higher education at the time to his father’s having been diagnosed with lymphoma when Himmelman was 18, and then dying five years later.
“I talked to my dad about it, and he told me to make sure I kept on reading, which I have done. I’ve read all the classics, but, for instance, I don’t know anything about European history. There are holes in my education,” the autodidact admits.
‘You can’t negate the paradigm you know’
Himmelman’s wife of 25 years, Maria, has multiple degrees. His three older children have completed or are currently enrolled in university, and his youngest will also go. Still, his not having personally pursued higher education is not an outright regret. “I’ve experienced a different way. You can’t negate the paradigm you know.”
Blessed with natural intelligence and great creativity, Himmelman found that he could create his own job… many times over.
“It boils down to curiosity. If your curiosity is greater than your fear, then you can pursue it,” he explains about the ability to successfully pursue various creative professional endeavors. “It’s about mastery in a field. When you come up against experience again and again, it gives the illusion of talent.”
After playing from 1979 to 1985 with his band, Sussman Lawrence, he set out on a solo recording career with the release in 1985 of his first album, “This Father’s Day.” That soulful — even spiritual — album has been followed my many more, including “Gematria,” “From Strength to Strength,” “Flown This Acid World,” and “Skin.” He also branched out into creating music for children, releasing albums like “My Best Friend is a Salamander,” “My Fabulous Plum,” and the Grammy-nominated “My Green Kite.”
Faced with the hefty cost of Jewish day school tuitions and regular trips to Israel, along with the other expenses associated with living a Jewishly committed family life, Himmelman readily took advantage of lucrative offers to score films and television programs. Fans of the long-running FOX series “Bones” will recognize his name from the show’s opening credits. His work on “Judging Amy,” a television drama that ran on CBS from 1999 to 2005 earned him an Emmy nomination.
For better or worse, Himmelman defines success in the same terms as most of the rest of us living in today’s society: wealth, property, power, sex and strength.
“It’s hard to eschew those definitions,” he says. “The question is whether you have the ability to look, if not live, beyond that.”
He says he occasionally does get that glimpse beyond, and proposes that it might have something to do with Judaism. Preferring to avoid labels of affiliation and referring to himself as “a practitioner of Jewish ritual,” he admits that some days he finds that ritual unbelievably boring and frustrating. However, the disengagement offered by Shabbat from pervasive, sales-fueled technology greatly enriches his life.
“If it weren’t for my dad’s dying, I wouldn’t have made such a turn,” Himmelman suggests about his embracing traditional Judaism at age 25. At the same time, he is certain that the ritual and structure it imposes complimented the way he already thought, believed and felt.
‘The way I go through the world is chaotic’
“The way I go through the world is chaotic. My drives are strong. I view the application of structures not as a limitation, but rather as a safeguard and a springboard toward greater creativity and freedom,” he says.
“The idea that there is a ruling force (God), that there is an organizing principle to everything and that there is too much complexity for total randomness, is native to me,” he continues.
Himmelman’s connection with Daniel Pearl, the American Jewish journalist who was kidnapped and beheaded by Islamic terrorists in 2002, serves as an example of this outlook. Following Pearl’s murder, Himmelman read a great deal about him and the political context of the killing.
“I would go to sleep sometimes thinking about Danny Pearl. I would think about what an amazing person he was and that I would have wanted a friend like him.”
Then, Himmelman read a piece by a Wall Street Journal journalist who had been Pearl’s friend and colleague. In it, the journalist recounted how Himmelman had been Pearl’s favorite musical artist and that he and Pearl had gone to see Himmelman in concert in Washington, DC, even going backstage to meet the singer.
Himmelman tracked the writer down, worrying that he had perhaps not been nice enough to the fans. It turns out that he had been very gracious and had even given Pearl a broken guitar string as a souvenir. In the years since this revelation, Himmelman has reached out to Pearl’s parents and become friendly with them.
“It serves as a deep metaphor for me. You think you know the things you are doing, but you can’t really see their consequences.”
His latest venture, Big Muse, has gotten him out of the isolation of the recording studio and into the headquarters of major corporations like McDonalds and the Gap, and organizations like the Wounded Warrior Project, helping thousands of people unleash their creativity through songwriting. Inspired by Daniel Pink’s, “A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future,” Himmelman is also penning a book, titled, “Marv or the Milky Way” to further explicate and spread his methodology for making one’s dreams come true.
Marv is a fictional character he has invented to symbolize our inner critic.
“Marv is in me almost all the time, except when I’m creating,” shares Himmelman, who has had to repeatedly pick himself up and dust himself off in an effort to continuously reinvent himself in a world in which the music industry has experienced a profound disruption.
Does he see it as ironic that the rock star is now working with the suits? Not at all. “They’re not suits to me. People are people.”
“I don’t purport to know anything about business, but what I do know is fearlessness, creativity, and the value of sharing ideas,” he says. “And I also know the value of failing.”