ZZ Ward knew she was a musician long before she knew she was Jewish: Had it not been for her exceptional talent, nourished by an immersive education in the Delta blues and hip-hop, she may never have known her true roots.
Ward has had a lot to take in these past couple of years. She has concurrently gained public recognition for her music while privately learning about her mother’s hidden Jewish past. In the media, she’s been labeled a successor to Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Amy Winehouse and Adele. At home, she’s been discovering from her Holocaust survivor grandmother who her ancestors really were.
“I just found out in the last two years that I’m Jewish,” Ward, 27, tells The Times of Israel in a phone interview from New York, where she is on tour. “I had no religion growing up, so I’m kind of going into this with a clean slate. It’s going to be an amazing journey.”
The Los Angeles-based Ward has exploded onto the American music scene with her smoky, soulful voice and powerful blend of hip-hop, blues and pop, which she calls “Dirty Shine.” Songs from her recently released debut album, “Til the Casket Drops,” some of them collaborations with noted hip-hop and rap artists like Kendrick Lamar and Freddie Gibbs, are climbing the charts and being featured on network television shows. Fans have been catching her appearances on Good Morning America and the Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, Carson Daly and Jimmy Kimmel shows.
Influential music critics have been taking notice of her, and not only for her attractive face and figure, long, blond hair, blue eyes and signature fedoras. “I have sixty or more of them,” she says of the hats. “I wear them as an homage to the Delta blues musicians who wore them and to whose music I grew up listening to.” (Ward loves the hats so much that she’s even designed a line of them for Broner Hats, a venerable Detroit-based company.)
Ward may be attending services at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills these days, but there weren’t any Jews where she grew up. Before coming to LA five years ago to seek her fortune in the music business, Ward lived on a 23-acre farm lot outside Roseburg, Oregon (ironically named for an early Jewish settler). Her parents had moved her and her two older brothers there from Philadelphia when Ward was six. “They wanted us to grow up away from city life,” she says of her psychiatric nurse mother and occupational therapist father.
There wasn’t much to do in the Pacific Northwest countryside (especially since her parents did not actually farm their land), so Ward began tinkering on the family’s organ, listening to her father’s collection of blues records, and taking a keen interest in her brothers’ hip-hop playlists. By age 12, she was gigging in bars with her father’s blues band, and later she joined several local hip-hop groups.
All the while, Ward was under the impression that she was descended from a Hungarian Catholic family on her mother’s side. She knew that her grandparents had suffered through World War II and then behind the Iron Curtain, that they had immigrated to the United States from Hungary with Ward’s mother (who was a young girl at the time), and that her mother had been brought up in a very Catholic home.
What she didn’t know was that her grandmother was born Jewish, having converted to Catholicism upon going into hiding with some of her family after being saved from deportation by an Arrow Cross soldier (a friend’s boyfriend). All her aunts and her stepfather were murdered.
ZZ is Ward’s stage name, and if it weren’t for her given name (which she shares with her mother and grandmother), she would never have discovered her Jewish heritage.
“My manager, Evan Bogart, is Jewish, and he was asking about my name, which is Zsuzsanna Eva. I told him that my mother and grandmother are also named Zsuzsanna, and I mentioned that my grandmother’s maiden name was Friedman and that her mother’s was Weiss,” she recalls. “He told me that Friedman and Weiss are Jewish names, but I didn’t think so, since my family wasn’t Jewish.”
“I asked my mom about it, and she didn’t know anything about it.” But when they asked her grandmother, she did know. “She admitted that she had become Catholic at 16 and that she had denied being Jewish because of her experiences in the Holocaust,” Ward shares. “She is still scared someone could hurt her.”
The revelation brought about changes for the family. Ward’s mother now wears a Star of David necklace, and her grandmother has become more forthcoming about the past. “It’s been really great because she’s opened up recently,” the granddaughter says.
As for her embracing her Jewish roots, Ward says it’s been fascinating to now, as an adult, rediscover who she is. Part of her is doing it for her grandmother.
“My reclaiming the positive aspects of being Jewish has really helped my grandmother feel more proud of her heritage now,” she says. But she’s also doing it for herself.
“I’m very driven, very loving and very strong. This comes from the women in my family, and those women are Jewish,” she explains. “Judaism is something that people wanted to take away from us, so I’m taking it back.”
Ward has made many Jewish friends in LA, and she is learning from them about Jewish traditions and observances. “The most important thing is traditions, because when I have kids I want to pass those on. I’m doing the High Holidays with friends, and hopefully I’ll do it enough times that I’ll know what I’m doing by the time I have kids.”
She admits that Hebrew is beyond her at this point. “I’m standing there at temple during services and I just keep hoping that no one’s looking at me.”
The busy performer, who’s out on the road a lot, isn’t home to spend as much time with her Temple Emanuel community as she would like. But she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“It’s a really busy lifestyle, a lot of responsibility, and I can’t let people down,” she reflects. “But I am blessed to have a career that is unique and inspiring… I have a voice in the world, and I want to use it — even if it means living with any hardships that come with that.”