Baltimore’s ‘Rockin’ Rabbi’ Remembers Meeting Tom Petty in Israel

Tom Petty performs at Baltimore’s Royal Farms Arena in July. (Photo by Marc Shapiro)

Thirty years ago, Baltimore resident Avraham Rosenblum found himself standing at the Western Wall explaining to Tom Petty that it was the holiest place in Judaism, and that the foundation stone below the Dome of the Rock is considered the foundation stone of the universe.

“That’s a pretty wild rock,” Petty said as he walked away from the Wall, captured in a YouTube clip. “Ten years of Sunday school and this guy told me more in five minutes than I ever grasped from that.”

Petty, whose hits such as “American Girl,” “Free Falling” and “I Won’t Back Down” made him one of the most legendary rock stars of all time, died Monday at 66.

In the course of his decades of touring the world, Petty was bound to end up playing in Israel — and he did for the first time in September 1987, at the start of his “Temple in Flames” tour. Earlier that year he had released “Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough),” his seventh album with his band, The Heartbreakers.

In a show called “Rock Israel,” MTV chronicled part of Petty’s trip to the Holy Land, which the rocker described as a whirlwind. In the YouTube clip, Petty meets with Rosenblum, known as the “Rockin’ Rabbi,” who was leader of a Chasidic band in Israel called the Diaspora Yeshiva Band that blended rock and bluegrass with religious lyrics.

“I’m not really familiar enough with the rules and regulations of the religion,” Petty said. “I think anybody should be able to pick up an instrument and jump around.”

Rosenblum said Petty and those with him, including evangelical Christian and former member of The Byrds Roger McGuinn, were laid-back, soft-spoken and asked good questions. Petty, who called the site “really amazing,” even asked if they were in modest dress.

“I gave them what I thought were a couple of good, far-out answers that I thought they could hold on to,” Rosenblum said. “That was a big moment in my life and I hope I contributed something to his for the duration.”

Rosenblum also explained some of Jerusalem’s geography and said some rabbis believe “the whole process of music” began in Israel.

Petty’s music influenced Rosenblum, a singer and guitarist, who said there are some songs he recorded that “had a lot of the Tom Petty flavor.”

“He was really the great collector of all that late-’60s and early-’70s energy,” he said. “The revolution was still in the air in his music.

“I’m really sorry to see him go. He was still a young man in his prime,” Rosenblum added. “I always kind of hoped I’d be able to run into him again, and it didn’t happen.”

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