As it turns out, when the Grammy Award-winning singer Helen Reddy sang her feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” she could’ve also sang “I Am Jewish.”
The Australian-born Reddy, who died on Sept. 29 in Los Angeles at age 78, converted to Judaism before marrying her second husband and manager, Jeff Wald, in 1968.
“I am very sad to announce that my first wife of 18 years and the mother of my two oldest Traci and Jordan has died,” Wald tweeted.
In a 1975 People magazine interview, Reddy described their marriage as volatile, with “huge, healthy fights” due to her success. “He runs it all,” she said. “Naturally, when the moment of performance comes, I have to deliver — but everything else is him. It’s not my career; it’s our career.”
The couple divorced in 1983 and had a son, Jordan, now 39 and a film director, producer and writer. Reddy was married three times and had two children and one granddaughter, Lily Donat.
Among her hits were “Delta Dawn,” “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (from “Jesus Christ Superstar”), “Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady,” “You and Me Against the World,” “Angie Baby,” “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)” and “I Believe in Music,” the latter penned by singer-songwriter Mac Davis, who also died Sept. 29 at age 78.
But it was the soaring, anthemic “I Am Woman,” which she co-wrote with Australian musician Ray Burton, that made Reddy a household name and reached the top of the Billboard charts at the end of 1972. Reddy won a Grammy for best female pop vocal performance the following year.
“I’d like to thank God, because she makes everything possible,” Reddy famously said in her acceptance speech.
In interviews, Reddy attributed her growing awareness of the feminist movement and her impetus to writing “I Am Woman” to her friend and fellow Australian-Jewish expatriate Lillian Roxon, a noted music journalist and author born Lillian Ropschitz in Italy.
Reddy was diagnosed with dementia in 2017, and since then lived at the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s Samuel Goldwyn Center for Behavioral Health in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Her children, Traci Donat and Jordan Sommers, confirmed her death in a post on Facebook.
“It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved mother,” they wrote. “She was a wonderful Mother, Grandmother and a truly formidable woman. Our hearts are broken. But we take comfort in the knowledge that her voice will live on forever.”
Reddy was born in Melbourne to well-known show business parents, who took her on the Australian Vaudeville circuit at the age of 4. In her teen years, they took her out of boarding school and back on the road.
In 1966, Reddy came to New York with only a suitcase, $230 and her 3-year-old daughter, to pursue a career in music and acting.
In the mid and late 1970s, after becoming one of the era’s most successful singers, Reddy appeared in the Disney children’s film “Pete’s Dragon,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” and as a singing nun in “Airport 1975.” She also made guest appearances on several television shows and in the 1980s on the stage.
In 2002, Reddy retired from show business and returned to Australia to work as a practicing hypnotherapist and motivational speaker. She made a brief comeback in 2012, performing in several concerts, and sang “I Am Woman” three years ago at the Los Angeles Women’s March.
In December of 2000, at the release of her album titled “The Best Christmas Ever,” Reddy told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that she honored her Jewish faith by making sure that none of the songs on the recording mentioned Jesus.
Later in life, Reddy learned from an aunt that her maternal grandmother had been secretly Jewish.
“I was raised as a Christian, although neither of my parents practiced religion of any kind,” Reddy told the Detroit Jewish News in 1999. “I think spirituality is more about what’s in your heart and how you treat people than whether you’re keeping two sets of dishes.”
Reddy’s passing comes only weeks after the release of the biographical film “I Am Woman,” chronicling her life and career.
“I will forever be grateful to Helen for teaching me so much about being an artist, a woman and a mother,” Unjoo Moon, the film’s director, said in a statement. “She paved the way for so many, and the lyrics that she wrote for ‘I am Woman’ changed my life forever like they have done for so many other people and will continue to do for generations to come. She will always be a part of me and I will miss her enormously.”
Marcy Oster writes for the JTA global Jewish news source. Jmore staff members contributed to this report.
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