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Mickey and Mortie 

Wednesday, Aug 30 2000

MICKEY KATZ Greatest Shticks (Koch)

“Mort” is short for both Morton and Mortie. He’s my grandfather on my mother’s side, and he’s not dead yet. He probably will be soon — a year, or two, or 10. I wish he wouldn’t be, but ever since he started going to dialysis three times a week, ever since he started hunching over a curved wooden cane, ever since his handicapped placard became more important than his passport, ever since his skin started drying into shriveled purple clouds, ever since memory became something he couldn’t control and something that just happened, I’ve thought about him in terms of his eventual absence from my life.

Our conversations rarely cover the present, save for fleeting exchanges about rising gas prices and the difference in weather between where I live in West Los Angeles and where he lives in the country-club flatlands of the desert. Instead we talk mostly of what has passed — the dual-prop plane he used to fly over the Salton Sea before his heart condition grounded him for good, the building he owned after the war that just happened to be a brothel.

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His stories will be part of what preserves him after he’s gone, but stories need their own preservation. So I’ve started to practice remembering them by collecting objects, intimate and ephemeral aide-mémoire that resonate with the events and textures of his life. More often than not they come in musical form, as songs crackling over AM radio, as cassettes stained with age. Pete Fountain. The Ink Spots. The Mills Brothers. (An aside: When my grandfather hears the four black men sing “Queen of the Senior Prom,” his eyes fill up with tears and he thinks of his white daughter with white-blond hair on her prom night.)

More than anyone, though, I hear my grandfather in the music of Mickey Katz, the clarinetist and Yinglish parodist from the ’50s. Which is funny, because even though I know he knows the music (he can sing along with “Haim Afen Range”), I don’t think my grandfather ever owned one of Mickey’s records. He just played bridge with him at the Friars Club, and Mickey and his band, the Kosher Jammers, were the featured act at my great-grandparents’ 50th-wedding-anniversary party.

Like Katz, my grandfather was a first-generation Yiddish-speaking immigrant Midwestern Jew: Mortie the Russian in North Dakota, Mickey the Latvian in Ohio. It was the early ’60s by the time they knew each other. Katz was doing Hello, Solly on Broadway and discovering the hard way that his Yiddish-English Catskillian clowning was falling on the deaf ears of American Jews eager to put the memory of genocide and their off-white pasts behind them. Katz’s era was more transitional: the ’50s, when he churned out albums full of parodies that hijacked any song on the charts, anything that was at all popular (“That’s Amore”) or at all beloved by the national masses (“The Ballad of Davy Crockett”), and made it loudly, hilariously, obnoxiously, brilliantly Jewish.

Katz rode the line between Jewishness and Americanness bareback — no white Christmases or Easter parades, no Al Jolson plantation fantasies or de-Semitizing name changes. With Hitler still fresh in everyone’s mind, Katz relished his role as the carnivalesque, too-Jewish outsider, the Borscht Belt jester pariah who kept speaking Yiddish even after self-hating club owners and radio DJs urged him to stop.

Katz took Tennessee Ernie Ford’s coal-mining rendition of “Sixteen Tons” and made it into a kosher-deli work song. Johnny Mercer’s smooth “That Old Black Magic” became a rough “Old Black Smidgick.” Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater” — who once had bobbysoxers running for their lives — was now “poiple,” ate “kishkes,” and saw the world through “eyes like latkes.” And in the middle of every song was a burst of straight-up old-school klezmer, a moment of total musical explosion and release when Katz’s nasal squeals and guttural glugs were displaced by the sound of his clarinet making urban-shtetl party music out of mambos and opera pop, easy-listening glides and cowboy kitsch.

Even though Katz was radical in a way that my grandfather wasn’t (to this day, Mort is uncomfortable with any outward display of Jewishness that might ruffle American feathers), I still think of Katz’s music as his music, music that bears the sound of being torn between living as a racial other and an assimilated white American. Katz worked out his relationship with America in public so my grandfather — and hordes of other Jews of his generation — could worry about it in private.

The other morning at breakfast (Mortie cod and raw onion, me corned-beef hash and poached eggs), all I could get out of him was that Mickey was a “lousy” bridge player and that his band used to hit all the “tank towns” across the Midwestern farm belt. I had heard both of these stories before. I let him tell me again anyway.

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