Not many writers can claim they once were able to get everyone’s favorite Vulcan/human hybrid to spontaneously sing in Yiddish. Last month at the Santa Monica Museum of Art, Josh Kun hosted a signing event of his current book, And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost. The evening included a name-that-tune portion with the former Mr. Spock and one-time Tevye, Leonard Nimoy. Kun threw out Yiddish classics and Jewish standards recognizable to most of the audience, as well as some nuggets not even Nimoy, who was raised in a Yiddish-speaking family, was familiar with. Turns out the Temptations once too fiddled with a pop cover of “If I Were a Rich Man,” decades before Gwen Stefani got her acrylics into the show tune. And you can’t call yourself a chosen one until you’ve heard the recently departed Eartha Kitt purr her way through the klezmer staple “Roumania, Roumania,” singing about the old days in the old country.
Kun and co-author Roger Bennett have spent the past eight years at record stores, flea markets and yard sales from here to Boca Raton (the “place Jewish vinyl goes to die”) collecting thousands of LPs to uncover the forgotten, misty watercolored history of Jewish-American music: once-popular artists, little-known records and entire genres from Jewish Christmas records to the rise of patriotic Israeli folk after the creation of the state. We’ve always had Streisand, Neil and Barry, but the authors devote more time paying homage to the singers who didn’t make the charts, like the Brothers Zim, the Barry Sisters, Theodore Bikel and Mickey Katz, who, in this very un-P.C. age of Sarah Silverman comedy, might seem as quaint as a phonograph.
“We realized we were sitting on this gold mine as visual information,” says Kun, who’s an associate professor at USC (and former L.A. Weekly scribe), of the approximately 500 vinyl album covers featured in the book. “So much of it is about the American story. We were focusing on the thrift stores and yard sales within the U.S. so we could get a gauge of what Americans were listening to in the past.”
Following a foreword by Neil Sedaka, Kun and Bennett cover 40 years’ worth of music, dating back to the 1940s and the liturgical albums by cantors who were treated like highly paid rock stars of their day. The 1950s saw the resurgence of the Yiddish language by way of Yiddish theater classics as pop tunes. “After the Holocaust, the population of Yiddish speakers was virtually destroyed,” says Kun. “In the U.S., there was an attempt to keep Yiddish alive and what that language was a part of, which was this enormously beautiful and thriving culture of literature and film and theater and the arts. After World War II, artists tried to keep that world alive, to try to jump-start a new interest in how these older songs could be remembered in new ways.”
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The 1950s also brought about the Jewish Latin trend that had the entire country mambo-ing and cha-cha-cha-ing; the authors call Irving Fields’ 1959 Decca album Bagels and Bongos — which features mambo and merengue versions of “My Yiddishe Momme” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schon (To Me You Are Beautiful)” — the “White Album of the Jewish Latin craze.”
The partnership between blacks and Jews is more complex, and as long as the history of American pop music itself. “It’s indicative of the many ways blacks and Jews have communicated with each other, and the way we’ve been able to see each other in each other’s struggles,” says Kun. “But, of course, the music is also a document of some of the exploitation and some of the unequal partnerships that have happened over the years.” The book forgoes the story of Tin Pan Alley, blackface and the most famous black Jew, Sammy Davis Jr.; though the Candy Man never actually recorded Jewish music, he did release a 45-rpm single produced by the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith. Instead, Kun and Bennett focus on the postwar black-Jewish exchange, unearthing forgotten works from Johnny Mathis, Nat King Cole and Paul Robeson to Artie Shaw and David Axelrod. And as for the “Fiddler on the Roof” medley on the Temptations’ album On Broadway, you’ll find close to a dozen other reworkings, including a full-length issue by Cannonball Adderley, and Puerto Rican drummer Joe Quijano’s Fiddler on the Roof Goes Latin.
Of course, it doesn’t end with Broadway. Non-Jews covering Jewish material goes back to the first drunken goy who sang “Hava Nagila.” Connie Francis, Perry Como and Pat Boone were some of the earliest crossover stars, but who remembers Johnny Yune? The Korean-born singer and comic, who lives in Rowland Heights (just one of the book’s many L.A.-centric stories) and still performs a Vegas act, released the 1975 Ose Shalom album, featuring his version of “My Yiddishe Mama.” And apparently, it brought even guest talking-head and legendary TV producer Norman Lear to tears. “Suddenly, I was crying, and my grandmother, my baba, long gone, was in the room with me,” admits Lear in the book. High praise coming from the man who got Sammy Davis Jr. to kiss Archie Bunker.
AND YOU SHALL KNOW US BY THE TRAIL OF OUR VINYL: THE JEWISH PAST AS TOLD BY THE RECORDS WE HAVE LOVED AND LOST | By JOSH KUN and ROGER BENNETT | Crown Books