Without A Net

Pop culture from Southern California and beyond.

"Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set" celebrates a swingin' lost era

Somewhere between the start of the sexual revolution and the advent of J-Date, those in the Jewish singles scene had a few denominational issues to address. At the forefront was a question a suitor might ask any intended: orthodox, conservative or reformed?

For singer Bernie Knee, though, it wasn’t a question. It was a menu.

The song “Orthodox, Conservative or Reformed” is a lusty testament to intra-faith non-discrimination, written by Tin Pan Alley veterans Moe Jaffe and Henry Tobias and voiced with carnal delight by New York singer Knee on his 1965 album Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set. And now it’s a centerpiece of a CD package using the same title spotlighting the incredibly wide range of Jewish-themed music put out by the Tikva Records label, which was ambitious as it is obscure in its 168 albums released between 1950 and 1973, all under the watch of an idiosyncratic visionary named Al Jacobs. The anthology, with detailed booklet, is being released Nov. 22 (just in time for early Hanukkah shopping) by the also-ambitious Jewish culture reissue label of the Idleshohn Society for Musical Preservation.

Jet Set shines a light on a time when a generation of Jewish-Americans -- largely the children of immigrants, emerging from the shadow of World War II -- grappled for a sense of just what it meant to be Jewish-Americans. Material ranges from that randy example to Israeli folk (the Yemenite Trio) to Eastern European-rooted klezmer (the Epstein Brothers) to reverb-drenched garage rock (the Sabras) to rock parody (Leo Fuchs’ “Yiddish Twist”) to more pointed comedy, satire and downright hokum (Knee’s second selection, “Passover On the Range”).

Idelsohn co-founder Josh Kun, whose day job is as a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication & Journalism, knows about this identity struggle all too well. Growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s in West L.A. he was very influenced by his grandparents who had come over from Hungary shortly before World War II, remaining “modern Orthodox.” 

“I always grappled with whether to live the way they lived or be a secular West. L.A. kid who wanted to be a new waver,” he says. “How do I reconcile Duran Duran with Torah? And I chose Duran Duran. That choice and the tug of war is something I still grapple with and I guess is a pretty typical Jewish experience.”

Sound like an Al Jolson movie?

“‘The Jazz Singer’ without blackface, but with hair mousse!” he suggests.

That’s at the core of much of what the not-for-profit Idelsohn -- which he runs with California music business veterans Courtney Holt and David Katznelson and New York-based Roger Bennett -- has done. The small-but-growing catalog includes Jewface (a collection of wax cylinder recordings from the Vaudeville era), Mazeltov Mis Amigos (Jewish classics-gone-Latin under the direction of Juan Calle and featuring some of the greatest names in the ‘60s New York salsa scene) and last year’s Black Sabbath (African-American artists, including Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Johnny Mathis, covering Jewish songs). 

The Tikva catalog represented a lost episode in American Jewry even more than those, arguably. The Idelsohn crew only became aware of it in the course of its research for the 2008 book of Jewish album covers, And You Shall Know Us By the Trail of Our Vinyl, finding more and more things coming to their attention bearing the Tikva imprint. As they looked more deeply into it, they were startled by the history and scope. 

“There was this great mystery of Tikva -- five people around the world obsessed with it, how could there have been hundreds of releases and no one knew about it?” he says. 

Whittling it all down to the 20 tracks on the new CD was tough, but the selections offer a colorful picture of the endeavor.  Yes, a lot of it might be considered novelty music, but that doesn’t bother Kun. Even some of the shticky stuff, he notes, brings some real insight and connection to the shifting culture of the time. There’s a rendition of the accents/culture divisions ditty “I’m a Litvak -- He’s a Galitz” by the husband/wife team of clarinetist Marty Levitt and singer Harriet Kane, for example. And even another Western-themed satire, “Shalom Pardner,” sung by Leo Fuchs, who himself moved west from New York to Hollywood where he was cast in movies regularly as, in Kun’s words, “the old Jewish guy,” notably alongside Gene Wilder in The Frisco Kid

“I love comedy,” Kun says. “I love camp and kitsch and don’t see them as negative things, but as rewarding and liberating in many cases. I’ve come to think that in most cases a lot of what has been called novelty, historically, is just stuff people didn’t know where to put. Novelty records is outlier stuff. People call it novelty so they don’t have to take it seriously. A lot on this album mixes cultural styles, does Yiddish-English translations that are funny. But it crosses over lines and makes us think about what all this might mean.”

If you're going to be in the Bay Area in December, stop by the Tikva Records "pop-up" store being put together in connection with this release. Details here

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