Sounds of Sensibility

Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett

Appeared in "Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought"; Issue No. 185. Vol. 47, no. 1 (Winter 1998), special issues on klezmer music, pp. 49-788.

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Performing Obsolescence

As Benjamin Botkin has noted, "Every revival contains within itself the seed not only of its own destruction (in our mass entertainment the destruction proceeds from repetition and dullness as much as from catering to the lowest common denominator) but also of the new revivals."113 An indication that a revival (or other kind of musical movement) has run its course is parody. The Jewish music identified with Bikel became a prime target. Allan Sherman's album My Son, the Folk Singer (1962) was so funny and insightful, according to Richard Gehman, that it was sure to "send Theo Bikel into another line of work."114 A year earlier, Bob Dylan had launched an attack on the kind of music identified with Bikel when he performed "Talkin' Hava Negeilah Blues," which one critic characterized as mocking "the quintessential American Jewish tune"--it is the one Jewish tune that David Krakauer can remember hearing when he was growing up. Dylan's version was "an epitaph for the Hebrew folk songs sung by folk singers like Theodore Bikel and the Weavers as a vaguely leftist, working-man's ethnic repertoire. The mockery was prescient: The left would not be strumming love songs about Israeli soldiers much longer. Dylan, with his inspired instinct for the authentic, was first to smell the phonies."115 So could Al Capp, "who introduced a new character into his widely syndicated comic strip 'Little Abner' named 'Joanie Phonie'," based on Joan Baez.116

Some of the first neo-klezmers shared this sensibility. NAMA Orchestra, based in Los Angeles, explained on their 1978 album, Mazltov!, that what made their music special and rare was precisely its departure from "existing records of Yiddish songs [which] tend to feature either operatically trained vocalists accompanied by symphony orchestras, or folk singers with a guitar."117 Unlike them, NAMA's Pearl Rottenberg "sings in a strong natural voice, accompanied a small folk orchestra, such as might have been found in the villages of Eastern Europe." The term klezmer does not appear. The Jewish numbers are part of the band's repertoire of largely Balkan folk music.

While Allan Sherman and Bob Dylan were quick to parody the Jewish music they identified with Bikel, it could be said that Bikel and Schlamme marked out a place for Jewish music within an international folk music scene, a place that would later be filled by klezmer music. So too did the parodies. Parody is an integral part of the heritage complex, a "museum" in its own right. The Jewish parodists, not the revivalists, were the ones in the fifties and sixties to compose new material and set Jewish/Yiddish lyrics to popular tunes. At the same time, they recognized that they were working with "heritage music." The cover for Mickey Katz Plays Music for Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Brisses shows Katz "sitting in a baby carriage, presumably after my own bris, smoking a cigar." However, this was not a comedy album, but strictly a recording of instrumental numbers. Recalling the late forties and fifties when he cut the English-Yiddish comedy records for which he is so vividly remembered, Katz said of this album, his second for Capitol, "Every note of the album breathes the flavor of the old but little- known happy Jewish music of the old country, yet all the tunes are original.118 Parody also anticipates the irreverence and eclecticism that would become hallmarks of the klezmer revival.

The mapping of sensibility in this period--serious music was respectful, irreverent music was comic--was upturned as some of the new klezmers took irreverence seriously. They produced not the Shtetl Lite of Fiddler on the Roof, but what has been called Heavy Shtetl or "the new, in-your-face Jewish music."119 They and their fans relished the mischief of Don Byron's performances of Mickey Katz's music and the Klezmer Madness of David Krakauer. The promotional copy on The Klezmorim's Metropolis album positively describes their models as musicians who "played like demons," stirred "dancers to a frenzy," and exhibited a style "full of unorthodox tonalities and "crazily-interlocking rhythms--the rollicking, vodka-soaked sound of a steam calliope gone mad." Three groups have named themselves Klezmania! (San Francisco, Boston, and Melbourne, Australia) and a New England high school band calls itself Klezmaniacs.

Parody is an example of what Steven Mullaney has called a rehearsal of culture--namely, a performance that is self-consuming in the sense that it is "ultimately organized around the elimination of its own pretext."120 As ethnographic burlesque, which has a long history and was a tool of the Jewish Enlightenment, such parody displays its target in extraordinary detail and makes that display a vehicle for sensibility, which is what animates the parody in the first place. Stempenyu, discussed by Rothstein in this issue, is a case in point.

The Jewish wedding has long been the focus of such treatment. A kind of primal scene of Jewish survival, the wedding is where the promise and crisis of cultural reproduction and biological survival get addressed both in reverential and parodic performances of Jewish wedding music and comic routines. Recordings of wedding parodies were all the rage in the twenties, as Slobin has noted, and not just among Jews.121 A comparison of Jewish wedding parodies over time would chart a history of changing structures of feeling from David Fr "Gallery of Obnoxious Abuses, Shocking Customs, and Absurd Ceremonies of the Jews," in Sulamit during the early nineteenth century to Der Mesader Kedushin and Di boyberiker khasene in the twenties to Mickey Katz's affectionate lobs of the fifties. Seen as musical performances of cohort awareness, these displays of cultural connoisseurship in the breach chart the generational structure of sensibility and its sounds.122 No one exemplifies this moment more vividly than Mickey Katz.

In his roles as musician, comedian, and radio host, Katz presided over the obsolescence of what he called "the old but little-known happy Jewish music of the old country."123 Katz, who was born in 1909, had been doing English-Yiddish parodies of fairy tales on the radio as a teenager in Doc Whipple's big band in Cleveland in the twenties. But it was only in 1947, after he broke up with Spike Jones, that Katz made English-Yiddish parody a speciality. The Barton Brothers had brought out several parody records, which made Katz think there might be a market for his own routines. Jewish executives at RCA were taken with the idea and Katz proceeded to record parodies of current hits. The first singles by Mickey Katz and His Kosher Jammers were, by his own account, a sell out success: "I had given the Jewish record-buying public something they evidently wanted and up to now hadn't had."124 There followed the Borscht Capades, with his son Joel Grey, and a stint as a "kosher disc jockey" in Southern California from 1951 to 1956.125

In addition to playing his own records, Katz's radio show featured everything from Al Jolson's "The Anniversary Waltz" and Yiddish recordings by operatic cantors to symphonic arrangements of Jewish folk music, songs about the Holocaust, and Israeli recordings. Summing up the experience, Katz writes: "The greatest personal satisfaction I got from my radio show was its wide appeal. Thousands of people of all faiths loved the haimish (homey) Jewish music and the lively frailachs."126 Though Katz did most of his talking in English, the Yiddish flavor of the show and the repertoire he featured would have appealed to an older generation. This assumption is borne out by the jokes he tells about his audience:

Jewish mamas and papas have always loved waltzes. There's a wonderful story about the old couple who were dancing in Miami Beach. In the old days all the hotels there had "dancing classes." And since it was Florida, the dancing classes usually featured Latin music. Well, one day our elderly couple were dancing to Pupi Campo's band at one of the hotels, and Sam, trying to keep up with the lively Latin rhythm, was stepping all over his wife's feet. Finally, she said, "Waltz a little faster, Sam; they're playing a fox-trot."127

While the show's success was a vindication of sorts, by the early fifties, Katz was finding it "slow going." He was encountering resistance to his routines. After his first show at Slapsie Maxie's in Los Angeles, the owner- manager came to Katz's dressing room and declared, "There will be no Yiddish done in this club!" and Spike Jones suggested Katz supply a libretto for the Yiddish- challenged.128 The Jewish manager of a radio station in Los Angeles refused to play his records. He said Katz's records were insulting and besides, "I don't play any ethnic records," which was not the case--he did play Mexican music.129 A Philadelphia station manager (not Jewish) refused to play Katz's records "Because some of our listeners are offended. . . . I will not play any record with Yiddish in it. Yiddish is the language of the ghetto."130

Katz, in the autobiography from which I take these accounts, attributes the hostility he encountered to shame on the part of Jews and anti-Semitism on the part of non- Jews--he also acknowledged that not everyone in his audience could understand Yiddish. What he does not address is precisely what some people found so funny and others so "insulting" and "offensive" This is a subject worthy of a study in its own right. Suffice it to note that Katz's parodies of incompetence were highly virtuosic. They required a mastery not only of multiple linguistic and musical idioms, but also of incongruous juxtapositions.131 This art, governed by a different sensibility, lives on in such recordings as Rechnitzer Rejects, which were produced in the eighties.132

Katz's Yiddish humor appealed to a contracting circle of "insiders" as well as to the children of Yiddish speakers for whom just the sound of Yiddish was funny or offensive, quite apart from the meaning of the words. Uriel Weinreich has noted how obsolescent languages acquire esoteric value and comic associations: "Among the children of American immigrants, the mere utterance of a word in their parents' language easily evokes laughter."133 Whatever status Yiddish may have had as a primary medium of communication, it is as an obsolescent language, a stylistic specialization, that it figures in Katz's English-Yiddish routines. It is characteristic of obsolescent languages that "colorful idiomatic expressions, difficult to translate, with strong affective overtones, whether endearing, pejorative, or mildly obscene" turn up in discourse that is "informal and uninhibited by pretensions of high social status."134 Food terms are likely to be part of the mix. (Sure enough, they turn up today in the humorous names of neo-klezmer bands such as Nosh, Lox & Vodka, Hot Latkes, and Shawn's Kugel.) Setting Yiddish lyrics to a hit parade tune intensified the comic effect.

The mixed responses to Katz's performances in the fifties point to shifts in sensibility. During the Cold War, Jews had good reason to be nervous. Obsolescence is one thing, genocide is another. As early as 1943, Maurice Samuel described The World of Sholom Aleichem as an act of necromancy, a calling up from the dead.135 He converted what Sholem Aleichem's nineteenth-century readers had read as satire into elegiac ethnography. The World of Sholom Aleichem was one of several such treatments of a destroyed world that appeared in the forties and fifties. Others include Bella Chagall's Burning Lights and Heschel's The Earth Is the Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe, both of which appeared in Yiddish and in English translation, and Life Is with People: The Culture of the Shtetl, the first major ethnography of East European Jewish culture to appear in English.136 Ambivalence about that world, an ambivalence that informed both the immigrant experience and the Zionist movement, was put to a severe test after World War II. It was one thing to be ambivalent about a way of life that posed a threat to success in America or the establishment of a Jewish homeland. Condemning a destroyed world to oblivion was another matter.

Evocations of a vanished world reached their apogee in Fiddler on the Roof (1964), which, together with Marc Chagall's imagery, made the klezmer the icon of an irretrievable world--and, from then on, albums of Yiddish song often included songs from this popular musical. However sentimental such elegies may seem to us today, they attempted to deal with what came to be known as the Holocaust before it was possible to deal directly with the genocide. In a period where memory vacillated between sad nostalgia and outraged horror, hope attached itself to establishing a Jewish homeland and creating a new life there or elsewhere.

No wonder Mickey Katz had a difficult time finding a niche for his English-Yiddish parodies. They spoke to the experience of an earlier generation of immigrants, those who had come far enough to be able to laugh at the "incompetence" Katz performed with such virtuosity. That experience had become irrelevant, if not embarrassing, to a suburbanized generation of respectable Jews. The Yiddishists of the Yiddish day schools and summer camps, Workman's Circle, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research considered Borscht Belt culture vulgar. It was a threat to the Yiddish civilization for whose very survival they fought. As for the newest Yiddish speakers to arrive on the scene, a young generation of refugees and survivors, what were they to make of Katz's parodies. In the wake of the Holocaust, those routines had become an irreverent tombstone, a sacrilege, an affront to changed sensibilities. In the fifties, Bikel could write obscene graffiti on the record cover of his first album of Yiddish folk songs. Forty years later he would begin his autobiography with the Holocaust, not with his birth, and write of his own narrow escape, "Maybe I was meant to use my voice as a warning that history must not repeat itself."137

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