How can something so wrong feel so right?
Let me be honest: I did not expect to like The Jewish Songbook: The Heart and Humor of a People. In fact, I expected to keep it in my CD player for maybe 30 seconds before recycling the liner notes and throwing everything else into the trash.
I did skip through Neil Sedaka’s version of “My Yiddishe Momme,” Marvin Hamlisch’s “Hatikva,” and Adam Sandler’s “Hine Ma Tov,” which features both a small child and the cantor from Sandler’s synagogue. I am not, to my knowledge, diabetic, but I figured that too much sugary goo could send even a healthy person into insulin shock.
But Triumph the Insult Comic Dog doing an updated version of “Mahzel (Means Good Luck),” a tune recorded by the black R&B vocal group The Ravens in 1947; or Paul Shaffer and Richard Belzer recreating the Barton Brothers‘ “Joe and Paul,” a parody of the Yiddish-language radio commercials that composer Sholom Secunda scored in the 1930s—well, those I listened to over and over again.
Listen to “Joe and Paul by Paul Shaffer and Richard Belzer
Listen to “Mahzel (Means Good Luck) by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog
Novelty songs evoke in me a powerful sense of nostalgia. In the early 1980s, my eldest brother and I taped dozens of LPs from the comedy section of our local record library in Montreal. Along with the Monty Python and Goon Show albums, and the live recordings by Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, there were hours upon hours of funny songs by musical parodists like Tom Lehrer, Weird Al Yankovic, and Allan Sherman.
Though I didn’t know it as a kid, Sherman was one in a long line of performers who made a living sending up Jewish stereotypes in song and lending non-Jewish material a Jewish comic slant. (He set “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” to Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” from La Gioconda, and copped the melody to “Sarah Jackman” from “Frere Jacques.”)
Sherman’s immediate predecessors included Catskills stars like Mickey Katz (“Duvid Crockett, “Geshray of Devilde Kotchke”), Eli Basse (“Umglik Blues,” “Number 4, Humentash Lane”), and Billy Hodes (“Essen”) who entertained Jewish audiences in the 1940s and 50s. They, in turn, were preceded by Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor, Jewish performers who made it big with general audiences between the wars, but still found time for the occasional bit of Jewish musical humor, like Brice’s “Sheik of Avenue B,” a takeoff on “Sheikh of Araby,” and Cantor’s “My Yiddishe Mammy,” which spoofed both Al Jolson’s “Mammy” and “My Yiddishe Momme.”
All of these musical tummlers were heir to a rich tradition of old world song that could be as bawdy, as sarcastic, and as deeply ironic as anything on The Jewish Songbook. Take, for example, the material on Chansons Yiddish: Tendresse et Rage, a collection of Yiddish folksongs and pseudo-folksongs composed by the likes of Abraham Goldfaden and Mordecai Gebirtig and performed by singer Moshe Leiser, violinist Ami Flammer, and accordionist Gérard Barreaux.
Gebirtig was killed in 1942 during the German occupation of Poland; his song “S’Brent” (“Our Town Is Burning”), which describes a pre-war pogrom in the town of Przytyk, became the anthem of the Jewish resistance in Krakow, and remains a staple of Holocaust memorial ceremonies. Yet Leiser et al. opted instead to revive Gebirtig’s sly “Avreml,” the story of a thief who proudly declaims: “A great artist, I work lightly and in peace/I went to jail nothing but a hoodlum/Came out a rogue, a talented one at that!” The song has a bittersweet twist, but it’s definitely more bent than “S’Brent.”
This side of Jewish musical life—the lighter, low-to-middle-brow side—is often ignored. Jewish musical comedy crested in the 1940s and 1950s, and was already in decline by the time Allan Sherman arrived in the early 1960s. As American Jews assimilated and ascended the social ladder, the desire—or the need—to traffic in ethnic humor declined precipitously. Jewish humor set to music suffered particularly, as a growing cultural distance from vaudeville made most musical comedy seem passé.
At the same time, the desire—or the need—to be taken seriously increased concomitantly. The world is full of high-minded, well-intentioned recordings purporting to illustrate the sophistication of Jewish composers and the profundity of Jewish musical expression. I understand this urge to portray Jewish culture at its most cultured, and Jewish civilization at its most civil. But there’s a lot more to the Jewish tradition than high art, and when I see a CD like Hebrew Melodies of the Romantic Era—a painfully earnest homage to composers such as George Perlman and Joseph Achron, and to a body of music that “is closely linked to the history of the Jewish people, their wanderings, their traumatic experiences, and their pain” (the album even includes selections from the score to Schindler’s List)—a small voice in the back of my head can’t help but plead, “Yeah, but where’s the funny?”
So while it pains me to say this about a CD with such a high schlock quotient, The Jewish Songbook—like its predecessor, the 2005 release Now That Sounds Kosher, which included some more recent additions to the Jewish musical comedy universe, like Yid Rock and What I Like About You, along with the timeless genius of Kinky Friedman and His Texas Jewboys (“They Ain’t Makin’ Jews like Jesus Anymore”)—does something resembling a public service: it reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously.
Besides, who can argue with a singing dog who says, in the midst of a little mock cantorial noodling, “Trust me, this is killing in the Catskills…”
Alexander Gelfand is a recovering ethnomusicologist, a sometime jazz pianist, and a former West African drummer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Forward, and elsewhere.