Listening to Jewish-American music from the 1950s and ’60s is frequently a bewildering experience. Jewish cha-chas? Israeli fuzz-tone guitar bands? Johnny Mathis singing “Kol Nidre?”
“This [cross-cultural] music fascinated us,” says Roger Bennett, one of the co-founders of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation. “Each track is a footprint through history. They pose a set of eclectic questions about Jewish-American identity and community, and how they changed in the post-war era.”
The Idelsohn Society, formerly known as Reboot Stereophonic, has already released a half-dozen inventive CDs ranging from Irving Fields’ “Bagels and Bongos” and Fred Katz’s “Folk Songs for Far-Out Folks” to the compilation sets “Jewface” and “Black Sabbath: The Secret History of Black Jewish Relations.” But its latest album is, in a way, its most ambitious venture yet.
“Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: The Tikva Records Story, 1950-1973” offers 20 cuts from the vaults of Tikva Records, which was, during its two-and-a-half decades of existence, “the greatest independent Jewish music label of the 20th century — the Jewish Motown,” Bennett asserts.
It certainly was the most eclectic Jewish record label imaginable. Consider some of the offerings among the 20 selections on “Jet Set”: early recordings of the great Moroccan hazzan Jo Amar; fuzztone quasi-psychedelia from The Sabras; straight-up klezmer from Sam Musiker and Dave Tarras; lounge singer Bernie Knee crooning about the joys of seducing Jewish girls, “Orthodox, Conservative, or Reformed”; and Moyshe Oysher hurtling through “Balkan Rhapsody.”
“[The label] tried to do it all,” Bennett marvels. “Tikva had a prolific output, but it was a scattershot approach.”
Given the shenanigans surrounding the recording business in the 1950s, it seems appropriate that the rise and fall of the label are an enigma. In the early stages of their research, Bennett says, YIVO archivist (and Klezmatics co-founder) Lorin Sklamberg challenged him, “You guys have got to crack the mystery of Tikva Records.”
Despite interviewing anyone still alive and had recorded for or worked at the label, Bennett and his colleagues were unable to clear away the fog.
“We’ve written up the history as best we can,” he says. “The office [in New York City] burned down, all the masters were destroyed, the contracts disappeared.
“We’ve spoken to some of the artists. Nobody seems to know very much, but they all had a love-hate relationship with it. The label’s production values were on the cheaper side. The target audience was Jews. They signed a lot of artists at the very beginning of their careers and a lot of artists at the end of their careers. If you recorded for Tikva, it was probably either your first album or your last album.”
Whether you were moving up the ladder or down, your record was a small slice of Jewish-American history, and that is what motivated the Idelsohn Society to resurrect the music and to assemble an ever-growing oral history archive of Jewish-American musicians.
The period under examination was a tumultuous one for Jewish-Americans. They moved from the cities to the suburbs, from poverty to affluence, from outcasts to something more ambiguous. As Bennett notes, in one year in the 1950s, ground was broken for more than 5,000 synagogues, the overwhelming majority of them in the suburbs.
And the competing pressures of tradition and modernity, identity and assimilation can be gleaned from the peculiar range of Tikva’s output.
“The Jews are in an interesting place; they’re both very happy to be together and to be American, and Tikva celebrated both,” says label co-founder David Katznelson. “The suburbs became a new-found home. How do you express your Judaism in a new world? Tikva presented them with a hi-fi solution — they could hear liturgy, Yiddish songs and klezmer, Israeli music from another new Jewish home, and the Jews in the Catskills created another, American style.”
Given the sheer prolificacy (or profligacy, depending on your point of view), choosing a mere 20 tracks from the label was a gargantuan task. To put the chore in some perspective, consider the following fact. The Society has opened a pop-up record store in San Francisco that is dedicated to the history and music of Tikva Records; it is open for only one month, and in the exhibition space at the rear of the store, there are over 180 Tikva LPs on display, and that doesn’t include every release from the label.
“We wanted to make sure every cut sounded great,” Bennett says, outlining one of the first criteria for their selection. “Not every track recorded for Tikva was easy on the ear.”
There was a non-musical imperative operating here as well.
“Music is just the beginning of the story,” Bennett says. “We also care about the story of the performers, of how they reflect the many trails that Jews walked in the post-war period. Consider the narratives that are being played out in the ’50s: the move to the suburbs; confronting American culture while thinking about the past; the place of Yiddish in the identity of the future; the rise of Israel as a major new platform of identity; and the place of ritual in modern Jewish identity. Our goal is to connect young Jews to those questions.”
As Bennett explains, the Idelsohn Society’s principle agenda is to help young Jewish-Americans to reconnect to their identities through culture, using cultural artifacts as a way of exploring both the past and future of Jewish identity in the Americas. That helps explain why the store also features nightly live performances by groups ranging from Dengue Fever and Fool’s Gold to the Tikva-era hitmakers the Burton Sisters.
Katznelson, who has been at the store since it opened, says, “It gave us an anchor into a community. We’ve gotten cards and letters and e-mail addresses. People have donated record collections. We’ve had contact with people from the Yiddish theater, whose kids have been here.”
Bennett says of the younger enthusiasts, “Our younger customers are asking themselves, ‘Who am I? What am I inheriting? What does it mean to me and what am I going to do about that?’ These records allow them to access a history they hadn’t had a chance to reflect upon. The Sabras sound more interesting to them than if the Beatles reformed.”
When detractors accuse the Idelsohn Society of dealing in kitsch, Bennett bristles.
“Kitsch is a surface interaction that triggers an easy laugh,” he says. “It would be kitsch if there were no liner notes and it was put out for a cheap giggle. We’re doing this project for quite the opposite reason. We put years of work into this. The power of the music and the ability of the music to frame questions that do not crop up in everyday vernacular. That is the reason we did this.”
“Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: The Tikva Records Story, 1950-1973” is available from the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation at http://idelsohnsociety.com. And if you are an older Jewish musician who wants to participate in their oral history project, you can contact them there as well.