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Yiddish American Music: ‘Camp’ or For Real?

Rachael Kafrissen
April 6, 2010

Yiddish American Music: 'Camp' or For Real?

by Rokhl Kafrissen There's a new Barry Sisters CD out, thrilling news considering they haven't recorded an album in three decades. The Sisters represent an elusive, but magical moment in American Jewish culture, one they share with other pioneers of Yiddish American music like Moyshe Oysher, Mickey Katz, Dave Tarras, and the Musiker brothers, Sammy (Tarras' son-in-law) and Ray. What these performers had in common was their ability to effortlessly assimilate the best of American popular music into a Yiddish aesthetic and create something that was deeply rooted and at the same time new, exciting and American. Perhaps the best example of this cultural moment, Tanz!, the collaboration between Tarras and the Musikers, is described as “a stunningly sophisticated fusion of Yiddish and American music forms” by klezmer historian, and key figure in the American klezmer revival, Henry Sapoznik. Sadly, the best work of many of these artists was unappreciated or under-appreciated in their own time. Tanz! was a commercial flop when it was released in 1956, despite being recognized today as one of the peak moments in American klezmer history. Katz was unable to move past his reputation as a comedian, even when he recorded an entire album of new Jewish instrumentals. Today, most of Mickey Katz's recordings are out of print and unavailable on CD. Much of Moyshe Oysher's catalog is either of out of print or available only in terrible, bargain basement releases. As for the Barry Sisters, of their work that is in print, most of it has been produced on the cheap, with atrocious sound quality and no booklet to speak of. Given all that, it was with excitement that I noted this 'new' Barry Sisters CD in a lavish, no expense spared reissue. Our Way, the Sisters' last studio album, was recorded in 1973. It contains Yiddish translations of American pop hits of the day. The translations were done by the legendary Yiddish actor Herman (der Payatz) Yablokoff. Barry Sisters+ Herman Yablokoff+new Yiddish songs. How could I not love it? But before I can talk about Our Way, I have to give it's reissue some context. Our Way was reissued by a relatively new record label called Stereophonic, a project of Reboot, also associated with the Idelsohn Society. The important thing to know is that Stereophonic is a project of the very, very deep pockets of the Bronfman Foundation. Reboot projects (they also publish books and a magazine called Guilt and Pleasure) are beautifully executed, with a sense of mission and responsibility to the Jewish community. As they write on the liner notes to Our Way:
"We believe that music creates conversations otherwise impossible in daily life. Our goal is to incite a new conversation about the past by listening anew to the past... This is music that forces listeners to ask themselves anew, who am I, what have I inherited, and what am I going to do about it?"
But what about their aesthetic, their artistic vision as applied to the history of Jewish music? How will they choose what is worthy of re-issue- what is deemed important and complex enough to spark the kind of cultural conversations they're aiming for?
"We will do [it] with no museum stuffiness. This is music that you might actually want to throw on at a party... stuff you probably have never heard before and will definitely not find on any Jewish music compilation your Hebrew School teacher gave you to get in touch with your roots."
OK, we get an idea of what they are not.
"Our approach is new school, secular (but we hear the spirit when it calls), multicultural, progressive, irreverent, obsessive, self-deprecating and urban."
They're Jewish but not too Jewish. After all, they're against Hebrew school, (but who isn't?) and for "New Wave and punk." They "know what a dub-plate is and put Tupac and the Ramones on the same iPod playlist." As my teenage, fictional hero Zaphod Beeblbrox might say, they're so hip they can barely see over their collective pelvis. So how does this exactingly hip, Jewish-but-not-too -Jewish pose translate into an aesthetic? Since 2005 Stereophonic has re-released five albums, including Irving Fields' Bagels and Bongos (Jewish Latin fusion), Jewface (a compilation of Jewish themed vaudeville songs), and God is a Moog (an unclassifiable experiment in Jewish music composed for the moog). And finally, The Barry Sisters Our Way. What exactly is the sensibility reflected in such an odd assortment of lost Jewish 'classics'? And how do the Barry Sisters (and this particular recording) fit into it? The roots of the Stereophonic sensibility go much further back than the recent wave of Jewish hipsterism (Heeb magazine, the Hebrew Hammer, JDub), back to a cultural moment when high brow cultural critics argued for an alternative to the traditional dichotomy of high/low culture and literal/symbolic interpretation. At that moment a new sensibility about art was legitimized, one that valued surface over content and looked beyond the traditional relationship between performer and intent when relating to a work. The most famous theorist of this position was Susan Sontag in her 1964 'Notes on Camp'. What Sontag called 'Camp' is alive and well today. Indeed, as a mode of cultural engagement, it never went away, though no one uses the word 'camp' anymore. Sontag’s camp vision was alive to double meanings. She speaks of the duplicity of camp, that is, the straight, public meaning of a work of art and the private experience of a thing as 'zany.' Thus the campy thing could be presented to the masses and legitimately appreciated with a ‘straight’ face. The campy thing didn't have to be announced as camp, indeed, to announce its campiness would dissipate the glamour of the connoisseur's appreciation. A glance at the Stereophonic catalog tells us that we're in camp territory, a place where the theatrical and the exaggerated are privileged above all. The liner notes for Stereophonic’s reissues speak in terms of their seriousness, importance and unique historical meaning. The covers, however, tease us with authentically retro fonts, unreconstructed ‘70s cheesiness and promises of the previously forbidden. Stereophonic's focus on the eclectic, the inexplicable, and, above all, the exuberant surface, is at odds with its framing each of these reissues as being content driven. To reconcile this paradox and get to the heart of the Stereophonic project, we have to be sensitive to Sontag's duplicity of camp- the privately zany experience of otherwise serious art. The Stereophonic reissue of Our Way features an extraordinary booklet. Included is a reproduction of the original album cover: the Sisters posing (at home?) in front of shiny gray floral wallpaper, clad in leisure suits and cream colored pumps. For Jews of a certain generation and and geographic orientation, (and having grown up Jewish on Long Island in the ‘80s I can attest to this), this is an instantly recognizable, deeply uncomfortable, image. On the flip side, the Sisters stand imposingly on either side of the text, clad, like Yiddish superheros, in floor-length suede capes, provided by Norjean Furs of Manhasset, Long Island, of course. A publicity photo included in the booklet features the Sisters swimming in a sea of fur: wearing fur coats and enormous fur hats on their heads, only their faces fur free, lips boldly painted in another dreadful signifier of the over the top ‘70s, bright coral lipstick. The matching fur coats and hats, the suede capes, the awful wall paper and leisure suits - these are Sontag's icon of camp, the "woman in a dress made of three million feathers." But, remember, camp is in the eye of the beholder, it need not be spelled out. Indeed, the Stereophonic producers write about the Sisters with pure adoration. Claire, the surviving sister, was closely involved with the reissue. And according to Stereophonic, Our Way was chosen for Important Reasons:
"If adapting Jewish music to the rhythms and contours of the American pop landscape can be considered one of the dominant aesthetics of early twentieth century popular music, then the Barry Sisters ought to be considered crucial bi-cultural pioneers" along the lines of Irving Berlin and George Gershwin.
The Sisters "didn't turn America Jewish, they made Jewish sound more American... Which is partly why the re-issue of Our Way is so important-- it's the only Barry Sisters album that seems to reverse this tactic. This is an album of (mostly) giddy Jewish hi-jacks of American culture..."
There's no question that the Sisters should be considered crucial bi-cultural pioneers. But the rest of the Stereophonic justification just rings hollow. The analogy between the Sisters and song writers like Berlin and Gershwin doesn't work. Though some argue strongly for finding an essential Jewishness in the work of Gershwin and Berlin, if there is one to be found (and I am skeptical) it is nothing like the unerringly rooted, unmistakably Jewish work of the Sisters. As I mentioned above, in order to understand the Sisters' position in American Jewish culture, you have to look at their peers like Moyshe Oysher and Dave Tarras. Further, Stereophonic locates the ultimate 'importance' of Our Way in the way it differs from the rest of the Sisters' oeuvre. Our Way, they say, strikes back at the American cultural hegemony in an almost aggressive way. They're taking what clearly isn't theirs ('Raindrops Keep Falling on my Head', 'My Way') and making it Jewish, their way. But is this really so special, or so worthy of our attention? The Sisters were not the first to translate American classics into Yiddish. Seymour Rexite, for example, made his reputation as a crooner of show tunes and standards in Yiddish. And compared to the Sisters at the height of their artistic powers, Our Way is just ok. It's not a bad album, but it's missing something of the panache of their earlier hits. Interestingly, the Stereophonic producers are silent as to what might legitimately be claimed as an important achievement of Our Way- its translation. After all, Herman Yablokoff, a giant of Yiddish theater, did the translations. One might think that the way Yablokoff made these uber-American texts Yiddish would be of interest to Stereophonic. The intended consumer of Our Way, however, is given no clue what, if anything, Yablokoff has done with the text of 'Tea for Two' and 'Mame'. The album was originally recorded to capture a new, non-Yiddish speaking audience in 1973, and, even more so, its reissue is aimed at non-Yiddish speakers who probably have no familiarity with the Barry Sisters, let alone speak any Yiddish. Jeffrey Shandler in Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language & Culture, discusses the tradition of translation into Yiddish. He describes how Moishe Olgin's 1919 translation of Call of the Wild into Yiddish wasn't valued just for its content, but what that content proved. In the introduction, Olgin called attention to the way the translation demonstrated how Yiddish could depict the wild and the natural as well as any other world language could. Shandler calls this the 'symbolic value' of a translation into Yiddish- the politically or ideologically charged value of a Yiddish work, above and beyond its content. In the post-vernacular era (which Shandler identifies as an era when engagement with Yiddish is predominantly not as a full language of every day communication), when translation into Yiddish is almost always (according to Shandler) done for reasons other than simply making texts available to Yiddish speakers, a work’s symbolic value is as meaningful as its content. The ‘symbolic value’ prompts questions about a work: Why translate a particular text for an audience that does not need Yiddish? What does the act of translation say about the translators? Is the translation political? Personal? The symbolic value is what Stereophonic is arguing for when they talk about Our Way as a 'hi-jack.' According to their reasoning, Our Way shows that Yiddish can do 'American' as well as any other language, in the process making the American Jewish. Our Way, they say, is "a utopian dream..." what Jewish music would sound like if "Yiddish hadn't become the language of refrigerator magnets and Jewish joke punch lines..." This, I think, is disingenuous, at the least. What's so great about the same old American shlock, sung in Yiddish? If you don't know what the words mean, how you can convincingly argue for something's extraordinary value? Rather than finding Our Way to be evocative of an imaginary Yiddish future, I argue that for Stereophonic, the real value of Our Way lies in the creation of a new, American Yiddish, one that anyone can understand. After all, who doesn't know some of the words to 'Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head'? It's easy to imagine a non-Yiddish speaker hearing the song, in Yiddish, and momentarily feeling fluent in a previously unknown language. But that fluency is, of course, an illusion. The listener hasn't actually learned any Yiddish. But that was never the point. For Stereophonic, the camp strategy is a way out of the paradox that the Yiddish past presents. Their project is designed with a built in ambivalence about its subject matter, an ambivalence that allows the producer (and consumer) to get in touch with the past, while maintaining the hipster's ironic, detached position. According to Roger Bennett (a Stereophonic co-founder), when it comes to Jewish music "That word 'Jewish' can be pejorative...We're interested in expanding that word's meaning in ways that are complicated, eclectic, hybrid." To whom is 'Jewish music' pejorative besides Roger Bennett? I have noted a sort of klezmer backlash among a certain kind of Jewish hipster, the kind who can't stand the wail and whine of the Jewish clarinet. Where I hear a hot klezmer lick, the squeamish Jewish hipster hears Woody Allen screaming his pathetic lungs out. A good example is Paul Lester, music writer for the Jewish Chronicle of London. In a now infamous (in Jewish music circles) 2009 column called 'Turn off the klezmer, turn on the Ramones', Lester issued a cri de coeur that might resonate a little too closely for the masterminds at Stereophonic HQ:
"I hate Jewish music, but I love Jews who make music. Or to put it another way: I never listen to klezmer or any other types of so-called traditional “Jewish music”, but my record collection is full of albums by Jewish musicians...But, for me, the best Jewish music — or rather, the best music by Jews — reflects the moment and is somehow a response to the times in which it was made. And if there is a “Jewish voice”, it is not to be heard in klezmer, maybe because it is being drowned out by all those clarinets, violins and accordions." Ouch.
"I hate Jewish music, but I love Jews who make music." That's one example of 'Jewish music' used pejoratively. For Paul Lester, 'Jewish music' is only one thing (faux trad klezmer played by losers who don't know anything about punk) and thus too limited to really express anything contemporary. Although he claims to hate 'Jewish music,' what he really wants is the Jewish sensibility, like the punk sensibility he loves so much. The Jewish sensibility (what he calls the Jewish voice) is "...urbane, witty, sharp, smart, savvy, often satirical and thoroughly contemporary." If Lester knew anything about "klezmer" or Yiddish music he would know that klezmer (and Yiddish music) can be and has been all of these things. When Stereophonic’s Roger Bennett opposes 'Jewish' with 'complicated, eclectic and hybrid' he makes the same kind of mistake Paul Lester makes- he essentializes the Jewish past in the most unproductive, regressive way. Indeed, there is no Jewish past that wasn't complicated and hybrid. There is no such thing as monolithic 'Jewish' culture. Ashkenazi culture was not an isolated, ahistorical body, but a process of centuries of absorption of non-Jewish, co-territorial culture and its reconfiguration as Jewish. But there is another of way of relating to this complicated, rich heritage, one that doesn’t resort to the detached hipster’s “camp” aesthetic. For example, Living Traditions founder and director Henry Sapoznik has produced three reissues for the Sony Legacy label: Abe Schwartz: Klezmer King (2002), From Avenue A to the Great White Way (2002) and Tanz! (2005). Tanz! featured legendary klezmer clarinetist Dave Tarras with his son-in-law, Tanz! composer and arranger Sammy Musiker, and Musiker’s brother Ray. The briefest comparison between the reissues of Our Way and Tanz! shows that you don't need the knowing camp 'wink' to find a reason to go back to the Jewish past. The value of Our Way, like all camp, is ultimately contingent upon experiencing it within American pop culture, as an oddity of unexpected juxtapositions, no Jewish literacy necessary. It’s pretty clear that the Stereophonic producers would never have chosen to reissue Our Way without the lure of its now outrageously over-the-top visuals. Sontag writes that camp has to have an extraordinary quality, tending toward the glamorous. Camp can’t just be an extraordinary effort or oddity. Without the accompanying floor length suede capes and leisure suits, Our Way’s “giddy hi-jacks” are mere curiosities, Sontag’s two-headed snake, not the woman in the dress made of three million feathers. Henry Sapoznik, however, locates the importance of Tanz! in its content and influence. According to Sapoznik: "...these arrangements are fueled by a unity of overall construction that gives Tanz! a thematic coherence years ahead of its time. It is arguably the greatest klezmer record ever issued." As Yiddish literary historian David Roskies writes, the search for a usable Jewish past is ever more ‘contrapuntal,’ with each group advancing its own agenda, and its own set of memories, at the expense of another. With its many projects, Stereophonic is making a very serious, and very well funded, claim on the Jewish past. To what end is this vision being realized and what will it mean for other interpretations of our cultural heritage?