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Beyond the Melting Pot

A hipster scholar makes room on his provocative playlist for the jubilant, in-your-face shtick of Mickey Katz

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Jesse Green talks about Allan Sherman’s page in the American songbook
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Primo Levi once wrote that “a dozen rivers can’t wash away the Yiddish accent.” What Levi perhaps did not anticipate was that, for some American Jews, the very sound of Yiddish would become a proud badge of cultural identity, not a shameful (and dangerous) marker. If ever there was a true advocate of the merits and delights of the Yiddish accent, it was clarinetist, stand-up comic, and bandleader Mickey Katz.

In the decade and a half after World War II, this Cleveland-born son of East European Jewish immigrants recorded a brilliant series of musical comedy records that used the Yiddish accent and its musical analogue, the klezmer clarinet wail, to elevate ethnic parody to an unprecedented level of comic genius. Katz deliberately smashed the vanilla-flavored American popular songs of the day into the wit, soul, and melodic earthiness of Yiddish. The results were bizarre and hilarious. Katz’s band of Hollywood studio musicians led listeners on cultural excursions into an alternate universe: Walt Disney’s “The Ballad of David Crockett” became the story of “Duvid Crockett of Delancey Street, home of gefilte fish and kosher meat.” “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain” turned into an ode to the Catskills. Dean Martin’s Italian-American love ballad “That’s Amore” became “That’s Morris,” an ode to greasy Jewish food and wrinkled old men.

By the 1960s, Katz’s manic cultural energy could no longer compete with the growing power of nostalgia, typified by Fiddler on the Roof and The Joys of Yiddish, or the hard-edged humor pioneered by Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, for whom Jewishness was only a starting point for a larger assault on American culture and politics. Since then, Katz has occasionally returned from obscurity in tributes by his son Joel Grey (including an NPR Hanukkah special a few years ago that I worked on), granddaughter Jennifer Grey, and Don Byron, an African-American jazz clarinetist who eloquently saluted Katz’s musical iconoclasm and screwball humor in a much-acclaimed 1992 recording. For the most part, however, Mickey Katz has been dismissed by Yiddish culture activists and scholars alike as a novelty act, a self-hating Jew, and a colorful but irrelevant historical footnote—until now. As many younger artists and academics troll the Jewish-American past in search of new ethnic cultural heroes, Mickey Katz has found a new champion and advocate in the form of a energetic music critic and English professor named Josh Kun.

In Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, Kun sets out to tell the story of how the American understanding of race and ethnicity has been influenced and imagined through popular music. In engaging, passionate prose, Kun offers his own postmodern academic version of High Fidelity. Trotting out a fascinating array of allusions, both famous and obscure, to American literature, art, and music, Kun argues that music has served as an instrument for musicians, poets, painters, and others to form their own personal “audiotopias”—musical utopias in which they project new, often liberating visions of American racial and ethnic identity. To flesh out this creative if heavily theorized interpretation of music’s role in American culture, Kun offers a whirlwind, trivia-packed tour through the lives and works of figures ranging from James Baldwin and Langston Hughes to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tupac Shakur, Ozomatli, and Café Tacuba.

As these names suggest, Kun’s Audiotopia is very much a product of multiculturalism, especially in its keen focus on the central role of African-American and Latino artists and identities in the American cultural landscape. And yet right smack dab in the middle of this pantheon of multicultural icons we find Mickey Katz. For Kun, Katz is the poster boy for a ribald, robust Jewish ethnicity—or, as Kun puts it, an “unabashed ‘Yidditude.'” Katz’s Yiddish-accented parodies seriously challenged the melting pot ideal of Americanization. To Kun, Katz’s “unassimilated notes of Jewishness” constitute a defiant rejection of postwar attempts at Jewish assimilation.

Clearly Katz’s jubilant, in-your-face Yiddishkayt was an implicit critique of an era of unprecedented name-changes and nose jobs. But does that make him a cultural revolutionary? For all of his bold, brash, and loud Jewish identity, it’s still difficult to think of Katz as a cultural visionary or political radical in the same way as African-American musicians such as Kirk or Tupac. In a book that celebrates the edgy creativity of jazz, blues, mambo, gangsta rap, and rock en español as multicultural responses to mainstream American pop music, Mickey Katz’s comic klezmer seems strangely unhip and awkward. But this very discomfort is what Kun celebrates. For him, Katz’s Yinglish comedy is not simply an unabashed affirmation of Jewishness but a challenge to all American identities from the vantage point of a Jew who is too white for the multicultural rainbow and yet too Jewish for white America.

This sense of doubled Jewish marginality animates Audiotopia on the deepest level. In the introduction, Kun writes of his own childhood and adolescent musical journeys to a local record store in his West Los Angeles neighborhood. There he escaped from the oppressive world of upper-middle class materialism into an alternate universe of used records. For Kun these bins were portals into the other races, religions, and cultures of the world far beyond his narrow private-school life among the children of the Hollywood elite. But listening to music can not only encourage a sense of cosmopolitan kinship, it can also reinforce its own kind of cultural loneliness and non-belonging as well. To explain this link, Kun turns back to the primal sonic experience of Jewish religious tradition, the sound of the shofar. Recounting his own experience as a graduate student ambivalently attending synagogue on the High Holy Days, he poetically evokes the sounds of musical alienation:

That night the shofar was blown and, as usual, I marveled at the triumph and violence of its sound—a blast of human air sprayed through the horn of a dead ram. When you hear the blowing of the shofar, there is no way to feel at ease with it. It is always an affront, always uncomfortable, always aggressive in its volume and its frequency, in the sheer force of its howling, breathy noise….

Inspired by the rabbi’s description of the shofar as “‘a stranger among sounds,'” Kun uses the incident to frame his book’s fundamental challenge to all American cultural identities:

The shofar is certainly a stranger among sounds, but it also makes strangers out of all who hear it. We are strangers among its sounds, its blast of bleating air confronting all of us in that room equally, forcing all of us to confront our identities as listeners…. This idea of being a stranger among sounds immediately seemed a fitting way to understand how identity and listening work…. Popular music has always been my refuge because it is the refuge of strangers, because in the world of popular music, we are all strangers among sounds made by others.

If the shofar can help explain the history of Mexican-American rock and gangsta rap, what does that mean for the fate of Jewish culture today? Can younger Jewish-American artists and musicians reclaim the Yiddish accent that Kun celebrates? Or have the rivers of American pop music washed it away for good? Josh Kun does not answer these questions in his book. Nor does he need to, since his book’s primary focus is American culture and identity. For all of the centrality of Jewish themes in this book, they are only part of the cultural mosaic that Kun hears in America’s music. This means that he leaves unopened the question of what Katz’s audience would be, or could be, today. Listening to Mickey Katz is only funny, after all, if you know enough Yiddish to catch the jokes.

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Beyond the Melting Pot

A hipster scholar makes room on his provocative playlist for the jubilant, in-your-face shtick of Mickey Katz

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