Visions in vinyl

Five years ago, when a congregation of Messianic Jews gathered to consecrate its new cemetery in Apple Valley, a recently sprouted high-desert suburb about 145 km. northeast of Los Angeles, Rabbi Rene Bloch blew a shofar over earth brought from the Mount of Olives.

A reporter from the local paper mentioned that Bloch had converted to Messianism after a revelation in 1973, when he was still “making his living playing woodwinds” – but failed to out him as the former “Mr. Latin,” a star saxophonist on Los Angeles’ Central Avenue who recorded with Johnny Otis and played with Perez Prado.

Bloch – the son of French Jews who fled Europe to Los Angeles by way of Sonora, Mexico – joined a generation of musicians who indulged the Latin music craze of newly assimilating American Jews with albums like My Bubba and Zaeda’s Cha Cha Cha, Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos and Yeshiva Brass. It wasn’t enough just to have Bagels and Bongos from the Irving Fields Trio, put out by Decca Records in 1959 with the hits “Raisins and Almonds” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen”; eager Jewish consumers demanded still More Bagels and Bongos the following year.

The recordings, trapped on vinyl LPs consigned to Florida’s attics and storage units, are among a forgotten hit parade unearthed by Roger Bennett and Josh Kun and pieced together into a new pop history of Jews in America, And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl. There is no Irving Berlin or Al Jolson, but there is Cannonball Adderley playing “Fiddler on the Roof” and Leonard Bernstein conducting “Kaddish.”

“There is a lost history,” said Kun, a professor at the University of Southern California and director of the university’s Popular Music Project. “It tells a story and tells the story of a generation.”

For Kun and Bennett, who met in 2005 at a conference sponsored by Bennett’s Reboot network of cultural entrepreneurs, the story started as a competition of sorts, as the two music lovers began challenging each other for rare finds on eBay and planning scouting trips.

“Other people went to Vegas on holiday, and we’d go to Boca to buy these things up,” said Bennett, who works for philanthropist Charles Bronfman.

As their collection grew from hundreds to thousands of records – split among the two men’s offices and garages in California and New York – they found the outlines of the familiar tale of Jewish ascent from the cities to the suburbs, where Jews traded the Moishe Oysher cantorial recordings of the 1940s – Seder, Kol Nidre and Chanukah Party – for Leo Fuld’s Mazzel, the Feder Sisters’ Some Like It Yiddish and Lou Klayman’s Twisting the Freilach. Bob Dylan is there, and the trinity of Streisand, Simon and Sedaka, but so are Johnny Cash, Johnny Mathis and even Jon Yune, a Korean singer who recorded an album of Hebrew and Yiddish songs under the title Ose Shalom in 1975.

But there are also albums of Zionist awakening: a collection of speeches by David Ben-Gurion released in 1950 as the album What is a Jew?; newsreels of the Six Day War advertised with exclamation points (“Recorded Live!”); a “Listen and Learn” shortcut lesson to Hebrew for travelers. Later, Israel is presented as a land where gorgeous women recline in the Dead Sea under the title Hine Ma Tov or dance disco fever in front of haystacks on the kibbutz.

“I inherited my mother’s albums and in among the Mamas and the Papas was Connie Francis, a Catholic woman singing Jewish melodies,” said Bennett, who grew up In Liverpool. “But I’m just fascinated with how these were used – did the Jews come home at the end of the day, pour themselves a whiskey and put on Golda Meir?”

In the book, Golda is joined by Gadi Elon, Hanna Ahroni and the indomitable Avram Grobard, a former paratrooper who went by “El Avram” and ran an Israeli-themed nightclub in Greenwich Village where anyone from Dylan to Theodore Bikel could wind up onstage with Joan Baez singing in Spanish or Hebrew, in Kun’s recounting of the scene. The club, like the music on the albums captured in Vinyl, is largely forgotten, consigned to the memories of people who were there.

Both Kun and Bennett say their goal is bigger than the book: They hope to revive the music itself, by reissuing lost albums on CD, recording video interviews with the performers and arranging shows like one scheduled for New York in December, which will feature an encore by the nonagenarian Irving Fields of Bagels and Bongos.

“We’re not just excavating or documenting a lost world – we’re trying to reanimate it,” said Kun. “Because I really believe that you can change the present and future when you change history – you alter the way people move forward when you put something back that’s been omitted.”

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