When I was in my teens, I attended a Jewish high school. There weren't many of us -- just 13 students my first year, pursuing an ambitious curriculum in just a few classrooms at the back of the Jewish Community Center in Minneapolis.
Despite the smallness of our school, we somehow wound up with a surprising amount of unsupervised time -- in my case, this often happened after school ended, while I waited for my mother or father to pick me up, which could be a wait of a long as an hour or so. I typically spent this time in the library, and I got a little obsessed with the JCC's collection of records.
There were collections of Hasidic songs, some of which I can still sing to this day. There were endless recordings of cantors, which probably caused a short-lived interest I had in becoming a cantor; the closest I came was working as a songleader at Jewish summer camps. There were records from the 1960s from Israel, whose covers showed handsome, brown-skinned sabras tending to kibbutz fields or leaping in rural Israeli locations.
I can't precisely say what the legacy of this was, except that I still know an awful lot of Jewish songs, and will sometimes just start singing them. It's a sort of joke I do, because when I get to the chorus, I will shout out "Everybody!" like I am still a camp songleader and everybody should just know this songs. Nobody knows these songs. Not anymore. The era of vinyl is long past, and few have made the transition to the digital realm.
The records are still out there, of course. This 2008 book, "And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved," is nothing but vinyl, and it is like somebody took the entire JCC record collection of my youth and decided to reprint the album covers. It evolved out of a web project, which pleases me as a guy who does web projects too, and one of the authors, Roger Bennett, is also responsible for books titled "Bar Mitzvah Disco" and "Camp Camp: Where Fantasy Island Meets Lord of the Flies," which likewise seem to have ransacked my childhood.
"And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl" is undeniably kitchy and doesn't shy away from the fact. I suspect the project started with an appreciation for the sheer spectacle of the album covers, which were often exercises in the lapses in Jewish good taste, and the text of the book has a keen eye for the ridiculous. But the authors also recognized that album covers, in their own way, told a story of the Jewish experience, particularly the American Jewish experience for a good chunk of the middle of the 20th century. An especially dazzling section looks at records produced by Israelis, sometimes explicitly for consumption by American audiences, and it reveals a country of endless reinventions, from settler farmers to triumphant soldiers to Eurovision-style pop stars.
Most of the book, however, shows a different sort of Jewish reinvention -- what seem to be quicksilver-like changes in the American Jewish experience. Trends rise and fall as American Jews attempt at once to make themselves a part of the American mainstream and try to set themselves apart from it. And so we find these astonishing hybrids, from the Jewish swing of the Barry sisters to a short, magnificent trend of Jewish songs with Latin arrangements to old Yiddish songs being revived for the folk explosion of the 60s. There is not a Jewish thing that somebody hasn't tried to Americanize, and an American thing that somebody hasn't tried to Judaize.
Like the authors, I think I prefer the moments when this produced lapses in taste. I remember attending a cousin's bat mitva at a very old, very established Reform temple in New York, and it was all old money. As it happened, there would be two concurrent celebrations that day, one for my cousin, and one for the scion of one of the synagogues most established families.
It was immediately evident who came from what family. The scion's family were tidy, elegant, unfussily formal. My family looked like Chechen, in ill-fitting black suits with black ties over black shirts, some unshaven, some lounging in the synagogues pews like they were visiting friends at a bathhouse. I felt a strange pride at this -- this was my family, and we were the troublemakers, the barely reconstructed immigrant family, the tacky and noisy and strange.
I like my Jewish albums like I like my Jewish family. I like the loud female comics like Belle Barth, the weird Yiddish records the explain how to make schmaltz, the Orthodox Jewish boys who decide to form their own R&B bands. I like it when the frayed edges of assimilation show, when genre blending has such hard angles as to essentially be a mash-up, and when people who little or questionable talent nonetheless find an audience thanks to pitching themselves perfectly at a small, niche immigrant audience.
Those are my people, and they make my albums. This book is full of them.