Mayn bubbe's tam

I'm not sure that being mortified by  previous generation's tastes is a specifically American Jewish phenomenon. There is, after all, a Yiddish phrase for the phenomenon, mayn bubbe's tam, meaning "my grandmother's taste," which hints that in the old world people were similarly aghast at the tackiness of their ancestors.

In fact, it is possible to argue that the Reform movement was, in part, rooted in aesthetic repulsion at a previous generation's taste -- the early movement sought to remove elements they viewed as "Oriental," included modes of dress, religious melody, synagogue design, and even the form of the service. Tangentially, this is almost a perfect mirror image to the Hasidic movement, whose traditional dress of bekishe coat, halbe-hoyzn knee-breeches, and shtibblat slippers looks deliberately to the East, to Babylon, by way of Turkey.

Come to think of it, the discussion of Hasidic dress is not so tangential, because it demonstrates that Judaism has a long history of both rejecting the past and borrowing from it, and these two histories seem closely bound up with a desire for assimilation and a rejection of it.

I was raised Reform, and am now happily secular, but there is something about assimilation that I find nettlesome. I suppose it is the fact that it always insists on masking or eliminating those things that make someone visibly Jewish -- that we cannot be accepted into mainstream society unless we make Judaism invisible. I also think that this is a strange bargain. We're supposed to get something specific from it -- access to privilege -- and yet Jewish access to privilege is fraught and frequently short-lived, and antisemitism has a long history of punishing Jews for their privilege.

I did an interview on a podcast a few weeks ago. The podcast is called Race Invaders, and I like it very much. The two hosts are Asian American, and struggle with a lot of the same sort of questions I struggle with; there are some surprising parallels between the Jewish and the Asian American experience.

Among them is the risk of buying into whiteness, of becoming a model minority, a phrase originally invented to describe Japanese Americans and later expanded to include Jews, as well as other Asian groups. On a recent episode, the hosts discussed the fact that there are Asian American who resist this model minority status, resist buying into the privilege (and problems) that comes with honorary whiteness.

According to the podcast hosts, as they reject this sort of assimilation, these Asian Americans find themselves looking for an alternative model. And since race in America is so often defined by whiteness and blackness, they end up adopting a lot of black culture. One of the hosts, Alok Desai, pointed out that this raises issues of cultural appropriation, but many Asian Americans are disconnected enough from their own cultural heritage not to be able to use it as a model.

I think American Jews often likewise don't have a model. They especially don't have a secular model. Or they do, but they are embarrassed by it.

There was a recent article in Forward that collected what the author considered to be the worst Jewish album covers of all time. I am not sure what the criteria was in picking these, except that the author found them funny. Some of them are harmless (such as The Jewish Cowboy, an actual and fascinating interview with Harold Stern who ran a Texas ranch, and is only funny if you don't know how common Jews were in the west).

Many are deliberately funny, including Mrs. Portnoy's Retort by the great Mae Questel, a comic answer album to Philip Roth, and several albums featuring the superb comic actor Lou Jacobi. The fact that we still find these album covers funny is a testament to good design, not to terribleness.

The author also seemed to especially have it in for jazz flutist Herbie Mann, whose album design was admittedly a little outre (particular his unclothed and sweaty torso on "Push Push.") But Mann created deeply funky tracks (such as his chart-topping "Hijack"), so not only are his album covers entirely consistent with his style of music, but, honestly, anyone who created a soft jazz version of "Hatikva" (called ""Man's Hope") gets a pass from me for almost anything.

Honestly, I think the sense that these albums are hilarious comes from a combination unfamiliarity and embarrassment over a previous generation's tastes. But when we abandon the previous generation, we assimilate into one of two worlds: An ahistoric one, where there are only contemporary tastes and the past is only worthwhile when it dovetails with modern tastes; or a world of hidden privilege, where the dominant taste is allowed to remain contemporary while minority tastes are left behind.

I think the embarrassment of a lot of the albums listed is the latter: It's not simply that the albums seem out of date, it's that they are so Jewish. The Mae Questel one literally has her surrounded by Jewish food, and there is an album by Theodore Bikel that is entirely unremarkable, except that he is playing Jewish music and his face is lit with red lights.

I suppose I'm a little surprised that these albums provide an aesthetic shock, as they are not mayn bubbe's tam, but my parent's tam -- the albums are mostly from the 50s - 70s, and were in the record collections of many of my friends' parents. More than that, many the comedy albums existed as a sort of monetizing of Jewish embarrassment about the previous generation -- Mae Questel enjoyed a late career revival playing overbearing Jewish mothers, while Lou Jacobi specialized in playing irritable, avuncular older Jewish men.

I'd like to argue against this sort of knee-jerk mortification at a previous generations tastes, especially when those tastes were explicitly Jewish. Now, I'm not arguing for an equally knee-jerk acceptance of it, as I think a sort of uncritical nostalgia can actually be harmful.

I am saying that somewhere in there we can find tools for self-identification that assimilation has buffed away, and shouldn't have.

I'd like to suggest that when we respond to the past with embarrassment, it is sometimes not that the past is embarrassing, but because it represents something that the dominant culture would like us to think is embarrassing. It is embarrassing because it represents nonmainstream tastes or experiences, and one of the ways that privilege protects itself is by declaring challenges to be tacky.

I'd like to dare us to be tacky. I'd like it if we revisited mayn bubbe's tam for the things we thoughtlessly abandoned, and try celebrating them rather than dismissing them.

Because how many photos were taken in the 1970s of shirtless, sweaty musicians? I'm going to go ahead and just guess at a number, and that number is 100 percent. Every single musician on every single album cover in the 1970s was shirtless and sweaty.

So why is Herbie Mann's sweaty shirtlessness especially notable? He's not unhandsome, at least not mores o than everybody in the band SOS, and they are all shirtless on their album cover. The band Orleans basically looks like a group of cavemen, and here they all are, shirtless. Iggy Pop always looked like someone put makeup on a cadaver, and here he is, shirtless.  David Bowie isn't just shirtless on the cover of Diamond Dogs, he's half dog.

I suspect the issue is that Herbie Mann is so obviously Jewish, and has a body we associate more with middle-aged Jewish men taking a shvitz than sex symbols, despite the fact that Mann made music that made people make love. But who says middle-aged balding Jewish men are embarrassing, rather than sexy? I ask this as a middle-aged, balding Jewish man.

If grandma found Herbie Mann sexy, maybe grandma was on to something.