Thursday, December 4, 2008

Jewish History From Vinyl Records

Collectors recover lost era of Jewish America on vinyl

Born into the traditions of both Modern Orthodoxy and Reform Judaism, Josh Kun grew up on the streets of Pico-Robertson trying hard not to stand out.

Still, Kun (who today calls himself a typical "dysfunctioning Los Angeles Jew") admits he was one of the few teenage boys to coast the neighborhood wearing hip-hop gear.

"That tug-of-war between secularism and the expectation of religiosity or the expectation of tradition, that tug was a big one in my life," Kun said in a recent interview.

Now a journalism professor at USC, Kun has found a way to meld his passion for music with the traditions with which he was raised. Namely, by discovering lost pieces of Jewish history through -- of all things -- vinyl records.

While other music fanatics visit Hollywood's nightclubs to discover groundbreaking music, Kun rummages through countless bins at places like the National Council of Jewish Women's thrift shop looking for Jewish records of the past. But he hasn't done it alone.

Roger Bennett, a lawyer from England and co-author of their new book, "And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost" (Crown, $24.95), is also guilty of giving in to record-collecting pleasures.

Kun insists that putting together the 11-chapter book filled with hundreds of little-known album covers has been serious business.

"We realized we had this collection of stories that collectively added up to a whole other history," Kun said.

Specifically, Kun believes these albums can help listeners understand the three dominant narratives of postwar Jewish life -- assimilation, the birth of Israel and the Holocaust -- and also help to create new ones.

With chapters titled, "The Yiddish Are Coming: How Vinyl Kept a Dying Language Alive" and "Me Llamo Steinberg: The Jewish Latin Craze," it's not difficult to imagine the new tales these records may have in store for audiences.

But Kun says there are also plenty of questions he and Bennett are still asking.

"Who runs out to the store and says, 'Oh, I can't wait to get home, pour myself a drink, sit back, finish dinner with the family and listen to "Six-Day War,"'?" Kun asks.

In addition to including lavish album covers from the 1950s, '60s and beyond, Kun and Bennett also asked the likes of music critic Ann Powers, actress Sandra Bernhard, TV pioneer Norman Lear and others to write for the book about what they hear when they listen to the music.

Whether it involves forgotten Jewish artists like the Barry Sisters, who belted out a Yiddish version of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head"; Johnny Yune, a Korean immigrant who got caught up in New York's Israeli club scene and learned how to sing Hebrew and Yiddish songs, eventually putting out a record; or Nat King Cole's rendition of "Nature Boy," a song that takes its melodic riff from an old Yiddish tune, friends, critics and music geeks chime in.

And Kun himself admits to having become a sincere fan of the old albums he has discovered.

"There are those that are kinda the research tools, and then there are those that bleed over to gotta get them on the iPod," he said.

Three Web sites, Reboot Stereophonic, And You Shall Know Us By the Trail of Our Vinyl and Idelsounds, also offer fans of the records an opportunity to explore the music further.

Reboot Stereophonic, whose motto is "history sounds different when you know where to start listening," is a nonprofit record label that reissues the records featured in the book in CD format. Idelsounds offers a discussion forum that allows new conversations about the music to happen. Eventually, the three sites will become one, offering fans a one-stop hub on the Web, streaming the music online, in addition to combining the other features of the sites.

Kun and Bennett are also in the process of tracking down the artists who are still alive to talk about the music they once made.

All in all, Kun said, the project is about capturing a piece of history.

"We want to have these stories preserved before they go away," he said.

Still, it's impossible to separate Kun's and Bennett's boyhood passion for music from their current endeavor.

"If they played this at synagogue, we never would have left," they write in the book.

Josh Kun will be participating in a game of "Name That Tune" with Leonard Nimoy at a book signing on Dec. 9, 7:30 p.m., at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

[Jewish Journal]

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