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The Song is Not the Same: Jews and American Popular Music.  Josh Kun, ed.  Vol. 8 of The Jewish Role in American Life: An Annual Review, Bruce Zuckerman and Lisa Ansell, eds. ISBN 978-1-5575-3586-3.

Reviewed by Gabriel Solis

9781557535863 - The Song is Not the Same   Jews and American Popular Music

Volume eight of the annual review The Jewish Role in American Life, published by the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life at the University of Southern California, is a welcome addition to the general literature on music and Jewish identity. It presents seven short articles collected by guest editor Josh Kun, all relating broadly to the topic of “Jews and American popular music.” The song is not the same, as the title of the volume says. Most readers who will turn to this little collection will approach it already feeling they have some handle on the topic of Jews and popular music, whether that means the cadre of Jewish songwriters from Irving Berlin to Stephen Sondheim who wrote nearly the entire “Great American Songbook,” singer-songwriters like Carole King and Paul Simon who more or less made music in the 1960s what it was, or the Jewish hipsters from Mezz Mezrow to Lieber and Stoller to the Beastie Boys who made more than incidental contributions to black musical genres from early jazz to hip hop. Though these sorts of high points and familiar names provide points of reference throughout the essays, most readers will likely come away seeing things differently than they had. The great strength of the volume is in Kun’s editorial vision, having solicited a set of articles on topics that move beyond received expectations for the area of the Jewish contribution to American music. If there is a weakness, it may also be seen in Kun’s approach to editing the volume: there is a level of unevenness common to edited collections, and this one is no exception.

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To Broadway, To Life! The Musical Theater of Bock and Harnick. Philip Lambert. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-1953-9007-0

Jews on Broadway: An Historical Survey of Performers, Playwrights, Composers, Lyricists and Producers. Stewart F. Lane. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7864-5917-9

Reviewed by Alisa Solomon

Like those Broadway musicals that are driven by deep emotion and a social conscience, intellectual books about Broadway musicals face a dilemma: how to be serious and popular. Indeed, books may have a harder time. From Showboat to Rent, musicals have managed to challenge audiences with questions about such issues as racism and AIDS even as they have filled the coffers of investors. But to whom is a book on Broadway addressed—to academic specialists or to die-hard show fans? Not that these categories are mutually exclusive (the best scholarship is typically driven by passion, after all), but they can represent vastly different cultures and interests. As publishers increasingly look for “crossover” projects—and as the academic study of musical theater expands—the clashing expectations of these disparate audiences can put some authors in a bind. Read the rest of this entry »

The Milken Archive of Jewish Music: The American Experience

Vol. XVI: Heroes and Heroines: Jewish Opera

http://www.milkenarchive.org/volumes/view/16

Reviewed by Jeffrey Shandler

Editor’s Note: This essay represents the first in a series of reviews exploring the recently launched Milken Archive of Jewish Music: The American Experience, an online resource that incorporates and expands upon the Archive’s earlier CD series (published on the Naxos label from 2003-2006).


In the annals of Jewish music, is any genre as fraught as opera? In nineteenth-century Europe, this most elaborate of western art forms seduced and dazzled Jewish admirers from Theodor Herzl (whose visions of Zionism were inspired by Tannhäuser) to Emma Goldman (transfixed by a performance of Il Trovatore in Königsberg). The lure of opera for cantors became the stuff of legends (the story of Yoel-Dovid Strashunsky’s fall from grace when he abandoned the synagogue in Vilna for the opera house in Warsaw inspired works of fiction, theater, and film). Jewish opera composers became celebrities (Meyerbeer, Offenbach), and their musicianship the target of anti-Semitic attack (most famously, Wagner’s Das Judenthum in der Musik). Opera production has long been a familiar home for Jews who converted (Mahler), intermarried (Otto Goldschmidt, the husband of Jenny Lind), or obscured their Jewishness (Rudolph Bing). Is it any wonder that the most renowned opera whose central figures are European Jews, Halévy’s La Juive (1835), is named for a character who, it turns out as the final curtain is about to ring down, isn’t, in fact, a Jewess? Read the rest of this entry »

The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground (Erik Greenburg Anjou, 2010). Seventh Art Releasing. 106 min.

Eatala: a Life in Klezmer (Barry Dornfeld & Debora Kodish, 2011). Philadelphia Folklore Project. 37 min.

Reviewed by Mikel J. Koven

klez-poster

Music documentaries are difficult creatures to discuss. How does one approach them? Should the evaluation of any documentary be based on its cinematic principles, that is, as a film? Or should discussion be limited to an evaluation only of the documentary’s content? Music documentaries complicate the discourse further: is this a biography film, charting the history of a band’s development? A film documenting a particular event, like a tour or particular concert? Or is the film exploring a particular ethnomusicological idea, a filmed essay on a music topic? All of these questions are up in the air when discussing any music documentary film, and one hopes that particular films will focus on one of these potential discourses. But, alas, that almost never happens.

Erik Greenburg Anjou’s The Klezmatics: On Holy Ground doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. On Holy Ground covers tremendous ground trying to be, simultaneously, a history of the New York-based klezmer revivalist band The Klezmatics; a documentary of The Klezmatics’ 2007 tour of Poland; an exploration of the significance of Yiddishkeyt and its revival over the past twenty years; and a document of the band’s 2006 project of recording its first all-English album, Wonder Wheel, an album of unrecorded songs written by Woody Guthrie (who had a Jewish grandmother, Aliza Greenblatt). Because Anjou tries to cover so much content, each of the topics or themes he touches is never satisfactorily developed.

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