At the corner of ‘us’ and ‘them’

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One does not think of Johnny Mathis, Nina Simone, Connie Francis, or Andy Williams as being particularly Jewish singers. And one does not think of Liverpool or Galveston when locating the centers of Jewish music. But some new recordings— and some old music— show that Jewish and non-Jewish music continue to influence each other in remarkable, even startling ways. 

Various Artists— Jewish Soul 

Connie Francis opens this collection with a spirited “Tzena Tzena,” and Johnny Mathis continues with a mournful “Eli Eli” and  Eartha Kitt with “Rumania, Rumania” in a Picon-perfect Yiddish (what is it with us and the doubled titles, by the way?). Jay & The Americans and Jackie Wilson and even Andy Williams take their turns singing Jewish classics, and producer Simon Rutberg provides pithy liner notes to put each performance in context. It’s an eye-opening (or is that ear-opening?) collection— where else can you hear Eddie Fisher’s “Oh, My Papa” responded to with “My Yidishe Mama”… by Tom Jones?  

Various Artists— Black Sabbath 

While Sharon Osbourne is Jewish, her heavy-metal husband is not on this album. As its subtitle,  

“The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations,” explains, this is a collection of African-American singers performing Jewish standards. This time, we have “My Yiddishe Mama” performed by Billie Holiday, and Johnny Mathis singing “Kol Nidre.” Eartha Kitt is back, too, singing “Shalom Aleichem.” Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof” inspired everyone from Motown’s Temptations to jazz’s Cannonball Adderly. Cab Calloway, Lena Horne, and Nina Simone all assay Jewish melodies; in some cases, it’s less the songs that are Jewish than the composers, as when the Aretha Franklin sings “Swanee.” A 40-page book accompanies the disc, explaining the songs’ origins and how the singers came to perform them.  

Lenny Solomon & Shlock Rock: A Shabbat in Liverpool 

Yes. Exactly that— a near-complete Shabbat service, including some zemirot, set to the indelible melodies of the Beatles. To list each Shabbat tune and the Fab melody it is set to would be to ruin the rush of recognition one feels in listening to this menschlach mash-up. Beyond the simple merger of the prayer’s meter and the song’s rhythm, an effort was made to match the mood or even theme of the song to the prayer. Made as a birthday present to a friend, the effort took more than five years, but worth every minute. It is truly a smile-inducing experience to put on a CD that you have never heard before and be able to sing along the entire time.  

Soundtrack— The Immigrant: A New American Musical 

A Jewish man comes to Texas in the early 1900s and is taken in by a local bank owner. The banker’s wife is hesitant at first, and so is the immigrant’s wife when she joins him from Russia. But through business deals and births, life progresses for these now-friendly families. As decades pass, the couples’ similarities and differences wax and wane, and the women end up trying to save their husbands’ friendship. The music is a mix of klezmer cries and Texas twang, and the singing is excellent throughout. Each culture gets to present a prayer as well— one at a Sunday morning service, and one at a Friday night table. The tale rings true even if you don’t know that it is; it’s the story of the playwright’s grandfather. 

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, perhaps interpretation is the kindest form. “The Immigrant” asks if one can truly start as an outsider and become an insider. America, however, has a culture composed of outside influences to begin with. As these CDs prove, Jewish culture has become as much an “insider” as any other in America. 

Paul Wieder is public relations manager at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

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