And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl
by Roger Bennett and Josh Kun
Media decays but Judaism persists. LPs were just a wink in the stream of Jewish existence, but they may give us one of the most multifaceted snapshots of The Tribe. That’s the concept behind this beautiful if slightly pedantic book — we can only know an ancient society by what it leaves behind, even if that includes Hassidic show tunes and disco-fied worship services. Sure, you know the music of pop megastars Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, and Barbra Streisand, but how many of us remember the wildly successful Gadi Elon, The Barry Sisters, or Sol Zim? All million-sellers, all now forgotten except for the dusty disks in Boca Raton thrift shops. Entire careers have come and gone, and there will never be tribute bands that replicate prog rockers Judea or El Avram. All that’s left is the vinyl, and this small side-table book seeks it out, displays the amazing cover art, gives a thumbnail backstory, and moves on to the next artist. In other words, you don’t actually have to sit down and track Passover Seder Festival with Richard Tucker or suffer though Leo Fuchs’ “Shalom Pardner” or Yiddish American Sing-A-Long. Such a mazel!
What authors Bennett and Kun really examine, though, is the assimilation of Jews into American culture. As the 20th century opened, ethnic groups from Europe still grouped themselves into neighborhood enclaves. Jewish records began with the capture of famous cantor’s voices — some of them would quality as pop stars by today’s standards. Then popular music took over, and as Judaism became more relaxed in the latter half of the century, that music recalled the old world roots and pointed to a more secular future. After the Six Day War, folk music from Israel dominated, then disco, and about the time the LP became obsolete, the assimilation was about as complete. Does that count as a conspiracy?
Trail of Our Vinyl takes a serious look at a neglected thread of our musical heritage, but it still lets us all in on the joke. The records are mostly corny and the graphics wonderfully dated, but while you might not look at this stuff twice in a thrift shop, it still has a story to tell: “Come to America, be yourself, or assimilate — you might make a buck or two doing any of that.”