There’s no race, ethnicity or culture that develops in a vacuum, and Jewish-Americans are no exception. Over the next few weeks, Code Switch will be writing about some overlooked cultural interactions that have helped shape what Jewish identity is today.
We begin the series by featuring a conversation that aired on Weekend Edition Saturday looking at an era of music that has largely faded from memory but remains incredibly compelling: Latin-Jewish fusion music in the mid-20th century.
Think mambo lessons in the Jewish summer resorts of the Catskills — real-life Dirty Dancing. Side-splitting “Yiddish rhumba” about Jews falling in love with Cuban culture. Latin musicians playing at bar mitzvahs (and recording fantastic renditions of “Hava Nagila”).
In November, The Idelsohn Society For Musical Preservation — an organization dedicated to telling Jewish history through its music — released some of these gems in the form of a double album called It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba — which is, fittingly, a phrase my grandmother would probably use to describe a wild party in her youth.
What sparked the musical collision? Some scholars make the argument that Latin music’s roots come from North Africa and Jews originating from around those areas can’t resist. It’s kind of a neat theory: a few seconds of music and clave, and you’ve got instant hip-shaking.
Jewish saxophonist and producer Steve Berlin of the Chicano band Los Lobos argues the two genres share a distinct minor scale that make them culturally compatible and magnetic. “There’s something about Latin music that sort of connects with the Jewish experience in a really profound way,” Berlin tells Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon. (Berlin also says that if this were the soundtrack to his Hebrew school experience, he would have never dropped out.)
It’s also about the historical context of those decades, says Josh Kun, co-founder of the Idelsohn Society: Vaudeville had just set the stage for multi-ethnic, theatrical performances; Jewish and Latino immigrants rubbed shoulders and shared common spaces in cities like New York.
Included in the album’s 44 pages (!) of liner notes:
“Since the earliest days of the American recording industry, Jews and Latinos have been involved in often parallel, often overlapping musical pursuits: sharing neighborhoods and radio frequencies, joking in Yiddish and Spanish, … bonding over a sometimes mutual, sometimes unequal outsider status.
“There’s the business angle as well — one that’s both prickly and nurturing — with Jews running Latin record labels and managing the careers of Latino musicians, and Latin bands hired to play bar mitzvahs, weddings and Catskills hotels.”
The album’s selection ranges “from the sublime to the ridiculous,” Berlin says. Some songs lack are simply novelties, like the Barry Sisters’ 1956 song “Channah from Havana,” which tells the story of a Jewish man lamenting how his wife is more interested in Cuban culture than with him. It’s filled with Yiddish inside jokes and sprinkles only a few Spanish words in the lyrics, and even those don’t make sense — one of the lines goes, “She even has her little brother Morris, calling for heise enchiladas,” but enchiladas are Mexican not Cuban. Beyond that, the only thing Latin about it is the brassy interludes.
Other songs are masterpieces of musical synergy, like Eydie Gorme, the daughter of Sephardic Jewish immigrants, singing fluently in Spanish with the esteemed Trio Los Panchos from Mexico City. Gorme became something of a musical icon in Mexico, Berlin says, “one of the key interpreters of the Latin American popular songbook.”
And there’s the late Cuban superstar Celia Cruz singing “Hava Nagila” in 1964. That was recorded for Latin music record label Seeco Records — which was founded by a Jewish man in New York, Sidney Siegel.
The compilers of the album say these songs need to be revived to enrich our understanding of the Jewish-American story.
“It became part of what it meant to be Jewish in mid-century American,” Kun says. “This is not a kind of anomalous novelty story but really is one that lasts decades and that’s buried in the formation of the American Jewish identity. … They were dancing the mambo at the Palladium, dancing in the Catskills.”