Chapter 3. New Fusions of Yiddish and American Musical Forms, 1945-1970

Chapter Three is divided into two main sections. The first section is an overview of what was happening to recorded Jewish Music in America in the decades following World War II. The second section places the Jewish music in a cultural context with how Jews attempted to assimilate in postwar America.

1945 to 1970

While the recordings made between 1915 and 1930 were primarily made for the major labels (Columbia, Victor, RCA), after the war the situation changed. The major labels did not restart their ethnic catalogs and custom and independent pressing operations opened. This allowed for the development and growth of the small, content driven ethnic record labels which proceeded to dominate the Yiddish and developing market for Hasidic recordings in North America. Ensembles on these recordings were most commonly six to eight musicians rather than the ten to thirteen common in the 1920s. The instrumentation was usually clarinet, saxophone, trumpet, trombone, accordion, piano, bass and drums.

A number of factors led to the change in the sound of recordings after World War II as compared to the earlier recordings. The biggest changes were in the recording studios, recording (microphone) techniques, and delivery media. The switch from 78s with one song per side to EPs and LPs with multiple tracks dramatically changed how the listening experience could be controlled by the artist. What is interesting, is that tracks were still kept short, and long dance sets (as would be played in live party settings) for the most part did not gain popularity. The only noticeable change within the music was in band size and instrumentation.

Two types of recordings were made, though labels do not normally reflect what type they are. The first type are smaller bands that somewhat accurately reflected the larger ensembles that played for parties. These are the six to eight piece bands. Some of the albums that reflect this style include recordings by Danny Rubenstein (The Happy People, United Artists UAL 30006, 1958[1]), Paul Pincus (Music for Happy Occasions, Mercury 1961), Sammy Musiker (Jewish Wedding Dances featuring Sam Musiker and his Clarinet, Tikva Records T-4, undated), and The Epstein Brothers (Mazeltov, Wedding Songs of Our People - for My Beloved, featuring the “Dukes of Freilachland” AAMCO ALP 316, 1958[2]). Many were recorded without charts, with the musicians playing tunes the same way they would on the bandstand.

The second style of recording was to augment existing ensembles or create an ensemble solely for recording. These recordings are far fewer in number as just instrumental albums, but show up in a number of different forms.  If the album is made by a wedding bandleader, there is a good chance that it will include both Jewish and non-Jewish tunes. One of the best examples of these is Marty Levitt Goes Continental (Tivell Record, TVS-11, 1968). Where one sees this type of album in great number, though, is in orchestral recordings of Jewish music. Browsing used record shops reveal these albums were quite popular and a majority of them were recorded in Europe. Conductor and arranger Benedict Silberman with producer Jacques Kluger recorded two albums, Jewish Music; Melodies Beloved the World Over (Capitol DT 10064, undated) and Jewish Memories (Palette MPZ-1012, undated, also released as Traditional Jewish Memories; Melodies Beloved Throughout the Ages, Warner Brothers, W 1534, undated). Two other examples are Stanley Black's Music of a People, with the London Festival Orchestra and Chorus (London SP 44060, undated) and Gordon Jenkins' Soul of a People (Time Records S/2050, undated).[3]

Again, the most influential musicians were the clarinetists. Dave Tarras would continue to record, both as a leader and as a featured sideman. He was featured as a sideman on a number of recordings lead by Murray Lehrer. His most well known recording today of this time period was Tanz!, with fellow clarinetist, son-in-law Sammy Musiker (1916-1964). Besides being Tarras's son-in-law, Muziker became the first featured clarinetist in Gene Krupa's Orchesra when Krupa left Benny Goodman's outfit.[4] Musiker was with Krupa from 1938 until 1942. He had been introduced to Dave Tarras in the hiring hall of Local 802 (the New York City Musicians Union) by the drummer Irving Gratz in 1939. Sammy Musiker would combine big band music with the Jewish music that he learned from his mentor Dave Tarras. With this fusion he made a number of recordings featuring this new hybrid sound. His younger brother Ray Musiker, who was the third reed player on the Tanz! album, also continued his older brother's use of big band composition conventions in writing his own original tunes. More information on the relationship of Dave Tarras and Sammy Musiker to jazz can be found in the next chapter.

Clarinetist Max Epstein (1913-2000) was the oldest of four brothers who all became musicians. He was one of the first American born Jewish musicians who came to be seen as an equal to the generation of European-born musicians. Along with younger brothers Willie, trumpet, 1919-1999, Isidore “Chizik,” reeds, 1913-1986, and Julie, drums, b. 1926, the Epstein Brothers became major musicians in the Hasidic community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, even though they themselves were not Hasidic. Their music combined the traditional postwar American sound with a repertoire that included many Nigunim (Hasidic tunes without words).

Cleveland-born and California-based Mickey Katz created a Jewish fusion different from the Epstein Brothers. Katz, who had played with the Spike Jones Novelty Orchestra with Nat Farber, who became Katz's principal arranger, used top American born musicians such as trumpeter Ziggy Elman, trumpeter Manny Klein, and trombonist Sy Zentner. Elman who along with Benny Goodman and Johnny Mercer brought “And the Angels Sing,” based on the Yiddish instrumental dance tune “Der Shtiler Bulgar [The Quite Bulgar]” to the American pop charts. They fused a smooth sound and vertical harmonies to create what Hankus Netsky describes as “a slick but soulful version of Klezmer.”[5] More of Mickey Katz's background and career is covered later in the next chapter.

A new genre of recordings developed that were aimed at the Hasidic community, a relatively new group of immigrants which had arrived after World War II. Among the recordings aimed at Hasidic communities, the ones by Rudy Tepel document the instrumental traditions of a number of Hasidic courts that had reconstituted in Brooklyn. This group of recordings also included a number of notable sidemen who influenced and taught future generations of musicians, including reed players Paul Pincus (who recorded one album as a leader), Howie Leess, Sid Beckerman (son of Shlomike Beckerman, a noted inter-war clarinetist), and the youngest of the old guys, pianist Peter Sokolow. These musicians were all recorded again during the revival begining in the late 1980s and continuing through the 1990s.

“Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn,” “And The Angles Sing” and other Jewish tunes were popularized in the 1930s and early 1940s primarily by non-Jewish performers. The tunes may have had Jewish origins but the performers were trying to play them in popular styles and drop most of the ethnic connotations that they may have originally had. The albums examined in this study take the reverse approach; that is, they take an ethnic music and reclaim it in each musician's personal style. Much like the top American composers in the Yiddish theatre, these fusion musicians had to deal with the dichotomy of being Jewish American artists performing Jewish music while looking for something larger. Who are these featured musicians, and how did they achive their personal style? These are the questions that the following biographical sketches attempt to answer.

Postwar American Cultural Context

The analysis of the the albums discussed in Chapter Five is shaped by the broader American cultural context in which Jewish musicians wrote and recorded. Before World War II Anti-Semitism was widespread. Henry Ford and radio priest Father Charles Coughlin were very public with their views on isolationism and blaming Jews for the Great Depression. Many isolationists preached that the Jews, through influence and control of media, were forcing America into war against Germany for their own benefit.[6] Yet, American Jews served at a rate that was as high or higher than their ratio in the American population, some eleven to twelve percent of the American Jewish population served during World War II.[7]

The response by liberal Christans and Jews to wartime Anti-Semitism was to work together to promote a common brotherhood. When Fascist and Anti-Semitic groups co-opted the term ‘Christian’ to express their values, the phrase “Judeo-Christian” entered the lexicon as the standard term for liberal Western values.[8] This change was just part of Jews moving from the edge of American society toward the mainstream. War-time military service positively changed how Jews were viewed in this country, because the “White” military was integrated across social and ethnic backgrounds. Much of the population in the United States both in cities and rural areas lived in ethnic neighborhood enclaves. Intermixing of religions, cultures, and ethnicity was imposed in the military and reinforced at the same time in movies about the home front.

Rabbi and historian Arthur Hertzberg in his book The Jews in America, may sum up why Jewish-Fusion albums were possible;

The children of the East European immigrants were now, in the 1940s and 1950s, in midcareer. They were numerous and increasingly wealthy, and ever more “Jewish.” Every sociological study made in the 1950s (and they were made by the dozens) attested to the fact that they were most comfortable with other Jews, and that they regarded the Jewish community as their primary home. Yet, they were deeply ambivalent, often without admitting it even to themselves, about their most Jewish emotions. They eagerly seized the pragmatic, “American” responsibilities of philanthropic and political leadership of world Jewry, but they regarded it as unthinkable, and even anti-American, to use any part of their new wealth to create boarding or parochial day schools in which separatist Jewish culture and values might be cultivated. What they did as Jews–and, more revealing, what they chose not to do–had to fit their dominant purpose: to “arrive.”[9]

This desire to be part of the greater American conversation can be seen through the arts, though it is best reflected in the religious conversation of the day. Following the wartime brotherhood actions that lead to the use of “Judeo-Christan” to mean ideal Western values, the post-war fight against “godless” Communism led to an increased religiosity amongst both Christians and Jews of the 1950s.[10] The religion of American Jews was given recognition as America's third faith behind Protestantism and Catholicism. American Jews affiliated in numbers never before seen, but the level of their devotion can be disputed?

The albums examined in this study were possible to record because for the most part the musicians thought that they had arrived as “Americans.” They took music that had previously been community-based and presented it in forms that reflected the Jewish community's position of wanting to be part of the greater American conversation, a desire that had been developing for many years.

In the nineteen-teens and roaring twenties one could be Jewish and create popular culture at the same time. Irving Berlin, who only worked in popular settings is a good example of a composer who wrote a number of works with “Jewish” themes, including: “Yiddle, On Your Fiddle, Play Some Ragtime” (1909), “That Kazzatsky Dance” (1910), “Yiddisha Eyes” (1910), “Yiddisha Nightingale” (1911), “Business Is Business, Rosey Cohen” (1911), “Becky's Got a Job in A Musical Show” (1912), “In My Harem” (1913), “Abie Sings an Irish Song” (1913 from All Aboard), “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars” (1915 from Stop! Look! Listen!), “Don’t Send Me Back to Petrograd” (1924), “Russian Lullaby” (1927), and “Yascha Michaeloffsky's Melody” (1928).[11] Those are just the tunes he wrote by himself. The twelve songs listed were written between 1909 and 1928, the prime period for Tin Pan Alley songs with some form of Jewish tinged content. Even non-Jews sometimes wrote shows with Jewish themes such as George M. Cohan’s “The Potash and Perlmutter Ball” (from The Cohan Review of 1918).[12]

Songs were written in the 1930's, but far fewer than in previous decades and many written or adapted after 1937's hit “Bei Mir Bistu Schön” (see chapter 2). After the war we start to find interesting crossover songs such as Al Jolson and Bene Russell's adaptation of “Khosn kale mazl tov” into “Israel” (1948), “Yiddishe Mambo” (1954) by Buddy Feyne and Bill Harrington, and “Mashuga”[13] (1959) by Eddie White, Mack Wolfson and Sid Danoff.[14] However, none of the songs written after the war seemed to have the staying power of the best pre-war tunes.

Popular culture in the first half of the 20th century may be studied through looking at movies. The first multi-reel feature to be primarily a talking picture features Jewish content, The Jazz Singer (1927). Based on a story by Samson Raphaelson, The Jazz Singer is the story of Jack Robin, the son of a cantor who struggles between his Jewish and American sides. Does he stay Jewish and follow his father into the cantorite or his heart into American popular music? This is a story and set of themes that has been remade many times in popular media since 1927.[15]

Marx Brothers films are a good place to see how ethnic stereotypes and Yiddish were used as code words in film. As Herman Mankeiwicz described to S.J. Perlman while Horse Feathers was being worked on in 1932, the brothers were "One of them is a guinea, another a mute who picks up spit, and the third an old Hebe with a Cigar".[16] Chico, often with an Italian accent is the guinea, Harpo the mute, and Groucho the old Hebe with a Cigar. Their first two films, The Coconuts (1929) and Animal Crackers (1930) feature more use of more Yiddish words and slang than their later films.[17] This may have as much to do with the movies' author, George S. Kaufman, as the brothers themselves.[18]

After the war the use of Yiddish as a signifier is of far less importance than the movies that show Jews in a positive light. Two of these movies that have stood the test of time better than others are Gentleman's Agreement and Exodus. Gentleman's Agreement (1947) is about a non-Jewish journalist posing as a Jew to investigate Anti-Semitism. Exodus (1960), based on the book by Leon Uris, is about the founding of the state of Israel. Over the years being Jewish has principally been used as function of comic relief. The most prominent Jewish comedian working in films in the 1950s was Jerry Lewis. His characters were not specifically Jewish, but they did not hide their roots either. It wouldn't be until the late 1960s and into the 1970s when veteran writers for Sid Caeser, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks would reinvent the heeb persona in their movies.

Musical theatre has always been a place where a heavy “Jewish” influence has been felt, most prominently in shows like as Jerry Herman’s Milk and Honey (1961) and Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's Fiddler on the Roof (1964). Milk and Honey is the story of American tourists traveling to Israel. A cultural phenomenon, Fiddler on the Roof is a romanticized view of Jewish life in a Russian Shetl. Based upon the Tevye Der Milkhiker stories by Yiddish writer Sholem Aleykhem, with a score by Jerry Bock and lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, the show translates and Americanizes Yiddish Theatre Musicals to the American Broadway stage.

In New York, Jewish content could be found downtown on the Lower East Side in the Yiddish theaters of Second Avenue. Vaudeville style shows such as Mickey Katz's Borsht Capades, discussed in the next chapter, was a reinvention of Vaudeville and Yiddish Theater in the 1950s.

Lastly, politics played a tremendous role after the war in the communist witch hunts of the McCarthy and HUAC hearings, though musicians were never pursued in the same numbers as those working in radio, television, and film.[19] And while Jews were among the principal ethnic groups targeted, the attackers were always careful to show that they were targeted for political and not religious reasons.


1. Most of these albums are undated. Thanks to Peter Sokolow for providing dates. The only one with confirmation is Danny Rubenstein who confirmed the year in a talk at Klez Kanada, August 2007.

2. This album is popularly referred to as Dukes of Freilachland and is considered by many to be the one of the best traditional instrumental albums of its generation.

3. Time Records, Inc also recorded two albums of Wedding Band material, Melodies to Remember (Time Record S/312, undated) and Music for a Jewish Wedding (Time Records S/2181, undated) both under the direction of a band leader listed as Danny Albert.

4. Henry Sapoznik, Klezmer! Jewish Music from Old World to Our World (New York: Schirmer Books, 1999), pp 152-153.

5. Hankus Netsky. “American Klezmer: A Brief History” in American Klezmer; Its Roots and Offshoots. Mark Slobin, ed. (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002), p. 19.

6. Jonathan D. Sarna American Judaism; A History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) pp. 266-267.

7. Sarna, 2004, pp. 264-265.

8. Ibid. p. 267.

9. Hertzberg, Arthur. The Jews in America. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989; New York: Columbia University Press, 1997) p. 304.

10. Sarna, 2004, pp. 274-275.

11. Born Israel Isidore Baline in 1888 in Mogilev or Tyumen depending on source, Russia, immigrated with family to America in 1893, and died in 1989 in New York City. Gottlieb, Jack. Funny, It Doesn't Sound Jewish (Statue University of New York in association with The Library of Congress, 2004) pp. 246-258. These 12 pages are just a selective list of song with "Yingish" titles.

12. Gottlieb, 2004. p. 254.

13. A recording of “Mashuga” can be found on the Louis Prima and Kelly Smith album Together. The music is the Ukrainian Jewish dance the kazatzke, and the lyrics are about being crazy for ones lover.

14. Gottlieb, 2004, pp. 246-258.

15. J. Hoberman's essay on The Jazz Singer in Entertaining America (New York: The Jewish Museum, 2003) pp. 77- 92, includes a timeline that 1886 to 1998 tracing the development of the themes and then various incarnations of it.

16. Perlman, The Last Laugh (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981), pp. 159-160. As quoted in the footnotes to the essay on the Marx Brothers; J. Hoberman & Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America (New York: The Jewish Museum, 2003) p. 300.

17. Epstein, Lawrence J. The Haunted Smile, The Story of Jewish Comedians in America (New York; PublicAffairs, 2001) p. 82.

18. A Night at the Opera (1935) was also written by George S. Kaufman. J. Hoberman & Jeffrey Shandler also add S.J. Perlman as a writter who was influential in adding a Jewish presence to their work. Entertaining America, p. 159.

19. Hertzberg 1997, p. 294; Paul Buhle. From the Lower East Side to Hollywood; Jews in American Popular Culture (London & New York: Verso, 2004), pp. 52-53, 127-130.

 © Matt Temkin 2012 - 2015