3:56pm

Tue January 10, 2012
Arts & Culture

Revisiting the heydey of Jewish American music

In San Francisco, the idea of "pop up" is ubiquitous. Pop-ups are temporary businesses, venues, or events that happen suddenly, in unexpected locations, and only for a short amount of time. There are pop-up bakeries, pop-up restaurants, pop-up magazines. And for a little while last month, housed in an old nail salon, there was Tikva Records, the world's first Jewish pop-up record store.

The inside of the store looks like a set from a Jewish "Mad Men." Mid-century modern furniture is set against turquoise walls. A trophy case holds black and white Bar Mitzvah pictures. There’s a Yiddish screening room, and record covers with titles like "Mish Mosh," and "Hava Nagila Festival" line the walls. Customers like Devon Strolovitch, the host of KALW’s Fog City Blues, flip through bins of old LPs. 

“They’re finding music that you didn’t realize someone had forgotten about, and recasting and reviving it, and it’s pretty cool,” Strolovitch says.

David Katznelson, the mastermind of the Tikva Records store, sits beneath a sepia-toned photo of Abraham Zevi Idelsohn.

“Idelsohn was the first Jewish musicologist,” said Katznelson. “Kind of like the Jewish Alan Lomax.”

Katznelson is also one of the founders of the Idelsohn Society for the Preservation of Musical Heritage

“The Idelsohn Society is run purely on passion by four record collectors who sat around a table at one point in time and realized that we all collect and love these records from the Jewish world, these Jewish recordings that have been lost in history,” Katznelson explains.

Katznelson and his fellow members of the Idelsohn Society are using their passion for music to tell a post-World War II history of Jewish life. Their records come from the heyday of Jewish recording, roughly 1950 to 1973 – a time that saw the founding of the state of Israel, and an era in which Yiddish music and theater intermingled with mainstream popular culture.  

“It was a time period for Jews where it was post-Holocaust, and horrible things had happened,” says Katznelson. “It was time to regroup, and it was a time when Jews actually felt this sense of ownership and belonging and celebrating their lives as both Jews and Americans as well.” 

In November, the Idelsohn Society released a compilation called "Songs for the Jewish American Jet Set." It includes everything from Jewish cowboy songs to reverb-heavy Israeli surf rock to a track from Jo Amar, a Sephardic singer known as the “Moroccan Prince.” 

Tikva Records is also a pop-up performance venue. Musicians as diverse as Wil-Dog from Ozomatli and Chhom Nimol from Dengue Fever have been playing here all month. The space is like the music – a bridge between cultures, and generations. 

Tonight, the store is filled to capacity – maybe past it. The Burton Sisters, a duet big on the Borsht Belt circuit in the 1940s, are singing together after a 50-year hiatus. The Burton Sisters learned their songs from their mother, a Yiddish-speaking Jew from the Ukraine. For them, this is Jewish soul music. 

“We came from an Orthodox family, a musical family,” said Rose Goldman, the eldest of the sisters.  “We were raised in that, because, on a Friday night they couldn’t put the lights on, of course, so what do you do? We sang. And of course it was Yiddish. When you’re raised with a language and you sing, it’s just a part of your soul. It’s your nephish, in Hebrew. It’s your soul. This is what connects us.”

Even though the Tikva Records store is gone now, the stories behind the music will keep going – online, with an Idelsohn Society app, and with any luck, or mazzel, as they say in Yiddish, in the record collections of a whole new generation. 

"Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set" is currently number four on the Billboard chart of world albums. You can learn more about the CD, the stories behind the music, and the work of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation at idelsohnsociety.com.

[Audio for this story will be available after 5pm]

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