NEW YORK (JTA) – A new CD of classic Jewish songs features Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and the biggest surprise of the album isn’t even that they all manage – more or less – to stick to the original lyrics.
The big surprise is, they’re entertaining when they do.
The truth is, the ambitiously titled “The Jewish Songbook: The Heart and Humor of a People” casts its stones toward a very specific era and subculture: the late 1940s and early ’50s, centering on the melodies and entertainers of the Borscht Belt, the hotel circuit that started and ended at the Catskill Mountains in New York.
While its tracks range from the straight-up liturgical (Barbra Streisand’s version of the Rosh Hashanah hymn “Avinu Malkeinu”) to the modern Israeli (“Hatikvah,” as performed by Marvin Hamlisch), the material hearkens to the tradition of singing comedians and wise-cracking singers, when the words “variety show” really did mean variety and you weren’t sure what kind of song you were listening to until the last note was played.
Like the Catskills stage, the stars of Songbook are schmaltzy even when they’re fresh.
It opens with The Manhattan Transfer’s lead singers harmonizing in a smooth retro chorus, trading boo-be-doo scales with a horn section.
Schneider does a credible job singing on the ’40s novelty song “Bagels and Lox,” written by one of Elvis Presley’s songwriting teams, while his fellow “Saturday Night Live” alum Sandler does an unexpectedly straightforward rendition of “Hinei Ma Tov.”
The serious side of the collection is held up by Neil Sedaka’s straightforward “My Yiddishe Momme,” and Theodore Bikel’s performance of “Sabbath Prayer” from “Fiddler on the Roof” which is sentimental and not at all out of place.
But the best songs are a pair of set pieces: “Joe and Paul,” performed by Paul Shaffer and Richard Belzer, and “Mahzel Means Good Luck” by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog and Max Weinberg. The former is a send-up of the ’50s Hebrew and Yiddish radio station WEVD, broadcasting out of New York, and features both entertainers speaking in Yiddish.
“Shaffer knew the song in Yiddish,” says Brooks Arthur, the album’s producer, “but he needed to brush up with a transliteration” – which, he says, Bikel stepped in to provide.
“Mazhel,” on the other hand, updates its lyrics by taking new digs at contemporary celebrities, from Bon Jovi to Weinberg, who just happens to be playing the drums at the time. It’s a Big Band song that ends with an extravagant brass flourish before scooting into a rapid Yiddish-language reprise by Triumph, voiced by Robert Smigel.
“The Jewish Songbook” might be a pretentious name for a collection that’s both Ashkenazic and baby boomer-centric, but it has full rights to that era. It’s not a tribute to a bygone era so much as an addition to the catalog. And it’s a welcome one.
Sandler and Schneider also star, improbably, as an Israeli secret service agent-turned-hairdresser and an Arab terrorist in the summer hit film “You Don’t Mess with the Zohan.”
It’s not the first film on which the pair have collaborated – nor, we suspect, will it be the last – but the movie’s ubiquitous commercials have brought one new voice to American television: Sha’anan Streett, the lead singer of the Israeli funk-hip hop band Hadag Nachash.
“Hinei Ani Ba,” the song that serves as the soundtrack to the commercials, embodies everything that symbolizes modern Israel – the back-and-forth battle between secular and religious, idealistic and apocalyptic, the fervor of Jerusalem and the feverish energy of Tel Aviv.
Hadag Nachash is one of Israel’s most popular bands – not a surprising choice from a country whose last Eurovision entry was a song about Iran called “Push the Button.” But at its heart, Hadag Nachash has always been a party band. Its shows feature at least as much dancing by band members as the audience.
Sandler couldn’t have picked a better soundtrack to go with the film’s mix of heady politics and over-the-top slapstick.
JDub Records, the outfit that brought us Matisyahu, has a new act worth paying attention to: Hip-hop vocalist Sagol 59, an Israeli MC who performs almost exclusively in Hebrew and has toured as part of a Palestinian-Israeli peace tour.
His new album “Make Room” was released in May.
I don’t know how many people will understand every word Sagol says, but I also don’t know how many people understand Eminem’s 10-words-a-second lyrics.
To someone whose Hebrew is almost nonexistent, Sagol’s rhymes are every bit as listenable as they are impossible to follow. If I didn’t understand sporadic words like “yiladim” or “shalom” or “Robert DeNiro” – I’m not kidding – it would sound like the nonsense rhymes I make up for my 3-month-old daughter.
Only Sagol’s sound about a hundred times cooler and a thousand times more danceable. I imagine there’s a lot to keep up with lyrically – JDub’s Web site features a convenient translation – but based on pure listenability, the language barrier mostly doesn’t even exist.
It doesn’t hurt that producer Yonatan “Johnny” Goldstein frames Sagol’s lyrics with world-music conga drums, toy pianos and some amazing Motown-style soul singing. The swaggering keyboards of the title track will capture the straight-up hip-hop crowd.
On “Make Room,” the song “Leeches” alternates between a Hebrew gospel choir, a cotton candy melody and a rhythm track that’s almost hypnotically grooving. Sagol’s playful rhyming jumps in and out of the music, turning the song into a three-minute symphony.
Toward the end of the album, the raps get longer and more center-stage, but the quiet acoustic funk of “Ping Pong” and the simple, fun beat of “Till the Fat Lady Dances” keep things moving to a satisfyingly, pleasantly stuffed-full climax.
“Make Room” works on all the levels that hip-hop is supposed to – it’s fast, it’s clever and it’s booty shaking – but more importantly, it’s fun and it’s catchy.
Does it work? Definitely.
Will America go for it?
Let’s hope so.