The Problem With Cultural Reclamation


Recently I discovered a band talented enough to change my mind about “Hava Nagila,” a song I find so personally annoying I banned it from the setlist at my adult bat mitzvah. The band in question is Abraham, Inc. and they call their version “The H Tune.”

Abraham, Inc. might give pause at its unlikely combination of funk, avant garde klezmer and Yiddish hip hop. But what happens on stage is nothing less than genuine, organic and delightfully surprising. Abraham, Inc.’s funky “Hava Nagila” wasn’t a novelty but felt connected to something much larger, like a bridge between parallel genre universes.

When Yeshiva University Museum hosted the “Jews on Vinyl” exhibit last year, “Hava Nagila” covers were a prominent theme, featuring something like 20 different versions. But “Jews on Vinyl” left me enervated. I’d rather hear one interesting cover of “Hava Nagila” than 100 with nothing to say apart from the novelty of their very existence. Maybe that was the real problem I had with “Jews on Vinyl.” There was some gold to be heard, but it was lost amid a lot of dreck. “The H Tune” moved me because it sounded like the musicians had actually thought about the song and brought a new interpretation, not just a novelty reproduction.

Questions of reclamation, reproduction and reinterpretation are at the heart of the mission of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, the producers of the “Jews on Vinyl” exhibit. As member Josh Kun told NPR in 2010, the Society is “dedicated to excavating lost gems of American-Jewish music, in order to unleash new ways of telling American-Jewish history.” To that end they have, among other things, reissued classic albums, produced anthologies, recorded oral histories and curated museum exhibits.

Too often, though, the society’s execution fails to disturb the status quo, settling for novelty over serious historical interrogation. Why should I care that Chubby Checker did a “Hava Nagila Twist?” Or Joe Quijano? Or Dick Dale? How many times can I be surprised (or perhaps flattered) that non-Jews take an interest in Jewish music? The Idelsohn Society wants to “discover” and “save” Jewish music, but only in a way that flatters its own particular tastes and preconceptions about what Jewish culture might be.

On the surface, the society has executed an impressive plan for tapping the creative potential of the Jewish American past. Not only do they supply content, they are emphatic about creating a context for that content and, ultimately, building a community around it.

Of course, to do all that takes money. The Idelsohn Society has been the recipient of support from some of the biggest names in Jewish philanthropy. So it’s all the more unfortunate, then, that the the society seems as much about building its own brand (and its own highly idiosyncratic take on Jewish history), as it is about educating and empowering its listeners.

Going through the Idelsohn Society products, it’s easy to get the impression that the society exists in its own universe, one where the best music is either “secret” or “lost” or being saved by the members of the society. You’d be hard pressed to find any acknowledgment that others have been toiling in the same cultural fields, preserving and disseminating American Jewish music for decades, albeit with a fraction of the institutional support.

At the back of Idelsohn Society CD booklets, listeners are invited to join the society. But as Kun told NPR, it’s a society with only four members. Participation in its activities is limited to passive consumerism: buying future CDs, attending concerts, donating money or records.

I can’t help but compare the Idelsohn Society to organizations like KlezKanada (where Abraham, Inc.’s Josh Dolgin and David Krakauer met) and Living Traditions, the parent organization of Klezkamp.

Living Traditions has been recording the older generation of Jewish musicians, as well as doing other important ethnographic work, for decades. Klezkamp and KlezKanada are popular yearly, multigenerational retreats featuring master teachers, open to anyone. Both struggle for funding.

If the Idelsohn Society is selling cultural inquiry and community, it’s doing so in a way that makes listeners dependent on more Idelsohn products, rather than empowering them to continue the conversation on their own.

One easy way would be to point to other resources outside the Idelsohn network, like the Florida Atlantic University library in Boca Raton and its online Judaica Sound Archives. The FAU Archive was an important source of material for Idelsohn projects.

In a 2009 NPR interview, Roger Bennett, Idelsohn Society founder, obliquely acknowledged the FAU Archive: “We set about … trying to save as much of this vinyl as possible, getting it sent to us by our website,, but also going down to Boca which is where Jewish vinyl goes to die.”

Granted, the FAU site is nowhere near as slick or user friendly as the Idelsohn Society’s. But what it does have is over 10,000 recordings, already saved, freely available to any listener with an appetite for more mid-century Jewish music. Why wouldn’t the Idelsohn society help spread the word about this valuable resource, which is so in sync with the society’s core mission?

“Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set,” a 2010 Idelsohn Society compilation of songs from the mid-century Tikva record label, also promises more than it delivers. The society argues for the signal importance of Tikva in uncovering the drama of mid-century Jewish migrations in all their polyphonic splendor. But the beautifully produced companion booklet lacks translation of any of the Hebrew or Yiddish song lyrics. It’s a good example of superficial history keeping listeners at a distance from the music and its meaning.

Young (and not so young) American Jews deserve to have access to the rich, funky, vulgar, high-toned, dazzling body of music created by American Jews. Our music is our history, and our history is who we are. I hope Jewish philanthropies will continue to support Jewish music of all kinds, for its own sake.

Rokhl Kafrissen, who lives in New York City, writes about modern Yiddish culture.