Academic journal article Shofar

Bagels, Bongos, and Yiddishe Mambos, or the Other History of Jews in America

Academic journal article Shofar

Bagels, Bongos, and Yiddishe Mambos, or the Other History of Jews in America

Article excerpt

"Bagels, Bongos, and Yiddishe Mambos" focuses on Jewish-Latin recordings of the 40s-60s. Arguing that standard models of understanding Jews and race are inadequate in thinking about the mid-century Jewish-Latin interchange, this essay suggests that Jews were drawn to Latin music neither to demonstrate their whiteness, nor to pretend to be Latin, but rather to find new ways of being Jewish.

Make your ear like a funnel...

- Rabbi Yohanan, Babylonian Talmud

Abre cuto guiri mambo

- Arsenio Rodriguez, from the Congo saying "open your ear and listen to what I'm going to tell you"

Intro: Sha Sha, Cha Cha Cha

In his 1958 collection Only in America, South Carolina writer and humorist Harry Golden summed up "The History of the Jews in America" in 8 brief lines:

I remember a folk song on the East Side, "Sha sha der Rebbe gayt ("Quiet, quiet, the rabbi is coming")...

Sha sha der rebbe gayt

Sha sha der rebbe gayt

And sometime ago I watched the folks dance the"cha cha" in a Jewish country club in a Southern city and I heard them keeping time with the music, "Cha cha, do-se-do, cha cha."

The history of the Jews in America: "from Sha sha to Cha cha."(1)

For Golden, the history of American Jews is a history of change and transformation registered in sound, from a Yiddish folk song on New York's Lower East Side to an Afro-Cuban cha cha cha in a country club in the South. It is a history measured by the distance between two ears, one from the Babylonian Talmud, the other from Africa via Cuba and Puerto Rico. This musical story contains other stories -- how greenhorn immigrants become upwardly mobile socialites, how Jews move out of immigrant urban ghettos, how secular Jewishness competes with religion (trading rabbi for bandleader) as the dominant register of American Jewish life, how Jewish-American culture is a document of adaptability, shape-shifting, and performative hybridity.

And all because of a cha cha cha.

While Golden published his anecdotal riff on revisionist history under the influence of the Latin Craze of the 1950s -- when it was hard for anyone, Jews or otherwise -- to not re-think the world in mambo time, his observation does indeed hold larger possibilities for charting alternative genealogies of Jewish-American history. The relationship Golden poses between Jewish culture and Latino/a culture (albeit with a do-se-do in between), and the import he places on that relationship as a window into larger histories, is a rarity when it comes to studies of Jewish inter-culturalism. I want to take Golden's humorous footnote seriously and use it as a way into a more expansive discussion of Jewish-Latino/a musical interchange in the U.S., one that could extend from legacies of Sephardic Ladino music up through New York-Puerto Rican percussionist Joe Quijano's Fiddler on the Roof Goes Latin and New York-Jewish pianist Larry "El Judio Maravilloso" Harlow (the marvelous Jew) selling out the Monte Casino in Bayamon, Puerto Rico.(2)

If we believe Golden that the history of the Jews in America is not assimilation into whiteness through nose jobs and name changes or assimilation into whiteness through engagements with African-American culture and politics, but is actually the move from Sha Sha to Cha Cha, then how might our understanding of American Jews change? What new modes of Jewish cultural performance might we be left with? I am interested in how Golden's brief historical revision might provide a window into Susannah Heschel's urging of a critical Jewish multiculturalism and her notion of developing Jewish Studies as a "counterhistory." Musical interactions between Latinos/as and Jews, not to mention the musical cultures of Latino/a Jews themselves, offer a vital, under-examined U.S. chapter in Heschel's vision of "a multivocal Jewish history that includes the geographic, gender, and class distribution of Jewish experience. …

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