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  • Editor's Introduction:American Jews and Music
  • Laurence Roth (bio)

This special issue originated out of a desire to revisit the relation between American Jews and music now that the first major waves of popular interest in, philanthropic funding of, and scholarship on contemporary Jewish music and songwriters in the United States have finally receded. As the call for papers observed, a wealth of Jew-ish sounds and entertainments were left in their wake. From Orthodox women singer-songwriters and chazzanut, to jazz masters of the 1930s, to hipster oddities of the "new Jewish music" scene, to gypsy-punk klezmer cabaret bands and the Jewish identified art of Leonard Cohen and John Zorn, there's much for scholars to explore. There's also a remarkable archive of critical books, articles, and liner notes available that helped construct as they have documented the cultural meanings and identities stoked by the production, circulation, and consumption of Jewish music. The varied approaches embodied by such writing, to quote Judah M. Cohen, helped tie "the production of sound to communal ideas about Jews and Judaism, while acknowledging the vast and complex diversity associated with Jewish expressions, identity, and practice" (Cohen 2015, 35). Putting these approaches into conversation with other areas of Jewish American scholarship, and pointing attention to the wealth of materials and theoretical contexts currently in circulation, are the goals of this issue. The six articles collected here therefore range across various musical styles and address racial, gender, sexual, pedagogical, and institutional contexts that complicate and extend a number of contemporary scholarly discussions about Jewish American cultural productions. [End Page 93]

While each article emerges out of its own critical matrix, this special issue was conceived in light of a broader Jewish cultural studies perspective shared by the initiating editors, Jonathan Freedman and myself. Unfortunately, Jonathan was unable to see our project through to its publication because of serious health issues, and so for me what appears here has both scholarly and personal meaning. I had looked forward to working with Jonathan in order to continue our discussion from a few years back about a place from my past whose cultural functions and social meanings help illuminate the theoretical framework for this issue, one that Jonathan articulated in his own way in Klezmer America: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity.

The place we'd talked about was the shipping room of my father's Jewish bookstore, which my friends and I used as a substitute garage for our garage band. I remember loading in our equipment through the back door, moving quickly so the neighbors down the block on South Elm Drive in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood of L.A. wouldn't see us, and setting up our amps, drums, and guitars among boxes of Basic Judaism, Reading Hebrew, When a Jew Celebrates, A Maimonides Reader, The New Bantam-Megiddo Hebrew & English Dictionary, and To Be a Jew. We were all Jews too, of one stripe or another, and inevitably someone would swipe a kippah from a recent delivery and perch it on his head as we launched into Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up" or The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog." At the time, this seemed to us a naturally funny paradox: Jews who rock? And then we'd look at each other and laugh because we were the joke.

Obviously, our middle-class and predominantly secular musical influences were pretty limited; otherwise we'd have realized we were hardly original in our mockingly hybrid sense of musical selves. But what I see now is how that shipping room was a social space full of things, as Bruno Latour would call the objects around us and in our hands, that enabled our little gathering of ethno-musical debate and interpretation to assemble itself. These things offered us a number of ways in which to revise and reconnect the personal with the collective, facts with concerns, actors with networks. Didn't the textbooks we'd thumb through with mock incomprehension set the scene for our own attempts to learn by copying? The kippot on our heads, worn with a wink, were as much a costume as the bowling shirts and black jeans we bought at...


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