Q&A: Roger Bennett on Jewish Vinyl

When the crowd erupted for his performance of "Havana Nagila," 93-year-old Irving Fields exchanged a bemused shrug with his wife, drinking seltzer and picking at a single piece of bruschetta at the table closest to the piano, as if to say "Who are all these enthusiastic young people, and where did they come from?" It's a reasonable question for a man whose act, honed over a half-century of performing, and practiced on stage—still!—six nights a week, is the sort of schmaltzy stuff of Catskills resorts that faded from prominence along with the beehive. But old Jewish music has been given a new spin, thanks to Roger Bennett and Josh Kun, the coauthors of "And You Shall Know Us By the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost." Not only did Bennett and Kun dig up hundreds of old Jewish records, pictured in the book, but they also tracked down some of the artists who performed them. A few of those musicians, now in their 70s, 80s and 90s, came together in mid-December for a concert in Manhattan, where the Yiddish songs and Jewish classics were interspersed with reflections from Slate music critic Jody Rosen, comedian Jessi Klein, and Village Voice senior editor Kandia Crazy Horse. NEWSWEEK's Samantha Henig spoke with Bennett about Boca Raton's treasure of Jewish vinyl, the Jewish straddling of highbrow and lowbrow humor, and why Jews are so funny. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Bagels and Bongos was the album that started it all. Can you tell me about that discovery?
Roger Bennett: Along with requisite Mamas and Papas and Beatles, my mother's record collection included two albums that really struck me: "Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites" and "Bagels and Bongos," by Irving Fields. So the first was a non-Jewish Catholic from New Jersey singing Jewish music on a major record label, and the second was a Jewish New Yorker making Latin music that sold really well in Mexico, where he was known as Campos, el Pianista —Fields the pianist. I was always fascinated by the inversion of those two albums and started collecting quietly, obsessively.

When you started collecting did you have a book in mind?
Josh and I had both started collecting before we'd even met each other. Finding a partner in crime was really unbelievable and we started collecting obsessively together. Rather than go to Vegas or play golf or whatever, we'd go down to Boca, where Jewish vinyl goes to die, and go to thrift stores there and come back with our arms laden with albums, which for us are not just musical artifacts but footprints through history, and that's really what the book is about.

It seems like this book—as well as your earlier books "Bar Mitzvah Disco" and "Camp Camp"— has a lot of ironic hipster appeal. How much earnestness would you say was behind it and how much of it was sort of " ha ha look at the silly Jewish people being ridiculous"?
I think this book is produced with no irony. This book has great 1970s mullet haircuts, but it's the opposite of that to me. We've chased down so many of the performers who've made these records, we're tracking down the stories behind them, we're trying to build the histories of all these individual performers, and we put them back on stage. Both Josh and I come from families where we don't even know the names of a couple of generations back. Josh's great grandfather was a Hungarian officer, my great great grandfather was a reputed Polish mobster. This book is driven by a desire to try to understand the four-generation story of how we got from there to here, knowing that our own personal stories are always going to be regrettably fuzzy. We've tried to use the albums as footprints through history or breadcrumbs through the forest to pave a telling of how we got from the Polish mobster to me in New York City. It's the same with "Bar Mitzvah Disco" and "Camp Camp": holding up a mirror to our generation and asking us to examine who we are and how we came to be this way.

This book offers a fun and aesthetically interesting lens through which to look at Jewish culture. Do you also think it's accurate? Would you be comfortable telling someone who's never met a Jewish person, "Here, check out these records and then you'll get the gist"?
[Laughs] We should entertain that experiment. You mean if a Martian came to earth and looked at this book on the new books table at Barnes and Noble, what would he or she think of the Jewish people?

I think the four-generation journey from tradition to modernity and the city to the suburb has been rapid, vivacious, colorful, and we've a lot of a sense of wonder and also gratitude, and I think many of the albums truly reflect that journey. But often the move has been so rapid that we've kind of forgotten about where we've moved from and this book is an effort to fill in some of those gaps. The book also strives to change the legacy of a many of the performers in the book, which is why we're getting them back on stage.

We're trying to outwit history and reinsert them into the telling.

Who was the most interesting person you met while record hunting?
There's an album by a guy called El Avram who owned an Israeli night club in the West Village called El Avram's—it's where George Carlin first started performing, and Louis Armstrong would drop in to check out the talent. I went out to New Jersey to meet the guy, who's now in his 80s. He beckoned me in and took me down to his basement, and he had painstakingly recreated his entire nightclub from the '60s, fixture by fixture. I felt like Kevin Costner in "Field of Dreams."

Are there certain songs that you found yourself looking for on the albums, whose covers are sort of a litmus test of the times?
Hava Nagila has been recorded and rerecorded so many times, it's like the spine that runs through Jewish musical history.

You have a chapter on Jewish comedians. Any theory why there are so many of them?
There's a great Time [magazine] article that asked that question in 1970, based on the work of a psychologist, Samuel Janis, who was trying to work out why 80 percent of the top comedians of the day were Jewish. He undertook a psychological study of 76 different Jewish comics, and he worked out that the roots of comedy came from living a life of poverty and despair. When you look at Rodney Dangerfield on the front cover of "The Loser," he's really playing the Jewish role of the schlemiel, a guy who's a consistent outsider—a lovable outsider, and occasionally extremely funny, occasionally angry, but loaded with pathos.

How much do you think your whole collection is worth? Are some of these really rare and therefore valuable? What was the most you paid for one?
Its emotional worth is priceless, because the albums are footprints through history, and the history is our own history, so you can't really put a price on that. But if you look on eBay, you too could start your own collection for about $1.50 an album.