There has been a spate of books written on Jews and the American music business. They were deeply entrenched in music by the turn of the 20th Century, and so much so that they owned almost all the music publishing companies. This naturally expanded out to performance where you had Jewish musicians like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor, Sophie Tucker, George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, and Jerome Kern melding their music with black cultural materials. This led to an exhaustive debate about the nature of the Jewish and black relationship, especially in the realm of music. Certain historians have put this as part of the longer narrative of the story of a bond that became strong through activism, but was later torn by that same notion. Historians have lumped groups together in order to convey certain ideas and patterns about their existences and extinctions. This does a great disservice to all groups, no matter how they are categorized, especially Jews. Jews have had such a long and rich history that touches almost every continent on the planet earth. Historians and scholars, especially Jews, should be careful because they are perpetuating a myth that is getting harder to ground in any reality.
When it comes to music there is the age old debate of wether it was love or theft, or a bit of both. I argue that it was an admixture of all these elements including the very DNA strung through these Jews for centuries. Jews have sung for many reasons, and there are plenty of these examples in the Torah, and the additions of the Prophets and Writings making up what Jews call the Tanach. When the hard-hearted Pharoah took up his chariots after regretting letting the Jews go he followed them with a vengeance. In a trip that took the Israelites three days, he thrust the jet packs onto his horses and gained within a day’s ride. Once the Israelites were trapped they had nowhere to go but through the water. The sea parted and the Israelites ran through, followed very closely by their Egyptian pursuers. Once they all passed through to dry land the waves crashed down, pummeling Pharoah and his men, and just to be safe G-d raised them out and threw their dead bodies in front of the Hebrew nation. So what would you do after this miraculous feat? Sing! This was a joyous occasion as all the people sang along with Miriam picking up a tamborine and playing it with the women. There are other examples like the song of the Judge Deborah, as well as one of the ways that G-d gave the Israelites the word, as it was done through song. To negate the fact that Jews have always sang is negating tradition rooted in Jewish history.
Jews have not only been very musical they have also gone through great pains to assimilate, especially after the gates of the ghettos came tumbling down. Jews have attempted to assimilate into European culture in various ways. Wether through Moses Mendelssohn’s Haskalah Movement, or through the changing of customs, and other Jewish markers most western European Jews went through the process. Out of that process the Jewish immigrants to the United States were following their own lead. This leads me to the first real encounters between European Jews and African Americans.
Jewish scholars have written about the immigrant experience as well as their initial encounters with African Americans. I’m mostly interested in the realm of the music business. Most of these scholars, most recently being Jeffrey Melnick, argue that it was more selfish than we are led to believe. Jews who exploited, and he makes sure to state that it was one-sided exploitation, these artists didn’t care at all about blacks, but only about positioning themselves as white folk.This notion would stand only if all of these Jews, and all American Jews in general, want to be white. That is not the case as been shown by many writings of Jewish artists who felt closer to blacks than whites. Some even felt closer to blacks than to other Jews mostly due to socio-economic issues, which are still very pervasive in the present. The question also begs to be asked as to why Jews continued using black cultural materials after they were considered white?
There are a few books about Jewish artists spanning past the Jazz age to the Brill Building and beyond. These Jews still felt anxiety as they didn’t fit geographically, in the cookie cutter suburbs with all the Wasps, or even musically, by eschewing the teen idol craze for greater pastures. Scholars like Michael Billig, Jon Stratton, Steven Lee Beeber and Scott Benarde have written about these iconoclastic artists like Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Paul Simon, Mike Bloomfield, and Al Kooper to name a few who veered into the safer havens of black music. This continued on with rap music and writers like Jeff Chang, and most importantly Dan Charnas, have proved that the same goes for Hip Hop. Jews involved in Hip Hop, and this spans to all ages from the older generation who got their start at rap’s infancy, to the younger artists, still have an affinity for black culture. So much so to the point where they are very uncomfortable when asked about their whiteness.
Another reason why some of these Jewish scholars and historians are stuck is because it was of their own making. These are the scholars who wrote about American Jewish history, without taking into consideration that that history has fragmented. They never truely wrote about the entire Jewish community because there are so many labels, affiliations, movements, and sub-labels that keep being teased out every so often. Most of them also grew up in a specific background that has enriched them over the years. This means that they live in the suburbs and their children are far removed from the other side, the dark side, the poverty stricken side where plenty of Jews reside. That is why the group history idea is a farce, a sweet dream made possible by these scholars, who are mostly Ashkenazi nebbeshe middle-aged men. They, and their children, will never understand the various connections to the seedy underbelly of America. That is why they will always have this anxiety that serves no purpose for growth. Because they don’t immerse themselves, nor listen to the music, they will never fully grasp this Jewish and black connection on the street level. They are also the antithesis of a hip-hop head, especially certain Jewish rappers who are loud, abnoxious, insulting, and in your face thanks to the raw expression of rap music.
That is rap music, and Jews who participate in it, are so foreign, and dare I say threatening to these scholar Jews whole way of life. I’m not taking away credit for their work, but it’s time to give the whole entire story. These Jews who are part of the story of rap from Rick Rubin, to Bill Adler to Necro to Edan to El-P to Paul Barman to Despot, etc. etc. all know this seedy side. It is disingenuious to blanket them all in a white label because they would be insulted. They aren’t white, they aren’t black, they’re just some fucking Jews who can rap, who can make beats, who can tag, who can spin, and who can revolutionize this genre.
Besides the music world the broader question remains, how many of these Jews still remain? Unfortunately not as many as the assimilated, and that’s a problem. The assimilated Jew will act like his white friends while not identifying with his or her background. Another really disappointing trend I’ve seen, as well as read about, is the political leanings of these people. Not so much the assimilated Jews, worse but also the Modern Orthodox and ultra orthodox have adapted this insane notion of conservatism, which is partnered with a growth in racism. I hate saying this but upon hearing a DC Rabbi say that gay marriage happens more in the black community, which is what he termed “the canary in the coal mine,” I was stunned at how wrong he was and how racist he sounded. I also had another exchange with a congregant who teaches in the urban part of Baltimore. At first he chided me for not knowing how the other half, black people live, and then I lashed back at him saying not only do I know but I lived in these areas as well. He eased back, and then looked very seriously disturbed as he told me with a sad confidence that I was one of the few in the congregation. It’s sad and ridiculous how becoming more observant means becoming more conservative, which means becoming far more sexist, and racist. That’s why these people laughed me off when I told them that I studied to be a Hip-Hop scholar. However, the divide has withheld and I’m hoping that scholars like myself can demolish these notions of Jewish guilt and white supremacy I see all too often.