Shantel & Oz Almog: Kosher Nostra Jewish Gangsters Greatest Hits

[10 May 2011]

By Steve Horowitz

So, what's not to like?

Although we should be ashamed of ourselves, I do not know a single Yid who isn’t secretly proud of those “Tough Jews”, those gangsters of Hebraic descent who did crooked business in the rough and tumble inner cities during the ‘20s and ‘30s. They have become a staple of popular culture, on the movies and television (just think of the Jewish characters inThe Godfather and “Boardwalk Empire”), and frequently reflect the ambivalence about the connections between material success and the shedding of ethnicity—or of becoming a “real” American or simply being a Jew. There have been bigger gonifs in recent eras (e.g., Bernie Madoff), and the colorful hoods of the past may have been killers (Murder, Inc.) and thugs, but their emergence during Prohibition and the Great Depression gave them credibility. In a hard world, being dangerous had its advantages.

This incredibly strange, exceptionally deep and exceedingly broad compilation of songs related to Jewish American mobsters offers a series of fractured takes about the situation. The music covers a wide time period, from the ‘20s to the ‘60s, and seems sequenced in random order, but the juxtapositions of the different material force the listener to make connections. Further complicating the issue is that many of the songs and artists are not Jewish. While one may appreciate the three titles by Italian-American teenage heartthrob Connie Francis (nee Concetta Rosa Maria Franconera) emotionally sung in Yiddish, or even Welshman Tom Jones’ torch song take on “My Yiddishe Mamme”, you have to ask why Chubby Checker’s rendition of “Misirlou” that ends with the line “Heave will guide us\Allah will bless our love” is here at all. The only clue provided in the liner notes is that the original was a popular folk song in the Jewish communities of Asia Minor. Well, maybe that and it sounds Middle Eastern (re: Semitic) and has found its way into Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction as done by Dick Dale.

Taken as a whole, the 21 tracks here show how Jewish self-identity has been woven into the larger fabric of American life. The most distinctly Jewish songs are sung in Yiddish, have Klezmer melodies and instrumentation, and concerns specific first and second generation themes, like Aaron Lebedeff with the Alexander Olshanetzky Orchestra’s poignant “What Can You Mach? Sis America” with Dave Tarras’ laughing clarinet offering commentary on one’s troubles. Sophie Tucker’s “Some of These Days” lies at the other end of the spectrum, sounding more influenced by black music—particularly the blues—than Jewish roots. The mix of black and Jewish musical styles and concerns can be found here in a number of songs by artists as famous as Al Jolson and as obscure as Trinidadian Calypso singer Wilmoth Houdini.

The album has somewhat of a documentary focus, even replaying an advertisement and introduction from the American Jewish Radio Hour in 1925 before launching into The Gilt-Edged Four’s swinging version of “The Yiddisher Charleston”. But this is no somber documentary album with a heavy purpose. It’s more of a celebration—the kind that offers snapshots of past pivotal moments and idiosyncratic personal times on display for all at the party to enjoy. And of course there’s a version of “Hava Nagila”—an upbeat instrumental by the unknown Solomon Schwartz, whose performance would be right at home at any festivity. So, enjoy! What’s not to like?

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