Yesterday never dies

Yesterday never dies

For some passionate about the Jewish past, the big news of the fall was the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project.

For me, it was the reissue of Loxfinger, starring Israel Bond, the Hebrew spymaster otherwise known as “Oy-Oy-7.”

When I was a kid, my parents had a copy of Loxfinger, which had been racy enough to have been excerpted in Playboy. I’d sneak peeks at the book when no one was home, starting with its cover illustration: a Don Draper-type in a tuxedo, playing marbles with a buxom brunette in a red one-piece. Inside was an Ian Fleming spoof dripping with Yiddishisms and groan-inducing Jewish puns. Bond works for M 33 & 1/3, Israel’s Secret Service. He battles SMUCK, a Syrian terrorist group. He drives a “Mercedes Ben Gurion.”

The sensibility was pure Get Smart, which had a villain named “Shtarker” and a life-like robot named “Hymie.” But Loxfinger — and its sequels, including Matzohball — pushed the Jewish pride angle for all it was worth. In Loxfinger, Oy-Oy-7 must save Israel from a villain who turns out to be no less than Adolf Hitler in disguise.

When JTA reported this week that the author of the series — former Trentonian reporter Sol Weinstein — was not only alive but promoting re-issued editions of all four Oy-Oy-7 books, my first thought was, Whatever happened to Jewish kitsch?

I grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, and Jewish kitsch was everywhere, from the dancing hasids that hung in the living rooms of every family we knew to the Allan Sherman records spinning on all their “hi-fis.” In my aunt’s den in Long Beach there was a poster of “SuperJew,” a swarthy type emerging from a phone booth with a big Hebrew “shin” on the front of his superhero costume. Mickey Katz was no longer a household name, but you could still hear adults chuckling over “Duvid Crockett, king of Delancey Street.”

The underlying theme for a lot of these fads was co-option: Nothing was funnier than taking a gentile archetype, like James Bond or Davy Crockett, and giving it a Yiddishe spin.

And sometimes these sorts of appropriations weren’t played for laughs. This fall, in another gift to kitschologists, the nonprofit Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation released Songs for the Jewish-American Jet Set: The Tikva Records Story 1950-1973. Idelsohn’s website describes Tikva, an independent record label, as “something of a ‘Jewish Motown.’” It issued recordings of Israeli pop, klezmer, cantorial singing, and Catskills comedy. Its artists included Leo Fuld, the “Yiddish Fred Astaire,” and Leo Fuchs, the “Jewish Cowboy.”

The Idelsohn Society, named for the composer of “Hava Nagila,” is to Jewish kitsch what the Israel Museum is to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Its re-releases included Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos — Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzman and Bagels and Bongos, in which the Irving Fields Trio plays mambo versions of “My Yiddishe Mama” and “Bei Mir Bist Du Shoen.”

The Idelsohn Society isn’t making fun of these masterpieces of kitsch — not exactly, anyway. Like jazz clarinetist Don Byron, who restored Mickey Katz’s reputation in the 1990s, they sincerely admire the artists’ musicianship. “This stuff was treated very, very seriously,” Roger Bennett, a founder of the society, told NPR in 2009. “They are kind of icons of identity, and in collecting them really what we’re trying to do is ask ourselves who we are, what we’re inheriting, what we know about it, and what it really means to us.”

What it really means to me, anyway, is a sense of loss. The market for Jewish kitsch depended on an audience that straddled two worlds — the deeply ethnic Jewish world they mostly grew up in and the assimilated, suburban, professional world they had already entered. Some listened to Jewish mambo without irony, believing that Jews had just as much of a claim on American cultural fads as the next goy. Others put quotation marks around their record and book collections, pretending to laugh at Katz’s shtick about singing cowboys or Weinstein’s riffs on Jewish espionage, but secretly enjoying the Yiddish puns and the fantasies of Jewish power.

But to get the jokes, you had to know the references. There’s very little market for Jewish kitsch these days because there’s no longer a Jewish mass culture to speak of. Anyone boomer age or younger barely remembers when Jews weren’t part of the mainstream. I suppose you could write a Jewish parody of the Bourne movies or Lost, but who would find it funny? Except for a relatively small number of highly engaged Jews, we don’t share a lot of inside jokes. There’s no “inside.”

In that sense, then, I may not be talking about kitsch at all, at least according to Susan Sontag. In her famous essay about good bad art, “Notes on Camp,” she distinguished between “camp” and “kitsch.” “Camp taste nourishes itself on the love that has gone into certain objects and personal styles,” she wrote. “The absence of this love” is kitsch.

In order to parody a culture, you need a critical mass of people who love that culture to begin with. We’ve got the love, but we’re missing the mass.

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