Centered in New York City, a uniquely American Yiddish culture developed from the 1920s through the 1960s. Newspapers, radio stations, theaters with both musical and dramatic plays, vacation destinations, and social and fraternal organizations were just some of the places where this culture flourished. Assimilation and the lack of new Yiddish speaking immigrants after the Holocaust were two of the factors that led to the demise of this culture. Though this Yiddish-speaking culture was short lived, in its time it was influenced by its surroundings and it made a significant impact on American culture. Music was just a small part of this American Yiddish culture, but it offers us many lessons in how a culture can draw on and influence its surroundings.

This thesis looks at one of the more unique musical expressions of American Yiddish culture, the musical albums of the late 1950s and early 1960s. These fusion albums used Yiddish Theatre songs, Yiddish dance tunes, and even new, Yiddish-inspired compositions as points of departure within mainstream pop genres like jazz, latin, and big band. The musicians on these albums were returning to Yiddish and Jewish music after having successful careers playing in these other more mainstream genres. At the time of these albums being recorded, nearly all of the  musicians were based in either New York or Los Angeles and working in all areas of the music business.

What makes up American Yiddish Music

American Yiddish Music is made up of three principal parts: Yiddish instrumental music (for both dancing and listening), Yiddish vocal music, and Yiddish theatre music. These forms come out of the popular tradition of Jewish Eastern Europe. Connected to the three principal parts are two closely related musical forms: traditional Ashkenazic hazonos (synagogue chanting) and Hasidic music (vocal and instrumental).[1]

American Yiddish music is a part of American Jewish music and the even broader genre of Jewish music in general, which includes American Jewish folk music, Israeli music, and Sephardic music. Broad survey volumes are primarily academically oriented text books; among the more well known are Discovering Jewish Music[2] by Marsha Bryan Edelman and The Music of Israel: From the Biblical Era to Modern Times[3] by Peter Gradenwitz. Velvel Pasternak has also compiled a volume that is designed to be more accessible to the average reader, The Jewish Music Companion, Historical Overview, Personalities, Annotated Folksongs.[4] Another resource is the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music with its fifty commercial CDs on the Naxos label and associated website.[5]

Scholarship on Yiddish music is found frequently under the marketing umbrella of Klezmer, which has seen a boom in academic and popular scholarship in recent years. Much of the writing tends to focus on the “superstars” of the genre before World War II; primarily in America, but also earlier in Europe, and then on to the post-1970s American revival. Books can be found in both the academic and popular markets, and articles in publications as diverse as Ethnomusicology and Downbeat.

The two decades immediately following World War II is an understudied period in the development of Yiddish music in America, though it’s kitschier side has a small but growing following in popular society. While no full-length works or major articles have been focused specifically on the instrumental music of this time period, Mickey Katz's vocal music has gotten some attention.[6] University of California at Riverside Assistant professor of English Josh Kun crosses over and writes both academic and popular commentary on the time period though Reboot.[7]

Ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin has been writing, editing and translating volumes on Yiddish and Jewish music, including two volumes of the collections and writings of Soviet (Ukrainian) ethnomusicologist Moshe Beregoviski[8], a volume on the American cantorate[9], a book on the sheet music of Jewish immigrants[10}, and two treatises on “klezmer” music[11]. His work has been some of the most influential scholarly material on American Jewish music written in the past twenty-five years, with the volumes he has edited bringing voices and ideas to the forefront that might otherwise not be heard. His edited collection of essays, American Klezmer, is especially important because it brings together the voices of both musicians (Frank London, Alicia Svigals) and scholars (Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, James Loeffler, Robert Rothstein), placing them on an equal level. Walter Zev Feldman’s groundbreaking article on the development of the bulgar with its section on where different dance genres fit into the landscape of Eastern European Yiddish dance music reached a wider audience than when it was first printed in Ethnomusicology.[12]

Henry Sapoznik, Yale Strom, Hankus Netsky and Joel Rubin all write from the perspective of musicians first and scholars second, but they differ in how they approach their audiences. Henry Sapoznik[13] and Yale Strom[14] both wrote comprehensive ‘klezmer’ histories for a popular audience, but they differer primarily on how they view Europe as a place for musicians to conduct research.[15] Seth Rogovoy tackles the same history but from the listeners’ perspective and gives a thorough discography of “revival and renaissance era” compact discs released up to the year 2000.[16] Hankus Netsky and Joel Rubin took the opposite approach. They used their backgrounds as musicians to focus on musicological micro developments. Hankus Netsky, in looking at the musical traditions of Jewish Philadelphia, examined the evolution of the Russian sher medley.[17] Joel Rubin studied the ornamentation of improvisation of two clarinetists on commercial recordings during the 1920s in New York.[18]

The period between 1945 and 1965 has received relatively little attention in scholarly and popular writing. Of the five previous listed full length publications, Hankus Netsky spends the most time looking at the post-World War II musical scene. While his focus is on live engagements rather than recordings, his primary focus is on questions of repertoire and educational development. Netsky makes a statement that forms the background for this study. “While innovative New York musicians such as Dave Tarras, Sammy Musiker, and Max Epstein experimented with chromaticism and jazz harmonies, their Philadelphia counterparts tended to rely on old standbys; even the composers work completely within traditional boundaries.”[19] Joel Rubin is focusing on commercial recordings made in the 1920s, but his informants were all active in the post World War II time period. He uses their information to talk about the change in repertoire that occurred as more ‘American’ music was requested in live settings.[20] Yale Strom focuses on what type of work musicians had to do to make a living, and especially the negatives of playing Jewish music when looking at the post World War II time period.[21] Henry Sapoznik spends the most time looking at what happened with Jewish musicians in New York in the 1950s and 60s, and, like Yale Strom, playing Hasidic music comes into the analysis.[22] For Strom, playing Hasidic music was seen as a negative due to the low quality of the music. Sapoznik, however, sees it as a more positive experience as it kept a generation of musicians playing Jewish music.[23] Sapoznik also covers the most diverse history of recordings of music during this time period, even if only giving titles of the instrumental albums he describes as “Shlock” and “Jewzak,” while lamenting that these albums were easier to find then the albums by so-called quality musicians.[24] He blames the record labels, not the musicians, for album covers featuring “a pseudo-Semitic beauty sprawled in a kitschy pose, or ‘Jewish’ party guests resembling Episcopalians with yarmulkes perched on their heads.”[25] Seth Rogovy is interested in albums that give the listener a historical background to understand the new recordings. But in his narrative he gives only one page to the the late 1950s and 60s, discussing Tanz!, Dick Dale's recordings’ of “Miserlou” (1962) and “Hava Nagila” (1963).[26] Contemporaries like Mickey Katz have to be mentioned in the context of revival artists like Klezmer Conservatory Band and Don Byron who perform cover versions of his work.[27]

In all these works, the period between 1946 and 1965 is treated as one of little creativity for Jewish music and the works from that period are glossed over. This thesis differs from earlier scholarship in that the post World War II recordings are not a footnote, but the primary subject. These recordings are not just one part of a linear discussion of the historical development of Yiddish Music in America or seen as ways to compare the developments of Simcha music between American cities. This study takes recordings that some may choose to label as Shlock and Jewzak and examine them as serious art and important landmarks of the 20th century cultural fluidity.

The five albums focused on in this thesis are: Sammy Musiker & Dave Tarras; Tanz! (Epic LN 3219, 1955). Mickey Katz; Mickey Katz Plays Music for Weddings, Bar Mitzvahs and Brisses (Capitol T-1021, 1958). Irving Fields; Bagels and Bongos (Decca DL 78856, 1959). Terry Gibbs; Jewish Melodies in Jazztime (Mercury SR 60812, 1963). Shelly Manne; My Son The Jazz Drummer! (Contemporary S7609, 1963).

Chapters One and Two provide a broad overview Jewish music, and a description of how its use was regulated both by the Jewish community and the communities they where living in on its journey from the Middle East to Yiddish speaking Eastern Europe and then to America. These first two chapters focus on Yiddish instrumental music in America from the early part of the twentieth century up until soon after the end of World War II. From its birth in the Middle Ages until the present day, Yiddish instrumental music has been shared by the majority of cultures under which Jews have lived. Chapter Two ends with a look at four attempts at Jewish Fusion in the 1930s and 40s.

Chapter Three places the albums being looked at in historical context in two ways. It first gives an overview of Eastern European Instrumental Jewish music released in America from 1945 to 1970. The second section places the music in its cultural context of Jewish artists using Yiddish culture in the creation of their art.

Chapter Four provides five biographical sketches of some of the principal musicians who record Jewish fusion music: Musiker, Katz, Fields, Gibbs, and Manne. These are the artists who created the albums that will be the primary focus in Chapter Five.

Chapter Five examines five Jewish fusion albums in depth. The selected albums all qualify under what musicologist Curt Sachs defines as Jewish music: “The music which is made by Jews, for Jews, as Jews.”[28] While this definition has always been ambiguous, these albums I have chosen work based on both their content and packaging. They appear to be designed to attract a primarily Jewish audience, even though they were released on mainstream labels such as Epic (Columbia's discount label), Decca, Mercury, and Contemporary.


1. For a description of the various Hasidic musical styles see: Velvel Pasternak, Beyond Hava Nagila a symphony of Hasidic Music in 3 movements; (Owings Mills, MD: Tara Publications 1999).

4. Velvel Pasternak, The Jewish Music Companion, Historical Overview, Personalities, Annotated Folksongs; (Tara Publications, 2002).

5. Not all of the the fifty discs are of American Jewish Music, a number of the discs feature recordings by Israeli composers.

6. Josh Kun, “The Yiddish Are Coming: Mickey Katz, Anti-Semitism, and the Sound of Jewish Difference,” in American Jewish History (Vol. 87, 4, December 1999), 343-374. Donald Weber, “Talking Jewish American Poplar Culture Seriously: The Yinglish World of Getrude Berg, Milton Berle, and Mickey Katz,” in Jewish Social Studies (vol 5, 1/2, Fall 98/Winter 99), 124-153. Herbert J. Gans, “The ‘Yinglish’ Music of Mickey Katz”, in American Quarterly, Vol. 5, No 3 (Autumn, 1953) 213-218.

7. Description from, viewed on July 27, 2007. Reboot is a non-profit whose goal is find different ways for Jews to reconnect with their history be it religious or  cultural. They provide materials that allow groups to hold discussions ( It is a loose collection of affiliated groups include; the blog Hippocampusmusic, record label Reboot Sterophonic, and magazine Guilt & Pleasure, which all look at music of this time period. Hippocampusmusic (written by Josh Kun and Rodger Bennett focus primarily on record covers to tell the story of Jewish history (Originally at changed software and can now be found at The first version also had audio samples which the second version appears to have dropped except for occasional links to YouTube and Google videos.).

8. Moshe Beregovski, Old Jewish Folk Music; ed. and trans. Mark Slobin (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2000, first published in 1982 by the University of Pennsylvania Press). Moshe Beregovski, Jewish Instrumental Folk Music; ed. and trans. Mark Slobin, Robert Rothstein, and Michael Alpert. Annotations by Michael Alpert (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press 2001).

11. Mark Slobin, Fiddler on the Move, Exploring the Klezmer World (Oxford University Press, 2000). Mark Slobin, ed., American Klezmer; It’s Roots and Offshoots (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002).

12. Walter Zev Feldman, “Bulgӑreascӑ/Bulgarish/Bulgar; The Transformation of a Klezmer Dance Genre” in American Klezmer; It’s Roots and Offshoots. Mark Slobin, ed. (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002) originally published in Ethnomusicology 38:1 (Winter 1994).

15. Yale Strom views Europe as the place where musicians should be turning to for their primary sources and teachers be they Jews or Non-Jews. Henry Sapoznik places a greater importance on American musicians.

16. Seth Rogovoy, The Essential Klezmer; A Music Lover’s Guide to Jewish Roots and Soul Music, from the Old World to the Jazz Age to the the Downtown Avant-Garde (Algonguin Books of Chapel Hill (NC), 2000).

17. Hankus Netsky, “Klezmer: Music and Community in 20th Century Jewish Philadelphia” (Ph.D. dissertation, Weselyan University, Middletown, CT, 2004).

18. Joel Edward Rubin, "The Art of the Klezmer; Improvisation and Ornamentation in the Commercial Recording of New York Clarinettists Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras 1922-1929" (Ph.D. thesis, City University, London, 2001).

  1. Netsky 2004, p. 93.
  2. Rubin 2003, p. 43-46, 141, 143, 399-404.
  3. Strom 2002, p.164-185.
  4. Sapoznik 1999, p. 159-175; Strom 2002, 183-184.
  5. This difference is not one of trying to describe the same fact two different ways, but one of perspective. Henry Sapoznik grew up in a religious home in Brooklyn and was exposed to many of these musicians while growing up, Yale Strom grew up in Detroit and later San Diego primilary hearing Yiddish music on recordings. This lead to Sapoznik being able to turn to both live musicians and recordings in New York City when he went to learn the music, where Strom went off to Europe to find musicians to study with.

     Strom also has a little side thing going where he is trying to promote the violin as the true instrument of Yiddish music and it colors how he views the dominance of the reed players in the Post War time period.

24. The “Shlock” listed is Twistn’ the Freilachs (Lou Klayman, also released as Let's Twist the Freilachs) and Raisins and Almonds Cha Cha Cha and Merengues (Johnny Conquet, RCA 1958). The “Jewzak” is Irving Field's Bagels and Bongos. This comes after a long discussion of Tanz! by Sammy Musiker and Dave Tarras being the greatest all-time Yiddish Dance Music album but not getting enough publicity to sell well.

25. Sapoznik 1999, p. 168.

26. Rogovoy 2000, p. 73-74.

27. Ibid, p. 101-103.

28. Quoted in Whitfield In Search of American Jewish Culture p. 88, the quote was said at the First International Congress on Jewish Music in Paris in 1957.

 © Matt Temkin 2012 - 2015