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Zorn, Patinkin, and more

By Josh Kun

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  In the Marx Brothers' 1930 film Animal Crackers, Chico and Harpo, disguised as Rivelli and the Professor, are tormenting the snooty, tux-and-tails art dealer Roscoe Chandler. Before long, they realize who he really is, an immigrant Jew they once knew in Czechoslovakia: Abie the Fish Man. Chandler offers to bribe them into silence, but when he comes up with just $500, Chico starts outing and unmasking him at every turn with shouts of "Abie the Fish Man, Abie the Fish Man!" Chico's taunts become Chandler's terror, and we watch (some of us with more glee than others) as the passing aristocrat hears his Jewish past given back to him over and over and over again.

I've always considered this to be a quintessential moment in the history of a certain breed of bad secular Jews: Jews who won't assimilate, Jews who misbehave, Jews who wreak havoc, crash the party, and make it their duty to remind nose-bobbed and name-changed chameleons of their true colors.

On his latest solo project, Busy Being Born (Tzadik), a "you don't have to be Jewish" collection of Jewish-themed songs for avant-minded kids, guitar experimentalist Gary Lucas reimagines the Animal Crackers scene as a noisy, collectively improvised schoolyard harassment session complete with squealing guitars, messy piano spasms, and, of course, whirling chants of "Abie the Fish Man" that stick Chico straight in the middle of New York's downtown scene. Translating the Marx Brothers into guerrilla musical Jewishness -- on an album that also twists "Hinay Ma Tov" and "Sunrise Sunset" into discordant knots -- is a perfect choice for this recent installment in John Zorn's pathbreaking 20-titles-and-growing "Radical Jewish Culture" series (on his Tzadik label). Not to mention a pretty close-to-perfect summation of the outsider ethos that so much of the "new Jewish music" subscribes to.

Like Chico and Harpo before them, Zorn and the rest of the new Jews have fun playing with their identities as bad Jews. Foes of the invisible parvenu, the new Jews get off on being post-melting-pot progressive pariahs who trade haimish nostalgia and facile nationalism for irreverence, mysticism, camp, anarchism, numerology, and leftist politics. Their heroes are Groucho, Kafka, Bar Kokhba, Walter Benjamin, Irving Fields, Benya Krik, Theodor Adorno. They deal with tradition, sure, but only first by recovering from it (a sort of 12-step Israel-Holocaust-Fiddler on the Roof program) and then by transforming it. Religious conservatism, knee-jerk Zionism, and "chicken soup for the soul" this ain't.

Take David Krakauer's Klezmer Madness! mutation of the bar mitzvah staple "Hava Nagila" on one of Tzadik's first releases. He chopped the melody into stutters, warped the clarinet lines, mutated the tempo, and imploded the whole song into a ferocious and funny therapy session, "Living with the H Tune." Tradition deconstructed before our very ears.

Zorn's been working hard at pushing and redesigning the envelope of new Jewish music since 1993, as a musician (Masada, Masada String Trio), label guru, and ideological ringleader (his "Radical Jewish Music" festivals at New York's Knitting Factory even lured Lou Reed on stage). And though past years have taken his label everywhere from Shelley Hirsch's coming-of-age performance piece O Little Town of East New York to Selfhaters' abstracted interrogations of Jewish identity and Zeena Parkins's shattering electric-harp odes to Jewish gangsters, the last few weeks have extended the Tzadik circle in some of its best directions yet. Saxophone icon Steve Lacy blows note-bending "Jewgitive" soliloquies on his solo album Sands; out-klez Bostonians Naftule's Dream off-road in the freilach hinterlands on Smash, Clap!; and in the hit-or-miss tradition of previous Zorn-curated "Great Jewish Music" homages to Burt Bacharach and Serge Gainsbourg, the usual suspects unite for a kinder-of-the-revolution canonization of Marc Bolan, Great Jewish Music: Marc Bolan.

But forget downtown Tzadik for a minute (Lucas calls it the "avant-ghetto"): there's a lot of other variations on the bad-Jewish theme to talk about. The Klezmatics -- those tireless queer, feminist, and socialist roots workers -- have just dropped one of their most extraordinary albums in years, The Well (Xenophile), and the Knitting Factory (back to Zornville) has launched an imprint, J.A.M. (that's right, the Jewish Alternative Movement), with a style-shredding mission statement, A Guide for the Perplexed (Knitting Factory), and its first single-artist release: Hasidic New Wave's free-jazz wedding that couldn't have a better title, Psycho-Semitic (Knitting Factory). Matzoh came in both press kits.

The Knitting Factory releases are a good gauge of just how far from late-'70s klezmer-only revivalism alternative Jewish musicianship has come. Hasidic New Wave (spearheaded by Klezmatic Frank London) start with Ornette Coleman, Art Ensemble of Chicago, and On the Corner Miles, stick them in the middle of a hora circle of dancing yeshiva bochers, and pipe in some Persian trance, CBGBs punk distortion, and blues-chased niggunum. On their new EP, Giuliani Über Alles (Knitting Factory), they sic the Dead Kennedys on Mayor Rudy and, with help from co-religionists G-D Is My Co-Pilot, use punk-incinerated jazz stomps to bring an urban police state to its knees.

The compilation A Guide for the Perplexed is no less frenetic. Steve Dalachinsky mouths off against fruit flies and pledges his spoken-word allegiance to his "six-pointed innards" and "Jewish shakras." The Covenant (a/k/a Wally Brill) feeds cantors to samplers. Orthodox guitarslinger Piamenta puts a yarmulke on a H.O.R.D.E. jam. And Andy Haas turns an electro-rigged didjeridoo into a Hebrew mouth machine.

But it is the more marginal language of Yiddish -- that Eastern European hodgepodge of the marketplace and the street corner -- that's been most associated with these new adventures in Jewish dissonance. The Klezmatics know this better than anyone. From their debut Yiddishizing of Silence = Death on Shvaygn = Toyt up through The Well, they've approached Yiddish with the most deferential and radical of intentions, making it the jarring hallmark of a politically progressive Jewish traditionalism gone future-shock.

Yet The Well is somewhat of a departure for the Klezmatics. Instead of their own Yiddish fusion originals -- such as "Mizmor Shir Lehanef," their reefer ballad dedicated to Jewish jazzman and expert paper roller Mezz Mezzrow -- the band have collaborated with Israel's grand diva of song, Chava Alberstein. The goal? To save 20th-century Yiddish poetry from post-Shoah extinction by converting it into exquisite, pre-millennium songs. Yiddish is an underdog tongue in Israel (where Hebrew remains the Jewish language of choice), so this meeting between Alberstein and the Klezmatics comes off like a diaspora summit for long-lost conspirators.

Traditionalists should beware, though. This is the Klezmatics we're talking about, and The Well isn't just some innocuous walk down shtetl lane. The impressionistic, meditative, topically wide-ranging lyrics -- God, longing, love, old age, dreams, the benefit of multiple boyfriends -- are treated with a rich, often joyous klezmerized mix of gentle post-rockisms, folk whispers, and jazz drift. Yet for all The Well's episodes of tenderness and melancholy, all its cropped portraits of distanced hearts and beneath-the-almond-tree daydreams, there's a feeling that the edge is never far away.

"My sister Khaye with her eyes of green was burnt by a German in Treblinka," Alberstein sings on Binem Heller's "Mayn Shvester Khaye." "It is for her that I write my poems in Yiddish in these terrible days of our times."

Predictably, The Well's release has been overshadowed by a more New York Times-ready Yiddish event: Mamaloshen (Nonesuch), a gushing stage-and-song valentine to Yiddish and America by ex-Chicago Hope doc Mandy Patinkin. You have to wonder what the downtowners and Yivo-ites and klezcampers think of all this. I mean -- putting Yentl aside -- here comes Patinkin out of Semitic nowhere, armed with a dazzlingly precise and studied delivery, a Lower-East-Side-meets-42nd-Street theatricality, and a stable of songs that soar symphonically, from "Belz" to West Side Story's "Maria." If you just listen to his performance (and duck the melodramatic spray), Patinkin might actually be a bad Jew in the making.

Never mind the Yiddish chestnuts, it's when he hits Ellis Island that things get interesting. Could it be that by putting professionally assimilated Jewish-American composers like Paul Simon and Irving Berlin in the midst of Abraham Goldfaden and Alexander Olshanetsky and then singing "White Christmas" and "American Tune" in Yiddish, Patinkin is pulling a Chico on songwriting Roscoe Chandlers? Could it be that by doing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" in Yiddish, he's re-Judaizing America? Should Zorn be watching his back? Is there a new Jew in town?

Not so fast. Two shots of the Statue of Liberty pop up in the album art and an unfurled American flag fills the entire cover. In front of it is Patinkin himself, dressed in black with a graying black rabbinical beard. His head is thrown back, his eyes are closed, his mouth is open, and of course, his hands are in the air. It's Tevye in his first Richard Avedon Gap ad. The accompanying photos are in Old Country black and white: Patinkin mimicking the gesticulating stage Jew of yore, an immigrant boat unloading at the docks of the goldeyn medina.

It all made me flash back to a conversation I had with Klezmatics fiddler Alicia Svigals a couple years ago. Free of sentimental shtick, she talked mostly of the Yiddish present, of the importance of Yiddish -- as a living language, a living culture, a living politics -- to a contemporary Jewishness that is authentic precisely because of how un-American it might be.

"Coming from generations that tried and tried to assimilate," she said, "we realized that we're pretty happy that we're still sort of unassimilated. We've got something that is not quite American. It's its own thing."

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