My 5-year-old thinks "My Yiddishe Mama," the soulful ballad immortalized by Sophie Tucker in 1928, is a rock anthem. The version he learned didn't come from a dusty old record, but from a CD released in 2004 by the group, Yiddishe Cup, called "Meshugeneh Mambo."
This is not your grandmother's Jewish music. Like other recent Jewish parody CDs, "Meshugeneh Mambo" carries on the tradition of Jewish humor popularized by such forbearers as Mickey Katz and Allan Sherman. Although the lounge acts of the Catskills have all but vanished, a few intrepid souls are bringing a modern brand of Borscht Belt humor to a whole new generation.
Yiddishe Cup's album combines soulful klezmer ballads, doo-wop and, of course, Latin flair. The title track sets the tone, promising "No frailech [joyful] hora can compare/ to shaking your Yiddishe dierriere/ to the lovely Mesugheneh Mambo."
The group's rendition of "My Yiddishe Mama" throws in homage to James Bond's "Goldfinger" and the theme song to "The Patty Duke Show." Listen closely and you will hear spoofs of "Star Trek," "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Outer Limits" scattered about in the traditional melodies and remakes of comedy routines created in the 1950s.
Newer artists like Yiddishe Cup have learned from the old comedic masters that classic Jewish humor relies on cleverness rather than anger. The best comics "tell a story that is visual and makes you think," said Simon Rutberg of Hatikvah International on Fairfax Avenue. "Using the word 'shmuck' doesn't make it Jewish."
Instead, skilled artists allow listeners to recognize themselves and the universal truths behind the tales and tunes.
One artist who stresses ruach (spirit) over raunch is Michael Lange. The director, whose credits include "Life Goes On" and "The X-Files," has released several titles under his Silly Music label. In November, Lange will release "A Kosher Christmas," a collection of popular yuletide melodies coupled with decidedly Jewish-themed lyrics. It's a strange experience indeed to hear the traditional orchestrations -- think bells, trumpets and choral harmonies -- as singers croon about litigation, food, guilt and family (categories that Lange refers to as "the four cornerstones of the Jewish experience.")
In "Such a Loyal Son Am I," a take-off on "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," a mother and son alternate kvetching about one another: (Him:) Not so easy with this mother/Still a loyal son am I. (Her:) Not a doctor like his brother/Such a shanda [shame] I should cry. "Greensleeves" is re-imagined as "Greenstein," an ode to the singer's childhood crush, Tiffany Greenstein.
And, of course, food plays a significant role, as in "Harvey Weisenberg" (to the tune of "Good King Wenceslas"): "[which] Soup would he pick, wondered he:/Lentil, borscht or chicken/As he ate he thought with glee:/This is finger lickin'....
Lange previously created two Broadway musical parodies. "Goys and Dolls," released in 2002, uses the original melodies of "Guys and Dolls" to tell the story of a young man who begins dating a non-Jewish woman, while "Say Oy Vey" re-imagines "Cabaret" as the story of two seniors who find romance at synagogue bridge night.
Musicals are also the targets of spoofs created by the group Shlock Rock, whose founder, Lenny Solomon, hails from a long line of cantors. Their 2003 release, "Almost on Broadway," transforms "Maria" from "West Side Story" to "Tekia": "Tekia! I've just heard the sound called Tekia!"
Shlock Rock boasts 23 albums to its credit, ranging from original compositions to children's music to parody. The group's nine other parody CD's display an impressive range of musical styles, Judaic knowledge and humor. In one, for example, Paul Simon's "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" becomes "49 Days to Count the Omer," while in another, "Livin' La Vida Loca" by Ricky Martin morphs into "Learning to Do the Hora." And you've got to wonder what kind of mind would think of transforming the Beatles' "Lady Madonna" into "Rabbi Akiva": "Rabbi Akiva had straw for a bed/Love thy neighbor like thyself is what he said."
While they're amusing to listen to, be forewarned: The lyrics stick with you. So when the time comes for my son to join his kindergarten classmates for the annual holiday assembly in December, he'll be easy to pick out. He'll be the one singing "Goys Rule the World."
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