In the dusty clutter of yard and estate sales, the lost heroes of Jewish American song and comedy are waiting to be reclaimed and celebrated in all their kitschy splendor. And they can't help but wonder: What's taking you so long?
There's vaudeville comedienne Mae Questel, who supplied the voice of Betty Boop, and her loud-mouthed 1969 record, "Mrs. Portnoy's Retort." (Take that, Philip Roth.) On the cutting edge of liturgical singing, there's Sol Zim, who calls himself the Tom Jones of cantors. And, in a particularly local twist on the '50s musical, Angelenos can appreciate "My Fairfax Lady," which may or may not feature a love scene set in Canter's Deli over pastrami on rye.
These discoveries and holy grails prompted USC associate professor Josh Kun and journalist-collector Roger Bennett to write "And You Shall Know Us By the Trail of Our Vinyl," the story of Jews in America as told through LPs.
"Jews on Vinyl," the new exhibit co-curated by Kun and Bennett at the Skirball Cultural Center, is based on their book but takes it into a hands-on realm.
The exhibition was first organized by the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, but at the Skirball visitors can cozy up in a vintage, '50s-style living room and listen to curated playlists, including one with 15 versions of "Hava Nagila."
"We wanted it to feel like a place where you could hang out for a while," Kun said. "We didn't want the LPs trapped under glass like artifacts. These are everyday, personal objects. People lived with this music."
The songs of the exhibit were culled from a 2,000-plus record collection amassed by the Idelsohn Society of Musical Preservation, an archive and label co-founded by Kun, Bennett, David Katznelson and Courtney Holt. Idelsohn has released six albums to date, including "Jewface," a collection of Jewish minstrel songs, and "Mazel Tov, Mis Amigos," a set of somber Hebrew and Yiddish songs transformed into energetic Latin rumbas, cha-chas and meringues by Latin and jazz stars such as Ray Barretto, Charlie Palmieri and Doc Cheatham (working under the musical nom de plume Juan Calle and His Latin Lantzman).
It's those kinds of intersections between Jews and other ethnicities and cultures that are the focus of two ancillary events to the exhibition. On Thursday night, Kun presents "Go Down, Moses," a listening party where he'll play songs highlighting the relationship between Jews and African Americans, but from the lesser-known angle of black artists, including Johnny Mathis, Aretha Franklin and Lena Horne, singing Jewish songs.
Later in the summer, on July 8, the Latin-Jewish connection will again be explored with another listening party that should yield a few spontaneous conga lines weaving through the Skirball grounds.
The cultural connections weren't a surprise for Kun, but they did deepen his understanding that the supposed exceptions to the Jewish American experience are actually the norms. "There's a diversity of ways of being Jewish," he said. "It was rewarding to discover the ruptures were not new. It reveals the truth — endlessly multiple and endlessly contradictory."
'Jews on Vinyl'
Where: Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Price: $10; $8 members, $6 students
Info: (310) 440-4500; http://www.skirball.org