What are the 100 greatest Jewish songs? 'My Mammy'? 'If I Were a Rich Man'?
In a list that's bound to spark debate among Jews and Gentiles alike, Tablet magazine commissioned writers-scholars Jody Rosen and Ari Y. Kelman to compile their list of the 100 greatest Jewish songs of all time. It's a Sisysphean task, but the result makes for a fascinating read -- one that has already sparked a lot of anger among commenters.
Among the songs named are:
"My Mammy" (#6). Writes Rosen: "Before Frank Sinatra, before Elvis Presley, before Michael Jackson, there was Al Jolson, the 20th century’s first pan-media 'rock star.' With his dynamic stage act and rafter-rattling voice, he was for millions of fans the embodiment of pop modernity — the poster boy for ragtime, which was unmooring America from its Victorian past one raucous song at a time. But Jolson was not just a New American; he was vividly, unapologetically a Jewish American, with a fearless devotion to schmaltz and a 'tear in a voice,' his birthright as a cantor’s son."
"Der Heyser Bulgar (#24): "'Hava Nagila' before there was 'Hava Nagila.' The original Jewish party-starter," submits Kelman.
"'Ol' Man River" (#27), which Rosen describes as "a meditation on race, class, the suffering of humanity, and the indifference of nature."
"Popcorn" (#64): Writes Kelman: "Originally recorded by Moog synthesizer pioneer Gershon Kingsley, the song became a global smash in 1972 when it was covered by a band called Hot Butter. The first synth-pop hit, “Popcorn” quickly became a staple of the Jewish summer camp dance repertoire. And so it makes the list less because Kingsley is a Jewish composer than because for years it was, essentially, the Jewish macarena."
Overall, it's a fascinating, incredibly insightful list. Read about all 100 here.
But there are beefs, and the comment section is overflowing with them. A detractor named Yishai has one: "Are you kidding? You include Madonna but only put in ONE song by Leonard Cohen? And it’s “Halleluyah”? What about “Who by Fire”? What about “The Partisan”? What about almost ANY OTHER SONG by him?…And what about Mendelssohn? What about Ernst Bloch? What about Kurt Weill, for God’s sake? What about Jacques Offenbach? AAAARRRGH! My head’s going to explode!"
Or Benjamin's beef: "This list is too ethnicity-oriented. Lots of non-Jews have written better Jewish songs than many of the half-hearted Jews on this list: Desmond Dekker – “Israelites,” Bob Marley – 'Exodus,' Siouxsie and the Banshees – 'Israel,' Frank Zappa – 'Jewish Princess.'"
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Lois Moran and Al Jolson in "Mammy." Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment