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Name that tune with Leonard Nimoy and Josh Kun

December 8, 2008 | 12:48 pm


Josh Kun is the author, with Richard Bennett, of "And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost." The title says just about all you need to know -- but not quite. You should also know that there are images of hundreds of album covers in the book, charming, geeky, and even moderately psychedeli (above). And that they've rescued some records from their archives and released them on CD. Oh, and there will be two book parties -- one in New York on Thursday (tickets are $20), and one on Tuesday at the Santa Monica Museum of Art at 7:30 p.m. (free, registration required).

The Santa Monica Museum of Art book party will also be a listening party. Kun will spin records (and, he admits, some MP3s) from the book. And listening, playing name that tune, will be Leonard Nimoy. About that we needed to know more.

Jacket Copy: Leonard Nimoy is participating. Am I getting that right -- THE Leonard Nimoy?

Josh Kun: Yes, that Leonard Nimoy. I am very honored that he agreed to do this.

JC: Leonard Nimoy is known an actor and a photographer -- what's his musical expertise?

Josh Kun: Mr. Nimoy has a commanding knowledge of Jewish culture of all sorts and has a passion for the preservation of the Jewish cultural past. As an actor, he worked in the Yiddish theater, which left him with a deep knowledge of Yiddish music, and he has participated in a number of Jewish musical and cultural projects over the years.

I will be playing songs for Mr. Nimoy -- some of which he might know, some of which will be unexpected versions of songs he might know, and some of which he probably hasn't heard before. The goal is not to test his knowledge but to use the songs as springboards for a discussion about music and Jewish culture.

He and I come at Jewish music from different angles, which I think will add to the range of our conversation.

JC: So you'll also discuss the book?

Josh Kun: We will be showing images from the book, which contains nearly 500 album covers, and I will share many of the book's stories in our conversation. The book is as much a showcase of Jewish traditions as it is a document of how those traditions have been constantly transformed and re-shaped within the mash-ups of American culture.

Read more about "And You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We Have Loved and Lost" after the jump.

JC: How does your book, or the music it traces, fit into the history of the Jewish diaspora?

Josh Kun: The book is a document of the Jewish Diaspora both as a state of being and as an aesthetic. The albums show Jews at the hight of flux and flexibility, balancing tradition with innovation, merging Yiddish with English and Spanish, splicing Eastern European freilachs with mambo, prog rock, and folk. You see Jews making a break for suburbia and playing Passover albums on their hi-fi, cantors singing opera and going to KISS concerts, socialist Jews making funk albums about slavery, Barbra Streisand making Christmas albums, Connie Francis and Perry Como singing Jewish songs. Many talk about the experience of diaspora as a gathering of fragments, and this book is just that, only here the fragments are album covers rich with complex tales of American identity.

JC: What was your inspiration for the book?

Josh Kun: The book was born from a double desire: to see and hear Jewish-American history differently (using an unlikely medium as the source: the LP) and to excavate lost treasures of Jewish musical history, treasures that were being forgotten and needed to be preserved. Over eight years or so, we collected a couple thousand LPs from thrift stores, garage sales, National Council of Jewish Women stores, and eBay auctions. The more we found, the more it became clear that these LPs told stories that were missing from some of the conventional narratives of American Jewishness. But as much as the project took on a kind of conservationist tone, our goal was always to not just conserve these albums but bring them back to life by re-introducing them to a new generation of listeners and readers. Which meant not only tracking down the albums, but tracking down some of the performers, folks like Avram Grobard or Johnny Yune or Theodore Bikel or Claire Barry or Ron Eliran or Hannah Aroni. You can see footage from some of those meetings on our site. The book is part of a larger "living archive" project that includes a record label and a crowd-sourced wiki forum that allows anyone to upload their memories and commentaries.

-- Carolyn Kellogg