When this blog was formed (or re-formed) some months ago, part of its name included “Jewcentricity” for a reason. For those who may not know, this is the title of a book I wrote in 2009. There will be no second edition of the book, because the first edition attracted not a single major review and sold poorly in consequence. It has its fans, yes—some even in distant Australia, as I learned to my surprise on a visit there last June—but these fans a second edition will not evoke. So the blog was designed in part to allow me to continue to write about my interest in the subject post hoc on an à la carte basis.
As it has turned out, not all that many worthy Jewcentric new items have popped up lately. I did speak some weeks ago about the Iranian regime’s anti-Semitism—a vivid example of one of the four interlocking forms of Jewcentricity—but that post was justified solely on Middle Eastern grounds. Today, however, I have for you a perfect example to talk about—brimming with historical trivia, contemporary pop-cultural interest, and, certainly compared with the proclivities of the Iranian regime, of no real importance whatsoever. Easy reading, in other words. So easy that full grammatical sentences aren’t even necessary.
Several days ago a dear cousin of mine, one of those mainly harmless people who love to play pass-along-the-junk on the internet, sent me a music video and urged me to watch it. I watched it. It struck me as a little strange, but there was something about it that intrigued me. So I watched it again. And then the next day again. And then again. And now I’m hooked, with my Jewcentricity antennae on high alert.
My youngest son got hooked on different music video last year: Duck Sauce’s rendition of “Barbara Streisand, Barbara Streisand.” (I don’t know if there’s anything Jewcentric about that. Barbara Streisand went to Flatbush Yeshiva as a child, a very Jewish place—Orthodox even. But there’s no evidence of which I am aware of her being particularly Jewish these days, nor any reason to think that Duck Sauce chose her name as a subject because she is Jewish. As Freud probably said, when he wasn’t smoking a cigar, sometimes a song is just a song.) Anyway, this youngest son of mine played this “Barbara Streisand, Barbara Streisand” thing over and over and over until it nearly made me crazy, except that instead I sort of learned to like it—the way a victim of the Stockholm Syndrome learns to like his captors. Now I think I’m driving everyone else in the house crazy, but so it goes in the days of internetic cybermusic.
So what is the song, and this video, I’m talking about? Well, the song is that old warhorse of a favorite, “Bei Mir Bist du Shoen.” The video features a rendition recorded just last year by an Azerbaijani pop singer named Ilhama Gasimova. The soundtrack of the video is described as that of the singer and a disc jockey, DJ OBG (whatever that means), who appears surgically inserted—smoking a cigar and saying but one word, “shoen”—in the highly stylized visual dimension of the video. Youngest son assures me that while the vocal track is recent, no one played any musical instruments behind Ilhama’s singing. He says that the disc jockey assembled the soundtrack from old pieces manipulated to fit new purposes. I take him at his word. He knows about this kind of stuff.
It’s also worth pointing out that this new rendition of the song is not the whole song as it was first written and recorded in English in 1937. The original English version has an introduction and something along the lines of a verse before we get to the famous chorus, but Ilhama’s 2011 version is pretty much just the chorus over and over again.
The video is a rapid-fire hodgepodge of riotous images. A large chunk of those images features Laurel and Hardy doing some hot dance steps, but these are made to replicate themselves in rapid repeating clatter in the original Max Headroom style (if anybody remembers that). Most of the rest of the video features Ilhama herself and assorted other female dancers from older acts. I have to confess that one of the reasons I have become smitten with the video is that I have become smitten with Ilhama’s sexy beauty. Of course, such things are matters of taste—Bei mir, you will remember—and do I do not presume mine to be that of others. Go see for yourself on You Tube:
In any event, under the video before it begins to play on YouTube is a German text that explains that the star of the video is an Azerbaijani pop singer, and that the song went viral not only in Baku but throughout much of Europe last year. It has made her the latest thing. There is another video on YouTube in which Ilhama is interviewed by a German journalist about her sudden stardom. In the interview she’s not made up in 1930’s style as she is in the video, but she’s still real pretty; in the interview she speaks both German and English.
What is at least mildly Jewcentric about all this is that “Bei Mir Bist du Shoen”, this pan-European and even international pop hit, was written in a Yiddish-language context, by two immigrant Jews in Brooklyn back in or around 1932. The song was part of a show entitled “I Would If I Could.” The lyricist was Jacob Jacobs; the composer was Sholom Secunda.
Sholom Secunda was a most prolific songwriter and, it turns out, a dude of some passing interest. Although his family name is give-away Sephardic, he was born in Russia in 1894 and, at a remarkably young age, demonstrated an astonishing facility for singing and creating cantorial music. He came to America in 1907, and worked mostly in Yiddish-language theater, radio and orchestral music jobs in New York City. Of the many songs he wrote, the most dear to him appear to have been liturgical compositions. He worked with some well-known cantors and choirs back in the day. He also became a Labor Zionist, as may be illustrated by the fact that he worked summers in Labor-Zionist camps, joined a Workman’s Circle and, above all, wrote the music for “Shir HaPalmach.” This latter datum won’t mean much to most people, but for those familiar with the song and its storied history it will probably mean a lot. Secunda also wrote the music for one of the most beloved Yiddish/Hebrew (it exists in both languages) songs ever: “Dona, Dona.” I have known both of these songs for decades and it never occurred to me before seeing Ilhama’s video that the composer might be the same man who composed “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen.”
Anyway, the story of how the song migrated from Secunda & Jacobs in the Yiddish theater to what became in the 1930s the third-best-selling American song of all time is a matter of record, so to speak. Secunda was having trouble making a living for his wife and two young sons during the depression. When “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” attracted no particular attention as part of the show, Secunda subsequently shopped it around to dozens of film executives, but they all agreed that the sound was much too Jewish for Hollywood audiences. So Secunda sold it to a publisher, J. and J. Kamman, for $30. Secunda then took the money and gave half to Jacobs. This seemed a good deal at the time because unless Jewish composers and lyricists sold their work to publishers, they had to publish them on their own—and that cost money.
Then a man named Sammy Cahn—a very famous songwriter, of course, in his own right—came upon the song, saw its potential, translated all the lyrics except the title line and a few other Italian and German words (to preserve the song’s hint of exoticism) into English, sped up the tempo from the original… and the rest is history. The then-unknown Andrews Sisters were matched to the song, and the result went viral as the Andrew Sisters’ reputation launched skyward.
Just to complete the tale of the English-language original 1937 song, J. and J. Kamman and the Andrews Sisters did really well with it. “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” grossed more than $3 million, which was still a lot of money in the late 1930s. When the story got around that Secunda had grossed all of $15 from it, people assumed that he was extremely distraught by this turn of events. He wasn’t. He wasn’t concerned with wealth or fame; he was a humble man who just loved music and at the time was satisfied with his $75 per week job managing a Yiddish orchestra in New York.
Later on, in a 1961 interview (Secunda died in 1974), he noted that just about everyone else was more upset about the $15 than he was. Something else, however, did still bother him. He also noted that back in the day he and George Gershwin were pretty good friends. Gershwin, who admired Secunda’s talent, invited him to collaborate on Broadway, but Secunda turned him down. Later on, when he and Gershwin would run into one another around town, Secunda said, Gershwin, having by then made it very big, would rib him mercilessly but good-naturedly for his refusal to collaborate. “Aren’t you sorry now, Sholom, for refusing my proposal?” Secunda said Gershwin would ask him.
In the 1961 interview Secunda finally answered Gershwin’s question, but not in a way you might expect. He remembered noticing that the cascade of recordings of “Bei Mir Bist du Shoen” after that of the Andrews Sisters often featured a Gershwin tune on the B-side. So Secunda quipped that here he was collaborating with George after all, after his death. He said he had actually lost sleep thinking about it, because he loved George Gershwin and his music. (George Gershwin died of a brain tumor in July 1937 at the age of 38, so he didn’t live long enough to rib Secunda about the $15 he netted from “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen.” Certainly, he would have if he could have—double entendre entirely deliberate.)
Of course, the Andrew Sisters were not Jewish, and most of the song’s fans were not Jewish either. Reports from the time relate how some fans managed to completely misunderstand its one non-English line. The most common homophonic rendition of what has since become known as a “mondagreen” was apparently something along the lines of the dyslexic, “My Beer, Mister Shane.”
Not all of the fallout from the song was so funny. The song’s popularity quickly spread far and wide, including to Nazi Germany, where it became a big hit until the authorities learned that the composer and lyricist were Jews, upon which the song was promptly banned.
American Jews also loved the song, and of course many knew of its original Yiddish-language origin. It made sense for American Jews to love the song in English translation, too, because by the mid-1930s the Yiddish theater was starting to die out for lack of Yiddish speakers. It became a sentimental hit for them, the kind of song ubiquitous at wedding celebrations and the like.
After the Holocaust, the sound of “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” became acutely bittersweet. It evoked the now guilty joys of a murdered era, and memories of youth among a heartbroken generation. My maternal grandmother Jennie Luber could not hear it without crying.
My Jewcentric point? Only that that a song of this nature, with such a history and so much emotional baggage, could in 2011 become a giant European (and especially a German) pop hit, sung by an Azerbaijani woman and decorated by truly wild (and completely un-Jewish: one backdrop behind Ilhama looks like St. Peter’s, in the Vatican!) visual images is, well, sort of breathtaking. It almost makes me dizzy just thinking about it.