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Gangsta wraps
The Milken Archive of American Jewish Music

A friend of mine who is white and Jewish recently left me a voice mail on which he sings a cappella the first verse and the chorus of Eazy-Eís classic West Coast gangsta anthem "Boyz N the Hood." He does it deadpan, with no cartoonish attempts at interracial vocal impersonation. As he begins with "Cruising down the street in my 6-4," you can hear him doubting himself, as if he might not pull it off, as if the joke might get the best of him. But by the time he reaches "Donít quote me boy, cuz I ainít said shit," more than six lines in, the joke has become real, and he sounds impressed with his memorization skills. How did this song become so ingrained in his mind that at the sound of a voice-mail chime he could unleash it as if it were "Happy Birthday" or the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, which we had to learn in Ms. Reedís seventh-grade English class? I saved the voice mail for months as a treasured artifact of the Jewish unconscious, an impromptu musical symbol of American Jewish identity.

Of the 600 works stretched over the 50 to 60 CDs that, by 2006, will make up the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, thereís nothing that resembles a Jewish cover version of "Boyz N the Hood." Which isnít surprising for a project that hopes, in the words of Lowell Milken, who created the archive back in 1990, "to rediscover, preserve, and transmit the collective memory contained with this music." Jews singing Eazy-E isnít "this music."

The archive has so far released 20 titles, the newest of which are flagrantly unconcerned with marketing: Cantor Benzion Miller Sings Cantorial Concert Masterpieces and Yehudi Wyner: The Mirror, The Passover Offering, Tantus un Maysele. The previous CDs havenít been as obscure or as frightening to the non-observant Jewish ear, covering everything from Yiddish theater and Kurt Weill to the obligatory klezmer histories and Israeli praise songs. There appears to be little straight-up Jewish pop in the Milken vaults, which are more than content to be a remarkable warehouse of classical music, opera, and synagogue music that begins in the mid 17th century and runs up through the present. The closest the archive gets to Eazy-E is the Gates of Justice CD, a stirring re-recording of Dave Brubeckís 1969 blacks-and-Jews social-justice cycle in which Biblical riffs and Hillel sayings meet up with Dr. King and black spirituals.

It hardly needs to be said that the Milken project raises the obvious and unanswerable question of just what Jewish music is. Back in 1929, even the revered dean of Jewish musicology, Abraham Idelsohn, weighed in by not really weighing in at all, calling Jewish music "the song of Judaism through the lips of the Jew. It is the tonal expression of Jewish life and development over a period of more than two thousand years."

When Perez Prado recorded "The Twist of Hava Nageelah," was that Jewish? Could Slim Galliard goofing "Yossl, Yossl" into "Vool Vistu Gaily Star" ever make its way into the Milken Archive? And the debate that has started more than one rabbinical smackdown: Perry Farrell in 1990 versus Perry "DJ Peretz" Farrell in 2004? In his new book, From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture, Paul Buhle makes the solid case for Bill Graham (a Holocaust survivor who changed his name, worked the Borscht Belt, and moved West to become a socially conscious concert promoter) and the not-so-solid case for Cyndi Lauperís "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" as a liberation anthem with roots in Lauperís Brooklyn upbringing and her sisterís Marxism.

More than one French philosopher has pointed out the inherent subjectivity of any archive ó a place where records are kept (according to the wordís Greek roots) but a place nonetheless maintained by record keepers with agendas. Creating an archive of Jewish music, then, ends up being as much about creating "Jewish music" as about preserving it. If itís in the archive, then it becomes Jewish. Archives shape and determine the way we think about the artifacts they house.

The Milken Archive is extraordinary in its depth and its conservationist drive. But Milken and the archiveís director, Neil Levin, have laudably set out to go beyond commemoration ó they want it to be "a living project," born of the past but breathing in the present. If I still had my friendís "Boyz N the Hood" performance, Iíd send it over to give them a boost, an instant fossil of Jewish music so alive that no archive has yet to claim it.

Issue Date: August 6 - 12, 2004
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