You might be forgiven for thinking that the history of black–Jewish relations in the United State was one of tension, suspicion, and hostility. For years, the only headlines to include blacks and Jews in the same sentence were ones that screamed mutual mistrust, such as the Crown Heights riot of 1991 and the inflammatory rhetoric of the Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan. And yet the truth of that history is more complicated than those examples might suggest. Black spirituals like "Go Down, Moses" compared slavery to the Jews' Biblical bondage in Egypt; coalitions of black and Jewish leaders founded the NAACP and the National Urban League; Jewish civil rights protesters and attorneys flooded the South for freedom marches in the '50s and '60s, while prominent rabbis marched arm in arm with Martin Luther King Jr.
That complex, intertwined relationship has been mirrored in pop music. The involvement of Jewish Americans in African-American music has been well documented (perhaps too much so), from Tin Pan Alley through jazz and rock to hip-hop. The flipside of black artists exploring Jewish musical culture has been less discussed, but a new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum aims to change that. "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations" shines a revealing light on this relationship. Presented by the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, a self-described group of "record-collecting dumpster divers" who aim to reexamine Jewish-American history by showcasing sometimes long-forgotten music, the exhibit makes a fascinating display of the influence of Jewish and Yiddish culture on black popular music of the 20th century.
"There's been an infinite amount of ink that's been dedicated to the involvement of American Jews in black music," society co-founder and music writer Josh Kun says. "So in retelling this story, we thought it would be more useful to look at the other side."
That other side was sparked by the discovery of an extraordinary 7-inch record from 1958 of balladeer and make-out music king Johnny Mathis singing "Kol Nidre," the prayer traditionally intoned at the beginning of Yom Kippur. "Why was Mathis, at the height of his career, recording synagogue songs?" Kun asks.
The society's search soon yielded an avalanche of gems. They found a home recording of Billie Holiday singing the ballad "My Yiddishe Momme"; Marlena Shaw's 1969 version of "Where Can I Go?," which reimagines the post-Holocaust song as fuzzed-out civil-rights funk; and an epic medley by the Temptations and the Supremes of songs from Fiddler on the Roof.
An accompanying CD will be released Sept. 14 featuring 15 of the tracks from the exhibit, including performances by Aretha Franklin ("Swanee"), Cannonball Adderley ("Sabbath Prayer"), and Nina Simone ("Eretz Zavat Chalav"). The exhibition will tell far more than the CD allows ("We could have released a four-volume set, easy," Kun says). Interactive apps will guide visitors through different themes, such as the role of Yiddish in 1930s jazz and blues, or the intriguing frequency with which black artists in the 1950s sang about Israel.
It's a stirring collection, enough to make you wonder if by looking back at the past, the exhibition aims to foster a more hopeful new chapter in the often-fraught history of black-Jewish relations. Kun is optimistic, although he's quick to point out that the exhibition is meant to be more than just a political statement: "I think that through music we can have the kinds of conversations that are sometimes too tricky or too painful to have."