From Oct ’06 Spotlight: In 2002, Jody Rosen published White Christmas: The Story of an American Song, his insightful analysis of how a hit song first achieved and then sustained unprecedented world-wide popularity. In a tour de force performance of his own, Rosen turned the 53 words Irving Berlin wrote in 1942 into 190 pages of fascinating cultural commentary, talking readers through multiple disciplines and historical eras.
Rosen’s new project is called JEWFACE, coming to Chicago in the form of a multimedia presentation at Spertus Institute on October 29. When I called him in New York to discuss JEWFACE, Rosen told me he learned about “the standards” from his maternal grandmother: “I was always acutely aware that it wasn’t just that she liked the tunes but somehow they spoke to her historical experience. I very quickly focused in on the figure of Irving Berlin — he was a walking/talking metaphor for all this. And when I began to look at his back catalog, his early songs, the Jewish dialect stuff leapt out at me, songs with titles like Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars and Jake Jake the Yiddisher Ball Player.”
Rosen is concerned, though, that some people will be offended by what they hear on the JEWFACE CD. “Jewish institutions like to promote a certain vision of Jewish history,” he said. “But this is messy. What some people might think of as ‘Jewish self-hatred’ has been extremely useful, but that isn’t exactly the kind of story that’s easy to tell. This is a fascinating chapter in the history of Jewish-American popular culture; this is the very beginning, the dawn of American popular music.”
Jody Rosen will be at Spertus Institute at 2 PM on Sunday, October 29. For reservations, call 312.322.1743. Consult the Spertus website for complete details.