Somewhere on the floor of one of my closets, in a liquor carton filled with my collection of long playing vinyl, there is a 1960 album that is very scratched and worn from overplay. It is a most unlikely combination of an Italian-American singing a dozen Hebrew and Yiddish favorites, and singing them with all the pathos and joy of the old world shtetl.
Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites was only one of a series of recordings the singer made of ethnic songs, but it was one of her best. It demonstrated clearly that one didn’t have to be Jewish to have a Jewish soul. It is only appropriate then that a new collection of Jewish songs recorded by a variety of performers both Jewish and non-Jewish, entitled Jewish Soul, should begin with a song from her album.
“Tzena, Tzena,” an Israeli folk song, had been made popular by the controversial folk singing quartet, The Weavers. By the time Francis recorded it, it had gone beyond bar mitzvahs and weddings and become standard for celebrations of almost any ethnic group. It makes for a high-energy opening for the CD. While Francis’s version is fine, in fact better than most, if I had my “druthers,” there are other songs from her album that I would have chosen for the new disc. There is nothing so stirring as the plaintive soulfulness in her renditions of “I Love You Much too Much” (“Ich Hob Dich Tsufil Lieb”), “Mom-e-le,” and “Mein Shtetle Belz.” It is a real shame that none of these could have been included to represent Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero.
Still it is hard to find significant fault with the selections that are included on this CD. Most of the singers were well known in their day, some indeed major stars. The lesser-known names often offer the more authentic performances. All of the singers sing beautifully, but there are some that can’t quite capture the essential Yiddish spirit of the music. They are not what we think of as “hamishe.” Tom Jones, for example, does a beautiful take on “My Yiddishe Mamme,” but he doesn’t quite manage the plaintive tone that makes the song a classic, and the arrangement doesn’t help. Betty Madigan’s “Dance Everyone Dance” is pleasant enough, but it doesn’t quite capture the “Hava Nagila” spirit. It isn’t only the non-Jewish singers. Eddie Fisher’s anglicized “Oh My Papa!”, a hit back in the day, is a popular white bread version of the song.
On the other hand the unique Eartha Kitt manages to catch the real spirit of “Rumania, Rumania” and at the same time put her own special stamp on the comic gem (one quite different from the slapstick transformation of the song by The Limelighters). Johnny Mathis has a nice feel for the pensive “Eli Eli” building up to a bravura conclusion. His “Where Can I Go” is masterful—a passionate English version of this plaint from the horrors of the Holocaust. Jackie Wilson offers a version of “The Anniversary Song,” popularized in the film The Jolson Story, that is as stunning as the original. But perhaps the performance that comes closest to the kind of Yiddishkeit that makes this music great is Yaffa Yarkoni’s “Mamele.” It is a performance without vocal pyrotechnics; it is simple and heartfelt.
On a CD filled with excellent performances, there are still some that stand out. “Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen” (“Raisins and Almonds”) is a lullaby composed for an 1880 Yiddish operetta. It is a melody that cannot help but enchant, and in the hands of diva Netania Davrath, it glows. Andy Williams’ cover of “This Land is Mine,” the theme from the motion picture Exodus, is a stirring version of the song that had been a hit instrumental for the piano duo Ferrante and Teicher. Jay Black of Jay and the Americans has the genuine Yiddish sound, and he puts it to excellent use in famed Yiddish composer Sholem Secunda’s “Where is the Village?”
Perhaps the highlight of the album is Metropolitan Opera tenor Jan Peerce, one of the great cantors of his day, chanting “Kol Nidre” from the evening service of the Day of Atonement. Not only does he have a golden voice, he is steeped in cantorial dynamics. He has a voice that would make the fast that is only just beginning easy.
Jewish Soul is a wonderful collection. In spite of a quibble or two, there isn’t a clunker on the CD. These are songs that have stood the test of time. They have given voice to a people who all too often found themselves without a voice. They are a testimony to a people’s unwillingness to let go of their traditions and values. One can only hope for a volume two.