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January 11, 2012

Root Hog or Die

This American Jewish Life

My dad’s folks, Lewis and Dorothy, hated my name. “Nathan,” they said, was what you called an old, hooked-nose shtetl Jew. They asked for “Scott,” a wholesome, antiseptic American name that didn’t smell of gefilte fish and spoke with no accent; in short, that bore no trace of Jewishness. They had, after all, named their kids Robert and Patricia.

The little while I spent as a child in a familial Jewish community was virtually untouched by ethnic Jewishness: no bubbes pinching cheeks and kvelling in Yiddish about how much I’d grown, how much I looked like my father, etc. Like so many other Jews of my generation, my Jewish experience was nearly entirely assimilated in that of mainstream America — with the exception of the two days of the year when the goyishe kids watched with envy as I skipped school for synagogue. My name might have sounded like an Old World rebbe’s, but, in every other Judaic capacity, my grandparents won.

Every half a year or so, however, I check in with a man who works on me like a Five-Hour Energy speedball of Yiddishkeit, who embodies all the disparate idiosyncrasies, oppositions and brilliances of American Jewishness: the klezmer comedian Mickey Katz. Born Meyer Myron Katz, the young clarinet prodigy in Cleveland picked up piecemeal band work in theaters, casinos and on pleasure cruises. Perhaps his biggest break was landing a gig with Spike Jones’ orchestra in 1946, which led to his own recording contract with RCA the next year. But it wasn’t to make jazz records; it was for his Yiddish-English parodies of mainstream American pop chestnuts, in which the doggie in “How Much is that Doggie in the Window” was replaced by a kosher pickle, and “That’s Amore” became “That’s Morris. “If you see him walk past / Wearing schmaltz on his vest / Oy, that’s Morris.” He was completely over the top — a squealing, bumbling schlemiel in “Where is My Pants?” (a retooling of “Where Is My Heart?” from the original “Moulin Rouge”) or a meshuga hysteric in “Herring Boats Are Coming (With Bagels and Lox),” after the 1951 Jo Stafford hit “Shrimp Boats.”

Folks like my grandparents loathed Mickey Katz. His shtick was a hyper-ethnicized caricature of everything assimilated American Jews labored to distance themselves from. And despite the fact that his band featured some of the heaviest jazz players of the day — who, like clockwork, break into a breathless klezmer vamp in every song — his Yinglish hamming often made radio play and live bookings hard to land. There had also been, of course, recent geopolitical events that made his brand of dialect comedy — so popular in the vaudeville era — an even tougher sell. Israel notwithstanding, it wasn’t the most hospitable era for Jewish ethnic exceptionalism.

But Katz’s genius, apart from his outstanding musicianship, was in his anarchic send-up of, simultaneously, Jewish peculiarity — gastronomic, religious, cosmetic (the sheytl, a wig worn by many Orthodox Jewish women, makes frequent appearances) — and the banality of mainstream American culture, the culture that so many of his peers were desperate to embrace. His act, for all of its hilarity, was a serious attempt at reconciling all the competing influences in American Jewish life, and it helped preserve a link to the Jewish comic past in ways that made, in the decades to come, the work of Mel Brooks, et al., easier. (He was also America’s first famous post-war klezmer musician, paving the way for the revival of Old World Jewish music that continues apace today. That he was also Joel Grey’s dad and Jennifer Grey’s zeyde is too rich for us to mine here.)

The little Jew that’s left in me — my fantasies of the Yiddish-speaking mishpocha I never had; my connection to the irony, absurdity and anarchy of the shtetl — is considerably maintained by the music of Mickey Katz. And if that’s hopelessly romantic, so be it. Hopeless romanticism is, after all, a fundamental aspect of the American-Jewish experience. Zionism comes to mind. We might as well mach freilach where we can.

Nathan Salsburg is an archivist and producer for the Alan Lomax Archive, curator of the Twos & Fews label, and host of “Root Hog or Die” on East Village Radio.