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Borscht Airs: Situating Mickey Katz in American Jewish Musical Comedy

Tue, December 17, 8:30 to 10:00am, Hilton Bayfront San Diego, Aqua 313

Session Submission Type: Panel Session

Abstract

This panel explores the history of American Jewish musical comedy, with particular attention to comedian and bandleader Mickey Katz (1909-1985). Katz flourished in the mid twentieth century with a host of “Yinglish” parodies of American popular music. While Katz has received some scholarly attention in the past, this panel offers a critical reassessment of his aesthetic formation, popularity, and legacy. Through close examination of diverse periods, genres, and themes, these papers trace American Jewish self-presentation across several generations. In this way, Katz acts as a central axis in a multidimensional discourse on the relationship between musical comedy, generic boundaries, and Yiddish culture.

The three papers situate Katz in the context of the long twentieth century and up to the present day. Focusing on the first half of the twentieth century, Samantha M. Cooper probes the precedents of Katz’s opera-themed parodies. Her paper asserts that these songs evolved out of a lengthy tradition of Jewish comedy that satirized opera in diverse medias and mobilized it to work through Jewish anxieties about their hierarchized place in the modern American landscape. Cultural hierarchies were also key to Katz’s popularity in the 1950s, which are the focus of Uri Schreter’s paper. Schreter scrutinizes the claims about Katz’s “failure” to address the changing sensibilities of American Jews, and argues that Katz’s code-switching successfully appealed to a wide swath of the “Yinglish” community. His popularity hinged on fluency in Yiddish language and music, thereby demonstrating the viability Yiddish culture after World War Two. Fast-forwarding to the twenty-first century, Zeke Levine explores the music and stand-up comedy of contemporary rapper Lil Dicky (alias David Burd). Drawing on his background in Jewish suburbia, Burd utilizes satire and musical comedy in his negotiation of Jewishness and whiteness, following in Katz’s footsteps. By comparing Burd with Katz, Levine traces the evolution of musical and comedic signifiers of Jewishness, and in particular, the changing role of Yiddish. Together, these presentations provide a well-rounded inquiry into the role of Yiddish musical comedy in the formation of American Jewishness, and shed new light on the contribution of Mickey Katz to this tradition.

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