There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the Amer­i­can Dream

Ben Sidran
  • Review
By – September 28, 2012

Many books about Amer­i­can Jews and pop cul­ture focus on quan­ti­ty (wow, look at all the Jews in the music indus­try!) as they gawk at famous peo­ple. Ben Sidran, an accom­plished musi­cian and pro­duc­er, has some­thing very dif­fer­ent in mind here. His well-researched his­to­ry wants to get past that type of shal­low­ness and under­stand why Jews have had such a con­sid­er­able impact on all aspects of Amer­i­can music for decades. In dis­cussing nota­bles from Irv­ing Berlin to Bob Dylan to Matisyahu, he’s not con­tent to be a mere chron­i­cler; Sidran wants to under­stand what aspects of Judaism have dri­ven so many Jews to excel in the field of music. This is not an easy task, giv­en that many piv­otal fig­ures have been dis­mis­sive of Judaism (the author him­self is a skep­tic). Still, Sidran finds his way, delv­ing into how the reli­gious tra­di­tions and the oth­er­ness” of Amer­i­can Jews have inspired Jews both to cre­ate and to work with oth­er out­siders, par­tic­u­lar­ly African-Amer­i­cans. He also finds Jew­ish aspects to the lives of some non-Jew­ish greats, includ­ing Louis Arm­strong and Woody Guthrie; assess­es how the music busi­ness has meta­mor­phosed; and explores at length what it means to be authen­tic.”

His work has its lim­its. He most­ly miss­es out on punk (even jump­ing The Ramones ahead by sev­er­al years) and by the time he gets to hip-hop, Sidran sounds grumpy. There are some fas­ci­nat­ing fig­ures (Phil Ochs, Joey Ramone, Richard Hell, the band Yo La Ten­go) who would have seem­ing­ly fit right into his nar­ra­tive, but he either men­tions them briefly or not at all. And I would have liked to see what he could have done with the Jew­ish ele­ments of the most spir­i­tu­al­ly charged rock band of today, Bruce Springsteen’s. (Spring­steen is not Jew­ish but some of his inner cir­cle is.) Nev­er­the­less, this is a work dense with fas­ci­nat­ing infor­ma­tion and chock full of com­pelling ideas and con­nec­tions. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, end notes, index.

David Cohen is a senior edi­tor at Politi­co. He has been in the jour­nal­ism busi­ness since 1985 and wrote the book Rugged and Endur­ing: The Eagles, The Browns and 5 Years of Foot­ball. He resides in Rockville, MD.; his wife, Deb­o­rah Bod­in Cohen, writes Jew­ish children’s books.

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