Albums of a people

Trail of vinyl, October 2010

By Ron Kaplan, New Jersey Jewish News

Roger Bennett

At 40, Roger Bennett seems a bit young to be living in the past. But with three books in the bank, he’s making nostalgia a cottage industry.

In Bar Mitzvah Disco, written with Jules Shell and Nick Kroll (Crown, 2005), he provides a collective “family album” — mostly from the 1970s and ’80s — of that rite of passage. In Camp Camp (Crown, 2008), he was at it again, with a similar style on another aspect of Jewish youth.

But his latest — And You Shall Know Us By the Trail of Our Vinyl: The Jewish Past as Told by the Records We have Loved and Lost, written with Josh Kun — is his most ambitious and sentimental project yet.

Mixing photos of LPs (kids, ask your parents) classic and kitschy, Bennett captures four generations of Jewish culture through the artwork of recorded sound.

Bennett will share stories and samples from his LP collection on Nov. 4 as part of the DJCC’s Cultural Arts & Book Festival.

“It’s not nostalgia,” Bennett insisted. “It’s a lost world and a way of telling American-Jewish history. It’s about music but it’s not about music at all.”

When Bennett was a child growing up in Liverpool, he inherited his mother’s record player and record collection. There was the normal stuff — The Mamas and the Papas, The Beatles — but there were two albums that were stunning to him: Connie Francis Sings Jewish Favorites, the best-selling Jewish album of all time, and the Irving Fields Trio’s Bagels and Bongos, part of the Jewish-Latin craze of the 1960s.

Years later, Bennett and Kun decided to “save the last vinyl that no one really cared about anymore and piece it together for the book. It’s rather intoxicating once you get started,” he said.

For eight years, the writers visited thrift stores and trolled eBay to find these treasures.

They photographed the album covers and posted the results at, a site dedicated, according to its mission statement, to prompting “a new conversation about the present by listening anew to the past.”

Soon visitors to the website started sending in their own records. Bennett and Kun also host a companion blog — — where they discuss their latest finds.

Vinyl explores several genres of “Jewish” music, beginning with a collection of cantorial albums and ending with the Jewish folk explosion of the ’60s and ’70s. Other categories include the African-American affinity for the Jewish sound, Shabbat and holiday services, comedy and spoken word albums, party music, and music from and about Israel. Each chapter is prefaced with an essay on What it sounds like by contributors such as A.J. Jacobs, Norman Lear, and Shalom Auslander.

“Much of the book is about crossing musical boundaries,” Bennett said. “Jews playing Latin music, Latins playing Jewish music.”

The prerequisite for consideration was that the record had to be 331/3 RPM and produced in the United States or Israel — “items that would have been in an everyday Jewish home,” Bennett said. “It was a totem of identity. It’s not like people would come home from work, pour themselves a Scotch, and listen to one of the Holocaust memorial albums, but it was an important reflection of identity that they would have them in their home.”

In fact, albums dealing with the Holocaust didn’t appear until the 1960s because it took a long time for America to come to terms with it publicly, he said. Once they did, they began to fuse the Shoah with the Soviet Jewry movement.

Their target audience includes “anyone who has good taste,” Bennett said. “Obviously, it’s for the people who once loved the music — our grandparents who will enjoy seeing it again — but it’s also for people in their 20s and 30s. This is a lost history which is reviving. What the child rejects, the grandchild reclaims.”

Bennett said he was looking forward to hearing from the younger demographic. “That’s our goal: Jews who would never have really thought about any of these issues. Bar Mitzvah Disco and Camp Camp look at who we are and how we got to be this way; Vinyl looks at the dynamic of several generations.”

Roger Bennett presents And You Shall Know Us By The Trail Of Our Vinyl with DJ Ruckus Roboticus (aka Dan Haug) Thursday, Nov. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Boonshoft CJCE, 525 Versailles Dr., Centerville. Admission is $5 in advance, $8 at the door. Call 853-0372 or go to

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