Scrounging through flea markets, rummage sales and shipments from generous grandparents, Josh Kun and Roger Bennett are on a mission to save one of America’s disappearing treasures: mid-century Jewish record album covers. Operating under the collective pseudonym “Hippocampus,” Kun and Bennett are seeking to preserve for posterity such rare and valuable specimens as “Mambo Moish” by the Barton Brothers, “Corned Beef Confucius” by Max Asnas and Sol Zim’s “Joy of the Passover Seder.”
The hippocampus is the brain’s memory center, and for Kun and Bennett — “Hippo” and “Campus,” respectively — the album covers serve as a piecemeal account of postwar Jewish identity and American culture. They capture both the grand sweep of history and forgotten side plots, along with a few tidbits of the bizarre and the kitschy. The albums illustrate the aftermath of the Holocaust (the documentary album “Never Again”), the centrality of the new State of Israel, the fading of Yiddish. They include Jewish Latin, Jewish ’60s suit-and-spectacle folk, Jewish country (Harold Stern’s “Manischewitz Presents the Jewish Cowboy”) and unclassifiable (“It’s Tough To Be Gifted, Jewish & Black” by Howard Thomashefsky).
For Kun, an assistant professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, and a freelance arts journalist, the albums offer “a new way of telling stories that have been untold,” he said in an interview with the Forward. These stories include Jewish musicians playing and popularizing Latin music, black bluesmen playing Jewish melodies, Jews playing blues and Jewish artists illustrating iconic non-Jewish albums.
Bennett, a senior vice president of The Charles and Andrea Bronfman Philanthropies, assures anyone with albums to spare that Hippocampus can provide his or her records with “a home that cares for them.”
“I make it sound like we’re dog rescuers,” Bennett joked.
Kitschy pleasures aside, he and Kun are intent on rescuing these albums because they offer a way to confront deeper questions about Jewish identity: Who am I? What am I inheriting? And what am I going to do about it? Bennett said it is no accident that the albums they are resurrecting are the albums originally bought by their grandparents’ generation. He cited an old chestnut, “What the child rejects, the grandchild reclaims.”
This reclamation process has offered a valuable side benefit: the opportunity to hang out with senior citizens.
“Both of us have very few friends under the age of 87,” Bennett said.
The two have found that they have kindred spirits in the over-80 set. “We feel we have more in common with them politically than with our own parents,” said Kun. “We’re more comfortable with talking about our Jewishness.”
Though the two men grew up with radically different backgrounds — Kun, an American, grew up listening to the Barry Gibb and Barbra Streisand album “Guilty,” while Bennett, a Liverpudlian, was raised on “Topol: Israeli Fight Songs” — for both, music was essential to their Jewishness.
“Records were a way to work this out in private,” Kun said. “It was not my parents’ version, not my grandparents’ version, not my rabbi’s version; this is me.”
They are co-founders of Reboot Stereophonic, a nonprofit record label dedicated to re-releasing lost recordings by Jewish artists. So far, the label has released “Bagels and Bongos” by Irving Fields and “God Is a Moog,” a series of devotional songs by electronica pioneer Gershon Kingsley. Kun recently published “Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America (American Crossroads)” (University of California Press, 2005), while Bennett co-wrote and edited the volume “Bar Mitzvah Disco: The Music May Have Stopped, but the Party’s Never Over” (Crown, 2005), a book of photographs and essays celebrating bar and bat mitzvahs of the 1970s and ’80s.
The Hippocampus project has a special urgency for both Kun and Bennett, because they are aware that the albums are disappearing, piece by piece, as their owners die or clean house. Kun and Bennett are compiling a Web site, www.hippocampusmusic.com, with the fruits of their research. They hope to stage a physical exhibition of the album covers, and they would like the albums to serve as the subject of a book of essays. “History is constructed — it’s made out of parts,” Kun said. “What if we use some other tools? What new stories will be told?”
However, they must move fast, lest these stories disappear entirely.
“We’re aware that the clock is ticking,” Bennett said. “These albums are not always going to be in the attic.”
Anthony Weiss lives and writes in New York City.