Slated to receive a stipend of $625,000 over the next five years, Josh Kun is a cultural historian who was selected as one of 23 new MacArthur Fellows announced in September. Kun is a brilliant academic, journalist and NPR broadcaster who has mounted exhibits at museums, including the Getty Foundation and the Skirball Center in Los Angeles and Long Beach’s Museum of Latin American Art. The 46-year-old scholar is based at the University of Southern California, where he teaches at the Annenberg School of Communications and serves as director of the Popular Music Project at the school’s Norman Lear Center.
Kun envisions his hometown of Los Angeles—and America as a whole—as a tapestry whose rich and varied coloristic shadings in the visual, performing and culinary arts result from the fusion of his city’s multicultural heritage. Describing his publications including the 2006 “Audiotopia,” a study of Jewish, Latino and African-American multi-cultural music and “You Shall Know Us by the Trail of Our Vinyl” (2008), exploring the iconography of the covers of over 400 Jewish music recordings, the MacArthur Foundation states that Kun, “brings to life forgotten historical narratives through finely grained analyses of material and sonic manifestations of popular culture.”
Much of this “sonic manifestation” has been realized through Kun’s efforts as one of the founders of the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation, named for the composer of “Hava Nagila” and sponsored by “Reboot,” an organization dedicated to contemporary Jewish living. With a mission dedicated to the rediscovery and reassessment of niche music including the Latin-Jewish music craze of the 1950s, unknown to generations. Restoring classic recordings including “Mazel Tov,” “Mis Amigos” on DVD, the Society also assembles and produces new DVDs, including “Black Sabbath,” a selection of Yiddish songs, prayers and chants performed by African American artists from Cab Calloway to Aretha Franklin. Another release includes music by Black composers inspired by and incorporating Jewish melodies and liturgical elements.
The Society also partners with other institutions in presenting concerts, producing documentaries, and even opening a pop-up Jewish record store in San Francisco. Visitors to the Idelsohn web page are able to read about the men and women associated with the genre’s evolution. They can also access digitized versions of songs like “It’s a Scream How Levine Does the Rhumba,” a title which certainly distills the essence of Kun’s passions, not to mention providing a little kitschy and light-hearted whimsy.
Fittingly appropriating the jargon associated with sound engineering, Kun said: “I strive to be a scholar who crossfades (to make an image or sound gradually emerge on top of another which is, conversely, fading into silence) disciplines, who slides between and creates conversations between multiple publics, who diligently works with archives in order to animate them in new ways, and who follows historical and critical clues to excavate and learn from points of intersection.”
Reinventing the cultural landscape of history through an innovative approach and thinking outside of the box is not relegated to the domain of younger scholars. Hailed as a “splendid” book “seething with ideas” by The New York Times, and ranking high on its list of recommended nonfiction is “The Face of Britain: A History of the Nation Through its Portraits.” Simon Schama, a noted English art historian, is best remembered by American audiences as the writer and narrator of the 2014 PBS documentary series “The Story of the Jews.” His new book was written as a compendium for a 2015 English television show that he hosted at the National Portrait Gallery. The book is organized thematically, focusing on paintings, sculptures, drawings, graphics and photos of men and women from all walks of life—from Queen Victoria and Sir Winston Churchill to Hogarth’s memorable panoplies of 18th century urban dandies and criminals—whose depictions became synonymous with their deeds, and determined the way they would be treated by posterity. Assessing the often primal and voyeuristic immediacy of modern portraits and self-portraits of icons like John Lennon or Lucien Freud, Schama provides an analysis of the contemporary viewer in a nutshell: “we come into the world wide-eyed, ready to stare.”
Art critic Benjamin Binstock writes that Simon Schama is today known for his books on history and culture which display his trademark “sparkling prose and… brilliant capacity to synthesize information.” Born in London to immigrant parents, Schama studied the Talmud as a teenager, and went on to receive his degrees at the University of Cambridge. His award-winning publications include “Citizens,” a history of the French Revolution, “Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel” and “Landscape and Memory.” Introducing new audiences to the visual arts and history through his radio and television broadcasts in Europe and the United States, Schama received the Commander of the British Empire (CBE) from Queen Elizabeth II in 2001.
Cheryl Kempler is an art and music specialist who works in the B'nai B'rith International Curatorial Office and writes about history and Jewish culture for B’nai B’rith Magazine. To view some of her additional content, Click Here.