Like its flamboyant cousin Gaydar, Jewdar can be applied to pop music as well as to people. Distinguishing a Jewish musician goes beyond searching for a prominent schnozz or knotty surname. Jews who rock tend to do so with rigorous lyricism, a political underpinning and a degree of irony. People are often taken aback to learn that, say, fire-breathing Gene Simmons was once Israeli immigrant Chaim Klein Witz. But the ascendancy of Simmons 'people in rock & roll is very much in accordance with both traditions. The reinvention of self and dueling identities — themes of assimilation that in an earlier era spurred Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to concoct Superman — flourish in the pop medium. Thus Robert Zimmerman, pint-sized son of an appliance store owner, becomes the mysterious itinerate Bob Dylan; pasty-skinned dweeb Jeffrey Hyman transforms into romantic burnout Joey Ramone; a trio of privileged New Yorkers crown themselves street-corner wise-asses the Beastie Boys.
Jewish-American songwriters were such a force in the pre-rock era that by the time Elvis came along, it was natural that he would sing the work of Leiber and Stoller. If at first Jews flooded pop's backrooms, the rise of Dylan brought a lyrical bent to the music that was well-suited to the wordy culture. Kiss notwithstanding, Jews 'most lasting contribution to rock music has come through words, whether minimal and hip (Lou Reed), satirical (Randy Newman) or melodramatic (Leonard Cohen). And in a burst of ingenuity that must have made Saul Bellow himself envious, it was Jews who coined the phrase "Do wah diddy diddy dum diddy do."