A little song, a little dance, a little shpritz down your pants
In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture
Sidebar Article: Evoking a lost world
Jimmy Durante, a hearty and heartily funny staple of stage, screen, and television, loved to sing an old vaudeville ditty that asked the following question: Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, and still have the feeling that you wanted to stay? Nobody thought of Durante as a high-brow thinker but his teasing question is at the heart of Ted Merwins study of the generation of Russian-Jewish immigrants who came of age in the 1920s and whose contributions to American culture changed the ugly stereotypes that had long attached themselves to the world of their fathers.
In Their Own Image began its life as a scholarly dissertation, and while Merwin is generally a clear writer, there are moments when shaking off graduate school shackles would have made this a more engaging book and might have avoided such pronouncements: I am primarily interested in how Jews influenced their cultural representations and mobilized their newfound cultural capital to accelerate their integration into American life. Nor do the problems of dissertationese stop at the end of Merwins ongeblosen introduction; he finds it difficult (impossible?) to unpack an idea of his own until he has paid dutiful attention to every scholar who has come before.
Thats the bad news about this book. However, the good news and I think it very good indeed is that Merwin knows his onions, particularly where the history of the Jewish-American theater is concerned. For example, he makes it clear, as few studies do, just how rough-and-tumble the American vaudeville stage could be at the turn of the last century. Stage Irishmen, Jews, and blacks were the butts of dialect humor that strove to make a single point: Become American as quickly as possible, something easier said than done when it came to blacks who saw their faces mirrored in the blacked-up visages of such Jews as Al Jolson and, in her early days, the coon singer Sophie Tucker. It is not enough to blame the now painfully obvious racism on the tradition of minstrel shows and jumpin Jim Crow, nor is it enough to point out that Jews may have been forced to do whatever they could to make their way into mainstream entertainment. Jolson, for example, was never entirely comfortable under the black face and the Mammy songs that were his trademark. But what could a performer do other than perform?
The same thing might be said of Bert Wheeler, the great black vaudevillian, who also had to cork up if he wanted to work.
Because Merwins exhaustive research allows him to put such cultural landmarks as Abies Irish Rose, The Jazz Singer, and My Yiddishe Mama into a wider social context, In Their Own Image makes good on its promises to show how the second generation moved toward acculturation at the same time that its members looked back fondly at their ethnic roots. Moreover, the hard information Merwin provides about the wars that once raged in the Jewish press (Could a Jewish actor play a gentile role? Could a gentile actor play a Jewish part?) seems rather silly in an age when Rosie ODonnell plays Golde opposite Alfred Molinas Tevye in a revival of Fiddler and nobody so much as blinks an eye.
With the exception of Jackie Mason, Jewish dialect, humorous or otherwise, largely disappeared with the demise of the vaudeville stage and, so far as Mason is concerned, my hunch is that he has become his shtick-y persona, on stage and off. For some Jewish Americans he is an embarrassment (Too Jewish, Mason quips about people who laugh at his jokes but then conclude that something is wrong with his show); for others, Mason is akin to the Jewish uncle you never had but wished you did because he would be fun to hang out with at family outings.
Why were so many kids of the second generation attracted to vaudeville and later to the legitimate stage, radio, television, and movies? Because entertainment, like the garment industry, was a new enterprise unlike, say, banking or the insurance business. One has to remember and here is where Merwins study is especially valuable how closed most of the established world was to Russian immigrant Jews and their American-born children. If WASPs ruled the roost, Jews simply didnt stand a chance. On the other hand, if you could sing a song, dance a dance, and shpritz some seltzer down somebodys pants in short, if you had moxie you could make a few pennies (and sometimes many pennies) on the vaudeville stage.
There has of late been a cluster of studies about Jews in the 1920s (Michael Alexanders Jazz Age Jews is one example), and not surprisingly, what they tend to dwell on is the complicated relationship between Jews and blacks or the ways in which what once seemed to be parochial themes (e.g., the Yiddishe mama) resonated with a wider America. The legendary Hollywood moguls, crusty immigrant Jews who would not have survived had they been transplanted to a small Nebraska town, knew what would, and would not, sell tickets to movie theaters in the heartland. They had absorbed America into their very bones even if they never quite lost their affection for a good Yiddish joke.
Ted Merwins book ends by asking a number of intriguing questions (e.g., How has ethnic identification been commodified? How do we buy and sell our ethnic identities?) after paying his dues to those on his graduate committee. He is now hard at work on a book about New York City delicatessens (Ive applied to be his research assistant), but I hope he will someday find time to answer the queries he outlines in the final pages of In Their Own Image.
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