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The impact of the immigrants

7 August 2004

12:00 AM

7 August 2004

12:00 AM

From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture Paul Buhle

Verso, pp.304, 16

In New York in 1920 the writer Hattie Mayer, under her pen name Anzia Yezierska, published her first collection of short stories, entitled Hungry Hearts. Poignant sketches of Jewish family life among the tenements and sweatshops of the Lower East Side, they gain additional impact from the reader’s continuing awareness that English is not the author’s first language. She grew up in a shtetl in the Pale of Settlement speaking Yiddish and Polish, and made the transatlantic voyage with her parents in the wake of Tsar Nicholas’s pogroms. Given such experience, the final story, ‘How I Found America’, seems, for all its sentimentality, the most moving. Yezierska’s fictional avatar, ‘pressing on through the barriers of materialism’, realises that taking possession of her new world is actually less important than the process of looking for it. ‘In the quality of our search shall be the nature of the America we create.’

Few would deny that modern America, as exported through film, television, theatre, pop music or cartoons, has been significantly a Jewish construct. Holly- wood, the Broadway musical and a whole range of television genres from police or hospital drama series to the more articulate and sophisticated corners of the comedy market are each of them inconceivable as an exclusively Gentile preserve, along the lines of those golf clubs or campus fraternities where the members’ goyishkayt is carefully authenticated before granting admittance. Over the last 100 years Jewishness, however interpreted in its various contexts, has been instrumental in shaping American cultural identity.


For the first major wave of Jewish migrants during the 1900s the Lower East Side was a good deal more grim, from certain aspects, than the villages they had left behind in Europe. Paul Buhle makes the worthwhile point that these people were not, as is sometimes assumed, a downtown peasantry doing their folksy Fiddler on the Roof bit against a backdrop of fire-escapes, streetcars and police whistles. Much of the community was drawn from among skilled artisans, literate, politicised heirs to a memorable culture of the word, but one which looked beyond the synagogue and Talmudic exegesis to secular forms like satire, journalism and the robust tradition of Yiddish theatre. Yiddish itself, once despised as a mongrel dialect or ‘woman’s tongue’ but recently transformed into a potent literary medium by writers such as Sholem Aleichem and Mendele Mokhor-Sforim, could spread its wings once transplanted to Brooklyn or the Bronx.

For the writer, the actor or the entrepreneur it was the shortest of steps from so volatile a world to the empowerments offered by cinema, the newest territory awaiting stake-out by aspirant Ameri- cans. Buhle is at pains nevertheless to dispel ideas of Hollywood as a sort of Jewish peaceable kingdom, in which a Goldwyn or a Selznick benignly indulged the whims and crotchets of wonderboy screenwriters and megalomaniac directors while hum- ouring the prejudices of their still predominantly Wasp audience. He highlights instead the essentially paradoxical nature of the relationship between Tinseltown and the Jews. While Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis could all be successfully repackaged for Gentile consumers, the celluloid Jew in plain sight achieved few more original incarnations than Groucho Marks, Judy Holliday as the smart financial cookie of The Solid Gold Cadillac or Danny Kaye’s wisecracking Jacopovsky in Me and the Colonel.

As the individuals they were, rather than as the Frankensteinian artefacts Holly- wood sought to make them, Jews fared better in the burgeoning world of cartoons and comic strips. Incongruous as it might appear, there is more than a hint of rabbinic didacticism underlying the moral imperatives of Batman, Superman and Spiderman, let alone the subliminal efforts on the part of MAD magazine to educate Middle America while mocking its most solemn rites and mantras. On television, however, upfront Jewishness has retained a Cheshire Cat ambiguity. The Dick Van Dyke Show featured barmitzvah lessons, but how Jewish exactly was Hawkeye in M*A*S*H? While her ethnicity sparks neat one-liners off Debra Messing in Will & Grace, Jerry Seinfeld scores through the same element being tacitly understood rather than openly acknowledged.

Rewarding as its perceptions and associative trails are, From the Lower East Side to Hollywood never quite sorts out what sort of a book it aspires to be. Is this an overview of modern American popular culture’s Jewish heritage per se, in which case why is so little note taken of its archetypal manifestation, the Broadway musical? A whole chapter might have been dedicated to the irony central to the fashioning of West Side Story, a goyishe tragedy created (save for a nod in the direction of Shakespeare) exclusively by Jews. Why only a stray paragraph or two on the subject of Woody Allen, surely a major player in the field? Or is Buhle’s theme more specifically that of the changing relationship between Jews in the USA and their various self-projections and imaginings? The story, in essence that of how Jews made contemporary America, needs a broader, more exuberant presentation, but this selection of specialised and politically aligned glimpses will do to be going on with.


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