Is such-and-such a character Jewish? Identifying and debating the Jewishness of various television, movie and other media stars has long been a favorite armchair — or TV couch — pastime for American Jews. In this new and interesting study, scholar Henry Bial examines the phenomenon of Jews in entertainment from the perspective of a cultural anthropologist, tackling the question of how images of Jews on the American stage and screen have evolved over the past half-century. In lively if jargon-laden prose, Bial offers an ambitious capsule history of the Jewish presence on the American stage and screen since World War II. His goal is not only to understand how images of Jewishness shift in popular entertainment over time from Fiddler on the Roof to Friends: he also argues that these cultural “performances” send different messages to Jewish and mainstream American audiences about what it means to be Jewish. The result is a dense but entertaining book. While Bial’s own impressive array of colorful and ironic examples of American Jewish culture will absorb many different audiences, his penchant for cultural theory suggests that his true target audience is other academic readers.
James B. Loeffler is assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia. He received a BA from Harvard University and an MA and Ph.D. in Jewish history from Columbia University, where he was a Wexner Foundation Graduate Fellow. As a U.S. Fulbright Fellow, he lived and traveled in Russia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004, conducting research for his doctoral dissertation, “ ‘The Most Musical Nation’: Jews, Culture and Nationalism in the Late Russian Empire.” His publications include several academic essays, the liner notes to the Grammy-nominated album, The Zmiros Project (Traditonal Crossroads, 2002), and articles in The New Republic, The Jerusalem Report, and Nextbook. He has taught Jewish history, literature, and music in a variety of academic and communal institutions including Columbia University, Baltimore Hebrew University, the 92nd Street Y, and the Jewish Theological Seminary.