Ency­clo­pe­dia of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Pop­u­lar Culture

Jack Fis­chel, ed. with Susan M. Ortmann
  • Review
By – August 24, 2011

The Jew­ish con­tri­bu­tion to Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture is so vast and var­i­ous that any ref­er­ence guide to this sub­ject faces a daunt­ing task. How can a sin­gle vol­ume do jus­tice to the rich pan­theon of actors, writ­ers, films, com­posers, and enter­tain­ers who helped shape what is, per­haps, the most endur­ing con­tri­bu­tion by Jews to mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can cul­ture? To its cred­it, Green­wood Press’ Ency­clo­pe­dia of Jew­ish Amer­i­can Pop­u­lar Cul­ture rec­og­nizes the lim­its of its ambi­tious enter­prise. It doesn’t aim for com­pre­hen­sive­ness; rather, it seeks to offer a user-friend­ly A‑Z work” of entries (both brief and of essay length) that, tak­en togeth­er, join in a cel­e­bra­tion of the con­tri­bu­tion of Amer­i­can Jews to the over­all cul­ture.” Despite some sur­pris­ing omis­sions, Greenwood’s Ency­clo­pe­dia suc­ceeds in offer­ing both stu­dents and schol­ars a reli­able and infor­ma­tive ref­er­ence guide to its vast sub­ject. 

As a stu­dent of Jew­ish Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture, I was most impressed by those entries that are mod­els of dis­til­la­tion and author­i­ta­tive­ness. Jon Strat­ton on the Jew­ish Brill Build­ing,” the famous Broad­way land­mark where pop music com­posers in their youth — like Car­ole King (né Klein), Neal Seda­ka, and numer­ous oth­ers — worked, is superb, as is the entry on Jew­ish com­e­dy by Mark Shech­n­er. Some entries on major pop fig­ures are, per­haps, too thin, giv­en the stature of the star (e.g. Mil­ton Berle); oth­er short­er entries (e.g. Theodore Bikel) are filled with inter­est­ing fac­toids. Some entries are more or less check­lists of fig­ures (fash­ion design­ers); oth­ers pro­vide nec­es­sary his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive. 

What remains curi­ous about the Ency­clo­pe­dia are its omis­sions and under­ly­ing prin­ci­ples for inclu­sion. In a vol­ume devot­ed to pop­u­lar cul­ture, why is the high­brow lit­er­ary crit­ic Lionel Trilling includ­ed? Or Albert Ein­stein? Where is San­dra Bern­hard (who con­tin­ues in the line of salty immi­grant enter­tain­ers like Sophie Tuck­er) or Joel Grey? And why isn’t the film Dirty Danc­ing” men­tioned in the entry on the Catskills? But it’s nice to have entries on the long-for­got­ten Ritz Broth­ers and Shari Lewis, and to read the essay by Zal­man Alpert on Can­tor Josef (“Yos­se­le”) Rosen­blatt (Al Jolson’s alter ego in The Jazz Singer”), which fol­lows the entry on the Broad­way impre­sario Bil­ly Rose and pre­cedes the entry on the box­er Bar­ney Ross. From such won­der­ful jux­ta­po­si­tions, which fill this impres­sive ref­er­ence book, an atten­tive read­er can appre­ci­ate the myr­i­ad fig­ures and zones of pop­u­lar cul­ture shaped by Jew­ish Amer­i­cans over the past one hun­dred years.


By Rab­bi Jack Paskoff

What would Amer­i­can pop cul­ture be with­out Mil­ton Berle, Jack Ben­ny, Steven Spiel­berg, Woody Allen, and Jer­ry Sein­feld, to name just a few top Jew­ish enter­tain­ers that span the time frame of Amer­i­can Jew­ish Pop­u­lar Cul­ture, edit­ed by Jack Fis­chel with Susan W. Ort­man. Inher­it­ed Euro­pean roots joined the beat­ing wings of free­dom and democ­ra­cy in Amer­i­ca, result­ing in films, pop music, rock n roll, and the­atre out of all pro­por­tion to the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion in the U.S.

Jack Paskoff: To have embarked on a book like this, you had to have a work­ing def­i­n­i­tion of what Amer­i­can Jew­ish pop cul­ture is. Can you tell us the assump­tions you worked with to nar­row down the scope of your work?
Jack Fis­chel:
The assump­tion made in prepar­ing the book was that the con­tri­bu­tion Jews made to Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture was a mix between those whose Jew­ish­ness” was inci­den­tal to their work (Jack Black, Car­ole King, any num­ber of Rock per­form­ers), and those whose Jew­ish roots were at the heart of their con­tri­bu­tions (Leon Uris, Her­man Wouk, Chaim Potok, many oth­ers). More sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the def­i­n­i­tion of who was a Jew was elas­tic — that is, Halacha alone was not the cri­te­ria. Paul New­man, for exam­ple, was includ­ed although not brought up as a Jew (father was, moth­er not), but at the end, he iden­ti­fied as a Jew. Amer­i­can Jew­ish pop­u­lar cul­ture, there­fore, is the con­tri­bu­tion of Jews to the over­all Amer­i­can cul­ture based on the cul­tur­al bag­gage they inher­it­ed from their fore­fa­thers, as well as the free­dom that only a sec­u­lar demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­ety can pro­vide. Some, like Irv­ing Berlin, the com­pos­er of White Christ­mas,” and East­er Parade,” con­scious­ly inter­pret­ed Chris­t­ian hol­i­days, such as Christ­mas and East­er, as Amer­i­can sec­u­lar hol­i­days and jus­ti­fied a Christ­mas tree in his home because it was as Amer­i­can as apple pie. 

JP: It seems clear, espe­cial­ly in the world of enter­tain­ment, that Jews had a big impact on Amer­i­can pop cul­ture in gen­er­al. Can you com­ment on how this has man­i­fest­ed itself? 
JF: You can­not imag­ine Amer­i­can pop­u­lar cul­ture with­out fac­tor­ing in the con­tri­bu­tion of Jews to film, pop­u­lar music, rock n’ roll, the­atre, and so on. It has man­i­fest­ed itself in the form of pop cul­ture per­son­al­i­ties who hap­pen to be Jew­ish, who entered an enter­tain­ment indus­try that did not dis­crim­i­nate against them because of their reli­gion. Because of the the oppor­tu­ni­ty that mass enter­tain­ment pro­vid­ed them, Jews became influ­en­tial as per­form­ers, pro­duc­ers, entre­pre­neurs, com­posers, and just about every aspect of pop­u­lar cul­ture. 

JP: While it was not nec­es­sar­i­ly the focus of your work, let’s ask the oppo­site ques­tion too. What has been the influ­ence of Amer­i­can life on Jew­ish cul­ture? 
JF: No doubt that the decline of anti-Semi­tism in Amer­i­ca fol­low­ing World War II, the exac­er­bat­ed sec­u­lar­iza­tion of Amer­i­can life, the decline of reli­gious obser­vance among many Jews, and the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the assim­i­la­tion process, have all con­tributed to the erad­i­ca­tion of the bound­aries that have sep­a­rat­ed Jews from the rest of Amer­i­can soci­ety. Hol­ly­wood, for exam­ple, where Jews played a major role his­tor­i­cal­ly, pro­mot­ed assim­i­la­tion and did lit­tle to por­tray the cel­e­bra­tion of Jew­ish cul­ture or val­ues. Indeed, they even demand­ed that actors Amer­i­can­ize their Jew­ish names (this was also true of oth­er actors with eth­nic-sound­ing names). The result has been the emer­gence of many Jews in pop­u­lar cul­ture with lit­tle iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with their roots, but inte­grat­ed into the main­stream of Amer­i­can cul­tur­al life. 

JP: While there have been many Jews involved in Amer­i­can pop cul­ture, many of the depic­tions of Jews in movie and TV works done by Jews have been less than favor­able. Why do you think this is the case? 
JF: The image of the Jew in pop­u­lar cul­ture has changed in recent years. Pri­or to the Holo­caust, the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Jews in film, for exam­ple, was based on most­ly neg­a­tive stereo­types (also the case with African-Amer­i­cans, the inscrutable Asians,” Ital­ian gang­sters). This has changed. Per­haps the book and lat­er film Exo­dus” con­tributed to the image of the Jew, which was more asso­ci­at­ed with a Sam­my Glick than with Israel and Paul New­man. Hav­ing said this, why is it a sur­prise that Jews would ridicule their own? All eth­nic groups sat­i­rize their own peo­ple. 

JP: As you did your research, what dis­cov­er­ies did you make that most sur­prised you? 
JF: The most sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery was the indis­pens­able role played by Jew­ish per­form­ers, song­writ­ers, and pro­duc­ers in the emer­gence of rap, rock n’ roll , rhythm and blues, and most pop­u­lar music forms. No Jews, no Hound Dog”, no Jews, no rock n’ roll, and so on.

Rab­bi Jack Paskoff was ordained as a rab­bi at the New York cam­pus of the Hebrew Union Col­lege-Jew­ish Ins­tu­itute of Reli­gion in 1988. He has served as the Rab­bi of Con­gre­ga­tion Shaarai Shomay­im in Lan­cast­er, Penn­syl­va­nia since 1993.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

Discussion Questions