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 lives in Amherst, MA.