In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Pop­u­lar Culture

  • Review
By – March 26, 2012

It is a com­mon­place to assume that the chil­dren of immi­grants do their utmost to throw off the for­eign iden­ti­ty of their par­ents and ful­ly assim­i­late into Amer­i­can cul­ture. This is thought to be espe­cial­ly so when this sec­ond gen­er­a­tion aspires to a show busi­ness career, where to attain pop­u­lar­i­ty would neces­si­tate being any­thing but eth­nic. Ted Mer­win, in explor­ing the suc­cess of New York Jew­ish enter­tain­ers in the 1920’s, con­vinc­ing­ly refutes this perception. 

He begins by demon­strat­ing that the vaude­ville com­e­dy at the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry thrived on ridi­cul­ing immi­grant groups, while estab­lish­ing eth­nic char­ac­ters as a sta­ple of enter­tain­ment. But, when these stereo­types had had their day, a new type of eth­nic com­e­dy came into being — one in which Jew­ish enter­tain­ers pros­pered: notably Fan­ny Brice, Eddie Can­tor, Georgie Jes­sel, Al Jol­son, and Sophie Tucker. 

While these per­form­ers did their share of gen­er­al Amer­i­can enter­tain­ment and were ambiva­lent about their eth­nic iden­ti­ty, a con­sid­er­able and well received extent of their mate­r­i­al was decid­ed­ly Jew­ish: Fan­ny Brice became famous with her Yid­dish accent­ed songs (although she couldn’t speak Yid­dish!) — for exam­ple, Sec­ond Hand Rose,” which is essen­tial­ly a song about the sec­ond gen­er­a­tion Jew­ish expe­ri­ence; Eddie Can­tor thrived with his Jew­ish gar­ment indus­try skit, A Belt in the Back;” Georgie Jessel’s sig­na­ture act was his tele­phone con­ver­sa­tion with his clas­si­cal­ly Jew­ish moth­er; Al Jol­son starred in the first talkie” film, The Jazz Singer,” derived from his back­ground as the son of a can­tor; and Sophie Tucker’s most pop­u­lar song was My Yid­dishe Mama.” 

Mer­win fur­ther pur­sues his the­sis with an exam­i­na­tion of Jew­ish themed com­ic strips — such as Har­ry Hershfield’s Abie the Agent;” stage plays, such as Abie’s Irish Rose” — one of the longest run­ning shows on Broad­way; and pop­u­lar films, such as Humoresque,” His Peo­ple,” and The Kibbitzer.” 

While clear­ly yearn­ing to be more than sec­ond hand” cit­i­zens and whol­ly accept­ed as first hand” Amer­i­cans, these Jew­ish enter­tain­ers — Mer­win thor­ough­ly illus­trates— nev­er for­got, indeed cel­e­brat­ed, their eth­nic ori­gins; and, in doing so, not only affirmed their own unique image,” but also did their part in shap­ing that of their nation.

Nor­man J. Fed­der, Ph.D., is dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of the­atre at Kansas State Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly on the fac­ul­ty of the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Arts Pro­gram at Nova South­east­ern University.

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