Jew­hoo­ing the Six­ties: Amer­i­can Celebri­ty and Jew­ish Identity

  • Review
By – June 5, 2013

This com­plex and com­pelling book argues that the 1960s saw a quan­tum leap in the sta­tus of Jews in Amer­i­can life, medi­at­ed in large part by the treat­ment of Jew­ish celebri­ties not sim­ply by their core­li­gion­ists but by Gen­tiles as well. As come­di­an Lenny Bruce put it, it was sud­den­ly in” to be Jewish. 

Author David Kauf­man exam­ines this phe­nom­e­non by focus­ing on four Jew­ish celebri­ties – Bruce him­self, Sandy Koufax, Bob Dylan, and Bar­bra Streisand – who had very dif­fer­ent atti­tudes toward their Jew­ish identity.

Bruce dined out on a bit­ter mix of eth­nic pride and self-loathing, accept­ing him­self not sim­ply as in” but hip,” aggres­sive­ly clear-eyed about the sig­nif­i­cance of his own Jew­ish­ness as well as the place of Jews in Amer­i­can culture. 

Koufax came into the nation­al con­scious­ness as a Jew­ish fig­ure by refus­ing to pitch on Yom Kip­pur in 1965, which hap­pened to coin­cide with the first game of that year’s World Series. But, as Kauf­man makes clear, this was far from the mil­i­tant stand some want­ed to make it out to be. Koufax nev­er worked on Jew­ish hol­i­days, more for cul­tur­al than reli­gious rea­sons (pitch­ing on the Sab­bath appar­ent­ly nev­er trou­bled him), and he spent the Yom Kip­pur in ques­tion not in shul but in his hotel room, watch­ing the game he was missing.

The noto­ri­ous­ly enig­mat­ic Dylan was equal­ly enig­mat­ic when it came to his eth­nic­i­ty. It took sev­er­al years after he burst on the scene before any­one had a clue that he was in fact Jew­ish (real name Robert Zim­mer­man), and Dylan him­self cer­tain­ly nev­er made any­thing of his Jew­ish­ness through most of his career. He is far bet­ter known for hav­ing spent sev­er­al years as a born-again Christian. 

Streisand has been a clear antithe­sis to both Bruce and Dylan, flaunt­ing her Jew­ish­ness in an unself­con­scious way that estab­lished her appear­ance and sen­si­bil­i­ty as new ideals toward which Jews and Gen­tiles alike might aspire. The ugly duck­ling became a swan not by chang­ing her­self, but by chang­ing the eyes and minds of her beholders. 

What made these dis­parate fig­ures dif­fer­ent from com­pa­ra­ble Jew­ish celebri­ties who came before them, such as the Marx Broth­ers, Hank Green­berg, Fan­ny Brice, and Al Jol­son? More to the point per­haps, what was it about the Six­ties that allowed Bruce, Koufax, Dylan, Streisand, and their con­tem­po­raries to be sig­nif­i­cant­ly more trans­for­ma­tive than their predecessors?

Kauf­man cites the expo­nen­tial growth of mass media, par­tic­u­lar­ly tele­vi­sion, which brought the Amer­i­can pub­lic into a far more inti­mate rela­tion­ship with their idols than ever before, as well as the civ­il rights move­ment, which made eth­nic iden­ti­fi­ca­tion not sim­ply accept­able but vir­tu­al­ly oblig­a­tory. While Kauf­man may over­state his the­sis at times, his study is a valu­able con­tri­bu­tion to under­stand­ing the era of the Six­ties and the devel­op­ment of eth­nic iden­ti­ty in America. 

Relat­ed Read­ing Lists:

Bill Bren­nan is an inde­pen­dent schol­ar and enter­tain­er based in Las Vegas. Bren­nan has taught lit­er­a­ture and the human­i­ties at Prince­ton and The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go. He holds degrees from Yale, Prince­ton, and Northwestern.

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