Klezmer Amer­i­ca: Jew­ish­ness, Eth­nic­i­ty, Modernity

Jonathan Freed­man
  • Review
By – January 27, 2012

Jew­ish iden­ti­ty, the top­ic of Jonathan Freedman’s book, is the great theme of Amer­i­can Jew­ish stud­ies, just as anti-Semi­tism is the great theme of Euro­pean Jew­ish stud­ies. Freed­man, a pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan, ranges far and wide in dis­cussing the role of Jew­ish­ness in recent cul­ture, touch­ing on, among oth­er things, such writ­ers as Tony Kush­n­er (Angels in Amer­i­ca), Philip Roth (The Human Stain), and Arthur Miller (Death of a Sales­man), gay and rad­i­cal klezmer groups such as Masa­da and Klez­mat­ics, the great clar­inetist Artie Shaw (Abra­ham Arthur Arshawsky), and Jerome Rob­bins and Leonard Bernstein’s 1974 bal­let, Dyb­buk. Freed­man also ana­lyzes how Jew­ish­ness has shaped the rela­tion­ship between Jew­ish writ­ers and musi­cians and their black, Chi­cano, and Asian-Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts, as well as the promi­nence of anti-Semi­tism in the Left Behind series of books by Chris­t­ian Right advo­cates Tim­o­thy LaHaye and Jer­ry Jenkins. 

Klezmer Amer­i­ca is part of the wave of cul­tur­al stud­ies” now so promi­nent in acad­e­mia. This is reflect­ed in its con­cern with issues of gen­der, par­tic­u­lar­ly homo­sex­u­al­i­ty, its sym­pa­thy for rad­i­cal pol­i­tics, its often rar­efied and dense aca­d­e­m­ic prose, and its weak his­tor­i­cal super­struc­ture. Klezmer Amer­i­ca is a valu­able book but only for read­ers patient enough to make the effort. 

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions