Matthew Baigell has been blogging for us all week about his newest book, The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877 – 1935, as part of our Visiting Scribes series. His final post compares The Implacable Urge with his previous book, Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880 – 1940, in a discussion on how one can overcome Jewish stereotypes not only through the written word, but also by analyzing Jewish images from the past.
My last two books, Social Concern and Left Politics in Jewish American Art, 1880 – 1940 (2015) and The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877 – 1935, just published (both by Syracuse University Press) include cartoon images of Jews during the same period. But the similarity stops right there. Social Concern is about left wing Jewish artists who were often tagged as trouble-makers, socialists, and communists. My idea was to show that the artists were Jews first. Most were born in eastern Europe and lived on the Lower East Side in New York. They absorbed through their Jewish heritage the desire to help other people. Left wing politics gave them a secular way to do so. For them, socialism was a secular form of Judaism. The book presents them in a favorable light. The cartoons were taken from Yiddish and English-language Jewish magazines.
For The Implacable Urge, I looked at cartoons in the mainstream press. These were uniformly anti-Semitic and presented Jews stereotypically as big nosed, fat slobs wanting to game the system, cheat people, and steal whenever possible. Two totally different interpretations of the same people. Social Concern was reassuring. Jews gave to charity, a people concerned with healthy working and living conditions. The Implacable Urge made me aware, as Saul Bellow said in his novel, Ravelstein, “As a Jew you are also an American, but you are also not.”
You see the “not” part in the mainstream magazines and you become aware that you are identified as a Jew regardless of how you conduct yourself on a daily basis — whether you pay your taxes on time, serve in the military, vote in every election. Ivanka, for example, is always the Jewish daughter and her husband is the Jewish son-in-law. They are not fully American, perhaps not even hyphenated Americans, but Jews who are also Americans.
I married into a family of Holocaust survivors. So I know stories. Most of us, I am sure, can tell stories but nothing like those I have heard, stories of dangerous and scary situations. Nevertheless many of us have experienced situations in which we were reminded that we were Jewish, or an incident that might include the words, “You Jews,” as if each of us represented and stood for the entire community rather than being considered as an individual. One way to deal with those moments is to make certain that you are known as a Jew, a ploy adopted by several comedians (and others) as a way to diffuse potentially hostile remarks. I once knew a lady from India who taught for forty years in a university in Texas and still wore a sari each day so that she would not be confused with anybody else of her skin color. Today, of course, being Indian, she might be victimized for not being a white American. Another way is to confront the person or issue directly, but that could be dangerous.
My way, since I am in my eighties, is not to look for trouble. Many people know Jews primarily through Jewish jokes or what they hear or read, rather than from direct experiences with Jews. They think in stereotypes. What I do is to write about achievements of Jewish artists and the ways Jews are depicted in art works in order to counter such political, social, and cultural stereotypes. Granted, the art world is quite small, but I have been told several times by people that they might have been influenced by inflammatory cartoons without realizing it, and that they had no idea that left wing Jews were so concerned with social issues rather than just being political lefties.
Here is an observation that will indicate how far reaching and destructive stereotypical thinking can be. (It is not related to the discussion above, but I hope its point is understood.) All of us have heard jokes about Jewish mothers and mothers-in-law. In the past, these tended to be about women of the immigrant generations, but we are still close enough to those times so that the jokes still have resonance today. I think each joke describes a tragedy. Each is a tragedy because it obscures the important family and financial roles assumed by Jewish mothers in the small towns and cities of eastern Europe. After immigration, many suffered from dislocation from friends, from family members, and from their spoken languages as well as from the desires of their children to Americanize themselves and thus ignore family traditions. In such situations, mothers would of course cling to their children. What else did they have? They had lost their place in their society, their familiar surroundings that were left behind as well as their way of life and in exchange they were confronted with the strangeness of their new country. And then we make fun of them in jokes. That is what happens with stereotypical thinking and that is what, in my own sphere, I try to counter by writing about Jewish artists and about Jews as the subjects of artists. If you want to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, then a picture should be a positive one.
Matthew Baigell is professor emeritus in the department of art history at Rutgers University. He is the author, editor, and coeditor of over twenty books on American and Jewish American art. His most recent book is The Implacable Urge to Defame: Cartoon Jews in the American Press, 1877 – 1935.