Marc Tra­cy is the co-edi­tor of the new book Jew­ish Jocks: An Unortho­dox Hall of Fame. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

In Oper­a­tion Shy­lock, Philip Roth wrote a pas­sage that, had he not writ­ten it, we would have need­ed to invent:

The radio was play­ing East­er Parade’ and I thought, But this is Jew­ish genius on a par with the Ten Com­mand­ments. God gave Moses the Ten Com­mand­ments and then He gave to Irv­ing Berlin East­er Parade’ and White Christ­mas.’ The two hol­i­days that cel­e­brate the divin­i­ty of Christ — the divin­i­ty that’s the very heart of the Jew­ish rejec­tion of Chris­tian­i­ty — and what does Irv­ing Berlin bril­liant­ly do? He de-Christs them both! East­er he turns into a fash­ion show and Christ­mas into a hol­i­day about snow. 

It is old hat to point out that the sto­ry of Amer­i­ca is of the melt­ing pot, and that the ten­sion is between the assim­i­la­tors and those who cling to their old iden­ti­ties. But as Roth describes above, the Jew­ish sto­ry in Amer­i­ca has rep­re­sent­ed a dis­tinc­tive twist on that. Yes, there has been plen­ty of over­com­pen­sat­ing ges­tures toward Amer­i­can­ness, as all of those Jew­ish babies named Nor­man, Lionel, and indeed Irv­ing tes­ti­fy. But just as fre­quent­ly, and more promi­nent­ly, Jews have stepped in and changed the cul­ture — have moved the moun­tain to them­selves rather than mov­ing to the moun­tain — and did so in such excit­ing and obvi­ous­ly appeal­ing ways that every­one else fol­lowed their lead.

In music, Berlin de-Christ­ed Christ­mas; George Gersh­win jazzed up the joint; and the musi­cal was prac­ti­cal­ly invent­ed by Rodgers, Hart, and Ham­mer­stein, and brought to glo­ri­ous fruition in the work of Leonard Bern­stein and Stephen Sond­heim. Many non-Jews have made astound­ing con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­can pop­u­lar music, too, of course, but they worked in a rubric devised by these Jews.

Hol­ly­wood, famous­ly, was An Empire of Their Own,” to quote the title of Neil Gabler’s book, a dream-fac­to­ry cre­at­ed by Ger­man Jew­ish moguls and nurtered into an art form by a group of émi­gré auteurs who fused Weimar-era seri­ous­ness with Yid­dish humor. It is amaz­ing to think that 1920s film­go­ers who rushed to see The Jazz Singer, the first sound pic­ture ever, saw Al Jol­son (born Asa Yoel­son) singing Kol Nidre” at the climax.

In lit­er­a­ture, Saul Bel­low cre­at­ed the tem­plate for a brash new voice, with Nor­man Mail­er and Philip Roth close behind. Roth him­self once iden­ti­fied the swag­ger­ing tone of Bel­low’s Adven­tures of Augie March with the same sort of assertive gus­to that the musi­cal sons of immi­grant Jews — Irv­ing Berlin, Aaron Cop­land, George Gersh­win, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern, Leonard Bern­stein — brought to America’s radios, the­atres, and con­cert halls by stak­ing their claim to Amer­i­ca (as sub­ject, as inspi­ra­tion, as audi­ence).” When John Updike — a great nov­el­ist who is as not-Jew­ish as they come — want­ed to cre­ate a sort of alter ego for him­self, he cre­at­ed Hen­ry Bech, because obvi­ous­ly his fic­tion­al Great Amer­i­can Nov­el­ist would have to be a Jew.

What Franklin Foer and I learned in the course of edit­ing Jew­ish Jocks is that sports, too, is a realm in which Jew­ish inno­va­tions end­ed up influ­enc­ing every­one else. The no-look pass­es and back­door cuts of bas­ket­ball trace their lin­eage to turn-of-the-cen­tu­ry New York City, where small­er Jews devised inge­nious strategems to defeat squads rep­re­sent­ing more phys­i­cal­ly endowed eth­nic­i­ties; as Rebec­ca New­berg­er Gold­stein notes in her essay on Bar­ney Sedran (the short­est play­er in the Bas­ket­ball Hall of Fame), Coach Har­ry Baum import­ed some of those com­mon­place con­cepts from lacrosse. In foot­ball, Ben­ny Fried­man and Sid Luck­man (pro­filed by Rich Cohen in our book) invent­ed the mod­ern quar­ter­back posi­tion as we know it; Howard Cosell (whom David Rem­nick wrote about) was the rea­son many fans tuned into Mon­day Night Foot­ball, which helped make that sport the mas­sive spec­ta­cle it is today; and as Jonathan Mahler notes in our book, Daniel Okrent, by invent­ing fan­ta­sy sports, turned us into a nation of num­ber-crunch­ing Jew­ish sports fans. Cue the clos­ing strains of Rhap­sody in Blue.”

Marc Tra­cy is a staff writer at The New Repub­lic. Pre­vi­ous­ly, he was a staff writer at Tablet, where his blog, The Scroll, won the 2011 Nation­al Mag­a­zine Award.