Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity-Sandy Koufax, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Barbra Streisand

Article excerpt

Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity--Sandy Koufax, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Barbra Streisand. By David E. Kaufman. Waltham, MA: Brandeis University Press, 2012. iv + 340 pp.

As I review David E. Kaufman's recent book about what he calls "Jewhooing," the Jewish folk practice of identifying which celebrities are Jews, I've also just learned that today pop singer Paula Abdul is receiving her bat mitzvah at the Western Wall. Can this be true? Is Paula Abdul actually a Jew? Despite a certain shame in my celebrity awareness and curiosity, I am simply too intrigued to resist. An internet search brings me to JewOrNotJew.com, and indeed I learn that Abdul's father was a Syrian Jew from Aleppo and her mother an Ashkenazi Jew from Canada.

Who knew? Who cares?

Well in fact a lot of American Jews seem to care. At first glance, one may wonder why Kaufman has chosen to explore this esoteric American custom of Jewhooing. It's just a parlor game, isn't it? Can this casual practice really be significant? The ritual itself feels slightly disreputable, not to be discussed in serious society, let alone in the pages of a Brandeis University publication. Yet after finishing Kaufman's book, I think most readers will be persuaded that the subject is important. Perhaps Jewhooing is even among the most significant folk practices working to hold American Jewry together. Those marginal Jews who have little feeling for the ritual, liturgical, and cultural boundaries which are typically thought to circumscribe Judaism and Jewry may still open the newspaper and say to themselves: "Well, would you look at that ... The new Wonder Woman is a Jew!" And that raw tribal connection to a celebrity is the solid content of their Jewish identity. Judging by Kaufmans evidence that Jewhooing started in earnest in the 1960s, spawning at that time a cottage industry of Jewhooing publications and media, the practice has been going on now for fifty years, passed down over several generations. So it seems that many of the hallmarks of what Edward Shi Is defined in his book Tradition (2006) as signaling a legitimate tradition are present with Jewhooing.

Who knew?

Kaufman focuses on celebrities of the 1960s, members of the third generation of the Ashkenazi migration to America. He has chosen a comedian (Lenny Bruce), two singers (Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand) and an athlete (Sandy Koufax). According to Kaufman, Jewish celebrities of this generation were the first objects of Jewhooing proper. They were unlike Jewish celebrities of the second generation (say, the comedians and singers Al Jolson and Fanny Brice, or the athletes Andy Cohen and Benny Leonard) who were first and foremost celebrities for Jews, performers who intentionally played to the tastes of their own ethnic group or who were primarily marketed to that group. …