In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture

In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture

In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture

In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture


Ted Merwin is an assistant professor of religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College, where he directs the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life.


At the last Passover seder she attended before her death, my maternal grandmother, already suffering from senile dementia, took up a different book from the one the rest of us were all reading. Instead of following along in the Haggadah, which tells the story of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, Grandma kept flipping the pages of a catalog from a company called the Source for Everything Jewish, which sells merchandise like Chanukah menorahs, Passover plates, and Jewish-themed jewelry, toys, and clothing. Grandma interrupted the seder from time to time with loud exclamations as she saw things in the catalog that caught her fancy. We laughed, but it was hard not to feel sad that in a sense she was already no longer with us.

I trace my Jewish identity in many ways to my maternal grandparents— they were, in my imagination, truly the source. and yet my grandparents kept few religious customs, almost never went to synagogue, and had no Jewish friends. What was Jewish about them, other than the few Yiddish expressions my grandmother used (always bemoaning the fact that I could not understand them), the traditional Eastern European—although often not kosher, in any strict sense—foods they ate, the summer vacations they took in the Catskill Mountains, and the winter vacations they took in Miami Beach?

Born in America, children of immigrants who spoke only Yiddish, my maternal grandparents were both proud and patriotic Americans. Yet something about them remained Jewish to the core, and it permeated all of their feelings, attitudes, and perceptions of the world. It was their culture, and it mixed somehow with American culture in complicated ways that I could not fully comprehend.

My father's parents, on the other hand, seemed much more ambivalent about being Jewish. According to my father, they always went to synagogue on the High Holidays, celebrated Passover and Chanukah, and had many Jewish friends. But my paternal grandfather, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1920, at a time when few Jews were admitted to Ivy League schools of any kind, changed his name from Harry Meirowitz to Harry Merwin. in . . .

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