Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America

Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America

Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America

Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America

Synopsis

For centuries, Jews lived in diverse countries with vibrant theatrical cultures, yet they were one of the few peoples without a sanctioned theatrical tradition of their own. In the modern era, however, Jews came to be among the most important creators of popular theatre and film in America. Why? In Theatrical Liberalism, Andrea Most illustrates how American Jews used theatre to navigate encounters with modern culture, negotiating a position for themselves within and alongside Protestant liberalism by reimagining key aspects of traditional Judaism as theatrical. Discussing works from the Hebrew Bible to The Jazz Singer and Death of a Salesman, Most situates American popular culture in the religious traditions that informed the worldviews of its practitioners. Offering a comprehensive history of the role of Judaism in the creation of American entertainment, Theatrical Liberalism re-examines the distinction between the secular and the religious, providing a new way of understanding both modern Jewish culture and liberalism, as well as their crucial contributions to a pluralist society. With extensive scholarship and compelling evidence, Theatrical Liberalism shows how the Jewish worldview that permeates American culture has reached far beyond the Jews who created it.

Excerpt

It is well known that throughout the twentieth century, American Jews were deeply involved in the creation of American popular entertainment. Never much more than 3 percent of the population, Jews were nonetheless instrumental in the development of the major industries and entertainment forms that provided mass culture to a majority of Americans through much of the twentieth century: Broadway, Hollywood, the television and radio industries, stand-up comedy, and the popular music industry have all been deeply influenced by the activity of Jews. If we look beyond Americas shores, we find the same story, although not quite to the same extent, in many centers of European culture. In the modern era, especially in liberal society, Jews were among the foremost practitioners of the modern theater and by the late nineteenth century were explicitly associated both with the theater and with theatricality throughout Europe and North America. This close connection between Jews and entertainment represented a radical departure from traditional Jewish attitudes toward the theater. This chapter explores why, for centuries, Jews were one of the few European cultures without any official public theatrical tradition. We then look at how the particular historical conditions of Jewish modernity in Europe eventually led Jews to become intimately involved with the theater. Finally, we examine the history of interpretation of the biblical story of Jacob and Esau in order to understand the ways in which Jewish thinkers across the ages have responded to the morally ambiguous aspects of theatricality itself, a mode which encompasses both acting on the stage and performance in everyday life.

For more than 1,500 years, traditional Jewish authorities were notoriously anti-theatrical. In Warsaw, for example, as late as the 1830s local . . .

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