Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television, by Elliot B. Gertel. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2003. 316 pp. $45.00.
Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting, by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003. 336 pp. $52.50.
Coinciding with the 350th anniversary of American Jewry, a spate of books about the Jewish contribution to American popular culture has been published.1 The companion volume to the Jewish Museum's impressive exhibition Entertaining America is the best place to begin an exploration of this topic. Its insightful essays, plentiful photographs and posters, and timelines span the century from the displacement of Yiddish vaudeville theatres by nickelodeons and movie houses to President Clinton's close relationship with Jewish Hollywood stars. The articles go beyond the usual adulation of Jewish celebrities to an analysis of what was distinctly Jewish, if anything, about their performances and productions, and of how American Jews embraced these figures to bolster their own ethnic pride or prove how well integrated Jews had become in American society.
Let me confine this review to just a few of the subjects covered in this diverse collection. Although many scholars of American Jewry have interpreted the anarchic humor of the Marx Brothers as an expression of Jewish resentment against Gentile authority in the Diaspora, the group rarely employed Jewish references in their films. That Jewish and Gentile fans of their comedy assigned a Jewish meaning to it tells us more about how each perceived the status of Jews in America and less about the madcap genius of Groucho and his brothers. Similarly, identifying a style of humor, personality quirks, or a passion for justice with Jewish culture, Jews have claimed that fictional characters like George Constanza of the Seinfeld show and Gentiles like Charlie Chaplin were Jewish.
The evolution of The Goldbergs mirrored the rise and fall of ethnic radio and television programs. The radio series premiered in 1929. Although radio executives worried about alienating listeners with the Yiddish-inflected dialogue and references to Jewish customs, this saga of first generation Americans preserving their traditions while struggling to rise above their origins struck a responsive chord among millions of listeners who emparhized with the challenges the Goldbergs confronted regardless of their religious background. Gertrude Berg hailed from an acculturated family and spoke unaccented English, but she emulated the Yiddishkayt of her grandparents and the Lower East Side. During the 1940s The Goldbergs inspired a syndicated comic strip, a Broadway play, and a television series that ran from 1949 to 1956. From 1952 on, the show gradually succumbed to pressure from its corporate sponsor General Foods. It fired Philip Loeb, who played Papa Jake, for his alleged communist sympathies, eschewed political subjects, and minimized its Jewish content. In its last season, the series, now renamed Molly, moved the family from a flat in the Bronx to a house in the suburbs. These developments reflected the shift away from early television's adaptations of radio or movie hits about minorities like Amos and Andy (1949-1951) and Mama (1949-1957) to white middle-class sitcoms like Father Knows Best (1954-1960) and Leave It to Beaver (1957-1963).
Most American Jewish entertainers attempted to broaden their popular appeal by Anglicizing their names or assuming uniquely American roles like the cowboy played by Bronco Billy Anderson who was born Max Aronson, or the jazz singer Al Jolson. As cultural pluralism gradually has replaced the melting pot as the ideal for American society, Jewish performers have displayed their ethnicity more overtly. American Jews have gauged the level of their acceptance in the United States by milestones like the selection of Bess Myerson as the first Jewish Miss America in 1945 or the popularity of personalities whose Jewishness was evident in their appearance and mannerisms like Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, and Barbra Streisand. …