Jolson, the Jazz Singer and the Jewish Mother: Or How My Yiddishe Momme Became My Mammy

By Saposnik, Irv | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Jolson, the Jazz Singer and the Jewish Mother: Or How My Yiddishe Momme Became My Mammy


Saposnik, Irv, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


Russian-Jewish immigrants came from the shtetls and ghettos out to Hollywood.... In this magical place that had no relationship to any reality they had ever seen before in their lives, or that anyone else had ever seen, they decided to create their idea of an eastern aristocracy.... The American Dream is a Jewish invention.(1)

THE JAZZ SINGER, LIKE OTHER LANDMARK MOVIES, is as much an icon of American culture as of film history. Like other iconic films, The Jazz Singer is also a product of the Jewish imagination. More than just the first film to use sound as dialogue, The Jazz Singer is a visual and verbal parable of the Jewish experience in America. Its story is a paradigm of the Jewish dream in conflict with American reality; its characters exemplify the clash between Old World values and New World ambition; its music is a mix of Black jazz and Yiddish blues, all by way of Jewish Tin Pan Alley.

Even as The Jazz Singer opened the way to sound in the movies, it allowed a new breed of Jewish-Americans to tell their story with songs and speech. The speech, the few times that it is heard in the film, is unaccented and full of self-assurance; the songs, heard more often, combine Old World sentiment with New World confidence. They are models of a new Jewish-American music made popular by new Jewish-American performers.

Al Jolson was hardly a new performer when he agreed to star in The Jazz Singer; on the contrary, he was the most popular performer in America. Yet he was also the most famous among the Jewish performers who, earlier in the century, had traveled from the immigrant inner city to vaudeville and then to Broadway and Hollywood. Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Sophie Tucker, Fannie Brice: their names have become synonymous with the Jewish-American success story. They were the Jewish-American pioneers who shaped the trail out of the ghetto.

Jolson's success story, even more than theirs, was the very stuff of mythic lore, and was, as all accounts suggest, the basis for Sam Raphaelson's short story, "The Day of Atonement"--and then of his 1925 play, The Jazz Singer. As Raphaelson recalled years later, it was the electricity of Jolson's performance and the allure of his rags-to-riches story that inspired him to write the short story that later became the play and film. Raphaelson was enchanted as well by the songs he heard Jolson sing, for in them he heard echoes of his Jewish childhood and the music of the synagogue: "This grotesque figure in blackface, kneeling at the end of a runway which projected him into the heart of his audience, flinging out his white gloved hands, was embracing that audience with a prayer--an evangelical moan--a tortured imperious call that hurtled through the house like a swift electrical lariat with a twist that swept the audience right to the edge of the runway. The words didn't matter. It was the emotion--the emotion of a cantor."(2)

The equation between jazz and prayer that intrigued Raphaelson when first seeing Jolson would become the central metaphor of play and film. The conflict between old and new, between parents and children, between Cantor Rabinowitz and his self-named son, Jack Robin, would be centered on the conflict between these two musical forces, and be exemplified by the choice that Jack is forced to make between singing in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, or appearing at the opening performance of his new show. Jack must choose between Kol Nidre and Irving Berlin, between remaining in the world of his father(s), or becoming a disguised American.

While the conflict is resolved differently in play and film, the emotional and liturgical battle in both is framed in song. To coin a phrase, musical choice is the choice of destiny. For both Raphaelson, and for Warner Brothers, Jewish-American identity depends upon the songs we choose to sing, and how we choose to sing them. Do we continue to sing in the traditional cantillation of our ancestors, or do we, as Jack Robin does in the film, choose to "sing jazzy"? …

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