THEATRICAL LIBERALISM: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America

By Williams, Megan E. | American Studies, July 1, 2014 | Go to article overview

THEATRICAL LIBERALISM: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America


Williams, Megan E., American Studies


THEATRICAL LIBERALISM: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America. By Andrea Most. New York: New York University Press. 2013.

"We in the show business have our religion too-on every day-the show must go on," asserts Al Jolson as Jack Robin (née Jakie Rabinowitz) in Warner Brothers' The Jazz Singer (1927), the motion-picture industry's first "talkie." As author Andrea Most argues, this "new dogma"-the conviction that "all members of [a theatrical] company are obligated to do what they can to make sure that the show goes on"- animated the backstage musicals and romantic comedies created by acculturated Jew- ish artists in 1920s and 1930s America (11). This sacred tenet that the "show must go on," that the needs of the dramatic community must always trump the desires of the individual artist, is at the heart of Most's titular concept-"a Judaically inflected" ideology she terms theatrical liberalism (77).

Many scholars have reasoned that the overrepresentation of American Jews within the popular entertainment industry reflects their desire to assimilate into the dominant society by eschewing their or their ancestors' immigrant pasts and religious traditions. In fact, in her first book, Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical (2004), Most argued that Jews on Broadway attempted "to acculturate by creating a fantasy America, which was distinctly open to and tolerant of people like themselves" (3).

In this, her second book, Most maintains that prior analyses of the American Jewish investment in popular culture as a pathway to assimilation replicate a false dichotomy, rooted in Protestantism, which situates the public/secular in opposition to the private/sacred. This scholarship presumes that the so-called "assimilated" first- and second-generation Jewish Americans active in the development of supposedly "secular" popular entertainment were able to consciously discard all of the beliefs and rituals of their ancestral culture in an effort to become American.

Rather than viewing these mostly "unobservant" American Jews as divorced entirely from Judaic codes and rituals, Most argues that the artists under consideration in Theatrical Liberalism have "a clear connection to Judaism" (11). …

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