How Bob Dylan, Barbra Streisand and Lenny Bruce Changed Judaism Forever

David Kaufman's Book Revisits the Turbulent '60s

The New Face of Judaism: David E. Kaufman’s new book argues that Bob Dylan was one of four artists in the 1960s who helped usher in a new era for Jews.
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The New Face of Judaism: David E. Kaufman’s new book argues that Bob Dylan was one of four artists in the 1960s who helped usher in a new era for Jews.

By Seth Rogovoy

Published July 05, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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● Jewhooing the Sixties
by David E. Kaufman
Brandeis University Press, 360 pages, $36

The final week of September 1961 proved to be an auspicious one in American Jewish history — or, at least, in the history of Jewish-American celebrities.

Within a matter of just a few days, Sandy Koufax set his first National League strikeout record; comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested on obscenity charges; a then-unknown folksinger named Bob Dylan would play an opening set for the Greenbriar Boys at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village that would capture the attention of a reviewer for The New York Times; and a 19-year-old cabaret singer named Barbra Streisand made her off-Broadway debut.

The rest, as they say, is history, as well as the launching pad for David E. Kaufman’s “Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity.” An associate professor of religion, and the Florence and Robert Kaufman Chair in Jewish Studies at Hofstra University, Kaufman suggests that the approximately simultaneous rise to fame of these four third-generation American Jews was “a turning point in the history of both American celebrity and Jewish identity.”

He likens them to postwar American Jewish culture’s “Mount Rushmore of fame,” whose achievements would go on to “reshape the image of the American Jew” for both Jew and non-Jew alike.

These four were by no means the first of their kind. One could easily rattle off several lists of Jewish forebears who blazed trails beforehand, including baseball star Hank Greenberg; comedians including Groucho Marx, Jack Benny and George Burns, to name just a few; musical theater stars Sophie Tucker and Fanny Brice; and in music, Benny Goodman and Irving Berlin.

But as Kaufman goes to great lengths to argue, this quartet was more transformational than those who came before, both in their personal identity as Jews and in what they represented to Jews and society at large as Jews.

Koufax, the aloof sports hero, was a new kind of Jewish man, “embodying the cool masculinity of the Hollywood antihero.” Bruce was the apotheosis of Jewish rebellion against the status quo. Streisand overturned prevailing notions of female beauty, sexuality and stardom. Dylan refused to abide by any preconceived notions of identity, whether Jewish, musical or otherwise. In sum, “these four created their own rules, and helped usher in a new era for all American Jews.”


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