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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Kaufman’s study in large part examines the contemporaneous, and by now, historical notions of who these celebrities were and what their fame represented vis-à-vis their Jewishness.

This is the “Jewhooing” aspect of the book’s unfortunate title, the origin of which is never completely explained. I, for one, grew up in an extended family that greatly enjoyed playing “name that Jew,” but never heard the term “Jewhooing” until I read this book.

While it’s clear how this group represented a new way of being both Jewish in public as well as famous — Koufax in his very public refusal to play ball on the High Holy Days, even when it meant sitting out a World Series game; Bruce in his in-your-face use of Yiddish obscenities; Streisand in her embrace of Jewish roles from Fanny Brice to “Yentl”; and Dylan in his caginess about his background and belief system — it’s not always clear just how this translates into the lives of the American-Jewish everyman who is not famous (beyond instilling the same sort of pride that came out of the “Jewhooing” game of decades past), nor is it clear what any of this has to do with the ‘60s. other than that it all took place in that decade.

After all, when talking about the “celebrity culture” of the ‘60s, one must take into account the role of such non-Jewish figures as John F. Kennedy, The Beatles, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and Raquel Welch.

Kaufman digs deep into media coverage of the time to explore just how the Jewish background of this mosaic quartet was treated, and he is on solid ground here, especially regarding Koufax, Bruce and Streisand. His analysis of Bob Dylan as an uber-assimilationist, however, is less convincing, and here is where full disclosure requires me to note that the author interviewed me for his book and spends a few paragraphs detailing how my own book on Dylan is an example “of the kind of Dylan Jewhooing in which identification is taken to an extreme.” Where Kaufman finds Dylan’s name change and his inventive stories about his background representative of his mutable identity, he finds the very same tendencies in Streisand’s early career — changing her name from Barbara to Barbra, claiming to have been “born in Madagascar and reared in Rangoon” — as merely playful “tomfoolery.” Perhaps another case of “extreme identification”?

Kaufman writes, “Both Jews and celebrities are in a sense ‘chosen people’ — seemingly ‘chosen’ by some higher power, but at the same time ‘people’ like everyone else.” It could be argued that both Jews and celebrities are in fact not viewed as “people like everyone else,” and that, more than anything, might go far to explain the odd phenomenon of “Jewhooing.”

Seth Rogovoy is the author of ‘Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet’ (Scribner, 2009).


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