Growing up in “Jewish New York” in the 1950s and 1960s, I didn’t think too much about the fact that Betty Boop was a nice Jewish girl from Brooklyn, out for a little fun. The wonderful conceit of the Jewish Museum’s “Entertaining America” is that the viewer obligingly slips into the pew of the secular religion of American popular culture and ponders the Jewishness of Betty, of Superman, of Marilyn and Barbra and Jerry Seinfeld.
The exhibition, curated by J. Hoberman, senior film critic for the Village Voice, and Jeffrey Shandler, assistant professor of Jewish studies at Rutgers University, is introduced by “Nickelodeon Nation,” which serves as an overture to “Entertaining America” and provides a historical context for the exhibition. The story of the nickelodeon — the precursor of the movie palace — tracks America’s love affair with the movies, which, like the entire narrative of American Jewish popular culture, began with the immigrant generation that flocked to the nickelodeons.
From 1880 to 1920, immigration revolutionized America, transforming it from a country of relatively few Jews into a largely urban home for the world’s largest Jewish population. This population explosion took place at precisely the same time as the development of movie-going. The immigrant groups of the turn of the century — primarily the Jews and Italians — were the source of the first critical cadre of mass entertainment: the audience.
Three historical dynamics were at work. First, Jews were a harbinger of the change of America from an agrarian to an urban society. Second, during the Progressive Era, cities became the hub of American society; urban political structures were becoming modern power centers — with Jews playing an increasingly significant role, especially in New York — and the cultural life of the new century reflected the new demographic realities.
Finally, there were new economic realities. For the first time, the lower classes had free time, limited though it may have been, to enjoy popular culture. Technological advances resulted in leisure, and created a market and demand for leisure activities; radio and the nickelodeon generated huge audiences as a result.
But at the core of “Entertaining America” is the conflict, common to all immigrant groups, between tradition and modernity. The battle plays itself out in the dynamics of acculturation, assimilation, Jewish literacy and ultimately identity itself — all of which are expressed in media entertainment. These themes emerge and merge in the flow of the exhibition and all come together in the exhibit’s “bookends” — “The Jazz Singer” and “Seinfeld.”
The exhibition begins, in effect, with “The Jazz Singer” — the first “talkie,” but more significant as the touchstone Jewish artifact of its era — and ends with “Seinfeld”; from basic questions about Jewishness to a seeming cluelessness about what the questions are.
In “The Jazz Singer,” the eponymous singer asks, “What am I? Am I a chazan? Am I a singer?” He is asking in effect, “Am I Jewish? If I am, how Jewish am I?” In the exhibition, the “Jazz Singer” triptych with double projections, is all about the story, but the scenes are allusions or are taken from remakes; the actual Al Jolson film is never shown. The result is ghostly but recalls for us that these simple but at the same time highly nuanced questions were standard for second-generation American Jews, children who were beginning to move into what historian Seymour Leventman called “the Gilded Ghetto.” These questions yet resonate.
But do they? The exhibition closes with Seinfeld, an iconic figure of end-of-20th-century media if there ever was one. The curatorial choice to end “Entertaining America” with “Seinfeld” was sociologically incisive. The show’s Jewishness is a clueless Jewishness — Jews today are beyond ignorance; they are bereft of questions — the Passover Seder’s “child who knows not how to ask.”
Indeed, by the end of the exhibition, Jews no longer seem to know how to ask the question. Lawrence Grossman, a canny observer of American Jewish trends, has suggested that “Seinfeld” is “the last stage in ‘Woody-Allen-ism,’” a metaphor for urban Jewish angst, for a sense of drift, for a lack of meaning. “Seinfeld” is the representation of the virtually complete loss of the minimal tools of functional literacy necessary to articulate questions about Jewishness, and it signifies a coming to an end in some ways of Jewish identity via Jewish literacy. The show represents an identity that has been so watered down in terms of Jewish substance that only the form remains. (Indeed, in a quirk of the Jewish organizational calendar, during the run of “Entertaining America,” the bleak results of the New York Jewish Population Survey were released, showing a decline in New York’s Jewish population, with a core population that is increasingly poor and — except for the growing Orthodox — functionally illiterate.)
The obverse side of the coin of this analysis is that “Seinfeld” is in fact addressing precisely the same questions as is “The Jazz Singer,” but it plays against the way in which these questions have been traditionally asked. “Seinfeld” works through indirection; the show claims to be about nothing; its conceit is “Yada yada yada.” The show is post-sitcom; it challenges the conventions established over decades for the sitcom genre, and tweaks the Jewish — and non-Jewish — noses of its characters. When “Seinfeld” loads its characters with Jewish markers, and then tells you that they aren’t Jewish, it is re-telling in a most provocative way the narrative of Jewish identity at the end of the 20th century. Indeed, “Seinfeld” is a take on how Jews signal their identity, without explicitly asking the questions of “The Jazz Singer.”
But the exhibition, exceptionally concentrated and thoughtful, works not just because of the exhibits themselves — even as the media objets on display are superb — but because of the epiphenomena. The story is what happens around the works. The exhibition’s size is minimal — it occupies only a piece of the Jewish Museum’s ground-floor gallery — so the works could not be shown in any length or in sufficient context. The curators therefore had to create environments for the works.
The core of “Entertaining America” is a series of “star shrines” — to, among others, Fanny Brice’s nose, Theda Bara (who, after a career as an exotic vamp, “came out” as Theodesia Goodman, “a nice Jewish girl”), Marilyn Monroe (my favorite artifact: Monroe’s
“Certificate of Conversion” to Judaism), Barbra Streisand and the State of Israel (yes, a star!) — that constitute a star gallery, offering delicious samples of the discourse around Jewishness inspired by this variety of iconic personages. The shrine gallery, consisting of a series of mini-installations by artists ranging from the graphic artist and Forward contributor Ben Katchor to the high-priestess of Jewish-American consumer-spoof Rhonda Lieberman, demonstrates the nature and variety of our engagement with the “stars”: What does it mean to claim a star as Jewish? To take but one example, the range of interpretations of the Marx Brothers’ art — rabbinic tradition, Hebrew Scripture — tells us more about the interpreters’ need to position the Marx Brothers in Jewish tradition than about the reality of the hilarious work of the Marx Brothers, who said little about their Jewishness. This dynamic makes a powerful statement about Jews in America, who have often needed to make connections across time and space from Jewish tradition to a highly anarchic American culture. “There is a paradox here,” observes co-curator Hoberman. “We resist the essentialist notion of being Jewish, but what are the characteristics of Charlie Chaplin [a Christian] that cause people to insist on his Jewishness?”
The concrete historical references in “Entertaining America”— antisemitism (characterized in the exhibition as an attack on modernity itself), McCarthyism and the Blacklist, the Holocaust (here, the television is placed in the corner, facing a wall; the Holocaust is not, as popular culture would have it, on a pedestal) — are of a piece, albeit a somber one, with the rest of the exhibition. They recall and represent for the viewer a reality in America to which most people under the age of 50 have difficulty relating, a reality in which most Jews in America felt vulnerable, exposed, insecure.
The brilliance of “Entertaining America” is that it does not oblige the viewer into a particular historiography, but instead invites visitors to draw their own arcs on American Jewish history. Completing the circle from “Nickelodeon Nation” and Betty Boop to sitting in a coffee shop with Jerry Seinfeld, the century-old conversation with the audience about Jewishness continues, as we are wonderfully entertained in “Entertaining America.”