The contentious question “Who is a Jew?” (Mi Hu Yehudi? in Hebrew) has bedeviled the Israeli legal system continuously since 1959, when the Jewish-born Polish priest Oswald Rufeisen, known as Brother Daniel, was rejected in his application for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Israel’s Supreme Court upheld the rejection in 1962. Since then the debate has returned repeatedly to the Supreme Court, brought down governments and soured relations between Israel and American Jewry, yet it still remains unsolved.
What’s seldom realized is how much further back the controversy goes. Here’s a film clip from 1940 at a time when all America was asking the provocative question: “Who’s Yehudi?”
It’s from “Varsity Vanities 1940” and features Martha Tilton and her Six Hits and a Miss. Note Mousketeer Jimmy Dodd in a sports coat piping in at 0:38.
If you’re curious, “Who’s Yehudi?” was a catchphrase that entered the culture in the late 1930s, when classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin made a guest appearance on the Jack Benny radio show. According Wikipedia’s “Who’s Yehudi?” entry, Benny’s pop-eyed, handlebar mustachioed sidekick Jerry Colonna, “apparently finding the name itself humorous, repeatedly asked ‘Who’s Yehudi?’ Colonna continued the gag on later shows even though Menuhin himself was not a guest, turning ‘Yehudi’ into a widely understood late 1930s slang reference for a mysteriously absent person.” The craze was so popular that the United States Navy chose the name “Project Yehudi” in 1942 for one of the earliest successful stealth aircraft projects. Here’s Yehudi in a U.S Navy informational film:
Thus, by pure coincidence, “Yehudi” became the Navy’s code-name during World War II for the ability to blend into one’s surroundings without detection.
The “Who’s Yehudi” song was written in 1940 by Bill Seckler and Matt Dennis and was popularized by bandleaders Kay Kyser (and his “College of Musical Knowledge”) and Cab Calloway. Here’s another version, filmed in 1943 for the Soundies series, that puts Yehudi back in “Who’s Yehudi?” with a blend of ethnic stereotyping, racy dancing and very hot jazz.
For a closer look at who’s the real Yehudi, here’s a clip of him playing a duet with his friend Ravi Shankar:
Now see if you can find the common threads between Menuhin’s Shankar duet and Mickey Katz’s “Yiddish Hillbillies.” I’m not sure there are any, but check it out anyway. It’s a hoot.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).