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The Unfolding Drama of Jewish America

Beyond the Golden Door: Jewish American Drama and Jewish American Experience

MAKING JEWS TALK: Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller and Wendy Wasserstein, playwrights who gave Jews a voice on the American stage.

By Julius Novick

Palgrave Macmillan, 200 pages. $69.95.

Upon finishing Julius Novick’s shrewdly insightful, often quite moving survey of Jewish American drama, “Beyond the Golden Door: Jewish American Drama and Jewish American Experience” — a far more substantive and tasty dish than gruel — I must confess to feeling like young Oliver Twist seeking more porridge.

Novick, professor emeritus of drama studies at Purchase College, points out in the book’s introduction that his study, containing only 143 pages of text and including 43 pages of notes, “makes no claim to be encyclopedic”… but rather deals solely with plays “written in English, for a general American public, by Jewish writers.” Because he has limited his focus to “the specific question of what it can mean to be Jewish in America,” there is barely any discussion of such topics as the Holocaust and the State of Israel.

He succeeds, instead, in communicating how selected American Jewish dramatists reflected the culture and the values of American society. His survey, written in a lively prose style, deals with about 40 plays and musicals — some treated very briefly; others, such as Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and the Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick/Joseph Stein musical “Fiddler on the Roof*,” *discussed in far greater detail.

Novick begins with “The Melting Pot” (1908) by English dramatist Israel Zangwill (the only non-American discussed in the book), and concludes with comments on Tony Kushner’s two-part epic “Angels in America,” produced in the early 1990s. Along the way, he considers an early generation of Jewish writers (Lillian Hellman, Clifford Odets and Elmer Rice), as well more recent dramatists (Wendy Wasserstein and Donald Margulies).

Novick’s examination of American Jewish plays is placed in the larger context of the American Jewish experience, and touches on such themes as:

… the memory of persecution; the fear of the big Gentile world and the yearning to join it; generational conflict; upward social mobility, pride; shame; ambivalence; the counterpoint of outward success and inward disappointment; new American ways of being Jewish; the survival of Jewish identity among those indifferent to Jewish religious belief and religious observance; the diminution of Jewish identity over the generations.

It’s a lot to take on, and it is a small miracle that in such a brief study, the author does manage to engage all these important topics with considerable insight.

Although Arthur Miller and Neil Simon are each given separate and extended chapters, the rest of the book is divided into such thematic sections as “Prosperity and Its Discontents” (Paddy Chayefsky, Jules Feiffer, and Jon Robin Baitz), “German Jews, Southern Jews” (Alfred Uhry), “More Fathers and Sons” (Donald Margulies and Herb Gardner) and “Jewish Daughters” (Wendy Wasserstein and Barbara Lebow). Novick is skilled at seeing connections and parallels between characters in plays written years apart. For example, in discussing the subject of parental envy in Neil Simon’s 1961 comedy “Come Blow Your Horn,” he talks about Odets’s “Awake and Sing” (1935), Donald Margulies’s “The Loman Family Picnic” (1989) and Jules Feiffer’s “Grown Ups” (1981), explaining how these plays reflect common themes and how those themes are developed in each of the plays..

The discussion of “Death of a Salesman” focuses largely on the controversial issue of the Jewishness of the Loman family. Miller has been criticized in some quarters for allegedly stripping the ethnicity of the Lomans to achieve more universality. But Novick, citing Miller’s “preface” to the play’s 50th-anniversary edition, points out that the playwright “publicly and explicitly identified the Lomans as Jews — but as Jews who have lost their Jewishness.” Novick goes on to quote Miller:

“As Jews light-years away from religion or community that might have fostered Jewish identity, they [the Lomans] exist in a spot that probably most Americans feel they inhabit — on the sidewalk side of the glass looking in at a well-lighted place.”

According to Novick, The Lomans’ “separation from their roots, their isolation, the very absence of ethnic, religious, or cultural context that so many critics have complained about — this is what makes them so terribly vulnerable to the false values that undo them: nature abhors a vacuum.” Putting it somewhat differently, critic Benjamin Nelson points out that “Willy is… in some respects, the archetypal diaspora Jew, a stranger in a strange land, clutching at his dream with fervent, if illogical, valor, as if the American success myth is his new Jerusalem.”

Novick articulately and knowledgeably demonstrates his own emotional stake in examining drama by American Jews. By linking the works he discusses to his deep personal feelings and values, he seems to be wrestling with the difficult task of trying to preserve a Jewish identity in a secular, multicultural American society. Where he falls short is in his brevity. What does he make of the Fanny Brice musical “Funny Girl”? Or Donald Margulies’s poignant drama, “Brooklyn Boy,” an account of a writer trying to escape his Brooklyn Jewish roots? Or the Tony Kushner/Jeanine Tesori musical “Caroline, or Change,” an autobiographical account of a Jewish family in Louisiana during the 1960s?

But if we didn’t get all the porridge we wanted, we are still well nourished by Novick’s fine study.

Novick’s passion for his subject informs “Beyond the Golden Door” from beginning to end. For example, in considering the commercially unsuccessful 1986 musical Rags (book by Joseph Stein, music by Charles Strouse, lyrics by Stephen Schwartz) — the only American work in his survey dealing with the immigrant experience — Novick notes that it is “one of the few works of any stature to present the story of an American Jew as a story of heroic struggle and triumph.” Rebecca, the surviving heroine of the musical, “rejects the American freedom of ruthless material acquisition,” seeking instead “a new community in the American freedom of working-class social action.” Adding a personal note, he comments: “‘Rags’ does honor to my grandmother who bribed the officials with her wedding ring in order to bring her children to America.” In his epilogue, Novick quotes — from “Angels in America” — the related eulogy by a rabbi presiding at the funeral of an old Jewish immigrant woman:

She carried the old world on her back across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture and home.

(Little pause)

You can never make that crossing that she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more (sic) exist. But every day of your lives that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand me? In you that journey is.

Given his earlier tribute to his courageous immigrant grandmother, it is hardly surprising that Novick, linking a Jewish past to the present, concludes the dedication of his book to his wife and daughter with the words “In you this journey is.”

Leonard Fleischer teaches musical theater at the City University of New York and is a longtime contributor to the Forward.

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