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From the Yiddish Songbook to the American Canon

There is a shocking, gloriously transcendent moment that occurs nine minutes into “From Shtetl to Swing,” an hour-long documentary about the influence of Yiddish culture on American music. The program is presented October 5 as part of PBS’s “Great Performances.” Until this point in the show, we only have been told that the experience, and expectations, of late 19th-century Jewish immigrants shaped their lives and the art they created, never really shown it. As narrator Harvey Fierstein describes immigrants’ dreams of freedom, he is accompanied by documentary images of a rough sea journey. Suddenly the camera cuts to Judy Garland’s plaintive, hopeful rendition of “Over the Rainbow” from the 1939 film “The Wizard of Oz.” The familiarity of Garland’s voice and the potency of the song hit us with extraordinary force. With music by Harold Arlen (born Hyman Arluck, the son of a cantor) and lyrics by E. Y. “Yip” Harburg (born Isidore Hochberg), “Over the Rainbow” resonates with a multiplicity of meanings for its listeners, but connecting it so concretely to the lives and cultural experience of its writers anchors it historically — and, more important, emotionally — in Jewish American culture.

This shift from Yiddish song and sacred music to an all-American standard is shocking — not because we don’t understand, or have knowledge of, the interplay between Yiddish and mainstream American culture, but because often we don’t realize the depth and the complexity of this interconnectedness. As written and directed by Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir and narrated by Fierstein (who has become mainstream media’s premiere embodiment of Broadway-Yiddishkeit-lite), “From Shtetl to Swing” is an energetic and engaging sprint through a huge amount of complicated and often politically thorny material.

When at its best, “From Shtetl to Swing” is entrancing and engaging. There is so much wonderful material here, much of it difficult to find elsewhere — Molly Picon’s cross-dressing sprite in “Yiddle With His Fiddle” (1936), Fannie Brice’s clowning in the film “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), original footage of Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers composing the tune “Here in My Arms,” Benny Goodman playing a klezmer riff. And so one feels like a crank if he complains. But as enjoyable and often informative as the documentary is, there are some problems.

Here’s a minor gaffe: In the first 20 minutes, the discussion of shtetl life, the voyage stateside and Jewish immigrant life uses clips, often fleeting, from a variety of Yiddish and early Hollywood films (including “The Dybbuk,” “Motel the Operator,” “Hungry Hearts”). While masterfully edited, the clips seem like raw documentary footage. This is not a catastrophe, but it does blur the lines between fact and fiction unnecessarily.

There are two larger problems with the content of “From Shtetl to Swing.” The first is its discussion of the relationship between African-American and Jewish immigrant culture. This relationship — which is at the center of the documentary’s second half when it discusses the interplay between African-Americans and Jews through the mediums of jazz and swing — is extraordinarily complicated and fraught with potential racial pain and tension. While there isn’t enough time in a 60-minute documentary to explore the complexity of these issues — especially the use of blackface by such early 20th-century Jewish performers as Al Jolson, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor and many others — Rousso-Lenoir acknowledges the underlying racial tension here and then dodges the issue.

“From Shtetl to Swing” uses a scene from the original “The Jazz Singer,” the 1927 film that made Al Jolson an international star and highlighted Jewish performers’ use of blackface, only to note that a blackened Jolson becomes “neither Jew nor black but just a man.” While it is technically correct to say, as the film does, that Jolson “doesn’t mimic the dimwitted minstrel… but uses [blackface] as a ritual mask” to escape repressive, immigrant Jewish culture, that is only part of the story. In many of Cantor’s very popular films, he is blackened-up and actually does “mimic the dimwitted minstrel.” But the larger point, as historians Michael Rogin and Jeffrey Melnick point out, is that blackface was often a way for Jewish performers to “become American” — usually at the cultural expense of African-Americans. In an attempt to be unhesitatingly upbeat and positive, “From Shtetl to Swing” avoids this controversial point altogether.

As problematic as this insufficient glide over delicate racial issues is the show’s avoidance of the anger and often mean-spirited satire that is embedded frequently in much Yiddish entertainment in the first third of the 20th century. In an attempt to emphasize the sheer exuberant fun of these performers — it’s certainly there — “From Shtetl to Swing” often bypasses the darker side of these traditions. We do see a quick slice of Cantor and Lew Hearn doing their famous “A Belt in the Back” skit in the 1929 film “Glorifying the American Girl,” but Fierstein’s narration simply describes these characters as lovable schlemiels and gives us no indication of how brutally violent and angry the skit becomes. Similar language is used about the Marx Brothers — comics whose sense of the absurd is always accompanied by their disconcerting and unsettling anger at the gentile world (often at gentile women), in a context that is specifically tied to their social position as dispossessed immigrants and Jews in a strange new world.

On the absolute entertainment level, “From Shtetl to Swing” is a delight. But one wishes not only that it had been twice as long — it would have been great to see Cantor’s Yiddish Indian routine; to hear Groucho Marx singing about “schnorrers,” or to take in early sound recordings of Sophie Tucker singing blues numbers, mimicking the Deep South style of Bessie Smith — but also that it took its wonderful, exciting material twice as seriously.

Michael Bronski is a visiting professor in Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, currently teaching “Jews and Hollywood: The Making of American Dreams.”

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