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Speakeasy Jews

In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture By Ted Merwin Rutgers University Press, 240 pages, $23.95

With its irresistible blend of innocence and envelope-pushing, the Jazz Age — an era of bootleggers, flappers and silent-movie stars — still holds a mythical fascination for today’s audiences. To this end, Ted Merwin, an assistant professor at Dickinson College and chief theater critic for the New York Jewish Week, has written “In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture.” As suggested by the title, Merwin’s new book chronicles the increasing visibility of Jewish creative talent in the dynamic America of the 1920s. Impressively researched and entertainingly presented, this lively volume shows how the twin forces of immigrant acculturation and the quickening social pace of the Jazz Age helped put Jewish entertainers at the center of the new popular culture.

Moving chronologically, Merwin begins with a look at vaudeville. At the turn of the 20th century, ethnic caricature was a mainstay of American comedy. Irish, Jewish, German, black and Italian people were all mercilessly lampooned on the vaudeville stage. Stereotyping served a social function at a time when anxieties were rising over the rapidly changing racial and ethnic makeup of the nation. Laughing at people who were “different” provided a release of collective tension and was a first step toward inclusion in the society. Nonetheless, “Hebrew comics,” like Negro minstrel characters, seem shockingly racist by today’s standards and weren’t always well received, even in their own time. Some Jewish activist groups objected, but the built-in Darwinism of show business was the main reason that two-dimensional representations of Jews became obsolete. In the booming post-World War I economy, a new kind of comedy emerged, as such innovative entertainers as Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, George Jessel, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker took the stage.

Merwin rightly rejects the commonly held notion that Jewish entertainers of the time could express their sensibility only by masking it in an African American or Anglo-Saxon persona. Often the material was quite specifically Jewish, even if its emotional content spoke to a broad audience. Much of it sentimentalized the ghetto, or poked gentle fun at the struggles that young Americans faced when communicating with their Old World parents. Jessel became famous for a routine involving a phone call to his mother. Brice scored hits with songs like “Second Hand Rose,” in which a girl from Second Avenue complains of always having to wear hand-me-downs. Brice’s fans, many of whom were enjoying unprecedented prosperity, delighted in the nostalgic image of a simpler life downtown. Looking back affirmed for them a sense of having come a long way.

Merwin’s thorough research also includes a refreshing examination of comic strips, a hugely popular medium in the days before radio became the dominant form of home entertainment. Harry Hershfield’s “Abie the Agent” followed the misadventures of Abe Kabbible, a lovably irascible entrepreneur typical of the budding Jewish merchant class. Milt Gross followed, deriving much of his cartoon comedy form dialect jokes. Even the surreal stylings of George Herriman and Rube Goldberg often contained phonetically spelled Yiddish accents. By caricaturing themselves, Jewish artists took control of the image they wished to present to the public. In Merwin’s words, Abie “exemplified Jewish stereotypes in a way that, for the first time, they seemed appealing rather than atrocious.”

It wasn’t long before Broadway producers began to woo Jewish audiences. Some shows, like the Brice vehicle “Fanny,” were built around the persona of a well-known performer. Others took a comic look at changing social attitudes. “Abie’s Irish Rose,” a comedy about a Jewish/Irish marriage, enjoyed enormous success and spawned numerous imitations. A popular series of plays by Montague Glass followed the exploits of Potash and Perlmutter, bickering but resourceful business partners. Significantly, in the Broadway play “Partners Again” (adapted to film in 1926) the fellows became automobile manufacturers. The image of Jews who owned and made their own cars was both a symbol of class mobility and a dig at Henry Ford, who published rabid antisemitic tracts in The Dearborn Independent. A dialogue developed between Broadway and the Yiddish theater. The latter had closer ties to Europe and was often more avant-garde than its uptown competition. Paul Muni (formerly Muni Weisenfreund) and other Yiddish stars made the move to mainstream, bringing greater authenticity to staged portrayals of Jewish life. One of the more substantial plays discussed here is Osip Dymov’s “Bronx Express,” which was translated into English and transferred to Broadway. A surreal retelling of the Faust legend, the play’s core philosophy was a pioneering Jewish brand of socialism. Rather than accept Marx’s dictum that religion was “the opiate of the masses,” Dymov saw spirituality as one of the precious values threatened by capitalism. Mr. Flames, a corporate Satan, seduces the protagonist into abandoning his wife and profaning his covenant with God.

In the final chapter, which is devoted to the silent cinema, Merwin brilliantly ties together the themes he has developed throughout the book. The flexibility of film allowed directors to take their cameras to the streets, resulting in a new realism. But the flickering dreamscape of the movies also created an opportunity for a mythic working-out of emotions. In an earlier section on Jewish masculinity, Merwin notes that Jewish celebrities were seldom seen to embody the two-fisted American archetype. Economic achievement, however, was seen as an acceptable way for a Jew to assert his manhood. In the movies, a favorite theme was that of a second-generation youth out-earning his immigrant father and thus placing his “yiddische Mama” at the center of an Oedipal tug of war. Lighter films like “The Kibbitzer,” starring the popular comic actor Harry Green, amusingly introduced non-Jewish viewers to a culture and language with which they had little familiarity. As the Jazz Age came to a close, Jewish entertainers were far from merely responding to the times — they were shaping them, as well.

Merwin’s illuminating insights are at their best when he writes in his own clear and passionate voice. Some passages are encumbered by the frequent use of quotes from other texts. Still, the many intriguing and often amusing artifacts he has unearthed are well worth a read, all the more so because of his remarkable ability to synthesize them into a coherent narrative. A significant new take on the culture and society of the 1920s, “In Their Own Image” not only celebrates achievements of second-generation Jews but also looks at how they contributed to the collective — and ongoing — American quest for a lasting sense of self.

Ethan Kanfer is a playwright and a theater critic living in New York City.

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