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In the Spotlight

This is the fourth in a series of special sections celebrating the 350th anniversary of the arrival of Jews in the United States.

In 1932, an aesthete from Iowa named Carl Van Vechten visited Vienna and reported back home that “they don’t play Johann [Strauss] here anymore; it’s all [George] Gershwin and [Irving] Berlin.” The observation capped a dynamic shift that had begun at the dawn of the century, when more than 2 million Eastern European Jews were making their way to the United States almost precisely at the moment when mass entertainment was born. The kinetograph and kinetoscope were transformed into an entire system of making and showing motion pictures, just as sheet music was getting widely distributed and then songs were getting recorded, as vaudeville stars were soon repositioning themselves for careers on radio. When New York became home to more Jews than any city in history, a national mass culture was emerging that would soon sweep the planet. This year, as Gershwin and Berlin’s coreligionists honor their 350th anniversary in America, a connection deserves to be pondered: Is there more than coincidence in so enormous a migration to the very land that spawned the most influential popular culture ever?

In fact, a Jewish inflection on the stage (or backstage) began to appear before the outburst of czarist pogroms in 1881 and 1882 led to the mass immigration of Jews. Isolated figures already can be found early in the 19th century, when Mordecai Manuel Noah wrote popular plays, and when the résumé of Lorenzo Da Ponte included libretti for three of Mozart’s operas. In the 1860s, actress Adah Isaacs Menken won international acclaim, while other Jews performed as “Dutch” comedians and hammed it up in Gilded Age melodramas. But the importance of these precursors to 20th-century entertainment should not be overstated. Noah earned a niche in Jewish history not as a dramatist but as a political activist, editor and sort of a Zionist. Da Ponte had converted to Catholicism while still a teenager in Venice, and Menken’s Jewishness is tantalizingly inexact. At those early stages, when Sephardim and then Germans dominated the Jewish community, no critical mass could form that might serve as an audience or an inspiration or even an instigation for escape. Absent was a cohesive, tensile, vibrant subculture that might, for example, inject its own language into the American vernacular through the medium of show business.

And it was a business, which Jews largely invented and nearly monopolized at the turn of the last century. Shut out from the more genteel precincts, Jewish entrepreneurs took enormous risks, displaying a bring-it-on defiance of the odds that favored failure. Yet by 1926 the Hollywood created by a handful of first- and second-generation American Jews was cranking out 90% of the world’s movies. The moguls who built half a dozen major studios matched the sociological profiles of Jews who — barely a generation earlier — had organized the biggest sheet-music companies, and who were concurrently forming the major record companies, blaring the hit tunes that other immigrants — or their sons — were writing for Tin Pan Alley. (That Broadway district got its name from a journalist, Monroe Rosenfeld, in 1909.) The businessmen who grasped the commercial possibilities of radio — and then television — were William S. Paley at CBS and David Sarnoff at NBC, and they were joined by ABC’s Leonard Goldenson, who presided over the third major network. Mass enlightenment was also enhanced by Jews: Harry Scherman, who founded the Book-of-the-Month Club; Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius, the socialist who produced the wildly successful Little Blue Books; Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer of the Modern Library; and Jason Epstein, who inaugurated the quality paperback revolution at Doubleday.

But the Jewish impact upon the national imagination can be tracked into subterranean passages as well. In 1938 Richard Wright published his first full-scale work of fiction, “Uncle Tom’s Children.” Its epigraph quotes from “Is It True What They Say About Dixie?” — identified merely as a “popular song” — as though no one had actually written it or deserved credit for it. In fact, Irving Caesar and Sammy Lerner had written the lyrics, and Gerald Marks the music, in 1936.

Then, in 1939, Billie Holiday recorded “Strange Fruit,” the haunting denunciation of Southern lynching. Indeed, when Time magazine celebrated the new millennium in 2000 by picking the “Best Song” of the previous century, “Strange Fruit” was chosen — and Holiday was credited. Yet she did not write the song, and thus the newsmagazine left its Jewish composer Abel Meeropol as anonymous as the songwriters whom Wright had ignored.

Perhaps such omissions testify to a Jewish talent for hearing America singing, and for imitating its varied carols with uncanny fidelity and sensitivity. Their success, even if not always attributed, also suggests how low the barriers to access in popular culture have been for Jews. Show business required neither pedigree nor sheepskin to tread an escape route from destitution.

But poverty is a common fate, and so a question arises: Why did so many performers spring from one particular ethnic group? In 1882, while pogroms were dislodging Jews from the Romanov empire, Friedrich Nietzsche wondered: “What good actor today is not — a Jew?” Indeed, a certain theatricality can be detected in the diaspora sensibility after emancipation, when Jews adopted various roles to see how they might fit — or to ascertain how Jews themselves fit in. Perhaps exile is an ideal site for exercising what the sociologist Erving Goffman called “impression management.” Perhaps the flux of modernity makes Jewish identity more like an artifice or a projection than a stable essence. The extreme version of this flair for taking on local characteristics is Leonard Zelig, “the chameleon man” and namesake of Woody Allen’s 1983 film, which introduces him as the son of a Yiddish stage actor.

Jewishness has meant many things to many people — an accident of ancestry or a mandate for piety, a source of pride or a badge of shame, a sense of chosenness or a yearning for inclusion, an existential mystery or nothing at all. But if Jewishness can also be performative, then the congeniality of mass entertainment is evident. The stage, radio and screen all offered opportunities for self-invention, for pretending to be someone else.

If being Jewish can be an act, then no wonder show business itself has continued to bewitch the Jewish imagination. Budd Schulberg’s searing novel, “What Makes Sammy Run?” (1941), could be summarized as an explanation of “How the Jew Got Into Show Business” — the title of a Lenny Bruce monologue that evokes an ancient effort to placate the Egyptian taskmaster, to charm one’s way out of the house of bondage. What Bruce knew best was show business (“I used to go to civil rights marches but Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles keep bumping into people”), and it was precisely this reductiveness that once led TV-programming maven Fred Silverman to advise war protestors: “If you want to stop the Vietnam War — put it on ABC, it will be canceled in 13 weeks.” The mercantile enterprises that so decisively shaped Jewish life have been crowded out by the backlots and the recording studios, and of course occupations that were once prototypical — the struggles of tailors or seamstresses or traveling salesmen — were long ago superseded. The eponymous star of NBC’s “Seinfeld” played a comedian; and the current musical comedy hit, “The Producers,” is itself inspired by a movie about an apocryphal Broadway musical about Nazism. The terms of show business comprise a lingua franca, and Jews are native speakers.

Nor is the momentum yet exhausted, and the very dynamism of American popular culture makes for a wondrous unpredictability. The nation was on the cusp of change in 1963 when only six patrons showed up one night at San Francisco’s Hungry i, because the nightclub had billed two unknowns from Brooklyn. One was a stand-up comic named Woody Allen, the other a chanteuse named Barbra Streisand. The pluralism that they personified would grace mass entertainment even before multiculturalism would become an official credo.

Under the auspices of the popular arts, talent could blaze unexpectedly. Who could have predicted that a Tin Pan Alley tunesmith like Gershwin could write an opera like “Porgy and Bess” (1935), or that it would become the first American work to burnish the repertory at La Scala? Which of Bob Dylan’s fans could have foreseen his blast at the malice of anti-Zionism in “Neighborhood Bully” (1983)? How did Neil Simon, whose light comedies have made him the most successful playwright in American history, manage in “Broadway Bound” (1986) to reproduce the bitterness of Clifford Odets and to rub raw the wounds festering within a Jewish family? How did Steven Spielberg, whose dazzling spectacles have made him the most successful film director in world history, betray no loss of artistic control in “Schindler’s List” (1993)? Such surprises sustain the reputation of the New World as blessed with novelties, and warrant the claim that both continuity and creativity punctuate the annals of American Jewry.

Stephen Whitfield is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and the author of “In Search of American Jewish Culture” (Brandeis University Press, 1999).

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