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On the Blower: A Blast From the Past

When it comes to living the American dream, American Jews take the cake. As early as 1927, a market survey commissioned by the Jewish Daily Forward found them to be the most avid of consumers. “It is not only in food that the Jews surpass [others] as spenders,” reported the survey. They also spend a great deal on “pianos, rugs, vacuum sweepers [and] washing machines,” up-to-date household items widely advertised in the American Jewish press. Phonographs and radios, two other newfangled devices of the interwar years, also appealed to the American Jewish community, especially to immigrant families who often took to the latest technology far more quickly than they did to English.

In some aspiring, if financially strapped, families, however, consumerism turned out to be as much a source of friction as of pleasure, giving rise to domestic disputes about which commodity to buy when. The older generation, reported the Forward in a 1924 article titled “Radio-Phonograph: That’s the Bone of Contention in Jewish Families These Days,” preferred to purchase a phonograph; the younger one, a radio. “So the whole family gathers round the famous table and takes up the burden of the problem.” The younger generation, the paper went on to explain, were far more in tune with the New World than their parents. “Noise, sports, exciting dancing, adventure, danger — whatever makes for immediate action, for vigorous motion draws their hearts and fires their imagination.” These qualities were thought to reside more in radio than in the staid recordings fancied by the members of the older generation who, with their “ear for music” and their more leisurely approach to life found the phonograph more to their liking. What to do? Given the generational divide, perhaps the best solution, wisely concluded the Forward, was to buy both.

While some American Jews debated the merits of one commodity over another, others poked fun at the alacrity with which their co-religionists took to the latest consumer goods, often with unintentionally hilarious results. Through a series of comic sketches, they explored the hold that consumption had on American Jewish life. Perhaps the best-known and longest running of such sketches was the “Cohen on the Telephone” series, the stuff of vaudeville, radio and recordings, many of them on the Columbia label.

The series, which debuted in England in 1912 before making its way to the States, where it enjoyed at least another two decades of popularity, featured an eponymous hero whose encounters with modernity were fraught with missteps and misunderstandings. Whether at the movies or the opera, buying an automobile, visiting King Tutankhamen’s Tomb or, most typically, on the phone with his plumber, his son or the gas company, Samuel Cohen found himself both beguiled and puzzled by modern life and its conveniences.

In the most classic of “Cohen on the Telephone” monologues, Cohen makes a telephone call for the very first time:

“Hullo! hullo! Are you dere? Hullo. Vot number do I vant? Vell, vot numbers have you got? Oh excuse me, my mistook. I vant Central 248, please; yes, dot’s right, 248. I say, Miss, am I supposed to keep on saying, ‘Hullo! And are you dere?’ until you come back again? Vell, don’t be long.”

Listening to Cohen, in his heavily accented English, try to make sense of the material blessings of America, you can’t escape the feeling that there must be more to life than a telephone, a new car or bathroom plumbing. Then again, maybe not.

These days, thanks to the imminent debut of a cell-phone walking tour of the Lower East Side, we’ve come full circle. Harnessing technology to history, this walking tour, which is free and accessible from any telephone, puts us in touch with the sounds and sights of the past simply by pressing a number of buttons. The brainchild of Miles Kronby of Candide Media Works, the “Lower East Side: Birthplace of Dreams” is accompanied by a brochure listing the 13 sites on the tour; the brochure can be obtained online or at any number of places, from Bloomingdale’s and Grand Central Station uptown to the Lower East Side Visitors Center downtown at 261 Broome St. (In the interest of full disclosure, I served as a consultant on the project.)

Intrigued by the history of the Forward? Stand in front of 175 East Broadway, cell phone at the ready, dial 1-800-644-3545, then press 9. You’ll hear Jerry Stiller talk about the paper’s impact on American Jewish life and letters. If the antics of Eddie Cantor are more your cup of tea, press 4 while passing by 59 Orchard St. and you can hear Cantor himself take stock of his long career. Curious about the relative absence of trees on the Lower East Side? Make your way to Seward Park, press 7, and an account of Lillian Wald’s attempts to create a neighborhood oasis of greenery fills your ears. The idea, says Kronby, is to immerse yourself in the details of history, to have them come vividly to life as you listen in on a conversation with and about those who came before.

Can you imagine what “Cohen on the Telephone” would have made of this?!

For more information on “The Lower East Side: Birthplace of Dreams,” please visit www.talkingstreet.com.

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