In Search of American Jewish Cultureby Stephen J. Whitfield
In drama and in musical comedy, in popular song and in symphonic music, in movies and in literature, Jews have contributed to American culture in the twentieth century to a degree out of all proportion to their numbers. But does this vast creative output coalesce into something identifiable as an American Jewish culture? Stephen J. Whitfield answers this question… See more details below
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In drama and in musical comedy, in popular song and in symphonic music, in movies and in literature, Jews have contributed to American culture in the twentieth century to a degree out of all proportion to their numbers. But does this vast creative output coalesce into something identifiable as an American Jewish culture? Stephen J. Whitfield answers this question with a resounding "yes".. "Only a renewed emphasis on Judaism itself, he believes, offers the hope for American Jews to maintain the dual cultural identities that they have so long succeeded in nurturing.
"Whitfield has . . . a terrific enthusiasm for his subject and a sense of humor. He clearly knows a lot about, for instance, the past hundred years' worth of pop tunes and Broadway musicals. On the topic of cultural cross-pollination, we get memorable observations and piquant historical tidbits . . . It's amazing that some of the most essentially American culture was influenced or created by Jews, a tiny minority who weren't intimately acquainted with the country they were creating it for." —New York Times Book Review
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The culture of American Jewry was born in Eastern Europe and was then transplanted and refashioned in cities such as New York. In the New World the tension between the parochial and the national, the particular and the universal would be resolved in favor of satisfying mass taste. Tradition would also be invigorated, but the allure of the democratic marketplace would prevail. In retrospect, the fragility of what the immigrants brought over is easy to emphasize. But the vitality that is also demonstrable should not be obscured. If one artifact can epitomize the resources of a minority culture as well as the transforming power of the popular arts, I move the nomination of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön" (to me you are beautiful).
The composer of the song was Sholom Secunda, who had been born in Russia in 1894 and was groomed to be a cantor. In 1906 his family immigrated to the United States, where the prodigy was billed as the "Crown Prince of Khazonim" (cantors). He seemed so destined for stardom that in 1915 the flamboyant impresario of the Yiddish theater, Boris Thomashefsky, introduced Secunda to another promising kid who had shown a certain flair for composition. But Secunda was shocked to learn that his potential collaborator was an ignoramus who composed by ear. A teenager with no formal classical training would be a drag. Later, George Gershwin would express his appreciation to Secunda for having made his own success possible: "If he had agreed to write with me, I, too, would now be writing music [only] for the Yiddish theater." In1932 Jacob (Joe) Jacobs wrote the lyrics, and Secunda the melody, for "Bei Mir Bistu Shein," which immediately scored a hit in the Yiddish musical theater and at Catskills weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Even a casual perusal of the lyrics casts doubt that Jacobs was imagining a crossover triumph, as evidenced by an in-group barb like "Even if you were a Galitzyaner! / I tell you it wouldn't matter to me." (Known for their piety, Jews from Galicia were also mocked for their superstitiousness, their provincialism, their ignorance, and their naïveté.) The song was remarkably popular. But those who enriched the repertoire of the Yiddish musical theater could not count on living off the residuals. Eddie Cantor rejected a chance to introduce the song on NBC, telling the frustrated composer: "Sholom, I love your music. But I can't use it. It's too Jewish." By 1937 the team sold the rights to the song to a Yiddish music publisher, and split the $30 proceeds.
What happened next depends on who tells the story. Resort owner Jennie Grossinger claimed to have taught the song to two Negro entertainers, whose stage names were Johnny and George, in the Catskills (referred to by Life magazine as "the Jewish Alps"). Songwriter Sammy Cahn insisted that as early as 1935 he heard two black performers (though not Johnny and George) do the song in Yiddish at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Cahn, whose name had been shortened from the presumably less pronounceable Cohen, was astonished to observe the crowd rocking with delight. Perhaps no audience was more demanding than the Apollo; a number that could make it there could make it anywhere. Cahn mused privately, imagine what this song would do to an audience that understood the words. He persuaded the three Andrews Sisters to record it for Decca Records. Its president, Jack Kapp, went alongbut only if Cahn and his collaborator Saul Chaplin would translate "Bei Mir Bistu Shein," which they did. English was the precondition of popular interest. Cahn, whose lyrics would help extend the career of Frank Sinatra, kept the title exotic by refusing to anglicize it, but did generate confusion by elevating it into German: "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön."
Decca released it in December 1937; and within a month a quarter of a million records were sold, along with about two hundred thousand copies of the sheet music. Soon enough records were sold to make the Andrews Sisters' single the number one hit of 1938. The song drove America wild. Life reported customers rushing into record stores asking for "Buy a Beer, Mr. Shane," and "My Mere Bits of Shame." But the Andrews Sisters did not have this song to themselves. Because some like it hot, Ella Fitzgerald quickly did her own version. Not until 1961, it is sad to report, did Secunda regain copyright of his hit. Upon his death thirteen years later, he left behind a huge list of Yiddish and liturgical musical works, including the score to Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish-language film, Tevye der Milkhiker (1939). But perhaps because Secunda's oeuvre was "too Jewish," he worked mostly in obscurity. Shortly before his death at age seventy-nine he had gone to Tokyo; in the baths there, he asked a masseuse to sing to him any American songs she might know. She complied with a Japanese version of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schön." From an otherwise largely concealed minority culture, the song had circumnavigated the globe. An ephemeral community of immigrants (and then their children and grandchildren) could tap and then revise its own traditions, and somehow manage to satisfy national and even cosmopolitan tastes. Two years later, in 1976, Saul Bellow, the product of a Yiddish-speaking home in Chicago, would become the first American Jew to win the Nobel Prize for Literatureand would also be counted with Herman Wouk, grandson of Rabbi Mendel Leib Levine of Minsk, as among the most translated American authors in the People's Republic of China.
Determining how this minority group has contributed to the arts, while also sustaining and altering its religion, challenges the powers of the cultural historian. But the philosophers must also be satisfied when they say: Define your terms and then defend your definition. That is the particular aim of this chapter and the next, both of which offer an interpretive overview. Each key termAmerican, Jewish, and cultureis problematic.
Thanks to the religious psychology of Feuerbach, the atheism of Marx, the higher biblical criticism of Renan and others, and finally the nihilism of Nietzsche, the nineteenth century destroyed the supernatural. The twentieth century destroyed the natural. No longer was the domination of Christianity inevitable. Nor did white supremacy appear to be inherent in the structure of reality, and finally patriarchy ceased to enjoy an ontological status. What has remained is "only" culture, which three methodologists of American Studies have called "perhaps the most germinal idea in twentieth-century scholarship in the social sciences and humanities."
No other word occupies so privileged a place in the academic lexicon. But, as literary historian Stephen Greenblatt has complained, the term is also "repeatedly used without meaning much of anything at all." According to the historian Raymond Williams, "culture" is "one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language," primarily because of its use "in several distinct intellectual disciplines and in several distinct and incompatible systems of thought." Although by 1952 the anthropologists Alfred L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn had already managed to discriminate among 160 different definitions of "culture," Williams radically compressed that number, so that he could describe "a general process of intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development," as well as "the works and practices of intellectual and especially artistic activity." His formulations are relevant to this inquiry, especially in the form of deliberate efforts to promote and perpetuate artistic and intellectual expression. A bit easier to construe than to define, culture is now understood to be more than a pattern of meanings that is inherited. Culture is also something that is concocted. It is not only a system of behavior that is accepted, but is also a complex of beliefs that is adapted and contrived. Picked up by osmosis, culture is also consciously transmitted.
The status that the study of "society" once enjoyed in the academy has now yielded to "culture." Two trends have converged that inevitably affect how the experience of American Jewry can best be fathomed. What the pioneering social sciences achieved by relativizing what had been taken as certitudes is now done by cultural studies, whose work is similar. Cultural studies involves some sort of unmasking or demystification of the ideological aims of the institutions or groups under scrutiny. For its academic practitioners, culture is not usually "high," nor is it singular; rather, it consists of "that plurality of symbolic systems and practices that enable different groups to make various kinds of sense of their lives."
Such a definition is less indebted to Matthew Arnold than to anthropologists, one of whom has been widely influential in offering a semiotic approach to culture that is also applicable to the case of American Jewry. Clifford Geertz has referred to "structures of signification," to "an historically transmitted pattern of meanings," and to "a system of inherited conceptions ... by means of which men communicate, perpetuate and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life." Such "symbolic dimensions of social action" need to be decoded, so that the ways our species make experience intelligible can be elucidated. Geertz's version of anthropology as well as cultural studies are ways of taking seriously the expressive evidence by which, say, a minority group seeks to define itself, tries to give shape to its experiences, and exchanges standards and values.
Every culture, proclaimed the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, is "the result of a mishmash." Even more so is America, because its society is itself composed of minorities, "formed of all the nations of the world," according to Alexis de Tocqueville, who observed "different languages, beliefs, opinions: in a word, a society without roots, without memories, without prejudices ... without common ideas, without a national character." He was compelled to wonder: "What serves as the link among such diverse elements? What makes all of this into one people?" To this polyphony, everybody's voices could be added; and in theory they all counted not only at the ballot box, but also in the circulation of ideas and images.
The ideal of democracy sanctioned majority rule in taste as well as suffrage. Popular sovereignty operated in culture and not only in government. The motto of the newspaper which inaugurated the penny press, the New York Sun, was: "It shines for ALL." The marketplace that embraced the masses became the touchstone of value. "We are the only great people of the civilized world that is a pure democracy," Henry James proclaimed in the Nation in 1878, "and we are the only great people that is exclusively commercial." Within two decades, when rural free delivery was established, a corporate beneficiary was Sears, Roebuck and Company, which got its mail-order catalogues classified as educational material. In so emphatically commercial a society, its most accessible philosopher (William James) would speak of the "cash-value" of truth and the nation's wisest jurist (Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.) would speak of the "marketplace of ideas." America's most effective dissident would speak before the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 of the "promissory note ... of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," even though the government had instead "given the Negro people a bad check."
Such metaphors come easily in a society in which aristocratic and socialist standards are weak; because American culture is broadly democratic, the popular arts aim at intelligibility. Good taste is virtually synonymous with mass taste, as Jewish immigrants quickly grasped and proclaimed. The box office, according to theatrical producer Lee Shubert, "never lies." The "mob," Irving Berlin insisted, "is always right." Adolph Zukor, who founded Paramount Pictures, entitled his 1953 autobiography, The Public Is Never Wrong. To marketers, it is infallible.
Though studies of national character are no longer fashionable, the American has been widely believed to be something other than an ersatz European. Indeed, the first great professional historian of the United States, Frederick Jackson Turner, once characterized the American mind in terms that do not sound European: "practical, inventive, experimental." In pursuing an errand into the wilderness, the American was further driven by a "dominant individualism," with a "buoyancy and exuberance which comes from freedom." That "dominant individualism" to which Turner referred was hardly confined to the wilderness, and tended to counter collectivist aspirations. Americans were not supposed to be limited by the accidents of birth and inherited status. Truths were supposed to be self-evident, according to the Declaration of Independence; and in "Self-Reliance" (1841), Emerson insisted that "nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." The ethos of "Americanism," Theodore Roosevelt asserted in 1899, required treating one's neighbor "on his worth as a man," and forgetting "whether he be of English, German, Irish or any other" sort of nationality, "whether he be of Catholic or Protestant faith." Even Turner, a son of the Middle Border (Portage, Wisconsin) called his fellow citizens "a mixed race, English in neither nationality nor characteristics." Difference was not supposed to be a handicap. Individualism sanctioned the pursuit of personal ambition, however extravagant, for the sake of a loosely defined American Dream. The ideology of individual aspiration could therefore be compressed into a couplet for Disney's Pinocchio (1940): "When you wish upon a star / Makes no difference who you are."
With hierarchy impugned, authority need not relied upon; the buoyant freedom that Turner exalted promoted instincts for improvisation. Americans, a visitor noted in 1837, "live in the future and make their country as they go along." (Remember that during the first of Indiana Jones's adventures, he flamboyantly yells: "I'm making this up as I go along.") The arts attracted lonely pioneers, literary historian Alfred Kazin declared, each of whom "fought his way through lifeand through his geniusas if no one had ever fought before. Each one, that is, began afreshbegan on his own terms." American life is relatively unregulated, and its do-it-yourself "genius" is characteristically described as raw, untutored, undisciplined, uncertified, flexible, unbounded. George Herriman, the mulatto comic-strip artist, claimed that "Krazy Kat was not conceived, not born, it jes' grew"an allusion to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Topsy; and Jes' Grew became, in novelist Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo (1972), an archetype for jazz and more broadly for mass culture. With America as a Civilization (1957), Max Lerner was probably the last scholar intrepid enough to write a single systematic work on that daunting topic. But in the decade it took to write the book, he conceded, so much had been transformed that much of it was "no longer valid." Even during a presumably quiescent decade, "American civilization had been changing drastically right under my fingertips as I was writing about it."
It is also decentralized and diverse. A passable history can be written about "French Post-War Culture from Sartre to Bardot"the subtitle of the 1984 book Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in which authors Paul Webster and Nicholas Powell focus on the cafés in only one neighborhood in one city. That sort of compression would make no sense for the United States. Its film capital was not the literary capital (if indeed there was one), and no neighborhood (not even Greenwich Village) has ever been the locus of national creativity. Even when a city like Chicago produced more than its share of important American writers, it is easy to forget how the lines of descent and influence got crossed in a multiethnic and multiracial society. The Chicago school is usually associated with "realism," and one of its proponents, James T. Farrell, is considered an authoritative and authentic chronicler of the Irish-American experience. But his own development as a writer was not unmediated: Farrell was inspired by reading, and then meeting and talking with, Abraham Cahan. Bellow is commonly taken to be an authoritative guide to some aspects of American Jewry. But he was wary of being assigned to a "school" whose other chief representatives did not hone their skills in Chicago, and objected to the yoking of his name with Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth, as though these three novelists had become business partners, "the Hart Schaffner and Marx of our trade." Bellow squeezed off another round against such critics by adding: "People who make labels should be in the gumming business."
Nevertheless, labels are often necessary to establish the proper limits of a subject. Who, for example, is a Jew? The classical definition is anyone whose mother is Jewish, even if Judaism is not practiced, so long as he or she has not converted to another faith. But a Jew is also anyone who chooses to be one, by undergoing (in the phrase of the Zionist journalist Hayim Greenberg) "the process of Jewish religious naturalization." (Judaic law forbids any distinction to be drawn between Jews by birth and Jews by choice.) To be a Jew is tribal or it is formal, or both, which is partly why a definition gets tricky. Anyone who practices Judaism is a Jew, but far from every Jew practices Judaism. To be a Jew can be a social identity as well as a religious affiliation.
Judaism has also been defined as "whatever Jews did or do together to preserve their collective identity," even practices that may not be rituals or invested with theological meaning. Judaism in this sense may be a cultureor at least at the heart of a culture. But there can also be Jews without Jewish culture. The obverse is not true: there cannot be a cohesive Jewish culture without Jews. That is why the definition of who is Jewish is salient. Whom a burial society is allowed to inter is not synonymous with whose creative talent has been cultivated in a historically significant way. But a consideration of Jewish identity itself is a precondition for exploring Jewish culture.
Once upon a time, to be Jewish was not very problematic. Jewish identity was once so precise and rigid as to be the butt of humor, as in the psychiatrist Theodore Reik's report of a defendant who is asked by the judge: "What's your name?" "Menachem Jomtef." "What is your profession?" "I am a dealer in secondhand clothes." "Your domicile?" "Rzcezow." "Your religious creed?" The defendant can scarcely disguise his exasperation: "I am called Menachem Jomtef, I am an old-clothes man, I live in RzcezowI am perhaps a Hussite?" So certain an identity (who is a Jew?) meant that its rationale (why be a Jew?) was unexamined. That question, the essayist Ahad Ha-Am commented, would have skirted the edges of blasphemy for previous generationsand would also have demonstrated egregious stupidity. He himself considered the question of remaining Jewish quite pointless, akin to being "asked why I remain my father's son."
Such conditions have been rarely believed to be escapable. Isaiah Berlin asserted: "A Jew is a Jew, as a table is a table. Things and persons are what they are and one accepts them naturally. I've never been either proud or ashamed of being a Jew any more than I'm proud or ashamed of possessing two arms, two legs [or] two eyes." The British philosopher added: "I take my Jewishness for granted," as something "natural." He claimed "never in my life either [to have] wished not to be a Jew, or wished to be one." Citizens of the Soviet Union did not have a choice; and its system of internal passports listed Jews by "nationality," which was irrevocable. The dissident Lev Kopelev, the model for the philologist Rubin in Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle, could not discover "in my conscious mind anything that would link me to the nationalistic ideals or religious traditions of Jewry." But Soviet law made his identity unambiguous and unalterable.
By the time the American republic had been founded, however, its residents would generally not bear the marks of origins. A nation made up of so many strangers and sojourners and newcomers does not facilitate encounters with anyone beating names like Scipio Africanus or El Greco (to say nothing of Philo Judaeus). Because certain entertainers bore names like Ella Fitzgerald and Eddie Murphy should not mislead anyone into believing that they were Irish. Recent Cabinet officers with names like Schlesinger, Blumenthal (baptized a Presbyterian), and Weinberger were not Jews; others, with a name like Brown, were. Yet essentialism was a commonplace until rather recently. Phil Green wished to become a Jewfor eight weeksin Laura Z. Hobson's best-selling novel and then in the Oscar-winning adaptation of Gentleman's Agreement (1947). But the fiancée of the journalist masquerading as a Jew to investigate the scope of antisemitism berates him for doing "an impossible thing. You were what you were, for the one life you had," Kathy Lacey tells Phil. "You couldn't help it if you were born Christian instead of Jewish." Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly. Boys will be boys. And a yid blaybt a yideven though that last piece of folk wisdom was often contested. Some Jews could wriggle out of such an identity, or try to. The financier Otto Kahn had once been a Jew, he told a companion, who responded that he had once been a hunchback. The conversation may be apocryphal, but the message transmitted was unambiguous: such escape routes exemplified self-delusion.
Such essentialism also punctuated the Second Dialogue in Israel of the American Jewish Congress in 1963, when Max Lerner, drawing on Justice Holmes's view of truth, remarked: "Most people ... live by `can't helps'; most of us are what we are because we can be no other and we can do no other. We in America, I think, also have our `can't-helps.' We can't help being part of the larger culture, but also for many of usperhaps for most of uswe can't help being Jews." He did not "mean simply because we were born Jews or because it was thrust upon us. It might be that we would be better Jews" if we were more knowledgeable. "And yet we can't help being Jews because there is a strange, inner necessity within us which demands we be Jews in the sense of being members of the Jewish historical community and of making a contribution to that, in terms of the urgencies of time and place within America." Essentialism poses problems when its proponents disagree, however, and when proper means of adjudication and reconciliation cannot be stipulated. At the same 1963 conference, Leslie A. Fiedler showed that he shared Lerner's essentialism, even as the literary critic rejected a triumphalist notion of the Chosen People: "If you are chosen, you cannot choose! The Jews are a Chosen People because they have no choice. We are chosen; the choice is outside of us. We are Jews! Defined as Jews! Essentially Jews!"
Another product of Newark spoke at the same conference in Israel, and indicated how Jewish identity was something that was fabricated rather than inherited. Philip Roth could accept as authoritative "no body of law, no body of learning, and no language, and finally, no Lordwhich seems to me significant things to be missing. But there were reminders constantly that one was a Jew and that there were goyim out there." What the novelist picked up from his upbringing "was a psychology, not a culture and not a history in its totality. The simple point here is ... that what one received of culture, history, learning, law, one received in strands, in little bits and pieces. What one received whole, however, what one feels whole, is a kind of psychology." From the residue of the notion of chosenness came a psychology by which, "as one grew up in America, [one could] begin to create a moral character for oneself. That is, one had to invent a Jew.... There was a sense of specialness and from then on it was up to you to invent your specialness; to invent, as it were, your betterness." Roth cited two novels that he admired, written by his partners in Hart Schaffner and Marx. In Bellow's second novel, The Victim (1947), and in Malamud's second novel, The Assistant (1957), "you find the central figure having to find out what it means to be a Jew and then invent a character for himself, or invent certain moral responses, invent attitudes." Making it up as she went along was also the claim of Kim Chernin, the author of a 1986 novel about an ancient sect of Jewish women (The Flame Bearers). The daughter of a Communist who hailed Moses as "a radical, a people's hero" and who celebrated Chanukah as a "liberation struggle against a foreign imperialist ruling class," Chernin had to become "a patchwork Jew, stitched together from every sort of scrap." Identity is thus a kind of bricolage. No longer could Jews feel guided by some inner necessity or by a divine destiny. No longer did outside hostility give them little choice. Nor did they still feel fully at home only among one another, assured of their collective destiny.
The story of American Jews in the twentieth century can be told in terms of the erosion of a stable identity, so that eventually all of them would be described as Jews by choice; the momentum that had begun in Emancipation would enable its legatees to choose not to be Jews at all. Welcome to modernity. Under its auspices, according to Stuart Hall, a British exponent of cultural studies, "cultural identity" entails "becoming" more than "being." Rather than some preexisting state prior to the stimulus of historical change, identities can "undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialized past, they are subject to the continuous `play' of history, culture and power." Identity should be considered whatever name "we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past." If communities are not primordial but imagined, if tradition is not ancient but invented, then identity is, according to this fashionable view, not something that one is born with. Identity is constructed. It is mutable, subject to collective transmission and also to individual will and agency.
But the more it becomes apparent that identities are learned rather than given, contingent rather than secure, historically positioned rather than inherent, the stronger the temptation to discern porousness even before the granting of civic equality. Even before Emancipation, Jews were not only Jews, exempt from the pressures that shaped their culture. Among Roman Jewry in the early modern period and with increasing momentum through the nineteenth century, Italian was heavily flavored with Judeo-Romanesco a unique, often Hebraically based, vocabulary. There were interactions with others despite confinement to the ghetto; the cuisine varied somewhat from the local diet. Jewish subculture, according to Kenneth Stow, an authority on Italian Jewry, went beyond merely religious expression.
Or take Vladimir Medem, who cofounded the Bund in 1897, the same year as political Zionism. He had been baptized as an infant into the Russian Orthodox Church and picked up Yiddish only as an adult, without ever converting to Judaism. But such cases were somewhat freakish. Only with the revolutions of 1917 would Russian Jews achieve civil equality; and on the desk of their greatest historian, Simon Dubnow, was a picture of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose works Dubnow called "kitve kodesh" (holy writings). Medem and Dubnow illustrate how permeable was the eastern European Jewish society that the twin forms of totalitarianism would bury alive.
Such flexibility where the Emancipation was late to penetrate can also be found in the prototype that Hannah Arendt had applied to western European Jews: the pariah. Her four exemplars are Kafka and Bernard Lazare (neither of whom practiced Judaism); Heine, who never repudiated his youthful decision to "crawl to the cross" (but never lost his Jewish consciousness either); and Chaplin, whose ancestry was often believed to have been Jewish. Such a belief was unwarranted, as she conceded: "Even if not himself a Jew, he has epitomized in an artistic form a character born of the Jewish pariah mentality."
The United States may be the site, however, that has most fully tested the category of Jew, where the definition is loose enough to embrace culture rather than religious belief or the identity of one's mother. In planning an encyclopedia on the history of American Jewish women, its two coeditors wondered about including Marilyn Monroe. She had converted immediately prior to her third marriage, after submitting to two hours of religious instruction. Was that sufficient? To solve this conundrum of identification, Paula E. Hyman of Yale asked her adolescent daughters, "who were tuned in to popular culture"; and Deborah Dash Moore of Vassar asked her "similarly situated sons." Exclusion was the unanimous verdict, which the editorial board of the encyclopedia upheld (though, in any Reform synagogue, Monroe was eligible for an aliyathe honor of being called to the Torah). However refreshingly democratic the procedure the encyclopedia adopted, what remains elusive is a clear set of criteria by which such a judgment is reached.
Nevertheless the case for contingency and plasticity can be pushed too far. Jewish identity cannot be satisfactorily reduced to the play of capricious historical forces that make cultures into options. Even if identity is socially constructed rather than "given," who would transmit or inherit it other than a Jew? The Jewish religion can be adopted, its laws followed, its rituals practiced, its beliefs sincerely held. But how does an individual select a culture? Ordinarily only those born and raised within Jewish families, woven into the fabric of the Jewish people, could have the experiences that facilitate the use of patterns of meaning according to the heritage of that particular culture. The legacy of Jewish history becomes one's own most readily when one's ancestors were part of it.
That Judaism accepts converts means only that membership in a distinctive people is not transmitted exclusively in the genes. If Jewish culture depended on choices made available to every generation, something as intricately systematic as a culture could not be perpetuated. Neither the Jewish people nor their culture can be categorized as a voluntary association, comparable to the Elks or the National Rifle Association. From birth forward, freedom of choice is never possible, even for those who belong to such organizations; the life that one lives is inevitably circumscribed. And neither Judaism nor Jewish culture could be rendered continuous if the tribal and ancestral links between the generations were severedor defined as arbitrary. The recent scholarly emphasis on social construction obscures the determinacy that governs cultural persistence.
The modernity that Americans have found so congenial also tends to undermine the rigidity that separates Jews from others. To ensure persistence has traditionally entailed a sense of distinctiveness, and religious faith once marked as well as reinforced the singularity of membership in the Jewish people. Judaism codifies an awareness of difference and inculcates a sense of unique destiny. Judaism virtually defines itself in contrast to idolatry (which is one of the seven Noahide prohibitions), and contrasts true believers to the "nations." Indeed, "without the Other," historian David Biale has argued, "the Jew of `Judaism' lacks definition." Judaism is not a religion famous for extolling ambiguity, but instead promotes "binarism." Havdalah, marking the end of the Sabbath and the beginning of the rest of the week, means "separation." Consider as well the distinctions between milk and meat, kosher and trayf (though there is also the third category of pareve), the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai, and finally Jew and Gentile. The first generation of American Jewish philosophers and literary critics, one historian surmised, showed "a mode of thinking in dichotomies," a legacy of the "intellectual structures acquired in their fathers' worlds."
Because binarism is deeply encoded in historic Judaism, can it be mere coincidence that the sociologist who analyzed religion in terms of the gap between sacred and profane, Emile Durkheim, was the son of a rabbi? Nor is it surprising that the anthropologist who insisted that binary opposition (nature/culture, raw/cooked, "hot"/"cold") is locked into all social structures and mental processes is Lévi-Strauss, the grandson of a rabbi. A third French Jewish thinker, philosopher Jacques Derrida, has also argued that dichotomies are codependent. Difference is how to begin to understand cultureand indeed to grasp the making of the self, which is formed in relation to the Other.
But if the imperatives of religion cease to determine Jewish identity, which has become alterable, then the consequences are what Marjorie Garber, a cultural critic, has called a "category crisis." By that she means "a failure of definitional distinction, a borderline that becomes permeable, that permits of border crossings from one (apparently distinct) category to another: black/white, Jew/Christian, noble/bourgeois, master/servant, master/slave." This definition stems from her own investigation of cross-dressing. The category crisis of transvestism begins with a very practical question: which public restroom does one use?
Garber's analysis finds some confirmation in American life itself, which philosopher George Santayana called "a powerful solvent." The national experience is not compatible with taxonomy. Under modern conditions, Judaism itself faces a category crisis, as integration into an open society has demonstrated, according to David Biale, that "the identity boundaries between the Jew and the Other are inherently unstable." To historicize Jewish culture is to recognize that "the difference between `Jew' and `goy' is no longer ontological." He adds: "The relationship of Jewish culture to its surroundings was, and is, dynamic and permeable." Dividing lines so clearly marked in principle were crossed in practice, and rigidities were not immune to the threat of dissolution.
After all, if gender is socially constructed, why not race and ethnicity too? None of Lenny Bruce's routines is more famous than his pair of distinctions intended to discredit traditional versions of Jewish identity: "All Drake's cakes are goyish.... Instant potatoesgoyish," and so are TV dinners and cat boxes and trailer parks. But though "fruit salad is Jewish," "body and fender men are goyish." Another dualistic comedian with acutely developed ethnographic interests, Jackie Mason, generalized that "you never, ever see a Jew under a car," and also noticed the absence of his co-religionists on the roster of rodeo performers. Only Gentiles would risk falling off of broncos ("I say, shmuck, use the other hand!"). As for jockeys, who must weigh under a hundred pounds, Mason opined, "a Jew is not going to give up coffee and Coke just to sit on a horse."
It was Bruce, however, who most strikingly anticipated the academic formulation of identity as a social construction, telling his listeners to "dig [that] I'm Jewish. Count Basie's Jewish. Ray Charles is Jewish." And so is Hadassah. But neither B'nai B'rith nor Eddie Cantor were. (Here demurral must be entered. Rather than derogate the B'nai B'rith as "goyish," Bruce might have substituted, say, the American Jewish Committee; and the former Israel Iskowitz was an electric and impassioned performer deeply committed to Jewish life and to Jewish as well as other charities.) Bruce was right to assert that skin color is irrelevant. But should "soul" or spiritual authenticity or a capacity to swing or to be hip be the true signifiers of Jewish identity? That, at the risk of sounding square, is dubious. More plausible was the comedian's claim that, "if you live in New York or any other big city, you are Jewish. It doesn't matter even if you're Catholic; if you live in New York, you're Jewish. If you live in Butte, Montana, you're going to be goyish even if you're Jewish."
Explaining a joke is awkward, although Bruce's routine is too extensive and elaborate to fit the label of a mere joke. In an era when the persistence of ethnicity was not a sociological commonplace, he was making such an accident of birth more decisive than class or geography or religion. That hardly establishes the soundness of his monologue, even as a loose generalization. Professor Fiedler was then living in Missoula, Montana, but was quite recognizably Jewish, having come from Newark and New York University. His eight children were from Montana, so it should be noted that most have considered themselves only "in some vestigial sense Jews." None "has at the present moment a Jewish mate; nor, for that matter, do I," Fielder acknowledged in 1989. So one particular family's history indirectly confirmed Bruce's point, which, within its limits, is well taken: "kosher style" has exerted considerable impact in urban America, but has played less well in the heartland. If only for purposes of comic exaggeration, his antiessentialist riff on Jewish identity is suggestive. So democratic, so diverse, and so hospitable did the nation prove to be that a customary way of understanding the Diaspora needed revision.
Elsewhere the hegemony of Gentiles was so taken for granted that, as Sartre argued shortly before the state of Israel was proclaimed, Jews are presumably destined to represent "negativity" forever. Theirs was the permanent status of the "other." In defending them in 1946 against anti-semitism, he did not bother to read a single Jewish book and therefore could not imagine what positive contribution could be made by Diaspora Jews: "They cannot take pride in any collective work that is specifically Jewish, or in a civilization properly Jewish, or in a common mysticism." So much for the Talmud, for the Golden Age of Spain, and for the Kabbalah. Sartre was hardly alone in doubting that Jews could form a culture of their own, however permeable. The émigré sociologist Max Horkheimer also believed that his fellow Jews perpetually embodied the "negative principle," which is why by the 1970s he criticized Israeli nationalists for having become "positive themselves."
Henry Pachter, another diagnostician of Weimar culture who relocated himself in America, announced that the condition of a "rootless, cosmopolitan Jew" suited him "better than any other role." Ilya Ehrenburg, who was part bohemian and part Bolshevik, defined himself as a low "as long as a single antisemite remains on earth." Such obduracy is undoubtedly a recipe for eternal life, if not much of an recommendation for any religious or cultural affirmation. In Ehrenburg's 1921 novel, The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Disciples, the protagonist asks representatives of various nations which word should be preserved from the human vocabulary: "yes" or "no." The American is not unique in picking the former; but only the Jew, the perpetual dissident, chooses "no."
So familiar a condition once led Isaiah Berlin to ask: "What docs every Jew have in common, whether he hails from Riga or from Aden, from Berlin or from Marrakesh or Glasgow?" Berlin answered his own question: "A sense of unease in society. Nowhere do almost all Jews feel entirely at home." His interlocutor tried to rebut by citing Sir Isaiah himself as "a counter-example. Surely you feel at ease and even amused at the most solemn state occasions, and in the company of imposing and powerful men?" Berlin answered, "You are wrong." He admitted to feeling not completely at home in the land of his adoption: "I am a devoted Anglophile, not an Englishman." Berlin added that because Jews "are a minority everywhere" except in Israel, "constantly being made to look over their shoulders to sec what other people think of them," their culture developed "in an atmosphere of intermittent uneasiness." Perhaps justifying his own refusal to live in Israel, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik of Boston described Galut (Exile) as "the essence of the Jewish people," with its triggering antecedents in the expulsion from Eden. It may not be accidental that his writings are pervaded by references to homelessness and loneliness.
The depth of such estrangement should not be exaggerated. Because Christendom worshiped a Jew, the people from whom Jesus had sprung could not be ignored as ancillary to Western civilization. During the Great War, David Lloyd George told Mrs. James de Rothschild: "When Dr. Weizmann was talking of Palestine[,] he kept bringing up place names which were more familiar to me than those on the Western Front," where British soldiers were fighting and dying. Jewish civilization and its offshoots were not mere footnotes to the history taking place on center stage. When an Israeli archeologist guided Neil Armstrong through the Old City and showed him the Hulda Gate, where Jesus had presumably trod, the astronaut exclaimed: "I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon."
The subsequent predicament of Jesus's coreligionists in the Diaspora does not stem only from exclusion but rather from feeling so integral to a Christendom that has also stigmatized them. In 1916 the radical critic Randolph Bourne identified as "the anomaly of the Jew" the feeling of being "culturally [and] racially ... peculiar." But the Jew "has proven himself perhaps the most assimilable of all races to other and quite alien cultures." A sympathetic Gentile, Bourne had already hailed the project of young Jewish intellectuals to enrich what he hoped would become a transnational America.
It was in the pages of the Menorah Journal that Bourne diagnosed the anomalous condition of the Jew in a cosmopolitan nation. The magazine had been founded in 1915 to articulate an American Jewish culture, to encourage something separate and continuous that Jewish immigrants and their progeny transplanted and adapted and created. In that year Horace Kallen made the most valiant effort of any Jewish thinker hitherto to legitimate ethnic difference when he coined the term "cultural pluralism." Preferring to validate the Many rather than envision the One, Kallen called for a society bound into a federation of ethnic groups. Irreversible data of birth could be converted into opportunities for self-realization; ancestry would be honored as a means of revitalizing democratic possibility. The individual could be anchored in a continuous and comforting fabric of institutions that enriched the larger community. Kallen was the pioneer theorist of resistance to the ideal of homogenization.
That he also became perhaps the first intellectual to try to describe the substance of an American Jewish culture reinforces his claim to historical attention. A champion of "Hebraism" in the early issues of the Menorah Journal, Kallen was praised half a century, later by Mordecai Kaplan for having most satisfactorily reconciled the Jewish heritage with American citizenship. Kaplan was being generous. Though Kallen had struggled to find in the ethos of "Hebraism" something peculiarly (if not uniquely) Jewish, he did not succeed in doing so. His basic text was the Book of Job, a work of resonant power, but typical neither of the Bible nor of Judaic thought. What Kallen meant by "Hebraism" remained murky: what exactly is "the total biography of the Jewish soul"? He had a weakness for such phraseology: by the end of his career, he forsook "Hebraism" for the very nondenominational "secularism." Such truth in labeling was admirable; but to be a secularist, you don't have to be Jewish. This had been the problem with "Hebraism" as well. Whatever it was supposed to be, it sounded suspiciously like the go-with-the-flow pragmatism, meliorism, and empiricism that had been absorbed from teachers like William James. Indeed, Kallen was so deeply indebted to non-Hebraic thought that, of the six thinkers he claimed had most influenced him (including Barrett Wendell and George Santayana), only oneSolomon Schechterwas Jewish.
Kallen had failed to locate the distinguishing features of a Jewish culture that might enrich and enliven the larger American culture while also providing a striking contrast or challenge to it. The attributes of plasticity and integration make the task of specifying what American Jewish culture has been or might be fiendishly difficult. But that was the project of the children of eastern European immigrants who founded and contributed to the Menorah Journal. Its masthead promised devotion to "Jewish culture and ideas." The editors and contributors described such values as a response to the cruelties of bigotry, a gesture of resistance to the excesses of Americanization, a necessary adjunct to the Zionist movement, and an elaboration of Judaism itself. Less than six months after assuming the leadership of the Zionist Organization of America, even a figure as distant from Judaism as Brandeis was urging readers of the Menorah Journal to seize "the opportunity ... for the further development of Jewish ... culture."
For those who repudiated tradition and who objected to the categorization of Jewry as a religious group, the magazine offered a forum. Jewishness could be more thanand not merelya substitute for piety. Culture was a way for a minority losing its religious moorings in the New World to sustain itself, and was assumed to be fully compatible with the exercise of critical intelligence. But the question of how Jewishness and culture could be reconciled and sustained among the second generation did not resolve into any consensus or confidence. Although the debates in the Menorah Journal heightened the ethnic consciousness of Jewish intellectuals, the Great Depression reduced to anemia the circulation and ideological intensity of a magazine that lingered until it expired in 1962.
Could anyone specify the attributes of an American Jewish culture? In 1916 Walter Lippmann, the most brilliant American journalist of the century, dodged such an assignment, presented by editor Henry Hurwitz. Lippmann responded: "I have read Bourne with admiration and a touch of skepticism. I am considerably puzzled over the whole matter of dual allegiances, and have been for a long time." Though disclaiming any preparation "to write anything about Jewish questions," Lippmann acknowledged that "Bourne raises issues which go to the roots of political science, and it is a trifle hard for me to see just whence he derives his faith. [Felix] Frankfurter, Kallen, and I are slender reeds on which to lean ... and just what Bourne and the rest of you mean by culture I can't make out." The cofounder of the New Republic then inquired: "If you get rid of the theology, and the biological mysticism, and treat the literature as secular, and refuse to regard the Jew as in any sense a chosen people, just what elements of a living culture are left of a culture that is distinct and specially worth cultivating?"
Without specifying a category crisis, Lippmann nonetheless crystallized its problem: how could an identity without a fully formed historic ideology result in a recognizable culture? What are its attributes? Here any answer is treacherous, and generalization can be of only limited validity. But even half-truths can be valuable, and a half can still be quite a bit.
Jewish culture in the United States cannot be assessed according to the standard, is this artifact so authentic and distinctive that no Gentile could have produced it? If this distinction were the criterion, then no Jewish culture would exist. Processes of spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual development cannot be quarantined from the rest of America. Its culture and its Jewish segment are too firmly braided. This is the problem that faces anyone studying American Jewish culture: the larger culture seems so porous, the smaller one so fragile and indistinct. In the United States, no chasm separates the shape that Jews have given their experiences and the operations of the majority culture, into which Jews fit mostly by making it up as they went along.
At the turn of the century, nobody took more starkly compelling or more enduring photographs of Lower East Side residents than Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, neither of whom was Jewish. Nor was the legendary team of director D. W. Griffith and cameraman Billy Bitzer, who kept enlarging the possibilities of cinema in shooting Romance of a Jewess (1908). Anne Nichols's Abie's Irish Rose (1925) was such a Broadway hit that the play reached an audience of perhaps eleven million; Abie was not her coreligionist. Among the splendors of synagogue architecture is Beth Sholom (1954) in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. A preacher's son named Frank Lloyd Wright is responsible. United Artists' version of Fiddler on the Roof (1971) may be as commonly known and appreciated as the stage play (to say nothing of Sholom Aleichem's tales). But Norman Jewison, a Methodist, directed the film. Boundaries may be blurred (or low enough to surmount), but any consideration of what Gentiles are mimicking or enhancing requires the assumption that there is an American Jewish culture. Adopting the voice of the blocked and beleaguered Henry Bech, John Updike thrice did a parody of the postwar Jewish novel that was more than passable. His own identityliterary and otherwiseis secure.
Contrast the mysterious career of Henry Harland, who has been credited with inaugurating the themes of assimilation and intermarriage that would permeate American Jewish fiction for a century thereafter. But though he wrote novels like Mrs. Peixada (1886) and The Yoke of the Thorah (1887) under the name of Sidney Luska, Harland was in fact a Protestant only pretending to be a Jew, whose phony ethnicity was exposed when one of his novels did not merely depict intermarriage but also endorsed it. He eventually expatriated himself, converted to Catholicism, and lied through his teeth to a reporter: "I never knew a Sidney Luska." (Such facile shuffling of identity cards was spoofed in Woody Allen's account of a friend who kept switching back and forth on sex-change operations, because "he just couldn't find anything he liked.") Creative Jews in the United States have operated in a protean culture that makes hierarchy, authority, and rigidity an affront to democratic aspirations and the inclusive tendencies of the marketplace.
And because American Jewish subculture is neither autonomous nor impermeable, the criterion of eligibility cannot be that a Gentile could not have painted it, or drawn it, or composed it, or written it. No artifact of Jewish culture is more manifestly authentic than a Haggadah. But in 1512 a Franciscan monk did a Latin translation. Is it Jewish? Not even the effort by historians of premodern Jewry to isolate an uncontaminated cultural identity can succeed. Between what is Gentile and what is Jewish in American culture, no fire wall can be constructed.
A novelist like George Eliot could imagine a Jewish protagonist, but such a projection does not make Daniel Deronda (1876) a specimen of Jewish culture (even though the most important Jewish literary figure in nineteenth-century America, Emma Lazarus, became sympathetic to her people's claims to Palestine only after reading Eliot's novel). Leopold Bloom constitutes the radical terminus of assimilation, and imagines himself speaking to Dublin crowds in his pidgin Hebrew: "Aleph Bet Ghimel Daleth Hagadah Tephilim Kosher Yom Kippur Hanukah Roschaschana Beni Brith Bar Mitzvah Mazzoth Askenazim Meshuggah Talith." Jewish only on his father's side, the advertising canvasser is uncircumcised. He did not become bar mitzvah. He talks like an agnostic and perhaps even like an atheist. Yet no Dubliner takes Bloom to be anything other than a Jew. (In reimagining Odysseus, "only a foreigner would do," the novelist once explained. "The Jews were foreigners at that time in Dublin.")
Because Bloom is barely yet unmistakably Jewish, he should intrigue the Jewish historian. But Ulysses is not a Jewish book, despite its decisive influence on Call It Sleep. The film The Great Dictator (1940) not only makes a Jewish barber its protagonist, but also puts Chaplin's politics on the side of the sentimental faith in surmounting bigotry that sustained so many Jews. Perhaps that is why the comedian became a sort of honorary Jew. But his film cannot be called Jewish, any more than Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) or The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) can be said to illustrate black culture (even though William Styron adopted the "voice" of a slave rebel). These novels are rightly read as specimens of the souls of white folk, not black. Michelangelo's Moses and the spiritual "Go Down, Moses" reflect the Jewish influence on others, not the continuity of Jewish culture. Categories are not easy to establish, but they are not meaningless, nor are distinctions impossible to parse.
Should American Jewish culture be allowed to include works that do not bear directly on the beliefs and experiences of the Jews as a people? Or is any intellectual or artistic activity that they have initiated in the United States, whether or not such work bears traces of Jewish content, a contribution to American Jewish culture? Does Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet (1970) count, for instance, but not his Henderson the Rain King (1959)? Does Joseph Heller's Good as Gold (1979) merit consideration, but not his Catch-22 (1961)? Or all of Malamud's novels after his first, The Natural (1952)? What about Ben Shahn, who illustrated Maurice Samuel's The World of Sholom Aleichem (1943) as well as a Haggadah (1966), but who is better known for, say, his artistic protest of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti? Whether representing Jews or not, these works are expressions of the same intelligence, distilled products of the same experiences, manifestations of the same sensibility.
For the historian of Jewish culture, books and plays and paintings that depict Jews may be more revelatory and important. But to expel from consideration whatever omits Jewish subject matter unnecessarily diminishes the effort to understand the Jews who created such works, and would make the task of classification even more difficult than it already is. (How much Jewish content would count? And how overt or emphatic should Jewish themes be to merit inclusion?) Moreover, some works are not even representational. There can be no observable Jewish content in the canvases of Adolph Gottlieb, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko; Abstract Expressionism has no content. Are their paintings, or the sculpture of, say, Louise Nevelson, off-limits to the student of American Jewish culture? To define that culture too stringently risks pushing nonreferential masterpieces away, and would repudiate the interpretive possibilities inherent in Meyer Schapiro's claim that no "pure art" unaffected by experience is imaginable: "All fantasy and formal construction, even the random scribbling of the hand, are shaped by experience and by nonaesthetic concerns." To insist that the artifacts of Jewish culture must exhibit overt Jewish representations, or explicit Jewish subjects, would impoverish the appreciation of that "fruitful and inexhaustible inheritance" passed on to Delmore Schwartz.
Nowhere is the word "Jew" mentioned in the fiction of Katka, whose status among Jewish writers of the twentieth century is at least as secure as anyone else's (even if the canon itself no longer is). The word "Jew" is not mentioned in the Book of Job either, nor was its protagonist apparently a Hebrew. Indeed, it is unlikely that even Abraham, the first monotheist, was in any ethnic sense a Jew; there was no Jewish people to which he could belong. Even more obviously, Adam and Eve were not Jewish. They did their share to reinforce one rabbi's assertion that "Genesis is a very goyishe work. It smells of the ancient Near East with its pantheon of fatally flawed heroes and misbehaving demigods," much in need of reinterpretation "to make it conform to classical rabbinic standards." But the presence of such figures in Genesis and other books does not detract from the status of the Bible as a Jewish book. (It is tempting to revise Bruce's routine, so that Genesis is goyish; Psalms, Jewish.) Written in Aramaic and Hebrew, the Book of Daniel is Jewish. Written in German, Martin Buber's Daniel (1913) is Jewish too. Written in English, The Book of Daniel (1971) should be similarly classified, and not only because E. L. Doctorow's novel is populated with Jewish characters whose multigenerational oppositional stance to bourgeois America is representative. The same author's other fiction, whether or not diagnosing Jewish life, should also be incorporated into a comprehensive interpretation of Jewish culture. So should "Visions of Daniel" (1990), by Robert Pinsky, who became poet laureate of the United States.
What then is Jewish culture? It is whatever individuals of Jewish birth (who did not sincerely convert to another faith) have contributed to art and thought. Jewish culture is not merely synonymous with Judaism. To include the philosophical and legalistic works of Maimonides, for example, but not his medical treatises would be to constrict the boundaries of Jewish culture. After the Enlightenment and Emancipation, which have dramatically shrunk the sphere of religion, narrowly liturgical and spiritual themes should not exhaust the meaning of cultural expression. If Jewish culture is more than Judaism, then a religious or ideological standard should not preclude an investigation of what Jews have created, adapted, and conserved. What Raymond Williams summarized as intellectual and aesthetic processes and practices suggests that an a priori determination of what is Jewish is reductive, and cannot do justice to what talented thinkers and artists have bequeathed. (By analogy, what some U.S. citizens have done in arts and letters cannot be cordoned off as un-American activities either. The American mind is too multifarious for that.)
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Meet the Author
STEPHEN J. WHITFIELD is Professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, and author of seven other books, including The Culture of the Cold War (1990), A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till (1988), and American Space, Jewish Time (1988).
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