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The Haunted Smile: The Story Of Jewish Comedians In America

The Haunted Smile: The Story Of Jewish Comedians In America


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Lawrence Epstein's The Haunted Smile tackles a subject both poignant and delightful: the story of Jewish comedians in America. For the past century and more, American comedy has drawn its strength and soul from the comic genius of Jewish performers and writers. An incomplete listing of names makes the point: The Marx Brothers, Jack Benny, Fanny Brice, George Burns, Milton Berle, Jackie Mason, Joan Rivers, Rodney Dangerfield, Mel Brooks, Alan King, Mort Sahl, Buddy Hackett, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Richard Belzer, Jerry Seinfeld. These men and women, among others, form the canon of Jewish-American comedy.

In the words of the Detroit Jewish News, The Haunted Smile "offers us a deep and subtle understanding of how Jewish culture and American openness gave birth to a new style of entertainment." Often the best way to illuminate a point is to recount some of these comedians' own brilliant routines, and Epstein uses the comedian's work to great effect, making for a book that is both a thoughtful work of history and a great deal of fun.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781586481629
Publisher: PublicAffairs
Publication date: 11/27/2002
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 1,159,252
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

About the Author

Lawrence J. Epstein is an English professor and the author of The Haunted Smile: The Story of Jewish Comedians in America. He frequently lectures on American popular culture and lives with his wife and family on Long Island, New York.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


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Meyer Kubelsky's father had to struggle for nearly ten years before saving enough money to send his son to the Golden Land, the one place where hope still breathed, where Jews, through hard work and cheerful optimism, could survive, the land where even the Cossacks could not ride their horses. Meyer's father, a wine merchant, had followed the rules and gotten a passport for his son. Then, with the frightening control the authorities so arbitrarily exercised over Jewish lives, a government official told the family that despite the passport Meyer would not be allowed to leave. Distraught, the father concocted a desperate plan. He knew a man who delivered empty bottles to the Kubelsky wine shop and tavern. The man, seeking to help the young Kubelsky and to make a profit, agreed to the plan: Meyer would be smuggled out of Lithuania, hiding under a shipment of the bottles.

    The escape was successful. Meyer made his way to Hamburg, a principal departure point for ships to America, and in 1889 he landed in New York Harbor. Ellis Island had not yet been designated as the entry point for new immigrants, so Meyer entered the country through Castle Garden. He remained in New York for just a few days before setting out across the country to Chicago, where some of his landsmen had already settled and where he would eventually marry and become the father of a son named Benjamin, later known as Jack Benny.

    Such stories were not unique. Although most accounts of Jewish immigration to America begin at the New World's gateway, typically New York, in fact the effort to reach such debarkation points as Hamburg was often the most dangerous part of the entire journey. Sophie Tucker, for example, was born on the road from Russia across Poland. Her mother and young brother were traveling in a large wagon when Sophie's mother tapped the driver on the shoulder to let him know that the baby inside her had decided to enter the world. The driver promptly let the expectant mother and the two-year-old boy named Philip off the wagon—and then drove away. Luckily, there was a house nearby, and the mother and son got there in time for Sophie to be born. Sophie Tucker's mother was seventeen years old.

    Marrying so young was common. Another young man living in Eastern Europe named Louis Birnbaum was sixteen when he married Dorothy Bluth, fourteen. Two years and two children later, the couple decided that their future lay in the faraway land that all young Jewish people were talking about. After a two-week journey, they arrived in New York, where they would eventually have twelve children, the most famous of whom grew up to be George Burns.

    Many immigrants traveled alone and, like Meyer Kubelsky, would meet other immigrants in America and get married. Sam Marx, for instance, emigrated from Alsace wearing a green topcoat and a black stovepipe hat. Minnie Schoenberg came to America at fifteen from Dornum, Germany, where her father was a magician and her mother a harpist. Sam married her when Minnie was eighteen, and together they raised the most brilliant, riotous, hilarious brother act in American history, sons who would define comedy for their generation and beyond.

    Most of the comedians who became famous at the beginning of the twentieth century had ancestors who left Russia or Poland and ventured across hostile land only to make a dangerous ocean crossing and to disembark poverty stricken onto the shores of their dreamland. They joined the German Jewish immigrants who had come earlier in the nineteenth century and the Sephardic Jews who had come even earlier.

    Some of these comedians' ancestors had come earlier as well. George Jessel's grandfather, Edward Aaron Jessel, entered America in 1835, immediately joined in the gold rush, and eventually became an auctioneer in Chicago. Jessel's father was a playwright who then traveled the country selling what he could.

    Also, not all immigrants were poor. Milton Berle's father and the rest of the Berlinger family came from Wamp, Germany, and were well off. The first Uncle Miltie (Milton Berle's actual uncle for whom he was named) would rise to become the vice president of the Ex-Lax Corporation. The Berlingers were deeply proud of their German Jewish heritage and, like some others in that community, believed that the East European Jews were beneath them. Berle's mother's family came from Poland and was poor. His father's family was so upset at the match that they disowned him.

    These families of the great comedians were part of a historic movement of the Jewish people. Between 1880 and 1920, 2 million Jews from Eastern Europe came to the United States. One-third of East European Jews left their homeland, with 80 percent coming to knock on America's Golden Door.

    They came for a variety of reasons. They were mostly poor, of course, and they saw in America a chance to pick up the gold that surely lay untouched on every street. Jews were persecuted as well. The sad legacy of the hatred of the Jews had its own poignant nineteenth-century chapters.

    Still, up until the last two decades of the century, Jews prayed and adapted; they rarely left their Russian villages. Despite the crushing poverty, most Jews accepted their condition as a seemingly permanent element of Jewish existence.

    The generally optimistic spirit of the age buoyed the Jews and allowed them to perceive continuing Russian hatred of the Jews as a historical anachronism doomed to oblivion by what they sensed would be the inevitably humanizing effects of a spreading European enlightenment. In time, the Jews generally believed, czarist Russia would evolve into a democracy that would grant them civil and religious rights. They saw no urgent need to leave their homes when the light of reason streaming across Europe was headed their way.

    These hopes evaporated immediately after the assassination of Czar Alexander II of Russia in 1881. Although Jews were not involved in the attack, the new czar, Alexander III, blamed them. The czar had a fanatic hater of Jews as a teacher, Konstantin Pobedonostev, who wielded immense power in the government. Together they developed a neatly symmetrical solution to what Pobedonostev termed Russia's Jewish problem: one-third of the Jews would emigrate, one-third would be converted to Russian Orthodoxy, and one-third would starve to death. At the time, Russian Jews constituted half the Jews in the world.

    In April 1881, the first organized attack against the Jews prompted by the assassination began. Although pogroms had occurred earlier in Russian history, this new fury was coordinated and supported by the government, and had clear political and economic goals. About thirty more attacks took place just in April. They continued into May and then resumed in July and August. Over time, the increasingly violent pogroms were characterized by the murders of individuals or whole families, numerous sexual assaults, the looting of property, and the burning of houses and land.

    The Russian government, arguing that the peasants had to be protected from the purported economic domination by Jews, began passing laws (known as the "May Laws") that forbade the Jews from returning to their hometowns and that severely restricted their access to a high school education.

    The military draft was another factor sending Jews out of the land. The May Laws and hatred of the Jews did not prevent the czar from continuing the practice of conscripting Jewish boys. At the age of eight, they were drafted as cantonists, or military trainees. They continued with that training for ten years at which time they were drafted into the army. The young Jews were obligated to serve in the army for twenty-five years. They were not, of course, allowed to follow Jewish customs during their service; religious Jews were forcibly fed pork products. Every Russian town had a quota to fill. As the New York Evening Post wryly commented in 1905 about Jews being conscripted to fight in the Russo-Japanese War: "Russia, while denying her Jewish subjects all civil rights, does not object to sending them to Manchuria to stop Japanese bullets."

    The increasingly tenuous lives that the Jews of Russia led became simply intolerable. These realities prompted especially young Jews to conclude that their parents' hopes for a democratic Russia were dangerous delusions. The young unblinkingly looked at the lives they were going to lead and realized that escape to America, however wrenching the departure, however uncertain the prospects, provided the best hope for a place where their dreams and their futures would not be crushed.

    So, more and more, the younger generation of Jews left Eastern Europe. The trip itself was made affordable even for the poverty-stricken masses of Jews by the increasing use of steamships, which could make the journey across the Atlantic in eight to fourteen days depending on the weather, rather than the previous one to three months. The steamships journeyed to America to collect freight to take back to Europe and saw in potential immigrants a way to make extra money by filling their empty ships on the way west. Most Jews found it possible to save the thirty-four dollars it cost to go from Hamburg to New York. Of course, the steamship companies tried to make the voyage appear attractive. The advertising posters showed parties on board the ships as potential immigrants headed toward the land of liberty.

    For its part, America needed the immigrants. Six hundred thousand Civil War deaths had left a huge shortage of workers for decades to come. This happened at the same time as the American gears of capitalism shifted forcefully into forward. Of course, America had tremendous natural resources. These, combined with the effects of the Industrial Revolution in providing new machinery, completely altered the economic landscape. Still, people were needed to do the work. Between 1865 and 1900, the population of the United States doubled in large part because of immigration and despite the losses from the Civil War. Manufactured goods increased sevenfold. This led to a quadrupling of America's national wealth. America desperately needed more healthy workers if the boom was to continue.

    Almost all of the Jewish immigrants were, indeed, healthy. This was not only a tribute to their hygienic habits and their kosher diets, but also reflected the simple economic fact that steamship lines would not accept as passengers anyone in obvious bad health. The companies were held responsible not only for returning the ill back to Europe but were charged one hundred dollars by immigration authorities for each of those passengers as well. Indeed, on the ships themselves, the baggage was fumigated and antiseptic baths were given. Passengers stayed in seaport hotels for about four days, and then, thirty-six hours before departure, they were deloused again and put in quarantine on a clean side of the hotel.

    The ships had three classes of passengers: first class, second class, and steerage—the unhappy alternative most Jews were forced to choose because of their economic straits. Steerage (named for where the steering mechanisms for the ship had once been placed) was on the lower deck. A thousand people were packed onto the deck for the voyage. People wore their clothes the entire trip, slept when they could and where they had been placed, felt most forcefully the rocking of the boat during storms, and had to endure a pervasive stench that inevitably accompanied the overcrowding.

    For those immigrants who came to New York, the first stop was actually the Hudson or East River Pier. First- and second-class passengers were examined on board and allowed to enter. Steerage passengers were sent on a ferry or barge to Ellis Island to be examined. Sometimes, of course, hours were spent on the boat even before being sent to Ellis Island.

    When the immigrants finally were off the ferry or barge and, for the first time in weeks, felt the land beneath their tired feet, some bent down and kissed the ground.

    As they came onto Ellis Island, landing cards pinned to their clothing, they went in groups of thirty to the front door and into the baggage room. From the baggage room, the immigrants went up the staircase to the second floor. There was a line inspection, with officials searching for immigrants who had any difficulty breathing or made odd facial expressions (indicating mental problems). Blue chalk marks were put on the lapel of immigrants who required further scrutiny. An X chalk mark indicated a mental illness was suspected. If the X was circled, the inspector believed that the immigrant showed definite signs of such an illness.

    Of course, for immigrants this health inspection was both odd and profoundly embarrassing. Many of the Jews had never been to a doctor. Their religion and cultural upbringing made them very uneasy about exposing even part of themselves in a large room filled with strangers.

    Those who passed the health inspection went to the Registry Hall, a hot and crowded place where immigrants sat on benches waiting for their names to be called. The average wait was five hours. The hall was divided into sections based on the country of origin. The immigrant was eventually called up to see the official, who used the manifest lists with their twenty-nine questions to grill the immigrant. Could the immigrant read? Write?

    The trickiest question of all involved work. Immigrants were asked if they had jobs waiting. It might be assumed that a positive answer to this question would help the immigrant. In fact, those immigrants who had jobs waiting were sent back; they were seen as taking jobs from Americans. Young, single women without sponsors were detained until social workers could find someone to sponsor them.

    After the Registry Hall, immigrants descended the stairs (dubbed by them the "stairs of separation") and went either to the detention room or to the "kissing post," so-called because they could see the people—often their families—who were coming to meet them. They then went to the service center where, for example, they could exchange money, and, finally, they left Ellis Island—the place the immigrants dubbed the Isle of Hope, the Isle of Tears—and walked through the Golden Door to America.

    Most Jewish immigrants to America went first to New York City. Some, like Henny Youngman's father, headed to the Lower East Side and the Mills Hotel, which charged twenty-five cents a night and was popular with the new immigrants who didn't have waiting families. Others became boarders with families. Soon the Lower East Side became a teeming symbol of immigrant Jewish life.

    In 1880, there were 80,000 Jews living in New York. By 1910, that number had swelled to 1,250,000. By one estimate, a typical block consisted of 2,781 people—and no bathtubs. George Burns, for example, lived at 259 Rivington Street with a coal-burning stove in the kitchen used for both cooking and heating. The three bathrooms for the building were three flights down the stairs and out into the yard. The family lit the apartment by gaslight, and when the gas ran out they had to put a quarter in the meter. Baths were a special problem in the household. On Thursdays, Burns's mother would boil water and pour it into her washtub. The girls would jump into the washtub first, one at a time, moving quickly, and then the boys rushed in, each in turn, hoping the water would still be hot when they got there. No one dared hope the water would still be clean.

    Eddie Cantor's mother died a few months before his second birthday, his father either died or disappeared soon after, and his grandmother Esther Kantrowitz raised the young boy. The poor woman took her grandson and moved to a basement apartment at 47 Henry Street. The apartment had three rooms, a living room, kitchen, and bedroom. They rarely had money. Once, when Cantor needed to see a dentist but couldn't afford to go, he earned money by going down to the docks and bringing new immigrants to boardinghouses. The renters paid Cantor a small commission, and soon he got his teeth fixed.

    Cantor's strongest memory was the heat in the summer. As in all tenements, gas jets and steam boilers supplemented the sun's heat. It could be unbearable; for example, in just eight days in 1896, 420 New Yorkers died from the heat. Tenement dwellers had other worries as well, particularly fires caused by the heat and the smoking of cigarettes.

    A typical tenement building had six or seven stories, usually with four apartments on each floor. Most front apartments had four rooms, whereas rear apartments had 325 square feet partitioned into three rooms. The back apartments were not desirable because of the foul smell coming from the shared privies in the backyard. One room in each apartment faced the street or other tenements, presumably to let in sunlight. The other rooms were so dark that a law was passed in 1901 requiring every room to have a window, whether or not the window faced the outdoors. Children frequently slept on orange crates or thick rugs. The ten- to twenty-dollar monthly rent could most commonly be paid only if a family took in boarders who slept on cots or folded beds, in a situation sadly reminiscent of their lives in steerage. Many women used the front room for piecework, sewing clothing, rolling cigars, gluing labels on cigar boxes, making artificial flowers, or other similar jobs.

    The streets, too, were crowded. On Friday mornings in the market on Hester Street, a double row of pushcarts filled the area. People, struggling to prepare for the Sabbath—"Shabbes" in Yiddish—pushed and wiggled, looking for the perfect piece of fruit to eat. Fish was particularly popular for Shabbes dinner. Old men with beards behind the pushcarts screamed in Yiddish: "Gutes frucht! Metziehs!" meaning "Good fruit! Bargains!" Often they would interject English. "Three pennies for the whole lot" became "Drei pennies die whole lot."

    Deprived for so long of the certainty that there would be food for the next meal, Jews embraced the abundance of food in the Golden Land. Mothers, especially, urged their children to eat. Food was a living symbol of the Jewish drive for survival. A chicken on Shabbes meant a successful life. The aroma of a Shabbes meal sustained many with its rich assurances and its heady promises of even greater success.

    These streets overflowed with boisterous merchants and were raucous with the teeming collective rhythms of immigrant life. The children played stickball when they could and looked for free ways to entertain one another. Eddie Cantor's first audience was made up of all the kids in his neighborhood. Cantor dated a young woman named Kitty Brookman when she was fourteen or fifteen. Although the romance didn't blossom, Kitty never quite got out of the comedy business. After marrying someone else, she later gave birth to a boy who grew up to be Mel Brooks.

Excerpted from THE HAUNTED SMILE by Lawrence J. Epstein. Copyright © 2001 by Lawrence J. Epstein. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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