Act­ing Jew­ish: Nego­ti­at­ing Eth­nic­i­ty on the Amer­i­can Stage and Screen

Hen­ry Bial
  • Review
By – May 14, 2012
Is such-and-such a char­ac­ter Jew­ish? Iden­ti­fy­ing and debat­ing the Jew­ish­ness of var­i­ous tele­vi­sion, movie and oth­er media stars has long been a favorite arm­chair — or TV couch — pas­time for Amer­i­can Jews. In this new and inter­est­ing study, schol­ar Hen­ry Bial exam­ines the phe­nom­e­non of Jews in enter­tain­ment from the per­spec­tive of a cul­tur­al anthro­pol­o­gist, tack­ling the ques­tion of how images of Jews on the Amer­i­can stage and screen have evolved over the past half-cen­tu­ry. In live­ly if jar­gon-laden prose, Bial offers an ambi­tious cap­sule his­to­ry of the Jew­ish pres­ence on the Amer­i­can stage and screen since World War II. His goal is not only to under­stand how images of Jew­ish­ness shift in pop­u­lar enter­tain­ment over time from Fid­dler on the Roof to Friends: he also argues that these cul­tur­al per­for­mances” send dif­fer­ent mes­sages to Jew­ish and main­stream Amer­i­can audi­ences about what it means to be Jew­ish. The result is a dense but enter­tain­ing book. While Bial’s own impres­sive array of col­or­ful and iron­ic exam­ples of Amer­i­can Jew­ish cul­ture will absorb many dif­fer­ent audi­ences, his pen­chant for cul­tur­al the­o­ry sug­gests that his true tar­get audi­ence is oth­er aca­d­e­m­ic readers.
James B. Loef­fler is assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vir­ginia. He received a BA from Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA and Ph.D. in Jew­ish his­to­ry from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, where he was a Wexn­er Foun­da­tion Grad­u­ate Fel­low. As a U.S. Ful­bright Fel­low, he lived and trav­eled in Rus­sia and Ukraine in 2003 and 2004, con­duct­ing research for his doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion, “ The Most Musi­cal Nation’: Jews, Cul­ture and Nation­al­ism in the Late Russ­ian Empire.” His pub­li­ca­tions include sev­er­al aca­d­e­m­ic essays, the lin­er notes to the Gram­my-nom­i­nat­ed album, The Zmiros Project (Tra­di­ton­al Cross­roads, 2002), and arti­cles in The New Repub­lic, The Jerusalem Report, and Next­book. He has taught Jew­ish his­to­ry, lit­er­a­ture, and music in a vari­ety of aca­d­e­m­ic and com­mu­nal insti­tu­tions includ­ing Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty, Bal­ti­more Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty, the 92nd Street Y, and the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Seminary.

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