From the Low­er East Side to Hol­ly­wood: Jews in Amer­i­can Pop­u­lar Culture

Paul Buh­le
  • Review
By – August 27, 2012

For any­one inter­est­ed in know­ing who’s Jew­ish among car­toon­ists, actors, direc­tors and all oth­ers engaged in cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion, this is a fan­tas­tic book. It names names and gives juicy tid­bits on var­i­ous peo­ple — like the fact that Shelly Win­ters, a for­mer Miss Ozone Park, had a father who was a Brook­lyn hab­er­dash­er con­vict­ed of arson.” If such facts are of inter­est, this is an indis­pens­able book. 

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it falls short as a schol­ar­ly work. First, its very def­i­n­i­tion of Jew­ish­ness’ is inchoate. Buh­le notes that the Yid­dish lan­guage was an emerg­ing ter­ri­to­ry for the artis­tic ver­nac­u­lar” and that Jews were in the right place at the right time,” which con­tributed to their involve­ment in cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion. Oth­er fac­tors that are men­tioned are rad­i­cal­ism and the fact that the Jew who shunned both the syn­a­gogue and the whore­house found a solu­tion in the the­ater.” This is a curi­ous com­bi­na­tion of sources and, with its empha­sis on Yid­dish, the book elim­i­nates a large por­tion of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty— Sephardim — who have them­selves con­tributed to Amer­i­can cul­tur­al life (think Edie Gor­mé and Lainie Kazan). In addi­tion, the notion of Jew­ish­ness’ is so broad as to include non-Jews. Buh­le points out that car­toon­ist R. Crumb is genet­i­cal­ly gen­tile, but cryp­ti­cal­ly Jew­ish.” Such a state­ment belies either an essen­tial­ist view of Jew­ish­ness or an empha­sis on cul­ture and com­mu­ni­ty. Whence comes Crumb’s Jew­ish­ness? What does it mean to be Jew­ish and what is Jew­ish­ness’? Sim­i­lar­ly, accord­ing to Buh­le, direc­tor Frank Capra, born in Sici­ly, nev­er under­stood how much he owed either to rad­i­cal­ism or to a cer­tain Jewishness…” 

Sec­ond, asser­tions — and in some instances poten­tial­ly libelous com­ments — are sim­ply undoc­u­ment­ed. While the book has numer­ous foot­notes, the inter­est­ed read­er want­i­ng to know where to learn more about such intrigu­ing points as the fact that the Anti- Defama­tion League was best known in lat­er decades for busi­ness class polit­i­cal-eco­nom­ic views and its qui­et col­lab­o­ra­tion with inves­tiga­tive agen­cies like the FBI against rad­i­cal union­ists and left-wing civ­il rights activists…” is left to won­der about the source of this seri­ous charge against a major Jew­ish organization. 

Final­ly, the book’s cen­tral con­cep­tu­al prin­ci­ple, reflex­ive­ness,” is sim­ply unde­fined for the novice read­er. While I real­ize that the con­cept is a com­mon one in post- Mod­ern analy­sis, read­ers would have ben­e­fit­ed from a work­ing def­i­n­i­tion of this term.

Susan M. Cham­bré, Pro­fes­sor Emeri­ta of Soci­ol­o­gy at Baruch Col­lege, stud­ies Jew­ish phil­an­thropy, social and cul­tur­al influ­ences on vol­un­teer­ing, and health advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tions. She is the author of Fight­ing for Our Lives: New York’s AIDS Com­mu­ni­ty and the Pol­i­tics of Dis­ease and edit­ed Patients, Con­sumers and Civ­il Soci­ety.

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