It is a commonplace to assume that the children of immigrants do their utmost to throw off the foreign identity of their parents and fully assimilate into American culture. This is thought to be especially so when this second generation aspires to a show business career, where to attain popularity would necessitate being anything but ethnic. Ted Merwin, in exploring the success of New York Jewish entertainers in the 1920’s, convincingly refutes this perception.
He begins by demonstrating that the vaudeville comedy at the turn of the 20th century thrived on ridiculing immigrant groups, while establishing ethnic characters as a staple of entertainment. But, when these stereotypes had had their day, a new type of ethnic comedy came into being — one in which Jewish entertainers prospered: notably Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, Georgie Jessel, Al Jolson, and Sophie Tucker.
While these performers did their share of general American entertainment and were ambivalent about their ethnic identity, a considerable and well received extent of their material was decidedly Jewish: Fanny Brice became famous with her Yiddish accented songs (although she couldn’t speak Yiddish!) — for example, “Second Hand Rose,” which is essentially a song about the second generation Jewish experience; Eddie Cantor thrived with his Jewish garment industry skit, “A Belt in the Back;” Georgie Jessel’s signature act was his telephone conversation with his classically Jewish mother; Al Jolson starred in the first “talkie” film, “The Jazz Singer,” derived from his background as the son of a cantor; and Sophie Tucker’s most popular song was “My Yiddishe Mama.”
Merwin further pursues his thesis with an examination of Jewish themed comic strips — such as Harry Hershfield’s “Abie the Agent;” stage plays, such as “Abie’s Irish Rose” — one of the longest running shows on Broadway; and popular films, such as “Humoresque,” “His People,” and “The Kibbitzer.”
While clearly yearning to be more than “second hand” citizens and wholly accepted as “first hand” Americans, these Jewish entertainers — Merwin thoroughly illustrates— never forgot, indeed celebrated, their ethnic origins; and, in doing so, not only affirmed their own unique “image,” but also did their part in shaping that of their nation.