- Radio and the Jews: The Untold Story of How Radio Influenced America’s Image of Jews, 1920s–1950s
Numerous scholarly works have examined the image of Jews in popular theater, music, film, and television. However, the other great mass medium of the twentieth century, radio, has largely escaped the notice of American Jewish popular culture scholars.1 There is not a single monograph that surveys popular Jewish radio, though recent books have included chapters on the long-running radio series The Goldbergs, and Glenn D. Smith, Jr. completed a full-length biography of series star Gertrude Berg in 2007.2 [End Page 137] David S. Siegel and Susan Siegel attempt to fill this void with Radio and the Jews: The Untold Story of How Radio Influenced America’s Image of Jews, 1920s–1950s. The book explores the way popular radio programs addressed themes that have long been of interest to scholars of American Jewish history, including Jewish stereotypes, assimilation, antisemitism, and American Jewish responses to Nazi Germany.
David S. Siegel is a longtime collector of old-time radio programs, scripts, and ephemera. He and his wife, Susan, have collaborated on two previous radio reference works: A Resource Guide to the Golden Age of Radio and Radio Scripts in Print.3 Radio and the Jews is the team’s first Jewish history book. The book profiles key figures, real and fictional, who will be familiar to even casual students of American Jewish history: Molly Goldberg, Mrs. Nussbaum, Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice, Henry Ford, and Father Charles E. Coughlin. It catalogs landmark series: The Goldbergs, Abie’s Irish Rose, The Eternal Light, and Americans All, Immigrants All. The authors also have unearthed recordings and scripts of hundreds of programs that were not as popular or influential, but still provide insight into popular representations of Jews.
Radio and the Jews is not a comprehensive listing of Jews who participated in old-time radio as performers, writers, and directors. Rather, the authors’ goal is to examine how Jews were portrayed on radio. Thus, they include Mr. Kitzel, “the Jewish character who appeared on The Jack Benny Program,” but not Benny himself who, though Jewish, “did not present himself as a Jewish performer” (3). This decision to focus only on figures who were clearly marked as Jews makes for a neater study, but it also closes important areas of inquiry regarding why some of the most important and popular Jewish performers chose to ignore or minimize their Jewish identities. Along these lines, even if they did not overtly identify themselves as Jews, were figures such as Benny, George Burns, and Eddie Cantor, along with their many Jewish writers, influenced by Jewish culture? Did this influence seep into their broadcast performances?
Siegel and Siegel trace the history and evolution of the Yiddish accent and dialect, which was “the primary way to identify a person as being Jewish” during radio’s Golden Age (103). Years before Americans heard Jewish voices on film in The Jazz Singer, they were exposed to thick Yiddish accents on record and in vaudeville or burlesque acts that toured the country. Some of these vaudevillians, such as Henry Burbig, [End Page 138] Lou Holtz, and Monroe Silver (Cohen on the Telephone), migrated to radio. Other performers started their show business careers in radio, but drew upon popular audience knowledge and expectations from other media regarding Jewish performance and accents. Even programs such as The Rise of the Goldbergs (renamed The Goldbergs in 1936), which challenged some of the old vaudeville stereotypes of Jews, did not lose their accents. After the Second World War, many radio performers and programs stopped using the heavy Yiddish accent to mark Jewishness and poke fun at Jewish immigrants. The accent was not as resonant with audiences, given the widespread assimilation of American Jews. In addition, the stereotypical Yiddish accent was objectionable to listeners and to sponsors in the wake of the Holocaust and at a time...