- Beyond the Golden Door: Jewish American Drama and Jewish American Experience
According to Julius Novick in the introduction to his thought-provoking volume Beyond the Golden Door, being Jewish in America can mean living with “two souls”: one born of the traditional Jewish world, and the other inhabiting the modern American world (5). It can mean being drawn to both the ancestral and the present day; it can mean dealing with the question of “[h]ow (or whether) to keep faith with [one’s] . . . Jewish heritage, while at the same time embracing (or not embracing) American opportunities, moral as well as material” (4). Wrestling with this question—wrestling with that duality—can translate into a life in which conflict and choices, usually favoring the modern, are inevitable. Thus, according to Novick, it means that the very definition of what it means to be a Jewish American is forever changing.
To prove his point, the author, who is Professor Emeritus of Drama Studies at Purchase College, SUNY and a New York theatre critic, conscientiously analyzes a number of plays whose goal is “to dramatize [the] American experience by dramatizing [the] Jewish American experience” (7). Novick selects those plays he believes cast a “more vivid light” (8) on the issue of being a Jew in America and that reflect true-to-life issues. Moreover, all the plays are by Jews and are often nearly autobiographical.
The first three chapters present a chronological study of plays “about Jews struggling to be ‘American,’. . . and often about poor Jews struggling to be prosperous” (61). The conflicts in these plays deal with an assortment of issues. In Israel Zangwill’s The Melting-Pot (1908), David makes the choice to marry his non-Jewish love Vera. Novick astutely refers to the entire play as a “wish-fulfillment fantasy” (13), for while Zangwill and David, his protagonist, think America is a great melting-pot where all races and religions will somehow become one, this never happens, nor is it likely to happen. David has simply taken the most extreme of actions: he has assimilated. In Samson Raphaelson’s The Jazz Singer (1925), Jakie must decide whether he will follow his tradition-bound father’s demands and become a cantor even though he himself wants to be a jazz singer. He sings at the synagogue, but also goes on to sing jazz. Novick fully approves of this choice, focusing on Raphaelson’s highly persuasive argument equating jazz singing with prayer. Thus Novick emphatically points out that Jakie is “not denying his Jewish heritage, but turning that heritage into a new American channel” (23). In Gertrude Berg’s Me and Molly (1948) and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949)—two very different plays—we meet protagonists who have already made their decisions as to how to live in a modern America. (Novick places Death of a Salesman—a work that only in 1999 did the Miller finally admit was about a Jewish family—in this first group, even though it is also discussed in a later chapter, “Arthur Miller and the Jews.”) In Me and Molly, Novick loves Molly Goldberg’s decision to live by both the “Torah and [the] Constitution” (43), thus valuing both old and new. In contrast, Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman has, at the very beginning of the play, already abandoned everything but the American value system, which for Novick is truly tragic.
The second part of the book, beginning with Miller’s After the Fall (1964) in chapter 4 and continuing through chapter 10, presents us with many plays “about the troubles of Jews who have . . . moved solidly into the great American middle class” (61–62). Here, Novick works chronologically, cleverly grouping plays by author, genre, and theme. For example, in chapter 6, where the work of Neil Simon is analyzed, families live in a modern world, but sons still rebel against their parents—from Come Blow Your Horn (1961) in which sons want to live independently and not...