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Readers might be forgiven for approaching Michael Alexander’s Jazz Age Jews with trepidation: the book features a blackface picture of Al Jolson on the cover followed by a dedication page that finds the author declaring his love for his parents through a quotation from Jolson’s first big hit song, “Swanee”: “I love the old folks at home!” If irony had not already been declared dead in these post-September 11 days it would be possible to imagine that Alexander is kidding—or at least making some statement about his own scholarly distance from this Jewish-authored act of Black travesty. But he’s not kidding. Nor is Alexander making any particularly interesting or innovative claims for Jolson’s influence in American cultural life (as Nick Tosches has recently done for the obscure blackface singer Emmett Miller in his book Where Dead Voices Gather). Rather it seems that Alexander just likes Jolson and doesn’t worry much about how much offensive power blackface retains. Perhaps I am making too much of Alexander’s dedication, but it is only the first sign that we are entering a weird world of strangely old-fashioned boosterism and Jewish chauvinism.
Jazz Age Jews is an insidious book. It is structured around three case studies of what Alexander misleadlingly calls “outsider identification”: the lives and careers of Arnold Rothstein, Felix Frankfurter, and Al Jolson. Strangely, Alexander uses these three men (and Jazz Age Jews reverses the Malamud dictum “All men are Jews” to now say “All Jews are men”) as examples of “a peculiar behavior” demonstrated by Jews of this era, whereby they “acted as though they were increasingly marginalized” even though they were upwardly mobile. Perhaps what is most striking about the book is that Alexander makes it quite plain that his ranking of the three goes like this: Jolson, Rothstein, Frankfurter. While Jolson might have been a bit boorish and sure, Rothstein the gangster had to have a few folks—well, neutralized—it was only the lawyer Frankfurter who betrayed Jews by embracing the radical politics of Sacco and Vanzetti (which, incidentally, he never did).
Everything that is wrong with Alexander’s book comes pretty clear in the first few pages of it. His central thesis is that Jews—unlike any other marginalized American [End Page 203] group—“identified themselves with less fortunate individuals and groups” and did this “by imitating, defending, and actually participating in the group life of marginalized Americans.” Alexander is using crude tools here: by positing imitation (Jolson in blackface) and defense (Frankfurter with Sacco and Vanzetti) as parallel social processes, Alexander makes it clear that we are in a very rarified world of rhetoric in Jazz Age Jews. Anytime in the first few decades of the twentieth century a Jewish man acts improperly Jewish he is read as being consciously involved in “outsider identification.” But it is breathtaking to see Alexander establish his norms for Jews in this era. Just one example: “while most Jews entered the worlds of law, medicine and pharmacy, dentistry, finance and accounting, social work, education, fashion, and entertainment . . . some, such as Rothstein, charted an alternative path.” I guess if “fashion” includes sweatshop workers Alexander might be on to something. But that is not what Alexander means. Without admitting it, every time Michael Alexander says “Jews” he means “middle class men.”
To break it down, Alexander sometimes likes that Jews identified with “other others” and sometimes doesn’t. With Rothstein, Alexander joins the growing number of young Jewish men who see in this earlier generation of gangsters an antidote to the stale suburban conformity of later (i.e., their own) generations; Rich Cohen’s recent Tough Jews is perhaps the fullest expression of this sentiment. Sure Rothstein was a criminal, sure he exploited his “own” people—but he was “keeping it real”: he hung out in delicatessens (a fact Alexander repeats a few times) and had friends with cool nicknames. Alexander not only reports that Rothstein’s Jewish contemporaries admired him for his power, but he cheers him on as well...