restricted access Jazz Age Jews (review)
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American Jewish History 89.3 (2001) 299-302



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Jazz Age Jews. By Michael Alexander. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. 239 pp.

Jazz Age Jews is an accessible and informative contribution to the ongoing dialogue about American Jewish acculturation in the early part of the twentieth century. The book takes as its starting point the irony that no matter how successful Eastern European Jews were in America, they continued to identify down, rather than up, expressing sympathy with those less privileged than themselves, even at a risk to their own position on the socio-economic ladder. Drawing on Jacob Katz's studies of Eastern European Jewish life, Alexander argues that Jews brought with them to America a history of "outsider identification." In Eastern Europe, Jewish identity fused with outsider status: to be an outsider became a crucial part of being a Jew. When these same Jews arrived in America, Alexander explains, they continued to identify as outsiders by explicitly aligning themselves with other marginalized groups. Taking a strong stand against the conventional wisdom, Alexander argues that they did so in order to maintain a unique Jewish identity in the face of American pressure to assimilate.

The substance of the book consists of stories of three well-known Jewish figures of the 1920s: Arnold Rothstein, gangster and casino owner; Felix Frankfurter, Harvard law professor and outspoken supporter of convicted anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti; and Al Jolson, blackface jazz singer. Each section offers biographical background on its central figure, describes the nature of the character's celebrity, and analyzes the reactions of the Jewish community to the figure. In approving of these public figures, the book argues, Jews were identifying "down"—with criminals, anarchists, and African Americans. Alexander offers Jewish communal approval of these figures as proof of Jews' meeting "the obligation of their self-definition as an exiled people." Alexander's argument is compelling and makes intuitive sense. His choice of diverse characters also makes for a lively narrative. The analysis of Jewish reception of The Jazz Singer in the final chapter is particularly strong, demonstrating the ways in which Jolson's blackface scenes argue not only for Americanization (as others claim) but also for retaining a strong Jewish identification through the very act of identifying with the marginal Black minstrel. [End Page 299]

The rest of the work, however, does not make as convincing a case, and the reader is left feeling that while the central argument and the overall narrative have potential, a lack of attention to details and an undertheorized methodology leads the book to oversimplify the complex processes of acculturation. While the preface clearly articulates the argument of the book, it does not effectively explain how the methodology will support that argument. This leads to a blurring of central points. For example, the argument relies on a strong differentiation between Western and Eastern European Jewish immigrants. Because Eastern European Jews did not come from emancipated lands, Alexander claims, they "did not bring traditions of acculturation and conformity" with them to America (p. 7). But one of the central figures of the book, Felix Frankfurter, came from Vienna. While Alexander argues that Frankfurter spent his childhood in a part of Vienna that housed many immigrants from Eastern Europe and later grew up on the largely Eastern European Lower East Side in New York, he admits that the direct origins of the Frankfurter family are not known. One could just as easily assume that Frankfurter and his family were exposed to traditions of acculturation in Austria as to traditions of outsider identification. This observation does not disprove Alexander's argument, but it certainly complicates it. It would have made for a more sophisticated reading of Frankfurter's situation if the book had taken these multiple influences into account.

More problematic is the book's use of clearly non-Eastern European Jews as supporting examples without any reference back to the methodological claims of the preface. In the section on Tin Pan Alley, for instance, Alexander repeatedly refers to Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein and Lorenz Hart as examples of Jews who identified "down" with Black ragtime...


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