- In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture
Ted Merwin is a scholar of Judaic Studies and a theater critic for the popular press. His current book, In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture, finds Professor Merwin wearing both hats. Merwin's subject is "Jewish-themed" cultural production in New York City during the 1920s—songs, movies, and plays about Jewish life in America, made by Jews and for Jews. His object is to show, through close analysis of a selection of these works, that, when producing and consuming images of themselves, the children of Eastern European Jewish immigrants came to identify not only as Americans but also as Jews who shared a cultural and historical connection.
Other scholars have made similar inquiries of Jewish immigrants' relationship to American popular culture, Jewish-themed and otherwise. Andrew Heinze, Jenna Weissman Joselit, and Neal Gabler, among others, have noted that as American Jews' interest in traditional religious practices diminished, and upward mobility pulled them away from the impoverished Lower East Side and toward the outer boroughs and the suburbs, they sought alternate expressions of group identity in secular entertainment and consumer culture. Merwin, for his part, scrutinizes three forms of the new mass media that attracted Jewish performers, producers, and enthusiastic consumers: vaudeville, theatrical productions, and silent film.
Merwin focuses on the content of Jewish-produced entertainment, and finds that Jewish popular culture production in the 1920s was rich with counter-assimilationist content. His analysis of plays and movies like Abie's Irish Rose, Clancy's Kosher Wedding, and Kosher Kitty Kelly suggest that New York Jews were deeply ambivalent about the Americanizing process, and about intermarriage in particular. The tension between Jewish tradition and American modernity, between the maintenance of Jewish difference and the absorption of Jews into American society, served as a creative force for both drama and comedy. It might be said that In Their Own Image is a reaction to Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Noise, which asserted that popular entertainment by and about Jews encouraged Jewish viewers to think of themselves as on the white side of the American color line, and as therefore American. In fact, Merwin is reacting against the central artifact of Rogin's book—Al Jolson's 1927 movie The Jazz Singer—because, in his estimation, its assimilationist ending was "groaningly out of tune" with most other films about Jewish [End Page 103] families, "none of which glorified assimilation in the way The Jazz Singer did." (118)
Merwin's treatment of Jewish-produced and Jewish-themed popular culture shows that these performances presented a complicated picture of the New York Jew, and that these images cannot be categorized as simply assimilationist. Certainly, the growth of Jewish participation in the entertainment field led to more sympathetic depictions of Jews, which helped broaden the picture of Jewish life in the American imagination. This is especially true in comparison to vaudeville's ridiculous and antisemitic images of Jews even twenty years before. Yet throughout the 1920s, Jewish writers and performers continued to propagate gleefully unflattering Jewish stereotypes: the nebbishy trickster, the long-suffering and oppressive yiddishe mama, the ignorant and incomprehensible greenhorn, and the pushy salesman. These caricatures, Merwin writes, helped second-generation Jews create distance between themselves and their immigrant parents. Yet, at the same time, they also provided space for Jewish audiences to acknowledge their shared culture, to enjoy the in-jokes together, and even to romanticize what they were leaving behind.
Sometimes Merwin seems to be arguing against melting-pot theories of ethnic assimilation—an unnecessary effort, since historians and sociologists of the American ethnic experience have long rejected such concepts. But his detailed descriptions and attentive analyses of the skits, songs, plays, and screenplays are rich and thoughtful, and eminently entertaining. In Their Own Image is strongest when Merwin focuses on the content of these Jewish-themed, Jewish-produced performances. He is less convincing when he wants to discuss the reception of...