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  • “Haim Afen Range”: The Jewish Indian and the Redface Western
  • Peter Antelyes (bio)

I take my title from a 1947 recording by Mickey Katz, a Yiddish parody of “Home on the Range.” Here are the first few stanzas of the original song:

Oh give me a home Where the buffalo roam And the deer and the antelope play

Where seldom is heard A discouraging word And the skies are not cloudy all day

Katz’s version (on the left below) offers a uniquely Yiddish take on this dream of the American West, as we can hear in the Yiddish itself and in his substituted lyrics (translation on the right):

Oy gib mir a haym Mit a vaybele shayn Ver der shepsn und di tsigelakh loyfen

Oy gib mir a hoys Mit gisinten cowboys Und a couple hundert kettle tsu farkeyfen

Oh give me a home With a beautiful little wife Where the sheep and the goats run around

Oh give me a house With healthy cowboys And a couple of hundred cattle to sell1

Like so much American Jewish humor from this time period, Katz’s humor considers the place of the Jew in the American landscape: were Jews really “home on the range”? As we see in his version of the song, the complexity of the joke lies in its equivocation, particularly in the interweaving of Yiddish and English and mockery and self-mockery, and also in the Yiddishizing of the western experience. Jews could not really be called Americans, the song implies, because the very notion of Jews as westerners was laughable, and westerners, as we all know, are archetypal Americans. At the same time, by satirizing postwar America’s hypocritical [End Page 15] flirtation with ethnicity, the song implies the reverse: through the polyglot faux-ethnic world of American popular music of the 1940s (the era of the mambo craze), Jews could become Americans precisely because they were ethnic. In a characteristic Jewish mode of diasporic commentary, the song has it both ways, critiquing and enacting the western mythos as a mode of Americanization. Jews can be home on the range, it seems, by transforming that range into a vaudeville stage, or, more precisely, by revealing the range to have been a vaudeville stage all along, a performative space open to Jewish appropriation as a vehicle for inclusion.2

This essay looks at one particular strand of this performance: the figure of the Jewish Indian. I am interested specifically in how Jewish performers and writers from Fanny Brice to Bernard Malamud created a viable American Jewish identity by identifying with, parodying, and distancing themselves from the imagined figure of the Indian. Jewish redface, in this sense, worked similarly to Jewish blackface, marking the Jew’s racial otherness only to dismiss it as illusory, a performance begetting the authenticity of whiteness: the Jew that emerged from the blackface mask was revealed to be white, and not racially “different” after all. Unlike blackface, though, redface did not seek to efface Jewish difference altogether, but rather to insist upon it in a different form. Through both the choice of the Indian figure and the unique manner of impersonation, Jewish performers and writers transformed racial difference into ethnic difference and used the latter position to stake a claim upon American identity.

In taking this perspective, I participate in recent criticism in Jewish Studies that seeks out what one critic describes as “alternate genealogies of Jewish-American history” (Kun, “Bagels” 51). Specifically, in concert with critics such as Joseph Kun, Rachel Rubinstein, and Eric L. Goldstein, I posit a history in which the drive toward assimilation did not entail an effacement of Jewishness but rather an exploration of new ways of preserving and adapting it.3 The conventional perception has been that during the first half of the twentieth century, Jews sought to become American by becoming white. However, the redface genealogy I explore here suggests that there were other Jews, even in some case the same Jews, who pursued a more ranging trajectory, one that allowed them to be both Jewish and American “differently” (“Bagels” 65) through the retention and refinement of certain visual, verbal, and cultural Jewish markers.

The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1946-3170
Print ISSN
0163-755X
Pages
pp. 15-42
Launched on MUSE
2009-09-11
Open Access
No
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