- Editor's Introduction
Scholars continue to find the phenomenon of Jews in the entertainment industry to be a fruitful area of research. In the last decade alone, new volumes have examined Jews in Hollywood films and in film noir, and they have explored the Holocaust, Jewish identity, and Jews and gender on film. One weighty tome offers a comprehensive survey of 350 "Jewish films" in the United States alone. Other works have studied Jews in music and theater.
It is no secret that Jews transformed American entertainment. Jews have figured prominently among the musicians and sheet music publishers of Tin Pan Alley, the pioneers and producers of motion pictures, the theater artists and impresarios of Broadway and the masterminds of the internet. Although the first Jewish film producer, Sigmund Lublin, is a figure perhaps known only to historians, myriad other Jews in entertainment have become legendary. Just to list some obvious examples: Irving Berlin, Louis B. Mayer, William S. Paley, Hal Prince and Mark Zuckerberg (my students tell me Facebook is entertainment) each changed the industry and made it possible for hundreds of other Jewish and non-Jewish artists to find employment. Scholars have studied those influential individuals as well as those elements of culture from several perspectives. The intersection of American popular culture and Jewish life has provided a rich mine of data for assessing Jewish life in America, and likely will continue to do so.
The essays in this issue offer close analyses of that fertile area by examining cases in which Jews used their participation in American entertainment to effect change, either in their own lives or within the broader Jewish community. David Weinstein examines the singular case of the widely popular comedian, Eddie Cantor, whose outspoken condemnations of Germany and Nazism before the United States entered the war, as well as his extensive work with timely Jewish charitable endeavors, helped him to reshape his own professional persona. Comparing Cantor's actions with those of his Jewish fellow performers, Weinstein helps us to understand the subtleties of a Jewish life lived in public in the years leading up to World War II.
After that war, Jews experienced a degree of acceptance and mobility in American society unseen since the mid-nineteenth century. In that context, Markus Krah investigates the radio program, The Eternal Light, which was produced by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Krah shows how the program, which first aired in 1944, used images of different Jewish communities to instruct both its non-Jewish and Jewish [End Page v] audiences about Jews. Immediately following the war, its programming often drew attention to the desperate straits of Europe's Jewish refugees who were living in what were then called Displaced Persons camps. In these programs, as we learn, imagery and rhetoric often aimed to move American Jewry toward values and behaviors that the creators believed the community had to adopt in order to both thrive and to survive in the more open and welcoming general society.
Only a decade after The Eternal Light took to the air, observers of American Jewry pointed to a general decline in religious observance, despite the flurry of synagogue building in the suburbs. That being so, Zev Eleff explains, the performance of a team of four Jewish students on the popular 1960s television quiz show, The College Bowl, electrified observant Jews among the viewing public. The students represented Yeshiva University and its Stern College for Women: a team of three young men and one young woman who never concealed their Jewish identities. Each of the men wore a kippah. The Jewish students won several games, including one against the previous champs from the University of Louisville, Kentucky, and their performance elicited letters of praise from viewers to Yeshiva's president, Samuel Belkin. Their win seemed to validate Yeshivah's educational and religious missions. Their public triumph and the Jewish audience's enthusiastic response signaled changing attitudes within the Orthodox community.
Together, these articles demonstrate that much can still be learned about American Jewish life through new interrogations and close analyses of the people, productions, and surprising events associated with the world of entertainment.
This collection comprises my first full...