- Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity—Sandy Koufax, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Barbra Streisand by David E. Kaufman
As I review David E. Kaufman’s recent book about what he calls “Jewhooing,” the Jewish folk practice of identifying which celebrities are Jews, I’ve also just learned that today pop singer Paula Abdul is receiving her bat mitzvah at the Western Wall. Can this be true? Is Paula Abdul actually a Jew? Despite a certain shame in my celebrity awareness and curiosity, I am simply too intrigued to resist. An internet search brings me to JewOrNotJew.com, and indeed I learn that Abdul’s father was a Syrian Jew from Aleppo and her mother an Ashkenazi Jew from Canada.
Who knew? Who cares?
Well in fact a lot of American Jews seem to care. At first glance, one may wonder why Kaufman has chosen to explore this esoteric American custom of Jewhooing. It’s just a parlor game, isn’t it? Can this casual practice really be significant? The ritual itself feels slightly disreputable, not to be discussed in serious society, let alone in the pages of a Brandeis University publication. Yet after finishing Kaufman’s book, I think most readers will be persuaded that the subject is important. Perhaps Jewhooing is even among the most significant folk practices working to hold American Jewry together. Those marginal Jews who have little feeling for the ritual, liturgical, and cultural boundaries which are typically thought to circumscribe Judaism and Jewry may still open the newspaper and say to themselves: “Well, would you look at that … The new Wonder Woman is a Jew!” And that raw tribal connection to a celebrity is the solid content of their Jewish identity. Judging by Kaufman’s evidence that Jewhooing started in earnest in the 1960s, spawning at that time a cottage industry of Jewhooing publications and media, the practice has been going on now for fifty years, passed down over several generations. So it seems that many of the hallmarks of what Edward Shils defined in his book Tradition (2006) as signaling a legitimate tradition are present with Jewhooing.
Kaufman focuses on celebrities of the 1960s, members of the third generation of the Ashkenazi migration to America. He has chosen a comedian (Lenny Bruce), two singers (Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand) and an athlete (Sandy Koufax). According to Kaufman, Jewish celebrities of this generation were the first objects of Jewhooing proper. They were unlike Jewish celebrities of the second generation (say, the comedians [End Page 79] and singers Al Jolson and Fanny Brice, or the athletes Andy Cohen and Benny Leonard) who were first and foremost celebrities for Jews, performers who intentionally played to the tastes of their own ethnic group or who were primarily marketed to that group. Only far along in their careers did second generation Jewish celebrities gain mainstream American interest. Not so the celebrities of the third generation. These later performers became mainstream American celebrities first, before they became objects of Jewhooing. Sometimes the Jewishness of Kaufman’s celebrities of the 1960s was obvious and nurtured, as in the cases of Lenny Bruce and Barbara Streisand, who intentionally continued earlier “stage Jew” type performances by utilizing copious amounts of shtick (Lenny Bruce’s later work is practically indecipherable without some knowledge of Yiddish). But sometimes the Jewishness of the performer was incidental or even lacking. The extent of Sandy Koufax’s Judaism was his decision to stay in his hotel room for Yom Kippur on the first day of the World Series of 1965. Unlike Andy Cohen of the New York Giants (recruited to draw Jewish audiences to the Polo Grounds in the 1920s) and “The Hebrew Hammer” Hank Greenberg of the Detroit Tigers, Koufax’s mainstream American celebrity had almost nothing to do with his ethnicity or religion. The extent of Bob Dylan’s Judaism and public Jewish identity was even less. Yet all were claimed by Jews as M...