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  • Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America by Andrea Most
  • Paul Buhle (bio)
Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America. By Andrea Most. New York University Press, 2013. xi+246 pp.

This is a remarkable book, sweeping in its range of material, sharp in its reasoning, and loaded with so many insights that it will reward the reader with many returns to its pages. That said, Theatrical Liberalism carries the burden of a title rather too cautious for the abundant evidence and vigorous argument. Andrea Most’s subject is actually quite radical, in the best sense of challenging assorted authorities, reviving older visions, and in the process creating a popular culture unimaginable at the rise of industrialization. Alternatively, the book could be seen as “progressive,” in the usage of the crucial New Deal and wartime years that coincided with the Jewish artists associated with the Popular Front in theater, film and music—and brought them to the very center of American popular culture.

Winner of the Kurt Weill prize for the best work on musical theater in 2005 (for Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical), Most brings an undisputable authority to the larger subject at hand. She means, without quite saying so, to tell us what is Jewish about the wonderful (sometimes dreadful) entertainments thrilling audiences and giving them—Gentiles included—images of themselves.

There is so much here that any real attempt at summary would be an insult to the book. Still, her painstaking but also audacious interpretations might be summed up in the title of her fourth chapter, “The Theatricality of Everyday Life.” Theater pushes the boundaries of lived and imagined experience, she argues, making her case from the highest dramatic forms to the kitsch that captured the largest audiences of the Yiddish theater (and probably all other theater). The actors in Fiddler on the Roof thus manage to succeed in being themselves! Or, at least, their possible selves, thrown backward a few generations, caricatured but not overwhelmed by the compulsions of dramatic fiction (not to mention singing). Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice made a shorter leap with ease and panache. [End Page 81]

Most does not ignore the inevitable controversies that have gone on since at least the 1960s, when the subject of Jews and popular culture no longer inspired anxiety or the fear of accusations that Jewish comic book producers faced, so similar to those faced by Jewish leftwingers accused of poisoning innocent American youth. Cynthia Ozick took an almost sadistic pleasure in attacking Allen Ginsburg, guilty of standing in for the rebellious counter-cultural, antiwar Jewish youngsters of the day, and on that basis, the betrayer of Judaic traditions. Forget Ginsburg. Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks, let alone Woody Allen, amongst all the jokers and scoffers, would never agree with Ozick. Nor, of course, would the theater goers who rejoiced in Hair! and saw in its apparent defiance of existing mores the very essence of Jewish rebelliousness, the liveliest of Jewish Americanisms. To the extreme embarrassment of the blue-nosed critics, “It’s Just Sex” might be considered a Jewish aphorism, and not mainly because of Jewish entrepreneurs and actors in the ever-lively adult film trade. By challenging outworn standards, as scholar Rachel Shteir has argued at length, Jewish artists at all levels demystified and deconstructed sex, opening the way to insights that readers around the world relish in Philip Roth among others.

Most leans a little too heavily, in my view, on the theories of Erving Goffman and likewise in moving from theater (or films) to novels, thus managing to ignore other popular and heavily Jewish literary venues, such as comic books. Quibbles apart, and many readers will have a few, this is a marvelous treatment of much-discussed but inexhaustible topics, not only of entertaining Jews but of Jewish modernity and postmodernity. Professor Most, take a bow: you deserve it. [End Page 82]

Paul Buhle
Brown University
Paul Buhle

Paul Buhle, Senior Lecturer Emeritus at Brown University, is editor of Jews and American Popular Culture (3 volumes, 2007) and, with Harvey Pekar, of the comic art volume, Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular and the New Land (2011).


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