Author Ted Merwin focuses on Jewish entertainers from Jazz Age to TV

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Ted Merwin, Ph.D., is professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., and he has demonstrated his unique expertise in the area of Jewish contribution to American entertainment and popular culture in his latest book, In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, N.J.).

In an engaging and compelling style, Merwin traces the emergence of American Jews onto the stages and screens of theater and stage, and their numerous contributions to the Jazz Age, radio, vaudeville, Broadway, movies and TV, with an emphasis on the roots of the phenomenon in New York City in the 1920s.

ADVERTISEMENT
Mary Poppins at the Muny ad


“From the vaudeville routines of Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel and Sophie Tucker, to the slew of Broadway comedies about Jewish life, and the silent films that showed immigrant families struggling to leave the ghetto, images and representations of Jews became staples of American popular culture,” says Merwin’s book. “Through the performing arts Jews expressed highly ambivalent feelings about their identification with Jewish and American cultures.”

Merwin, who is also a professor of religion and Judaic studies at Dickinson College, uses his grandparents’ generation, which came of age in America in the 1920s, as examples of the “second generation” Jews who faced the dilemma of wanting to acculturate to the ways of the United States while maintaining the integrity of their Jewish identity. “My father’s parents … seemed much more ambivalent about being Jewish (than his maternal grandparents),” writes Merwin. “According to my father, they always went to synagogue on the High Holidays, celebrated Passover and Chanukah, and had many Jewish friends. But my paternal grandfather, who graduated from Harvard Law School in 1920, at a time when few Jews were admitted to Ivy League schools of any kind, changed his name from Harry Meirowitz to Harry Merwin.” He adds, “My father always understood his father’s name change to be driven by the fear that a Jewish-sounding name would impede his propsects of attracting legal clients.”

Indeed that “self-consciousness” about being or sounding “too Jewish” has pervaded Jewish participation in the entertainment arts from the very beginning, when Irving Baline changed his name to Irving Berlin; Jack Benny from Benny Kubelsky and Yiddish theater star Julius Garfinkle, who was talked into taking the name “John Garfield” by the Jewish producer Harry Cohn.

It was not until the advent of Barbra Streisand who refused to change either her “Jewish-looking nose” or her “Jewish-sounding name” that American Jewish entertainers were finally empowered to “be themselves” on stage, screen and TV.

Merwin credits the “seminal book” The 7 Lively Arts, by the Jewish critic Gilbert Seldes, for having “made a persuasive case for the importance of what he deemed those underappreciated elements of American culture — the ‘lowbrow’ arts such as cartoons, vaudeville, musical comedy, popular songs, and ‘slapstick’ moving pictures. … Unlike many other critics, Seldes exhibited a definite predilecton for Jewish performers (espcially Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and Al Jolson), and even spectulated at times on whether their Jewishness contributed to their success.”

Merwin successfully fills in the scholarly research gap on “Jewish-themed entertainments in the United States,” which were “extraordinarily popular in the 1920s.” Merwin laments the fact that “except for a few famous Jewish entertainers like Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Fanny Brice, there has been almost no scholarly attention to (the) gigantic body of material” on this phenomenon. He adds that “even those studies of famous Jewish entertainers have rarely focused on the Jewish characters “or vaudeville caricatures that they played.”

Merwin cites Edward Coleman’s catalog The Jew in English Drama, published in 1968, (which) “shows that Jewish-themed entertainment was extraordinarily popular in the 1920s.” He adds, “Jewish theater in particular was so popular that a Broadway comedy about a Jewish family, Anne Nichols’s Abie’s Irish Rose, was not just the longest-running play of the decade, but one of the most successful Broadway plays of all time. …” Half a century later, Fiddler on the Roof, which premiered on Broadway in 1964, and which is perhaps the most specifically and unapologetically Jewish musical of all time, set a long-time record on the Great White Way.

The 1920s, according to Merwin, was a period in which the manner in which non-Jews portrayed Jewish characters began to change for the better. “Before the 1920s, performing a Jewish character on stage or screen was a matter of reproducing a catalog of supposed ethnic traits — Yiddish accent, gesticulations, swarthiness, long hair (for women) or long beard (for men), long nose, etc. These visual aspects of Jewishness accompanied a performance of perceived Jewish traits such as greediness, dishonesty, slovenliness and sexual cupidity. … But these stereotypes changed, quite slowly and gradually, as Jews began to be viewed as no more objectionable in their behavior as their non-Jewish counteparts. For Jews to ‘clean up their act’ meant to change the ways in which non-Jews perceived them.”

As American Jewish entertainers began to “make it” as mainstream vaudeville, stage and screen performers, not all of them, writes Merwin “were known for thier Jewish routines. Al Jolson, perhaps the most successful of all second-generation Jewish entertainers, did almost no Jewish comedy after he became famous. … The Marx Brothers also had no Jewish routines; Groucho Marx told his son that although the Marx Brothers were Jewish, ‘the world thinks we’re Italian.'” Groucho Marx did manage to play “all of his ridiculous WASP characters like Hugo Hackenbush and Rufus Firely with Jewish gestures and inflections, not to mention impudent Jewish verbal humor…”

Among many prominent Jewish entertainers whose careers are chronicled by Merwin was Fanny Brice, whose biography was brought to the Broadway stage and Hollywood screen in Barbra Streisand’s memorable Funny Girl and Funny Lady shows. After Brice became enormously successful and eanred enough for a Park Avenue suite, she was described in a contemporary profile as “bringing the ghetto with her” in her work. “Her success has come from her ability to ‘broadcast the haunting pathos’ of the ghetto streets to the world; the paradox of her career is that she has made a great deal of money by reproducing for the world the experience of poverty.”

Merwin adds, “The ghetto also remained important as both setting and theme in the work of another groundbreaking performer, Eddie Cantor. Cantor, one of Brice’s co-stars in the Ziegfield Follies, was born Isidore Iskowitz, on Rosh Hashanah, in September 1892.” Cantor broke into Broadway in 1908, and was one of that glorious “bridge generation” of Jewish entertainers whose brilliant comedic career spanned vaudeville, radio, movies, and finally TV until a heart attack ended his performing in 1955, when he was a headliner on The Colgate Comedy Theatre.

While Merwin concentrates much of his fascinating book on the vitally important decade of the 1920s, he also covers much similar ground for later decades. He considers the Jewishness (or lack of it) in such shows as Seinfeld, and discusses the popularity of Mel Brooks’ classic The Producers. Merwin notes, “although the number of nonmusical plays of any kind has plummeted since the 1920s, the two or three new plays that open each seaons on Broadway often do include a play or two of Jewish interest.” Amusingly, he adds, “It has been often said that Broadway drama would decline when the bulk of the Jewish audience inevitably retired to South Florida.”

Merwin concludes by referring back to the beginning of his book. “I began this book by recounting a memory of my grandmother reading a catalog called The Source of Everything Jewish. Indeed, perhaps popular culture is not just the reflection of our ethnic identities, but to some extent its wellspring. May the fountain of Jewish culture never run dry.”

Thanks to Ted Merwin’s superb, informative and highly entertaining book, In Their Own Image, a major reservoir has been published to assure that the fountain of Jewish culture will indeed “never run dry.”

Ted Merwin will be the guest speaker on the topic “From Jessel to Seinfeld: the Birth of American Jewish Popular Culture,” 10:30 a.m., Sunday, Jan. 28. Admission is $5 per person; free to Friends of the Brodsky Library. Call 314-442-3720, or email to [email protected]