Flaunt it, baby!
What do Superman, Italian movie families and Dick Van Dyke have in common? They're all secretly Jewish, says David Herman
Thursday June 12, 2003
In an early episode of The Simpsons, Krusty the Clown is invited to dinner and says grace in Hebrew. "He's talking funny talk," says Homer. Lisa points out that Krusty is Jewish. Homer is incredulous. "A Jewish entertainer? Get out of here!" The whole programme turns out to be a strange meditation on the history of Jewish entertainers in the US. Bart and Lisa are trying to reunite Krusty (real name Hershel Krustofsky) with his father, Rabbi Hyman Krustofsky, who disowned Krusty when he gave up the rabbinate to become a clown. "A musician or a jazz singer, this I could forgive," the rabbi tells his son. "But a clown!" This parody of The Jazz Singer is given a further twist because Rabbi Krustofsky is played by comedian Jackie Mason, who himself trained to be a rabbi.
A hundred years later, Adam Sandler's career took off with his performance of The Chanukah Song on Saturday Night Live, and today hardly a top American TV show is without a Jewish character, from Rachel in Friends to the Broflovskis in South Park, from Toby Ziegler to Grace Adler.
But as the exhibition makes clear, the story of Jewish entertainers in the US is far from straightforward. Instead of the rise from rags to riches of myth, the real history is full of twists and turns, of silences and disguises.
Jewish entertainers disguised themselves in many ways. Most obviously, they changed their names. David Kaminsky, Joseph Levitch and Benny Kubelsky are hardly household names. Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis and Jack Benny are. The same goes for Edward Iskowitz (Eddie Cantor), Nathan Birnbaum (George Burns) and Emanuel Goldenberg (Edward G Robinson). Even a younger generation were forced to Americanise: Leonard Schneider (Lenny Bruce) and Melvin Kaminsky (Mel Brooks) broke through in the 1950s and 60s, Roseanne Barsky (Barr) later still.
They also changed their appearance, from the blackface of Al Jolson to the greasepaint moustache of Groucho and the curly light wig of Harpo. Sam Goldwyn was worried that Danny Kaye looked "too Jewish", so the studio dyed his red hair blond. Fanny Brice's nose job in 1923 was well publicised, meriting no fewer than four items in the New York Times, and prompting Dorothy Parker's line: "Fanny Brice cut off her nose to spite her race."
One of the most telling examples comes from 1950s TV drama. Many of its pioneers were Jewish, most famously Paddy Chayefsky. A contemporary of his, writer Ernest Kinoy, recalls how in the days of live TV, "You'd come into Studio One, or NBC, and Philco, and you'd tell them this long story about this marvellous Italian family. And they would say, 'It's too Jewish.' Because they knew very well that it wasn't an Italian, but it was a Jewish family. Paddy Chayefsky did it a number of times. The Catered Affair is about an Irish family ... Marty, the Italian butcher ... It was because a number of the Jewish writers would come in with material, and the networks would say, 'It's too Jewish. The rest of America won't understand.' "
Won't understand - or won't like? As the exhibition makes clear, anti-semitism was never far away in the attacks on Jewish Hollywood moguls in the 1920s, or in the radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin, a popular radio personality in the 1920s and 30s. In one of his most controversial broadcasts, Coughlin criticised the disproportionate media interest in Kristallnacht, insinuating undue Jewish influence at work. He went on to speculate on the strange media silence over the murder of "20 million Christians" by the Soviet communist regime: "Why, then, was there this silence on the radio and in the press? Ask the gentlemen who control the three national radio chains; ask those who dominate the destinies of the financially inspired press - surely these Jewish gentlemen and others must have been ignorant of the facts or they would have had a symposium in those dark days."
McCarthyism later revived an older discourse linking Jews with communism, and six of the so-called Hollywood 10 (screenwriters, producers and directors held in contempt of Congress for refusing to admit or deny communist affiliation) were Jewish.
Throughout the golden years of Hollywood, there were plenty of reasons for Jews to play down their Jewishness and promote their integration into the mainstream. An industry run by Jewish moguls was notoriously quick to play down its Jewishness, which never simply disappeared - how could it? - but instead took on all manner of disguises.
The story was just as complicated on television. On the one hand, you had stand-up comedians like Milton Berle, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny and George Burns fronting their own prime-time shows through the 1950s. Perhaps the most famous example was Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, whose writers included Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Larry Gelbart (best known now for M*A*S*H), Carl Reiner and Neil Simon. On the other hand, although these stars were Jewish, they could not be seen to be Jewish.
According to Jeffrey Shandler, one of the exhibition's curators, "Until the mid-1970s, explicitly Jewish characters were seen in prime-time series only as comic foils or as occasional guests." So, for example, Carl Reiner (who won eight Emmy awards between 1956 and 67), who based The Dick Van Dyke Show on his own experiences of writing for Sid Caesar, had to take out the Jewishness. Instead of Reiner and Caesar, the show had the all-American Dick Van Dyke playing the Gentile lead, Robert Petrie. You ended up with a strange kind of cultural ventriloquism, with non-Jewish characters like Marty and Petrie created by Jewish writers who wanted to write about their own experiences but couldn't.
As a result, many of the achievements of mid-20th-century American popular culture now look as if they were written in code. The films of the Marx brothers and Billy Wilder, of course. Others are less likely. Superman was created by two young Jews, Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster. The humorist Jules Feiffer sees Superman as "the smart Jewish boy's American dream". One minute the shlemiel in glasses, the next minute Superman, all-American hero. "It wasn't Krypton that Superman really came from," writes Feiffer, "it was the planet Minsk."
Or there's Philip Roth's take on White Christmas and Easter Parade: "The two holidays that celebrate the divinity of Christ - the divinity that's the very heart of the Jewish rejection of Christianity - and what does Irving Berlin brilliantly do? He de-Christs them both! Easter he turns into a fashion show and Christmas into a holiday about snow."
Superman, White Christmas and Paddy Chayefsky's Marty all appeared between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s. So too did Henry Popkin's article, The Vanishing Jew of Our Popular Culture, examining "the great retreat", the dramatic decline of Jewish representation in movies and broadcasting on either side of the war.
Then, in the 1960s, things started to change. Jews became visible. In the 1960s the wigs, blackface and all-American shtick gave way to Lenny Bruce, Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen. It was as if Clark Kent had stripped off his red and blue costume and appeared, blinking in the sunlight, with big nose, nerdy glasses and a foul but very funny mouth.
A number of factors were at work. America discovered the Holocaust with the Eichmann trial and films such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Judgment at Nuremberg (1961) and The Pawnbroker (1965). The Six-Day war and the Yom Kippur war changed attitudes to Israel (and to American Jews). There is the golden age of Jewish-American writing: Heller's Catch-22 (1961), Bellow's Herzog (1964), Mailer's The Armies of the Night (1968) and Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1969).
There was also a new generation of Jewish stand-up comedians, who were more upfront about their Jewishness: Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl, Tom Lehrer and Woody Allen. In an article called The Yiddishization of American Humor, published in Esquire in 1965, Wallace Markfield wrote: "The Jewish style, with its heavy reliance upon Yiddish and Yiddishisms, has emerged not only as a comic style, but as the comic style."
Finally, there was a cluster of films in the late 1960s with a new generation of Jewish stars, who made no effort to conceal their Jewishness: Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. At the same time, Woody Allen and Mel Brooks made their first films. Allen's wise-cracking shlemiel and the in-your-face Jewishness of The Producers ("Flaunt it, baby! Flaunt it!") had a huge impact on the image of Jews in American culture. On Broadway, Fiddler on the Roof ran from 1964-72, and through the 1970s and 80s Neil Simon, Stephen Sondheim and David Mamet created very different kinds of Jewish characters. In almost every area of entertainment, American Jews had joined the mainstream.
Television, perhaps inevitably, caught on late. It wasn't until the mid- to late 1970s that Jewish characters began to appear on sitcoms: Rhoda Morgenstern on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Alex Rieger in Taxi, Murray Klein in Archie Bunker's Place. And, above all, there was Holocaust (1978).
It's not just a matter of ticking off Jewish characters or issues as they appear on prime-time TV or in major films. The point is that Jews were able to joke about being Jewish, without code or disguise: the bits of Yiddish in Blazing Saddles, the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen imagines himself as Annie's Gentile family see him - a Hasid with sideburns and a nose that Olivier's Shylock would be proud of - and Billy Crystal as the over-the-top Jewish witch in The Princess Bride. All this paved the way later for Krusty the Clown saying grace in Hebrew. American Jews, at last, were out of the closet.
Hence the joke when Homer says, "A Jewish entertainer?" Lisa proceeds to reel off a list of Jewish entertainers, including Lauren Bacall, Dinah Shore, William Shatner and Mel Brooks. Homer looks at her in disbelief. "Mel Brooks is Jewish?"
· Entertaining America: Jews, Movies & Broadcasting is at the Jewish Museum, New York, until September 14. Details: 00-1-212-423 3200.
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