Yiddish, a national language that never had a nation-state, may no longer have millions of speakers, but it remains contested territory nonetheless. Several years ago, on a panel devoted to the declining state of Yiddish, the playwright Tony Kushner, who had recently staged a new adaptation of The Dybbuk, was accused by novelist Cynthia Ozick of using sentimental Yiddishkeit–love for Yiddish culture–to mask the liberal betrayal of the actually existing Jewish state in Israel.
This juicy exchange between two distinguished American Jewish writers compressed a century of linguistic and ideological Kulturkampf–Yiddish versus Hebrew, Socialism versus Zionism versus Communism, the unmovable object of cultural nationalism versus the irresistible force of assimilation, New Deal (or New Left) versus neocons, rootless cosmopolitans versus “muscle” Jews. Kushner had signaled his allegiance to a secular, progressive Jewish heritage; Ozick was suggesting that from a Zionist perspective, Kushner and others of his ilk were deeply reactionary, if not delusional, in ignoring facts on the ground–not to mention 5,000 years of Jewish civilization–to fetishize the lost world of East European and immigrant Jewry.
The Kushner-Ozick dust-up (reported only in New York’s weekly Forward, the English-language offshoot of what had once been the world’s largest Yiddish daily) is recounted at a key juncture in Paul Buhle’s From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture. In Buhle’s view, Kushner is the vanguard figure (whose Angels in America is a brilliant reworking of traditional Jewish ethical concerns) and Ozick the reactionary. Dismissal of his Yiddishkeit yearning is proof of her parochialism; Ozick fails to grasp “the intertwining of Yiddish heritage with American popular culture,” and appreciate the “predilection of Jews to enact creatively the lives of others as well as of themselves.”
That mysterious predilection, the gift for casting one’s particulars as universal (identified in the recent documentary inspired by Neal Gabler’s movie industry history An Empire of Their Own as “Hollywoodism”), is Buhle’s subject. “Popular culture”–a term he uses interchangeably with the more Frankfurt-friendly “mass culture” and defines in an uncredited citation as the “total response by Capital to the historical possibilities of the specifically modern mass which it first creates and which now continues to create itself”–is both “the subjectivity of capital” (Adorno) and “the demand for collective self-recognition,” the means by which “ordinary folks” struggle to express their subjectivity (Gramsci). The dialectic seems utopian and, indeed, by Buhle’s lights, a true popular culture would actualize true democracy.
From the Lower East Side to Hollywood is, however, less theoretical than popular and more of a survey than a history. Buhle’s title, which recapitulates the trajectory of the fictional street kid turned movie producer Sammy Glick, is metaphoric. The Lower East Side is the symbolic origin of Jewish-American identity, while Hollywood represents the acme of Jewish influence on twentieth-century American mass culture. But what does Jewish influence mean, and how does one account for such prominence? What makes these Americans different from all other Americans? Buhle suggests that Eastern European Jews arrived in the United States with a facility for heightened attention developed by generations of living as a persecuted minority and, more positively, with the basis for an international popular culture: Yiddish. And, although relatively few Yiddish artists actually crossed over into the American mainstream, Yiddish itself provided a not necessarily conscious paradigm for culture-making.