Yiddish, a national language that never had a nation-state, may no longer have millions of speakers, but it remains contested territory nonetheless.


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.

Essentially a shpritz of vivid minibiographies, From the Lower East Side to Hollywood treats everything from the self-consciously American music synthesized by Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Aaron Copland to the history of Jews in American comic books–from the Yiddish humor magazines and Rube Goldberg through Detective Comics and Spider-Man to Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and the movie American Splendor. The focus is mainly on three periods. The first is that of heroic Yiddishkeit–the decades from the great immigration until World War II, heyday of Jewish socialism and Yiddish secular culture. The second, beginning during the Depression and extending into the cold war, is the period of the Popular Front and the Hollywood leftists–the newly Americanized children of immigrants breaking into the movie industry, mainly as writers. The last period, presaged by the creation of the pop culture-satirizing comic book Mad in the 1950s, is the counterculture, extended into the present in the work of the graphic artists Art Spiegelman and Ben Katchor and the writer Harvey Pekar (whose autobiographical comics are drawn by various artists, including R. Crumb).

Buhle has a particular fondness for Jewish marginalists–the animators of the Fleischer brothers’ studio, the Three Stooges and Z-movie director Edgar G. Ulmer are almost extra-Jewish. An outsider himself, Buhle makes a number of provocative observations. On the oft- maligned figure of the producer, he notes that “rarely acknowledged as an artist, [he] was always crucial: he was the moneyman, in Yiddish hondler, the guy who got things done. He produced, not only a show but a pseudoreality.” One would be interested in Buhle’s analysis of the Mel Brooks movie, musical and cultural phenomenon that is named for and ambivalently celebrates this Jewish culture hero.

But The Producers‘ triumphantly vulgar mixture of shock, outrage and outrageous self-love may be too nihilistic for Buhle, who at times suggests the gentile professor mocked in Wallace Markfield’s 1974 novel You Could Live If They Let You as the tireless Boswell of an obnoxious Lenny Bruce-like comic.

Buhle is the author, co-author or editor of twenty-seven books, including a biography of C.L.R. James and The Encyclopedia of the American Left. America’s most prolific historian of leftwing popular culture, he comes out of the New Left–he was a founder of the SDS journal Radical America–and, though he now teaches at Brown University, he is not academic. As a historian, his consuming interest is the mentalité of the rank and file.

Much of Buhle’s most important work has been done in oral history–a Midwestern gentile, he learned Yiddish to interview the elderly remnants of the immigrant Jewish left. Over the past few years, he has been a tireless, devoted chronicler of the Hollywood blacklistees. Buhle’s political commitment and passion to provide America with a usable, or at least inspirational, leftist heritage has opened him to attacks, in some cases thinly veiled redbaiting, from more conservative historians. Unfortunately, From the Lower East Side to Hollywood is unlikely to provide much cover, marred as it is by a shocking array of misspelled names, incorrect dates and typos.

Full disclosure: Three sentences into the book’s introduction Buhle or his copy editor reconfigures the name of a museum show that I co-curated in 2003, changing “Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting” to “Entertaining America: Jews, Money and Broadcasting.” Not all the mistakes are so fraught. Buhle’s transliterated Yiddish is haphazard, and his fact- checking is desultory. The klezmer musician Mickey Katz is transformed into “Sammy Katz”; the “f” in screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s name repeatedly turns into a “v” and back, sometimes on the same page. The title of Art Spiegelman’s story “Ace Hole, Midget Detective” is misremembered as “Ace Defective, Midget Hole.”

Even more disconcerting than Buhle’s sloppy research is his indifference to historical detail. The magazine Help!, founded by Harvey Kurtzman in 1960, was, Buhle asserts, named after the Beatles’ 1965 hit song. Movies are routinely attributed to the wrong directors, and in one case, Sidney Lumet, a filmmaker Buhle admires, is stripped of a major credit. The knowledgeable reader is oppressed by the cumulative weight of small errors: The songwriter Harold Arlen was a cantor’s son, not a rabbi’s; Godfrey Cambridge plays a cabdriver, not a “street character,” in Lumet’s Bye Bye Braverman; Charlie Chaplin does not imitate “a pompous Gentile” in The Great Dictator but Adolf Hitler; Spiegelman’s parents were not Czech but Polish Jews; Yiddle With a Fiddle is a Yiddish-language movie and not a “famous stage musical”; the stage production of The Producers is an adaptation, not a “revival.”

A separate, more interesting category of mistakes arises from Buhle’s misidentification of Jews. He believes that Florenz Ziegfeld, the son of a German Lutheran and an American Catholic, was Jewish–and, as a popular showman, maybe in some way Ziegfeld was. Buhle seems to be saying as much about the creator of the character Popeye, the cartoonist Elzie Segar, whose name he also misspells. Perhaps forgetting Jean Genet’s ode to the Palestinian fedayeen and the Black Panthers, Prisoner of Love, Buhle imagines that Genet was a Jew. More delightfully, he describes the members of the archetypal 1960s tough-girl group, the Ronettes, as “homegirl Jews.” Well, one of them was married to record producer Phil Spector (who was not only born Jewish but, in what Buhle considers a “strange and definitely Jewish thing…never acted entirely without a degree of wounded artist’s sensibility”). Similarly, Buhle notes that while R. Crumb may be “genetically Gentile,” his taste in women makes him “cryptically Jewish.” This, I suppose, means that the artist is a Jew by association–better than filmmaker Frank Capra, who according to Buhle “never understood how much he owed either to radicalism or to a certain Jewishness.”

Buhle’s recruitment is less comparable to the Mormon practice of converting the dead than evidence of his philo-semitic generosity. ” ‘Hipster’ as much as meant Jewish,” he writes of a somewhat random “avant-garde” that encompasses Jewish beboppers, beat poets, stand-up comedians and record producers (maybe for Buhle, but perhaps not for Norman Mailer, the erstwhile nice Jewish boy who wrote “The White Negro”). The main thing is that Buhle understands Jewishness is a particular urban, twentieth-century construct. The greatest example, albeit largely unmentioned in From the Lower East Side to Hollywood, is Chaplin, who, thanks to his copious “Jewish” traits, was widely and persistently misidentified as a Jew.

It goes without saying that Buhle’s Jews are not Cynthia Ozick’s. He pays his highest compliment when he identifies the late theatrical producer Joseph Papp as “a HUAC victim from a Yiddish-speaking household.” Similarly, Pekar, Katchor and underground cartoonist Trina Robbins are especially precious to him because they have family connections to the left-wing Yiddish daily Morgn-Frayhayt. Perhaps half of all Americans who, as is said, passed through the Communist Party were Jews, and Buhle is anxious to recuperate their experience as crucial to the best impulses in American mass culture. For him, American Jews were traumatized not by the extermination of their Eastern European brethren so much as by the post-World War II Red Scare: “Jews lost most heavily in the McCarthyism and Blacklist period to follow in Hollywood, not only because they constituted a majority of those writers, actors, editors, and musicians actually driven from the industry, but also because they were so often the studio executives, producers, and directors deprived of the needed talent.”

In The Ordeal of Civility, the Irish- American sociologist John Cuddihy made the brilliant argument that Marx, Freud and Claude Lévi-Strauss, among other modern Jewish intellectuals, responded to the narcissistic wound of Jewish emancipation by exposing the larger culture’s pretensions to superiority: European Christian civilization is founded in filthy lucre, infant sexuality or poor table manners; American civilization is less formidable. Still, Buhle ruminates on the ways that “certain kinds of Jews” involved in the creation of America’s mass culture also rebelled against that culture’s demands. He suggests that the “Jewish semi-Communists who did so much to create the audience for folk music and jazz during the 1930s-50s really were consciously and semiconsciously seeking to subvert an America that wouldn’t let them in.” (Buhle makes no mention of the argument, advanced by the late cultural historian Michael Rogin, that other Jews became American by eagerly adapting the prejudices and conventions of the gentile majority–most obviously in the case of blackface minstrelsy.)

Buhle rarely stays with any individual or tendency long enough to explore the contradictions inherent in the position of Jews in American culture. On the one hand, he depicts immigrant Jews and their children (and even grandchildren) as cultural outsiders. On the other, he suggests that they are entering a family business: “For at least four generations, American Jews in considerable numbers have grown up with the expectation that they could become successful in some area of entertainment.” These apparent contradictions are resolved in the idea of a sort of post-Yiddish international that encompasses all that is oppositional or progressive–i.e., “Jewish”–in Jewish American culture.

In this, Buhle’s project parallels that of another American left historian, Michael Denning. A richly detailed and massively inclusive history of Roosevelt-era anti-fascist Popular Front culture, Denning’s The Cultural Front claims for its tradition everything from Henry Roth’s Joycean Call It Sleep and Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio drama to bebop and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Positing a journey from one imaginary locale to another, Buhle’s book maps a sort of homeland. In the end, his goal is counterhistory and his bias is less academic than Arcadian.

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