The Jazz Singer: Part II On Intermarriage
I am sitting in a Jerusalem apartment writing this blog. I am here to attend the annual meeting of the Association for Israel Studies (AIS) at which I am giving a paper on Wednesday. I am also here to attend my granddaughter’s wedding on Friday at noon. She is Israeli-born, has served her time as an officer in the Israeli army and, having graduated, now teaches Jewish studies in a Jerusalem high school. She is marrying an Israeli archeologist. This is relevant to the topic of this series because her mother converted to Orthodox Judaism and her grandmother on her mother’s side was not halachically Jewish. This is relevant since most counts of Jewish intermarriage focus on losses of membership in the Jewish community rather than gains.
This is also relevant for two very different and idiosyncratic reasons. We arrived in Jerusalem yesterday and we were out last evening to have dinner with those of my immediate family who had arrived from overseas. There were eleven of us at a famous pizza restaurant in Jerusalem which serves – according to my granddaughter – the best pizza in Jerusalem. (It is called the Bardak Pizza & Beer Bar and is located at 38 Keren Hayesod in Jerusalem. I am a lover of ordinary rather than gourmet pizza so I will not be writing a review except to say all my family at the table agreed with my granddaughter. I also do not drink beer, but according to family members the gourmet beer was “to die for.”
There were two irrelevant events worth mentioning, precisely because on the surface they seem so irrelevant. The first was that I ran into Yoram Peri at the restaurant who stood up, called out my name and then assured my wife and I that we were at the right place since all the members of my family arrived even later than the time we had agreed to meet and the late time that we had arrived. Needless to say, Yoram is not a member of my family. He is, however, on the executive of AIS. Prof Yoram Peri is the Abraham S. and Jack Kay Chair in Israel Studies, and Director of the new Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies, the University of Maryland at College Park. He has been a political advisor to the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, was the founder and former head of Chaim Herzog Institute for Media, Politics and Society and professor of Political Sociology and Communication in the Department of Communication at Tel Aviv University. He was also once the editor-in-chief of the Israeli daily, Davar and is now editor of the journal on Israel Studies. He is an expert on the Israeli military as well as on how the media portrays Israel and the effects on policy.
Why am I mentioning him? For two reasons. First, because he apologized for asking to have his name deleted from my blog list. “They are too long,” he said. “If I took the time to read your blog, I would never get any of my emails read.” As psychological compensation, he did say that the ones he did read were interesting. I assured him that if I was in his position I would probably delete my email from my list as well. So, readers, no need to express any guilt for not reading my blogs or even having your name deleted from the blog list. You can always read them online at WordPress under my name. Second, Yoram is an expert in media studies and has been one of the foremost scholars that have made the academic study of the way events are portrayed in the media and popular culture as they relate to the development of perceptions, policies and practices an integral part of scholarship. This is as important to social studies – such as the portrayal of intermarriage in popular culture – as it is to political and military affairs. Hence, the importance of Professor David Weinfeld’s talk on intermarriage as portrayed in popular culture.
The second irrelevant reason why the dinner last night is of some interest is because I learned that what unites all the disparate members of my family, except myself and my wife – at least, the ones at the dinner – is that they each watch Game of Thrones. Further, they do so religiously, that is, they do so weekly, with great anticipation and as a uniting family event. And I had previously believed that my grandson – who was still at school in the Galilee – was the only one who watched the series.
What I know about the program I learned from him for we would go for long walks when we got together and he would describe episodes in great detail. Essentially, for the very few unfamiliar with the HBO series, it is a tale of murder, jealousy and the competition for power, a fantasy epic about two rival families set in the middle ages. My last blog that referred to Israel Zangwill’s play, The Melting Pot, about a meeting and love affair of a Jewish man who fled from Russia and its pogroms that killed his family and another Russian woman who also immigrated at the same time, but whose father was a perpetrator of the pogrom in which the family of the male character was killed, can be considered very tame compared to Game of Thrones.
So intermarriage is not simply a matter of Jewish survival, but about the competition of groups for continuity and the place of each in the sun. And the series depicts that conflict in terms of bloody wars and treachery as well as interpersonal loyalties. But the fact that it clearly outranks synagogue attendance, among secular, religious and expatriate Jews, is a matter of some interest. The blood and gore, psychological, sociological, political and military portrayals in the Torah evidently do not have the same power as Game of Thrones. That is why the popular cultural portrayal of intermarriage is so important.
Which brings us to The Jazz Singer. This famous American musical with famous songs, such as “Blue Skies” and “Toot, Toot Tootsie Goodbye,” was released as a film in 1927, though my notes read that Professor Weinfeld said 1928. Perhaps the discrepancy is a result of the fact that the film was only released as a full-scale talkie in 1928 as the first feature-length motion picture in which both conversations and songs were synchronized, In the 1927 version, only the singing was synchronized. In the 1928 “talkie,” Al Jolson utters those famous words in a cabaret, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, you ain’t heard nothin’ yet” – so prophetic in culture generally and in sociology and religion far beyond the intent of its original utterance. The story, as most older readers will know, is based loosely on the story of Al Jolson himself who stars in this twenties version that was created anew in The Jolson Story starring Larry Parks that I watched a number of times as a young boy.
The tale narrates the rise to fame and fortune of the son of a chazan, a cantor in a synagogue, in this case, an Orthodox one. Jakie Rabinovitz (Al Jolson) adopts the stage name, Jack Robin as he disregards the entreaties of his devout father and goes into the field of popular culture and, the most significant part of pop culture at the time, musical theatre. Jackie runs away from his religion, from his family and from his traditions. Jackie’s father at a Kol Nidre service on Yom Kippur announces that he has no son. The father will be reconciled in a very schmaltzy climatic moment when his son fails to appear on the opening night of his show. Jackie returns to sing Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur as his father’s substitute and is reconciled with his father before the latter dies – at least in my memory.
The most relevant part of the film for our purposes is that it was an archetypal tale of American melting pot culture and intermarriage. Jackie not only enjoys enormous success in pop culture, but the path to that success was paved by a shicksa who recognizes the “tear in his voice” when she heard him sing and helps him get a role in a new follies musical. They will become lovers. After he achieves fame, his mother finally comes to see him perform through the mediation of his shicksa. Jackie sings “Mother of Mine, I Still Have You” in blackface (I thought it was “Mamie but I was uncertain and checked. “Mammie” is sung at the end of the film.) This was a nod, not simply to a vaudeville tradition, but to his own role as the wayward son, the black sheep in the family. Though Weinfeld, like most scholars, interpreted this as racist, and thought it was also a message that Jews had become white and put on black makeup only as a cover, and hence the practice was an expression of Black discrimination, I took the meaning in a quite opposite way.
Jazz was Black music. Jews pioneered in introducing jazz to a wider non-Black audience. Jazz is, as Samson Raphaelson describes it, Black prayer and the Jazz Singer is the Jewish cantor for all of America. When Jackie sings, “Mother of Mine, I Still Have You,” he is singing to Black mommas, to Jewish mommas and to white mommas. As his mother, Sarah, the prime female progenitor, says after watching the performance, “Here he belongs. If God wanted him in His house, He would have kept him there. He’s not my boy anymore—he belongs to the whole world now.” Jews and Gentiles (and, in my interpretation, Blacks and Whites) are reconciled as American Jews mature and join a cosmopolitan culture. At the same time, a Jew can also be reconciled with keeping his own traditions and exposing them to the rest of the world.
Intermarriage, which had been part of the silence, a hidden topic of “shame” for Jews during the period of silent films, had finally become a subject of discussion, of “talkies,” if not much at first, at least the beginning of a century-long debate. The issue of duplicity, of pretending to be who you were not, of wearing blackface, was ending and a period in which Jews would not have to walk around in the White world in disguise was adumbrated, even if the reality would take another four decades. This development would mean far more contact between Jews and Gentiles, far more contact, and, therefore, statistically far more intermarriage. “By the end of the twenties the 5% rate at the beginning of the century had risen to the high twenties. The message was – you assimilate and, at the same time, keep and transform your heritage as culture and religion.
Recall, that this was a time when it was believed that the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union were primarily Jewish. Karl Marx came from a Jewish heritage. Leon Trotsky was Jewish, So were Gregory Zinoviev and Karl Radek; Béla Kun, leader of the Hungarian communist party, was Jewish. Jews were portrayed internationally as rootless cosmopolitans. But in America they were becoming cosmopolitans rooted in a new culture, that of America. Jews were no longer Shylock, the moneylender of Merchant of Venice, or the leader of a pack of thieves in Charles Dickens, but could achieve success in every field of human innovation and endeavour.
But Jews, as in Germany, were emerging into the mainstream with two different dress codes, that of the unassimilated Chasidic Jew and that of the successful lawyer, doctor, politician and even soldier. But Germany had Hitler and Heidegger. There were no equivalents on the political and intellectual side for Jews in America. Charles Lindbergh and Henry Ford could not compete with Hitler and Heidegger. Assimilation offered an open road, or the broad expanse of the Mississippi, the water road that ran down the centre of America, since openness and mobility – upward, sideward and even downward – were longstanding standard tropes in American culture.
When The Jazz Singer appeared in movie houses in 1927, Bavaria had already that year lifted its ban forbidding Hitler having a public podium for his anti-Semitic rants and his rage against treaties that betrayed Germany and his calls for strong leadership. For Hitler, the root source of the danger came from immigrants and alien races and religions. But in America in 1928 audiences laughed to the antics of Walt Disney’s Steamboat Willie who would take America into the new world. America was the new world incarnate.
An aside. When I was a young boy, we played with yo-yos. In family lore, my mother’s cousin invented the yo-yo when he was in prison for theft in the thirties. When he was released, he founded what was then a famous toy company, Cheerio Toys. In truth, the yo-yo is an ancient toy. A Filipino actually introduced the yo-yo to America in the twenties. The message – Jews not only grew to fame based on innovation and entrepreneurship, but some also became infamous for their misdeeds. When I was a Toronto Daily Star newspaper delivery boy, I remember one day seeing the headlines of the pile of papers dropped off one day for me to deliver. The headline read: “Yo-yo king flees Canada for Israel.” My mother’s cousin had sought sanctuary from the Canadian taxman, not because he was being persecuted by anti-Semitism, but because he was being prosecuted for income tax evasion. So assimilation brought with it the fame and fortune of Al Jolson and the infamy of my mother’s cousin. Like the yo-yo, the fate of Jews goes up but also down and in the process one can see a diverse array of tricks.
Was the increasing rate of intermarriage a sign of going up or a sign of decline and disarray? After all, in 1927, Evelyn Waugh had published his novel, Decline and Fall. At the same time, Lady Chattterley’s Lover was being banned in Canada, the UK and the U.S. (A.A. Milne’s The House of Pooh Corner was published that same year, but its significance for Jews and the subject of intermarriage must await a blog far into the future.) Forty years later, Phillip Roth published Portnoy’s Complaint that Professor David Weinfeld in his lecture on intermarriage in pop culture pronounced as his favourite novel. That book had a very different take on Jewish-Gentile inter-ethnic sexual relations than The Jolson Story. In my next blog on intermarriage I will discuss Portnoy’s Complaint in comparison to another work forty years earlier at the same time as The Jolson Story, Abie’s Irish Rose.
But that blog may come in two weeks when I return to Toronto. In the interim, I am sure that the panels of the Association for Israeli Studies, for which I have to leave now, will provide plenty of subject matter for my blogs.