The Jazz Singer – Part II Intermarriage

The Jazz Singer: Part II On Intermarriage


Howard Adelman

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.


Jewish-Gentile Intermarriage: Part I 1908 The Melting Pot

Jewish-Gentile Intermarriage:
Part I 1908 The Melting Pot


Howard Adelman

Just before my own teaching session on Shavuot that ended in the very early hours on Sunday (12 June), I went to hear Dr. David Weinfeld talk about the above topic as it is portrayed in popular American culture. Unfortunately, I could not follow the last one-third of the lecture, except in general outline, because the references were all to TV shows, none of which I had followed. But the first part on the past plays, movies, novels and musicals was very informative and insightful.

Before I get into the talk, a discussion of Liel Leibowitz’s very recent essay in Tablet is relevant. The piece is entitled, “No Matter Who Wins in November, the Jews have already lost.”

Clinton or Trump, stinging defeat or close call, divided house or clean partisan sweep—politics will change in ways we cannot even begin to comprehend but it will spell, in nontrivial ways, the end of a more than half-a-century-long American Jewish bloom… Steven Spielberg…was wrong to believe anti-Semitism was fading…The end of Jewish America is everywhere you look. Look rightward, and you’ll see the Republican leadership trying to rationalize away what, for Jews, ought to be the non-negotiable fact that bigotry must never be tolerated, no matter its targets and no matter the circumstances…With Trump at its helm, the GOP will no longer be the Party of Lincoln or of Reagan. It will be the party of those who think that keeping the Muslims out is fine, of those who cheer on calls to disqualify a judge because of his Mexican heritage, of those who gleefully tweet illustrations of gas chambers and quips about ovens. It will be a party of Huns led by a hardhead. No decent person should join such a party, but Jews have particularly resonant reasons for staying the hell away. Look leftward, and things are hardly better. There it’s the Rise of the Planet of the Progressives…Younger Americans… are slouching toward a more perfect progressive dogma, and the political constellations they’re likely to form will almost certainly not be hospitable to Jews.

Why that depiction of the left?

Progressivism…is powered by the twin, and seemingly contradictory, engines of consolidation on the one hand and diffusion on the other: Economically, its supporters champion the regulatory powers of the federal government, while culturally they advocate increased deference to the sensitivities of marginalized individuals. For at least six decades, if not longer, American Jews have traveled more or less in the opposite direction, championing a culture of consolidation that is a necessary backdrop for blending in while supporting moderately liberal economic policies that focused on individuals, not collectives…. This instinct, this genius for assimilation, this affirmation of an all-American identity that trumps the rougher, tribal one is precisely what progressivism now heatedly rejects. (my italics)

To repeat, since WWII, American Jews have traveled in the opposite direction compared to two major trends on the liberal-left. The liberal-left has moved towards deference to and recognition of the marginalized each as specialized categories of victimhood requiring state support versus the direction of the Jews towards consolidation (what was once called assimilation). Secondly, to most observers’ surprise, the liberal left has moved towards socialism and collectivism while Jews have increasingly made an economy based on individual effort, initiative and reward their touchstone. What is the challenge then for Jews? “Clowns to the left of us, and racists to the right, we American Jews may finally awaken from our 30-year nap and learn again how to be a community that grapples fiercely with big ideas.” (Leibowitz)

It is against this large social, political and economic backdrop that I want to discuss Jewish-Gentile intermarriage and “the genius for assimilation” as expressed in critical examples drawn from pop culture.

Weinfeld began his talk with an excursion into sociology before he made his foray into popular culture. He asked the audience what they believed to be the current rate of intermarriage. He was not clear at that point, at least as I heard and understood him (not the most reliable indicator), whether he meant the U.S. or/and Canada, and whether he meant the overall rate of Jewish marriages that involved intermarried parties in which one partner was a Jew or whether he was referring to the percentage of Jews who were currently intermarrying. It turned out he was referring to both, but his exclusive references in pop culture were American creations.

The official sociological definition of the intermarriage rate is the number of Jews who marry non-Jews in any one year in relation to the number of Jews who marry Jews. It also turned out that the guesses from the audience fell into a reasonable range of error. The numbers fell on either side of the figures cited and were not far-fetched. This indicated that those in the audience, at least those bold enough to shout out an answer, had some idea of the rate of intermarriage.

I thought in my head that this opening question was intended to demonstrate that the audience lacked any detail knowledge of statistics on the high rate of Jewish-Gentile intermarriage, particularly in the United States. If that was the intention, it was misguided, and, whatever the intentions of the question, my speculation about the results was misguided. As I said, the guesses were not far off. The key reference is an American one which he cited. A 2013 Pew survey showed the current rate of intermarriage to be 58% among all Jews and 71% among non-Orthodox Jews. The overall rate of intermarriage is about 44% and rising fast.

The changes have been dramatic. In the nineteenth century exogenous marriages outside the faith were very rare. At the beginning of the twentieth century, however, in the United States the intermarriage rate had risen to 5%. It was at this point that Weinfeld first dived into pop culture by referencing a 1908 play by Israel Zangwill. (He was a colleague as well as a Zionist competitor of Herzl since he was a leading voice for the Uganda option for Jewish resettlement.) The title of the play, The Melting Pot, indicated to Weinfeld that it was an American Jew that forged the most famous phrase summarizing the concept of and metaphor for assimilation in the United States, but other scholarly authorities claim he merely made the phrase popular. The play made its debut in a year when Jewish immigration to the United States had reached the outstanding figure of 150,000 to join an American population that was just over 100 million.

As Weinfeld depicted it, the play was about David Quixano, a name deliberately chosen by Zangwill to connote both an Ashkenazi and a Sephardic background, even though he supposedly fled Russia and its anti-Jewish pogroms (the 1903 Kishnev pogrom more specifically in which his whole family were killed). David immigrated to the United States. He fell in love with another Russian immigrant, Vera, non-Jewish, who, it turns out, has a father who instigated the Kishinev pogrom and led the Russians in the slaughter. As Weinfeld said, the rivalry of the Capulets and the Montagues was nothing compared to the familial tensions in The Melting Pot.

The theme of the play is about how America differs from the “old country.” America is the place to end all ethnic tensions, not exacerbate them. David was a composer and wrote a successful symphony, “The Crucible,” which memorialized this aspiration for a cosmopolitan nation in which ethnic rivalries were all dissolved. As the symphony ends, David forgives Vera’s father when the latter confesses his role. Theodore Roosevelt, a champion of European immigration to the U.S., sat in the audience when the play first opened in Washington D.C. and David proclaimed in Zangwill’s overwrought prose:

DAVID: There she lies, the great Melting Pot–listen! Can’t you hear the roaring and the bubbling? There gapes her mouth [_He points east_]–the harbour where a thousand mammoth feeders come from the ends of the world to pour in their human freight. Ah, what a stirring and a seething! Celt and Latin, Slav and Teuton, Greek and Syrian–black and yellow- [Theodore Roosevelt may have winced at this last phrase, but, in the end, he shouted, “That’s a great play, Mr. Zangwill, that’s a great play.”]
VERA: Jew and Gentile.
DAVID: Yes, East and West, and North and South, the palm and the pine, the pole and the equator, the crescent and the cross–how the great Alchemist melts and fuses them with his purging flame! Here shall they all unite to build the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God. Ah, Vera, what is the glory of Rome and Jerusalem [my italics] where all nations and races come to worship and look back, compared with the glory of America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!

Shakespeare’s star-crossed lovers ended up dead. Zangwill’s couple end up leaving the stage at the end to intermarry and live happily ever after. Israel Zangwill himself was intermarried.

The beginning of the shift in attitude to Jewish-Gentile intermarriage when the rate was only 5% is marked by a popular, even if very schmaltzy, play. The statistics indicate that fiction was not a reflection of reality, but a significant factor in helping develop that shift from a primarily tribal culture to a broad acceptance of assimilation and intermarriage by the end of the century. But that shift was not simply a reflection, for the popular cultural underpinning of this new assimilationist ideology was current among Jewish thinkers and teachers.

In Arthur Goren’s 1999 study, The Politics and Public Culture of American Jews (Indiana University Press), he began with a 1907 quote from Israel Friedlaender, a scholar who had only arrived in the US from Europe four years earlier. He became a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. In the talk the professor gave entitled, “The Problem of Judaism in America,” he challenged the prevailing conventional wisdom that American Jewry was fragmented and intellectually impoverished. In dealing with the challenge and attractions of equality and assimilation, with the achievement of civil and political rights, he prophesied the emergence of American Jewry’s leadership in the world and an example within America. “In the great palace of American civilization we (Jews) shall occupy our own corner, which we will decorate and beautify to the best of our taste and ability, and make it not only a center of attraction for the members of our family, but also an object of admiration for all dwellers of the palace…We see a community…blending the best it possesses with the best it encounters…adding a new note to the richness of American life.”

Zangwill’s play suggests that the cultural leaders, as distinct from the community intellectual leadership, were willing to emerge from that corner and broadcast to the wider American public this contemporary Jewish ideology of assimilation, of Jewish community preservation, but a community that was not separate and apart but inclusive and pluralistic. The twentieth century would witness the victorious success of this new ideology over against the doctrine of a community that is separate, distinctive and unique. Further, as Goren wrote, “The material and cultural achievements of American Jews, and the dramatic success of some, gave credence to the American promise of reward, recognition and accepting of the deserving individual.” (p. 13)

Seven years after Zangwill’s play, Horace Kallen advanced the doctrine of a democracy of nationalities,” what later Prime Minister Joe Clark of Canada would call a “community of communities.” In his 1915 essay, “Democracy versus Melting Pot,” Kallen argued for a Canadian version of multiculturalism, not assimilation but integration, the preservation of differences because of “ethnicity.” Religious continuity was but one aspect of that ethnic desire to preserve the tribe, but through a largely secular preservation (and cultivation) of unique Jewish cultural and ethnic traits, including the Hebrew language, while participating in the overall goal of advancing the American values of tolerance and respect from others’ differences. In 1910, Hebraism, this ethnic cultural mix was what, “Israel has stood for in history, the life of the Jews, their unique achievement – not as isolated individuals, but as a well defined group.” These two options to religious separatism would compete for supremacy throughout the twentieth century, total assimilation versus group ethnic continuity. Intermarriage was an integral part in determining the result. In 1909, Judah Leon Magnes would launch the New York Kehillah as an instantiation of the idea of a “Republic of Nationalities.” His effort to create a comprehensive congress of Jews based on democratic principles failed.

All this was taking place against a background of rapid and radical social, economic and political changes. When various type of socialists – Bundists, Marxists, Social democrats, Zionists – were major communal movements vying for victory, William Zamertkin in 1907 wrote in Yiddish that self-isolation was a sickness that can and must be cured. Samuel Peskin carried that message to its logical conclusion – “amalgamation in the cosmopolitan American nation.” The American Jewish Committee, a secular rather than religious creation to represent Jews, remained conflicted in determining the outcome of these battles as it tried to play the role of mediator and cultural expressions offered a leading edge in the debate.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Enjoying your blogs…most of them, when I have some time. Helpful to learn what people are thinking and therefore what is happening and why. Having been a commodities trader there are reasons to what people do and it is the very information passed around that people make decisions on…others like you perhaps are more in the think of it and has a grasp on history.

Politics is not my stronger suit…health is. Any where I see assimilation, I question. The Inuit peoples were driven to not live their ways because of the arrogance of thinking assimilation. Now small bands of people have left the towns to live in their original ways and the seal hunt is going to come back so they can have some of their own money to create a better future.

If you have watched any Star Trek in your days, it depicts how the collective doesn’t leave room for free thinking, critical thinking.

I know, such a small number of words that cannot begin to describe my thoughts but it will do.

Dr. Steven Greer shares it quite nicely. I am all for full disclosure, free energy and no more man provoked wars for power and greed.

Differences and further separation blown to the wind…time will heal and needed laws and rules to keep it on track.

Have a good day!