How Jews Play the Part: Assimilation with a Score

MakingAmericans:Jewsandthe Broadway Musical, by Andrea Most. Harvard University Press, 253 pages, $29.95.

In the oft-quoted scene from Annie Hall , Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer recalls being asked, “Did you eat?” and hearing instead “Jew, eat?” It earns a hefty laugh; in kvetch- cum -comedy, nothing is funnier than the paranoid Jew who sees “Jew” in everything.

But what if he’s not paranoid? What if Jewishness does have a clandestine presence in everything-or at least in everything related to American pop culture? A school of academic cultural studies makes just such a claim: Milking the Jews’ historical role as prolific purveyors of popular entertainment-from vaudeville to “legitimate” theater, from the burgeoning big screen to the modern-day small one-books like Neal Gabler’s An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (1988) or Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (1996) see classic films and television shows as testing grounds for Jewish notions of America and the place that Jews have made for themselves here. Scholars have insinuated Jewish subtexts into narratives galore-from the obviously Jewish ( The Jazz Singer ) to the seemingly WASP-ish ( It’s a Wonderful Life ).

The latest addition to this school of cultural studies-in homage to Woody Allen, let’s call it the “Jew, eat?” approach-is Andrea Most’s Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical . Arguing that between 1925 and 1951, “first- and second-generation American Jewish writers, composers, and performers used the theater to fashion their own identities as Americans,” Ms. Most, an assistant professor of English at the University of Toronto, rereads Broadway musicals with an eye for Jewish themes and figures, finding Jews where no one thought to look: in Sitting Bull, from Annie Get Your Gun (he “understands the wisdom of Jewish experience in America”); in Annie Oakley (her “transformation offers a nostalgic rendering of the path many an immigrant Jew traveled”); in the Asians of The King and I (they “replace Jews as the model minority of the future”).

Mining for Jews can be laborious-and sometimes too rewarding (look hard enough for something and you start seeing it everywhere). But Ms. Most’s lucid, engaging and convincing argument can’t be denied.

Begin with one ironic fact: At summer camps across the country, all-American boys and girls roast marshmallows, belt out the national anthem, salute Old Glory-and stage musicals produced by the likes of Israel Baline, Jacob and Israel Gershowitz and Asa Yoelson (better known as Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin and Al Jolson). Jews were drawn to theater from their early days as Americans, a fact that Irving Howe attributed to the meritocracy of the stage, where talent trumped class.

Like African-Americans-the other half of the American pop-culture equation, unfortunately a meager presence in Making Americans -Jews were primed for the performing arts because they, not quite American and not quite white, possessed a double consciousness, a sense of belonging and yet not belonging to the U.S. of A. Whether immigrants (Berlin, the Gershwins) or Americanized children of immigrants (Rodgers and Hart), Jewish composers and performers were racial and ethnic chameleons, conjuring not only their legacy but also what they, as green Americans, wanted for their legacy.

Thus was born classic Americana, set in the Wild West or the frontier and populated by a motley crew so politically incorrect that it’s a wonder they still appear on PBS: white-bread sharpshooters, cowboys and Indians, black minstrels, bumbling immigrants. Under Ms. Most’s scrutiny, plays like Annie Get Your Gun , Oklahoma! and South Pacific -whose heroes constantly disguise and rehash their identities-become veiled meditations on race and assimilation. They’re love stories, yes, but they’re really sagas, writes Ms. Most, about “outsiders who need to be converted, assimilated, or accepted into the group.” By negotiating a truce between “difference and community,” Broadway musicals present the American Jew’s “vision of a utopian liberal society.”

Jews, though, often write cagily about Jews (even on Seinfeld , where “Jew” is subsumed by the broader category of “New York,” Jerry never officially “outed” himself). Overtly Jewish characters-in Donaldson and Kahn’s Whoopee! (1928) or George and Ira Gershwin’s Girl Crazy (1930)-gave way in the late 30′s to stand-ins like Oklahoma! ‘s Ali Hakim, the outsider figure who might as well be Jewish: A “theatrical, assimilable ethnic (‘white’) immigrant,” Hakim must distance himself from Jud, the “realistic, unassimilable, and racially characterized (‘dark’) man.”

By playing Jewishness against blackness-ethnicity against race-Jews insisted they could indeed be absorbed into the American fold. Many critics have wrung their hands about the historical link between Jews and blackface: Wearing burnt cork, were Jews identifying with “otherness” or, by putting a black face on and then taking it off, distancing themselves from it? Both, says Ms. Most: Musical comedies, rife with contradictory messages, presented Jews as white and un-white at simultaneous stage moments. Composers painted an all-inclusive picture of America, all the while limiting this inclusivity to whites.

But just hold on a New York minute: Broadway plays are plays. Racial commentary aside, they prompt us to clap our hands, sing along, root for the underdog and purchase cheesy souvenirs. Making Americans keeps the play as play in mind by arguing that the very form of musical comedy-the split between song and dialogue-is inscribed with the notion of e pluribus unum . Tension between singing and speaking produces what Ms. Most calls the “assimilation effect”: assimilation of an enthralled audience into the play and of individual characters, performing solo and then in lockstep with the ensemble, into the stage community.

Ms. Most’s musicals are meta-musicals, offering commentary on how theater, in a democracy, ought to operate. She’s convincing in the case of Babes in Arms (1937)-a play about young people putting on a play, which Ms. Most sees as a statement on “the political and social purpose theater could serve in 1930s American culture,” and which she rightly sets in the context of the New Deal, unionization, and 30′s Hollywood.

But this kind of analysis becomes a tad arduous in the book’s later chapters. Ms. Most’s take on Oklahoma! is brilliant and novel, but Annie Get Your Gun and South Pacific buckle under the weight of subtext-heavy readings. Self-sufficient Annie becomes not only Jewish, so to speak, but Emersonian, and also representative of postwar feminism. “There’s No Business Like Show Business” becomes a patriotic song in which “acting in the theater” is “a metaphor for being an American.” Golly! All last summer at camp, Junior thought he was singing about cowboys!

Kidding aside, though Ms. Most’s readings are generally believable, original and entertaining, it would serve her well to acknowledge that symbols eventually empty out-and become, quite simply, stock narrative elements. By the time the 40′s rolled around, composers-armed with a repertoire of characters and themes that were cemented into musical theater-employed them less as a statement about race and ethnicity in America and more because they worked . They belonged to a time-tested formula, one that sold tickets and earned encores. And what good capitalist-I mean good American -would tamper with that?

Baz Dreisinger, a New York–based journalist, teaches English at the City University of New York.