In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture

The Jazz Age of the 1920s, centered in New York City, is an era remembered for illegal liquor, innovative music and dance styles, and burgeoning ideas of social equality. It was also the period during which second-generation Jews began to emerge as a significant demographic in the city. “In Their Own Image” examines the growing cultural visibility of Jewish life amid this vibrant scene. From the vaudeville routines of Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, and Sophie Tucker, to the slew of Broadway comedies about Jewish life – such as the phenomenally popular Abie’s “Irish Rose” – to the silent films that showed immigrant families struggling to leave the ghetto, images and representations of Jews became staples of inter war popular culture. Through the performing arts, Jews expressed highly ambivalent feelings about their identification with Jewish and American cultures. Ted Merwin shows how they became American by producing and consuming not images of another group, but self-made images of themselves. As a result, they humanized Jewish stereotypes, softened anti-Semitic attitudes, and laid the groundwork for Jewish comedians from Mel Brooks to Billy Crystal.A lively and entertaining look at the role that popular culture can play in promoting the acculturation of an ethnic group, “In Their Own Image” both enhances our understanding of American Jewish history and provides a model for the study of other groups and their integration into society.

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