Entering Mainstream,Cultivating Marginality:Three Paradigmatic Figures From 1920s Reflect American Jews’ Desire To Be Equal but Different; Jazz Age Jews

`Include me out!” Sam Goldwyn once demanded, at least according to his
press agent, and the movie producer’s ambivalence neatly summarized the
yearning of his fellow Jews to be equal yet somehow different. They wanted
full integration into American society while remaining conscious of their
descent from slaves in Egypt. That tension has punctuated the Jewish
experience in the United States. No other site in the Diaspora seemed to
offer more tantalizing invitations to Jews to become insiders. Yet both
memory and moral idealism encouraged them to remain marginal (at least
subjectively) and to identify with other outsiders. A desire to have it
both ways can be detected in the way that Jewish public opinion burnished
the reputations of gambler Arnold Rothstein, law professor Felix
Frankfurter and entertainer Al Jolson. By the 1920s these three
paradigmatic figures had made it to the top of their chosen fields, yet all
three seemed to subvert their own claims to success — a process the Jewish
press reinforced, as Michael Alexander argues in his fascinating new foray
into cultural history, “Jazz Age Jews.”

The term “jazz age” was coined by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who exposed its
underside by connecting Jay Gatsby to Meyer Wolfsheim, the coarse and
sinister gangster who in the novel fixed the 1919 World Series. In him,
novelist Edith Wharton gushed, Fitzgerald had created the “perfect Jew,”
and many a reader has presumed that Wolfsheim was based upon underworld
boss Rothstein. He is exculpated by Mr. Alexander, a historian at the
University of Oklahoma, for the Black Sox scandal, which is good news for
those seeking to put the Jewish people in the best light. Alas, however,
the true culprit turns out to be Abe Attell, a former feather-weight
champion who boxed under the sobriquet of “The Little Hebrew.”

Rothstein had known about the fix, Mr. Alexander writes, and that was
because there was no criminal more completely in the loop. The best man at
his wedding was Herbert Bayard Swope, New York’s most important editor
during that decade. Among the gambler’s associates was the roguish Nicky
Arnstein, whose wife, Fanny Brice, tied Rothstein to show business. His
protege Meyer Lansky ensured the continuation and extension of Rothstein’s
legacy in the organization of crime. Death came in 1928; shall we call the
cause “lead poisoning”? A distinguished Orthodox rabbi, Leo Jung,
nevertheless officiated at the funeral; and the deceased was treated
respectfully in the Jewish press, as “Our Gangster.” Rothstein’s father had
been a successful, legitimate businessman. But the Jewish obituaries
profiled the son as a scrapper, as though the underworld were an
understandable alternative to the ordeal of civility, as though crime could
serve as an excuse to escape from poverty rather than merely one of
Rothstein’s career options.

America, of course, was open to a great variety of talents, including those
of the Vienna-born, City College-educated Felix Frankfurter, whose
assimilation took to a radically different mold than that of Rothstein. At
the dawn of the 1920s, he was a charismatic professor at Harvard Law
School, the acolyte of one Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes
Jr., and the “half-brother, half-son” of another, Louis Brandeis. Although
even greater prospects loomed, Frankfurter elected to spend much of the
decade trying to save two anarchists — Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo
Vanzetti — from the electric chair. Believing them innocent of the crime
of a payroll robbery and murder, Frankfurter invented the role of the legal
paladin who pursues justice by winning in the court of public opinion (and
not only in front of a jury), and not so much in behalf of a particular
client as for the sake of Constitutional principles. While the two radicals
languished in prison, Frankfurter fought in vain to spare their lives,
calling in chips from Back Bay salons to editorial offices to Supreme Court
chambers. Coming on as a maverick in defense of the damned won the
admiration of his fellow Jews; he made liberalism seem heroic. Determined,
energetic and imaginative, Frankfurter was also wrong. Mr. Alexander may
surprise some readers by finding Sacco and Vanzetti guilty as charged.

“Jazz Age Jews” concludes, fittingly, with a “jazz singer.” No major white
entertainer seemed more of a soul brother than an immigrant from Lithuania,
a rabbi’s son who called himself Al Jolson. No one drew more directly upon
the 19th-century tradition of minstrelsy, or managed to incorporate it with
more haunting effect, whether in vaudeville, Broadway revues or Hollywood,
than did the man born Asa Yoelson. Nor was any jazz age Jew more exultant
about the assimilationist American dream — and yet few whites of that era
could identify more adroitly with the sensibility of the most despised of
minorities or could tap more deeply into at least a certain idea of black
culture. Once Jolson became a star, he never had a flop; Mr. Alexander
provides several instances that suggest Jolson’s drawing power. Here is
one. In 1919, “Ziegfeld’s Follies” starred Brice, Eddie Cantor, W.C.
Fields, Will Rogers and Bert Williams. Down the block the Shubert brothers
mounted “Sinbad,” featuring only Jolson, who matched the competition by
introducing such songs as “Swanee,” “My Mammy” and “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby
(with a Dixie Melody).”

But by emphasizing how congenially Jolson adopted an African-American
manner, “Jazz Age Jews” downplays what was so repugnant about blackface,
which after all achieved emotional immediacy at the price of ridiculing a
minority that had all-too-few defenses from contempt. Mr. Alexander’s
treatment of this highly charged topic is admirably free of cliches. But he
also soft-pedals its melancholy complications. It is significant that “The
Jazz Singer” (1927) was universally praised in the Jewish press, but —
according to Mr. Alexander — inspired not a single review in the black
press.

This book basically consists of three rather independent essays — on how
Rothstein triumphed in the economy (or crime in particular), on how
Frankfurter challenged the political establishment (through law in
particular), on how Jolson took a walk on the wild side in popular culture
(by applying burned cork). All three figures entered the mainstream while
still cultivating a sense of marginality, thereby achieving a certain
iconic status among their fellow Jews, as their Anglophone and Yiddish
newspapers and journals revealed. Mr. Alexander thus advances an ingenious
and intriguing argument, and does so with assurance and astuteness. He
makes clever and apt connections, thanks to a thorough immersion in primary
sources, and has fresh insights into his material. “Jazz Age Jews” happens
to be an uncommonly good read, largely because its author wears his
learning so lightly.

Two major defects do not cancel out this book’s virtues, but should
nevertheless be noted. Its major thesis is overstated. Neglecting the
Jewish urge to achieve full integration, the author therefore exaggerates
the disaffection and alienation that his trio of culture heroes are alleged
to have embodied. In the 1920s few Jews felt that they had earned the right
to feel fully at home in America, and enough barriers remained to make
acculturation a goal worthy of hope and effort. For example, that
aspiration could take the form of out-marriage, however rare. But the wives
of Frankfurter and Jolson were gentiles, when such unions were usually
interpreted as evidence of social ascent for the Jewish spouse. Even if
Frankfurter targeted the bigotry to which Sacco and Vanzetti were
subjected, and even if Jolson enjoyed the uncanny access to the black
experience that Mr. Alexander ascribes to him, no victimized class enlisted
the sympathies of Rothstein, a secularist whose most frequent invocation of
a deity was addressed to debtors who might not make their payments: “God
help you if you don’t.”

Related to this defect is a second one: the choice of subjects. Other case
studies might prove the opposite of Mr. Alexander’s argument, as in his own
concession that the Hollywood moguls wanted very desperately to Americanize
themselves. Any empathy for outsiders was well concealed by the
conservative Louis B. Mayer, a Republican (as, incidentally, was Jolson).
Had Mr. Alexander picked, say, the very cautious publisher Adolph Ochs of
The New York Times, or Walter Lippmann, whose 1920s writing is marked by
his characteristic brilliance, or Irving Berlin (also a Republican), the
argument of “Jazz Age Jews” would look rather different. Even the intensity
of Frankfurter’s concern for the oppressed can be doubted, or should have
been considered in the light of far greater devotion to procedural niceties
after his appointment to the Supreme Court. Justice Frankfurter’s habit of
disappointing liberals is admittedly over the historical horizon of this
sprightly volume. But a case that depends on three archetypal figures
requires some vigilance about making them typify a Jewish proclivity for
dissidence.

Mr. Whitfield teaches American studies at Brandeis University and is the
author of “In Search of American Jewish Culture.”

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