JAZZ AGE JEWS

Michael Alexander, Author . Princeton Univ. $24.95 (264p) ISBN 978-0-691-08679-8

Jews and the jazz age: bathtub Manischewitz? Yiddish speakeasies? the Purim massacre? Not exactly. In his deft and provocative book, Alexander sketches how the social position and public perception of American Jews mutated in America during the 1920s. Drawing on a wealth of sources—reports in Yiddish newspapers, the history of minstrel shows on Broadway, and papers of Oliver Wendell Holmes—this book traces the unique roles played by and the problems faced by descendants of the great waves of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants. Alexander argues that, even when they prospered financially, these Jews possessed an "outsider identification" that propelled them to support social justice causes as well as often valorize extralegal activities such as gambling. He paints a vivid portrait of popular anti-Semitism of the time—Fitzgerald's malicious portrait of a Jewish gangster in The Great Gatsby; the attempt by Harvard's president A. Lawrence Lowell to institute quotas for Jews at the university, Henry Ford's white-supremacist writings—while structuring his book around three pivotal events that shaped thinking about Jews: the Black Sox Scandal, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer. His arguments in the first two sections are dazzling—about Arnold Rothstein's role in the national pastime's scandal and Felix Frankfurter's defense of the Italian anarchists—but he is less convincing when critiquing Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot in his analysis of Jewish performers and blackface in his third example. Despite this, Alexander's commentary is elucidating and insightful, an important contribution to both Jewish and cultural studies. (Oct.)

Reviewed on: 09/17/2001
Release date: 09/01/2001
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