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Jewish Journal

Jewhoo!

by Jonathan Kirsch

June 19, 2013 | 3:30 pm

One of the profound changes in American popular culture that emerged during the 1960s was the willingness of famous Jews to openly embrace their Jewishness rather than hiding it behind phony names and personas. That’s what David E. Kaufman playfully calls “Jewhooing” in his new book, “Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity” (Brandeis University Press: $85 cloth; $40 paper; $39.99 ebook). It’s a work of serious scholarship that is, at the same time, hugely entertaining.

Kaufman, a professor of religion and Jewish studies at Hofstra University, focuses on “Jewish celebrity consciousness” as it emerged in the ’60s, but he insists that his book reflects a theme that reaches as far back as the biblical stories of Joseph and Esther and across several millennia of Jewish history — “the urge to ‘make it’ in the current culture, versus the imperative to preserve the memory of Jewish culture from generation to generation.” Indeed, he declares that Jewish self-assertion among celebrities “is but the latest expression of the age-old attempt to square the circle of Jewish life in the Diaspora.”

As exemplars of “Jewhooing,” Kaufman singles out four archetypes of Jewish celebrity, all of them third-generation American Jews but otherwise very different from one another: Sandy Koufax, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand. If we read between the lines of his preface, none of the survivors in this select group were willing to be interviewed by the author, but he chose them “as models of American Jewish identity” precisely because they “reflect the very diversity of American Jewish life.” Or, as he puts it, “postwar American Jewish culture had its own Mount Rushmore of fame.”

Koufax, of course, famously refused to play on Yom Kippur. Bruce was the bad boy of stand-up comedy, but his comedy was based on the ancient prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. Dylan may have adopted a WASPish name, but he also performed a song titled “Talkin’ Hava Nagilah Blues.” And Streisand can and should be praised for embracing her distinctive profile rather than running to the plastic surgeon: “[S]he embraced her Jewish persona from the start,” Kaufman writes, “become the rare Jewish celebrity with both Jewish content and Jewish image.” 

Kaufman reminds us that these four celebrities are symbolic of an upwelling of Jewishness in American public life that was one of the many changes that are lumped together as the Counterculture. Unlike a previous generation of stars — “To most Americans, Jack Benny seemed just as ‘white bread’ (that is, non-ethnic) as Bob Hope,” writes Kaufman — the Jewish celebrities of the ’60 openly affirmed what had been carefully hidden: “Well, fortunately, by some twist of fate,” cracked Lenny Bruce in 1960, “it’s becoming ‘in’ to be Jewish.”

To his credit, Kaufman asks — and answers — the hardest questions. What, after all, does it mean to be a Jew? Is the American entertainment industry controlled by Jews? Is it safe to even ask these questions aloud? And he drills down to some truths that are rarely uttered. Koufax, for example, achieved fame for athletic excellence, thus demonstrating that “a Jew could be as physically adept, and thus as manly, as any gentile,” but the image of the “nice Jewish boy” in pop culture was ineradicable. “This was the Hollywood heyday of the American shlemiel, as exemplified by Jewish actors such as Dustin Hoffman, Peters Sellers and Gene Wilder.” Or, as Kaufman puts it, “The contrast between Charlton Heston and Woody Allen — as representative figures of Jewish manhood — is startling to say the least.”

His inclusion of Lenny Bruce is an example of the candor and courage that Kaufman displays in “Jewhooing the Sixties.” Bruce, he acknowledges, evoked more “anxiety than adulation” among Jews because he was “a discomfiting figure — misbehaved at best, depraved at worst, a ‘bad boy’ in any event — and therefore an undesirable representative for the Jews.” And yet, at he same time, “[H]is act was permeated with Jewish references,” and he “broke new ground in the introduction of Jewish culture — that is, explicit Jewishness — into the public realm.”

No such qualms are attached to Barbra Streisand, who is held out as the single best example of “Jewhooing,” a celebrity who represents “American integration without assimilation, the persistence of Jewish identity in the open society.” Kaufman points out her dual nature: “oth shlemiel and diva, self-consciously unattractive and glamorously chic, Brooklyn Jew-whiny and the most beautiful voice in the world — moving from one extreme to the other at will.” Indeed, the subtext of her success story is “the ugly duckling made good,” a fact, he writes, that has endeared her to Jewish women and gay men.

“As a child she is adorable — easy to imagine her Jewish bubbe calling her shayne punim (Yiddish for ‘pretty face’) but at the same time, one might also imagine a less charitable relative calling her a meeskeit (an ‘ugly girl’ or woman),” he explains. “The contrast between child and adult, and hence the implicit transformation, is striking.”

“Jewhooing the Sixties” is, of course, a book about Jews and Jewishness. But Kaufman also casts a new light on the landscape of American popular culture and allows us to see how Jewish celebrities have changed the rules of the game. “As a culture, we could not have gone from Kate Smith and Doris Day to Madonna and Lady Gaga,” he concludes, “without the revolutionary rise of Barbra Streisand in between.”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His new book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi diplomat and a Murder in Paris” (Norton/Liveright).

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