August 07

Jews and Pop Culture: If Not Now, When? And if Now, Why?

Dan Friedman


Paul Buhle
Jews and American Popular Culture
Praeger Publishers

Growing up in England, where the “popular” of “popular culture” precluded anything but a couple of token Jewish representatives, I felt that our imports from America were some compensation. Our people, however deracinated or ashamed, seemed to pervade American popular culture so completely that their arrival on films and TV shows made up for the paucity of home-grown examples. This pervasiveness was so blatantly obvious to my Jewish friends in Britain (and to antisemites the world over) that the new three volume set of essays, Jews and American Popular Culture, had me reaching for its – apparently non-existent – predecessors. Given the surprisingly ground-breaking nature of the collection, the quality of its contributors, and the breadth of the ground it has broken, this project is invaluable. But invaluable for whom, and for what purpose exactly?

The last twenty years has seen an unprecedented surge in the scholarship dealing with popular culture. Yesterday’s ephemera are today’s classics; our parent’s wasted youth is our museum exhibit; today’s corporately-marketed transgender fashions are the subject of choice for cutting-edge theory. Those professions which caused parents shame in the earlier parts of the twentieth century have, with the demise of those parents, become respectable and respected as that century ended. And in this the academy has come to reflect the wider society’s acceptance and celebration of a broader spectrum of achievement while at the same time, critiquing the trends and prejudices that lie behind this sometimes tabloid and prurient public attention.

In a different reflection of the newly-acceptable nature of the subjects, the voices who matter in this conversation are often not traditional academics, but scholars, artists, and writers representing different generations and foci. Perhaps the most obvious example of this shift is Harvey Pekar. An enduring figure in the underground comic scene, for decades Pekar documented his life as a “loser” figure in his comic book American Splendor. He gained just regard in his niche as well as certain notoriety in the mainstream as a repeat acerbic guest of David Letterman, particularly for speaking out about General Electric on the GE-owned NBC. But fame, and general rehabilitation, only came with the film adaptation of American Splendor in 2003. Now, with the wider appreciation of “seriousness” of “popular culture,” Pekar is responsible for the co-introduction to this highly respectable collection. No longer separated into high and low culture or into subject and its criticism, the introductory duties are here shared between the underground artist and the academic, between the comic strip and the more traditionally written one from editor Paul Buhle, a professor at Brown University.

Rather than the editors or the readers, it is possibly the contributors who constitute the main group who stand to benefit from this three volume project. Their various ages are an important and explicitly noted feature of the collection. They come from different professions and represent different generations. In an ideal world this convergence between a culture and its commentators would lead to writers being comfortable with their subject matter in a particularly fluent way, and indeed, this is often the case. The younger generation – especially Ari Kelman on Jewish radio, Kathy Newman and Vincent Brook separately on Jewish comedy, Douglas Century on boxing and Alana Newhouse with Rebecca Spence on Jews and beauty – explain their subjects with an alacrity that reflects their clear enthusiasm. Denis Klein’s opening essay on the Jewishness of “the movies,” however, takes the fascinating story of perhaps the paradigmatic popular medium and shows how deeply involved Jews were at its inception and establishment. Due perhaps to Klein’s background, he tells the story complete with the minutiae of academic narrative and in consequence loses much of the readers’ enthusiasm and sense of what is Jewish about his story apart from the manifold Jewish protagonists.

On the other hand, some of the pieces exude enthusiasm and are written by champions of their respective subjects. This can cause a lack of impartiality, but, for example, Aviva Kempner’s entry on Hank Greenberg is the latest iteration of her somewhat justified campaign for his beatification, and her entry is compellingly told and richly researched but with barely any further reading indicated. Eddie Portnoy and Paul Buhle’s piece on “Comic Strips / Comic Books” is also written by enthusiasts, though it does display more academic rigour. These two articles illustrate the true challenge of a task as broad as this one: to be both relevant and academically rigorous. Each article has the double undertaking to record the history but reflect ethnic pride – to be encyclopaedic and, if not hip, at least engaging at the same time. The virtue and the accompanying vice of collections like this is that the balance is achieved in a variety of ways. The subjects covered are gratifyingly wide-reaching but, on the one hand, unlike a scholarly anthology, there is no underlying standard of rigour; and unlike a popular collection on the other, there is no uniformly engaging quality of the prose.

Coming from the academy, Paul Buhle has to his great credit compiled a fascinating and broad collection of essays. The scope of the book is hinted at by the covers of the three volumes – Spock and Kirk, Groucho Marx’ nose and glasses, Woody Allen, and Dr. Laura on the media volume; Robert Rauschenberg and Arthur Miller on the art and drama volume; and Levi’s, hot dogs, and bagels alongside the Friedman sisters (aka Ann Landers and Abigail van Buren – better known as Dear Abby), and (of course) Sandy Koufax on the sports and leisure volume. The main disappointment of the collection, however, is that it begs the two principal questions of the title: namely “what is a Jew?” and “what is popular culture?” The third, implicit question of the title – asking how Jewishness affects the involvement of the subjects discussed – is often addressed by the writers of the essays, while still remaining tangential to the aim of the particular essays.

The communal shame of the “People of the Book” at producing, for example, boxers or gangsters has been replaced by deep pride that we are so normal (and so manly) that we can also produce sportsmen and hit men to rival our fellow ethnicities. It is no coincidence that the Jewish baseball card set is one of the best-sellers at the Center for Jewish History’s gift shop in New York City. Similarly, the Jewish involvement in the history of comic books (documented, illustrated, and fictionalized by Chabon in The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) is now hip. Hey, we didn’t just write the Talmud, The Trial, and The General and Special Theories of Relativity, we invented Superman (Siegel and Shuster), Captain Future (Weisinger), and Spider-Man (Stan Lee)! This flip is too quick to be fully explored by a single project, but that is what this collection promises to begin.

In its conception then, a project dealing with the key aspects of American popular culture (movies, radio, television, sports, music, theater, art, and literature) and the Jewish involvement in them is so overdue that, however broad it might be, it cannot and does not live up to all of its expectations. But even as it does not fully live up to the expectations it provokes, the collection does inspire further research and a more serious investigation of the questions it raises. These expectations, I hope, will be met by the texts, research, and investigations these volumes inspire.



Dan Friedman is the Associate Editor of Zeek.