The American Jewish experience is impossible to narrow down because each of us has had a somewhat different view of it. Has your family been here for three centuries, or just three decades? Did your ancestors sail into Ellis Island or fly into JFK? Did they abandon their religion or culture or did they manage to preserve it?
Just as we each have our view, each of the following books offers a different perspective on the American Jewish experience.
For the widest range of experience in one place, read Matzo Balls for Breakfast: And Other Memories of Growing Up Jewish by Alan King and Friends (Free Press, cloth, $24), a compilation of personal stories compiled by the late comedian and actor. These essays are by an array of entertainers, writers, sports figures, politicians and Hollywood types who share stories about growing up and living Jewish. Included are three eulogies from King’s funeral, given by Billy Crystal, Barbara Walters and Rick Moranis.
There are about 60 short and entertaining reflections here, running the gamut of the American Jewish experience. Contributors include the well-known and the less well-known, from the most observant to the least (that would probably be Jamie Lee Curtis).
Speaking of show business, you’ll have to dig a little for the Jewish content in Lawrence J. Epstein’s Mixed Nuts: America’s Love Affair with Comedy Teams from Burns & Allen to Belushi & Aykroyd (PublicAffairs, cloth, $26). But it’s there, if only because so many famous American comics have been Jewish.
The author of The Haunted Smile offers a fast-paced history of 20th-century America as seen by comedy fans from Vaudeville to “Friends.” Here you’ll find profiles of Weber and Fields, the “first genuine [Vaudeville] team stars” at one end of the century, to Jerry Seinfeld, who “relied on Burns and Allen in forging the structure” of his successful television show at the other.
Early comedy routines were often based on ethnic stereotypes and made fun of immigrants, their ignorance and their accents. This is one way Jewish humor has influenced popular American culture.
In Funny, It Doesn’t Sound Jewish: How Yiddish Songs and Synagogue Melodies Influenced Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood (SUNY Press, in association with the Library of Congress, cloth, $40), former professor of Jewish music theory and composer Jack Gottlieb shows how Jewish songwriters transformed the popular music of the mid-20th century. Although this influence has often been discussed, Gottlieb illustrates the connection in great detail and with comprehensive musical examples.
Gottlieb begins with an interesting history lesson, tracing the similarities between Jewish and Christian liturgical music before launching into popular music. Every page of this coffee-table book has lines of music on it, plus lots of photos of composers, performers and sheet music covers. A companion CD includes previously unrecorded songs plus some rarities sung by Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and Leonard Bernstein.
Gottlieb examines Jewish influence on American song, but Andrew R. Heinze wants you to consider the influence of Jews on the way Americans think in Jews and the American Soul: Human Nature in the 20th Century (Princeton University Press, cloth, $29.95).
Heinze wants you to give up the myth that “modern American views of human nature are aftereffects Ö of Protestant modes of thought,” and embrace the changes that came to these shores with the waves of immigration at the beginning of the 20th century.
This scholarly (but readable) history will help you discover whether Jefferson or Freud—not American, but was given his first mass audience here when McClure’s magazine published his writing in 1912—or even Joyce Brothers, has had the greater influence on your life.
If you are reading this, chances are that at least one of your ancestors was part of that great wave of immigration to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And, chances are, those ancestors landed at Ellis Island and then found their way to the Lower East Side of Manhattan for at least a short time.
If you’ve ever wished that those ancestors had kept a diary or written a memoir, you’ll get some satisfaction from Sanford Sternlicht’s The Tenement Saga: The Lower East Side and Early Jewish American Writers (Univ. of Wisconsin, paper, $15 or cloth, $45).
The book draws on his talks and lessons to students on field trips to the neighborhood in which he grew up. He doesn’t shy away from even the darkest aspects of life in this crowded slum (drugs, prostitution, gambling, graft), which most Jews abandoned as soon as they could escape. The second half of the book contains profiles of Jewish writers, some still known, some nearly forgotten, who wrote about their homes in lower Manhattan.
The Lower East Side was just one stop on the long, bumpy and ongoing journey that has been the Jewish Diaspora. Allan Levine charts the latter half of that journey in Scattered Among the Peoples: The Jewish Diaspora in Twelve Portraits (Overlook, soft, $19.95).
Clearly, this book covers more than just the American Jewish experience, beginning, as it does, in 1492 Spain and Portugal. I have included it, because no matter where in the world our ancestors came from, we are the end result of a 2,000-year Diaspora tradition (2,500, if you start with the Babylonian exile).
Levine touches on 12 key moments in Jewish Diaspora history, personalizing each period by focusing on an historical figure of the time (real or composite). The author was inspired by his own family’s history of three generations in North America.
“How did their Judaism survive?” he asked himself. No matter what your level of observance, you’ll be inspired by the stories of those who endured not just the temptations of assimilation, but the Inquisition, the Dreyfus affair and Soviet Russia.