“From the Lower East Side to Hollywood” book review

Book review of From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture by Paul Buhle (Verso Books, London & New York, 2004)Jewish film, television and popular culture are endlessly fascinating – at least to we Jews – and every couple of years a new book is published with yet more information.  One recent addition to the genre is Paul Buhle’s From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture.  Buhle is a Lecturer at Brown University in the USA, a columnist for Tikkun magazine and one of the most noted experts on the Hollywood “blacklist”.  He is an acknowledged leftie, and noted commentator on Jewish cultural issues.

But here’s the interesting thing:  Buhle is not Jewish.  This fact certainly puts a whole different perspective on his writing, when you realise that this is not someone who grew up in a Jewish household, seeing the world through a Jewish lens that he later applied (as so many of us do) to his academic pursuits.

Buhle’s book is very up-to-date, and is therefore able to draw upon the extraordinary research of what has become the recent classic in the field of Jewish film and TV, J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler’s collection entitled Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting (Jewish Museum, NY, 2003), which was also an extraordinary exhibition in New York’s Jewish Museum in 2003 (more on both Shandler and Hoberman another time).  Buhle takes a thematic approach to his subject, with chapters entitled “Where Did It Come From?”, “From Jewish Stage to Screen”, “The Printed Word and the Playful Imagination”, “Assimilation” and “Up From the Avant-Garde”.  By his own admission, his categories are not strictly chronological and “drift toward the present”.  The result is a relatively dense and at times rambling read, but not without its many pleasures and insights.

One insight, clearly enunciated and thoroughly supported, is the role of Yiddish in the development of Jewish influence in popular culture. Yiddish was the natural territory for the artistic vernacular, just waiting – some centuries in preparation – “for the moment when a mass, commercial, popular culture could be created”.  And the Jewish propensity to rebel – not only against the non-Jewish world but against Jewish institutions, helped to “forge the keen edge of innovation” that made Jews so successful. Buhle puts it simply: “Jews happened to be in the right place at the right time, and kept on being there ….” Others have covered this territory, most notably Neal Gabler in his book An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (a great read), and Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot.  But Buhle brings a special style, more akin to Irving Howe (The World of Our Fathers).

There is much that is new in From the Lower East Side to Hollywood, notably numerous capsule biographies which elucidate the subjects. I did not recall Lenny Bruce’s upper middle-class background of a podiatrist father and his joining the navy at age seventeen.  Nor was I aware that Brooklyn-born Jewish singer Cindi Lauper managed a women’s wrestling champion (although do I care?).  And that the rarely-seen film Romance of a Horsethief (1970) was the revolutionary Yiddishist version of Fiddler on the Roof.  And I certainly did not make the direct Jewish connection from Mad Magazine (“certainly the most Jewish and easily among the most influential comics ever”) to Saturday Night Live to The Simpsons.  (More on the Simpsons another time.)

But perhaps Buhle’s greatest contribution to our understanding of Jews and popular culture (one rarely mentioned by most scholars) an extensive analysis of Jewish comics (yes, illustrated stories), dating this back to Morris Winchevsky, and his 1880s column in Arbeter Fraynt (Workers’ Friend) of London, the first widely circulated Yiddish labour paper.  This tradition was followed by Harry Hershfield, whose “Abie the Agent” (about a Jewish salesman) ran from 1914 to 1940 in the New York Journal.  Buhle also traces the careers of Rube Goldberg, Milt Gross, Al Capp, Max Gaines, Art Spiegelman, Bob Kane (the inventor of “Batman”) to R. Crumb (not Jewish, but both of his wives were) and Harvey Pekar (of American Splendor fame).

“And who was Spider-Man anyway?” Buhle asks.  “Peter Parker, his alter-ego, lives in Forest Hills, Queens, a probable next Jewish stop outward from Brooklyn.”  He quotes The Jewish Forward when it complained that “The trouble with Tobey McGuire’s Spidey … is that he isn’t Jewish enough.”

From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture is a bit like a rave from a highly intelligent and entertaining friend, free-associating as he goes along, all 280 pages worth.  If, like me, you are endlessly fascinated by Jewish participation in English language popular culture, this is an essential reference.

(Review first published in the Australian Jewish News 2004; not available online. Published on wordpress.com on 29 March 2009)

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