Jewish and nearly Jewish
It was ironic for a generation which considered leaving the Lower East Side to be a sign of advancement that their children began emigrating there to gain a sense of community. In 1966, the same year a section was rechristened the East Village, I moved to a loft above a bar on Avenue A.
As a stand-up comedian, I had a routine about comic-strip superheroes being Jewish. You could tell by their names: Superman, Batman, Hawkman, Spider-Man, Flashman, the Skyman, Doll Man. Captain Marvel was really a Jew pretending to be a Protestant; his power word “Shazam!” was just a euphemism for “Shalom!”
However, in the film version of “Spider-Man,” according to the Jewish weekly the Forward, the trouble with Tobey Maguire’s Spidey is “that he isn’t Jewish enough.” (Conversely, a top NBC executive originally dismissed the pilot of “Seinfeld” as “too Jewish.”) Yet, in “From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture,” Paul Buhle writes that Spider-Man’s alter-ego, Peter Parker, is now “on his way to becoming sarcastic -- yet another Jewish example of the vernacular aspiring uplift to something better.”
Buhle, a Gentile columnist for the Jewish magazine Tikkun, seems to be referring to himself when he calls comic artist R. Crumb “genetically Gentile, but cryptically Jewish.” Of Bill Griffith, creator of “Zippy the Pinhead,” he states: “Not born with Jewishness, he was assimilated into it (no doubt with some help from his wife, Diane Newman, as Crumb has had help from his two Jewish wives).”
Griffith tells me, though, “I always thought I was Jewish, or some sort of WASP version of a Jew, because all my friends were Jewish. Growing up in the suburbs, Levittown was a kind of dividing line for Jews and Italians. I knew I wasn’t Italian because of my name. I was soaked with Yiddish humor from Harvey Kurtzman in the early Mad magazine. At one point I had a Jewish girlfriend, and her mother said that I must be Jewish because I was so smart. She didn’t want me to not be Jewish. It was some way of ushering me in.”
And Newman, wondering why Buhle labels her as Griffith’s “talented, excessively self-conscious Jewish wife and fellow artist,” says, “I never met the guy, so I don’t know why he said that. It could be that he’s talking about my art as opposed to my personality, but he doesn’t really discuss my art in the book at all. I don’t think my artwork is particularly self-conscious, I think it’s satirical. ‘DiDi Glitz’ doesn’t seem like a self-conscious character to me, and it’s not me. I seem to exist primarily to establish Bill as someone he can talk about with some kind of Jewish connection.”
One of the Jewish connections that Buhle makes is the gay connection. On Broadway: “The historic Jewish subtext of musicals having now been replaced by a gay subtext ... in the theatrical world, ‘Jewish’ and ‘gay’ so often flow into each other.” On David Geffen: "[He] had a special feeling for gay rights. Nineties billionaire Geffen himself was gay, after all, and that might be the largest fact of change in Jewish-American entertainment business life.” This connection can be explained by “a Jewish world where surviving or reviving Yiddish at once takes on a gay affect (the marginal re-embracing the marginal).”
Allen Ginsberg was, of course, the epitome of a gay Jew. Buhle writes, “Half-Jewish Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose launching of City Lights Books (the store and the publisher) in 1953 brought the message to millions, including the similarly half-Jewish Diane di Prima, proto feminist queen of the Beats, also introduced City Lights’ all-time champion author, Allen Ginsberg.... ‘Howl and Other Poems’ (1956), in addition to being a sort of poetic declaration of Beatitude, was patently a recollection of Jewish left-wing memory held up against a crazed, postwar consumerist goyishe America.”
I’ve had mini-dialogues with countercultural icons about various aspects of Jewishness. I once asked Norman Mailer what he thought about circumcision. “If there wasn’t circumcision,” he replied with a twinkle in his eye, “Jews would break their babies’ noses.” Lenny Bruce told me, “I know some Jews who are so reformed they’re ashamed they’re Jewish.” I asked Mort Sahl if he considered himself Jewish. “No,” he said, “I belong to me. And that’s enough. I don’t consider myself anything. And I’m having a tough time finding any kinship. You know, you get along with people who have ideas, that’s all.” Timothy Leary said, “The Weather Underground was amusing. They were brilliant, brilliant Jewish Chicago kids. They had class and dash and flash and smash.” I said to Ken Kesey, “I don’t believe that Jews are the chosen people, or that people are the chosen species.” He responded, “I don’t believe that people are the chosen species, but I believe that Jews are -- or were -- the chosen people. [But] when the train that pulled into the station 2,000 years ago didn’t look like My Son, the Messiah, but like a beatnik in sandals and a Day-Glo yarmulke, well, the train waited around awhile for the chosen to hop on board, then pulled on out. A few hobos hanging out in the yard -- lazy yids and hustling goyim, mostly -- slipped into the boxcar.”
Bob Dylan was a true minimalist. I asked why he was taking Hebrew lessons (in 1970), and he answered, “I can’t speak it.” And when I pointed an imaginary microphone at him and asked how he felt about the 6 million Jews who were killed in Nazi Germany, he simply said, “I resented it.”
When I asked Woody Allen if he agreed with the motivation of the Buddhist monks who set fire to themselves in Vietnam, he replied, “I can see dying for a principle, but not that way. At the very minimum, if you are going to die for something, you should at least take one of them with you. Go back to the Jews in Germany. If you have a loaded gun in your home, and the state comes to get you, you can at least get two or three of them. I’m not opposed to violence as a course of action in many instances. Sometimes passive resistance is fine, but violence in its place is a good and necessary thing. But setting fire to yourself is not the answer. With my luck, I would be un-inflammable.”
Buhle associates Jews with progressive politics in general and the blacklist in particular. “In 1947,” he writes, “Rep. John Rankin of the House Committee on Un-American Activities warned Congress about the true identities of various actors, including Danny Kaye, Eddie Cantor, Edward G. Robinson and Melvyn Douglas. Like others using stage names, they were essentially parading under Gentile labels, a practice that Rankin considered prima facie evidence of their ‘un-American’ intentions....
"[T]he Committee Chair had opened the hearings to notorious anti-Semites on the premise that Jewish control of Hollywood demanded redress. By the later 1940s, internal FBI memos complained that the Jewish press failed to take up its patriotic duty of supporting the blacklist.... After hesitating, Hollywood’s power brokers fell in line with the blacklist, conducting it themselves with the help of notorious anti-Semites and of some noted Jewish institutions alike.”
There is something unsettling -- but, I suppose, necessary -- about the way Buhle focuses on actors through Hebrew-colored glasses, including, “There was something Jewish about John Garfield, even if only New Yorkers seemed to know for sure”; “Only a blind person could fail to see the Jewishness of Judy Holliday”; “At least [Montgomery] Clift was psychologically troubled, if not actually Jewish”; “Jose Ferrer in his dark looks and cerebral talk [was] almost definitely perceived as Jewish.” Should the fact that Irving Berlin wrote “Easter Parade” and “White Christmas” be considered a sign of assimilation?
Not even animated cartoon characters can escape the laser beam of Buhle’s peripheral vision: “Betty [Boop] offered a total contrast to the shy but red-blooded Mickey [Mouse], himself modeled after the goyishe and anti-Semite aviator sensation Charles Lindbergh.... No one east of the Hudson, at least, would describe her as a Gentile: at times her parents have Yiddish accents, and Jewish in-jokes can often be heard (like the Samoan Islanders who greet her with a roaring Sholem Aleichem!), Hebrew lettering and all.”
Although “From the Lower East Side to Hollywood” serves as an ambitious slice of Jewish American cultural history, it certainly isn’t a comprehensive one. For example, missing entirely except for footnotes are Jerry Lewis (“In the comedy trade, and apart from his charity grandstanding, he was best known for ridiculing women comics”) and Jackie Mason (“The most famous or notorious Jewish story of the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ was the firing of Jackie Mason for acting ‘too kikey’ on camera”).
I happen to be an e-mail recipient of an Internet anti-Semitic listserv, and many of Buhle’s descriptions are uncomfortably similar, such as: “Film star Peter Coyote (not surprisingly the adopted name of a Jewish red-diaper baby)” “ ‘Mama Cass’ Elliot was born Ellen Naomi Cohen.” “The very Jewish Jew, [Morey] Amsterdam.” “The very often Jewish-inflected ‘Saturday Night Live.’ ” “the very Jewish Gabe Kaplan,” “the emphatically Jewish Roseanne Barr,” “Mel Brooks ... one of the most blatantly Jewish [of successful filmmakers].” It is the ultimate irony of Buhle’s book that it will appeal to Jews and anti-Semites alike. *