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American Jewish Culture Between the Wars

Negotiating assimilation and distinctiveness.

In America between the two World Wars, native-born Jews began to outnumber first-generation immigrants. Most sought to acculturate and achieve middle class respectability, while still retaining some Jewish identity primarily along ethnic lines. The tension between assimilation and religious distinctiveness was felt by Jews across the country, and it characterized the Jewish cultural offerings of the time.

the jazz singerJews entered the movie business in earnest during this period, and there they expressed the desire to be fully accepted as Americans. By the 1930s, six of the eight major Hollywood studios were controlled and managed by Jews, but Jewish directors and producers made almost no films about specifically Jewish settings, experiences, or characters.

The Jazz Singer

The Jazz Singer (1927) was a noteworthy exception, insofar as the film did portray Jewish characters and themes. However, the film was still very much about Jewish assimilation: the film’s main character, played by Al Jolson, abandons his past, his father, and his love for cantorial music to become the American jazz singer Jack Robin.

A number of popular Yiddish films were also produced in the United States during this period, and these reflect a wide spectrum of Jewish life–rich and poor, educated and illiterate, traditional and assimilationist. Perhaps the best-known is Tevye der Milkhyker (Tevye the Milkman, 1939), which is based on the original stories of Sholem Aleichem and is the precursor to the great Hollywood adaptation of the same stories, Fiddler on the Roof (1971). Often cited as a film about “tradition,” Tevye actually has a number of themes in common with The Jazz Singer. It is about the decline of the traditional Jewish lifestyle, especially symbolized in the marriage of one of Tevye’s daughters to a non-Jew.

Yiddish Theatre

Yiddish films were largely based on Yiddish theatre, which still enjoyed popularity in the interwar period. More than 20 American theatres performed Yiddish plays in 1927. Jewish audiences loved the melodrama and humor of Yiddish performance, and could identify easily with the challenges faced by the characters on stage or on camera: How to be an American and a Jew; how to protect families from a seemingly normless society; how to enjoy the opportunities for material success in America without giving up the spiritual values of Judaism.

The bungalow colonies in New York’s Catskill mountains were another Jewish cultural phenomenon of the interwar period. There, Jews vacationed in the summers, enjoying

all-American activities like swimming, tennis, and golf in an almost exclusively Jewish milieu. Jews’ ability to vacation was a symbol of growing wealth and acculturation; their desire to spend their leisure time amongst their own people pointed to their enduring Jewish distinctiveness.

 

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