I’ve noticed there is a type of what I call Jewish cultural revisionism (not to be confused with Holocaust revisionism, chas v’halilah–God forbid) gaining popularity. That is, a rebellion by alienated, mostly secular Jews against “their father’s” Judaism–a religion and culture full of certainties and platitudes about Jewish identity. Those certainties almost always focus on Israel as the center of the Jewish universe. These folks are willing to question these sacred cows. They’re looking for their Jewishness perhaps in “all the wrong places,” at least according to their parents or grandparents, but what they’re finding is arresting, sometimes disturbing, but always challenging to our notion of who we are and what it means to be a Jew.
One example of this was the Israeli Anti-Semitic Cartoon Contest. It was hosted by one of these avant-garde Israeli cartoonists and graphical novelist who wished to challenge the notion that a Jew should not make fun of his fellow Jews. I thought some of the cartoons were repulsive in their anti-Semitic stereotypes. But I thought others were dead on in their critique of Jewish identity and our sometimes too-tight bond with Israel, especially when it violates norms that many of us were brought up to believe that Jews adhered to.
Today’s NY Times features a similar project called Jewface. That is, a recording of turn of the century American Jewish popular music that poked fun at Jewish customs and attitudes of the period:
The album…contains 16 songs salvaged from wax cylinder recordings and scratchy 78s, from a century-old genre that is essentially Jewish minstrelsy. Often known as Jewish dialect music, it was performed in vaudeville houses by singers in hooked putty noses, oversize derbies and tattered overcoats. Highly popular, if controversial, in its day, it has been largely lost to history — perhaps justifiably.
“It’s like Hitler’s playlist, but it’s not, because it was actually Fanny Brice’s playlist,” said Jody Rosen, 37, a music critic for the online magazine Slate, who has spent more than a decade researching the genre…“It’s a more complicated and nuanced vision of Jewish history than what you absorb at Hebrew school.”
…Coarse, yes. Consider the very title “When Mose With His Nose Leads the Band,” from 1906. The four collaborators acknowledge that these playful vaudeville ditties could function as hate speech in the wrong context, and they carry particular power in a politicized climate where newspaper cartoons can cause riots
So some of it ain’t purdy. If we really want to plumb our identity should we only examine the high and noble within us? Or should we examine our identity warts and all? Many Jews would prefer the former articulation. I know I prefer the latter.
Here’s how one of the producers addressed this question for the Times:
…This forgotten genre serves as a window into American Jewish heritage for people just like them [the producers]: young secular Jews weaned on kitschy pop culture, abrasive rock and irony, as much as on the Torah.
“We’re all kind of disaffected American Jews, who aren’t particularly religious, don’t really practice and don’t really lead very Jewish lives at all,” said Mr. Kun, 35. “Digging up these recordings was really about figuring out who we were in this world.”
When I first read the term, Jewface, I naturally thought it was a play on Scarface (though that didn’t make much sense). Rather, it is a play on the term Blackface, since the cultural attitudes and expressions in these recordings exaggerate Jewish stereotypes in order to poke fun, much as Blackface did to African-Americans during roughly the same period (though starting earlier). But one crucial distinction that the Times writer doesn’t mention is that while Blackface featured white performers mocking Blacks, Jewface featured Jewish performers aping and mocking their own.
The genesis of the project is a fascinating story in its own right which I’m proud to say involves our own Seattle Experience Music Project playing a supporting role:
Mr. Rosen discovered the genre in the mid-’90s, while working on a master’s degree in Jewish history at University College London. One day, while doing research at the British Library, he ran across the sheet music for a song called “I Want to Be an Oy, Oy, Oyviator” — a comedy song about a Jewish aviator. Digging deeper, he found sheet music for hundreds of such songs, usually decorated with insulting caricatures of Jews as Shylocks, nebbishy immigrant greenhorns or schlemiels (like Levi, the Jewish wrangler in “I’m a Yiddisher Cowboy,” from 1908, who falls for an Indian maiden, then runs afoul of her father, the Chief).
Fascinated, Mr. Rosen set off on a quest to track down actual recordings of this music. He trolled dusty junk shops, record-collector conventions and, inevitably, eBay, looking for wax cylinders, which cost $10 to more than $100, and 78s. His search, he said, “took roughly 10 years on and off.”
Mr. Kun heard Mr. Rosen speak about the genre at the Experience Music Project conference in Seattle last year. Within weeks, they said, they were planning an album.
The article’s closing paragraph places Jewface in a broader American context that seems apt to me:
But to him [Rosen], Jewish dialect music played a role similar to that which gangsta rap plays among African-Americans today. Vulgar and, to some, culturally debasing, it nevertheless managed to smuggle a subculture’s distinct idiom into mainstream popular culture, while creating jobs for entertainers, managers, theater owners and music publishing houses from the same culture.
In other words, in its day the music and cultural assumptions represented in Jewface were genuine, raw expressions of what it meant to be an American. These were assumptions that shocked many Americans surely. But their sheer vitality and largeness of emotion could not be ignored just as rap music, no matter what we think of it, represents a raw and powerful artistic expression of what it means to young African-Americans to live here now. They cannot be ignored and cannot be denied. As such, Jewface too can be a movement of which American Jews are rightfully proud even if they may not always be comfortable with everything it represented.
For more of the background of the project go to the Jewface site.