From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews and American Popular Culture

January 23, 2020

nathan-defiesta-hzc5cxRicFI-unsplashWIH Reporter: Welcome! We can’t wait to learn about Jews and American Popular Culture! Was entertainment a central part of Jewish culture in Europe or did it really take root upon immigration to America?

Brenner:  Entertainment was certainly a central part of European Jewish lives, as it was (and is) in most people’s lives! The only difference might be that more people started making distinctions between highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow entertainments—the subject of my own research.  But whether it was mass-mediated or small-scale, popular entertainment for Jews was important wherever European Jews—largely Yiddish-speaking, from Eastern Europe—migrated to, regardless of their destinations.

WIH Reporter: What enticed Jews west to Hollywood and when did this occur?

Brenner:  This type of westward migration to California was typical for many Americans throughout the 19th century, and not just Jews. After 1900, the real center of Jewish settlement in Los Angeles became Boyle Heights. However, the founders of the film industry in the suburb of Hollywood were a group of independent producers running away from Thomas Edison’s powerful East Coast cartel (the Motion Pictures Patent Company, aka the “Edison Trust”). Many of them had gotten their start in the nickelodeon business, which Edison and his allies were intent on undermining or shutting down. A century ago, the independent film entrepreneurs were often Jewish, having found themselves limited by antisemitism to risky ventures such as this “new medium” of distributing and exhibiting motion pictures. As a result of establishing themselves in Southern California and entering the production of new content, they were ultimately able to co-create that “Hollywood dream factory” which has so successfully reflected and reproduced the dominant myths of American culture.

WIH Reporter: Who do you consider the pioneers of 20th Century Hollywood?

Brenner: Clearly the most famous were the so-called “movie moguls” of Jewish descent, many of whom were first-generation Americans. Foremost among them was Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer who famously claimed that he—like his adopted country—had been born on the 4th of July. Other leading Jewish producers were Adolph Zukor of Paramount Pictures, Carl Laemmle of Universal Pictures, William Fox of Fox Film Corporation, Harry and Jack Warner of Warner Brothers, and Harry Cohn of Columbia Pictures. Again, it was these recent immigrants to the U.S. who succeeded in reproducing the “American Dream” on the silver screen, especially for those who had immigrated less recently. The image of “America” and “Americans” therefore was reinvented by these early purveyors of mainstream American entertainment.

WIH Reporter: Comedy, in particular, seems to be dominated by famous Jews like Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jon Stewart, to name a few. To what do you owe this trend?

Brenner: My own hunch is that a similar phenomenon is at work here, too. For the fact is that many Jewish Americans—of the “Borsht Belt” generation of comedians, for instance—were second or third generation Americans and still had enough of a distance from the mainstream culture to understand the processes involved in Americanization. Just think of Groucho Marx’s famous quip that he would never want to belong to a club that would have him as a member. Like other newer Americans, these Jewish humorists knew what was gained and what was lost in getting acculturated.

In addition to this, there is the finding of the most recent major survey of American Jewry. In 2013, 40 percent of Jewish Americans polled told researchers that a sense of humor was an integral part of Jewish culture for them. Compare that to another finding in the same survey, where slightly more than 40 percent maintained that concern for Israel was central to being Jewish, and you get a result that you (and the demographers at Pew, I bet!) probably didn’t anticipate.

WIH Reporter: In your course description you talk about addressing what it ultimately means to be American. What do you mean by this and can you give us an example?

Brenner: So, the integration and/or differentiation from other Americans by those who identify as Jews in U.S. society is crucial for understanding what is called “the American experience.” On the one hand, you have White Nationalists and other nativists questioning the national loyalty of Jewish Americans. And not only back in the 1920s; even today, there are still Jewish Americans who internalize that and other negative stereotypes. On the other hand, you have Jewish Americans (then as now) advocating for a stronger Jewish identity, fearing that they or their children have become too Americanized!

WIH Reporter: Are there any instances of the entertainment industry discriminating against Jews?

Brenner: Of course, because Jews like other minorities all too often internalize the prejudice and xenophobia directed against them. Just look how Americanized the Hollywood movie moguls became, not least at the height of McCarthyism following World War II. I suspect that there are Jewish Americans even today who still fear being perceived as “too Jewish.”  So, it’s still a bit of a tightrope that Jewish Americans must walk between appearing “too Jewish” and “too American.” It’s like the old paradoxical joke that “Jews are like everyone else—only moreso,” suggesting that people pay more attention to the successes and failures of Jews than of others.

WIH Reporter: What are you most excited about sharing in this class?

Brenner: I am eager to share just how powerful popular culture can be, even on those who are producing it—whether these cultural producers are Jewish or anything else that isn’t considered “mainstream.” At the same time, there are moments in which Jews and others have not only accepted but also resisted what critics refer to as the “hegemony” of majority culture(s). So, popular culture entails stereotyping but also breaking away—even deconstructing—the same stereotypes. So, like many things, it’s more complicated than at first glance. While Jews in history may have defined themselves as a people or religious group with an identity essentially different from other peoples or religious groups, Jewish identity —as it has been practiced and performed—has been more fluid than fixed, more heterogeneous than homogeneous. And that was even true for those identifying as Jews before the modern era and before America, with its tradition of reinventing yourself!

From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews and American Popular Culture  begins on Tuesday, February 11 at 1:00.