Setting the stage for tradition

A comprehensive look at 20th-century Jewish American playwrights.

By ISA GOLDBERG
June 4, 2010 23:00
The Jerusalem Post

arthur miller play 311. (photo credit: Bloomberg)

 
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Beyond the Golden Door
By Julius Novick | Palgrave Macmillan | 189 pages | $69.95

“She carried the old world on her back across the ocean,
in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue,
or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones,
and you pass it to your children, this ancient, ancient culture
and home.
(Little pause)
“You can never make that cross that she made, for such Great Voyages
in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives
that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day.
You understand me? In you that journey is.”


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The rabbi’s eulogy from Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, speaks to the heart of author Julius Novick’s message in Beyond the Golden Door. Novick’s thoughtful, at times humorous and carefully researched book covers the works of Jewish American playwrights beginning with Israel Zangwill’s The Melting Pot in 1908.  That Zangwill was English (the one exception here) hardly detours Novick, as the playwright imagines the immigrant experience from a truly American point of view. Writing about its premiere in Washington, DC, the author reports that Theodore Roosevelt “stood up in his box and shouted, ‘It is a great play, Zangwill!’”

Indeed, Novick is at his best in mining the human (and cathartic) nature of his material. He writes most engagingly about the tradition of Jewish vaudevillians who appeared in black-face – from Sophie Tucker to Al Jolson – on whom the central character in Samson Raphaelson’s The Jazz Singer is based. Like Jolson (born Asa Yoelson), Jack Robin (Jakie Rabinowitz) faces the conflict between his tradition as the son of a cantor and his aspirations as a jazz singer. “What will it be, Kol Nidre or Cole Porter?” Novick asks, describing the character’s inner tension, the dichotomy between his “two souls.”

Throughout Golden Door Novick references the works of sociologists, primarily W. E. B. Dubois, who uses the expression “two souls” to express the dichotomy in African American experience between racial and national heritage. Using the Jewish American experience as a paradigm of that multiethnic country, Novick unlocks prominent cultural themes in the plays he studies. Most especially, the restrictions of tradition, and the rebellion against oppressive parents that figure prominently in works from The Jazz Singer (1908) to Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing! (1935) and Donald Margulies’s The Loman Family Picnic (1989). In the latter, a son’s bar mitzva epitomizes a spiritually empty rite of passage, preempted as it is by the display of conspicuous consumption.

Clearly, Novick takes great personal pride in Jewish tradition and Golden Door expresses his concern with the loss of Jewish identity. In evoking the image of the postwar suburban synagogue – the “shul with a pool,” the author laments the diminution of religion.

On the contrary, it’s the acquisitive nature of American Jewry that figures predominantly in Novick’s interpretation of Jewish American drama. Quoting the sociologist, he maintains that “the rise in socioeconomic status of Eastern European Jews and their descendents [is] the greatest Horatio Alger [rags to riches] story in American immigration history.” And while this perspective is mostly elucidating, problems arise in applying the sociology of literature to every play.



Such is the case with Novick’s examination of Arthur Miller’s works, particularly Death of a Salesman, a play that turns the failure of the American success myth into a human tragedy. But questions about Willie Loman’s ethnicity, why he wasn’t written as a more Jewish character, and whether or not Miller was a self-hating Jew, detract from Novick’s otherwise insightful exploration. In fact, the discussion simply becomes onerous when it leads to academic prattle about the psyche of one of the greatest playwrights in the American canon.

Meanwhile, Novick could have enriched his observations about the multiethnic American society through a closer examination of Tony Kushner’s complex, intellectually propelled works. Instead, he finds relevant material in the writings of Neil Simon even though the plays themselves, he admits, are blatantly commercial. 

What Novick does achieve is a comprehensive look at Jewish American playwrights throughout the 20th century. While Lillian Hellman and George S. Kaufman figure only marginally in his 140-page carefully annotated study, the author includes the contemporary playwrights Wendy Wasserstein, Jules Feiffer, Jon Robin Baitz and Paddy Chayefsky among those previously mentioned.

While most of these writers are descendents of Eastern European Jewry, Novick brings into focus the plays of Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), whose works depict the bourgeois affluence, intermarriage and assimilation of the German Jews in the Atlanta of his youth. Focusing on Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo, set in the 1930s in the wake of bad news from Europe, Novick describes the characters lighting Christmas trees and hunting for Easter eggs. They are grist for the playwright’s observation that the return to religion is the only way forward for American Jews.


Indeed, much of post World War II Jewish American drama as Novick defines it, deals with the void that’s created by the abandonment of traditional Jewish values. He discloses again and again “the two value systems” – financial success versus spiritual fulfillment – as they appear in works by writers as diverse as Gertrude Berg and William Finn. And he ties this conflict to dramatic themes of youthful rebellion and the resentment of parents against their successful offspring. 

Finally, in Fiddler on the Roof Novick identifies the archetypal Jewish family story. Even though the musical is set in the shtetl Anitefka during the programs and not in America, it “poses the great American – the great modern – question: When the circle of tradition is broken, and none of us ‘knows who he is and what God expects him to do,’ how then do we live our lives?”

The desire to recreate the shtetl in the religious communities of Brooklyn and elsewhere versus the need to assimilate by self-deracination represent two extremes of the immigrant experience. What predominates in the American theater, as Novick depicts it, is the “rich range of responses” that lie between the two and which define the experience of Jewish acculturation in America.

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