There's no business like Jew business

Beit Avi Chai gets serious about comedy.

Bob Dylan 311 (photo credit: courtesy)
Bob Dylan 311
(photo credit: courtesy)
It’s an open secret that Jews have enjoyed a significant presence in all areas of show business. That has certainly been the case in Hollywood, throughout the history of Tinsel Town to date, while Broadway and Tin Pan Alley would have been much smaller affairs without the likes of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Carole King, Neil Sedaka and umpteen other Jewish writers and performers.
The Jew Business event, which will take place at Beit Avi Chai on Wednesday, at 9 p.m., will look into the life and works of such leading contemporary Jewish entertainers, across a wide range of industry sectors, as Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Itzhak Perlman and Steven Spielberg, Marcel Marceau and Amy Winehouse.
But the accent in Jew Business is very much on the lighter side.
“We are not looking to get into heavy intellectual discussions about the place of Jews in the entertainment business, and to scientifically dissect the history of the genre,” says Beit Avi Chai deputy director Michal Nakar. “This is an evening about fun.”
Still, Nakar does own up to some analytical thought about the subject and how it reflects on contemporary life in the Jewish state.
“It is interesting that, all through the years, in the Diaspora, Jews were great comics and could laugh at themselves. Here, in Israel, we seem to have lost some of that. Here, we have to put on this front, of being tough, proud Sabras. That doesn’t leave much room for joking around, especially not at our own expense.”
The on-stage proceedings Wednesday will be overseen by show producer Nina Benaim. The comedy section will be addressed by Gilad Cahana, who will focus on the work of Jerry Lewis, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry Davis. Meanwhile, rock singer Tamar Eisenman will offer her personalized renditions of songs written and made famous by Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Amy Winehouse. The Ha’ivrit rock group, which Cahana fronts, will add some song reworkings of its own.
“Gilad is a very funny guy,” says Nakar, “and there will be a combination of mime, music and humor. An actor will tie all the various bits and pieces together, to keep the continuity in flow.”
Said actor will also leave the audience with a few morsels for thought.
“He will pose some questions, for the members of the audience to figure out at their leisure,” Nakar explains, “thoughts they can take home with them and mull over.”
All the songs performed during the evening will be in English, with only the theatrical-comic interval content in Hebrew. There will be some added video art elements that will help to illustrate aspects of the lives of some of the Jewish celebrities featured in the program.
“I think the video art material will help the audience to understand the enormous range of Jewish talent that has existed, and still exists, in contemporary show business,” Nakar adds.
According to Nakar, there are quite a few issues to address in relation to Jewish dominance of certain areas of show business, particularly in the United States, and where it all comes from.
“The fact that there are so many leading Jewish entertainers can lead to all sorts of anti-Semitic ideas and claims,” she continues. “Some people have wondered whether the presence of so many Jews in show business is intentional, and is a plot to influence public opinion. Or maybe it’s just that Jews are so good at entertaining.”
Then again, there may be historic reasons for the well-developed Jewish sense of humor which, surmises Nakar, may have been born out of necessity.
“Did Jews learn to laugh at themselves, and develop a dark sense of humor, because of repression and discrimination, and humor was important for them to maintain a sense of perspective and even hope? That could very well be.”
Electronic means of communication notwithstanding, the Jews have, together with other cultures such as the Indians and Arabs, tended to maintain the tradition of storytelling. This, says Nakar, will also feature in Jew Business.
“There was something of a void in the Christian world, whereby all the intellectual pursuits and books were safeguarded by the church, so that when a Jew turned up [in a Christian community] he was some sort of attraction, because he could tell stories.”
According to Nakar, that Christian-Jewish juxtapositioning exists to this day.
“Show business is still an element that exists within the Christian world, so we can still ask ourselves whether there is still a gap between the Christian world and the Jewish world, after all these millennia.
There are all sorts of intriguing issues that will come up during Jew Business, and we don’t intend to provide the answers.”
Jew Business will also cast some light on the cultural, social and historic milieu in which Jewish entertainers worked and developed.
“It is interesting to note that, while the Jews in America were very keen to sustain their own culture, we are not looking at anything with any religious undertones,” continues Nakar. “We’re talking about a very secular society, of non-religious Jews who migrated to America from various places. There were crazy cabaret shows in Poland, for instance, and the Jews who came from Poland and Russia were anti-religious and anti-establishment.
They proffered their entertainment material to very receptive audiences in the US, and generally conveyed their ideas with a lot of humor.”
The idea of the Jewish stronghold in Hollywood has been researched and discussed copiously over the years, including by renowned film critic Neal Gabler.
Gabler’s eye-opening 1989 tome An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood was published in Hebrew in 1993.
“Gabler described the creation of Hollywood as some sort of alternative to Zionism,” notes Nakar. “He talks about the founding of an independent territory that has no connection to a specific plot of land, or place, with all sorts of ideas and visions. Of course, that [Hollywood] empire soon turned into a gold mine.”
Jew Business will address some of the Jewish elements in Hollywood but there will be much more in the evening’s roll call.
“We’ll feature people like [classical violinist] Itzhak Perlman, and [rock musicians] Lou Reed and Lenny Kravitz, [French singer-songwriter and actor] Serge Gainsbourg, Bob Dylan and [British DJ, musician and record producer] Mark Ronson. This is going to very much a here-and-now event about contemporary Jewish entertainers.”