The Three Versions of The Jazz Singer and the Sinister Bargain of Jewish Whiteness

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The Three Versions of The Jazz Singer and the Sinister Bargain of Jewish Whiteness

Dateline: Passover 2003/5763, Long Beach, California. My father has been playing the 8 Mile soundtrack every day since its release the previous November. His burned copy — commissioned from a teenage neighbor — is breaking records with an eight-month residency in the CD changer. Greatest hits compilations from Queen, The Doors, Pink Floyd, and sundry late-night dad rock infomercials cycle in and out of the drive time canon, but 8 Mile just won’t budge. What compels a Jewish Baby Boomer, Southern California born and raised, to listen to “Lose Yourself” week after week? For nearly a year I pestered him with this question, dissatisfied every time with some variation of the same answer: “Because it’s great music!” “Because it’s a great song!” “It’s catchy!” And so on. 

It was at a seder (what else?) at my grandparents’ house (where else?) when the true reason revealed itself to me. After the Maxwell House haggadahs were returned to the sideboard, the afikomen wrested from the sofa cushions (one of three rotating hiding places), and the Maneschewitz long replaced with potable wine, the evening loosened up, as it did every year. With heated political debates and “Guess who died!” gossip out of our systems, we moved on to equally intense conversations about books, movies, music — the fun stuff. I must have been on shore leave from the kids’ table, bored out of my mind, when a standout exchange caught my ear. Almost 20 years later, I still remember it vividly. My father was making an impassioned case for Eminem as a worthwhile artist, but his argument fell on deaf ears for my octogenarian grandparents. “Pop … ” — this was my dad, speaking to his — “ … you don’t understand, it’s just like The Jazz Singer!” To which my grandfather, with the faintest hint of a Newark accent, replied: “How can you even compare these two, Jolson and this, this … ” He waved his hands about, dismissing Marshall Mathers entirely. 

Reaching for this comparison was a deliberate move on my dad’s part, meant to elicit a very specific sentiment from my grandfather. His affection for The Jazz Singer, while hardly his entire personality, was well-documented — so much that his children inherited that attachment to that horrifying property. Greater film scholars than I have already expanded upon, distilled, and brilliantly analyzed the larger cultural impact of The Jazz Singer, the movie that ended the Silent Era. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect synecdoche for the ongoing — and may it never cease, God willing — dialogue among filmgoers, critics, and artists who must make sense of history-making cinema that is also purposefully cruel and repulsive, what with its prolific use of blackface. For a writer, weighing the content and context of Samson Raphaelson’s play-turned-film is a valuable thought exercise. For a Jew, it is an exorcism. 

Cinema history is lousy with remakes, your various Wuthering Heightses and Pride and Prejudices and Three Musketeerses. Taken side by side, these iterations become cinematic and sociological Rosetta Stones. What are the must-haves, and where can one take liberties with the basic story? Which traditions are upheld and which are molded to the present? Every reboot asks these questions, but across three versions of The Jazz Singer (four if you count Jerry Lewis’s TV movie abbreviation), the same questions are asked and answered multiple times. One adaptation of The Jazz Singer, dayenu, it would have been enough. But the success of the 1927 original compelled Hollywood to remake and remodel its story roughly every 25 years. First came Michael Curtiz’s 1952 Danny Thomas vehicle, then Neil Diamond’s 1980 soft rock update for the Me Generation

While the music changes with the times, the story’s essential components remain fixed. Jacob/Jack/Yossel Rabinowitz, the only son of a venerated cantor, struggles to choose between his overbearing father (and by extension our overbearing Old Testament God) and a passionate desire to attain assimilation through self-fulfillment. Restyling himself as “Jack Robin,” the eager young songbird sheds his humble roots in New York’s Lower East Side and claws his way to stardom. He secures a prized shiksa love interest, leading to a dramatic fight between father and son in which the former tears his clothes and says a Kaddish for the latter. Robin’s big opening night on Broadway/television/a concert stage fatefully falls on Yom Kippur Eve, when he receives urgent news backstage that his father is gravely ill. Filial duty inevitably brings the prodigal back to shul to sing the Kol Nidre. Depending on the version, the cantor either dies listening to his son’s service or extends an olive branch by attending a (rescheduled) climactic performance. 

Raphaelson affectionately cited Jolson’s performance in the 1917 stage musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. as the inspiration for his short story “The Day of Atonement,” which his subsequent play and its adaptations were based on. “I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson,” he recounted in a 1927 interview. “His velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from a tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song.” For Raphaelson, Jolson’s real-life upbringing as a Russian-born cantor’s son exemplified the inherent contrast of immigrant life. It didn’t matter if your father was a respected elder or a struggling street peddler; home was a satellite of the Old World, providing shelter or separation (depending on your disposition) from the New. 

Blackface is embarrassingly employed in the first and final adaptations, but its specter lingers in Curtiz’s “transitional” Danny Thomas vehicle. By the time of its 1952 release, the postwar United States had sufficiently absorbed Black culture to such a degree that its star could afford to eschew blackface. In the 1980 iteration (no doubt the campiest), Brooklyn-born Neil Diamond reaches back to his roots and dons the tallis in an update soundtracked by his own infectious compositions. His performance, while contemporary, still contains a not-so-subtle nod to the original. In a brief scene, played for laughs, the guitar-slinging Jack Robin hastily applies brown face paint at the behest of his Black backup band. 

It’s convenient to dismiss the hamfisted minstrelsy of Jolson’s (and later Diamond’s) performance as a product of his time, but the reality is impossible to overlook. The influence of blackface in US popular culture is unavoidable. Minstrel shows predate the Civil War and reached the peak of their popularity at the turn of the last century. While this ubiquity would be unthinkable now, the perfect confluence of expanding rail travel, the exploding vaudeville circuit, and innovations in recording technology all but ensured the popularity of minstrel shows in every town, from dusty little backwaters to teeming metropoles like New York and Chicago. 

That Jolson rose to fame through minstrelsy is both grotesque and telling, a painful context that now (rightfully) overshadows, but hardly erases, his influence. To early 20th-century audiences, Jolson’s use of blackface is de rigeur; while the content is commonplace, it’s the performance that stands out. The most enduring evidence of his impact lies not only in the film’s remakes, but across a century of popular music: jazz standards penned by Irving Berlin and Sammy Cahn performed by the likes of Artie Shaw and Lee Konitz, or even the notorious duo of Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. Hiding behind blackface is what gives Jack Robin the ability, daresay the “license,” to move through one sphere into another. It is a physical and “artistic” disguise that obscures his identity as something “other,” something “un-American.” The path to assimilation that leads Robin away from — and back to — the homestead relies on the imitation and appropriation of Black American music. Never mind that Jolson’s decades-old vaudeville shtick could hardly be called “jazz.” It’s still brassy, slightly syncopated, and showy — the opposite in every conceivable way of a culture deeply wedded to 3,000 years of tradition and solemnity. 

My grandfather was seven years old in 1927, the youngest child of Russian immigrants who spoke little English and read even less. Theirs was a household devoid of secular music, save two records: one by Enrico Caruso, the other Jolson. His experience of seeing The Jazz Singer at such a tender age reflects the quintessential angst at the heart of early 20th century Jewish life. If a talking picture was the height of modernity, a talking picture about a Jewish jazz singer must have felt at once totally alien and instantly recognizable. It was the first film he ever saw, toted along in the company of his older siblings, some of whom remembered a time before their fated arrival at Ellis Island (and subsequent name change). 

This was the media climate that shaped my grandfather, one in which Black artistry exemplified the secular world in all its excitement and exoticism. Through the larger project of acknowledging US culture as Black culture, we can just begin to understand (but never, ever excuse) how the theft and distortion of Black identity offered inroads to shelter, stability, and the promise of opportunity for the masses huddling at our borders. In a country where white audiences still regarded jazz not as art, but novelty — a view shaped in large part by our country’s inherent racism — exposure to (and participation in) this ugly reality became a de facto prerequisite for newly minted Americans of every stripe. 

Like the elder Rabinowitz, my great-grandfather was an observant Jew who managed to retain his Old World habits well into his dotage. But he was a house painter, not a cantor, and if he tried to shield his children from secular society, it appears did a pretty lousy job. In his enduring attachment to this film, my grandfather found a perfect shorthand for the contrast between our respective upbringings. It took only a few short decades for Jewish emigrés and their children to make their Exodus from otherness to Americanness, rising in prominence across business, politics, academia, and mainstream entertainment. The dilemma at the heart of The Jazz Singer is what eventually allowed generations of children, grandchildren, even great-grandchildren to take their native-born privilege for granted.

Much like a retelling of the Passover story, The Jazz Singer provided American Jews an opportunity to recount their own deliverance from the Old Country into a Promised Land of acceptance. Every year we conclude our seders with a prayer for the still-oppressed, the still-enslaved — seldom considering that our path to freedom in the US was contingent on the very oppression and slavery we so desperately fled. If The Jazz Singer has a function beyond its role in film history, let it be another Day of Reckoning, a path to redemption carved from our suffering and success. 

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