by Guest Contributor Wendy Elisheva Somerson
“I remember your grandfather leaving the house in blackface to perform at the local Jewish community center,” my mom told me. “They just didn’t know what it meant back then,” she explained, “not until after WW II.” As an activist involved in contemporary solidarity work across racial lines, I was shocked to discover this racist history in my near past. As an Ashkenazi Jew* (of European descent) whose grandparents immigrated to the US around the turn of the century, I don’t always see myself implicated in the American legacy of slavery, but I was forced to reconcile the fond memories of my jovial grandfather with this haunting image of him performing racial minstrelsy. Trying to make sense of this image, I began researching the history of Jewish blackface between WWI and WWII and was surprised to discover a connection between my current activism and this history of blackface: When we are not rooted in our Jewish identities, we risk stereotyping, appropriating, and over-identifying with other cultures.
To understand the complicated history of alliance, disconnection, and overlap between Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans in between the world wars, I turned to Eric Goldstein’s The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity, which considers how Jews negotiated competing claims on their identities and Michael Rogin’s Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, which looks more specifically at the role of blackface in Americanizing Jews. As European Jewish immigrants arrived in the US, their presence intersected with the dominant black/white system of racial relations in various ways. At different times, Jews and African Americans were linked tightly together in American consciousness as evidenced by the case of Leo Frank (1913-1915), which sets the stage for Jewish-Black relations in between the wars. A Jewish factory manager in Georgia, Frank was accused of raping and murdering a white girl who worked in his factory. Frank was found guilty (in spite of flimsy evidence) and sentenced to death, but the Governor commuted his sentence to life in prison. A journalist warned in a headline: “The next Jew who does what Frank did is going to get exactly the same thing we give to Negro rapists” (Goldstein 43). Frank was then kidnapped from prison and lynched by a white mob.
In the wake of the Frank trial, Jews who followed the case became “increasingly sensitized both to the danger of comparing blacks and Jews and the possibilities of deflecting anti-Semitism by emphasizing their whiteness” (Goldstein 65). During the trial, Frank’s legal team repeatedly emphasized Frank’s whiteness by downplaying his Jewishness and tried to shift the blame onto a black janitor who was also implicated in the murder. Even as they tried to underscore their whiteness in this time between the wars, Jews were being held responsible for a variety of issues that troubled Americans including communism, immigration, and the rising tide of war in the 1930’s. Articles about “The Jewish Problem” proliferated in the press, and quotas and restrictions were enacted to limit the number of Jews allowed into universities, clubs, and neighborhoods.
Not surprisingly, Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants had a contradictory relationship to African Americans. On the one hand, identification with whiteness allowed Jews to experience “what it was like not to be the focus of national hostility and resentment” as they were in Europe (Goldstein 145). On the other hand, Jews identified with the suffering of African Americans and continued to display empathy for them. The most assertive statements of identification with African Americans in the US occurred in the Yiddish press where non-Jewish readers could not chance upon them. The Yiddish press roundly condemned segregation and racism by comparing race riots against African Americans to the pogroms against Jews in Europe. At the same time, the Yiddish press read Jewish blackface solely as a means of identification by saying about that Jews “knew how to sing the songs of the most cruelly wronged people in the world’s history” (Goldstein 154).
Blacking Out Jewish Identity in The Jazz Singer
In Blackface, White Noise, Rogin discusses how Jewish blackface plays out in The Jazz Singer, one of the first “talkie” films, which came out in 1927 and starred a Jewish actor, Al Jolson, whose life parallels that of the protagonist in the film. The film’s central character, Jakie Rabinowitz, the son of a cantor, is expected to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a cantor at their synagogue on Manhattan’s lower East Side. Jakie Rabinowitz, however, wants to sing jazz, which enrages his father, who, in turn, disowns him. (Al Jolson, also the son of a cantor, turned his back on tradition by performing in theater and film). After running away from home, Jakie changes his name to Jack Robin, finds himself a Christian girlfriend, and becomes a singing success on the stage, often performing in blackface. When his father is dying, Jack is called to take his place to sing Kol Nidre, a solemn song performed on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish days. Forgoing an opening night appearance on the stage, Jack takes his father’s place in the synagogue, and his father forgives him before he dies. The film, however, ends with Jack performing “My Mammy” in blackface at the Winter Garden Theater (where Al Jolson often performed) with his mother and girlfriend in the audience. Singing directly to his mother, Jack gets down on one knee and sings a song about coming home to his “Mammy” in “Alabammy.”
In Rogin’s analysis, he argues that politically oriented Eastern Europe Jews in the US between WWI and WWII identified with African Americans as a persecuted, Diasporic people. While this identification often resulted in political solidarity, it also took the more problematic “form of either cultural or literal blackface as Jews attempted to become American by taking on black-derived music, along with the plantation myth of American belonging” (66). Witnessing anti-Semitism on the rise in both Europe and in the US, US Jews attempted to escape their shtetl pasts by using the mask of blackness. Thus their ability to re-make themselves in the New World as white came at the cost of African Americans, who had to remain immobile and fixed in stereotype.
In The Jazz Singer, Jakie leaves behind his immigrant past (represented by his dying father) through his performance of blackface. Interestingly, very few movies at this time made by Jews (and often starring Jews) actually represented Jewish themes; Jews in Hollywood generally succeeded by erasing Jewishness in their films. Jakie’s story, however, is definitely a Jewish story—one of assimilation. And as Rogin argues, Jack can only express his sadness about leaving his cultural motherland (the lower East Side and Eastern Europe) through a black-white racial lens by equating his Jewish mother with a Southern “mammy.” In the final “Mammy” scene from the film, the camera keeps cutting between Jack singing with great emotion and the face of his crying mother.
As Goldstein observes, Jewish blackface became a means to express emotions that could not be expressed as Jews; blackface obscures the performer’s Jewishness through stereotyping African Americans who became a mask for Jewish expression. This performance blends identification and admiration with racism. Many of the Jews, including Jolson, who performed in blackface, began their careers as Jewish comedians and turned to black material as their urge to assimilate made it less desirable to do comedy about Jewish themes and personas. Of course what they end up taking on isn’t actually African American material, but the white culture’s nostalgia for an even more racist past of very clearly defined racial roles. The “Mammy” stereotype grew out of the reality that African American mothers were often forced to nurse the master’s children during slavery (and then, post-slavery, forced to take care of them as servants) often at the cost of their relationships with their own children. This reality translated into the stereotype of the happy, loyal, desexualized “mammy” whose happiness made white people feel that slavery was a benevolent institution.
Unmasking Jewish Histories
How, then, does my Grandfather fit into all this? His father Max (my great grandfather) came to the US from Poland in 1900 as a shoemaker because his house in Warsaw was burned down in pogroms. Enjoying his life in the New World, Max didn’t want to send for his wife Cecilia and six year old son (my Grandfather) back in Warsaw, but family pressure intervened. When his family did arrive, Max was embarrassed by his wife’s Old World Yiddish speaking ways and began isolating her. He wouldn’t give Cecilia any money, and he didn’t want her to learn English. He apparently refused to let her eat when she was pregnant. The family story is that he drove her crazy, and then put her into an insane asylum. It’s unclear how much English Cecilia could even speak and how much of her diagnosed “craziness” was a result of being an isolated immigrant with limited language skills. Max then put my Grandfather and his sister into an orphanage until he remarried years later.
During my mom’s childhood, her father Maurice–always quick with a joke–never spoke about his childhood, and told both my mom and my aunt that their grandmother (Cecilia) was dead. As an adult, my mom found out that her father and his sister used to go visit their mother at the asylum–a secret that only came out after Cecilia’s death. As part of his own assimilation, Maurice obscured his own sad family history by refusing to let his children meet their grandmother.
Although I don’t know the circumstances surrounding my Grandfather’s use of blackface, I wonder how or whether his own sadness about the loss of his mother and motherland played into it; was he singing to a “mammy” or was he just trying, like his peers, to become a white American? Given that my Grandfather came to the US as a child on a boat from Poland, he certainly didn’t have a plantation past in the South. Neither did Al Jolson, also an immigrant from Eastern Europe, who was known for performing with and fighting discrimination against African Americans on Broadway and later in Hollywood. Was Maurice taking on white America’s nostalgic imagination for a racist past that Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe had little part in? What is gained and what gets erased by swapping out these histories? Taking on the history of American racism, Jews also lost connections to our own history and culture.
History Lessons for Solidarity Work
The image of Jews doing blackface represents a sad and pivotal moment in Ashkenazi Jewish American identity. At various moments because of historical cycles of anti-Semitism, Jews have been bribed with material privileges and public positions of limited power to appear as the visible face of an oppressive system. What does it mean that this time the face that they put on was blackface? In these exchanges, Jews are often encouraged to take on a middle “buffer” position, and thus get pitted against other oppressed groups. With blackface, Jews occupied the middle ground once again, this time the ground between African Americans and white Christian culture. We both chose and were encouraged to choose whiteness that came at a cost to our relationships with African Americans and disconnected us from our own culture.
As an adult, disconnected from my own family history, I began asking more questions about my Grandfather and learned even more about sadness and loss in his history. Most of his father Max’s siblings stayed in Poland, and most of my Grandfather’s cousins died in Auschwitz, probably around the same time that he was performing in blackface. It’s hard to fathom how both these things could be happening at the same time; in the US, Ashkenazi Jews were being encouraged to assimilate into whiteness, a process they probably accepted, in part, because in Europe they were being killed as a “race.”
The image of my Grandfather doing blackface embodies a moment when Ashkenazi Jews exchanged our deep connection to our cultures, histories and families in order to gain whiteness. While I want to be clear that blackface has obviously been the most damaging to its targets, African Americans, there has also been a cost to Ashkenazi Jews as well. We have inherited the privileges of assimilation—class and race privilege—as well as some incalculable losses–of culture, community and solidarity/connection with other oppressed people.
Through my involvement in Jewish anti-racist organizing over the last decade, I have come to realize that as Ashkenazi Jews who identify as white, we still face the dual dangers of distancing ourselves from other oppressed groups or over-identifying and appropriating their struggles. Jews doing blackface is an extreme example of this tendency: Ashkenazi Jews moved toward whiteness at the expense of African Americans while using the mask of “blackness” to explore alternative ways to express their emotions from the dominant white Christian culture. Because Ashkenazi Jews have more or less “achieved” whiteness, there is clearly still a tendency to distance ourselves and ignore other oppressed groups’ struggles.
But I have also seen the opposite force at work among anti-racist Ashkenazi Jewish activists. When we do not have any grounding in our own culture, however we define it, it is easy to over-identify with others’ struggles, whether those of Palestinians or other oppressed groups. In our attempts to build alliances, we sometimes overreach and take over other people’s struggles as a way to find culture and meaning for ourselves. At anti-Occupation protests, I have seen many Jews wearing Palestinian symbols, such as keffiyehs as a sign of solidarity. There is nothing inherently wrong with this as long as we are simultaneously working to make space for Palestinian voices in this conversation and not filling up all the space ourselves. I personally find it even more effective to see Jews wearing traditional Jewish symbols at these protests, thereby insisting that we can be our full Jewish selves as we stand up against the Israeli Occupation. Even as we reach out to work in solidarity, it is important stay rooted within our own histories and cultures, as complicated and compromising as they may be.
So while there is no simple lesson to be taken from this messy history of Jewish blackface, I believe that our challenge is to remain connected to Jewishness, whatever that means to us, even as we use our privileges to work toward ally-ship with others. Although I still feel a sense of shame when I picture my Grandfather in blackface, I also try to remember the historical context surrounding his losses and choices. As someone who has reaped the benefits of my ancestors’ compromises, I am lucky that I have the choice to attempt reaching toward solidarity, and resisting appropriation as part of my modern Jewish identity.
*Throughout this essay, I am referring to Jews of European descent who “became” white in the US through a process of assimilation at a particular historical moment. I recognize that not all Ashkenazi Jews identify as white; some folks are both Jewish and African American; and finally that Jews of color, including Jews with Sephardic and Mizrahi heritage, may have very different experiences.
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