Early twentieth-century blackface performances featured white and African-American actors who darkened their skins with make-up in order to reflect, and, much later, mock the racist conventions of their day for primarily white and international audiences through what were then widely accepted broad stereotypes. Another type of minstrelsy popular during the Vaudeville era featured Jewish entertainers who affected the popular caricature of Jewish urban immigrants to the same ethnic population. While some prominent Jewish leaders at the time found this type of entertainment offensive, the average Hebrew American delighted in seeing and hearing representations of him or herself on the stage. Is it really so different from members of the present generation who watch Sarah Silverman and enjoy the self-deprecating humor of a joke about how interrupting a spoiled and self-centered Jewish American girl while taking a pee is like denying the Holocaust? Most people don’t get the comedy, but insiders howl. It’s a declaration of identity.
For some, a journey into who we are now begins with whom we were we back when. For Jody Rosen, music critic for the online magazine Slate, this meant spending more than a dozen years searching for rare recordings of Jewish-American music from the past. The 16-tracks on Jewface, originally recorded on wax cylinders and 78 rpm discs and first released from between 1903-1924, are the cream of the crop. The anthology includes two Irving Berlin tunes, “The Yiddisha Professor” and “Cohen Owes Me 97 Dollars”, whose titles suggest the broad ethnic humor contained therein. The latter song pokes fun at a Jewish businessman who doesn’t want to die while so many people owe him so much dough. His last request is for his kids to collect. When his sons collect on the debt, the old money lender’s health dramatically improves, because what kind of businessman can die when flush with cash? In the hands of William Shakespeare this type of situation might be considered anti-Semitic, but Berlin’s fellow Yids laugh at their own expense. The poor know about the booms and busts of personal finance as they scramble for a living. They can make and take such jokes.
The most well-known performer is Fanny Brice, whose “Becky is Back in the Ballet” pokes fun at Jewish klutziness and cheapness (“What balance, / Her father should have such a balance”) and also contains a Jewish mother spiel. One expects treats from Berlin and Brice, but the most happily surprising thing about this disc is the general quality of talent on every cut. While these are obviously historical documents, the music works as pure entertainment as well. The material frequently contains clever wordplay and storytelling, well-played instruments, distinctive and expressive vocals, and is downright funny.
The songs range from the zany to the silly. Highlights include Monroe Silver’s “Pittsburgh, PA”, which concerns a party among all the “bergs”—you know, the Goldbergs, Greenbergs, Steinbergs, Winebergs—“every berg in the world was there, / And where do you think they held the affair, in Pittsburgh, PA”. Silver’s thick Yiddish accent rhymes “Bronx” with “chronic” on another tune, and his rambling raps make him sound like a pioneer predecessor to hip-hoppers like Dr. Dre. Sometimes the humor is played with a straight face, such as Collins and Harlan’s martial
“When Moze with His Nose Leads the Band”. The song has no affectations outside of the outrageous and catchy title chorus that goes “Oy oy oy oy, / Mazel Tov”. The plain-spoken delivery of the line—in men’s glee-club style—works like a refreshing slap on the face, as it seems so unexpected.
The in-group conversations these recordings reveal show an upwardly-mobile group of people laughing about assimilation. They can mock their Jewishness as they become more American. The songs show a pride in where they came from because they are confident they have gone beyond that. They can joke about Jews and money because here there are no pogroms and laugh about clannishness because no one is putting them in ghettos. They can say they are Jews out loud in this new world, at least in a theater or while listening to a recording. Jewface offers us an enjoyable glimpse into that historical moment when this cultural crossover originally occurred.