At the beginning of the twentieth century, Jewish immigrants upended Protestant control of vaudeville and the silent film industry. This book rejects the commonly held explanations for this shift: Jewish commercial acumen and their desire to assimilate. Instead, this book argues that the “pleasure principle”—a positive view of bodily pleasures and sexuality that Jewish immigrants held ––gave rise to the role of Jewish influence on popular culture, an influence still felt today. After discussing the pivotal ascendancy of Jews in vaudeville and silent films, Cherry explores the important role that Jewish performers and middlemen played in the evolution of popular culture throughout the century, from stage and the big screen to radio, television, and the music industry. He concludes with a broader discussion of Jewish values that helps explain the continued outsized role that Jews continue to play in American popular culture.
Robert Cherry, recently retired professor of economics at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center, contributes to The Forward, The Jerusalem Post, Israel Studies, and Contemporary Jewry.
Introduction: Jewish Values and Popular Culture
Chapter 1 Contrasting Immigrant Religious Beliefs
Chapter 2 Irish Catholic Immigrants and Wholesome Vaudeville
Chapter 3 Jewish Vaudeville Ascendancy
Chapter 4 Jewish Influence during the Silent Film Era
Chapter 5 The 1930s Movie Moguls: Louis B. Mayer and Warner Brothers
Chapter 6 The Jewish Community and Black Music
Chapter 7 The Jewish Role in the Rise of the Broadway Musical
Chapter 8 Jewish Jazz Performers and Middlemen
Chapter 9 Radio and Early Television: Jewish Owners, Comedy Writers, and Vaudevillians
Chapter 10 The Postwar Period
Chapter 11 The Origins of Jewish Views on Bodily Pleasure
About the Author
Why the Jews? crisply summarizes the disproportionate Jewish presence in film, music, and early radio and television, and defends Jews against charges of “cultural appropriation” leveled by scholars of African American jazz. Eventually, Cherry suggests a more persuasive thesis: entertainment provided an avenue for upward mobility as Jews faced discrimination in most other commercial areas. For specialized collections. Recommended.