Jazz Age Jews. by Michael Alexander

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By the 1920s, Jews were--by all economic, political, and cultural measures of the day--making it in America. But as these children of immigrants took their places in American society, many deliberately identified with groups that remained excluded. Despite their success, Jews embraced resistance more than acculturation, preferring marginal status to assimilation.

The stories of Al Jolson, Felix Frankfurter, and Arnold Rothstein are told together to explore this paradox in the psychology of American Jewry. All three Jews were born in the 1880s, grew up around American Jewish ghettos, married gentile women, entered the middle class, and rose to national fame. All three also became heroes to the American Jewish community for their association with events that galvanized the country and defined the Jazz Age. Rothstein allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series--an accusation this book disputes. Frankfurter defended the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Jolson brought jazz music to Hollywood for the first talking film, The Jazz Singer, and regularly impersonated African Americans in blackface. Each of these men represented a version of the American outsider, and American Jews celebrated them for it.

Michael Alexander's gracefully written account profoundly complicates the history of immigrants in America. It challenges charges that anti-Semitism exclusively or even mostly explains Jews' feelings of marginality, while it calls for a general rethinking of positions that have assumed an immigrant quest for inclusion into the white American mainstream. Rather, Alexander argues that Jewish outsider status stemmed from the group identity Jews brought with them to this country in the form of the theology of exile. Jazz Age Jews shows that most Jews felt culturally obliged to mark themselves as different--and believed that doing so made them both better Jews and better Americans.


About Michael Alexander

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Published October 1, 2001 by Princeton University Press. 264 pages
Genres: Biographies & Memoirs, History, Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for Jazz Age Jews.

Publishers Weekly

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Jews and the jazz age: bathtub Manischewitz? Yiddish speakeasies? the Purim massacre? Not exactly. In his deft and provocative book, Alexander sketches how the social position and public perception

Sep 17 2001 | Read Full Review of Jazz Age Jews.

Publishers Weekly

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His arguments in the first two sections are dazzling—about Arnold Rothstein's role in the national pastime's scandal and Felix Frankfurter's defense of the Italian anarchists—but he is less convincing when critiquing Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melti...

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Project MUSE

Strangely, Alexander uses these three men (and Jazz Age Jews reverses the Malamud dictum "All men are Jews" to now say "All Jews are men") as examples of "a peculiar behavior" demonstrated by Jews of this era, whereby they "acted as though they were increasingly marginalized" even though they wer...

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Project MUSE

While Alexander argues that Frankfurter spent his childhood in a part of Vienna that housed many immigrants from Eastern Europe and later grew up on the largely Eastern European Lower East Side in New York, he admits that the direct origins of the Frankfurter family are not known.

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