Last night I attended a talk by Paul Buhle at the Institute of Jewish History in New York occasioned by the publication of the 3-volume “Jews and American Popular Culture” he edited. He was joined by a number of contributors to the collection. Paul is very good at bringing together people in such a fashion. As a kind of radical impresario, he recruited dozens of contributors to the Encyclopedia of the American Left as well.
Paul’s connection to the radical movement is probably better-known than it is to American Jewish culture, but the two concerns are obviously related as Paul’s contribution to V. 3 would indicate. Titled “Popular Front Culture,” it shows that even when major figures were not Jewish–like Dalton Trumbo or Paul Robeson–they relied on a circle of organizers, publicists and fans that were.
Paul first became interested in Jewish culture when doing research on his PhD dissertation, which was eventually published as “Marxism in the United States: Remapping the History of the American Left”. As so many of the early socialist magazines were published in Yiddish, he found it necessary to learn the language despite the fact that he is not Jewish himself.
Many of the contributors are in the burgeoning Jewish Studies field, the left wing of which is clearly influenced by “history from below” conceptions found in E.P. Thompson or the popular culture studies of CLR James, among whose disciples Paul can be included. You can see an early contribution to this literature in Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers”, which explored life on the Lower East Side. Although I can’t stand Howe’s politics, I can recommend that book. That being said, “Jews and American Popular Culture” is far more oriented to the nitty-gritty than Howe. In Douglas Century’s article on Jewish boxing, he notes that there is only a single sentence in Howe’s book referring to the legendary fighters of the 1920s. Immigrant Jewish life is also explored in Saul Bellow’s novels. Bellow, like Howe, was a Trotskyist in the 1930s. Unlike Howe, Bellow evolved toward neo-conservatism in his old age.
Paul referred to the fact that the Introduction to Volumn 3 was nominally co-written by him and Harvey Pekar, the comic strip author celebrated in the film “American Splendor”. Paul added that while the words were all his, Harvey lived had them on the streets of Cleveland.
In a very real sense, I lived in that world myself. Growing up in the Catskill Mountains in the 1950s, I came into contact directly or indirectly with the personalities written about in “Jews and American Popular Culture.” Some of you might remember my article on Barney Ross and the “Tough Jew” that drew heavily on Douglas Century’s biography of the fighter. When I was about 10 years old, I lived in an apartment above the Kentucky Club, a nightspot that featured the veterans of the Yiddish theater from Molly Picon to Menashe Skulnick during the summer season. Barney Ross was a “greeter” hired by the Kentucky Club and I used to enjoy talking with him on the street corner.
Albert Fried spoke about his contribution to the collection, “The Story of the American Gangster”. Fried, a retired Columbia University professor, obviously has some affinities with Paul based on his authorship of “Socialism in America: From the Shakers to the Third International” and “Socialist Thought: A Documentary History”. He spoke mostly about a bygone era, when characters like Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel were among the most powerful figures in the U.S. crime world. There was an infamous gang called Murder Incorporated that, as their name implies, were contract killers. They used to dump their victims in Loch Sheldrake, which was about a 15 minute drive from my home upstate.
Abe Reles, aka “Kid Twist”, leader of Murder Incorporated
Fried said that the Jewish gangster more or less disappeared in the 1950s. I guess I was fortunate enough to come into contact with them around that time, at least their lower ranks. In my home town, there was a family that epitomized the various forms of illegality American Jews adopted in this period. The father was always involved in one shady operation or another, including a gambling casino in Haiti. His wife was an outspoken Red as was one of her sons. Meanwhile, another son robbed a bank to cover gambling debts. He finally was found dead on the stoop of a New York City building, a victim of a mob hit.
During the reception prior to the meeting, a slide show featured famous Jewish personalities, from Jerry Seinfeld to Sandy Koufax. One of them might not have been well-known to the audience but he certainly was to me. Around the same time I was spending my evenings hanging out with Barney Ross, I used to go see strong man Joseph Greenstein bend iron bars across his nose at his bungalow colony in my home town. Better known as the Mighty Atom, he was now in his 70s but still going strong. During his prime, he used to be able to prevent an airplane from taking off by holding it back with a cable. After performing his feats, he used to extol Jewish piety and the need to eat healthy (he wore his hair long like Samson.)
The Mighty Atom
The Mighty Atom shopped exclusively at my father’s fruit and vegetable store as did Sid Caesar, who began his career performing at the Avon Lodge, not far from my home. Sid used to enjoy shooting pistols on a firing range at the hotel and would come into town with his holster on. He was a fearsome sight.
One of the hotel’s owners was related to the only piano teacher in town. After my parents decided to send me to take lessons, one of my friends warned me that she was a “commie”. Sure enough, when I went for my first lesson, I noticed copies of Soviet Life all around. After my second or third lesson, I asked her if she was a Communist. She was understandably very offended and refused to see me any more. Years later, when she learned that I had become a revolutionary (even of the Trotskyite variety), she forgave me for everything and left me her literature collection, which consisted of pamphlets like “The Soviets Want Peace”, etc. I was more interested in the gesture than in the literature itself.
Besides Century and Fried, all of the other contributors were interesting as well. I especially appreciated Beth Aviva Preminger on “The Jew and the Nose: Plastic Surgery and Popular Culture.” This examines the question of whether such noses actually exist and how they became symbols of Jewish evil in Nazi propaganda. In the 1950s, it was common for Jewish women in my high school to get nose jobs. In the 1960s and 70s, as a reflection of emerging feminist attitudes, this practice was ended for the most part. Frankly, I am not sure what is happening today based on the spate of TV shows about plastic surgery.
But for me the crowning moment was listening to Douglas Century. As I told him after the meeting, his biography of Barney Ross is not just a sports book. It is literature. Douglas spoke about Benny Leonard, as well as Barney Ross. Benny Leonard was born Benjamin Liener on the Lower East Side and compiled a record of 180 wins and 21 losses as a lightweight. In 1958 boxing writer Max Fleisher (a Jew himself) rated Leonard as the second greatest lightweight of all time. Leonard, like Ross, changed his name as many Jewish boxers did even though everybody still knew that they were Jews. As is the case today, many fights were promoted as ethnic conflicts between Jews, Italians and Irish. At one point, Leonard was in the ring with Eddie O’Finnegan, an Irish fighter whose fans were yelling “Kill the Kike”, etc. throughout the bout. Understandably, this incensed Leonard who was the superior fighter. As he was pummeling O’Finnegan on the ropes, the Irishman began speaking softly to him in Yiddish, “Ich bin ein Yid” and asked him to go easy. It turns out that O’Finnegan had changed his name as well.
Although “Jews and Popular Culture” is prohibitively expensive, it will probably come out in paperback eventually. Look for it then. You can also get Paul’s own “From the Lower East Side to Hollywood: Jews in American Popular Culture“, a truly wonderful book