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The Un-Americans: Jews, the Blacklist and Stoolpigeon Culture, by Joseph Litvak. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. 282 pp. $22.95.
A quarter century ago, a graduate student doing some research for a professor in my department at Brown University calculated the book and journal references to “Identity” in the campus library. There were a lot, but more interestingly, the proportion of Jewish references was phenomenal. It is not likely to have fallen since, as any Wikipedia check will surely reveal. There are good reasons, of course, but have Jews more difficulty with identity than, say, Inuits, Armenians, Roma, and other peoples with or without states of their own? Or is it the proportions of Jewish author-scholars that may be decisive?
If this question seems ultimately imponderable, the lure of pondering its aspects is not likely to go away. To the expanding literature, Joseph Litvak has added a remarkable and sometimes dazzling footnote. Any number of scholars (myself included) writing on Ashkenazic Jews in the European and North American diaspora have come to Yiddish and Yiddishkayt as the root source. In their various locations, Yiddish speakers borrowed not only their language in its many varieties and adaptations, but also elements of the accompanying popular cultures. In the long run, by 1900 or so, this proved decisive to Jewish participation in the emerging commercial popular cultures. No degree of supposed global political or financial influence, no earthly or spiritual power is likely to surpass the Jewish influence on the mundane worlds of film, television, music and so on that reach people in every language and culture. And yet so little of the content is identifiably Jewish!
We have, here, a paradox of major proportions. Joseph Litvak wants us to focus our attention on one particular aspect largely forgotten in the last two generations. He examines, in his own ways, the Blacklist, specifically the Blacklist in the entertainment world, its impact upon popular culture, and implications for Jews everywhere. Talk about metaphors, the cover of the Un-Americans sports one of the most self-revealing of blacklistees, and at the same time one of the most iconic and tragic Jewish American entertainers: Zero Mostel.
Now best remembered as the theatrical star of Fiddler on the Roof (replaced, somewhat mysteriously, by the Israel actor Topol, for the film version), Mostel was of course a leftwing actor and, before that, a stand-up comic. His role best preserved (that is, in film, although he was even better as a live act) for future generations must be as stand-in for Philip Loeb in The Front, playing the actors’ union pioneer, long-time character actor in Gertrude Berg’s assorted vehicles, and blacklistee driven to suicide. Humiliating himself before investigators, Mostel as Loeb could not, however, become a friendly witness: that would be like conversion to Christianity. Others will remember a little art film, The Angel Levine, playing opposite Ida Kaminska, a dying wife whose angel of death is schwartze hipster Harry Belafonte, but whose real drama may be Mostel saying goodbye to life as well as fictive wife. He died not long after the shooting.
Mostel would have been yet better, nay perfect for Litvak if he had been gay. In the very particular narrative of this volume, the “rootless cosmopolitan” identified with Jewishness for centuries is even more rootless when outside existing sexual norms as well as outside all apparent or acceptable national, racial, and religious. Litvak’s cosmopolitan is, by no surprise, also an atheist, although the unwillingness of Christians to acknowledge Judaism as a religion might in some circumstances have meant almost as much in defining rootlessness.
Being “comic” is the other element of essential identity, and here, of course, Mostel as metaphor works perfectly. The “mimesis of mimesis” (in the phrase of Horkheimer and Adorno, two figures often cited in this book) is the opposite of anything-for-a-laugh humor. It embodies a revenge against everything and everybody who oppresses others (or the Other in themselves).
A reader might suspect a danger in this analysis of getting out of hand, theoretically and politically. Categories seem to grow larger and smaller as the author takes up detailed particulars, such as a character or scene from a film, play or some paragraph from a book. He is arbitrary, and obviously happy to be arbitrary in his choices. This is his book, so why not?
Many, perhaps most readers will find the results hard going. And yet there is a kernel as well as countless apercus that are worth the effort. One of the most controversial is his notion that assimilationist America abolished Jewishness, but nationalist Israel abolished Jewishness with greater success! The special qualities of the rootless cosmopolitan, the critical and even dialectical observer to Western civilization, were put on trial with the Blacklistees in quasi-theatrical events, i.e, “show trials.” The charges of Communism, disloyalty, etc., disdained by most Jewish Americans were actually shared by leaders of the Jewish institutional world eager to prove their patriotism—and in the process, get rid of the rootlessness once and for all. Thus the baneful “naturalization” of the Jew, from Los Angeles to Tel Aviv.
Objections can be heard from practically any reader of this review, I am sure. To give a personal example of my own: a board member of a listener-sponsored radio station complained to the host of a talk show about the subject of the day, my three volume anthology of essays, Jews and American Popular Culture, that it was actually “all Ashkenazic.” The criticism would seem to apply here, too. A significant section of world Jewry, likewise lacking in their own country until recent times, never seems to have been rootless in the same sense, not atheist, not cosmopolitan, and most definitely not Queer.
And yet so much here hits home in the large saga of Jewishness and Jewish identity that to elucidate its details would be impossible as well as undesirable. The reader is advised to plunge in, jump out at will, and plunge in again. The results will be helpful.