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New Exhibit Explores Impact of American Jews on Entertainment - 2003-05-21


Forget all your troubles, forget all your cares and go uptown to a new exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City titled Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting. From the stages of the Bowery's Yiddish theatres to the Emmy Award-winning hit Seinfeld, Entertaining America explores the impact of American Jews on the entertainment world during the past century.

It's like walking into an old movie theatre. The lights are low, music and voices rise and fall from speakers, and screens of all shapes and sizes flash before your eyes. Visitors are encouraged to take their time with the video and audio clips from more than 80 film, television and radio programs. Glass cases cover vintage movie posters, fan magazines and "star" shrines, and you can even take a break in an authentic 1950s living room. There's no self-guiding audio tour, so it's a good day when guest curator Jeffrey Shandler is around to help you through.

"Our exhibition focuses on a particular relationship of Jews in America as seen through the new media of the past 20th century, focusing on film, radio and television," he said. "What we see when we see this material is a remarkable range of engagement, engagements by people who are performers, by people who are creating these works of media behind the camera or microphone, by people who are distributors and performers of this material, and also of audiences which sometimes gets left out of the discussion but are critical."

One of the earliest views of Jewish life in America is a short film clip of a ghetto fish market on Mutoscope [self-operating viewing machine] from 1903. A few years later, nickelodeon theaters frequented by European immigrants appeared on New York's Lower East Side. And then there was The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson.

The Jazz Singer, the first version of which was made in 1927, is the single-most, widely-discussed work of American Jewish popular culture, certainly in the first half of the 20th century and maybe the whole century," said Mr. Shandler. "And it's best-remembered as the film that marks the transition between silent film and talkies."

Media pieces include Yiddish film and radio broadcasts of the 1930s and 1940s, described by Shandler as "alternative Jewish media."

"Most Yiddish radio broadcasts, in fact, were bilingual," he explained. "Some of them played with the movement between Yiddish and English in very inventive ways as a way to demonstrate the way immigrant culture has to jockey between two languages and two different sensibilities."

Nahum Stutchkoff reading the Yiddish broadcast News of the Week in Review on WEVD Radio, April 1, 1945.

The exhibition's "star" shrines pay tribute to legendary Jewish entertainers Theda Bara and Fanny Brice, and screen stars John Garfield, the Marx Brothers, and Barbra Streisand.

Television was fertile ground for Jewish performers, writers and producers, including Gertrude Berg of the groundbreaking series The Goldbergs, and Sid Caesar from Your Show of Shows, whose writing staff included up-and-comers Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, Mel Brooks and Neil Simon.

Also covered, the blacklisting of entertainers during the early days of the Cold War, the Holocaust as a subject for radio, tv and film, and one of television's highest-rated sitcoms Seinfeld.

"Everything on Seinfeld was double-edged, so the 'show about nothing' was about a lot of things," said Mr. Shandler. "A show that takes conventions of the situation comedy and then tweaks them in really interesting ways. It takes boundaries between actuality and fiction and bends them in interesting ways. So is Jerry Seinfeld the character the same as Jerry Seinfeld the real person? Well, he is and he isn't."

Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting is on view at the Jewish Museum in New York City until September 14. It will open at the Jewish Museum of Maryland on October 16.

In conjunction with the exhibition, The Jewish Museum and Princeton University Press have published a 336-page companion book, edited by co-curators Jeffrey Shandler and J. Hoberman.

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