temporarily relocated to the northern Californian Bay Area. My youngest son, Ilai, who was born in Israel, was just six years old. His life had been insularly Jewish, being raised traditional in Jerusalem. American imagery whether it be on the streets or in the media permeated his new existence. I remember on a Sunday afternoon, with the television on, the violin strains of “Fiddler on the Roof” were heard. He was mesmerized. “Tradition”…beard, head covering, tzit-tzit (fringes)…and Ilai sighed deeply, “Finally a Jewish movie!” This was a movie he could relate to, even though there was a hundred-year-old difference from the realities in play. Shabbat was the norm, not the unusual. Head covering and tzit-tzit were the apparel, not Britany t-shirts. And prayer and study was a daily ritual.
When I began taking my “Have Jewish Education, Will Travel” on the wandering Jewish road, I had in my teaching barrel of tricks a session entitled “Jazz Singers in America.” I traced the film versions of “The Jazz Singer” from its origins as a short story (“The Day of Atonement”) in the early 1920’s to the first “talkie” in 1927 with Al Jolson to the 1953 version with Danny Thomas to the 1980 version with Neil Diamond and Lawrence Olivier. I didn’t use the Jerry Lewis TV version but I did include a spoof from The Simpsons 1991.
The basic premise of the “Jazz Singer” was that the son of a traditional Cantor wants to leave tradition behind and enter the “new world” as an entertainer. The strained relationship of the father and son is resolved on Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. The imagery of the father/son changes from each version. The 1927 version has the old style religious father with a jazzed up youth of the roaring twenties, set against the Jewish ghetto of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The 1950’s version has a more pasteurized look of mid America with a progressive American Jewish community set in Philadelphia and the son as a nightclub crooner after serving in the Korean War, the father a very American sounding Jew. The synagogue comes across more church like in setting and prayer. The 1980’s version changes the father’s background to that of a Holocaust survivor, pushing the guilt buttons to his rock n’ roll searching son. In the Simpson’s version, Krusty the Klown does not want to follow in his Rabbi/Father footsteps, played by Jackie Mason. He replaces the Torah with a pie in the face.
These images of the Jew in film reflect the times through the decades. The heavily accented immigrant generation, struggling with identity issues, by way of tradition versus assimilation. The 1950’s cultural dilemmas during the McCarthy times, loyalty to one’s country, to mainstream society, to a softer approach to religious traditions. And then the post “Roots” and Holocaust TV movies of the 70’s, bringing in the survivor aspect of the father and Jewish continuity versus the modern need for independence and self-definition. And then Krusty the Klown…coconut crème pie in lieu of strudel.
So…in 2017, 90 years after the first filmed version of “The Jazz Singer,” what would be the images? What would you and your children sigh to and say “Finally, a Jewish movie!” What issues capsulize Jewish identity in America in modern times? What do we struggle with and what are our goals, our ideals? And probably the larger question is… would we go to this movie?
Mark Lazar is the Director of the Center for Jewish Life at the Merage JCC of Orange County.