Paul Buhle's From the Lower East Side to Hollywood

by Louis Proyect

Book Review

June 21, 2004   


Paul Buhle, From the Lower East Side to Hollywood, Verso, 2004; ISBN 1-85984-598-3.

(Swans - June 21, 2004)  Although Paul Buhle enjoys a high profile as chronicler of the American left, he is also one of our foremost scholars of Jewish popular culture. There is an obvious connection here since the two worlds tend to overlap, particularly during the period when Jews were overwhelmingly proletarian, suffering discrimination and identifying with society's underdogs.

This has little to do with organized Judaism as such but more with the general zeitgeist of the Jewish people, which Buhle describes as "Yiddishkayt" or "Jewishness." For example, in a recent HBO film documentary on the execution of the Rosenbergs directed by their grand-daughter Ivy (daughter of radical economist Michael Meeropol), Abe Osheroff, a Spanish Civil War veteran and friend and comrade of Julius and Ethel, described their wedding as Jewish to the core even though there was little in the way of rituals. Everything about them, from what they ate and drank to their core ethical and political values, was shaped by the urban Jewish milieu of NYC's lower east side.

Although Buhle himself is not Jewish, he learned Yiddish as part of his PhD language requirements. This language would be essential to his studies of the roots of the American left, many of whose founding fathers wrote in this highly vernacular tongue. His engagement with Jewish culture deepened in New York City during the 1960s radicalization, when some of the elder statesmen of the left who had fled persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia recounted their past to this up and coming scholar. Anybody who passed through Union Square Park on 14th Street during this period would still be able to see clusters of mostly Italian and Jewish trade unionists arguing the fine points of anarchism or socialism.

The book follows the chronological path of Jewish popular culture as it wends its way from Vaudeville to contemporary television. Much of the pleasure of taking this grand tour is discovering the "Yiddishkayt" roots of various figures who straddle both periods. One of the most striking examples is Leonard Nimoy, who played the pointy-eared and impassive Vulcan on television's "Star Trek." Nimoy began acting as an amateur in a high school production of Clifford Odets's "Awake and Sing," a classic example of Jewish radical theater. As a young professional, Nimoy started off in Los Angeles's Yiddish theater, while taking acting lessons from blacklistee and Jew Jeff Corey. Soon he began acting in avant-garde productions of plays by Genet, including "Deathwatch." In the role of a prisoner, Nimoy found "himself totally alienated from both worlds, the society outside, and the one within the prison walls," according to his 1975 memoir. It is not too much of a stretch to conceive of this as preparation for his role as the quintessential alien -- Spock. Jewishness and the avant-garde lead in unexpected directions.

Shelley Winters and Lee Grant, two fellow Jews with affinities for the left, appeared in these productions alongside Nimoy. Winters, the daughter of a Brooklyn haberdasher convicted of arson, was always fascinated by the avant-garde and left-liberal politics. She appeared in the 1959 "Odds Against America," secretly written by Abraham Polonsky -- one of the Hollywood Ten. After receiving an Oscar nomination for her role in the 1951 Detective Story, Grant found wound up on the blacklist. Once the witch-hunt ended, she gravitated toward projects that were consonant with long-standing ideals. She directed a film version of Tillie Olson's Jewish radical classic Tell Me a Riddle in 1980 that featured Melvyn Douglass -- another Jew and blacklistee.

The world of the Yiddish-speaking radical of the Lower East Side of the 1920s or 30s was very remote from the Zionist and neoconservative mindset of the higher-ups in the Bush administration. These are the "Jews without mercy," as Earl Shorris described them in his 1982 book of the same title. They worship at the altar of American power, despise the minorities who would take advantage of affirmative action, and take pride in Israel's ability to dominate the Arabs. The clash between Yiddish and Hebrew symbolizes the gulf between these two worlds. Buhle recounts a forum at the CUNY Graduate Center in 1999 where Tony Kushner, author of "Angels in America," affirmed his longing for "Yiddishkayt." while novelist-critic Cynthia Ozick, speaking from the same platform, condemned Kushner's statement as an exercise in nostalgia at best, and at worst liberal betrayal of Israel and Zionism.

Even after the use of Yiddish was dwindling down to old-timers and the Chasidic sects in the 1950s, Jewish popular culture figures continued to throw Yiddish phrases into comedy routines. And even when not a single word of Yiddish was spoken, they all shared a distinctly urban, mocking, neurotic and self-deprecating wit that was instantly recognizable. Lenny Bruce is the most prominent example of this. Born Leonard Schneider to privileged parents in suburbia, Bruce shared none of the poverty and discrimination of the earlier generation of comics, nor did he speak Yiddish. During a performance on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts radio show in the early 1950s, Bruce replaced a Humphrey Bogart tag-line ("All right, Louis, drop the gun!") with its Yiddishist equivalent, "All right, Shmegegah, drop the Yeagah!". This was the first step in developing a comedy routine that combined bitter reflections about bourgeois morality -- especially about sex -- with Yiddish patois.

About five years ago I conducted a series of interviews with Fred Baker, the producer and director of Lenny Bruce Without Tears. Baker's life touched all the bases of Paul Buhle's book. As the son of a Communist trade unionist in the fur trade, Fred was either a witness to or a participant in the major upheavals that would affect any Jewish Communist household of the New Deal and witch-hunt era. He remembers seeing his father come home from a trade union convention with his clothes torn and face battered by rightwing thugs. On the day of Paul Robeson's concert in Peekskill, Fred accompanied his father to take part in a defense guard on the perimeter.

He was equally engaged with Broadway and had a budding career as a song-and-dance man in his early 20s before developing a passion for film that grew out of time spent at any of a number of the art-film theaters that thrived in New York City in the 50s and 60s. Eventually he came up with the idea of doing a documentary on the life of Lenny Bruce, who was his idol. But the path to making the film was not smooth. Forced with the responsibilities of raising a family, he discovered that his film-making skills were equally suited to making pornography, a profession that kept him afloat during this period. His struggle to resolve the conflict between culture -- even of a popular sort -- and mammon were dramatized in the film "Events," which despite its low-budget and minimal production values has the kind of rawness and immediacy of a John Cassavetes film.

Such characters, both male and female, helped to define the worldview of the 1960s generation. Although much has been made of the outright political and counter-cultural values that the youth of this period absorbed, a case can be made for Yiddishkayt roots of the kind cultivated by Allen Ginsberg, who was ubiquitous to antiwar demonstrations and "be-ins" alike. Ginsberg's poetry can be seen as an attempt to reconnect with lost Jewish roots in the same fashion as Tony Kushner's. This world of Communist rallies, Yiddish phrases and crushed idealism pervades all of Ginsberg's poems, especially Kaddish written in commemoration of his dead mother.

The most recent exponents of Yiddishkayt popular culture have been influenced by the events of the 1960s rather than any trauma from the Russian Pale or the Great Depression. They tend to be college educated and more tuned into the broader popular culture rather than Jewish institutions and public spaces that had largely disappeared. They related to the campus or jazz club rather than to the steam-baths or kosher restaurants that had all but faded away. These are the "reflexive Jews" in Buhle's words. Steeped in the avant-garde and suspicious of every aspect of Jewish exclusivity, they sought to make broader connections to American society without forsaking the idealism (tempered by bitterness) of the earlier generations.

One of the most interesting examples of the newer Yiddishkayt voices is Harvey Pekar, the author of the American Splendor comics whose life and work was celebrated in the 2003 film directed by Columbia University graduates Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini. Although the film does not make reference to this, Pekar's father was steeped in Yiddish culture and leftwing politics. One classic tale pits him and his father discussing the relative merits of jazz and Cantorial music. It is clear from the utterly dogmatic stance of his father where Harvey Pekar picked up his characteristic truculence.

Mellowed by marriage and a serious encounter with cancer, Pekar is returning to his Jewish roots as recounted by Buhle:

"The enhanced realism of a personal relationship (to Joyce Brabner, a Jewish reader who moved to Cleveland to marry Pekar), the experience of living through a cancer operation (rendered as Our Cancer Year, a full-length book), and the humility of the writer-as-artist have all added depth to Pekar's work. Indeed, in his reflexiveness, Pekar suggests the artist who has come to terms fully with his fate. Celebrity called on -- Letterman -- and he threw it back at the celebrities. If he enjoys an occasional fantasy (a recent Entertainment Weekly strip of him at Cannes, as drawn by his old collaborator Tom Dumm), it's not too serious. He is most likely to come back, as he did in a New York Times strip drawn by Bill Griffith, to complain that Cleveland had been trashed. He made his moral choices a long time ago. By the late 1990s, Pekar was drawn to a very special corner of Jewish history, the klezmer revival by the neo-Jewish composer, producer, and saxophonist John Zorn. This brought Pekar back toward the early beginning of his critic's life, the music criticism that had dominated his creative output from the dawn of the 1960s until American Splendor took him over. And it helped bring him to a more comfortable Jewishness that recovered Jewish traditions as bearing a non-exploitative connection with black culture. True child of an all but vanished Jewish urban neighborhood and factory life, the greatest loss in his forced retirement was the everydayness of the hospital and his black coworkers. Harvey had not so much dwelt on Jewish self-consciousness as lived it."

Although not mentioned in Paul Buhle's book, I would regard Larry David's HBO series Curb Your Enthusiasm as the latest word in Yiddishkayt. Not only has David assembled together a cast of superlative Jewish standup comedians from past and present, including Lenny Bruce's contemporary Shelly Berman who plays his father; he has made a point of both embracing and looking critically at long-standing Jewish beliefs and values. After Larry David applies for membership in a highly exclusive country club by hiding his ethnicity, he is seen at the LA Dodger ballpark by the two very Waspy gentlemen who interviewed him alongside a black hooker (he paid her to accompany him in the fast car lane). He decides that it is not worth pretending he is something he isn't and advises them that if they are looking for a good blow-job, she's the one.

In another episode, he discovers that the chef of his new fancy restaurant has Tourette's syndrome. At the height of the evening of the restaurant's opening, the chef let's loose with a stream of profanity that can be heard from every table. David decides that the only way to defuse the situation is to begin cursing himself. He is soon joined by all his partners and friends, and then by everybody in the restaurant -- upon which the tension is released. If this attitude toward profanity evokes Lenny Bruce, it is no accident. Like Fred Baker, the show's Executive Producer and frequent director is also the director of a Lenny Bruce documentary. Robert B. Weide directed Lenny Bruce: Swear To Tell The Truth and cites Bruce's use of language as an inspiration for Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Paul Buhle, From the Lower East Side to Hollywood, Verso, 2004; ISBN 1-85984-598-3.

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Published June 21, 2004
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