Cover image for Jazz Age Jews
Jazz Age Jews
Alexander, Michael, 1970-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [2001]

Physical Description:
viii, 239 pages, 12 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
E184.37 .A13 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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By the 1920s, Jews were--by all economic, political, and cultural measures of the day--making it in America. But as these children of immigrants took their places in American society, many deliberately identified with groups that remained excluded. Despite their success, Jews embraced resistance more than acculturation, preferring marginal status to assimilation.

The stories of Al Jolson, Felix Frankfurter, and Arnold Rothstein are told together to explore this paradox in the psychology of American Jewry. All three Jews were born in the 1880s, grew up around American Jewish ghettos, married gentile women, entered the middle class, and rose to national fame. All three also became heroes to the American Jewish community for their association with events that galvanized the country and defined the Jazz Age. Rothstein allegedly fixed the 1919 World Series--an accusation this book disputes. Frankfurter defended the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Jolson brought jazz music to Hollywood for the first talking film, The Jazz Singer , and regularly impersonated African Americans in blackface. Each of these men represented a version of the American outsider, and American Jews celebrated them for it.

Michael Alexander's gracefully written account profoundly complicates the history of immigrants in America. It challenges charges that anti-Semitism exclusively or even mostly explains Jews' feelings of marginality, while it calls for a general rethinking of positions that have assumed an immigrant quest for inclusion into the white American mainstream. Rather, Alexander argues that Jewish outsider status stemmed from the group identity Jews brought with them to this country in the form of the theology of exile. Jazz Age Jews shows that most Jews felt culturally obliged to mark themselves as different--and believed that doing so made them both better Jews and better Americans.

Author Notes

Michael Alexander is Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Jews and the jazz age: bathtub Manischewitz? Yiddish speakeasies? the Purim massacre? Not exactly. In his deft and provocative book, Alexander sketches how the social position and public perception of American Jews mutated in America during the 1920s. Drawing on a wealth of sources reports in Yiddish newspapers, the history of minstrel shows on Broadway, and papers of Oliver Wendell Holmes this book traces the unique roles played by and the problems faced by descendants of the great waves of turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrants. Alexander argues that, even when they prospered financially, these Jews possessed an "outsider identification" that propelled them to support social justice causes as well as often valorize extralegal activities such as gambling. He paints a vivid portrait of popular anti-Semitism of the time Fitzgerald's malicious portrait of a Jewish gangster in The Great Gatsby; the attempt by Harvard's president A. Lawrence Lowell to institute quotas for Jews at the university, Henry Ford's white-supremacist writings while structuring his book around three pivotal events that shaped thinking about Jews: the Black Sox Scandal, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer. His arguments in the first two sections are dazzling about Arnold Rothstein's role in the national pastime's scandal and Felix Frankfurter's defense of the Italian anarchists but he is less convincing when critiquing Michael Rogin's Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot in his analysis of Jewish performers and blackface in his third example. Despite this, Alexander's commentary is elucidating and insightful, an important contribution to both Jewish and cultural studies. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
Interlude: Jazz Age Economicsp. 11
Part I. "Biznez Iz Biznez": The Arnold Rothstein Storyp. 13
1. Arnold Rothsteinp. 15
2. Gambling in the Time of Rothstein's Youthp. 19
3. The Rise of Rothsteinp. 28
4. Financial Crimep. 40
5. The Black Sox and the Jewsp. 48
6. The Jews Reactp. 55
Interlude: Jazz Age Politicsp. 65
Part II. Frankfurther among the Anarchists: "The Case of Sacco and Vanzetti"p. 69
7. Felix Frankfurterp. 71
8. The Young Progressivep. 76
9. Zion and Cambridgep. 88
10. Sacco and Vanzettip. 96
11. Aftermathp. 119
Interlude: Jazz Age Culturep. 127
Part III. "Mammy, Don't You Know Me?": Al Jolson and the Jewsp. 131
12. Al Jolsonp. 133
13. Asa Yoelson Discovers the Theaterp. 139
14. Jewish Minstrelsy Emergesp. 144
15. Blackface Arrives on Broadwayp. 150
16. The Jews on Tin Pan Alleyp. 155
17. The Jazz Singerp. 167
Conclusion: Jazz Age Jewsp. 180
Notesp. 185
Bibliographyp. 215
Acknowledgmentsp. 227
Indexp. 229