A striking irony in the 1927 movie “The Jazz Singer” is that Al Jolson, who plays Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor’s son who wants to move into the world of mainstream popular music, doesn’t sing jazz. Rather, Jakie becomes a star performer who goes by the name of Jack Robin and sings a form of minstrel music. Though the story unfolds in the so-called Jazz Age, not a single note of jazz is played or sung.
In his stimulating and provocative essay, “Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice” (in the journal Critical Inquiry, spring 1992, University of Chicago Press), Michael Rogin writes: “ ‘The Jazz Singer’ retains its magic because, like no picture before or since, it is a liminal movie. It goes back and forth not only between sound and silence, music and intertitle, blackface and white, but also between ‘Kol Nidre’ and ‘The Robert E. Lee,’ Jew and Gentile, street and stage, male and female.”
Some weeks ago I ordered “The Jazz Singer” from Netflix. Upon watching the beginning of the film, I had the satisfying feeling of witnessing cinematic history. Much of the movie is silent; written messages on “caption cards” move the narrative forward and supply almost all the dialogue. But there is a brief spoken exchange between two characters, anticipating the advent of “talkies.” In addition, both the minstrel songs and “Kol Nidre” break the silence with the sound of music. Before my eyes and my ears, a new genre of movie-making was replacing the old silent movies.
The story told in “The Jazz Singer” strikes a theme that remains central to the American Jewish community: the struggle between tradition and change, between wanting to preserve Jewish identity in some way and striving to become fully American. More specifically, the movie puts a spotlight on the antagonism between father and son; the authoritarian cantor, an avatar of the old ways, locks horns with his son, who sees in his singing career a path of liberation from the yoke of the past.
What I find somewhat unsettling is that the movie seems to side almost entirely with Jack’s push for freedom from the reactionary forces represented by his inflexible father – a father who bitterly condemns “Jack Robin” for abandoning his old self, Jakie Rabinowitz. Before their final reconciliation – if, indeed, father and son are ever truly reconciled – what should be a difficult but healthy tension between the generations degenerates into hurtful name-calling, during which neither father nor son can hear the other.
As the movie’s plot developed, I was both shocked and revolted to see Al Jolson, the cantor’s son, put on blackface. As Rogin comments in his essay, “Blackface emancipated the jazz singer from both Jews and blacks.” I would replace the word “emancipated” with the word “abandoned.”
When the cantor’s son put on blackface, he was abandoning his Jewish identity, and he was abandoning his solidarity with another minority persecuted in the America of the 1920s – the Negroes, as African-Americans were called at that time.
In the paragraph following his comment on blackface, Rogin adds, “Blackface condensed two meanings … heightened authenticity and American acceptance for the (Jewish) individual, subordination for the anonymous (black) mass.”
When Jack Robin’s mother sees him for the first time in blackface, as he is getting ready for a performance, she tells him, “This is not you.” When viewers of “The Jazz Singer” see Al Jolson in blackface, they are forced to ask themselves: “Who is this man?”
Unlike Jack Robin, who sees his identity as either-or – either Jewish or American – I view my identity as both-and: both Jewish and American. Indeed, I celebrate the opportunity to live a hyphenated existence, shifting my emphasis as the calendar calls on me to stress one aspect of my identity or the other; on Thanksgiving I am an American Jew, and on Yom Kippur, I am a Jewish American.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.