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Notes from Zamir/ Mark Slobin commenting on Jewish Music Theatre

It was Cantor Sam Weiss who also posted the following to the Jewish Music list last spring:

"Notes From Zamir", which I referenced earlier regarding Salomone Rossi, is turning into a very interesting Jewish Music magazine. In their current issue devoted to Jewish Musical Theatre, also available online, www.zamir.org/Notes/", there's an article by Mark Slobin on "The Jazz Singer," from which comes the following excerpt which I thought would be interesting to many on this list:

"A young man named Samson Raphaelson did understand the inherent dramatic possibilities of the rise of the immigrant entertainer. While still in his twenties, Raphaelson wrote a short story called "The Day of Atonement," and then turned it into a highly successfiil Broadway production of 1925 called The Jazz Singer. It starred George Jessel, who apparently gave the performance of a lifetime. Indeed, some New York reviews concentrated on the remarkable dramatic skills of the vaudevillian and even presumed the play was put together as a vehicle for Jessel's crossover to legitimate theater. It was, however, a goal far from Raphaelson's mind. The author laid out his own agenda with extreme clarity in a preface to the published version of the play:

In seeking a symbol of the vital chaos of America's soul, I find no more adequate one than jazz... Jazz is prayer. It is too passionate to be anything else. It is prayer distorted, sick, unconscious of its destination.... In this, my first play, I have tried to crystallize the ironic truth that one of the Americas of 1925—that one which packs to overflowing our cabarets, musical reviews and dance halls-is praying with a fervor as intense as that of the America which goes sedately to church and synagogue.... & I have used a Jewish youth as my protagonist because the Jews are determining the nature and scope of jazz more than any other race-more than the Negroes from whom they have stolen jazz and given it a new color and meaning. Jazz is Irving Berlin, Al Jolson, Sophia Tucker. These are Jews with their roots in the synagogue. And these are expressing in evangelical terms the nature of our chaos today.

You find the soul of a people in the songs they sing. You find the meaning of the songs in the souls of the minstrels who create and interpret them. In "The Jazz Singer," I have attempted an exploration of the soul of one of these minstrels.

"Notice Raphaelson's insight into the linkage of the Jew "with his roots in the synagogue" with the social ferment here loosely generalized as jazz. There are both literal and metaphoric truths lurking in his purple prose. Literally, he is correct: many of the main figures of Jewish-American, internal entertainment began their careers as choirboys; in addition, a figure like Irving Berlin had similar experiences, and Jolson himself really was the son of a cantor. Metaphorically, the sense of the star entertainer as being on a par with the ecstatic, shamanistic ritual of the evangelist and medicine man is an insight regarding American popular culture that was just beginning to emerge in 1925. Raphaelson had grasped the fact that the immigrants could wield power through entertainment, and that their power stemmed from an ability to channel their indigenous expressive systems into strategic, socially rewarding directions. It is no accident that he calls these entertainers "minstrels"; they literally were minstrels. Virtually every major entertainer-Jolson, Cantor, Jesse, Sophia Tucker, even the Yiddish comedienne Molly Pico-appeared in blackface early in their careers. Some of them explicitly state, in memoirs, the comfort they derived from putting on that all-American mask of burnt cork. In blackface, they were no longer the immigrant-they were one with the soul of America as represented by the grotesque co-optation of the slave's persona. As bizarre as such a phenomenon must have been for Eastern European Jews, so completely unfamiliar with the concept of black vs. white as cardinal principle of social organization, they quickly understood its value for them: the ritual mask of the powerless gave them, the underdogs, sacred strength in this strange and dangerous New World..."

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