David E. Kaufman. Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity. Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life. Lebanon: Brandeis University Press, 2012. 360 pp. $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-61168-314-1; $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61168-313-4.
Reviewed by Kirsten L. Fermaglich (Michigan State University)
Published on H-Judaic (March, 2014)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
Popularizing Jewish Identity
In his provocative new book, Jewhooing the Sixties, David E. Kaufman calls for a more careful scholarly exploration of contemporary Jewish celebrities than historians have previously undertaken. Acknowledging Americans’ love of popular culture and celebrity, Kaufman insists that we take it seriously, using the pop cultural phenomenon of “Jewhooing” to explore the significance of celebrity in American Jewish identity. Derived from a now-defunct website, the phrase “Jewhooing” refers to the phenomenon of identifying celebrities as Jewish, particularly when they do not “seem Jewish”; that is, when they do not fit Jewish stereotypes or do not publicly address their Jewish backgrounds. In 2002, historian Susan A. Glenn offered an important scholarly consideration of the history of “Jewhooing,” looking at the significance of “blood logic” as a means of navigating American assimilation. Kaufman follows in Glenn’s tradition, but he focuses less on “blood logic,” and more on the interrelationship between celebrity and Jewish identity.
This focus on celebrity makes Jewhooing the Sixties a welcome addition to the literature, as it considers four major celebrities of the 1960s--Sandy Koufax, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Barbra Streisand--and demands that we think more seriously about the relationship between their fame, Jewish identity, and the era in which they became famous: the early 1960s. In his excellent introduction, Kaufman makes the argument that exploring these four individuals and their fame during the same era allows us to understand the changing meanings of Jewish identity during the 1960s. If Jews had been anxious to fit in and conform to an Anglo-Saxon norm in the 1950s, and by the late 1960s were openly expressive of their Jewish backgrounds, knowledge, and history, then the early 1960s was a transitional moment: “the Jewish ethnic revival of the post-1967 era had its roots in the popular culture of the early 1960s” (p. 31). The Jewish celebrities of that moment are a useful guide to thinking about the different ways that Jewishness was displayed and deployed on the public stage in the early 1960s--and how that might have affected both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences in an era of growing public acceptance of all kinds of ethnic, racial, and religious difference.
Kaufman carefully notes that each of his four key figures approached Jewishness differently, and came to symbolize its meaning in different ways. In the chapter on Koufax, Kaufman dissects the central--and only--Jewish element of the baseball player’s identity that has been publicly remembered: his refusal to play on Yom Kippur in 1965. In the end, Kaufman argues that this one “religious” act in fact masked the ways that Koufax was a consummate insider with little religious content to his work or life. Despite the fact that outsiders, both Jewish and non-Jewish, highlighted Koufax’s Jewishness and outsider status at every turn, Jewish identity, Kaufman argues, was a very small part of Koufax’s identity. By contrast, Bruce received none of the Jewish adulation that Koufax did, yet Bruce made Jewish identity a central aspect of his persona. Nonetheless, Kaufman argues persuasively, the comedian was crucial to the newly public and proud Jewish identity that became a part of American life by the latter half of the decade. By openly using Yiddish language and Jewish material in his routines, Kaufman argues that Bruce shocked and titillated audiences, but also ultimately made them more comfortable with public performances of Jewishness. Dylan, in contrast, purposely hid his Jewish identity, not only changing his name from Robert Zimmerman but also lying about his origins, converting to evangelical Christianity at one point, and consistently shaping and refracting his identity altogether. Jewish fans still hold on to Dylan’s Jewishness, Kaufman notes, but Dylan himself is a better reflection of a constantly changing identity, untethered to roots or religion. Finally, by contrast, the chapter on Streisand makes clear that Streisand always embraced Jewish identity as a crucial part of who she was, as did her fans. Refusing to “fix” her obviously Jewish nose, playing a series of clearly marked Jewish characters from Fanny Brice to Yentl, and creating comedy out of her “Brooklynese” accent, Kaufman illustrates, Streisand radically changed the notion of a female movie star and placed open Jewish identity at the center, not the margins, of American culture. In his epilogue, Kaufman points to some of the contemporary stars, from Natalie Portman to Jon Stewart, who have succeeded in a world that Kaufman’s four celebrities helped to create.
Jewhooing the Sixties could have been stronger in its discussion of the time period; the early 1960s is not as significant to the analysis as it could be. Kaufman does not do quite as much as he could have to excavate the historical context surrounding these stars. His focus is almost solely on their public personas and reception, all the way through to the current popular perception of each figure. Because of this focus, Kaufman does not always clearly demonstrate the differences between the era before these figures came to prominence, and the era afterward; this is particularly true in the chapters on Koufax and Dylan. Thus the argument about the early 1960s as a transitional moment is not as convincing as it could have been.
Then, too, the book’s emphasis on celebrity takes a toll on its analysis at times. With his focus on these celebrities’ relationships with fans, most of Kaufman’s primary evidence is derived from published material on these stars, such as reviews, newspaper articles, and biographies. At times, however, the reader wants a bit more in-depth consideration of these individuals’ lives and work, or even discussion of fans’ lives. More archival work, or more interviews, might have helped to offer more texture to the book.
On the whole, however, Jewhooing the Sixties is a thoughtful text, with valuable insights into celebrity and American Jewish identity. It should encourage many more historical explorations into the relationship between celebrity and identity in America Jewish life.
. Susan A. Glenn, “In the Blood? Consent, Descent, and the Ironies of Jewish Identity,” Jewish Social Studies 8, nos. 2/3 (Winter/Spring 2002): 138-152.
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Kirsten L. Fermaglich. Review of David E. Kaufman, Jewhooing the Sixties: American Celebrity and Jewish Identity.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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