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The Jazz Singer and his Cantor Father

THE JAZZ Singer was wildly popular, the first talkie (1927), although only the songs were heard. (The dialogue was still in captions). Full of schmaltz, struggle, pizzazz, and music, it told of Jakie Rabinowitz, whose cantor father disowned him for not following in his footsteps. Instead, Jakie became Jack Robin, a rising star in musical theater, a Jazz Singer. With “a tear in his voice,” especially when, in blackface, he sings “Mammy.”

Jack (a name his father does not recognize) tells his father that Jazz is the cry of a lost anxious soul for the same completeness that the cantor provides in synagogue. His audience in the theater needs him, like his father’s congregation needs him during the High Holy Days, especially Yom Kippur. Jack is referring to the danceable, joyful “song number with a kick in it,” and the passionate or sentimental, “soulful” ballads, some of which are about futility of passion and loneliness. They are most definitely not about God, or atonement through self-abnegation and submission to divine will.

Now, these songs might seem to be a poor substitute for 5000 years of Jewish piety. However, the latter, in America, had to be drastically reshaped to accommodate what Jewish immigrants and their offspring needed. The Lower East Side unlike the eastern European sthetl, was a large, unclean, over populated ghetto where poverty was alleviated, not by the communal help given to beggars and the sick, but by a predatory scramble up from the depths. There were vicious teenage gangs, amoral schemers, "cadets" (pimps)to whom girls with no other way to find place other than sweatshop labor, were attracted by the promise of "becoming somebody." There was disorienting intensity, some of which was devoted to radical reform, and some to the sleepless brilliance of the business of entertainment. There was also the unceasing devotion to the study house, synagogue, and Hasidic spirituality.

South of Houston and east of Broadway, people wanted to enhance own dreams of escape from work and relief from poverty . They also wanted fun and release from their frustrations. Jack’s father would not consider his son’s argument. To him it meant the abandonment of Jewish identity; that is, his son had become trafe. The word means damaged, degenerate: America, the thief—after five generations of Rabinowitzes as cantors. And Jack was a great singer. As the author, Samson Raphaelson, wrote in the short story (1925) out of which grew the sentimental movie, Jake had “the tear in his voice” which denotes Jewish suffering, and Jewish faith.

How can a man disown his only son? Immigration from small-town eastern European piety to the promise of The Golden Land caused enormous friction between fathers and sons. Consider that for centuries, Jews obeyed the strictest of laws regarding dress, sabbath activities, prayer rituals, and diet (cud-chewing animals with cloven hoofs are clean; those with uncloven hoofs are "an abomination"). No reason is given. These commands distinguish holiness from uncleanness. God's covenant with mankind is either obeyed, or the disobedient
is an exile from the people and from God, who chose them. His commands are venerable, but in an impersonal city when a person must spend 10 hours a day at work, and where the environment has so many alternatives to fulfillment, young people care less about being "trafe" than they do about finding their own way (sink or swim) and about expressing themselves. Cantor R. would not become an impure soul, whose prayers God would not hear, in order to appreciate his son's jazz singing. The reason for the survival of God's chosen for 2000 years was that they had had the will to stay pure. How was that possible when, in Europe or America's cities, one had to be "a Jew at home, but a citizen in the streets" of a foreign, "trafe" country, full of danger: the worse one being seduction from purity and holiness.

The father of Jakie Rabinowitz is not the only grieving patriarch who cries, with King David, "Absalom, my son, my son." Even Sam Roth's father, Yussif Leib, might well have done so. His son, whom he called by his Hebrew name, Mishillim, in his will, rejected his father for a different reason than Cantor Rabinowitz: being too interested in having his children work ("we are poor"). Sam Roth, who was as sensual and as avid for fame as anyone! The Cantor rejected his son Jake, thus giving the latter no choice but to reject him. Sam Roth rejected his father, for what seems a cless necessary reason. Yussif left Sam only a pittance in that will.

Raphaelson ended his short story (1925) with Jack singing Kol Nidre in place of his dying father at the Yom Kippur service. But he wrote in his preface to the play he crafted from his story, “Jazz represents “America’s soul. . . . lewdness, heart’s delight, soul-racking madness, monumental boldness, exquisite humility, but principally prayer. . . . Cathedrals and temples’ collapsing, and, silhouetted against the setting sun, a solitary figure, a lost soul, dancing grotesquely on the ruins—thus do I see the jazz singer.”

“Jazz is prayer,” he went on, “distorted, sick, unconscious of its destination.” The Jazz Singer represents the secularized Jew in the Golden Land, “lost between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born. In 1925 the cabaret-going America is praying as strong as the people in churches. The only difference is that, unlike the primitive dancer, the Americann does not know he is praying.” His point was that American Jack Robin was more correct than his pious European father. The same point, equally heartbreaking because it separated parent from offspring, was made by the writer Anna Yezierska, whose father disowned her as the cantor did Jackie. “Poverty,” her father asserted, “Becomes a Jew like a red ribbon on a white horse.”

These men knew that 2000 years of Old Testament interpretation was founded on the “evil inclination.” That was what made the serpent successful: the most powerful impulse of the human body, sexual desire, inextricably tied to rebellion, sin, and death. (Maimonides thought that the sense of touch was of the devil.) After Adam and Eve’s repentance, God clothes them, but only in weeds and sticks. Mankind comes into the world naked, and to see God’s face, the Hasidics imagine, he must weave, through obedience to the rituals of the Covenant, clothes of splendor for himself. Abstinence clears the soul. It, and prayer, allows humans to build into their souls the avatars of God that we can possibly intuit. To understand how Jewish thinkers can arrive at this conviction, consider the murder, manslaughter, illicit sex, foolish violence, and betrayals of Moses, Jacob, David, Samson, and Solomon. And this richly imaginative faith is what made Cantor Rabinowitz and Reb Yezierska disown their children. They had to choose between them and the Covenant with God. Awareness of what it means to be Jewish vis-à-vis the divine and the worldly both cause suffering. That is what the ancient Jewish heroes just mentioned learned.

Early on, Philip Roth made his own choice of the secular over the religious as a guide to his future. In 1945, he heard on the radio screenwriter Norman Corwin’s statement that the “little man” should take a bow for defeating Hitler. This in itself, com ing on the heels of the defeat of totalitarianism, put Roth in love with America. The esoteric rabbinic philosophy was beyond him but our nation was a spiritual ideal in itself. It had charisma (pizzazz?) and, most important, its dreams were accessible, at least in song, film, stories, and art. He praised, late in his career, the “musical” sons of Jewish immigrants “staking their claim to America” with popular songs (“God Bless America,” “Ol Man River,” “Manhattan”) and musicals (Porgy and Bess, West Side Story, Rodeo, Annie Get Your Gun). Perhaps, he would have extended his praise to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tony Curtis, Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, and Larry David.

Philip Roth knew, as did all those mavens just mentioned, all about the false needs that commodification of song and story meant. The propaganda of advertising has made has made any authentic world "powerless to be born." In order to advertise products, all sorts of creative work has been prostituted, reducing, for that matter, even venerable religious concepts to psychobabble in order to encourage “trust” – in a product which substitutes for real needs for understanding oneself. What Roth, and Raphaelson, meant by praising popular culture’s value was its ability to relieve people’s spiritual starvation, in the words of critic Isaac Rosenfeld. “Not only for fine music and good books; [but] for all of life, for sexual fulfillment, for decent work, for pleasure and happiness and relief from the desolation that drives people insane.”
Raphaelson's play did this. Here is the author’s ending, as per his final stage direction: Jake’s voice pours out “a flood of prayer. . .something of the same quality he put into the cheap Mammy song [sung in a cabaret]. . . . The wailing singsong of the congregation beats in like the sound of surf.” Now, the film did not end like that. Instead (after the cantor is laid to rest), Jake’s loving, non-Jewish wife and his beaming momma are listening to Jake belt out his jazz ("You ain't heard nothin' yet!) at the Winter Garden theater.

Raphaelson hated that movie (the popularity of which saved Warner Brothers). And his play had to close. Americans love the happy ending. What the hell, it’s only entertainment. For tragic choices, a much smaller number of people had to go see the play, wherein Jakie’s father laments “the same sighs, the same tears, I taught him in the synagogue—that I put in his voice that he should sing to God—now he uses them to sing his jazz music.” A playwright puts heart and soul into a play about “America’s soul,” and for a mass audience schmaltz is substituted for the mystery. That too, is America.

This brings us to a very relevant short story by Steve Stern, “The Wedding Jester” (in the volume by that name, 1999). See above.

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