Jolson, The Jazz Singer, and the Jewish Mother: or How my Yiddishe Momme Became my Mammy
by Irv Saposnik
Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought 43, no. 4 (Fall, 1994): 432-442.
Russian-Jewish immigrants came from the shtetls and ghettos out to Hollywood.... In this magical place that had no relationship to any reality they had ever seen before in their lives, or that anyone else had ever seen, they decided to create their idea of an eastern aristocracy.... The American Dream is a Jewish invention.(1)
The Jazz Singer, like other landmark movies, is as much an icon of American culture as of film history. Like other iconic films, The Jazz Singer is also a product of the Jewish imagination. More than just the first film to use sound as dialogue, The Jazz Singer is a visual and verbal parable of the Jewish experience in America. Its story is a paradigm of the Jewish dream in conflict with American reality; its characters exemplify the clash between Old World values and New World ambition; its music is a mix of Black jazz and Yiddish blues, all by way of Jewish Tin Pan Alley.
Even as The Jazz Singer opened the way to sound in the movies, it allowed a new breed of Jewish-Americans to tell their story with songs and speech. The speech, the few times that it is heard in the film, is unaccented and full of self-assurance; the songs, heard more often, combine Old World sentiment with New World confidence. They are models of a new Jewish-American music made popular by new Jewish-American performers.
Al Jolson was hardly a new performer when he agreed to star in The Jazz Singer; on the contrary, he was the most popular performer in America. Yet he was also the most famous among the Jewish performers who, earlier in the century, had traveled from the immigrant inner city to vaudeville and then to Broadway and Hollywood. Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Sophie Tucker, Fannie Brice: their names have become synonymous with the Jewish-American success story. They were the Jewish-American pioneers who shaped the trail out of the ghetto.
Jolson's success story, even more than theirs, was the very stuff of mythic lore, and was, as all accounts suggest, the basis for Sam Raphaelson's short story, "The Day of Atonement"--and then of his 1925 play, The Jazz Singer. As Raphaelson recalled years later, it was the electricity of Jolson's performance and the allure of his rags-to-riches story that inspired him to write the short story that later became the play and film. Raphaelson was enchanted as well by the songs he heard Jolson sing, for in them he heard echoes of his Jewish childhood and the music of the synagogue: "This grotesque figure in blackface, kneeling at the end of a runway which projected him into the heart of his audience, flinging out his white gloved hands, was embracing that audience with a prayer--an evangelical moan--a tortured imperious call that hurtled through the house like a swift electrical lariat with a twist that swept the audience right to the edge of the runway. The words didn't matter. It was the emotion--the emotion of a cantor."(2)
The equation between jazz and prayer that intrigued Raphaelson when first seeing Jolson would become the central metaphor of play and film. The conflict between old and new, between parents and children, between Cantor Rabinowitz and his self-named son, Jack Robin, would be centered on the conflict between these two musical forces, and be exemplified by the choice that Jack is forced to make between singing in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, or appearing at the opening performance of his new show. Jack must choose between Kol Nidre and Irving Berlin, between remaining in the world of his father(s), or becoming a disguised American.
While the conflict is resolved differently in play and film, the emotional and liturgical battle in both is framed in song. To coin a phrase, musical choice is the choice of destiny. For both Raphaelson, and for Warner Brothers, Jewish-American identity depends upon the songs we choose to sing, and how we choose to sing them. Do we continue to sing in the traditional cantillation of our ancestors, or do we, as Jack Robin does in the film, choose to "sing jazzy"?
For Raphaelson, the two were not necessarily incompatible, though in his art he fails to reconcile them. As he says in the preface to his play: "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, George Gershwin, Sophie Tucker. These are Jews with their roots in the synagogue."(3)
Raphaelson recognized that the "new color" and meaning that the Jews gave to jazz emerged from their synagogue roots. That new color was a merging of blackface and white, even as the music that emerged was a synthesis of black rhythms and Jewish blues. Rather than stealing black jazz, the Jews added a Yiddish sigh to form a new kind of American music, a Jewish jazz. This new Jewish jazz likewise helped popularize the disguise of blackface, by which the Jews could pay faint homage to the African-American music they had adapted, while at the same time conceal their own ethnic origins. The Jewish entertainer in blackface, the Jewish composer of ragtime tunes, both acknowledged and obscured their synagogue roots.
In both short story and play, Raphaelson struggled with the conflict between Judaism and jazz. Despite some ambivalence, he returns his jazz singer to the synagogue to sing on Yom Kippur. In the play, Jack chooses to follow his father on the bimah, and sing for the chosen people instead of his chosen people. His return to the stage is left for the future, even as the final words of the play seem to suggest that he has made the necessary choice.
For the people who made the film, however, whose roots were likewise in the synagogue, the choice between jazz and Judaism would have to be spelled out less ambiguously. As they saw the Jewish-American experience, as they retold the Jewish-American story, stage and synagogue were compatible, as long as stage prevailed. So while Jack returns to the synagogue to sing Kol Nidre in the next to the last scene, it is only a guest appearance. In the film's final scene, Jack is onstage, singing "My Mammy" to his mammy, with the applause and the approval of all.
While Raphaelson objected to much about the film, and especially the final scene, it is the Warner Brothers Jazz Singer that lives in the cultural memory. Clearly, the people who made the movies, as well as many Jewish-Americans like them, preferred the film to the play, for they saw it as being closer to their lives and their beliefs. After all, like Jack Robin they too moved away from their neighborhoods, their families, their immigrant roots, to seek their fortune elsewhere. Like Jack, they too made a guest appearance at Kol Nidre services, but spent the rest of the year singing different songs.
While The Jazz Singer is not by definition a musical, Jolson as star guaranteed that much music would be included in the film. While it was important to include songs that were identifiable with Jolson, it was likewise critical to include songs that would reinforce the struggle between Old World and New as exemplified by Cantor Rabinowitz and his wife. While both are in and of the ghetto, the Cantor is depicted as stubborn, rigid, unbending, condemned to be left behind in his insularity; his wife, in contrast, is more flexible, able and willing to follow her son wherever his ambition may lead him.
There are two kinds of songs in The Jazz Singer. There are the "American" songs sung by Jolson and largely identified with him--"Dirty Hands, Dirty Face," "Toot, Toot, Tootsie," "Blue Skies," "Mother Of Mine, I Still Have You," and "My Mammy." In contrast, there are the "Jewish songs," "Kol Nidre" and "Yahrzeit Licht," sung reverentially by the two cantorial figures in the film, the fictional Cantor Rabinowitz, and the real Cantor Yosselle Rosenblatt. Two kinds of songs, two kinds of places, two kinds of effects. The "American" songs are sung in either a club, a theater, or once most notably in the Rabinowitz home as a preview of the future. The "Jewish" songs are of the synagogue or the cantorial concert hall, set pieces reserved for a select few who are literally and figuratively passing away.
The "American" songs are of course sung in English, and therefore comprehensible to most of the audience; the "Jewish" songs are in Aramaic and Yiddish, two Jewish languages of the past, and barely understood by most American Jews. The "American" songs are about love between parent and child ("Dirty Hands, Dirty Face"), a temporary parting with a vow of constant communication ("Toot, Toot, Tootsie"), a promised future with blue skies to look forward to ("Blue Skies"), the constancy of mother love even after widespread rejection ("Mother of Mine, I Still Have You"), and the everlasting bond between mother and child ("My Mammy"). The Jewish songs--"Kol Nidre" and" Yahrzeit Licht"--are about renunciation and the unceasing memory of death.
The contrast is reinforced by singer and song. The song "Yahrzeit Licht," sung by Yosselle Rosenblatt in concert, is typical of the Jewish music in the film. Both words and music form an elegy for a lost world, the Yiddish world of Eastern Europe, transplanted to the Lower East Side and now bypassed by the fast-paced American generation. On a visit to Chicago, Jack Robin is drawn to the sentimental Yiddishkeit that both song and singer evoke, and also to memories of his father. But he is as out of place in that concert hall as he is in his old neighborhood, and as he will be later in his father's kittel. Even as Jack muses on what he has left behind, Cantor Rosenblatt chants the kaddish for his father's dead world.
Song and story come together when Jack's father actually dies at the end of the film. But Cantor Rabinowitz has been silenced long before. His only audible words in the film are "stop," but no one, least of all his son, will stop for him. The world passes him by, even as he passes from it. His death is both a plot convenience and a symbolic necessity. The resolute Old World Jewish father becomes the failed father of the New, the father that most of the movie moguls, including the Warner Brothers, tried to deny. His passing, while sad, is salutary, for it allows mother and son to move together into the New World.
Song and story build toward a mother and child reunion. Even as the young Jack runs away from home, he puts a photo of his mother in his pocket, and when he returns home years later on the way to becoming a star, he tells his mother about his dreams for both of them in the only extended dialogue in the entire film. It is here, more than in the songs, that film sound is born.
The famous conversation between Jack and his mother is more than a technical advance; it is required hearing for an understanding of what The Jazz Singer is all about. For it is in this scene that Jack and his mother are liberated from the confines of the old ideas and thrust into the new world of American mobility. After Jack's showbiz rendition of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies," his ad-lib dialogue allows us to hear the words of the promised future. We have met the future, he affirms, and it is us.
JACK: Did you like that, Mama?
JACK: I'm glad of it. I'd rather please you than anybody I know of. Oh, darlin', will you give me something?
JACK: You'll never guess. Shut your eyes, Mama. Shut 'em for little Jakie. Ha. I'm gonna steal something. (Kisses her. She titters.) Ha, ha, ha, ha. I'll give it back to you some day, too, you see if I don't. Mama darlin', if I'm a success in this show, well, we're gonna move from here. Oh yes, we're gonna move up in the Bronx. A lot of nice green grass up there and a whole lot of people you know. There's the Ginsbergs, the Guttenbergs, and the Goldbergs. Oh, a whole lotta Bergs; I don't know 'em all. And I'm gonna buy you a nice black silk dress, Mama. You see Mrs. Friedman, the butcher's wife, she'll be jealous of you.
MOTHER: Oh, no-
JACK: Yes, she will. You see if she isn't. And I'm gonna get you a nice pink dress that'll go with your brown eyes.
MOTHER: No, Jakie, no I-I-I-I
JACK: What? Whatta you mean, no? Who is--who is telling you? Whatta you mean, no? Yes, you'll wear pink or else. Or else you'll wear pink. (He laughs.) And, darlin', oh, I'm gonna take you to Coney Island.
JACK: Yes, I'm gonna ride on the Shoot-the Chutes. An' you know in the Dark Mill. Ever been in the Dark Mill?
MOTHER: Oh, no. I wouldn't go....
JACK: Well, with me, it's all right. I'll kiss you and hug you. You see if I don't. [Mother starts blushing.] Now Mama, Mama, stop now. You're gettin' kittenish.... (4)
Jack and his mother are off on their journey into the future. Yet the journey is somewhat uneven. He is the star; she is his audience. But then that is the fate of the immigrant Jewish mother. All she can do is kvell as her son makes it big in show business. And kvell she does, as, on bended knee, he sings to her of his undying affection: "Mammy," he sings out," I'd walk a million miles/For one of your smiles/My Mammy."
As the Jewish mother blends with the Southern Mammy, the immigrant experience runs its course. Movie magic triumphs once again, as the Hollywood moguls offer their belated tribute to the mothers whom most of them revered. But their heartstrings are now "tangled around Alabamy," instead of the shtetl or the Lower East Side. With their fathers out of the way, and their mothers Americanized, they are freed of their ethnic burden. While they may still speak with an accent, and carry deep within them their East European roots, neither their names nor their parents will ever give them away.
Neither will the songs they sing. The Eastern European mother of such popular Yiddish songs as "A Brivele der Mamen," and the East Side Jewish mother of the half-Yiddish, half-English "My Yiddishe Mama," is now replaced by Hattie McDaniel. The Jewish mother has become a black mammy, the musical equivalent of blackface. And blackface, according to Michael Rogin, "is the instrument that transfers identities from immigrant Jew to American.... Supplying his spontaneity and freeing him to be himself, blackface made Jolson a unique and therefore representative American."(5)
Blackface transferred identities from the Jewish mother as well as her son. Unwilling to leave her behind, Jewish sons and daughters disguised her as well as themselves. Blackface, like jazz, became a metaphor for American, perhaps its code word. In time, blackface and black music overshadowed the Yiddish world. Yiddish writers of song or story, as well as Yiddish mothers and their children, had no choice but to transform themselves or be left hopelessly behind. Mothers who wished to join their children had to "go native."
"America gonif" was about to rob the Jewish mother of her Yiddishkeit. What Yiddish song had created was about to end. "A Brivele der Mamen" (1907) is only one of many Yiddish songs in which the Jewish mother was used as a reminder of the separation that emigration enforced. Its three stanzas, sung to a plaintive tune, foreshadow what was later to become commingled with nostalgia for the old home. The sadness of separation, the son's lack of responsibility, the mother's complaint that in eight years he hadn't written her one letter, much of which later became comic shtick, was in 1907 no matter for laughter. The experience was too fresh, the pain too acute. Absence may make the heart grow fonder, but the head forgets too soon.
A song of the immigrant generation, "A Brivele der Mamen," expressed the fears of both parents and children. The mother who waits in silence for a letter that never comes is seen as a tragic figure, the embodiment of a Yiddishkeit as abandoned as she. The son, perhaps unwittingly, becomes increasingly enmeshed in the allure of America, and forges a new life without any acknowledgment of the life and people he left behind. Description becomes admonition, with just a faint hope; perhaps it was not too late to change direction.
But of course it was too late. Mothers continued to be left behind, even if the separation was only a borough apart. After Jewish immigration came Jewish mobility, and the Lower East Side became the old country. By 1925, when the play of The Jazz Singer opened on Broadway, moving away had become a commonplace of Jewish-American life. And the songs people sang reflected their ambivalent feelings toward what was both painful and necessary.
"My Yiddishe Mamma," is as expressive of twenties' sentiment as "A Brivele der Mamen" had been of turn-of-the-century attitudes. Written by Jack Yellen and Lew Pollack in 1925, it became particularly identified with Sophie Tucker, especially after she recorded it in both English and Yiddish versions on two sides of a single record. Two languages for a mixed generation. Side by side, Yiddish and English establish a balance between old and new, between parents and children, between past and future. Parents and children are in transit, and the Yiddishe Momme, while no longer abandoned, is put in her place.
Or perhaps, more accurately places, for the Yiddish and English versions offer different mothers for different audiences. The English Yiddishe Momme is placed in "a humble East Side tenement," and the singer reaches across "the trails of Time" to recollect the "three flights up in the rear ... where my childhood days were spent." Separation has set in; the singer has grown up, and grown away. The past is remembered with affection, but it remains irretrievable. The Jewish mother, like the old shtetl, lies buried in time.
"My Yiddishe Momme" in Yiddish seems to be a different song. Past and present are intermingled. While the Jewish mother has grown old along with her surroundings, she is still an active presence, still capable of nurturing the world around her. She belongs in her world, and in ours. She is timeless:
"As I stand here and think my old mother comes to mind. No made-up, well dressed lady, just a mother. Bent over from great sorrow, with a pure Jewish heart And with cried-out eyes. In the same little room where she's gotten old and gray She sits and cries and dreams of long-gone days When the house was full with the sound of children's voices And the kitchen smelled of roast and dumplings. You can be sure our house did not lack poverty, But there was always enough for the children. She used to voluntarily give us bread from her mouth And she would have given up her life for her children as well. Millions of dollars, diamonds, big beautiful houses-- But one thing in the world you get only one of from God: A yidishe mama, she makes the world sweet A yidishe mama, oh how bitter when she's missing. You should thank God that you still have her with you-- You don't know how you'll grieve when she passes away. She would have leaped into fire and water for her children. Not cherishing her is certainly the greatest sin. Oh, how lucky and rich is the person who has such a beautiful gift from God: Just a little old yidishe mama, my mama."(6)
A brief moment in time, a vignette in which the Yiddish Dream of continuity and the American Dream of uniqueness hang in the balance. Perhaps in 1925 it was still possible to bring Yiddish into the new America? Those that believed in sentiment held on to that illusion. But those who manufactured a movie-made illusion prevailed, and despite all their ambivalences, they chose to be Americans first. The Yiddishe Momme was left alone with her memories.
For all its reverence for the Jewish Mother, "My Yiddishe Momme" is more elegy than celebration. While its Yiddish voice is reluctant to let go, its intimations of impending mortality suggest the inescapable passing of time. Like much in Yiddish American culture, it refuses to admit defeat, but instead recalls the recent past in order to restrain the inevitable.
By choosing to be Americans first, the makers of The Jazz Singer insured that their film would be popular with the widest possible audience. And they likewise insured that their Jewish audience would have to follow them or be left behind. Yet they certainly had no intention of leaving their mothers behind. They needed them too much.
So while the use of the mother as a metaphor of change has its antecedents in the Yiddish song, her role in The Jazz Singer reverses what many of these songs suggest. From an Old World figure left behind on foreign shores, from a lonely East Side widow in her walk-up flat, she has now been co-opted, for better or worse, into the native tradition. She needs a new look and a new language so that she can join her son in his success.
By the next decade, the Jewish son had become not only a jazz singer, but a jazz entrepreneur, marketing black performers: like Irving Mills who managed Duke Ellington, like Moe Gale who was known as "the Great White Father of Harlem," and like Joe Glaser, who was responsible for the success of Louis Armstrong and Lionel Hampton. By the end of the 20s, the Jewish mother's song was over, while her son's song had just begun.
Perhaps Jessel put it best as he eulogized Jolson: "In 1910 the Jewish people who emigrated here were a sad lot.... Men of thirty-five seemed to take on the attitude of their fathers and grandfathers; they walked with stooped shoulders. When they sang, they sang with lament in their hearts and their voices, always as if they were pleading for help from above. And the older they got, the more they prayed for the return to ... the simple little villages where they spent their childhood.... And then there came on the scene a young man, vibrantly pulsing with life and courage, who marched on the stage, head held high ... and told the world that the Jew in America did not have to sing in sorrow but could shout happily.... And when he cried "Mammy" it was in appreciation, not in lament."(7)
The Jazz Singer celebrates a new song of ascendance by the Jewish son (and a few daughters), and the significant influence that Jewish culture, and especially Jewish music, has had on American culture. But it likewise affirms the need for that culture, and its music, to cross over or perish. Just as the Jewish mother must fade into her American counterpart, so too does Jewish music need to adapt to an American idiom. What The Jazz Singer begins is finalized in the next decade by "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," and "And The Angels Sing." From blackface, to name change, to marrying non-Jews, to jazzing-up Jewish music, the disguise becomes the identity.
The Yiddishe Momme of the recent past is past redemption. In the next generation, she becomes a figure of fun, a caricature that moves from silence to shrill authority. No longer a moral force, she becomes a nudge, a yenta, a yidene. Gone are the days of Yiddishkeit, and with them her identity as caretaker and giver.
The Jazz Singer was more prophetic than either Sam Raphaelson or Warner Brothers could have imagined. Raphaelson had written what he considered "a simple, corny, well-felt little melodrama," and Warner Brothers had invested their money in sound above everything else. Yet it was the story that captured the imagination, for it was the story of the emerging generation, a generation, as Raphaelson observed quoting Matthew Arnold, that was "lost between two worlds, one dead, the other powerless to be born."(8)
But that generation was not as powerless as Raphaelson thought. In making The Jazz Singer it dictated the style and the identity of Jewish-American culture for many years to come. From the 1930s to the 1960s, Jews went underground, preparing, in such enclaves as the Borscht Belt, for their next emergence as comics and writers. For some, however, that time would be too distant. Raphaelson himself stopped writing Jewish material and established a career as a writer of sophisticated screen plays. Warner Brothers rarely made another Jewish film until well after WW II. And Al Jolson recorded Jewish songs only toward the end of his long career. Not until the 1960s could Jews be Jews again.
The Jazz Singer was filmed twice more, but by the 1950s and the 1980s its mythic power had diminished. While both newer versions were popular, the story was most powerful when it was first filmed. In 1927, Jewish-Americans were at the threshold of a new identity, and Warner Brothers and Al Jolson were their pioneers. In 1927 Jewish music was at a balance between Old World cadences and New World beats, and Jewish entertainers walked a thin line between both. In 1927, Jews were still torn between jazz and Judaism.
In his preface to the play, Raphaelson notes that: "You find the soul of a people in the songs they sing."(9) In the twenties, Jewish-Americans were singing two kinds of songs. The Yiddish soul and the American soul were still possible partners, but the partnership didn't last beyond the next decade. As Neal Gabler observes: The Jazz Singer suggested, and the next decade proved, that the Jews could bring the synagogue to show business, but there was no possible reciprocity.(10)
This way out of the ghetto was a one-way street, and those who chose to remain in the old neighborhood were left behind. What began long ago in the Old Country repeated itself a generation after: the solitary Jewish mother grieving on foreign shores, became the Yiddishe Momme sitting alone with her memories. The Jewish-American mother was transformed into a stranger in a strange land. While her child could "walk a million miles/For one of her smiles," she had nowhere to go.
1. Quoted in Neal Gabler, An Empire Of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood (New York: Crown Publishers, 1988), p. 7.
2. The Jazz Singer, ed. Robert L. Carringer (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1979), p. 11.
3. Samson Raphaelson, The Jazz Singer (New York: Brentano's, 1925), p. 10.
4. Carringer, The Jazz Singer, p. 144.
5. Michael Rogin, "Blackface, White Noise: The Jewish Jazz Singer Finds His Voice," Critical Inquiry 18 (Spring, 1992), pp. 434, 440.
6. The translation is by Mark Slobin in his Tenement Songs: The Popular Music of the Jewish Immigrants (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), p. 204.
7. Quoted in Herbert H. Goldman, Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), p. 301.
8. Raphaelson, p. 10.
9. Raphaelson, p. 10
10. Gabler, p. 145.
IRV SAPOSNIK is the Executive Director of the B'nai B'rith Hillel Foundation in Madison, Wisconsin. He has written about Yiddish and Jewish American literature, and is currently working on an article on Jewish comedy.
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