Monday, June 13, 2011

The Jazz Singer Redux: Frummin' Out in America

Cantor Yosef "Yossele" Rosenblatt appears as himself in The Jazz Singer (1927), the first talking motion picture. The film looks at the struggles between tradition and modernity. In this case, Jakie Rabinowitz (Al Jolson), the son of a Jewish cantor goes against five generations of family tradition to pursue a dream of becoming a jazz singer and join the modern age. In this scene, where Cantor Rosenblatt sings a secular Yiddish song, Yahrtzeit Licht, Jakie's emotions are stirred to the point of raising a few uneasy feelings of doubt and conflict, if not guilt. To wit, whether he's making the right choice.

But it is a transitory feeling. Jakie Rabinowitz, who has fitted himself with a more American-sounding last name, and calls himself Jack Robin, has found his place in the modern world with all its promises, comforts and glories. In reality, the cantor's song is a fitting reminder of his father's dead world, says an article by Irv Saposnik in Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought:
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.
When Jack chooses the world of Irving Berlin's America, thus leaving the ghettos of New York City's Lower East Side and its traditions of Eastern Europe, he makes a choice that seems right for him. Countless number of first-generation American-born immigrants follow suit. The modern songs that Jack Robin sings are the songs of ascendance for the sons and daughters of immigrants who make their way nicely, if not comfortably, in the new world shockingly foreign to their parents. Such is how the conflict is portrayed in 1920s America. And the film's producers surely had that message in mind.

Such conflicts, chiefly internal and sometimes external, have played out for decades in the Jewish community, as its leaders fight against assimilation, secularization and all the other forces of modernity that appeal to the young. On the front lines is Orthodox Judaism in its fight to keep alight the flame of tradition. Its argument, simply put, is that traditional Judaism is the root from which all forms of Judaism and Yiddishkeit grow and thrive.If you cut off the roots of Jewish tradition, namely, Torah, Tanakh and Talmud, you are left with a culture that has for want of a better word become déraciné, or uprooted.

I don't say this lightly or without understanding. As someone who grew up with only a small amount of religious tradition and a lot of Yiddishkeit, I can well understand the fears of the leaders of the Jewish community. My wife and I, too, are slowly making our way back to traditional Judaism. And so are many others. In a strange twist of fate, four generations after The Jazz Singer was shown in movie theatres as a paean to modernity, our children and children's children are becoming more religious, much in the same way we and our fathers became less so.

The younger generation, in search of deeper meaning beyond the culture of the mall, is turning once again to religion for answers and as a way of living. In doing so, they are turning away from "the fleshpots of Egypt" —a fitting description of modern-day America—and frummin' out.


  1. Klezmer music is great. The music of Jacques Offenbach is great. Cantorial music and jazz don't inspire me.

  2. Thank you for your comment. In your case, that's true, and you have your preferences and tastes. Yet, countless others find inspiration and enjoyment in both these musical forms—one of the hallmarks of great music.


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