[Marxism] Paul Buhle's "From the Lower East Side to Hollywood, " by L. Proyect

Gilles d'Aymery aymery at ix.netcom.com
Mon Jun 21 08:49:39 MDT 2004


Paul Buhle's "From the Lower East Side to Hollywood"
by Louis Proyect
Book Review

Paul Buhle, "From the Lower East Side to Hollywood," Verso, 2004; 
ISBN 1-85984-598-3. 

(Swans - June 21, 2004)  Although Paul Buhle enjoys a high profile 
as chronicler of the American left, he is also one of our foremost 
scholars of Jewish popular culture. There is an obvious connection 
here since the two worlds tend to overlap, particularly during the 
period when Jews were overwhelmingly proletarian, suffering 
discrimination and identifying with society's underdogs. 

This has little to do with organized Judaism as such but more with the 
general zeitgeist of the Jewish people, which Buhle describes as 
"Yiddishkayt" or "Jewishness." For example, in a recent HBO film 
documentary on the execution of the Rosenbergs directed by their 
grand-daughter Ivy (daughter of radical economist Michael 
Meeropol), Abe Osheroff, a Spanish Civil War veteran and friend 
and comrade of Julius and Ethel, described their wedding as Jewish to 
the core even though there was little in the way of rituals. Everything 
about them, from what they ate and drank to their core ethical and 
political values, was shaped by the urban Jewish milieu of NYC's 
lower east side. 

Although Buhle himself is not Jewish, he learned Yiddish as part of his 
PhD language requirements. This language would be essential to his 
studies of the roots of the American left, many of whose founding 
fathers wrote in this highly vernacular tongue. His engagement with 
Jewish culture deepened in New York City during the 1960s 
radicalization, when some of the elder statesmen of the left who had 
fled persecution in Eastern Europe and Russia recounted their past to 
this up and coming scholar. Anybody who passed through Union 
Square Park on 14th Street during this period would still be able to 
see clusters of mostly Italian and Jewish trade unionists arguing the 
fine points of anarchism or socialism. 

The book follows the chronological path of Jewish popular culture as 
it wends its way from Vaudeville to contemporary television. Much of 
the pleasure of taking this grand tour is discovering the "Yiddishkayt" 
roots of various figures who straddle both periods. One of the most 
striking examples is Leonard Nimoy, who played the pointy-eared 
and impassive Vulcan on television's "Star Trek." Nimoy began acting 
as an amateur in a high school production of Clifford Odets's "Awake 
and Sing," a classic example of Jewish radical theater. As a young 
professional, Nimoy started off in Los Angeles's Yiddish theater, 
while taking acting lessons from blacklistee and Jew Jeff Corey. Soon 
he began acting in avant-garde productions of plays by Genet, 
including "Deathwatch." In the role of a prisoner, Nimoy found 
"himself totally alienated from both worlds, the society outside, and 
the one within the prison walls," according to his 1975 memoir. It is 
not too much of a stretch to conceive of this as preparation for his role 
as the quintessential alien -- Spock. Jewishness and the avant-garde 
lead in unexpected directions. 

Shelley Winters and Lee Grant, two fellow Jews with affinities for the 
left, appeared in these productions alongside Nimoy. Winters, the 
daughter of a Brooklyn haberdasher convicted of arson, was always 
fascinated by the avant-garde and left-liberal politics. She appeared in 
the 1959 "Odds Against America," secretly written by Abraham 
Polonsky -- one of the Hollywood Ten. After receiving an Oscar 
nomination for her role in the 1951 Detective Story, Grant found 
wound up on the blacklist. Once the witch-hunt ended, she gravitated 
toward projects that were consonant with long-standing ideals. She 
directed a film version of Tillie Olson's Jewish radical classic Tell Me 
a Riddle in 1980 that featured Melvyn Douglass -- another Jew and 

The world of the Yiddish-speaking radical of the Lower East Side of 
the 1920s or 30s was very remote from the Zionist and 
neoconservative mindset of the higher-ups in the Bush administration. 
These are the "Jews without mercy," as Earl Shorris described them in 
his 1982 book of the same title. They worship at the altar of American 
power, despise the minorities who would take advantage of 
affirmative action, and take pride in Israel's ability to dominate the 
Arabs. The clash between Yiddish and Hebrew symbolizes the gulf 
between these two worlds. Buhle recounts a forum at the CUNY 
Graduate Center in 1999 where Tony Kushner, author of "Angels in 
America," affirmed his longing for "Yiddishkayt." while novelist-critic 
Cynthia Ozick, speaking from the same platform, condemned 
Kushner's statement as an exercise in nostalgia at best, and at worst 
liberal betrayal of Israel and Zionism. 

Even after the use of Yiddish was dwindling down to old-timers and 
the Chasidic sects in the 1950s, Jewish popular culture figures 
continued to throw Yiddish phrases into comedy routines. And even 
when not a single word of Yiddish was spoken, they all shared a 
distinctly urban, mocking, neurotic and self-deprecating wit that was 
instantly recognizable. Lenny Bruce is the most prominent example of 
this. Born Leonard Schneider to privileged parents in suburbia, Bruce 
shared none of the poverty and discrimination of the earlier generation 
of comics, nor did he speak Yiddish. During a performance on the 
Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts radio show in the early 1950s, Bruce 
replaced a Humphrey Bogart tag-line ("All right, Louis, drop the 
gun!") with its Yiddishist equivalent, "All right, Shmegegah, drop the 
Yeagah!". This was the first step in developing a comedy routine that 
combined bitter reflections about bourgeois morality -- especially 
about sex -- with Yiddish patois. 

About five years ago I conducted a series of interviews with Fred 
Baker, the producer and director of Lenny Bruce Without Tears. 
Baker's life touched all the bases of Paul Buhle's book. As the son of 
a Communist trade unionist in the fur trade, Fred was either a witness 
to or a participant in the major upheavals that would affect any Jewish 
Communist household of the New Deal and witch-hunt era. He 
remembers seeing his father come home from a trade union 
convention with his clothes torn and face battered by rightwing thugs. 
On the day of Paul Robeson's concert in Peekskill, Fred 
accompanied his father to take part in a defense guard on the 

He was equally engaged with Broadway and had a budding career as 
a song-and-dance man in his early 20s before developing a passion 
for film that grew out of time spent at any of a number of the art-film 
theaters that thrived in New York City in the 50s and 60s. Eventually 
he came up with the idea of doing a documentary on the life of Lenny 
Bruce, who was his idol. But the path to making the film was not 
smooth. Forced with the responsibilities of raising a family, he 
discovered that his film-making skills were equally suited to making 
pornography, a profession that kept him afloat during this period. His 
struggle to resolve the conflict between culture -- even of a popular 
sort -- and mammon were dramatized in the film "Events," which 
despite its low-budget and minimal production values has the kind of 
rawness and immediacy of a John Cassavetes film. 

[ Full: http://www.swans.com/library/art10/lproy16.html ]

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