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Jewish American Experience

jews family life depression

The first half of the twentieth century was particularly marked by sporadic outbursts of American anti-Semitism, especially during periods of national stress, including both world wars, and the Great Depression. The pressure to assimilate versus the desire to maintain a familiar ethnicity, as with any immigrant group, has been constant, but perhaps more insidious with Jewish Americans whose appearance (all stereotypes aside) rarely distinguishes them from the majority. In these early years, in the effort to keep a low profile, few plays directly addressed the Jewish American experience, even though many were written out of that experience.


Issues of ethnicity were treated gingerly by dramatists until well into the 1960s. Ethnic issues, if addressed at all, were dealt with ambiguously to avoid censure or outright hostility. Despite a vibrant Yiddish theater, which catered to the tastes of immigrant Jews in a familiar language, there were few overt depictions of Jews on the mainstream stage. Although there was conspicuous involvement of Jewish Americans in mainstream theater during the entire twentieth century, from playwriting to production, only some of this involvement has resulted in plays that specifically address what it means to be Jewish in America, and the majority of these come from the latter half of the century. The plays chosen for this chapter offer a collective vision of the Jewish American experience, shaped by immigration, family life, the Depression, two world wars, and anti-Semitism. We learn about Jewish Americans at work, at home, and in the community, as they face changing gender roles and an increasingly secular world. Some of these depictions may feel stereotypical, but they are stereotypes grounded in essential truths, and they ultimately insist that the Jew in America has both dignity and complexity.


Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing is concerned with Jewish American family life in the Bronx during the Great Depression, and creates prototypical Jewish characters who have been much emulated, including the bewildered immigrant trying to understand an alien culture, the discontented first-generation youth seeking fame and fortune, and the feisty, though at times insensitive, Jewish mother. These characters display little in the way of religious observance but offer insight into the secular Jewish outlook and lifestyle. The realism of Odets’s endeavor is made all the more telling by his use of authentic immigrant speech patterns, which earned him the title of “the poet of the Jewish middle class.” Earlier drafts of the play contained far more Yiddish expressions, which were cut or translated into English to make the play easier for non-Jews to understand; what remains is an accurate and accessible portrayal of the Yiddishized English of many American Jews. The play’s title comes from Isaiah 26:19, “Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust,” which represents a call to arms for American youth caught in the despairing grasp of the Depression.


Known as the Clifford Odets of the 1950s, Paddy Chayefsky’s earlier plays were similarly set in the Bronx and filled with lower middle-class ethnic characters. However, The Tenth Man is more concerned with religious and urban issues than family life. Through its close relation to S. Anski’s Yiddish classic, The Dybbuk (1914), The Tenth Man depicts the social adjustments that have to be made by Jews descended from those who lived in hermetic Eastern European shetls who now reside in contemporary, largely secular Long Island. Chayefsky reveals not only the differences between these two worlds, but also an important commonality: the same tenets of love and faith that supported and sustained the old Jewish world can continue to help Jews survive in the new.


Both Anski’s The Dybbuk and Chayefsky’s The Tenth Man deal with issues surrounding the exorcism of a troublesome spirit that inhabits the soul of a living person, but in very different settings and to very different ends. While Anski’s play depicts ten Hasidim in an East European shtetl synagogue, Chayefsky’s is set in a storefront synagogue in Mineola, Long Island, with a disparate collection of congregants. The story is no longer focused on two young lovers pitted against the community, but on a variety of conflicts that affect Jewish American people as they attempt to survive in an open, secular society. The characters in The Tenth Man represent a cross-section of American Jewry, and, through them, Chayefsky explores the implications of Judaism and Jewishness in mid-century America. Where Odets brought his audience into a Jewish home, Chayefsky introduces them to an Orthodox synagogue.


Broken Glass , by Arthur Miller, directly considers the issue of anti-Semitism among Americans and Jews in the 1930s, as news of the Nazi treatment of Jews in Europe filters through. Through the lens of a troubled marriage, we witness different reactions to events, including denial, resignation, and ignorance, all of which are shown to be tantamount to complicity. Sylvia’s physical paralysis represents the moral paralysis of many Americans in the face of the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in general: horrified by the reality of what was happening, it became far easier to pretend that nothing was happening at all.


Set during the Depression, the start of Awake and Sing sees Ralph Berger discontented with life, his domineering mother, Bessie, and the restrictions of living in a crowded family home. Bessie scrabbles to keep the family together in lean years, with her daughter, Hennie, getting pregnant out of wedlock. Hennie is pressured to marry naive and shy Sam Feinschreiber, a recent immigrant, to give the child a father, but she has no love for him and is deeply unhappy. She prefers the company of embittered war veteran Moe Axelrod, although neither would admit to this. Ralph wants to marry Blanche, but both families try to prevent this, wanting their children to marry someone wealthier. Ralph’s grandfather, Jacob, tries to bolster Ralph’s spirits with advice, then commits suicide, hoping the life insurance money will help Ralph make a better life. The family considers cheating Ralph out of the money, although Moe blackmails them to tell the truth. Ralph decides to let Bessie have the money and make his own way, revitalized by his grandfather’s sacrifice, while Hennie runs off with Moe, leaving husband and child behind.


The Depression largely motivates the characters, as Odets explores how financial insecurity affects a family and what compromises it forces upon them. The threat of destitution and eviction is very real, and Bessie’s fears are grounded in fact. Poverty is endemic, and although all share what they have as a matter of course, the youngsters, especially, dream of a future life less impoverished. These people had nothing with which to start, and so cannot understand the rich who jump off buildings because they have lost everything. Jacob may make the same leap, but out of hope rather than despair and the ardent desire to help his grandson. The past may be one of struggle, but all look to the future with hope.

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