On the Bookshelf
Jews of Madison Avenue, Jews of Broadway
Like Mad Men itself, the modern American advertising industry wouldn’t exist, at least not in its current form, without a few key Jewish innovators. As Jeffrey Cruikshank and Arthur Schultz demonstrate in The Man Who Sold America: The Amazing (but True!) Story of Albert D. Lasker and the Creation of the Advertising Century (Harvard Business Review, August), a conflicted, German-born son of a Texas banker discovered how to hook Americans on Palmolive soap, Quaker Oats, Sunkist orange juice, and Kotex tampons—and went on, as a major philanthropist, to support not only medical research but also the American Jewish Committee and a farm in Pennsylvania where Jewish immigrants could learn agricultural skills.
No one has had to work very hard to sell Jews tickets to musicals: As anyone who has seen Spamalot knows, “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you haven’t got any Jews.” While Larry Stempel’s heroically ambitious, 800-page Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater (Norton, September) relates the ins and outs of an oddly resilient cultural form from the mid-19th century to the present, including everything from minstrelsy to light opera to Bob Fosse and much more, it offers especially rich coverage of the chosen people of the Great White Way. Stempel goes beyond the familiar names—of which there are a whole lot, between the Gershwins and Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein and Sondheim—to cover equally fascinating characters like Weber and Fields, Rudolf Friml, and Betty Comden.
Jews haven’t been important only onstage and behind the scenes, of course, but also as reviewers who can sink a show with a pan or ensure its success with a rave: most notably, Frank Rich at the Times. Like Rich, the theater critic at the center of Elie Wiesel’s latest novel, The Sonderberg Case (Knopf, August), has moved on from the culture beat to weightier matters: specifically, covering the trial of a young German living in the United States who has been accused of murdering his uncle. This leads him to ponder exactly the questions one would expect in an Elie Wiesel novel about Germans and murder.
Asked, upon the book’s original publication in French in 2008, why he still writes in that language after decades of living in the United States, Wiesel responded that, for him, “le français est la langue de l’intelligence.” That enthusiasm for the French language fits into a surprisingly long Jewish tradition: As Kirsten Fudeman reveals in Vernacular Voices: Language and Identity in Medieval French Jewish Communities (Penn, June), medieval Jews spoke French ardently, writing it in Hebrew characters when they committed it to paper; some even continued to do so, like Wiesel, after having taken up residence in non-Francophone countries, such as England.
Future scholars investigating the Jewish vernacular of our time will find few resources as rich as Sam Hoffman’s Internet site Old Jews Telling Jokes, which makes its inevitable, inexplicable entry into old media as the book Old Jews Telling Jokes (Villard, September), co-edited by Hoffman and Eric Spiegelman. Transforming a perfect Web project into printed matter may be a pointless exercise—even more contrary to the spirit of the original site than the average blog-to-book fiasco—but, in all fairness, there are probably still a few Jews reading jokes strictly offline.
The sensibility that distinguishes Michael Wex’s best-selling guides to Yiddish language and culture—Born to Kvetch, Just Say Nu, How to Be a Mentsh—combines the sincere cornball humor of Old Jews Telling Jokes with the erudition of a sociolinguist. In Wex’s new novel, The Frumkiss Family Business (Random, August), he sets out to do for Toronto’s Jews what Mordecai Richler’s fictions did for Montreal’s and Philip Roth’s for Newark’s: paint their portraits so acutely, so knowingly, so as to inspire their apoplectic rage. In fact, despite Toronto’s large Jewish population, surprisingly few fictions have focused on the city’s Jews, with David Bezmozgis, Nessa Rapoport, and Rick Salutin providing the exceptions that prove the rule.
Brooklyn has the opposite problem: How can you say something interesting about a Jewish childhood in that fabled borough when so many masters, not to mention schlock-meisters, have gotten there first? Martin Lemelman answers this question with formal innovation: His Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood (Bloomsbury, August)—which borrows its title from Harry Golden’s best-selling 1959 nostalgic take on Jewish life on the Lower East Side—combines elements of the graphic novel with photographs and found objects, as well as sections of prose memoir, to capture the decline of Brownsville in the postwar decades.
Why settle for just Brooklyn or just Toronto, though, when you can have all of Jewish experience, throughout human history, in a single volume. Marek Halter’s The Jewish Odyssey: An Illustrated History (Flammarion, August) promises to address the journey of Jews and Judaism from ancient Mesopotamia to the present, without forgetting such figures as Trotsky, Kafka, and Bob Dylan—plus lots of pictures!—in 224 pages. This is a project that should leave many readers feeling like Shammai, when asked to teach the Torah to a man standing on one leg: How can you cover that much ground, that quickly, without serious distortion?
Two musicians find inspiration in the idea of Jews and non-Jews living side-by-side