Blackface as religious expression
Lisa Silberman Brenner
This past year, two young Jewish men toured North America with a seemingly odd pairing for a musical: the Book of Job and the politics of hip-hop’s meteoric rise to power in the entertainment business. In their original production Job: The Hip-Hop Musical, Eli Batalion and Jerome Saibil retell the Biblical story, playing all the parts including Job. his wife, God, Satan, and Job’s peers. To bring the ancient text into line with the Def Jam generation, Batalion and Saibil perform the entire tale dressed in Adidas warm-up suits and doorags, with break-dancing and original hip-hop songs. In their adaptation, God becomes the C.E.O of a record company, and Job becomes one of his employees. Such a show could be called both racist and blasphemous. What entices these Jewish performers to imitate African–Americans–and why would they do so to explore a religious text?
While few, if any, Jewish performers have combined midrashic commentary on the Torah with hip-hop, Batalion and Saibil’s mixing of a Black aesthetic with the Jewish religion actually has a precedent that dates back to the early part of the twentieth century. In 1917, a young Jewish man covered in burnt cork astonished audiences with his performance as “Friday” in the musical Robinson Crusoe, Jr. Among the spectators was an aspiring writer named Samson Raphaelson. Watching the performance and hearing the man’s voice, Raphaelson immediately saw a connection between the blackface minstrel and the religious singers of his childhood: “My God, this isn’t a jazz singer,” he thought. “This is a Cantor!” (1) Such a realization led the young writer to create a short story entitled “The Day of Atonement” based on the life of this budding star named M Jolson. Raphaelson would later adapt the story into a commercially successful play, The Jazz Singer. Although Jolson did not get to star in the show, as he had hoped, his desire was soon fulfilled when the Warner Brothers cast him as the lead in their film adaptation of The Jazz Singer–the movie that initiated the sound revolution in motion pictures. Raphaelson’s vision of a blackfaced Jewish performer as the modern cantor would soon be seen–and heard–by millions of Americans.
Today, the legacy of The Jazz Singer makes many Americans cringe with its associations of Jews imitating, perhaps even stealing or distorting, Black culture. This is the response of the late Michael Rogin, whose Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, claims that Jews, who in the early twentieth century faced “nativist pressure that would assign them to the dark side of the racial divide,” used blackface to assimilate into White America. (2) By mimicking African–Americans, Jews were able to separate themselves from this subjugated group and elevate themselves to the status of White Americans. By performing Blackness, Jews indicated to their audiences that they were not actually Black.
Although Rogin is the most cited authority on the subject of Jews and Blackface, recent scholars have begun to challenge his theory, including Stephen Whitfield, who questions why Jews would try to lay claim to Whiteness by highlighting their ability to “slip through the color–line.” (3) Rogin’s assessment is also based on his own psychoanalytic readings of the film The Jazz Singer. His theory is too simplistic: not only does he overlook the play upon which the film was based, but he also overlooks or dismisses historical data of the time, including reviews by the mainstream, Jewish, and Black press.
In a lengthy prologue the playwright Samson Raphaelson clearly explains his intention behind the use of blackface in The Jazz Singer:
In seeing a symbol of the vital
chaos of America’s soul, I find no
more adequate one than jazz. Here
you have the rhythm of frenzy staggering
against a symphonic background–a
of lewdness, heart’s delight, soul-racked
boldness, exquisite humility, but
principally prayer…. I have tried to
crystallize the ironic truth that one
of the Americas of 1925–the one
which packs to overflowing our
cabarets, musical revues and dance
halls–is praying with a fervor as
intense as that of the America
which goes sedately to church and
synagogue…. You find the soul of
a people in the songs they sing. You
find the meaning of the songs in
the souls of the minstrels who create
and interpret them. In “The
Jazz Singer” I have attempted an
exploration of the soul of one of
these minstrels. (4)
For Raphaelson, jazz is prayer, American style, and the blackface minstrel the new Jewish cantor. Based on the author’s own words, the play is not about blackface as a means for Jews to become White, but about blackface as a means for Jews to express a new kind of Jewishness, that of the modern American Jew.
Raphaelson’s message seemed to resonate with Jewish audiences in the 1920s. According to historian Hasia Diner, the Jewish press noted with pride that Jewish entertainers had begun to incorporate elements of Black music in the early 1920s. (5) When Al Jolson blacked up to play Jack Robin in the film version of The Jazz Singer, The Forward offered the following review:
It is a curious thing that there are
so many points of resemblance
between Jews and Negroes. It is a
notable thing that at least three of
the most popular makers of music
on the American stage should be
Jewish boys, two of whom [Jolson
and Cantor] blacken their faces and
song Negro “mammy” songs while
the third [Berlin] has written many
songs in Negro dialect…. Is there
any incongruity in this Jewish boy
with his face painted like a
Southern Negro singing in the
Negro dialect? No, there is not.
Indeed I detected again and again
the minor key of Jewish music, the
wail of the Chazon [cantor], the cry
of anguish of a people who had suffered. (6)
Such a theory does not come without problems of its own–namely the presumption on behalf of Jews that they understand African–American oppression and can therefore speak for them–nonetheless, it strongly points to an identification on the part of Jews with the Black mask, rather than a distancing from it. (It should also be noted that the film version of The Jazz Singer not only received favorable reviews from the Jewish press, but also from the Black press, including The Baltimore Afro–American, and The New York Amsterdam News–which includes a description of a post-show concert by a Jewish cantor and a Black singer performing the music from the film). (7)
Jewish involvement in blackface entertainment was not a means to become White. For Jews, blackface was rather a means to become American, since African-Americans, more than any other group, were defining American popular culture in the 1920s. (8) Writing in 1928, The Jewish Tribune reporter Haynes A. Gilbert declared, “[i]t is almost platitudinous to say that jazz music will become a vital musical expression of the American people.” (9) By imitating African–Americans, Jews could be quintessentially American while simultaneously maintaining the distinct identity of the outsider. No longer the same marginalized shtetl or the traditionally religious group that is was in Eastern Europe, the Jewish community had to find new ways of expressing itself in twentieth-century America. (10) As Stanley Crouch states, Jews were moving “from Eastern European provincialism into the Negro rhythmic bustle of American popular art.” (11) An American expression of Judaism is possible, Raphaelson assured his audiences, because jazz is really a new form of prayer, and the stage is really a new form of synagogue. While the result of Jewish blackface performance was often the perpetuation of a stereotyped or at least romanticized image of African–Americans (something we should not lose sight of), the intent was to offer America the spiritual and creative perspective of the outsider–and in many cases Jews succeeded.
Although the stage may not have replaced the synagogue in American Jewish life, as Raphaelson had envisioned, the success of a hip-hop version of Job suggests that it has at least become an extension of it. As with the Jewish performers who came before them, Batalion and Saibil attempt to enter into popular culture by adopting a Black aesthetic while simultaneously attempting to hold on to their Jewish roots by infusing this culture with religiosity. Batalion and Saibil’s use of hip-hop music works on several levels. Just as the 1920s was dubbed “The Jazz Age,” the post 1980s generation has been dubbed “The Hip-Hop Generation.” As twenty-two-year-olds, Batalion and Saibil are solidly part of this group: this is the music that they grew up with and that to which they and their peers relate. In other words, African–Americans have once again profoundly shaped popular culture, and Jews, like other American youths who want to participate in this culture, have adopted a Black aesthetic. But also like the Jewish performers and writers who came before them, Batalion and Saibil see in this aesthetic an opportunity to express themselves Jewishly. A vibrant and expressive art form, hip-hop is a good match for Batalion and Saibil’s own high-energy performance style. As a hip-hop musical, Job is simply fun and exciting to watch, and by using this genre of music, Batalion and Saibil are able to attract young and diverse audiences who might not otherwise be interested in a musical–especially a Biblical musical–yet who perhaps leave the theater anxious to read or re-read the original source.
At the same time, the show’s content brings to the theater those who are unaware of or skeptical about hip-hop as an art form. One of the pair’s goals with the production “was to change people’s perceptions of hip hop music.” Batalion and Saibil feel they have succeeded in altering theatergoers and reviewers preconceptions about the genre: “People may have dismissed hip-hop music as a loud, obnoxious form of music. Now the reviewers said they appreciate it,” says Saibil. (12) Such reviewers particularly delight in the wittiness and intellect of the play’s lyrics. Both men graduated from Brown University: Batalion majored in Philosophy and Saibil double majored in Philosophy and Psychology. Their rhymes include references to philosophers and literary figures such as Kant and Gatsby, and one of their songs is about academic tenure. One cannot help reflecting back to the 1920s, when Jewish writers such as Lorenz Hart or Irving Berlin set clever lyrics to songs that imitated a Black aesthetic. (13) Like their predecessors, Batalion and Saibil also sprinkle their African–American style songs with Jewish in-jokes (Job’s wife tells him, “I think I smell something fishy. If we appeal it, could there be some kind of wishy-washy way we can stop them from squishing you like a potato-knishy?” At one point the show’s choreography even references Fiddler on the Roof). Have we returned to the idea of Jews as intermediaries between high and low culture and between the Black and White worlds? Unlike their predecessors, though, Batalion and Saibil are more self-conscious about appropriating a Black art form, and want their audiences to be conscious of their appropriation as well. Throughout the play, their music and choreography sample rap music from various years, reminding the audience of and paying homage to the original source of this musical genre.
The layering of hip-hop onto a biblical text also gives the musical a quality similar to Bertolt Brecht’s plays, in which the audience is meant to focus on the intellectual issues surrounding the show–in this case exploitation, power, jealousy–rather than simply be absorbed in an entertainment or moved on an emotional level. In a realistic drama based on verisimilitude, in which the audience peeks in on what seems like the real lives of real people, the audience is meant to identify with the characters on stage and become absorbed in the drama of their lives (their conflicts, their longings, their pain, etc). Instead, Job is a parable, which the audience is meant to take as pure theater. Batalion and Saibil not only play several different characters simply by changing their posture or voice (occasionally a prop such as a towel will be used), but they play an assortment of types: God is a crotchety old man, Job’s colleagues are a Valley girl, a cowboy, and a Pakistani immigrant (although the reasoning behind the various types remains unclear). (14) They also often both play the same character, switching roles in mid-song. Framing the story are M.C. Cain and M.C. Abel, who serve as the story’s narrators. In a prologue (the words of which are distributed to the audience before the show), the emcees introduce all of the characters to the audience and summarize the story, and throughout the show they return to comment upon it. The emcees speak in an urban Black dialect, performed not by caricaturing its subjects in mockery but rather by incorporating hip-hop slang. Since Batalion and Saibil are both White, a fissure is created between them and their characters, making their portrayal more obviously a theatrical presentation, and therefore breaking the audience’s identification with them. The result is that the audience spends less time getting emotionally involved in the play’s characters, and more time dissecting its meaning.
But what makes Batalion and Saibil’s use of hip-hop particularly interesting is that they reveal the parallels between the musical form and the show’s dramatic source: the Tanach (Hebrew Bible). Just as hip-hop overlays new music onto older songs (sampling), Batalion and Saibil overlay the Cain and Abel story (in which Cain kills his brother after God favors Abel) onto the story of Job. The two emcees compete in the middle of the show over who is the better rapper, and the play ends with the one emcee killing the other. Batalion and Saibil thus present not one, but two stories for the audience to ponder, in which battles for God’s favor lead to destructive behavior. Making parallels between stories is an often used hermeneutic in Torah study, where commentators look for commonalties in themes, words, and lessons from the various Biblical texts. Graduates of the Biale Hebrew Day School, Batalion and Saibil are well aware of this tradition. The high value placed on language in general and word play in particular, as demonstrated by rap music and by the Jewish oral tradition, is something that both African–American and Jewish culture share. (15)
By taking something from their own intellectual and religious history and making it relevant to others (even non-Jews), Batalion and Saibil suggest another application of Jewish racial role-play, one that might very well represent a new generation of Jewish performers.
Job: The Hip-Hop Musical toured the United States and Canada last year, including Montreal, Toronto, Charleston, SC, Orlando, FL, and New York City at the Here Arts Center. As of this writing, it will next play October 22-November 1 in Calgary, Alberta at Inglewood’s New Dance/ Theatre (for info: www.artsrsvp.com). In June, 2003 Batalion and Saibil premiered the Nietzchean sequel to JOB: The Hip-Hop Musical entitled JOB II: The Demon of the Eternal Recurrence. (For more information on both shows see www.fdltproductions.com).
(1.) Quoted in Michael Alexander, Jazz Age Jews, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001) 167.
(2.) Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot, (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996) 56.
(3.) Stephen Whitfield, In Search of American Jewish Culture (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 1999) 150.
(4.) Samson Raphaelson, The Jazz Singer, (New York: Brentano’s Publishers, 1925) 9-10.
(5.) Hasia Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1977) 68.
(6.) Quote in Diner 68-9.
(7.) See “‘Jazz Singer’ Seen as Gripping Drama: Throng See and Hear Al Jolson in Screen Triumph at Regent,” The Afro–American, Baltimore, Maryland. 12 May 1928: 8, George Perry, “Al Jolson To Attempt Screen Role: Famous ‘Mammy Star To Be Featured in First Vitaphone Screen Offering,” The Pittsburgh Courier, 25 June 1927: Sec 2, 2; “Revue and Jolson Picture Score: Stage and Screen Provide Great Show at the Lafayette,” The Amsterdam News, 12 May 1928: 6-7. See also Bruce Dancis, “Analysis: the Long and Troubling History of Blackface,” The Sacramento Bee, 14 March 1999: Ent 2.
(8.) See, for example, Ann Douglas, Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s (New York: Noon Day Press, 1995) especially 74, 77, 80, 106, 354, 358-359.
(9.) Haynes A. Gilbert, “Words By-Telling of the New Lyrics and Those Who Concern Themselves With the Other Half of Jazz,” The Jewish Tribune, 18 May 1928: 7.
(10.) In 1925, the year that The Jazz Singer premiered, Mordecai Kaplan was attempting to resolve this very dilemma: how to reconstruct Judaism to remain viable in the modern Diaspora. How to sustain the “‘feel’ of the Jewish people, how to visualize its reality,” how to create unity other than through “suffering and poverty.” Where Raphaelson would look towards a Black aesthetic as an expression of the American Jew, Kaplan would stress, among other things, Zionism and Hebrew language. See Mordecai Kaplan, “Judaism–A Civilization, Not a Cult,” The Jewish Times, 18 September 1925: 134.
(11.) Stanley Crouch, “Blues To Be Constitutional,” The All–American Skin Game, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1995) 7.
(12.) Simone Joseph, “Biblical Story of Job Produced as a Hip-Hop Musical,” The Canadian Jewish News, (Toronto Ontario), 8 August 2002. http://www.fdltproductions.com/jobcjn1.html.
(13.) In 1928, a writer for The Jewish Tribune covering Jewish “Jazz” lyricists, such as Ira Gershwin, Lorenz Hart, Howard Dietz, and Irving Caesar, claims that these lyricists “were actually trying to be witty and subtle. Freudian references cropped up in the songs; French idioms; Yiddish expressions; three and four–syllable rhymes; changing rhythms.” Haynes A. Gilbert, “Words By-Telling of the New Lyrics and Those Who Concern Themselves With the Other Half of Jazz,” The Jewish Tribune, 18 May 1928: 2.
(14.) While the show does not address issues of race directly, it does show its audiences that things are not always what they seem on the outside. For example, while one assumes the Valley Girl is vapid and unintelligent, it is she who finally explains to Job the meaning behind God’s actions.
(15.) See Marion Damon, “Jazz, Jews, Jive, and Gender: The Ethnic Politics of Jazz Argot,” Jews and Other Cultural Differences, Jonathan Boyarin and Daniel Boyarin, eds. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997) 158-159.
Lisa Silberman Brenner is the Literary Manager of Vital Theatre in New York City. She has written, directed, and taught theater for over a decade and will be receiving her Ph.D. in Theater from Columbia University this year. Her dissertation focuses on African–American and Jewish racial role-play in twentieth century American performance.
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