The Vanishing Jewish Comedian
To the Editor:
In general I agree with the thesis of Sam Levenson in your August issue (“The Dialect Comedian Should Vanish”) that the so-called dialect Jew-comedian is pass6 and we need not mourn his demise. With the gradual passing of the immigrant generation, he no longer corresponds to any real living type in American Jewry—if he ever did—and in his day he made no great contribution to an understanding of the American Jewish picture. I also agree that the Bagels and Yox type of entertainment has no place on the American public stage or radio, whether seen by Jew or Gentile, not only for reasons of its basic vulgarity but also for its essential spuriousness—it represents no genuine kind of Jewish life existing here other than in the imagination of its script-writers.
But when Mr. Levenson suggests that we bowdlerize Sholom Aleichem because of the possible distortion that could be made of him by an anti-Semite he is guilty of a rather serious violation of both morality and art. He wants us to adopt a double standard—one for writing for a Jewish public and the other for the uninitiated Gentile. For one thing it doesn’t give our Gentile neighbors much credit for insight or intelligence and it’s something of an insult to assume that in their benighted condition they can. never hope to plumb the esoteric freemasonry of Jewish humor or art. Wouldn’t his own suggestion throw a cloud over the discerning Gentile’s conception of the Jew, learning that we have two sets of literary values—one for Hebrew and Yiddish and another for those languages which read from left to right? Moreover the anti-Semites in their perpetual “research” for anti-Jewish “documentation” are by no means so scrupulous as to resort to ransacking the Jewish classics. Can’t you just imagine what the benign and gentle Solomon Rabinowitz would say if he heard of this—he lived not so long ago when there was no lack of professional literary Jew-baiters. Sholom Aleichem, despite the genre he worked in, did not live his entire life in the ivory tower of an all-Jewish shtetl. He was a contemporary of Kishinev, the Dreyfus affair, and modern “scientific” anti-Semitism.
The final episode mentioned by Mr. Levenson—the reception given him as “Mr. Livingston” by the New Englander of Mayflower stock—speaks for itself rather pointedly. Was it really such an achievement to be recognized as an anonymous Mr. Livingston rather than as Sam Levenson whose humor is at the same time American and unmistakably Jewish? The choice is not necessarily between Mr. Mefoof-sky and Mr. Livingston. . .
B. G. Kayfetz
To the Editor:
I feel that there are several exceedingly destructive implications in Sam Levenson’s interesting piece. Underlying Levenson’s thesis, I believe, there is a viewpoint that tends to paralyze any creative personality, whether he is operating in one of the popular arts, or in a serious medium, such as the novel. Levenson himself, as an artist, has been a victim of his viewpoint. . . . I have had the pleasure of knowing Levenson and studying him at some length for an article in The Saturday Evening Post. (It appears in the August 23 issue.) Amusing and sharp as he may be on television—and heaven knows he is one of the few younger comedians with some gusto—he is far more entertaining, expresses himself with much more verve and richness, when he works in Jewish dialect. . . . Do comedians like Willie Howard, Fannie Brice, Lou Holtz, either cause, stimulate, or encourage anti-Semitism? It seems to me that this theory is an absurd oversimplification of a complex social problem. I know that Levenson, like so many other of our censors with the new look, truly loves and respects culture. But there seems to be a good deal of timidity in his attitude about art: either he is afraid of the artist, or he is afraid that the general public may not have seychel enough to distinguish between a Smith and Dale sketch and the human being who owns a butcher shop or a drugstore or a clothing factory. . . . Censorship is bad enough when it comes from the Boston puritans—but let’s not have it from persons who should know better.
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York