American Jews are white. That’s just a thing that is true in the world now. By my counting it became the case approximately in the early 1970s, give or take. My Jewish grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the whole thing, already; the ones I knew, weren’t as white as I am. My Uncle Al still tells me, over and over, about the restricted golf courses in Orange, New Jersey while we nosh on corned beef and pickles in his very nice retirement apartment.
The Jews ticket to whiteness, and all the privilege and attacks that come with it was paid for in entertainment. With the possible exception of the mafia and medicine (or so Jewish mothers hoped) entertainment was the Jews entre into American whiteness, whatever we construe that to be. There is no American artist as responsible for that entre as Neil Simon, who died this week.
Simon’s career spans a panoply of decades and forms, in television he can be spoken of amongst the giants. In film, well, not so bad. But on Broadway, in theater, Simon somehow became a playwright who drew audiences in a way that would have made even Shakespeare say, Wow. At one point he had four plays running on Broadway.
There are many tributes to Simon celebrating a myriad of his plays, but I’d like to focus on the three I think are most important — his three most autobiographical plays. “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” “Biloxi Blues,” and “Broadway Bound” are the stories of Jewish acceptance in America.
In the first installment, Eugene Morris Jerome is a 15-year-old obsessed with baseball, writing and naked women. This was once known as a normal kid, now, there may be a tinge of toxic masculinity about it. But Simon was not shy about talking directly about a normal 15-year-old boy’s desire to see a vagina, or as Eugene put it, the Golden Valley of the Himalayas. And hey, to quote a later Jewish comedian, “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
Eugene is well aware of being Jewish. When his mother tells him shoes on the bed is bad luck in a Jewish home, he tells her that it isn’t a Jewish home, it was built by Italians. But for him, it has nothing to do with also being American. This becomes clear in “Biloxi Blues” when Jerome is enlisted in the army. Throughout American history military service has been an entry into full citizenship, and it was no less to Simon’s generation.
It is “Broadway Bound” that most fully explores the fundamental way in which Jews came to be white, a process that always involves a two way street of assimilation and contribution. Arguably the biggest contribution made by Jews in America was in the field of entertainment, specifically comedy.
In a recent interview on the Federalist Radio Hour, long time Simpsons writer Mike Reiss was asked what the biggest changes have been since he began his career. His answer was that at that time, almost everyone in the writing room was a Jew. It was through comedy, more than anything else that Jews put their stamp on the American experience, and though he was not alone, Simon was a seminal figure that achievement for more than half a century.
Simon was a writer on Sid Caesar’s “Your Show of Shows” in the early 1950s. There he worked alongside Mel Brooks and a host of other prominent comedy writers, only one of whom was not a Jew. In the nascent art form of television these writers took traditional themes from Vaudeville and Yiddish Theater and brought them into the living rooms of millions of Americans who didn’t know a Reuben from a matzo ball.
Brooks and comedian Carl Reiner, and on later Sid Caesar projects, Woody Allen, would light ablaze the silver screen and become fixtures of the movies. But it was Simon who would bring the Jewish experience to the rarified spaces of Broadway in a new and profound way. The first Jewish character on Broadway was Abe Levy in Anne Nichols’ 1922 smash hit, “Abie’s Irish Rose,” the story of a Jewish man marrying a gentile woman, and the mishegas surrounding such an arrangement. So even from the beginning, the story was one of fitting in.
By the time Simon hit his heyday in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, Jewish characters and stories were commonplace, even before his autobiographical trilogy written in the 1980s. Allen would riff on his Jewish upbringing in several popular films. But Eugene Morris Jerome was different. That character, the boy and eventually man who in most ways was Simon himself was not other, not an outsider. In his own mind he was an American like everyone else.
Becoming white has been a mixed bag for American Jews. The doors opened to the restricted golf courses, and anti Semitism was banished to dark corners of society, but all of that brought changes. People like myself, the grandson of a Rabbi, would through intermarriage wind up Catholic — among third and fourth generation Jews religious observance would diminish. Today in New York City, which has the largest concentration of Jews outside of Israel, there is a stark wall between the older generations of assimilated Jews and the new orthodox immigrants, complete with their hats, wigs and dark attire.
In today’s America, assimilation has become in some corners a dirty word — the dominance of white culture, whatever we mean that to be. That culture is something to be opposed, not something to become a part of. This shift in attitude may be for good or ill, but for most American Jews and those of Jewish descent the choice was made for us, by men like Simon, men who took 3,000 years of tales and traditions and made them a central part of the American story.