Page 174 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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Secondly, Jews have lost an effective venue for their politics.
Now that all the utopian ideologies have collapsed, either
through failure or success, one can appreciate the pragmatism
of Yiddish popular culture that tried to toe the line somewhere
between the real and the ideal. One can marvel at how the anger
and guilt over leaving the shtetl were neutralized by creating
a myth of paradise lost. By the same token the terrible disap­
pointments of America were conjured away by repeating the
same rags-to-riches plot in one musical comedy after another.
Second Avenue took both the restorative and the revolutionary
impulse of the Promised Land and played them off against each
Most importantly, Jews have lost the key to their immediate
past. Second Avenue was the central repository of Jewish col­
lective memory, just as the “authentic” folksongs collected by
Ginzburg, Marek and Cahan preserved the record of a prior
age of upheaval. In World War I, the stars of the Yiddish stage
could send their own
grus fun di trentshes,
greetings from the
trenches, and end with a messianic hope for the success of the
Jewish Legion. After the war, they could immortalize “Levine
with his Flying Machine,” the Jewish millionaire-entrepreneur
who almost beat Lindbergh to the draw.37 They could chart
the ebb and flow of Jewish pride and Jewish self-hate. Second
Avenue preserved the Jewish memory of events.
Now, the memory of American Jews preserves only two, nei­
ther of which happened here: the Holocaust and the birth of
the State of Israel (or three, if one adds the Exodus of Soviet
Jewry). And as for their own immigration roots, there is only
“Sunrise, Sunset,” the glitzy, sentimental, mass marketed lowest
common denominator ethnic pop.
So if today Yiddish folksong revivalists are singing a different
tune, it is because they have discovered — too late, of course
— that the loss of Jewish parody, of pragmatic Jewish politics
and the loss of the immediate Jewish past were the price they
paid to let Second Avenue die. As usual, it is Aaron Lebedev
who said it best, in an immigrant mixture of English, Yiddish
and Russian:
Vot ken you makh, es iz Amerike; Amerike un bol’she
37. For the texts o f these songs, see Slobin, pp. 138-39, 200-1. The original
recordings are included in his accompanying audio cassette.