Skip to main content

Distributed for Brandeis University Press

The Eddie Cantor Story

A Jewish Life in Performance and Politics

This absorbing biography chronicles the life and work of one of the most important entertainers of the twentieth century. Eddie Cantor (1892–1964) starred in theater, film, radio, and television. His immense popularity across a variety of media, his pride in his Jewish heritage, and his engagement with pressing political issues distinguished him from other headliners of his era. Paying equal attention to Cantor’s humor and politics, Weinstein documents his significance as a performer, philanthropist, and activist. Many show business figures quietly shed their Jewish backgrounds or did not call attention to the fact that they were Jewish. Cantor was different. He addressed the vital issues of his times, including acculturation, national identity, and antisemitism. He was especially forceful in opposing Nazism and paid a price for this activism in 1939, when a sponsor cancelled the actor’s radio program. In this carefully researched book, Weinstein uncovers sketches and routines filled with Jewish phrases, allusions, jokes, songs, and stories. Cantor frequently did not mark this material as “Jewish,” relying instead on attentive audiences to interpret his coded performances. Illustrated with thirty photographs, The Eddie Cantor Story examines the evolution, impact, and legacy of Cantor’s performance style. His music and comedy not only shaped the history of popular entertainment, but also provide a foundation for ongoing efforts to redefine Jewish culture and build community in contemporary America.

Brandeis University Press image

View all books from Brandeis University Press


“A valuable addition to any performing arts library.”


“David Weinstein manages to make the story of Eddie Cantor’s career timely, instructive, and really rather remarkable. . . . This reconsideration of the career of Eddie Cantor provides an unexpected look at a pioneer in the art of being publicly Jewish. As the old saying goes, ‘Try it, you’ll like it.’” 

Jewish Book World

“According to the comedian Lenny Bruce, ‘Eddie Cantor is goyish.’ But why? Why was it funny to label goyish (non-Jewish) a celebrated performer, born Isidore Itskowitz, proud of his Jewish identity and unusually dedicated to Jewish causes? Among its many other virtues, David Weinstein’s thorough, incisive biographical study of Cantor, focusing on his political activism and fund raising, implicitly explains why Cantor ended up as the butt of Bruce’s joke. . . . I hope that Weinstein’s painstaking biography will help bring more attention to this fascinating figure in American cultural history.”

Journal of American History

"A carefully researched narrative that attempts to resituate understandings of Cantor’s influence on contemporary American comedy… The Eddie Cantor Story positions Cantor as a Jewish comedian who refused to dampen his Jewishness for a mainstream American audience, rising to stardom not despite this identity, but because of his ability to make his otherness feel so familiar."

The American Jewish Archives Journal

“In an era when representations of race, religion, ethnicity, and intersectionality have been in the forefront of discussions in film-, TV-, and media-related discourses, research involving Eddie Cantor needs to be complex. Weinstein’s recent monograph does an excellent job negotiating the various national, racial, and sexual identities of the late comedian, painting a complex, nuanced portrayal of a career spanning nearly half a century....Weinstein’s writing is clear, lucid, and enjoyable—his accounts of Cantor’s public and private affairs and the in-depth analyses of his songs and comedy routines flow with ease and make reading the book a positive experience. The depictions of historical events are particularly commendable.  ...By revisiting and readdressing Cantor’s cultural relevance, Weinstein makes a strong case in the preservation of his legacy, using a variety of primary and secondary sources and showcasing meticulous research into the comedian’s life and career. The book does exactly what it promises: it provides a well-written, well-researched account charting Cantor’s progression from performer to politically engaged activist and humanitarian, unafraid to take risks for the benefit of his people and their causes.”

Jewish Film & New Media

Table of Contents

Introduction • Immigrants, Criminals, and Actors (1892–1908) • A Vaudeville Education (1908–1916) • The Jewish Wise Guy (1916–1919) • A Snappy Headliner (1919–1923) • Makin’ Whoopee with Ziegfeld (1923–1930) • Voice of the Depression (1929–1938) • Radio with a Jewish Accent (1931–1938) • The Fight against Nazism (1933–1939) • Cantor Goes to Church (1939–1941) • It’s Time to Smile Again (1941–1945) • Postwar Struggles (1945–1950) • The Last Comeback (1950–1952) • Fading Away (1952–1964) • Epilogue: Eddie Cantor’s Legacy • Notes • Index

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press