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In Search of American Jewish Culture

In drama and in musical comedy, in popular song and in symphonic music, in movies and in literature, Jews have contributed to American culture in the 20th century to a degree out of all proportion to their numbers. But does this vast creative output coalesce into something identifiable as an American Jewish culture? Stephen J. Whitfield answers this question with a resounding "yes!" Whitfield focuses on areas where the specifically Jewish contribution has been little explored. He surveys such fields as popular music, musical theater, and drama, focusing on key figures from Jerome Kern and the Gershwins to Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins; Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland to Irving Berlin and Bob Dylan; Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman to David Mamet and Wendy Wasserstein. At the same time, Whitfield tackles the complex issue of race and American Jewish culture, tracing the extensive interpenetrations of Jewish and African American music. He also offers a stunning examination of Jewish American representations of the Holocaust, focusing on stage and film adaptations of Anne Frank’s Diary and on Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. In a poignant, final chapter, Whitfield ponders the future of American Jewish culture after a century of assimilationist pressure and mainstream success. The distinctive culture that he has traced through the 20th century, Whitfield concludes, may finally become submerged and lost. Only a renewed emphasis on Judaism itself, he believes, offers the hope for American Jews to maintain the dual cultural identities that they have so long succeeded in nurturing.

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