Marilyn Monroe’s menorah—an icon of the tense yet passionate embrace between Jews and American popular culture—is among the oddest items on display in “Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting,” a rich and fascinating look at the long-standing love affair between the people of the Book and show business. Monroe (who converted shortly after her marriage to Arthur Miller) joins a gallery of Jewish stars, from Theda Bara and Fanny Brice to John Garfield and Adam Sandler, whose images are explored in clips, shrines by contemporary artists, and memorabilia. Their Jewishness—whether carefully concealed by publicists, flaunted as inherently sensual, considered suspect by red-baiting government officials, or simply stated as fact—has provided material for both ethnic pride and endless speculation.
But “Entertaining America” is no mere fanzine of tribal affiliation. Curated by senior Voice film critic J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler, the show uses photographs, film clips, and maps to mine the roots of motion pictures in the nickelodeon theaters that sprang up in urban neighborhoods like New York’s Lower East Side, offering their unwashed masses unparalleled entertainment. From the beginning, it seems, film’s potential to transform reality exerted a powerful hold on the imaginations of Jewish immigrants, like the posse of former garmentos (including Adolph Zukor and Samuel Goldwyn) who became the industry’s first moguls.
“Entertaining America” also looks at broadcasting, with particular emphasis on The Goldbergs, an early television drama produced by, written by, and starring Gertrude Berg, who played an irrepressibly earthy Jewish matriarch. But some of its richest material surrounds the landmark 1927 talkie The Jazz Singer. Partially inspired by the life of its star, Al Jolson, this film about a cantor’s son who hits it big on Broadway but is pulled back to sing in his father’s synagogue has been recast and replayed countless times, becoming a central narrative of Jewish assimilation. At the Jewish Museum, the film is projected on opposite screens in slow motion, as Jolson, with alarming vitality, sings “Mammy” into an endless night.