Impact of Jews in the arts goes beyond whos who in show biz

The important role that Jews play in the arts is well known, certainly to most Jews, but its significance historically and sociologically is what is presented in two recent books on Jews in American culture. Great reads for Jewish Book Month or gifts for Chanukah, these books help us get beyond “Did you know so-and-so is Jewish,” an expertise of my late great-aunt Bea now replaced by, to considerations of perhaps greater weight.

In “Entertaining America: Jews, Movies and Broadcasting,” by J. Hoberman and Jeffrey Shandler (334 pages, The Jewish Museum & Princeton University Press, $35), the authors, who are curators of an exhibit with the same title for the Jewish Museum of New York, delve into questions like these found in their introduction: “What inspires people — Jews and non-Jews, fans and detractors — to keep track of who’s Jewish in American show business? To debate the Jewishness of characters, dialogue and plots? To characterize an entire industry as a Jewish ’empire’? What can we learn when we collect these collections, debate these debates? What can they tell us about the role of popular entertainment in modern American life, the place of Jews in American society, the ways that Americans talk about culture and identity?”

In answering these questions they present fascinating material on such varied figures as the Marx Brothers, Gertrude Berg, Paul Newman, Charlie Chaplin (not Jewish, but they explain why he was thought to be), Barbra Streisand and Sid Caesar.

In a similar vein, “Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century” (163 pages, Brandeis University Press, $50) outlines the development of the role of Jewish artists in Europe since the Enlightenment, then explores the powerful influence of Jewish artists on modern American painting, from abstract expressionism to pop and conceptual art. Author Ori Z. Soltes, the former director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C., explores the characteristics of their work that can be identified as Jewish in artists as varied as Ben Shahn, Mark Rothko, Larry Rivers and R.B. Kitaj.

Both volumes are superb examples of fine book design. “Fixing the World” gracefully integrates succinct text with 90 full-color plates; “Entertaining America” blends documents, photos and text in such a lively manner that we feel like we’re walking through the exhibit it catalogues.

A welcome publishing trend of the last few years that will surely deepen our knowledge of the Jewish contribution to culture has been a veritable boom in translations of fiction by Israeli writers. Israel is one of the most literate countries in the world, and its book production per capita rivals that of much larger countries. The diversity of voices in contemporary Hebrew fiction reflects Israeli society in all its richness and painful contradictions.

Two writers from different generations and backgrounds share concerns and techniques in novels that confront the issues facing Israel today without succumbing to being political tracts. Sami Michael, born in Baghdad in 1926, was a political activist in Iraq before fleeing to Iran and coming to Israel in 1949. In “A Trumpet in the Wadi” (244 pages, Simon & Schuster, $24), translated by Yael Lotan, he tells the contrasting stories of two Christian Arab sisters who live in the Wadi, the Arab quarter of Haifa. Michael’s deep knowledge of the people and culture of the Arab world allow him to inhabit the voice of the sister who tells the story. It is her encounter with a recently arrived Russian Jewish trumpet player that is central to the events of the novel. The novel’s film adaptation won the Israel Academy Film Award for Best Drama in 2001.

Israeli-born Ronit Matalon’s second novel “Bliss” (262 pages, Henry Holt & Company, $23), translated by Jessica Cohen, also tells the story of two women. Ofra, the narrator, like the author, belongs to a French-speaking family of Egyptian origin. Sara, her childhood best friend and former lover, is a photographer from an Ashkenazi family. A passionate political activist, Sara becomes involved with a Palestinian, disrupting both her marriage and her friendship with Ofra. Ofra travels to France after the death of a favorite cousin from AIDS in an attempt to re-connect with her extended family. As she reflects on her life and that of her friend, passing easily from one period in time to another, the fault lines in Israeli society are explored in the years between the first intifada and the death of Yitzhak Rabin.

Jonathan Schwartz is the director of the Jewish Community Library at the Bureau of Jewish Education.