The Gershwins, Irving Berlin, Rodgers and Hart - that's true Jewish art

By David Robson, November 22, 2013
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What is Jewish art? Or should I say, what art is Jewish? A statue of a barmitzvah boy by Jacob Epstein carved in chopped liver — you could safely say that would be Jewish art. Or a Chagall goat colliding with a flying Chasid.

But what about an abstract sculpture by Anthony Caro or a song like Walk On The Wild Side by Lou Reed? How Jewish are those?

Like every other minority, we love to claim and celebrate — over-claim and over-celebrate — our contribution, though perhaps less these days than when we were more newly arrived. I remember the excitement and pride my father felt when Dr Jacob Bronowski was on television, teaching the nation about the ascent of man: Britain’s biggest brain and Jewish. Nobody can deny that we have done our bit for humanity. We provided the Bible and bagels, didn’t we, and that’s just the B’s.

We also gave the world the stage musical —I say “we”, that’s “we in America”; we in Britain have produced little more than Lionel Bart and Oliver. Last week, the Imagine programme on BBC1, was an all-singing, all-dancing account of the 20th century Broadway miracle that ran and ran. Cole Porter apart, every one of the great composers and lyricists was Jewish.

In an outside world that could still be inhospitable they formed their own and created a vision of the American dream. Irving Berlin, who had arrived in the US as a five-year-old in 1893 wrote White Christmas, Easter Parade and God Bless America among a million other songs. When Fiddler On The Roof was born in 1964, who would have believed the world would fall in love with the story of a Jewish milkman in a pogrom?

Many of these Broadway musicals, from Showboat to West Side Story, dealt with the predicament of the oppressed and the outsider. The Gershwins and Kern and Rodgers and Hart and Hammerstein (from a Jewish family but brought up Christian) and the rest had a liberal sensibility that was hard to find in America in those days. The TV programme possibly overstated the peculiar Jewishness of those sympathies. Shakespeare wrote Othello and as far as we know he didn’t change his name from Shinestein.

Lots of the hit songs owe plenty to Yiddish melody and the clarinet at the beginning of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue is pure klezmer. Endless examples were spelled out, but by far the loveliest was that the opening line of It Ain’t Necessarily So, the song in Porgy and Bess that suggests “the things you’re liable to read in the Bible” should be taken with a pinch of salt, is note-for-note the “barachu et adoshem hamevorach” that’s said when we’re called up to the Torah.

When Porgy and Bess was staged at Glyndebourne in 1986, the conductor Simon Rattle attempted to put the all-black cast of singers at their ease. He told them “let it swing”. Later, when they started to get a bit full of themselves, he pulled them up. “It’s not your music,” he said, “it’s Jewish music.”

Last updated: 6:45pm, November 22 2013