Leo Baeck 2


Jun 2003 Journal

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Is there a Jewish shmaltz gene?

Last year, when Prime Minister Sharon (and, through him, Israel) was comprehensively demonised, I attempted a bit of Jewish morale-boosting in an editorial entitled 'The contentious issue of national pride', for which I received more brickbats than bouquets. One reader, who has since quit the AJR, even accused me of 'racism'.

If, today, I draw attention to a particular Jewish penchant for shmaltz, it is less from a desire to woo my lapsed readers back into the fold than because I genuinely believe it to be the case. Anyone who doubts that Jews have a greater propensity for generating shmaltz need only look at the difference between American and British movies. The archetypal Hollywood weepie was The Jazz Singer, the 1927 Al Jolson film which heralded the advent of sound. In it Jolson played the son of a rabbi who, defying his father's wishes, deserted chazanut for jazz - but had a deathbed reconciliation with his progenitor.

About half a century later the father-and-son theme was still a staple of Hollywood Jewish existence. Kirk Douglas, asked what winning an Oscar felt like, replied it was as nothing compared to the thrill he experienced as a seven-year old when his father, having sneaked in unannounced to watch him perform in a school play, had afterwards bought him an ice-cream cone. When the star later set up his own production company, he characteristically named it after his mother Bryna. (It is also worthy of note that Kirk Douglas, his several sons and a grandson are currently making a film entitled It Runs in the Family).

There is, however, also a higher level of shmaltz dispensed by highbrow Jewish novelists or playwrights as diverse as Lion Feuchtwanger, Stefan Zweig, Arthur Miller and Arthur Schnitzler. Feuchtwanger's novel Jud Süss (filmed in the UK in 1934 and Nazi Germany in 1940) has a storyline bearing an uncanny resemblance to that of Verdi's Rigoletto - and what could be more schmalzioso than the plot of an Italian opera! Stefan Zweig's novel Letter from an Unknown Woman (a US film in 1948) features a heroine who wastes her entire life in unrequited love for a rakish concert pianist. Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman has the eponymous salesman's wife burst out at recurring moments of crisis with the cry - addressed to no one in particular, unless it is to God - of 'Attention, attention must finally be paid! A man is drowning!' Arthur Schnitzler's Liebelei focuses on a janitor's daughter, who, when her officer boyfriend is killed - in a duel over another woman - commits suicide.

However, having labelled great Jewish literati as - occasional - purveyors of shmaltz, I feel honour bound to draw attention to another who did the very opposite. Nathaniel West, who died tragically early, wrote a coruscating account of the Hollywood shmaltz factory in The Day of the Locust (filmed in 1975) and did a similar hatchet job on newspaper agony aunts in Lonelyhearts (1958).

Finally, just to prove that a propensity for shmaltz extends beyond Jews prominent in the arts to co-religionists in academe, let me quote a 'personal' anecdote. When long-term AJR member Fred Worms OBE forwarded my plea that someone of the eminence of Simon Schama step forward and plead the cause for Israel as eloquently as Isaiah Berlin had once done, the eminent historian responded with a modest disclaimer. Far from stepping into Isaiah Berlin's boots, he wrote, 'I am not fit to lick them.' Am I alone in thinking that this excessive display of modesty borders on the schmaltzy?
Richard Grunberger

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