Jolson plays Jack Robin, whose mother is entranced by his performances, while his father disapproves.
If you haven’t seen the The Jazz Singer, the 1927 film starring Al Jolson, you really “ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” With those words, Jolson ushered in a new era in popular culture – the “talkie.” The film, which will be shown at the Museum at Eldridge Street on Sunday, December 4 is a treat!
The Jazz Singer is based on a story by Samson Raphaelson, a Lower East Side native, who saw Al Jolson perform in 1917 and was mesmerized: “I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson—his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from a tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song,” he recalled, explaining that he has seen emotional intensity like Jolson’s only in synagogue cantors.
Al Jolson takes on the role of Cantor in The Jazz Singer.
When Warner Brothers acquired the movie rights to The Jazz Singer, the studio decided that the film would be the first feature-length showcase for its new Vitaphone technology, which enabled sound sequences to be interspersed with silent footage. With singing now a part of the production, Al Jolson, then phenomenally popular, was a natural choice for the lead.
In its day, The Jazz Singer was a sensation! To a modern viewer, the shift between silent film and “talkie” is fun to watch. What is strange, what makes us uncomfortable, though, is the fact that Jolson performs at times in blackface, something that hasn’t been tolerated for many decades, even if it was common and popular in its day. Today, even in an 84-year-old movie like The Jazz Singer, blackface will make most viewers squirm, and it leads to a rather automatic assumption that blackface is a racist act. But Jolson was no racist, far from it.
At a time when blacks were not seen on the Broadway, Jolson promoted a play by Garland Anderson, which became the first Broadway production with an all-black cast. He insisted on equal treatment for Cab Calloway, with whom he performed in The Singing Kid. Jolson and his wife Ruby Keeler were the rare entertainers who invited black singers and dancers their home, and when he died, black actors turned out in force for Jolson’s funeral. According to the St. James Encyclopedia of Popular Culture, “Almost single-handedly, Jolson helped to introduce African-American innovations like jazz, ragtime, and the blues to white audiences…[and] paved the way for African-American performers like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, and Ethel Waters.” Clearly, Jolson felt a kinship with African-Americans
So come to the Museum on December 4th and see and for yourself. See Jolson, who was himself the son of a rabbi and cantor who became the most popular star on Broadway, truly the Elvis of his day. See him sing, shimmy and shake, and see something that only could have happened when and where it did – in the 1920s, on the Lower East Side of New York.
Sunday, November 13th, we celebrated the 125th anniversary of the laying of the cornerstone of New York City’s Eldridge Street Synagogue and paid tribute to the Eastern European immigrants who settled on the Lower East Side. Our event was modeled on cornerstone celebrations of a century ago and blended historical and contemporary culture.
Frank London’s All Star Klezmer Brass Band
The celebration kicked off with a performance by Frank London’s All Star Klezmer Brass Band. New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer took center stage and just like the government officials present at the original ceremony, hailed America as the land of opportunity where immigrant communities can flourish.
Senator Chuck Schumer
The event featured remarks by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, museum leaders, and descendants of the original congregation. Our program also included performances by vocalist Jeremiah Lockwood, and the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. Cornerstone ceremonies often involved creating a time capsule to leave for future generations. In keeping with the tradition, our guests shared their reflections on the past and hopes for the future on a scroll that will be stored and opened again in years from now.
One of Our Guests Leaving a Message for the Time Capsule
The cornerstone ceremony was followed by an open house where our invitees learned about the history of the landmark and its meticulous restoration. Thank you to everyone who joined us! Visit us again soon!
Thaksgiving postcard, 1908
As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, our program director and food maven Hanna Griff-Sleven remembers the tastes of her family celebrations.
When my mother was a child, and her family was newly arrived in Portland, Maine from Lithuainia, they didn’t understand Thanksgiving at first. After my mother, uncle and aunt begged and begged my bubbe, she and my zaide finally understood it was an American holiday, not a Christian one and allowed Thanksgiving. On the menu for the first few Thanksgivings for the Simansky family were hotdogs, requested by my mother and her siblings because they never got to eat them and it seemed special! After a while, the dinners became more traditional and I have many fond memories of spending Thanksgiving with my grandparents in Maine and eating turkey and stuffing and all the American trimmings.
Here is a recipe for mashed potato stuffing (Maine is the potato state):
- 8 large potatoes
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup shmaltz (chicken fat), melted
- salt and pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
- small onion grated
Cut the potatoes up and place in boiling salted water. When done, mash, adding chicken fat, onion and seasonings. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well each time. Potatoes will be light and fluffy. Stuff the turkey with this mixture or serve it on the side.
To render chicken fat
Cut up fat from chicken into small pieces. Place in saucepan with cut up onion. Fry until onion browns. Then strain liquid from the fat and cool. Since chickens come with little fat these days, ask your butcher.
And of course there was a sweet potato dish:
Sweet Potatoes Royal
- 1 cup dried apricots
- 1 cup brown sugar
- 2 lbs. sweet potatoes, boiled until tender and peeled
- 1/4 cup melted fat or margarine
- 1/2 cup sliced, blanched almonds
Wash the apricots and soak in 2 cups of water for 2 hours. The bring the apricots in water to a boil and cook over low heat for 20 minutes or until tender. Stir in the sugar. Slice the cooked and peeled sweet potatoes 1/2 inch thick. Alternate layers of the potatoes with the undrained apricots in a casserole dish. Pour the fat or margarine over the top. Bake in 375 degree oven for 35 minutes, basting twice. Sprinkle with the almonds and bake 10 minutes longer.