What do Benjamin Kubelsky, Israel Iskowitz and Nathan Birnbaum have in common? Ditto Julius Garfinkle, Issur Danielovich and Bernard Schwartz? Also Laszlo Lowenstein, Jill Oppenheim, Muni Weisenfreund and Betty Joan Perske?
There are at least three answers. They all are (or were) celebrated performers. All won fame using pseudonyms: namely, Jack Benny, Eddie Cantor and George Burns; John Garfield, Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis; and Peter Lorre, Jill St. John, Paul Muni and Lauren Bacall. Most important, all are dramatic examples of the way many Jews have dissembled as a way of evading anti-Jewish sentiments while at large in gentile America.
"No one was more careful to expunge his or her Jewishness than Jews who were in the public eye," declares Charles E. Silberman in this examination of the past, present and potential futures of American Jews--one of the most thorough journalistic surveys of American Jewish life ever published. Actors who wound up in Hollywood got camouflage names whether they wanted them or not. While pioneer moviemakers like Harry Cohn, Samuel Goldwyn, Louis B. Mayer and Adolph Zukor retained Jewish-sounding names, they were "determined to avoid any hint of Jewishness in the films they created." Some notables avoided this identification so assiduously they seemed downright anti-Semitic. Walter Lippmann did so, refusing to become a member of (or even give a lecture to) any Jewish organization; and this Goliath among U.S. commentators chose never to write a single word about the Holocaust.
Motives for dissimulation took on many shadings, but the essential intent was to minimize friction during passage through an often abrasive society. To be nice, by some gentile measure, was more than a question of etiquette. It was a "sacred canon," Silberman says. Service to that canon became, in the words of Sociologist John Murray Cuddihy, "the ordeal of civility." Of all the problems faced by Jews since their earliest days in America--and Silberman covers most of them--the endless struggle over identity seems most fraught with anguish. Early arrivals in the new country found a society more tolerant than it was to become after the Civil War. Flagrant anti-Semitism of the sort familiar to 20th century Americans was born (or at least blurted forth) in Saratoga, N.Y., in 1877, when fashionable Hotel Manager Henry Hilton turned away Investment Banker Joseph Seligman and publicly announced: "No Israelites shall be permitted in the future."
Silberman argues that the anti-Semitism in the U.S. is merely residual. He examines the past and present opportunities in business, law, academe, journalism, politics and art. Upshot: today's American Jew is about 2½ times as likely to wind up in Who's Who as the population at large.