As per usual, my calendar for the coming academic year is starting to fill up with speaking engagements and other work-related adventures — some in-person and some virtual. Want me to visit your class, department, conference, or theatre festival? Look for the “Book Henry” button that appears in numerous places on this site.
Acting Jewish: Negotiating Ethnicity on the American Stage and Screen
“An accessible, smart inquiry into the complex nature of what it means to act or appear Jewish, for whom this appearance is important, and what situational elements must be in place for a particular work or performance to ‘read’ as Jewish.” – American Jewish History
The history of the American entertainment industry and the history of the Jewish people in the United States are inextricably intertwined. Jews have provided Broadway and Hollywood with some of their most enduring talent, from writers like Arthur Miller, Wendy Wasserstein, and Tony Kushner; to directors like Jerome Robbins and Woody Allen; to performers like Gertrude Berg, John Garfield, Lenny Bruce, and Barbra Streisand. Conversely, show business has provided Jews with a means of upward mobility, a model for how to “become American,” and a source of cultural pride.
Acting Jewish documents this history, looking at the work of Jewish writers, directors, and actors in the American entertainment industry with particular attention to the ways in which these artists offer behavioral models for Jewish-American audiences. Case studies include plays (Death of a Salesman, Fiddler on the Roof, Angels in America), films (Gentleman’s Agreement, Annie Hall), and television shows (The Goldbergs, Seinfeld) that explore and illuminate the ever-changing relationship between Jews and mainstream American culture.
“Acting Jewish is a fresh contribution to performance studies and an invaluable resource for social historians and contemporary literary and cultural theorists. As he complicates the performance of racial authenticity, Bial mines new interpretations from the past sixty years of Jewish American Performance. The text is unusually readable and moving, unpretentious and candid. Bial skillfully compelled this reader to keep the pages turning—an accolade for the surprising subtleness of this book, one that I enthusiastically recommend.” — Theatre Journal
“Bial’s book is an excellent contribution to our understanding of the links between Jewish identity and the performing arts in the U.S., while also demonstrating wider cultural processes in the construction and reception of ethnicities more generally on stage and screen. Its interweaving of archival material, cultural and performance analysis, and a range of theoretical perspectives makes it a model for interdisciplinary work in the field.” — The Year’s Work in Critical and Cultural Theory, 2007
“Coming on a wave of scholarship dealing with Jews in American popular culture and the provisional nature of Jewish identity, this study stands out as particularly smart and incisive. Its significance lies primarily in its superb and, I think, groundbreaking theoretical framework… Acting Jewish provides the most cogent recent framework yet for understanding Jewish American representation, and has widespread application to other groups as well. More largely, Bial uses his scholarship to get at the heart of Jewish American faith and identity today. He does so in a way that is both witty and sincere, accessible and substantive. This balancing act is in the best of Jewish traditions.” — Theatre Research International
“This analysis offers the reader a fresh perspective for reconsidering the intellectual history of mass culture criticism throughout the 20th century.”– Historical Journal of Film, Radio, and Television