In every concert hall, there’s always one eccentric who sits in the front row at every show and gets way too involved in the music. In the Baltimore halls, it’s probably me. In D.C., there’s a fat guy with a beard down to his ankles who beats time with his knees. In London, there’s a guy with long, curly, greying hair and a beard who always wears cycling jerseys and pants to concerts. In New York, there’s an old bald Jewish guy with a mustache and a giant wart on his forehead. He’s always outside begging for tickets and distracts the people near him by air-conducting.
My familiarity with the concert halls of the English-speaking world is as venerable as the dwindling numbers of people who sit next to me. I’m often the youngest person in the auditorium who didn’t get comped tickets from the law firm at which he clerks, but I feel like a ghost who goes once or twice a week to observe the other ghosts, the final tenants of a world clearly dying, themselves paying homage to the music of a world long dead.
To go to Carnegie Hall, as I did twice in February, is to get a particularly poignant reminder of a Jew that doesn’t exist anymore. Jackie Mason made a whole career out of talking about them. The overweight accountant who loves prune danishes and devotes his entire life to making partner, who knows a ritzy building he could have bought 30 years ago for nine dollars and can’t laugh without his wife’s permission, who owes his wife money even though he’s the one who works, who views a restaurant as his natural habitat and prefers cake to sex.
These Jews, at least the ones who are still around, are now in their 80s, and they’re still a significant portion of Carnegie Hall’s audience. They used to be a significant portion of the audience at the Meyerhoff, but most of them passed away, and nobody’s taken their place; soon Carnegie will have the same problem.
For nearly a century, Carnegie Hall’s audience was as Jewish as the Metropolitan Opera’s was Italian. There was overlap between them, but just as Italian-Americans once had a proprietary view of Verdi and Caruso and Pavarotti as “theirs,” we viewed Mahler and Leonard Bernstein and Jascha Heifetz and Vladimir Horowitz as “ours.” Jewish classical performers didn’t just provide great music, they were evidence that Jews were taken seriously by the world. Every concert played by a famous Jew wasn’t about hearing the music, it was a validation that opportunities were possible.
Our proprietary feeling over classical music passed long ago to music’s popular realm. It’s now Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Gene Simmons and Billy Joel of whom we feel possessive. Until recently, it was also Leonard Cohen and Lou Reed. Except for Cohen, there’s little evidence that these aging rockers thought much about being Jewish. We never cared, because the point was that they come from our gene pool and are surrogates for us. They’re evidence that if we wanted to leave everything behind and become worshipped like rock gods, we could do it. As Jerry Seinfeld put it, “when men are reading about Spiderman, Superman, Batman, these aren’t fantasies, these are options.” It’s as true for women too — think of Beverly Sills, Barbara Streisand and Amy Winehouse.
But when Amy Winehouse died, there went one of only two Jewish musical superstars in our generation. Now it’s just Drake. We have plenty of indie musicians, but you’ve probably never heard of them. We have a couple movie stars: Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Scarlett Johanssen, Jake Gyllenhall, Daniel Radcliffe and most of the Judd Apatow crew. But the Jewish superstars are neither as numerous or as ethnic as the superstars of yesteryear. In politics, we have Bernie Sanders and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and surely that counts for something, but neither ever achieved the power over American life once wielded by Henry Kissinger or Louis Brandeis — for ill or good. The one thing we have more of than ever before is baseball players, and there isn’t a Koufax among them.
There’s little getting around it, the story of Judaism in America is now in its second half. The ambitious ones assimilated, and they’re so embedded in the American fabric that there’s little Jewish or subversive about them anymore. Nobody but the most religious Haredim speak Yiddish, and with Yiddish’s disappearance, most of the qualities that made Jews unique from other Americans vanished. Modern American Jews are so generically American that they no longer stand out. The only Jews who stand out now are the Jews who resisted American life so they could stay Jewish, and therefore it’s only a matter of time before America, as everywhere else, grows tired of Jews.
Evan Tucker is North Baltimore-based writer and composer. He is the violinist and lead singer of the Yiddish rock band Schmear Campaign and has a monthly podcast, “Tales from the Old New Land,” which is a Jewish version of A Prairie Home Companion. Listen at podomatic.com/podcasts/oldnewland.