Whitfield, professor of American Studies at Brandeis University, said that what fascinated him was "how one can feel so completely American, that is by osmosis, to feel a connection with something which in strictest terms should speak in no way to an Orthodox Jew from Chicago. And yet, this particular student didn't seem to see any kind of tension, not even a creative tension, between who he was and what Jerry Lee Lewis represented as a rural, Baptist rock-and-roller who embodied the very sorts of uninhibited musical style that is very much at variance with the traditional Jewish concern for restraint and decorum. And it was my astonishment at his not even seeing that as a paradox that told me that, in a sense, the Jews are fully integrated culturally into American society."
In the book, Whitfield examines the role of Jews in such fields as music and theater, leaving out Hollywood and literature because the role of Jews in those areas has been so extensively discussed elsewhere.
In musical theater, Whitfield says, "West Side Story [whose creators, including Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, were Jewish] can be interpreted at some level in Jewish terms because it expresses the yearning for a society in which differences of background will not impede the hope of romance. So you might say that whether secular or religious, the Jewish impulse as a minority has always been to reduce the dangers of friction and tension that stem from ethnic, racial and religious differences."
Another musical that Whitfield discusses is the 1927 Broadway production of Show Boat, which, with its depiction of racial bigotry and the mistreatment of blacks, "is again something to which Jews might be drawn."
Show Boat, which was adapted from the novel by Jewish author Edna Ferber, "expresses the Broadway Jewish impulse to dream about a society in which those sorts of hostilities have disappeared. So it shows injustice in a way that the Jews would be especially sensitive to as a minority that has often been mistreated because of who it is rather than what its individuals stand for."
Whitfield also discusses songwriter Irving Berlin. "The argument I make is that for a Jew to write a song like 'Easter Parade' or 'White Christmas' looks, on the one hand, like an extreme kind of assimilation. On the other hand, what he does with 'Easter Parade' and 'White Christmas' is to secularize both holidays. They're not about a Christian God at all. . . . 'Easter Parade' is simply about fashion and 'White Christmas' is essentially about family and seasons in which worship plays no part even though obviously both of those holidays are crucial to the Christian calendar. . . . He's writing about something that ought to be exclusive but turns out to be inclusive."
Whitfield, who was born to German and Romanian Jewish immigrants in Houston 57 years ago this month, earned an undergraduate degree in history at Tulane University, a master's in European history from Yale and a doctorate in American history from Brandeis. Along the way, he spent two years teaching at a predominantly black institution, Southern University, in New Orleans. Aside from visiting professorships at such places at Hebrew University and the Sorbonne, he has spent his career teaching at Brandeis. He and his wife, Lee Whitfield, a professor of European history at Wheelock College near Fenway Park in Boston, have two grown daughters.
In Search of American Jewish Culture is his eighth book. Earlier works include The Culture of the Cold War, A Death in the Delta: The Story of Emmett Till, and American Space, Jewish Time.
Whitfield says he first began writing seriously in the early 1970s. "I wanted to engage in a life of scholarship and teaching," he says.
He says that when writing, he doesn't aim for a specific number of hours or pages a day. "Should I?" he asks. "Writing when you're primarily an academic is so much attuned to the rhythms of teaching and often administrative duties and meetings and so on. It's not that every day I'm sitting in front of an empty screen. I don't have any quota and no set standard except generally to meet publishers' deadlines."
He says the serious work of writing this book "got under way about four years ago," but "in a sense, I've been writing it in my head without knowing it for much of my life. . . . It's been waiting for me to write it all my life."
Stephen J. Whitfield will appear Thursday at 7:30 p.m. at the Gershman Y, Broad and Pine Streets, Philadelphia. Tickets $5. 215-446-3032.