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Race Uprooted: Foreign Observation, American Racism, and Yiddish Journalism through I.J. Singer’s 1932 “Harlem Cabaret”

Jacob Morrow-Spitzer

INTRODUCTION

This essay is a com­pan­ion piece for Jacob Mor­row-Spitzer’s trans­la­tion of I. J. Singer’s piece of obser­va­tion­al jour­nal­ism What I. J. Singer Saw in the Black Cabarets in Harlem.”

The famed novelist Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944) was a foreign observer when he wrote this exposé about Black American life in Harlem in 1932. Invited to New York by Forverts editor Abraham Cahan, who had been publishing Singer’s observational journalism and short stories from Eastern Europe for nearly a decade, the Lublin-born I.J. Singer came to the United States on a short-term work visa after the success of his most recent Yiddish novel, Yoshe Kalb. 1 1 Over the previous months, Cahan had helped to popularize Singer’s Yoshe Kalb (1932) by serializing it throughout the summer in Forverts. Yoshe Kalb would open as a play in New York theaters that fall, and soon became one the Yiddish theater’s most financially successfully performances. See Anita Norich, The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), 24-25. Suddenly a burgeoning household name, Singer was assigned by Cahan to publish a series of observational pieces about what—and who—he encountered in New York. Over the waning months of 1932, Singer, who today often lives in the historical shadow of his Nobel Prize-winning younger brother Isaac Bashevis Singer and his recently re-examined older sister Esther Singer Kreitman, would write about his experiences and observations in America. 2 2 During his lifetime, I.J. Singer was by far the more famous of the Singer brothers. For scholarship on I.J. Singer, see Norich, The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer; Dara Horn, “My Favorite Singer Brother, I.J.,” Tablet Magazine, February 10, 2020. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/my-favorite-singer-brother-i-j; Anita Norich, “Singer, Israel Joshua,” The YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe,https://yivoencyclopedia.org/article.aspx/singer_israel_joshua . Anita Norich has recently published volume one of Singer’s collected works. See Anita Norich, ed., Israel Josh Singer: Novels, 1927-1937 (Library of the Jewish People, 2023). For a recent review of Norich’s volume, see Adam Kirsch, “The Forgotten Giant of Yiddish Fiction,” New Yorker, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2023/12/04/the-forgotten-giant-of-yiddish-fiction. For a look at the recently reexamined Esther Singer Kreitman, see Maurice Carr, The Forgotten Singer: The Exiled Sister of I.J. and Isaac Bashevis Singer (Amherst, Ma: White Goat Press, 2023) and David Stromberg, “ ‘I’m Doing Much Better’: The Letters of Esther Kreitman to Isaac Bashevis Singer,” Jewish Renaissance, Winter 2024, pp. 16-23. Along with Harlem, he published articles about several other popular New York neighborhoods, including the Lower East Side and Chinatown. 3 3 These neighborhoods were popular for “slumming,” a cultural phenomenon in the Prohibition era where middle- and upper-class whites popularly ventured into the nightlife of certain urban ethnic and racialized neighborhoods. As the scholar Chad Heap writes, “slumming prompted thousands of well-to-do whites to explore spaces associated with working-class southern and eastern European immigrants, Chinese immigrants, and blacks,” operating in ways that “simultaneously promoted social mixing and recast the sexual and racial landscape of American urban culture and space.” See Chad Heap, Slumming: Sexual and Racial Encounters in American Nightlife, 1885-1940 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 2. For a complete list of Singer’s Forverts articles during his 1932 visit to New York, see Norich, The Homeless Imagination in the Fiction of Israel Joshua Singer, 115-16. In documenting life from the perspective of an eastern European Jewish visitor, Singer offered an outsider’s view on the changing city that was then home to nearly two million Jews.

In “What I.J. Singer Saw in the Black Cabarets in Harlem,” which appeared on September 23, 1932, Singer offers an intricate—and often highly unsettling and, at times, overtly racist—glimpse into how eastern European Jews imagined Black people and “Blackness” in America. After explaining to the reader the various places where Blackness culturally manifested in contemporary Poland, Singer heads to Harlem, or what he calls “the kingdom of the Black person.” There, he observes Black life in crude and essentializing terms before entering his intended destination, the world-famous Harlem Cabaret. In derogatory language, Singer articulates what scholars have referred to as the “jungle persona” of the cabaret and its actors. 4 4 Kimberly H. Teal, “Beyond the Cotton Club: The Persistence of Duke Ellington’s Jungle Style,” Jazz Perspectives 6, no. 1 (2012), 125. Jessica Kirzane has written about the “Yiddish Gaze” in the American Yiddish literary tradition, arguing that Jews’ own racial malleability and transnational identities merit a distinct analysis from the “white gaze” on Black people and Blackness commonly studied. See Jessica Kirzane, “The ‘Yiddish Gaze:’ American Yiddish Lierary Representations of Black Bodies and Their Torture” in Jonathan K. Crane, ed. Judaism, Race, and Ethics: Conversations and Questions (University Park: Penn State University Press, 2020), 124-160. Drawing on his own preconceptions of Black primitiveness, Singer describes—and occasionally sympathizes with—the Black minstrel performers. He concludes his piece by pondering how Black life has evolved, and ultimately declined, as a result of the influences of American modernity.

As a foreign observer witnessing life in New York, Singer, in his observational journalism, offers modern readers a new angle on interwar Jewish relationships to race and racism in America. Scholars of American Jewish history have convincingly argued that Yiddish journals like Forverts—which stood atop the American Yiddish press in terms of popularity and readership—became a recurrent site for an immigrant Jewish milieu to explicate their own insecurities about Jewish positionality in America. Yet these historians have largely only foregrounded how Jews as immigrants looked toward both real and imagined Black people in this process of defining their own statuses as Americans. As Hasia Diner has argued, “Blacks appear…as a medium by which Jewish leaders tried to solve certain dilemmas engendered by their ambiguous position” in the early twentieth century United States. 5 5 Hasia R. Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1977), xv. Likewise, in Eric Goldstein’s framing, Jews saw the Black race as a vehicle for their own twentieth century journey to achieve the status of full whiteness. 6 6 See Eric Goldstein, The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 2006. Many other scholars of Jewish history take a similar approach. Through his study of Jewish Blackface and minstrelsy performances, Michael Rogin likewise seeks to understand the ways in which performances of race “turned Europeans into Americans.” See Michael Rogin, Blackface, White Noise: Jewish Immigrants in the Hollywood Melting Pot (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 12. Jefferey Melnick argues that “Black-Jewish relations” was a story primarily told by Jews to “as evidence of their racial health—that is, of their whiteness.” See Jeffrey Melnick, A Right to Sing the Blues: African Americans, Jews, and American Popular Song (Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 1999), 12. Through her own examination of “Jews, Blacks, and the American Racial Imagination,” Jennifer Young similarly writes that American Jews used their encounters with blacks as a way to understand their own position as a minority, particularly as immigrants Jews began to prosper economically and to experience the benefits that whiteness conferred.” See Jennifer Young “Beyond the Color Line: Jews, Blacks, and the American Racial Imagination,” In geveb (June 2016): Accessed December 22, 2023. This scholarship reads the same underlying motivation for Yiddish-speaking Jews who wrote about race: unequivocal acceptance by white America.

As an outside journalist, Singer would have little concern with this “Americanization” or lasting acceptance by American whites. Although Singer would move to America permanently in 1934, his visit at Cahan’s behest two years before was the result of a four-month visa; demonstrating “Americanness” offered little utility to the itinerant Singer. As such, his writing about Black people and Black life offers us a window into a different, less guarded Jewish depiction of race and racism than American historians have previously explored. As Singer himself admits, he is motivated purely by a pseudo-anthropological “intrigue” at seeing real, “normal” Black people. 7 7 This positioning of the Jew as a fully white observer marks a clear departure from Singer’s later literature. In his highly acclaimed novel The Family Carnovsky (1943), for example, Singer writes of a “linkage” between Blackness and Jewishness through a hypersexual “Negroid-Semitic” type. As the scholar Sander L. Gilman concludes of Singer’s Holocaust-era novel, “The Jew and the Black are equivalent in their hypersexuality. They wish to destroy the purity of the Germans while preserving their own.” See Sander L. Gilman, “Madness and Racial Theory in I.J. Singer’s ‘The Family Carnovsky’” Modern Judaism 1 No. 1 (May, 1981), 93, 97. Black Americans and Blackness also played a distinctive role in the European racial imaginary as well during this time, particularly through cosmopolitan jazz performance See Brent Hayes Edwards, Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism (Cambridge, Ma: Harvard University Press, 2003) and Rachel Gillett, “Jazz and the Evolution of Black American Cosmopolitanism in Interwar Paris” Journal of World History Vol. 21 No. 3 (September 2010): 471-495. In his discussion on how European conceptions of race and otherness factored into Jewish immigrant experiences in America, Gil Ribak argues that “the Old-World reservoir of judgements, values, and attitudes came to play a crucial role in determining much of the attitudes of an immigrant group [Jews] toward African Americans.” See Gil Ribak, “Negroes Must Not Be Likened to Jews,” Modern Judaism Vol. 37 No. 3 (October 2017): 271-296. His article, along with this accompanying essay, thus offer modern readers a new perspective on Jewish ideas about race and racism in America, detached from commonly theorized intentions of defining their own white Jewish “Americanness.”

* * *

Singer frames his “intrigue” from the opening sentence of his article. In doing so, his choice of semantics demonstrates a key feature at the heart of his racial observations. One of the most informative linguistic turns in the piece—and in Yiddish literature about race more broadly—is the use of different words for “Black” and “Blackness.” At the center of Singer’s observations are his vividly racist depictions of Black people, ranging from those he sees in the streets of New York, to the “mulatto” dancers in the Harlem Cabaret, to his memories of Polish Jews in Blackface, and in his imagined tropes of Black African primitiveness. In the opening words of the article, Singer engages different linguistic terms to portray these various Black peoples and ideas.

Shvartses [שוואַרצע], Black people [נעגערען], have always intrigued me.”

Vacillating between “shvartse” and “negeren,” Singer reveals some of the many ways Jews referred to Black people in the Yiddish language. The most non-pejorative and customary of his time would be neger (loosely translated in the 1930s to Negro). 8 8 Terminology around Blackness (and race more broadly), of course, changes over time. What might be a non-pejorative descriptor of one race one hundred years ago now carries derogatory and racist meanings. Reflecting today’s standard, in this translation I have chosen to translate both “neger” and “shvartse” as “Black person,” except for when Singer uses “shvartse” as a more derogatory emphasis. Shvartse, on the other hand, connotates something more denigratory. As the historian of the early twentieth century Yiddish press Ri J. Turner has written, “Shvartse…relies on white Jewish structural power over Black people, regardless of whether or not the word is intended neutrally.” 9 9 Jonah S. Boyarin, Ri J. Turner, and Arun Viswanath, “‘Black Lives Matter’ and Talking about Blackness in Yiddish: States, Considerations, and Open Questions.” In geveb (October 2020): Accessed Dec 18, 2023. Shvartse in 1932—like now—was intended derogatorily, literally meaning “Black” but utilized in an insulting manner. (Perhaps mindful of the disparaging nature of the term, Forverts printed “Di Neger Kabareys” in the article’s title, despite Singer repeatedly referring to the institution throughout the article as “Di shvartse kabareys.”)

Singer then explains that mythologized ideas about Blackness have filled the imaginations of eastern European Jews, well before emigrating to America. Although he had never encountered a Black person before (“Who in Poland has seen a shvartsen?” he rhetorizes), Singer discloses that tropes of Blackness circulate widely among cosmopolitan eastern Europeans. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which scholars Eli Rosenblatt and Jessica Kirzane have shown had made inroads in the Yiddish-speaking imagination, did elicit sympathy from Singer. 10 10 Isaac Meir Dik, “Slavery or Serfdom,” translated by Eli Rosenblatt, In geveb (November 2015): Accessed Dec 22, 2023; Jessica Kirzane, “Teaching Guide for Dik’s “Slavery or Serfdom” (trans. Rosenblatt).” In geveb (October 2016): Accessed Dec 22, 2023. “Who of us has not wept as children reading the moving book by the American writer [Harriet] Beecher Stowe?,” he asks. Yet Singer’s sympathetic emotions toward Black enslavement are complicated by the denigrating performances of Blackness he witnesses in theaters and in movies. Just like in America, Jewish actors in Warsaw operas dress in Blackface when performing for money, Singer explains. 11 11 For Jewish Blackface performance in America, see Rogin, Blackface, White Noise. As a considerable portion of the urban middle class in Poland, Jews played an important role in the development of mass culture in that country, including by helping to introduce jazz and American-style cabaret shows to Polish nightlife. See Tamara Sztyma, “On the Dance Floor, on the Screen, on the Stage: Popular Music in the Interwar Period: Polish, Jewish, Shared” Polin Studies in Polish Jewry 32 (2020), 165, 168-69. For a recently unearthed example of Jewish performance of Blackness in Europe, Leyb Malakh’s play Mississippi (1935), written and performed in Warsaw, offered Polish Jews a Yiddish-language theatrical depiction of the Scottsboro Boys trials—as well as a class-based critique of racism more broadly—in America. For a published excerpt of the Yiddish play, see Leyb Malakh, “An Excerpt from Mississippi” In geveb (June 2021): Trans. Ellen Perecman, https://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/an-excerpt-from-mississippi. For greater context surrounding the play, see Alyssa Quint, “Mississippi in Yiddish,” Tablet (July 2020), https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/yiddish-mississippi-mikhl-vaykhert. Little scholarship exists on Jewish Blackface performance outside of the United States. For one example of its occurrence in Poland, the play Fafuła and Groyseszyk at the Paris Exhibition included a stage direction for “a Jew in blackface.” See Bret Werb, “Majufes: A Vestige of Jewish Traditional Song in Polish Popular Entertainments” Polish Music Center, University of Southern California. In Polish movies as well, actors in Blackface perform racist depictions of Black primitiveness, including in a highly racialized film Singer describes about an African king wearing the chamber pot of white missionaries on his head. Ultimately, throughout the piece Singer unveils that crude, pseudo-anthropological tropes of African ancestral animality and primitiveness undergird his strongest assumptions about modern Blackness.

With these preconceived expectations of a derogatory Black primitiveness, Singer is immediately captivated by the sight of the first Black New Yorkers he sees. In a telling back and forth between himself and an acquaintance on his ship, he again emphasizes the same unabashed eagerness as at the start of the piece.

“Look” — I showed a fellow ship passenger, — “Shvartses, Black workers.”…

My American fellow-travelers had not understood my amazement.

“You’ll see them here in the millions,” — they said. — “It’ll bore you.”

Singer’s brazen excitement at the sight of Black people continues as he makes his way uptown to Harlem. There, he finds a scene that purportedly shocks him. Like the Black workers near his ship, in Harlem Singer encounters Black men and women, of all ages and classes, engaging in the quotidian lives of 1930s New Yorkers. These people were not the same as those whom he sympathized with when reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, nor were they the racist caricatures of animality he ascribes to their ancestors. Rather, he remarks, it was “their simplicity, their Americanness, their being like all the others, their having uprooted from themselves every trace of Africa – that was what interested me about them.”

As Singer sees it, this ability for Black Americans to “uproot” themselves from their primitive pasts offers a stark contrast to the precarious position of Jews in modern Europe. Only four months after Forverts published his piece, the Nazi Regime came to power in Germany, codifying the Nazi Party’s antisemitic race doctrines. Even a small fraction of Jewish ancestry now precluded the modern Jew from full German citizenship. 12 12 This idea of Jewish un-assimilability in Europe is something Singer explores in his other work as well. In The Brothers Ashkenazi (1936), for example, he writes of Max Ashkenazi that, “[t]he checked English suits he now favored in order to lend his figure dignity and elegance quickly assumed the shape of a Hasidic gabardine upon his stooped shoulders.” As the scholar Rebecca Newberger Goldstein notes, “for [Singer], a Jew is essentially a Jew, not only in the eyes of the world, which characteristically manifests its perceptions in outbursts of barbarism, but in the core of his being, whether he wills it or not.” Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, “Forward,” in I.J Singer, The Brothers Ashkenazi, trans. Joseph Singer (New York: Other Press, 2010), viii. Deriding the “Hitlerists” who adhere to this form of bigotry, Singer offers a potent juxtaposition to the Black people in the streets of Harlem, whom he believes have undergone remarkable transformation in achieving their “Americanness.”

And here I see before myself Black people, whose great-grandfathers had crawled naked up the tall African trees, exactly like monkeys…. The strength of our civilization is inestimable. How quickly the sons of hot Africa have achieved respectability!

As merely a visitor to America, Singer extended no awareness that domestic anti-Black racism pervaded American society in similar manners. He overlooked, for instance, that a vast swath of Americans in the 1930s believed in an equivalent “one-drop rule” of Black blood, which formed the ideological backbone of American racism well into the twentieth century. 13 13 “One drop” formed the basis of Jim Crow segregation. It also was used uphold bans on interracial marriages until it was outlawed by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia (1967). See Christine B. Hickman, “The Devil and the One Drop Rule: Racial Categories, African Americans, and the U.S. CensusMichigan Law Review 95 No. 5 (1997): 1161-1265. Unlike many of his American immigrant counterparts in the Yiddish press, Singer did not lean further into any “similar suffering and similar persecution” between America’s Jewish and Black populations. 14 14 Diner, In the Almost Promised Land, 75. To the European Jewish travel writer, the circumstances surrounding Jewish discrimination in Europe was separate—and decidedly worse—from those of Black people in America. For Singer, this latter group was merely one to be observed at a distance.

The core of Singer’s conceptualizations of Black American life come on full display as he arrives at his intended destination, the Harlem Cabaret. The institution sat at the heart of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, and in a neighborhood Langston Hughes famously called “the Negro Capital of the World.” The Great Migration over the previous decades had transformed the once-European immigrant district into a hub of Black cultural, social, and political life. By the time Singer visited in 1932, over 500 distinct cabarets existed, a product of postwar economic boom and Prohibition-era nightlife changes. The Harlem Cabaret now rivaled the downtown Broadway theater district and other major entertainments hubs around the world, including those in Paris and Berlin. As the Black writer and civil rights activist James Weldon Johnson would express, it was a place where a growing Black middle class could exhibit “intellectual parity by the Negro through the production of literature and art,” but also a place where Black performers could subvert white normative standards of racial uplift. 15 15 Shane Vogel, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret: Race, Sexuality, Performance (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2009), 4-5.

Despite the modernity of Harlem in the 1930s, Singer remains fixated on imagining the “Africanness” of the Black past. The Jewish reporter is enraptured by what he sees at the Black cabaret (shvartser cabaret), which scholars have shown often embellished a “jungle style” in order to capitalize on “white primitivist fantasies” of Black performance. 16 16 Tanu Wakefield, “Stanford Music Scholar Redefines the Jazz and Cabaret Culture of 1920s Harlem,” Stanford News, May 15, 2015. https://news.stanford.edu/2015/05/15/jazz-culture-harlem-051515/. Like the whites around him, he draws on blatantly racist tropes of Black primitiveness in his vision of the cabaret’s performers. As opposed to the “Americanness” of the Black people in the street, the actors at the cabaret offer a scene more reminiscent to Singer of “hot southern Africa” than modern New York. Black women “dance for dollars…just like their sisters in Africa,” while a man who “could have become a king or the best hunter of lions and tigers in Africa” denigrates himself as he performs for white audience laughter.

There is something offensive and awkward in this transformation of a real, hot-blooded passionate Black healthy man into a foul-mouthed being…

In one sense, as he is lusting over an imagined primitive Black ancestry, Singer offers a certain sense of sympathy for the Black minstrel actors. Evoking the same sort of childhood sentiment as he did with Stowe’s Uncle Tom, Singer is quick to point out that the entire crowd is white, a circumstance he assumes is a deliberately racist choice by the show’s wealthy white patrons. The exploitative dynamic briefly upsets him (as well as Forverts more generally, which had previously discouraged people from attending cabaret shows in part for their economic exploitation of Black actors 17 17 Diner, In the Almost Promised Land, 65. ). To be Black in America, Singer seems to recognize, is to be a commodity enjoyed by white people. 18 18 Black writers such as Allison Davis and Hubert Harrison similarly condemned what they called the “Cabaret School” for “exploiting and substantiating stereotypical images of American blackness and upturning the values of racial respectability… [and] internalizing white views and subsequently creating art that had no relationship to their actual lives or lived experience.” See Vogel, The Scene of Harlem Cabaret, 5.

Yet at the same time, Singer manifests a less subdued disappointment that Black people have indeed modernized beyond the primitiveness of his fantasized “Africanness.” The Yiddish journalist ends his article by taking the reader back, away from the cabaret, and highlighting the discordance between the primitive Black people of his imagination (and the minstrel stage) and the prosaic nature of Black daily life in New York. Black boys and girls go on dates to the movies, dance in dance halls, and engage in the luxuries of American life, Singer writes. These daily trappings dishearten him, and his final words attempt to convince the reader that Black people more suitably belong in a romanticized African landscape—not living like modern citizens in urban America.

The moon, shame-faced and far away, peeks in and hides behind the clouds. It’s as though she’d be ashamed to see at what’s become of the children of the hot, free, and wild Africa. 19 19 Although Singer does express a unique cynicism about the Black experience in America, the idea of generational “decline” permeates his—and other mid-century Yiddish writers’—work more generally. For one example, see Malka Magentsa-Shked and Jeffrey M. Green, “Singer and the Family Saga Novel in Jewish Literature” Prooftexts 9 No. 1 (January 1989): 27-42.

Although Singer seemed to recognize the exploitative nature of Harlem’s Black entertainment industry, he simultaneously fed into a powerful cultural racism that defined the nation and spread around the world. Nearly four decades after the Yiddish journalist wrote this observational exposé, the writer James Baldwin would express a critical insight about the power that American racism held over European foreigners in America like Singer. “I had my fill of seeing people come down the gangplank on Wednesday, let us say, speaking not a word of English,” Baldwin recalled in 1971, “and by Friday discovering that I was working for them and they were calling me nigger like everybody else.” 20 20 James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, A Rap on Race (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1971), 67. To Baldwin, who himself came of age in Harlem in the 1930s, white Europeans like Singer came to quickly inhabit the same voyeuristic attitude toward Blackness as American-born whites—a phenomenon that came on full display as Singer attended his first cabaret show in 1932. Unconcerned with navigating an “ambiguous position” in American society, as scholars of American Jewish history have often written of Jewish immigrants to America, Singer—a tourist with the benefits of his temporary position—was largely happy to place himself directly within the white audience and racially objectify the performers he witnessed.

MLA STYLE
Morrow-Spitzer, Jacob. “Race Uprooted: Foreign Observation, American Racism, and Yiddish Journalism through I.J. Singer’s 1932 “Harlem Cabaret”.” In geveb, May 2024: https://ingeveb.org/blog/race-uprooted.
CHICAGO STYLE
Morrow-Spitzer, Jacob. “Race Uprooted: Foreign Observation, American Racism, and Yiddish Journalism through I.J. Singer’s 1932 “Harlem Cabaret”.” In geveb (May 2024): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacob Morrow-Spitzer

Jacob Morrow-Spitzer is a doctoral candidate in history at Yale University. His research interests are at the intersections of modern Jewish history, American politics, political economy and the histories of race and racism. His dissertation, titled “Jewish Citizenship Politics in the Age of American State Transformation, 1850-1933,” studies how Jews in the United States reframed and renegotiated ideas about citizenship from the end of slavery through the early years of the New Deal. His previous scholarship has appeared in American Jewish History and Southern Jewish History. Jacob holds an M.A. from Yale University and a B.A. from Tulane University.