Do These Amazing Jews Have 'Displaced Talmudic Energy?'

When it comes to the modern American Jewish experience, change is the one constant.
Neighborhoods come and go. Rituals thought to have fallen into desuetude have been revived. Formerly popular denominations cede pride of place to denominations thought moribund. Intermarriage, once anathematized, has now become normative -- and on and on it goes.

Just about the only thing that does not seem to have changed its stripes or given up its ghost is an abiding fascination with what appears to be the outsized participation of the Jews in the modern republic of arts and letters.

Earlier generations had a field day in attempting to account for why so many American Jews of interwar America took to the vaudeville stage and to Broadway, to Tin Pan Alley and the "popular arts." Whether writing in the pages of the vernacular Yiddish press or in those of high toned magazines like The New Republic, America's cultural critics jumped through hoops to explain the magnetism of Al Jolson and the stylings of Irving Berlin. All too often, they resorted to biology rather than sociology, to the imprint of the collective rather than the idiosyncrasies of genius. As Alexander Woollcott observed of the songwriter, "it is in [Berlin]'s blood to write the lugubrious melodies which, in the jargon of Tin Pan Alley, have a tear in them. Back of him are generations of wailing cantors to tinge all his work with an enjoyable melancholy ... No lady is to blame. It is his grandfather."

Sidney Offit's forward to "Nine Lives: Favorite Profiles of Famous People from the Annals of Moment Magazine" follows in Woollcott's footsteps. He, too, wonders how it is possible for so many contemporary artists, performers and cultural personalities from Tony Kushner and Jon Stewart to Bob Dylan and Brian Epstein to hail from a Jewish background. But where his predecessors looked to lineage, Offit does them one better. His canny explanation: "displaced Talmudic energy."

Is he actually suggesting that the "famous people" who figure here had at one point in their lives taken up the study of the Talmud and, having subsequently abandoned that pursuit for the stage, found that their engagement with the ancient text continued to influence their way of being? At first blush, readers might be forgiven for thinking that's what Mr. Offit means. After all, he does go so far as to call Jon Stewart a "modern Talmudist."

But I don't think that's really what he has in mind. Rather, by his lights, "Talmudic energy" -- displaced or intact -- has little to do with the actual study of the ancient text as much as it does with a particular sensibility, one sustained by the spirit of inquiry, an appetite for questioning and a penchant for detail.

I don't doubt that the innovative and influential personalities profiled in this book possess these qualities - and in spades. But why call them examples of "displaced Talmudic energy"? Why, in fact, go all the way back to the Talmud? Might not contemporary readers be better served and more effectively enlightened by explanations that highlight economic forces, say, or the historic role of the Jews as latter-day brokers of both goods and ideas? And what about the galvanizing, generative effects of marginality on creativity?

Although essentialism has fallen from grace and out of favor in most contemporary circles, it continues to hang on within Jewish ones, pace Mr. Offit's "displaced Talmudic energy." I'm not sure why, but I suspect it's one way to keep celebrated Jews close at hand and within the fold.