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Black on White

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After the Yiddish show we met one of the actors in a cafe. He did not in the least resemble the character he had portrayed. It required an effort of the imagination to identify the man off stage with the man we had admired behind the foot##ghts. But he was still very Jewish—in appearance, speech, and mental accent.

We thanked him, in all sincerity, for his fine performance. What we liked about it was its frank, unrestrained Jewishness. The character as he played it was so deeply, so utterly Hebraic. It touched us at the core somewhere by its racial intonations, in a spot that is not often disturbed.

To an outsider, the flavor of that character must have seemed merely exotic, maybe slightly ludicrous. But to us it was near and intimate, with a touch of nostalgia. It impelled us for some reason to talk of our, grandmother, between the acts. She has been a lady of the old matriarchal type, with a sort of possessive feeling for her family and for the Jewish race. It was that kind of performance: one that made us feel we “belonged” in a group, with racial family secrets and a common psychological language.

The actors, however, would have none of that. He denied with a peculiar, almost panicky insistence, the Jewishness he had acted so well an hour before.

“We are no different from other races,” he argued. “All people are the same. Historical accidents— the ghetto—immigrant life. These things have given us certain mannerisms. But it’s all surface stuff. Under it we are no different from Englishmen or Spaniards or Yankees or Arabs. If I had been brought up like an Englishman I’d be one.”

“But I was not referring to the mannerisms. I’m sure it was something deeper, something no goy could understand,” one of my friends bargained. “No one but a Jew could have played that character as you played it. In fact, no one but a Jew could deny his Jewishness as vehemently as you’re trying to deny it.”

Thus we argued. Wrangled describes it more accurately. To an up-town slummer it would have looked exotic, slightly ludicrous, like that character on the stage. Both the man who tried to shout down his Jewish differentness, and the others who insisted upon that differentness, did so in a spirit of passionate disputation which evoked memories of the Talmud.

Thus, while disagreeing on fact, we were one in spirit—a Jewish argument remains Jewish. In his intense desire to wipe out the racial differences, in fact, the actor became more and more like he had been on the stage. It no longer required any imaginative effort to identify the two persons.

Curiously, it was the Jew closest to his race—the Yiddish actor, with the Hebraic physiognomy and the complicated mind—who was anxious to prove that there is nothing profoundly Jewish, that it was all an accidental accumulation. On the other side of the wrangle were men who outwardly at least have become completely merged with the American scene.

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