In his 1967 best seller, "Our Crowd," Stephen Birmingham told the success stories of some prominent American Jews of German descent. Since nothing succeeds like success, soon after came "The Grandees," the story of some wealthy American Jews of Sephardic, or Spanish, descent. Now, in his latest work, the popular social historian has tackled America's Eastern European Jews, a group his title coyly labels, "The Rest of Us."
Like Birmingham's previous books, "The Rest of Us" is breezy and entertaining, full of gossip and spice. Like them, too, it is less a comprehensive social history than a compilation of profiles of the rich, famous and infamous, strung together by the theme of common ancestry. In Birmingham's confection, the reader will discover why gangster chieftain Meyer Lansky considered himself an ethical, peace-loving man and how Helena Rubinstein, a girl from a Polish ghetto who spent time on an Australian sheep farm, became "Madame."
The reader will further learn why Samuel Goldwyn, the czar of Hollywood, earned the right to be compared with the despotic Russian czars he left the ghetto to escape, and will peek inside the Bronfman-owned Seagram's offices to glimpse the skeletons their opulent closets hide.
"The Rest of Us" may be regarded, in short, as an affectionate scandal sheet, for Birmingham exults in the outrageous risks his heroes and heroines undertook in their quest to transform themselves from Eastern European peasants into Yankeee millionaires. Their stories are often fascinating, but his title notwithstanding, Birmingham does not present "the rest of us," but only a lucky few who earned the fortunes that kept "the rest of us" dreaming.
Birmingham sketches only briefly a group portrait of the more than 2 million Jews who, between 1880 and the advent of World War I, fled the poverty and pogroms of Eastern Europe for the "goldeneh medina," or golden land of America. Out of these masses, many eventually achieved middle-class respectability -- but for the story of such relatively modest successes, the reader must turn to Irving Howe's comprehensive study, "World of Our Fathers."
Birmingham's selective history provides no substitute for Howe's masterwork, but then, Birmingham did not set out to chronicle either the diversity of the immigrants or the hardships and the slow rewards of their journey from shtetl to city to suburb. Rather, Birmingham's focus remains fixed on the giant idol of success. And by success he does not mean merely wealth, influence and fame. No, Birmingham claims, the greatest success will always be measured in terms of social success, the success of assimilation, the triumph of being accepted after centuries of persecution, and of "fitting in" at last.
And perhaps he's right: Why else, Birmingham asks, would the haughty Samuel Bronfman, a naturalized Canadian, pursue his dream of being knighted by the British crown? Why else would Samuel Goldwyn, fearing that Danny Kaye looked too "Jewish," insist he dye his hair blond to give the appearance of being Nordic instead? Why else would Helena Rubinstein, after her marriage to a "prince" who, gossip had it, was in truth an ex-taxi driver, revel in her new name, the Princess Archil Gourielli? And why else, according to the testimony of activist screenwriter Ben Hecht and others, would so many Hollywood moguls remain eerily silent when confronted with the rumors of Hitler's "final solution"? Why else, indeed, one wonders, except in the service of inventing a new heritage in the new world of America? To judge by Birmingham's examples, to court "success" means nothing less than to deny the Jewish past.
If this thesis is correct, then the Old World rabbis who inveighed against the dual evils of assimilation and immigration would have taken cold comfort from the new world fortunes that Birmingham touts. And in the end, this reader, the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from a shtetl outside Vilna, found herself turning from Birmingham's value system with the immortal words of Samuel Goldwyn, "Include me out!"
In fact, of all the stories Birmingham recounts, the one that I suspect will linger with me longest is that of a little-known writer named Anzia Yezierska. An uneducated immigrant factory worker with literary ambitions, she struck it rich when Hollywood bought the movie rights to her first novel. But success soured quickly for this child of the ghetto who, in her expensive new clothes, felt herself both a stranger in polite society and an exile from the Lower East Side. She quit her glamorous screenwriting job, returned to the tenements, and came to believe in the truth of a Jewish proverb: "Poverty becomes a wise man like a red ribbon on a white horse."
For Birmingham, Yezierska is a case history in failure. But the conflict she faced -- between her drive to become an "American" and her need to remain connected to her heritage -- is the deeper struggle that Birmingham's entertaining text obscures.