PREFACE: MODELING CITIZENSHIP AND MODELED SELFHOOD
Neil Diamond’s remake of the 1927 Jolson vehicle isn’t very good, but neither is it the vacuous, sentimental ego trip it’s been painted as. The Jolson version was centered on the myth of the melting pot—the hero escaped his ethnicity and became something new, an “American.” Here, the theme is more personal and psychological: Diamond must find a way to escape his father without renouncing his Jewishness. Nothing is followed through with much rigor, and the resolution is artificial, but the film at least has its teeth into something real.
As 1980 came to a close, the third week of December witnessed the cinematic premier of Richard Fleischer’s remake of The Jazz Singer at New York City’s Ziegfeld Theater.1 Carrying the provocative tagline “Sometimes you have to risk it all,” the 1980 version marked Jewish American singer/songwriter Neil Diamond’s film debut.2 Like its 1927 Al Jolson predecessor, Diamond’s The Jazz Singer tells the tale of a Jewish American son who refuses to follow his traditional father’s path. Drawn not to a life in his father’s synagogue but to a career on the popular American stage, the protagonist (Yussel Rabinovitch) navigates the contested waters of intergenerational disagreements and familial conflicts, fulfilling in the process an overwhelming desire for fame and fortune. Addressing the assimilative cost of success alongside the benefits of cultural Americanization, by the century’s end The Jazz Singer had emerged as a bona fide American immigrant fable, a legible corollary to official characterizations of the United States as “a nation of immigrants.”3
Irrespective of the film’s immigrant-focused frames and accessible narrative, Neil Diamond’s entry into U.S. filmdom was largely unsuccessful. In fact, the film’s byline about “risk” reads negatively given The Jazz Singer’s critical and commercial reception. Described by reviewers as “empty-headed,” “ill-begotten,” “unbelievable,” and “forgettable,” Diamond’s The Jazz Singer failed to capture the public imagination like its predecessor of the same name.4 Instead, the film was a box office bomb and a critical disappointment, though the film’s soundtrack would reach multiplatinum heights. The combination of poor acting, trite screenwriting, and wooden direction reinforced criticisms that The Jazz Singer story had become all too familiar, foregrounding film commentator Paul Brenner’s contention that this third version had become a “moth-eaten” narrative.5
Certainly, changes in the times undergirded such critiques. Nearly fifty years, a civil rights movement, cold war foreign policies, and sweeping immigration policy changes separated the acclaimed original from its panned successor. What is more, Diamond’s The Jazz Singer revision suffered from its strict adoption of the original plot. Released two years after the airing of Holocaust, a popular four-part Emmy Award–winning NBC television miniseries, The Jazz Singer’s preoccupation with Jewish American identity, a hallmark theme in the 1927 version, struck an anachronistic chord among audiences accustomed to an alternative, potent narrative of the Jewish global experience.6 In the aftermath of identity politics and black power protests, the 1980 version inexplicably included a blackface performance, eliciting ire from critics and audiences alike. Equally significant in the film’s lackluster reception was its questionable applicability to an approaching millennial moment.
On the whole, New York Times critic Janet Maslin’s observation that Diamond’s fictional biopic “rehash[es] . . . a plot that makes not one bit of sense any more” makes plain the film’s less-than-enthusiastic reception. Simultaneously, Maslin’s characterization paradoxically bespeaks the film’s obsolescence and relevance to contemporaneous immigration law.7 In light of recent open-door immigration policies, apparent in the successful passage and deployment of the 1965 Hart-Cellar Act, the film’s focus on a Jewish immigrant was presumably out of sync with a contemporary “America” changed by the mass mid-century arrival of Asian and Latin American immigrants. The film’s primary narrative, centered on Jewish/Jewish American experiences, seemed more related to turn-of-the-twentieth-century waves of southern and eastern European immigrants than to post-1965 migrations from China, Korea, India, the Caribbean, and Mexico. Set within a cultural locale in which Jewish Americans occupied multigenerational positions as probationary white subjects, Diamond’s Americanization arguments with his orthodox father and underdeveloped contemplations of hyphenated immigrant identity were incongruous when situated against a mainstream reading of Jews as “model minorities” and “amalgamated Americans.”
Still, in the face of critical claims that the film’s plot elements “made no sense” and appraisals that Diamond’s The Jazz Singer was culturally irrelevant, a close analysis of the film’s opening and closing scenes makes visible an oppositional reading. Without a doubt, The Jazz Singer’s perceived irrelevance is its specific historical relevance. The film’s recuperations of one hundred years of U.S. immigration policy and experiences—which led reviewers to dismiss its central story as “old” and to overlook the “new” faces of immigration evident in the opening scene—foregrounds one of the central themes in Modeling Citizenship: Jewish and Asian American Writing, which explores “an American century” of immigration through cultural production.8 Diamond’s The Jazz Singer, despite its critical failings, clearly renders U.S. citizenship through immigrant acts and performance, discernible in emotional appeals to the nation and influenced by politicized understandings of belonging.
In turn, the politically affective citizenship performances that mark The Jazz Singer’s plot and characterization intersect with capitalistic and idealized notions of American selfhood. As cultural theorist Lauren Berlant maintains,
In the United States, [citizenship] has often involved the orchestration of fantasies about the promise of the state and the nation to cultivate and protect a consensually recognized ideal of the “good life”; in return for cultural, legal, and military security, people are asked to love their country, and to recognize certain stories, events, experiences, practices, and ways of life as related to the core of who they are, their public status, and their resemblance to other people. This training in politicized intimacy has also served as a way of turning political boundaries into visceral, emotional, and seemingly hardwired responses of “insiders” and “outsiders.”9
Guided by “politicized intimacy,” The Jazz Singer’s use of sentimentality delineates political boundaries between insiders and outsiders through citizenship. Moreover, its overall intelligibility as an immigrant narrative within the larger U.S. body politic anticipates the critical sites at play in the present book. As the title suggests, Modeling Citizenship concentrates its critical attention on the multifold ways in which U.S. selfhood is performed, enacted, idealized, and challenged in Jewish American and Asian American cultural production.
Correspondingly, Modeling Citizenship examines the analogous yet divergent experiences of two “model minority” groups, Asian Americans and Jewish Americans. Scrutinizing articulations of sentimental citizenship alongside romanticized ethnoracial logics, Modeling Citizenship deconstructs citizenship formation through immigration policy and naturalization law. In this vein, The Jazz Singer’s focus on allegiances (ethnic and national), its brief but significant juxtaposition of Asian/Asian Americans and Jewish/Jewish Americans, and the film’s negotiation of transnational citizenships at the outset concretize the theoretical foundations for Modeling Citizenship. Following suit, the book investigates convergent immigration histories, affective oaths to the nation, and “American” selfhood performances.
The film’s inaugural visual montage, which utilizes “America” as the background song, is populated by multiple Asian/Asian American bodies. Latino/a, Latin American, European, white ethnic, African/African American, and Caribbean bodies also circulate in this multiethnic imaginary, yet Asian/American women, men, and children occupy a majority position. The en masse inclusion of these bodies gestures toward the previously referenced Hart-Cellar Act. The depiction of Asian/American subjects, moreover, attests to the impact of the abovementioned Refugee Act, which greatly increased Southeast Asian access to the United States and offered the “first permanent and systematic procedure for the admission and effective resettlement of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States.”10 Strategically, the use of “everywhere” and the collective deployment of “they” in the opening track brings to mind an all-encompassing sense of “America” as a global destination site for anyone—native born, asylum seeker, or immigrant—searching for “freedom” and “hope.”
Accordingly, The Jazz Singer corresponds to Berlant’s citizenship-circumscribed notion of “the good life.” Set within the fantastical space of mass culture, Diamond not only performs as “the jazz singer,” the renamed, revised, and Americanized Jess Robin; he also assumes the complementary “insider” role of a prototypical U.S. subject, willing to “risk it all” in the service of socioeconomic exceptionalism. Gambling familial affiliations and eschewing traditional ethnic identities, Jess Robin—in effect a cultural venture capitalist—pursues an “American dream,” a recognizable national story forged in the crucible of U.S. commercial success.11 True to American hero form, Diamond’s protagonist is committed to “risking it all” in the face of minor personal and professional setbacks (a failed first marriage, a paternal disavowal, and doubts about his singer/songwriter abilities). Notwithstanding Jess Robin’s perseverance, the secret to his success is not familial love but patriotic devotion, which eventually paves the way to—and cements a triumphal arrival on—the popular music stage.
In the film’s melodramatic final scene, marked by a “make-or-break” performance, Diamond as Jess Robin sings “America,” a patriotic composition filled with clichéd optimistic U.S. tropes. Onstage, bathed in red light, dressed in black pants, a sequined blue shirt, and a glittering white scarf, Diamond’s Jess Robin is visually integrated into an American flag set.12 Such nationalistic scenery is aurally reinforced by the singer’s performance of a pro-American anthem; it is also visually underscored by what Michael Rogin notes is Diamond’s closing iconic pose. The film’s last shot features a deferential Diamond in front of a standing ovation and amid enthusiastic applause, head bowed, holding a microphone, with one arm raised à la Statue of Liberty.13 Consistent with the patriotic “U.S.A.” motif, Diamond’s show-stopping performance bears more than passing resemblance to a pledge of allegiance. Indeed, as a de facto anthem of immigration and unabashed Americanism, codified via uncritical allusions to the nation as a welcoming site of rebirth and renewal, Diamond’s “America” emphasizes democratic promise, sentimentally calling attention to Jess Robin’s individual desire for (and achievement of) “the American dream.” In so doing, the song affectively renders the immigrant experience for audience member and viewer, an interpretation made clear in romanticized lyrics about aspirations, homes, liberty, and fate.
Emotionally driven, the song “America” is a schmaltzy ballad about U.S. exceptionalism, where even the foreign-born can be witness and participant to maudlin forms of nation-building.14 This nationalistic reading of “America” is substantiated by the song’s concluding stanza, which lyrically alludes to Samuel Francis Smith’s 1831 “My Country, ’tis of Thee” (alternatively and incidentally titled “America”). Diamond’s choral incorporation of “My Country, ’tis of Thee” is fixed to “America’s” overall premise, accordingly revised to accommodate a 1980s immigrant present.15 If the original “My Country, ’tis of Thee” favors a declaration of allegiance by the native-born, made plain in the lyric “my native land, thee,” then Diamond’s “America” verbalizes a comparable foreign-born assurance through lyrics about providential one-way journeys to the United States. Such allusions access the recent memory of Vietnamese boat people and Cuban raft refugees: contemporaneous seekers of “freedom” who occupy an expansive U.S. immigrant landscape. Stressing the ubiquity of newly arrived foreign bodies, Diamond typifies a contemporary immigration wave unimpeded by restrictionist policies, such as nation-state quotas and racially specific agendas, which characterized U.S. immigration law from the 1920s to the 1960s.
In this production, Asian/Asian American subjects are situated adjacent to Jewish/Jewish Americans, the other group most frequently quoted in the opening montage. Complementing stereotypical perceptions of “foreignness” associated with Asians and Asian Americans, Hasidic Jews appear in full traditional dress, intimating an analogous “alien” reading of Jewish/American selfhood.16 The juxtaposition of Asian and Jewish engenders an ethnic comparison, fortified by images of “ethnic commerce” that accompany representations of immigrant bodies. The movement of these bodies toward “manifest destiny” Americanization is matched by the capitalist flow of “foreign” commodities. These commodities and foreign bodies are in turn, exchanged in a U.S. marketplace and citizenship economy. Collapsing the space between immigrant bodies and immigrant-run businesses, The Jazz Singer’s opening montage establishes New York City as a port of entry for immigrants and a viable channel for globalized economic practices. The mobility of such bodies—represented by countless numbers of men and women who crowd New York City streets and squares—is nevertheless contained within the confines of the capitalist metropolis. This “ethnic commerce” is evident in the quick back-and-forth movement of the camera, which pauses to highlight a business name (e.g., Helman’s, a Jewish clothing store; O’Brien’s Café; Zapatos Shoes; a Ukrainian Jewish bookstore; Shamoly Indian Seafood Restaurant; Hiro Japanese Restaurant, and Nishan Indian-Bengali Restaurant).
The dominance of Asian/Asian American businesses in such historically Jewish American spaces as Times Square, the Lower East Side, and Straus Square strengthens the film’s negotiation of the historical and socioeconomic coherences between Asian and Jewish immigrants.17 For instance, Times Square, “the Crossroads of the World,” now filled with Asian-owned restaurants and shops (among other ethnic-run businesses), draws attention to the increased global current of people, capital, and culture within the United States. Situated at a crossroad where Asian and Jewish literally and historically converge, Times Square is delimited by a nation-state border, emblematized by a row of U.S. flags that confirm the film’s setting in New York and the United States. Hence, the film’s opening configures a transnational location, with porous borders that enable the rise of ethnic commerce and permit the migration of ethnic subjects.
The film’s transnational accents, unmistakable in immigrant shops, bodies, and movement, are in time undermined by the presence of the American flags, indicating a cinematic return to the national. As Inderpal Grewal and Caren Kaplan argue, the term “transnational” carries the potential to “destabilize rather than maintain boundaries of nation, race, and gender.” In this vein, The Jazz Singer’s acknowledgment of transnational subjectivities, or those who cross borders, temporarily makes less stable a reading of U.S. selfhood via singular ethnoracial categories. Equally compelling is Grewal and Kaplan’s deployment of the transnational to “signal attention to uneven and dissimilar circuits of culture and capital” that highlight “links between patriarchies, colonialism, racisms, and other forms of domination.”18 The question then arises as to what groups in The Jazz Singer are cast as perpetually foreign “transnationals” and what groups are afforded the status of “transnational-nationals.” This divergent reading of U.S. citizenship emerges out of late twentieth-century capitalist practices and cold war logics that enable the flow of individuals through fields of globalization.
Explicitly, such immigrants are border-crossing subjects and economic objects. The initial celebration of difference by way of ethnically marked spaces and faces starkly contrasts with their cinematic marginalization. Notwithstanding the film’s multiculturalist leanings, the subsequent absence of these bodies obfuscates a celebratory reading of such subjects as American. In other words, introduced as transnationals yet undeveloped as Americans, these individuals remain unsettled. Such absences, which point to an unstable U.S. selfhood, lessen the role immigrants play in nation building. Alternatively, Diamond’s American-born second-generation protagonist is allowed to marry his Jewish heritage and nationalistic aspirations. Afforded access to an accretive Jewish American identity, temporarily unsettled emotionally but established politically, Jess Robin makes firm his claim to state-authorized selfhood. A “transnational-national,” Jess Robin’s unfettered embodiment of “old” and “new” world values attests to the asymmetrical relationship between citizenship and race, native-born and foreign-born, pre-1965 American and post-1965 immigrant.
This “transnational-national” subjecthood is most evident in The Jazz Singer’s penultimate scene. When his father, Cantor Rabinovitch, is too ill to perform, the dutiful Jess Robin, clothed in traditional cantor robes, takes his place in the synagogue and sings “Kol Nidre,” a traditional composition performed on the first night of Yom Kippur, or Day of Atonement.19 Substantiating his Jewish roots through a performance of “atonement,” Jess Robin reconciles with his estranged father. His confirmation of tradition through costume and concert—embodied by religious robes, Jewish prayer scarf, and “Kol Nidre”—foreshadows the singer’s final act as not only an American but a Jewish American. The Jewish scarf is adapted to fit a patriotic set befitting Jess Robin, a “jazz singer” who sings nationalistic pop anthems. An actor and emcee, Jess Robin’s “America” performance signals his arrival as a viable citizen who successfully resolves his immigrant past with his U.S. present.
Along these lines, The Jazz Singer speaks to the turn-of-the-twentieth-century immigrant past and post-1965 immigrant present. At the same time, Diamond’s confirmation of U.S. citizenship, evident in the final scene in which the protagonist declares his love of country in public, brings to the fore another site of inquiry in Modeling Citizenship: naturalization. An emblem of democratic virtue, Jess Robin’s repudiation of the past in favor of the present reinforces his position as a natural immigrant subject who is, through performance, naturalized. Jess Robin’s final act accentuates the cultural dimensions to a politicized process invested in public selfhood articulations. Likewise, for Jewish American and Asian American writers, naturalization and its tenets give rise to plots, characterizations, and conflicts that intimately relate immigrant experiences through dominant nationhood, state-authorized selfhood, and affective belonging. Suggestive at once of intrinsic understandings and seemingly contradictory alien subjectivities, to “naturalize” presupposes a process in which past difference gives way to modern sameness.
Within the United States, common parlance dictates an understanding of naturalization through multivalent citizenships. As defined by the current Immigration and Nationality Act, naturalization is a state-sanctioned system in which “U.S. citizenship is conferred upon a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by Congress.”20 Just as important in naturalization law are its demonstrative, less tangible stipulations. Relying on a convincing public performance, naturalization is equal part repudiation and declaration, affective and legislative, wherein the country of origin is dismissed in favor of the country of settlement. Therefore, naturalization as an identifiable practice produces a legally sanctioned, dismissively transnational “rebirth” via an emotional pledge of nation-state allegiance within a specific geographic location.
This alleged political virtue, manifest in characterizations of the United States as a democratic space of possibility, ostensibly offers immigrant subjects opportunities for metaphoric regenerations. Not surprisingly, immigrant subjectivity is often categorized generationally as well as ethnically. Focused on narratives of succession, the ethnic immigrant body is acculturated, manipulated, and assimilated into the greater U.S. body politic. Concerned with the “making of Americans” from “alien material,” naturalization law is imbued with the task of domesticating the foreign. Further, it is fixed to the ever-growing project of e pluribus unum selfhood. Paradoxically, such legal citizenship frames unintentionally expose antithetical nation-building discourses through segregationist politics, xenophobic anxieties, and racialized forms of power. Naturalization pledges therefore intersect with particular understandings of immigrant bodies and citizenship at even the highest levels of U.S. state rule.
Modeling Citizenship: Jewish and Asian American Writing extends the exploration of naturalization law and immigration policy into the literary imaginary. Simultaneously, the book necessarily examines the impact of dominant ethnoracial logics and nationally approved narratives of American citizenship which, in form and content, exemplify the process of naturalization. This citizenship rubric brings to light the contradictory, discursive status of the United States as a place of unbounded possibility for recognized citizens. Concomitantly, naturalization underscores the nation as a potent site of limitation for denied aliens. Modeling Citizenship investigates naturalization tropes in immigrant literature, underscoring in the process questions of nation-state affiliation and senses of belonging. Conscious of literary performance and political play, Modeling Citizenship covers multiple titular meanings, highlighting “modeling” as performative act and “model” as ideal subject.