Normally when I lecture on The Jazz Singer, I spend some time near the end talking about the film’s final two vocal performances, especially Jack/Jakie’s decision to return to the synagogue to sing Kol Nidre in his dying father’s place. (The final scene, back in the Winter Garden, is Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy” to his mother, seated in the audience.)
Kol Nidre (“All vows”) is an Aramaic chant or prayer, performed to usher in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In this ritual the congregation is absolved from all obligations and vows that might come in the next year, working from the assumption that people make unwise promises all the time (“If I get a promotion, I’ll attend service every week until I die!”) and will need to be let off the hook. The ritual has murky origins, but for a long time–including during the period when the film was made–it was thought that the Kol Nidre originated in the forced conversion of the Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. In this context, the idea of communal absolution for any oaths has particular salience: it means that any oaths God’s people are required to take in order to ensure their survival are null and void. It turns out the ritual predates the inquisition, but it may have played this role for some people in that particular time and place. There’s also a part of the ritual related to the question of the transgressor being allowed to pray with the congregation, which seems significant here, given that Jakie is a black sheep returning (however temporarily) to the fold. Finally, some critics have suggested that when Jolson sings Kol Nidre he’s “ragging” it, jazzing it up a little. A few things to consider when understanding the song’s role in the larger film.
So: Is Jack/Jakie leaving Judaism behind a the film’s end, or carrying it with him and transmitting it into and thereby transforming American culture? Is he forging an alliance between Jews and blacks? Is he creating or perpetuating a hybrid form of identity or culture? (How will the lives of his Gentile friends be changed by their encounter with his family?) Are his gestures cosmopolitan? Or are they about his construction of a white identity beneath the blackface mask?
Critics have read this scene, variously, as one of unapologetic, even aggressive, assimilation, or as expressing an ethos of atonement. Representing the former, Michael Rogin writes in his influential book on Jewish immigrants, minstrelsy, and film, Blackface, White Noise, that the two vocal performances at the film’s end constitute its most “hysterical moment”:
The movie was promising that the son could have it all: Jewish past and American future, Jewish mother and gentile wife. That was what happened in Hollywood. The moguls left their Jewish wives for gentile women in the 1930s and mostly eliminated Jewish life from the screen. They bade farewell to their Jewish pasts with The Jazz Singer.
More recently, Marshall Berman, in On The Town (his wonderful book on Times Square in the twentieth century), offers a more generous reading, typifying those who endorse the idea that the Kol Nidre scene is redemptive:
For many Jews, [Kol Nidre] is the most dramatic and spiritually intense moment of the year. … Many secular Jews who wouldn’t dream of going to synagogue all through the year feel they have to be there for [Yom Kippur]. The Kol Nidre prayer is special in that it isn’t addressed to God, but to other people. We are supposed to recognize all the ways we have hurt each other all year, not just openly but in the shadows; we are supposed to seek and to offer forgiveness. …The cantor’s solo is the most passionate, heartrending music of the whole year. Jews believe nothing else can break down people’s resistance or open up their emotional floodgates. … At The Jazz Singer’s climax, Jolson … leads the congregation with an amazing emotional fervor and intensity that have eluded him till now: Now, at last, he’s there. His heroic act–returning to the ghetto, sacrificing for a father who didn’t sacrifice for him, renewing his thrilling but dangerous bond with his mother–unites his adulthood with his childhood, frees unconscious energy, and taps emotional depths that he has had to repress in order to work and live for twenty years under his father’s curse. Now, as his father dies, chains lift from his heart. He learns from his life what his father’s religion couldn’t teach him because it was too narrow, and what secular show biz couldn’t teach him because it was too shallow: the universal lesson that “music is the voice of God.” In The Jazz Singer, mass culture stakes a claim to universal value, not only for its global reach but for its emotional depth and power.
Berman goes on to reference the Eric Lott formula of “love and theft,” suggesting that part of what Jack needs to be forgiven of is the “theft” side of his blackface act; he also suggests, however, that Jolson’s Kol Nidre prefigures “the sounds, a generation later, of the great flowering of rhythm and blues: Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Al Green, Marvin Gaye, Mavis Staples, Patti LaBelle. But why not?”
I’m curious to know if our students or other readers have different ways they take the end of the film.