Theatrical Liberalism

Jews and Popular Entertainment in America

304 pages

15 halftones

May, 2013

ISBN: 9780814708194


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Andrea Most is Associate Professor of American Literature and Jewish Studies in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. Her first book, Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical, won the 2005 Kurt Weill Prize for the Best Book on Musical Theatre.

All books by Andrea Most

Finalist for the 2013 National Jewish Book Award, American Jewish Studies
For centuries, Jews were one of the few European cultures without any official public theatrical tradition. Yet in the modern era, Jews were among the most important creators of popular theater and film–especially in America. Why?
In Theatrical Liberalism, Andrea Most illustrates how American Jews used the theatre and other media to navigate their encounters with modern culture, politics, religion, and identity, negotiating a position for themselves within and alongside Protestant American liberalism by reimagining key aspects of traditional Judaism as theatrical. Discussing works as diverse as the Hebrew Bible, The Jazz Singer, and Death of a Salesman—among many others—Most situates American popular culture in the multiple religious traditions that informed the worldviews of its practitioners.
Offering a comprehensive history of the role of Judaism in the creation of American entertainment, Theatrical Liberalism re-examines the distinction between the secular and the religious in both Jewish and American contexts, providing a new way of understanding Jewish liberalism and its place in a pluralist society. With extensive scholarship and compelling evidence, Theatrical Liberalism shows how the Jewish worldview that permeates American culture has reached far beyond the Jews who created it.


  • “Makes new sense of aspects of popular culture we have all grown up with and thought we knew only too well. Most bridges religious studies and theater, political theory and American studies, high criticism and middlebrow performance. Her book will help us see better how Jews and their Jewishness did not merely 'enter' American popular culture, but did so much to invent it.” 

    —Jonathan Boyarin, Leonard and Tobee Kaplan Distinguished Professor of Modern Jewish Thought, University of North Carolina

  • "Demonstrates why and how Jews have been central to the development of Broadway, Tin Pan Alley, and Hollywood.  Taking us on a rollercoaster ride through popular culture, from The Jazz Singer and Death of a Salesman to My Fair Lady and Blazing Saddles, Most analyzes the social anxieties that swirl around American self-fashioning and explains why these anxieties repeatedly play themselves out in competing notions of theatricality. Most radically, she shows us that so many of the most Jewish features of popular culture are also the most American—that American popular culture is Jewish culture."

    —David Savran, Vera Mowry Roberts Chair in American Theatre, CUNY

  • “The arguments are compelling, and the book is well researched and well written.”

    —K.J. Wetmore, Choice

  • "Her book is a bold effort to locate, within the apparatus of mass entertainment, something besides the claims of ancestral memories and loyalties."

    —Stephen J. Whitfield, H-Net Reviews

  • "In Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America, Andrea Most looks at how Jews combined Jewish culture and American liberalism to create a distinctive theatrical tradition. She also explores how this tradition has developed and changed from the 1930s to contemporary times."

    —Rabbi Rachel Esserman, The Reporter

  • "This is a remarkable book, sweeping in its range of material, sharp in its reasoning, and loaded with so many insights that it will reward the reader with many returns in its pages....[T]his is a marvelous treatment of much-discussed but inexhaustible topics, not only of entertaining Jews but of Jewish modernity and post-modernity.  Professor Most, take a bow: you deserve it."

    —Paul Buhle , American Jewish History

  • “Her thesis is simple but persuasive, positing that from the 1920s until the 1940s, American Jewish writers created a number of works that sanctify the stage and the idea of performing. […] Most is strong on the theoretical […] Taking musicals seriously is welcome and refreshing.”

    Jewish Quarterly

  • "This book will transform how many plays, performances, and texts are read, discussed, taught, and performed...Theatrical Liberalism is an important, original book that gets right to the heart of why Jews have been so disproportionately involved in popular performance." 

    Theatre Journal

  • “… Theatrical Liberalism’s greatest contribution to the existing scholarly conversation regarding Jewish Americans and popular culture is her assertion that the secular/sacred binary, imposed by Protestant ideology, is ineffectual for analyzing the nuanced ways in which Judaic rituals and traditions influenced the allegedly nonreligious sphere of American entertainment.”

    —, American Studies

  • “Most’s outline of theatrical liberalism is compelling, is littered with insightful analysis of a range of texts, and draws upon a variety of theoretical writing that makes her arguments fresh and distinct.”

    Journal of American Culture