A Lucky Find

Historian David Weinstein used many different AJHS collections in his research on famous Jewish comedian and performer Eddie Cantor, including letters on Cantor's efforts against antisemitism and prejudice leading up to and during WWII.

While conducting research in the archival collections of the AJHS archives in December 2013, I stumbled onto a seventy-one-year-old letter that made me very happy. I was visiting New York from my home near Washington, D.C. on a whirlwind research trip for my book about the proudly Jewish entertainer, Eddie Cantor. The AJHS’s online finding aid for the papers of Milton Weill, a Jewish businessman and philanthropist, referenced letters from Cantor to Weill. At the time, Weill was chairman of the public relations committee of the Jewish Welfare Board. I wanted to view these letters as part of my examination of Cantor and Jewish communal activity during World War Two.

Starting in the mid-1930s, Cantor used his platform as a celebrity to fight antisemitism and Nazism. He raised thousands of dollars for Hadassah and Youth Aliyah, facilitating the emigration to Palestine of young people from Germany and, later, other occupied countries. By the time of my December 2013 trip, I had already reviewed a treasure trove of Hadassah and Youth Aliyah records at the AJHS documenting Cantor’s fundraising efforts. In his fiery speeches to Hadassah members, Cantor warned of the dangers of domestic antisemitism and condemned figures such as Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin.

Cantor was one of America’s biggest radio stars during the 1930s. However, in June 1939, he lost his radio show due to his political activism. This loss of sponsorship jeopardized his career and served as a cautionary tale for other prominent Jews who might speak against Nazism. As Cantor remolded his image to get back on the air, he shifted his rhetorical strategies. He spoke less about threats facing Jews in America and Europe. Instead, he extolled the value of religious freedom and tolerance broadly, while joining interfaith coalitions fighting prejudice, Nazism, and communism. This softer strategy to oppose antisemitism helped Cantor revitalize his career. He returned to radio in 1940. After Pearl Harbor, he worked tirelessly to support the war effort by performing for the troops, vising military hospitals, conducting war bonds drives, and partnering with the American Legion to collect Christmas gifts for soldiers.  

In his public statements, Cantor did not link this patriotic activity with his identification as a Jew or with specifically Jewish causes. Yet Cantor was able to be more candid in a private letter to Weill, located in the archives of the AJHS, from December 1942. The letter provides wonderfully clear and direct evidence, in Cantor’s own words, of how he believed support of the government and military also helped to defuse antisemitism by presenting Jews as good and patriotic Americans. In discussing how to counter antisemitic jokes, Cantor recommended that Weill highlight trips to entertain troops by his fellow Jewish entertainers Al Jolson and Jack Benny. He also pointed to his own work, and that of his wife Ida, wrapping Christmas gifts for soldiers. This was the “propaganda we need to off-set the unfavorable jokes about us.”

As a bonus, Cantor ended his candid letter by asking Weill to speak with the sponsor of comedian Fred Allen, who was not Jewish. Cantor explained that “there are very few programs on which Fred Allen doesn’t, without thinking, take a crack at the Jews.” Cantor cited a sketch from the previous week’s Fred Allen program, which I hunted down after reading the letter. Sure enough, Allen ends his program with a routine featuring a Yiddish-accented Jewish salesman in a cut-rate, downtown clothing store. Cantor may have been especially angry that Allen, a non-Jewish performer, was stealing a sketch, known as “Joe’s Blue Front,” that Cantor made famous on the Broadway stage during the 1920s. The routine was no longer part of Cantor’s repertoire in 1943. Given the environment in America and the world, images of fast-talking, aggressive Jews selling cheap clothes no longer amused Cantor. 

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