Exactly 90 years ago, one of the first major motion pictures with sound, or a “talkie,” was released, became a smash hit, and changed the movie industry forever. The film is remembered not only as a major technical feat, but also for its remarkable subject matter: a religious Jewish family and the rituals of Yom Kippur. It was called The Jazz Singer.
Based on Samson Raphaelson’s 1921 short story “The Day of Atonement,” the film is set in New York at the home of Cantor Rabinowitz and his family. It’s erev Yom Kippur, and the Cantor’s son, Jakie, is to sing Kol Nidre at the synagogue, but is nowhere to be found. Jakie had sneaked off to a local café to sing — the horror! — jazz tunes. The Cantor finds out, a huge argument erupts and Jakie runs away, much to his mother’s grief. The film skips ahead ten years and finds Jakie a famous jazz singer in San Francisco. When he journeys back to New York for a chance to appear on Broadway, he discovers that his father has fallen ill. It’s erev Yom Kippur again, and Jakie must choose between the first night of his new show or singing Kol Nidre at the synagogue in his father’s place. Spoiler alert: He decides to honor his father’s legacy, and when the Cantor, on his deathbed, hears him singing Kol Nidre he finally is able to reconcile with his son before passing away.
The film was a major gamble for Warner Brothers at the time: Harry Warner, the head of the studio, sold his wife’s jewelry and moved his family into a small apartment to finance the film. Lucky for him, the film was a massive success and a critical darling; the success of The Jazz Singer was essentially the end of the silent film era. At its premiere, members of the audience reportedly went into “hysterics” upon hearing the first words of dialogue. Critics raved over the film’s star, Al Jolson, for his flamboyant musical numbers, which he introduced with the now-famous line: “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!”
The film is also remarkable for its straightforward telling of a deeply Jewish story at a time when anti-Semitism had reached its peak in America with the rise of the KKK. That The Jazz Singer reads as an open love letter to Judaism was no doubt a major risk for the studio. The lead character displays a deep love for his religion and for showbiz, telling his father, “You taught me that music is the voice of G-d! It is as honorable to sing in the theater as in the synagogue.” The film also introduces one of the earliest quintessential Jewish mothers on screen: Mama Rabinowitz fiercely loves her son despite his life choices, and supports him the best she can.
As Jews, we appreciate seeing our stories and personal experiences featured on television and in movies. As we celebrate the continued success of the Jewish entertainment industry, let’s be sure to remember the film that started it all.