The Museum of Family History 
 Great Artists Series

 The Immortal
  Al Jolson  

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Tribute to the World's
Greatest Entertainer


Screen Snapshots
"Memorial to Al Jolson"

Rabbi Max Nussbaum
Temple Israel

The modern classic Hebrew author, Bialik, once wrote a poem entitled "After My Death." These are the words of the first verse:
"After my death; thus shall you mourn for me;
There was a man, and, behold, he is no more;
Before his time this man died.
And the song of his life was interrupted in the middle;
And how tragic! He had one more song —
And now the song, too, is lost forever."

I am reminded of this poem at this moment when we here, thousands of people outside the temple, and millions of people all over the world, pay a last tribute to Al Jolson.

It was only five years ago that I had the sad privilege of conducting a Memorial Service for Al's father. It was in the old building of Temple Israel, to the progress of which Al contributed his services freely in past years. The day prior to the Memorial Service, Al and I met to discuss the life of his father; and I have never forgotten a remark he made in the course of our conversation. "Rabbi," Jolson remarked, "all I have today I have received from my father." At the moment, I thought it was an expression of a strong emotional attachment experienced in an hour of sorrow. But, after having gathered more information about his background and having read several informative articles published by his brother Harry in 1929, I came to the conclusion that every word of Al Jolson's observation to me can stand the test of validity. With all of the publicity given to him, with all the interpretations of his life in print or film, one will never understand the personality of Jolson unless one studies the atmosphere of his father's house. It is the only key to unlock the secrets of Al's personality.

In order to do this, I have to take you back for a moment to a corner of the European continent called Lithuania. It had a small Jewish community of no more than 25,000 Jews. But it produced more rabbis, teachers, schools of learning and colleges of education than the whole of the European continent put together. Even in the secular field, more Jewish artists and musicians and literary figures came from that geographical region than from any other part of the world. A famed European art critic rightfully asked the question, "What artistic bacteria has hit the Jewish communities of the small villages of Lithuania?" There is, of course, no answer to this question, but the fact remains that they gave us the Soutines, Levitans, the Antokolskys, Chagalls, Bands, Heifetzes and many, many more.

The capital of this small country was Kovno, and near Kovno stood a village of no more than 100 families, most of which were Jewish. Its name was Srednieke. On its one long and unpaved street stood a three-room log house, primitive and simple, inhabited by the family of Rabbi Reuven Moses Yoelson. It was there that Harry and Al were born. It was in the atmosphere of that pious village that they were reared in an Orthodox spirit. It is a long road from the Srednieke of yesterday to the world fame of today, and only the Bible had a word for such a spectacular career. In speaking of a great figure in Jewish history, who started out as a shepherd and became a king, the Bible says of David, "He was a man raised up high, the sweet singer of Israel." (II Samuel 23:1)

But it is not only the atmosphere of the house, but the personality of the father which is of great importance for the analysis of Al Jolson's talent. His father was famed for many characteristic features: for his gaiety and his humor, for his storytelling and his smile, also for his clear and beautiful voice which enthralled his congregation. People used to come from the Lithuanian villages for miles around to listen to his religious chants that touched the very depths of the human heart. As a cantor he was famed for pouring his entire soul into every religious motif which he presented musically to his congregation.

These are the elements that Al inherited. His remark was entirely true. Whatever he was came to him from his father. It is from him that he inherited the comedy and the smile. But, more than that, it is from Rabbi Yoelson that he received the form and the content of singing. When you listened to any of his songs, you noticed the half and quarter tones, the sigh and the sob, the sudden inflection of the voice and the unexpected twist—all these are elements that emerge from the cantorial singing of our people. Listen to his "Kol Nidre" recording, the last Jewish record he made. You will discover how much of this cantorial element is in each one of the songs he made so famous. In addition to this form and style, he inherited the quality of putting his all into every song he sang, imparting a humaneness of depth, opening the channels of human hopes, yearnings and aspirations, and all this with such potency that it penetrated the very foundations of the human heart. This is why the response of millions to his musical renditions was unparalleled in the history of our generation.

When people say that Al Jolson was forgotten for a while and then had a tremendously successful comeback, they misjudged the situation. First, there was a group of close friends who believed in him and made the comeback possible. Secondly, the melodies of the songs, given to millions in his inimitable interpretation, were of lasting value from the beginning. Whenever a song expresses genuine feeling, and the singer identifies himself with this genuineness, the message goes straight to the human soul where there is no forgetfulness. The memories of a generation may be stronger at one time, and fading at another, but they are by their very nature persisting and determined. Our generation had only to be reminded of what Al possessed to proclaim him again the prince of the entertainment world, a kingdom from which he has never been ejected, a post which he held successfully for more years than any other human being alive today.

One more word. Music, it is said, is the universal language of the heart. Jolson had a magnificent command of that language. This is why he gave freely of himself, not only to Jewish, but to a great number of non-Jewish humanitarian causes. This heart of his, tired out at the end, felt for our fighting men in the most remote islands of the Pacific and Alaska during the second World War. This heart, speaking the universal language of music, moved him to go to Korea, though he was not well and most of us would have refused such an undertaking. No better tribute can be paid to him than the arrival this morning of eight airmen from Korea who flew in for the specific purpose of participating in this service.

Yet another biblical verse is true of this phase of his life: "How are the mighty fallen in the midst of the battle!" (II Samuel 1:25) It is in this spirit that we want to remember Al Jolson. And the words of Bialik, which I quoted at the outset, come back to us with a slight paraphrasing of the last lines:

"After his death, thus will we mourn for him;
There was a man, and behold, he is no more;
Before his time this man died.
And the song of his life was interrupted in the middle;
Yet how comforting that every song he gave us
Will live eternally in the human heart;
Because he was a man, raised up high,
He, the sweet singer of humanity."










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This exhibition was made possible in part with the cooperation of the International Al Jolson Society.


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