Remembering a Great Critic, and His Reflections on Jews, Art, and Humor

January 14, 2022 | Terry Teachout
About the author: Terry Teachout is the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and the critic-at-large of Commentary.

Terry Teachout, the great American critic and playwright, died yesterday at the age of sixty-five. As a columnist for the Wall Street Journal and Commentary’s critic-at-large, Teachout reviewed books, movies, and plays; he also wrote biographies of Duke Ellington, George Balanchine, and others; a play about Louis Armstrong; and the libretti of multiple operas. If his varied work had one central preoccupation, it was Broadway and the Great American Songbook, which meant that he frequently wrote about Jews. And although not Jewish himself, he described with great sensitivity and insight the ways these figures were informed by their Jewish upbringings. He wrote about Wagner’s anti-Semitism for Mosaic in 2015, and later contributed a moving tribute to the late Charles Krauthammer. (Links to a selection of his essays can be found here.) In this 2004 Commentary essay on Isaac Bashevis Singer—worth reading merely for the line, “irony, like garlic, being a scarce commodity in small midwestern towns”—Teachout reflected on his own encounter with Jews and Jewish literature:

It is, I think, a pleasant anomaly that the music critic of Commentary should be a small-town boy from southeast Missouri who knew next to nothing about Jews until he moved to New York City at the tender age of twenty-nine. Music, as everyone knows, is the quintessentially Jewish art form, and in my youth I even played the violin, that most Jewish of instruments, though my mother never said anything to me remotely resembling the exhortation allegedly beloved of Jewish mothers the world over, “So, you want to be like Heifetz? Practice!”

I half-expected her to, though, if only because I had run across that sentence regularly in such books as Sam Levenson’s Everything but Money and Allan Sherman’s A Gift of Laughter. The word “humorist” is now thought quaint, but warm, cuddly Jewish humorists were all the rage when I was young, and I must have read Everything but Money a dozen times, trying to imagine what it would have felt like to grow up in a large family, the way Sam Levenson and my mother had. That their experiences were in some fundamental way dissimilar never occurred to me; so far as I knew, all large families were alike. I understood that Levenson was the son of Jewish immigrants, and that their religious beliefs were different from mine, but the rest, I assumed, was merely local color.

When I left home to make my way in the world and started meeting Jews of various kinds, I found them not merely companionable but intriguing. Having grown up in a place where it was taken for granted that nice people did not raise their voices, I was astonished by the directness with which my new friends spoke their minds. In college I worked with a jazz pianist who played at Jewish weddings, and I was no less startled by the fact that the well-to-do couples who booked our band treated us like artists, not servants. Discovering the music of Gustav Mahler taught me lessons of a different sort, though I learned them as much through intuition as anything else, not yet having the knowledge necessary to put Mahler’s work (and personality) in any wider perspective. In due course I started reading Commentary, which brought me face-to-face with the formidable figure of the Jew as intellectual, at once intimidating and challenging. Above all, I began to teach myself about the Holocaust, an event whose import cannot be comprehended merely by reading The Diary of Anne Frank in high school.

To Wasps, Jewish humor is mostly a closed book, by turns incomprehensible and embarrassing. Thus, I was surprised to find how quickly I took to it after I moved to New York—not the sanitized kind, much less the crudely anti-Semitic jokes I had occasionally heard in Missouri, but the blunt, close-to-the-knuckle stories rarely told by anyone other than Jews themselves. They were for me what Russian jokes were for Ronald Reagan. And while no other brand of humor is more ethnically specific, stories like the one about the rabbi who converts to Christianity, becomes a minister, and begins his first sermon with the words “Fellow goyim, . . . ” made perfect sense to me. To be sure, I might not have been able to explain why they were funny, but by some mysterious leap of sympathy I managed to divine much of their emotional charge.

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