4: Film excerpt, Alan Crosland’s "The Jazz Singer," 1927.

4: Film excerpt, Alan Crosland’s "The Jazz Singer," 1927.

The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length motion picture to include synchronized sound, tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor’s son who leaves his home and changes his name to Jack Robin in order to become a professional jazz performer. He does this over his family’s objections, forsaking his family’s generations-long commitment to the cantorate. In a stirring scene in the film, Jakie is called to fill in for his ailing father at the synagogue on the evening of Yom Kippur and has to choose between his opening on Broadway and his obligation to his family and the religious culture from which he stems. Kol Nidre becomes a moment of repentance and return in Jakie’s struggle between tradition and modernity.

Note: Teachers and students who wish to explore the film in its entirety should be prepared to discuss issues of race and racism, and should be aware that the film includes scenes of the main character performing in blackface.

Suggested Activity: Ask your students: What is the relationship between the father’s deathbed and the music? To what extent does the performance demonstrate the performer’s virtuosity as a singer, and to what extent does it demonstrate his devotion to his father and his faith? What do you think of the text “a jazz singer—singing to his God” that appears on the screen? What other labels might you have placed on Jakie in this moment (e.g., “a loyal son—singing for his father” or “a singer—sharing his passion for song”)? Do you see the ideas of return and authenticity in this clip as related to the diary entry in resource one of this kit? What, if any, are the differences you discern between these portrayals of musicians’ connections to their families’ religious traditions through the melody of Kol Nidre?

The Jazz Singer has been remade several times, and your students may also wish to view clips of other versions of Jakie’s performance of Kol Nidre and compare them. Some such versions include: Danny Thomas (1952); Jerry Lewis (1959—Kol Nidre occurs around 51:00 in this clip); Neil Diamond (1980); and Moyshe Oysher’s performance in the 1939 Yiddish film Overture to Glory, a variation on The Jazz Singer about a young cantor who is lured to the city to become an opera singer. In the closing scene, Oysher’s character returns to the synagogue for one last Kol Nidre before he dies a broken man.  

Alternately, your students may wish to compare the film version of The Jazz Singer to the 1922 short story “The Day of Atonement,” by Samson Raphaelson, upon which the film was based. Ask your students: How would you compare the experience of reading about a musical performance to that of hearing the performance itself? You may wish to have your students write a prose description of the scene from The Jazz Singer before they read this excerpt and then compare their own writing to Raphaelson’s scene.

Source: The Jazz Singer, directed by Alan Crosland (1927, Los Angeles, CA: Warner Brothers).

Excerpt: Bigatrus, “Kol Nidre – Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer (1927),” Apr. 24 2011, video, 2:53, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mTufuWn3jv8.