October 10, 1927 [The Jazz Singer]

Here, in the privacy of my diary, I shall confess to a shameful act: Al Jolson brought a tear to my eye. As the picture shifted from silence to song, convulsive as a wind-up toy on its last legs--and as Jolson capered and twittered, part chattering squirrel, part shameless self-promoter, his blackface delivery as subtle as the Charleston, as demure as a flapper's legs--and as the audience cheered and sang along, calling to the heedless screen for encores--in the midst of this noisy debut of the Vitaphone, Jolson knelt, not in cynical sentiment, but in something like tenderness, his talent subdued in the name of the "Kol Nidre," the song-prayer that begins Yom Kippur, the Jews' Day of Atonement. His father can not fulfill his duties as Cantor, and in the end, after an almost comic tug-of-war between Jazz and Judaism, Jolson bows to his father and sings. My own father gone more years than I'd like, this simple moment, spurred by Jolson's surprisingly solemn delivery, spread a sad warmth in my chest, and I blinked like a lost child.

This morning I asked Mr. K--, a Jewish tailor in our neighborhood, the significance of the song. He explained it as a plea to be forgiven for all rash vows, easily made but difficult to keep, that we make to God in our pride. And I thought of the promises I had made and broken, how the vow becomes a lie--and how the expression of regret and the hope for mercy in the Jewish song was as beautiful as a promise kept, and I paused there in his shop, looking away from him, breathing quietly for a moment.

How can I live with this, I ask with a smile, this debt to Al Jolson--the fool who, singing one song, seeks and receives forgiveness?


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