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Blacks, Italians and Jews: Green Book’s lesson about race in America

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Published: 5 February 2019

Last updated: 5 March 2024

RABBI JEFFREY SALKIN: There was a time when “native” white Americans believed Italian immigrants were barely white, and also when Jews were not considered white, either

CONSIDER THAT MOMENT in the film when a Southern bigot learns that Tony, the driver and minder of black jazz musician Don Shirley, is an Italian-American. He tells Tony that he is “half black.”

This scene illustrates a barely remembered historical truth. There was a time when “native” white Americans believed that southern European immigrants, especially Italians and Greeks, were barely white. The same was true of eastern Europeans.

Tony goes one step further. “I feel closer to the hymies in Second Avenue Deli than I do to these people,” he tells Dr Shirley.

In fact, there was a time in America when Jews were not considered white, either.

Historian Eric Goldstein (author of The Price of Whiteness: Jews, Race, and American Identity) reproduces a startling photo in his book from 1925. It is a group of Jews at a show, sponsored by the Atlanta chapter of Hadassah, and held at the Progressive Club, one of Atlanta Jewry’s elite gathering places.

The photo is of a minstrel show. The Jews are in black face. The caption says, in part: “They [the Jews] frequently embraced black culture as a temporary escape from the pressures of conformity in white America.”

Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin serves as the senior rabbi of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Florida

FULL STORY The Green Book teaches about race in America (Religion News Service)

READ MORE
A black motorists’ guide to Jim Crow America, newly relevant (New York Times)
The Green Book, a travel manual published between 1936 and 1967 — and now the premise of a film by the same name — feels as necessary as ever

+ ROMA
Photo: scene from the film with Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali

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