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February 14: Jack Benny

Lawrence Bush
February 14, 2010

Jack_Benny_CastJack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky) was born on this day in 1894. One of America’s favorite comedians on radio, television and in film, Benny was married to Sadye Marks, whom some say was a cousin of the Marx Brothers and who played his stage girlfriend in most of the incarnations of his show. Another key character, his African-American valet, Rochester van Jones (played by Eddie Anderson), was edgy for his day insofar as Rochester both sassed and gave sound instruction to his “boss” to his face. Along with Bing Crosby, Edgar Bergen and Eddie Cohen, Jack Benny helped the American Federation of Radio Artists negotiate its first national contract in 1938 (with CBS and NBC); within two years, 70 percent of radio shows had been unionized. Benny also spoke regularly about the racial diversity of the U.S. armed forces during World War II and, after the war instructed his writers to avoid all racist stereotypes. His 1942 film with Carole Lombard, To Be or Not To Be, portrayed stage artists participating in the Polish resistance to Nazism. His comic persona was vain, cheap, thin-skinned, and untalented, yet somehow lovable because he was so fully embedded in a responsive community and showed a vulnerability that was rare for male leads.
“I was born in Waukegan a long, long time ago. As a matter of fact, our rabbi was an Indian.” —Jack Benny

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.