In the 1880s, audiences flocked to saloons to watch Irish entertainers sing, dance, and tell jokes. The residents of Mulligan’s Alley became household names. By 1915, the headliners at vaudeville houses were mostly Jewish immigrants like Sophie Tucker and the Marx Brothers. One often-overlooked reason for the Jewish ascendancy in vaudeville was the contrasting Jewish and Catholic attitudes towards bodily pleasure. This essay will look at the origins of those differences through the lives of Jesus and the founder of modern Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov or Besht. Though they lived in different eras and on different continents, there are striking similarities between the environments in which they proselytized, the anti-ascetic messages they preached, and in the ways that those messages evolved after their deaths.

The Historical Contexts

During the seventeenth century, Ukrainian peasant rebellions caused the deaths of more Jews than the Crusades; the survivors suffered extreme economic hardships. 1600 years before, Jesus’ Galilee had been in the grip of a severe economic crisis as well. Galilean smallholders groaned under such institutionalized injustices as double taxation, heavy indebtedness, and loss of land.
In early modern Eastern Europe, the toiling masses couldn’t afford the luxury of Talmudic study. As a result, the religious elite looked down on them as ignorant yokes and second-class Jews. Galileean farmers, labeled ammei ha’aretz, were also denigrated because of their doctrinal ignorance and their unwillingness to follow all the laws of ritual purity.
After the Ukrainian programs, Kabbalistic asceticism gained adherents among the religious elite. Treatises stressed unremitting gloom, oppressive piety, and self-mortification. Fasting on Mondays and Wednesdays was advocated, and for the truly devout, even the Sabbath became a day of tearful mourning and repentance. At the beginning of the Common Era, Jewish renewal movements had also embraced asceticism. Most closely associated with Jesus’ ministry was John the Baptist, who wore “clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4)

Inspirational Leadership Arises

Jesus understood the need to bring joy into the lives of the ammei ha’aretz. He rejected asceticism for he “came eating and drinking … a glutton and a winebibber.” When he rejected voluntary fasting for his followers, he was admonished: “Why did the disciples of John and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Luke 7:32-34; Mark 2:18)
The Besht also rejected self-punishment. He reasoned that if the world is full of God’s glory (Isaiah 6:13), then the pious Kabbalists were wrong to turn their backs on its pleasures. Indeed, the Besht mandated the use of material pleasures as a means of spiritual elevation, for the soul cannot rejoice in the spiritual, he said, until the material has rejoiced in the corporeal.
The Besht’s and Jesus’s most important followers, Paul and Dov Baer (known as the Maggid) both took very different stances than their teachers. Paul (Romans 7:5) claimed that “when we were in the flesh, the sinful desires … were active in the members of our body to bear fruit for death,” and exalted celibacy “for it is good for man to not touch a woman.” To married couples, he (ICorinthians 7:1) preached passionless sex: “Every one of you should know how to possess his vessel in sanctification and honor. Not in the passion of lust, even as the Gentiles which know not God.” The Maggid also insisted that sex among married couples should be joyless: “Even during intercourse one should ignore the physical in favor of the spiritual,” he declared.
Neither Paul nor the Maggid met with much favor at first. Paul was in fundamental conflict with the first apostles. The Pastoral Letters, ascribed to Paul but actually written long after his death, undermined him by requiring bishops to be married and proclaiming that teachings that forbade marriage and demanded abstinence from certain foods came from “deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons.” They also instructed, “No longer drink only water, but take a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” These efforts to restore a physicality to Christianity were ultimately unsuccessful, given the wide dissemination of Paul’s authentic writings and the fact that asceticism was an established component of the Hellenism that pagan converts brought with them into Christianity. The rejection of bodily pleasures became a core principle of the Christianity that Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine did so much to shape.
In contrast, as I detail elsewhere, the Maggid’s asceticism never took root in Hasidism. Almost all of the Besht’s senior disciples rejected the Maggid as his successor. Most important, those who faithfully followed the Besht’s views ignited the religious fervor of the masses. Jacob Joseph’s Toledot Yako Yosepf transmitted the luminous inner-circle teachings of the Besht into a clear social directive to the ordinary Hasid. Through the Tanya, the first Lubavitch rebbe, Shneur Zalman, explicitly rejected ascetic practices: “Contriteness and humility are what fasts are supposed to accomplish and these can be achieved through meditation.” Thanks to their efforts, the Besht’s emphasis on joyfully serving God with one’s physical senses took firm hold.

The Impact of these Contrasting Views of Bodily Pleasure

Surely one of the least-recognized ramifications of Hasidism and Catholicism’s contrasting views on bodily pleasure is the effect they had on commercial vaudeville, but they are unmistakable. Vaudeville’s beginnings were dominated by the Famine Irish, a generation that came to America with little religion. After the Famine, however, Cardinal Cullen led a religious revival in Ireland that revived Augustinian notions of bodily sin. Irish nuns and priest brought these anti-pleasure beliefs to America, making it difficult for practicing Catholics to either enter or remain in vaudeville. As I detail elsewhere, after 1900, the Irish were no longer ubiquitous in American entertainment and by WWI, the “stage Irishman” had all but disappeared from American theaters.
In contrast, the joyfulness and physicality that played such an important role in early Hasidim carried over into the generally positive attitudes towards bodily pleasure and female sexuality among Eastern European Jews. Though Catholic Church leaders railed against the growing decadence, Jewish immigrant performers and entrepreneurs brought a new earthy energy to commercial vaudeville that resonated with larger and larger audiences.