Jews have done so well for themselves in American comedy for close to a century now that it’s difficult to imagine a time when the dominant Gentiles would actually impersonate them in a manner not unlike blackface. But such a time there was, my friends. Such a character was commonly called “the Hebrew”. Many actual Jews got their start playing such characters, but prior to that, so did many non-Jews. One such gentleman was Joe Welch, born around 1875. He played a sad-sack Jewish peddler of the sort that clogged the streets on the Lower East Side in the late 19th-early 20th centuries. His catchphrase was “Mebbe you tink I am a heppy man?”, delivered with a sigh and a shrug. And then he would go on to chronicle all of his comic misfortunes. In the early twentieth century, he was one of the top comedians in vaudeville. In 1919, he passed away, possibly from syphilis. (I have been shocked in my vaudeville research at the number of performers who were taken by this scourge, it was clearly a very real pitfall of unprotected sex in the days before penicillin).
To learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.