The Case for Jewish Culture

Arts and culture can help renew Jewish communal life.

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This opinion piece argues that since most Jewish identify themselves as cultural rather than religious Jews, Jewish cultural arts should assume a central role in Jewish organizational and communal life. This article was originally published in The Reconstructionist: A Journal of Contemporary Jewish Thought and Practice and is reprinted with permission. The original article, with footnotes, can be found on the journal's website.

In San Francisco recently, several hundred mostly unaffiliated Jews crammed into a major synagogue to hear a night of foot-stamping klezmer music. Community leaders, not expecting such a large turnout, left scratching their heads, apparently unaware that a style of music inspired by shtetl [village] and ghetto life could draw so many young, secular sophisticated Jews into a synagogue.

Culture at the Heart of Jewish Life

But why should anybody be surprised at the effect arts and culture has on American Jews? The fact that a music concert should draw people to the core institution of Jewish life, people that might otherwise never or seldom attend shul, confirms what should be obvious: that the arts and culture are nearer the heart of Jewish life, and nearer the hearts of Jewish people, than many community leaders admit.

case for jewish cultureThe 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which indicated that more people identified themselves as "cultural" than as "religious" or any other category, further brings home the point. Our search for renewal and continuity should begin where people are often the most touched and inspired: the concert hall, the book of poetry, the film, the dance floor.

Arts and culture can help renew Jewish life because their dynamic, spiritual, and emotional nature can inspire individuals, create a sense of community, and provoke radically new ideas. This renewal can take the form of connecting with those outside the purview of Jewish institutional life, reenergizing those Jews within the community, and perhaps even bridging the gaps between different Jewish communities.

Although "the arts" refers basically to music, drama, literature, etc., "culture" is a much more difficult word to define. Often taken to mean the sum total of how a community articulates who and what it is, the sociological definition excludes almost nothing, and is too broad for the purposes of this discussion. I understand Jewish culture to refer primarily to the arts, as well as to the humanities and the exercise of the intellect.

Why the Arts?

Why does the American Jewish community need to consider and support the arts more wholeheartedly than it has in the past? The more the Jewish community is divided over religion and Israel--and the fewer challenges which remain, like fighting for civil rights, battling anti-Semitism and freeing Soviet Jewry--the more it needs something inspiring to hold it together. To modify the old saying, when the fiddler comes around, the Jews stop arguing and listen. We could all use a fiddler these days.

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Dan Schifrin

Dan Schifrin is the former director of communications for the National Foundation of Jewish Culture.