The Case for Jewish Culture

Arts and culture can help renew Jewish communal life.

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.

The arts, by definition, cross all divides to educate and inspire. Not every artist’s work, because of content or sophistication, will be meaningful to everyone, but there are still many artists who could make valuable contributions to Jewish life. Archie Rand, the well-known painter, is one. His works, which include a mural at a Brooklyn synagogue and a series of paintings describing the weekly Torah portions, have made a striking impression on many Jews, shocking them into seeing Jewish life anew.

For Rand, the connection between the arts and spirituality is crystal-clear. As he said recently in Hadassah Magazine, “Belief is an essential component of artistic creation. Sometimes people think that passion, emotion, enthusiasm, subconscious psychological activity can exist totally removed from spirituality. You can’t function as an artist and not have faith. It’s inexplicable to me that the viewing public sees a division between religion and spirituality.”

The arts and culture are also a way to meet people where they are–a strategy the community honors principally in the breach. If the community wants Jews at the JCC’s, then they need to add to their “Introduction to the Prayerbook” class one on “Kabbalah and Art,” or else lose those Jews to the phonies teaching Jewish mysticism in fashion showrooms in Manhattan and Los Angeles. And why not a class on the Jewish themes in the work of Louis Kahn, or of Arnold Schoenberg, or on the mutual influence of klezmer and jazz? You’d need a video hook-up to accommodate the overflow.

Because we are a people of the Book, despite the current cultural climate in America and the domination of the visual media, it is still through the word that much of our community will inevitably renew itself. And without an evolving language that is fresh and vital and relevant, the likelihood of passing down a tradition of holiness diminishes. This doesn’t mean that new prayers must constantly be written, or that the classic texts shouldn’t be read and discussed in Hebrew. It just means that the language must live in people’s hearts and minds for it to touch them, and our artists, who are naturally so sensitive to this, can offer invaluable guidance.

I have been influenced by Buber’s I and Thou, and the connections he makes between the freshness of language and of religious transcendence. For Buber, the tragedy of spiritual and relational life is when all interactions between people become objectified and we relate to everything and everyone as an “it.” He advocates, instead, the much more difficult task of relating to people as “Thou,” as manifestations of God, and this in turn becomes the model for seeing in people the manifestation of God.

The Arts as Gateway to Shared Jewish Culture

The implications concerning literature and the arts are clear: Stale language and a reliance on cant leads to wooden spirituality and static relations with God as well as with other people. Conversely, serious creativity must emerge out of a dialogue and sense of community that sees the face of God in other people.

Despite the American Jewish antipathy to or neglect of the value, The General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations has given platforms for scholars and artists to talk about the communal value of the arts, and communities are beginning to set up local cultural councils and plan community-wide cultural activities with the expressed intention of connecting the religious and the artistic.

The American Jewish community is only now beginning to acknowledge the unapologetically Jewish content of artists like Archie Rand who are transforming art and culture in Jewish and non-Jewish venues. Unlike previous generations, today’s young artists can succeed in theater, dance, music, etc., with their Jewish sensibilities intact and positively asserted. Although there are still TV stars who play up their anxiety about Jewishness for laughs, an increasing number of well-known actors and other artists are addressing substantive Jewish issues in their work and/or lead strongly identified Jewish lives.

Apart from Rand, many other Jewish artists at the top of their field have taken this approach: playwright Tony Kushner, who begins “Angels in America” with a long midrash from a rabbi; rock star Peter Himmelman, with his references to God and tzitzit [fringes worn by observant Jews] flying out during concerts; composer/dramatist Liz Swados, who has brought biblical themes to stages around the country. The head of one of the most important Los Angeles theaters told me recently that he receives so many Jewish plays (and not just plays by Jews) that he could produce only Jewish works all year around and still fill the theater.

The flowering of Jewish Studies programs in recent years has created a cadre of professors knowledgeable about the role of arts and culture in Jewish history, and not afraid to talk about it at synagogues, federations, and elsewhere.

As Stanford University professor Arnold Eisen told the General Assembly in 1992, the challenge is to provoke the Jewish community, “which is very rationalist in its orientation and quite conservative in the way it reaches out to people” to realize that “people are more than words and that they are more than ideas. If we are serious about Jewish education, then we must realize that people are reached and reach other people through symbols, through images, through all sorts of media.”

I am waiting for the day when I can send my kids (well-educated Jewishly, of course) to a college where they can choose between a class on Talmud, a class on Jewish history, and a class on klezmer music. And if they choose the class on klezmer first, abie gezunt!

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