The Death of Jewish Culture

Not so long ago, Jewish culture seemed to flourish in America; but now all signs point in the opposite direction. What happened?
<em>Lili Liana as Lea in the 1937 film version of S. An-sky's Yiddish play </em>The Dybbuk.
Lili Liana as Lea in the 1937 film version of S. An-sky's Yiddish play The Dybbuk.
May 4 2014
About the author

James Loeffler, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and scholar-in-residence at Pro Musica Hebraica, is currently the Robert A. Savitt fellow at the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His “The Death of Jewish Culture” was the featured monthly essay in Mosaic for May 2014.

Fifteen years ago this spring, I walked through the doors of a gleaming new postmodern sanctuary on New York’s Upper West Side. Known as Makor, this nightclub-cum-gallery billed itself as a secular Jewish arts-and-culture mecca for New York’s young hipsters. Its leaders promised to rebrand Judaism for the age of world music and poetry slams. If its name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s because Makor quietly shut down in 2006. Despite an infusion of cash and a friendly takeover by the 92nd Street Y, its graying great aunt, the cultural center could not survive.

Makor’s fate came to mind recently as I read of the demise of another, better known institution, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. For five decades, this grant-making entity funded all things Jewish and cultural in America—plays, films, books, museums, scholarship, even a record label. Only a few years ago, it dropped the word “national” from its name, signaling an ambitious bid to become a global network for Jewish culture. Now it, too, has collapsed.

What caused these two initiatives to disappear? Theories abound. Some blame internal politics; others put the onus on leadership (poor), money (scarce), or real estate (prohibitive). But the most obvious reason is the simplest: both of them failed the test of relevance. If the cause of Jewish culture cannot sustain a modest physical presence in New York City, the symbolic center of American Jewish life, then it would seem to have exhausted its raison d’être. Indeed, the time may have come to acknowledge the truth: the project of Jewish culture is dead.

But wait! (I can hear you say.) Do not Jewish film festivals dot the urban landscape from Washington to San Francisco? Isn’t the klezmer musical revival so successful as to be taken for granted as a fixture of Jewish, and indeed American, life? Are not new Jewish museums opening year after year? Are not Jewish artists and composers making Jewish art and music, including in a liturgical mode? In a publishing industry rocked by worries about declining book sales, do not Jewish titles enjoy a reliable body of readers and buyers?

Yes to all of the above, and more: in and of itself, the sheer scale of this activity is not only undeniable, but it also speaks well for American Jewish creativity. But Jewish culture means something other than simply the sum total of works of art or other artifacts, of whatever quality, made by individuals who happen to be Jews. Nor is Jewish culture merely the sum total of such works made by Jews on explicitly Jewish themes. It refers instead to a self-consciously modern, public culture, rooted in the unique civilization that gave it birth and formed its voice, and expressive of a thick, expansive, and holistic identity.

A century ago, Eastern Europe was the setting for a secular movement embracing just this vision of Jewish culture and inspiring, under its aegis, a lasting body of art, music, literature, and thought. In our own time, many have hoped that America’s benign environment would prove the seedbed of a similarly rich and nourishing harvest. In taking the measure of those hopes, and of what has become of them, it may be useful to start with a look back.


1. From Shofar to Clarinet

In January 1910, the city of St. Petersburg played host to the largest Jewish cultural gathering in its history. An audience of 3,000 poured into the Hall of the Nobility, the city’s grandest and most ornate concert space, to listen to Jewish music. Hundreds more were turned away for lack of room. The music heard that night was not exactly new: Yiddish folk songs, Hebrew prayers, and klezmer tunes right out of the soundscape of the East European shtetl. Yet the event proved revolutionary—and not just because of its scale. Rather, this was one of the first consciously secular concerts of Jewish music ever held. Both the prestigious setting and the novel program—classical arrangements of, essentially, folk music—testified to the birth of a peculiarly modern Jewish culture.

One of the key architects of this cultural revolution was the Yiddish writer and folklorist S. An-sky (Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport, 1863-1920). An-sky had witnessed firsthand the terrible anti-Jewish violence unleashed by Russian pogroms and the carnage of World War I. But a greater threat than anti-Semitism, he believed, was creeping assimilation. Already, he lamented, the Jews of Russia were becoming “reverse Marranos”: that is, outwardly still Jewish but inwardly, in their minds and hearts, undistinguishable from their Gentile neighbors. Disembarrassed of religious tradition, their Jewishness lacked any positive content.

What, then, would make them Jewish? An-sky’s answer, and that of his fellow East European writers, composers, artists, and intellectuals, was to construct a new kind of secular Jewish identity, outside the traditional channels of the synagogue and the study house and yet equally capable of withstanding the fact of continuing anti-Semitism. “A people, a nation does not live by suffering but by a conscious rapture of its genius,” he wrote. To achieve this proud self-awareness, Jews formerly mired in medieval religious tradition were required to stand up anew as a modern people possessed of its own national culture.

As for the building blocks of that national culture, they would be formed out of the stuff of the already vanishing past: folksongs, religious customs, ancient texts, hasidic commentaries, and so forth. The biblical “nation of priests” would become a nation of artists. The “people of the shofar,” An-sky declared, must become the “people of the clarinet.” 

Of course, An-sky hardly expected every Jew to become a Marc Chagall or a Jascha Heifetz (though quite a few individuals would scale those heights). Rather, he intended Jews to employ art and culture in the forging of a radically new and life-giving version of an old faith. His own greatest works answered to the challenge of this grand mission: the world-famous play, The Dybbuk (1914; film version 1937), about a soul trapped “between two worlds” and, in another sphere of writing, the unfinished Der Mentsh (“The Man”), a monumental survey of Eastern European Jewish folklore and religious beliefs conducted personally by means of a vast ethnographic expedition and a 2,000-item questionnaire. The former offered a moving artistic evocation of the world of religious tradition for Jews who had lately departed its precincts; the latter was a manual for the composition of a new “oral Torah” in which culture, in both the anthropological and the aesthetic sense, could itself become a vessel of the sacred.

No less crucially, An-sky argued, Jewish culture would provide a connective tissue, linking Jews together as a people across the deep fissures of modern religion and politics. He knew those divides well, having traversed the roads between Hebrew Haskalah (Enlightenment), Russian radicalism, and Yiddish socialism. Precisely because he was something of a political shape-shifter himself, An-sky understood how culture might serve as a unifying force in the landscape of the new Jewish world aborning. Even as modernity threatened to tear apart traditional Jewish life, it offered the promise of a new kind of collective rebirth.


Although he was a Jewish nationalist, and although he was not immune to the Zionist impulse, An-sky himself was not a Zionist. But it is hardly surprising that the same cultural vision emerged within the Zionist movement proper. An-sky’s contemporary and friend, the Russian Jewish poet Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934), Zionist bard and father of modern Hebrew verse, also called for a national cultural renaissance. In “King David’s Tomb,” an early poetic fragment, Bialik imagines the inside of the biblical monarch’s burial chamber. “On a bed of gold in his grave’s cave, bedecked in purple robes, as if asleep, lies David, King of Israel,” he wrote; “above his bed hangs a harp of gold with a scroll stuck between its muted strings.” The mission of modern Jewish artists, Bialik suggested, was to pluck free the scroll from the strings. The harp releases its suspended glissando. The scroll divulges its hidden words. Jewish art is reborn.

Bialik’s image of the mute royal harp spoke to the intertwined fates of art, religion, and politics. Inspired by King David’s own twin acts of creative audacity—crafting psalms, forging a nation—Bialik went on to breathe new life into the ancient Jewish language and text. For Jewish artists, as he saw it, the way forward lay in the creative reinvention of their religious heritage as secular culture. That culture would in turn undergird the political rebirth of the Jewish nation in its ancient homeland.

This theme was picked up and amplified by the Hebrew writer and critic Ahad Ha’am (Asher Ginzburg, 1856-1927), another luminary of the modern Jewish cultural renaissance and Bialik’s close collaborator. In 1902, addressing a summer congress of young Zionist activists in the city of Minsk, Ahad Ha’am laid out his ideological vision of the role of Jewish culture in the national revival. Beginning in the late 18th century, with the first waves of political emancipation, Jews had squandered both their nationhood and their national art. “It is not that we have suddenly lost our original creative faculty,” he argued, but that we now “submerge our national individuality in the pursuit of assimilation.” So far had Jews traveled “along the road of national self-effacement that we are no longer even conscious of the evil”:

Indeed, so far from regretting the dissipation of our cultural strength, we are positively beside ourselves with joy and pride when a Jew achieves distinction in the outside world, and we lose no time in reminding the world that he is one of us—though he himself may be very anxious to let that fact be forgotten.

Again, the solution to assimilation was cultural renaissance, this time conceived and effectuated through the instrumentality of the Hebrew language. And again, the solution would take the form of a secular culture wrought out of religious heritage. Himself an agnostic ex-Hasid, Ahad Ha’am celebrated the riches of rabbinic culture as a textual empire awaiting modern secular interpretation. “We have in the first place,” he wrote, “to perfect the body of culture which the Jewish people has created in the past, and to stimulate its creative power to fresh expression.” Then, and only then, would the Jewish people be restored “to its rightful place in the comity of human culture.” In furtherance of this project, both Ahad Ha’am and Bialik labored to collect source texts—the Otzar ha-yahadut (“Treasury of Judaism”) and the Sefer ha-aggadah (“Book of Legends”), respectively—that would provide the material for post-religious art and cultural identity.


2. The Flowering of Jewish Culture

Such calls hardly went unheeded. In the early 20th century, a generation of Eastern European artists and intellectuals rallied to the public mission of Jewish culture. Together they launched modern Jewish literature in Yiddish and Hebrew as well as Russian and Polish; the key names, including the iconic figures of Sholem Aleichem, Mendele Mokher Sforim, I. L.Peretz, S.Y. Agnon, Itsik Manger, and others are far too numerous to mention. From composers like Joel Engel, Alexander Krein, and Mikhail Gnesin came the first modern Jewish art music: string quartets, symphonies, even operas. In Palestine, the Russian-born Abraham Zvi Idelsohn conducted a musical kinus (ingathering), collecting Jewish musical traditions from around the world. Inspired by An-sky, the Habimah troupe in Hebrew and the Vilna troupe in Yiddish launched modern Jewish theater. Even the first Jewish museum and the earliest works of Jewish photography date from that fertile era before, during, and after the cataclysm of World War I.

Elite experiments and manifestos were greeted with enthusiasm and were accompanied by a Jewish cultural renaissance on the ground. In shtetls, larger towns, and cities across Eastern Europe, Jews established thousands of local cultural organizations and societies of their own, including amateur orchestras, Yiddish theater companies, Hebrew libraries, folklore circles, and more. As the historian Jeffrey Veidlinger has recently shown, the moment even produced its own social type: the Jewish “this-worldnik” (in Yiddish, oylem ha-zenik). No longer accepting or heeding rabbinic strictures concerning the profane and putatively “Gentile” nature of artistic production, they chose the higher secular pleasures to be had in the here-and-now over the abstract promises of the world to come (oylem ha-ba), actively stepping out into the world as creators and consumers of their own public culture.


To be sure, this public culture was not without its problems, foremost among them the complete repudiation by some secular this-worldniks of even the slightest taint of religiously-infused motifs. Yet others, including, as we have seen, the strongest proponents of Jewish cultural secularism, vigorously argued the opposite. Their number included not only An-sky, Bialik, and Ahad Ha’am but the highly influential I(saac) L(eybush) Peretz (1852-1915), arguably the founding father of modern Yiddish literature.

In a famous 1910 essay, “What is Missing in our Literature?,” Peretz questioned what his fellow Jewish artists and intellectuals had wrought in the new moment of renaissance. After decades of highbrow secular writing in Yiddish, he lamented, the only thing that Jews had produced was a poorly chosen—and, as he put it, “badly translated”—version of European literature. “It’s a tragi-comic sight,” he wrote: “a hoar-headed old man going to school with children to learn; an ancient people, the oldest, with a young, the youngest literature.” In the rush to leap out of the ghetto, to make Jewishness modern, relevant, attractive, and modish, Jewish artists had lost both their dignity and their voice.

For Peretz, that voice began with religion:

Go take a light and look for tradition in our [modern] literature. You won’t find it. You hear nowhere the echo of the sounds on Mount Sinai, you see nowhere the reflection of the sh’khinah [divine presence] over the cherubim [on the holy ark]. The prophetic word is mute. . . . A wandering people and their literature are like stagnant water. What is missing is the high place from which to see it all. The prophet stands on the height and sees lands and cities at his feet, armies and peoples marching. Our own are not among them. The prophet sees the future. We see the morrow with the eyes of the liberals or through the glasses of social democrats.

Peretz himself was no traditionalist. To the contrary, his prose and poetry introduced into Jewish writing a sensibility rich with psychological introspection and painful self-consciousness, the hallmarks of the secular modernist aesthetic. His characters search for God, curse God, doubt God. His political writings, with their fiery denunciations of the ills of European society, verge on socialist pamphleteering. And he reserved a special ire for the hypocrisy of the myopic Orthodoxy of his day.

Nor did he harbor nostalgia for Yiddish for its own sake. “It is not enough to speak Yiddish,” he challenged his fellow cultural activists, “You must have something to say!” But that something, he insisted, also had to be rooted in something. To become modern, paradoxically, Jews had to hold on to the traditions that made them an eternal people. Only then would they produce a viable, authentic, and dignified Jewish pathway through which to integrate as a nation into the larger “culture of humanity.”

An-sky felt the same way. In common with Bialik, Ahad Ha’am, Peretz and many of the artists mentioned earlier, he insisted that in order to build a modern Jewish consciousness, religious tradition (mesorah) and folklore had to be incorporated within and converted into high culture (tarbut in Hebrew; kultur in Yiddish). Though they differed on the political framework of this project—some wanted nationhood in Zion, others were content to bet on European socialism (and, later, on American democracy)—they shared the conviction that the Jewish imaginative genius, if it were to have a viable future, must remain grounded in a real knowledge of Jewish religious tradition and a highly conscious sense of Jewish peoplehood.

They were also painfully aware that this ground was less than solid beneath their feet—hence the preservationist impulse behind much of their work. “There is no other people like the Jewish people,” An-sky declared in 1908, “that talks about itself so much, but knows itself so little.” He directed these words at his assimilating fellow Russian Jews. They speak equally, if not with greater force, to American Jews of our day.


3. Jewish Culture Comes to America

“It is in America that the last great battle of Judaism will be fought,” the English playwright Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) once wrote. A liberal order was in the process of removing the cordon of anti-Semitism that separated Jews from their surrounding society. But what then? Judaism had survived millennia of isolation and persecution; freedom and tolerance posed a fundamentally new test, and it remained to be seen whether and how Judaism would pass it.

When it came to Jewish culture, many of Zangwill’s American contemporaries voiced great optimism. Some went so far as to liken American conditions to those of medieval Spain. There, it was said, the rich interplay between Jewish and Muslim civilization had produced a magnificent cultural renaissance. In the benign and tolerant climate of American democracy, under a system of government that gave (in the oft-quoted words of George Washington) “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” it could surely happen again.  

For much of the 20th century, to be sure, American Jews had other things on their minds than Jewish culture. An immigrant people, they focused on the demands and opportunities of their new society, its politics, and its religious life. “Jewish culture” in America meant something different from the East European program for a new Jewish identity. It meant the contributions made by individual Jews to American culture writ large: comedy, film, literature, theater, dance, music, and more.

There’s no contesting the imprint these contributions left on American culture. But as for a specifically Jewish culture, that was largely restricted to the sphere of speakers and writers of Yiddish, a robust but limited zone that shrank steadily with the progressive decline in the numbers of those for whom Yiddish was a mother tongue.

This, at least, was the case for the first half of the century. But then, beginning in the mid-60s and gaining ground in the 70s, a new wave of interest in ethnicity sparked a society-wide American romance with roots and group identity. This discovery (or rediscovery) of an enduring American pluralism—a landmark study by Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan bore the tell-all title, Beyond the Melting Pot (1963)—was a complex phenomenon, fed by a number of domestic developments that need not detain us here.

Among Jews, specifically, the energies of the ethnic “moment,” coinciding as it did with the heady emotions surrounding the June 1967 Six-Day War, percolated up through many aspects of Jewish communal life. It would be marked by, among other things, the introduction of Israel Day parades in cities across the land, an assertive campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry, and the establishment of programs of Jewish studies at American universities. In helping to develop the last-named of these, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which opened its doors in 1960, would play a critical role.

By the 1990s, however, the energies fostered by these and similar initiatives had devolved into fears about Jewish “continuity.” Stoked by the findings on escalating rates of intermarriage reported in the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, these fears bred, in turn, calls for something that could rightly be called a Jewish cultural renaissance—one that could revitalize Jewish identity and affiliation, particularly among the younger members of an increasingly diverse and secularized community. In short order, music, book, and film festivals sprang up across the United States, many of them now supported by the revamped and renamed Foundation for Jewish Culture. Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation launched a documentary film fund. New Jewish museums and performing-arts venues aimed to meet the need once filled by synagogues and community centers. In Los Angeles, the Skirball Cultural Center opened in 1996 with a mission “to explore the connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals.” Eight years later, Boston Jewish communal leaders announced with great fanfare plans for an $80-million campaign to build a New Center for the Arts and Culture that would “explore the Jewish imagination, reflecting the spirit of contemporary Jewish culture while discovering universal themes through a Jewish lens.”

In brief, Jewish culture once again came to be regarded as a pathway to Jewish identity: an ultimate outreach tool to Jews who might recoil either from the ritual and spiritual commitment required by Jewish religion or the particularism implied in the notion of Jewish peoplehood. Replace forbidding synagogue prayers with concerts of Jewish music, the reasoning went, and you will provide a meaningful way for post-religious Jews to assert their own place in the multicultural arena. Swap traditional text study for Jewish-themed book talks, and you afford a palatably “universal” means for Jews to engage with their own literary heritage.

Since the 1990s, Jewish leaders and educational experts have repeatedly invoked the potential of such a new cultural renaissance; some consciously cite the ideal of a previous century, a model that even today, they hope, will beckon many toward a capacious, pluralistic, yet rooted Jewish identity. What they have tended to overlook is the fact that roots require a soil in which to grow. Despite evidence of continuing creativity, at least in some spheres, Jewish culture today lacks a viable connection to the two elements of tradition identified, rightly, by I.L. Peretz and others as essential to the success of the Jewish cultural project: religion and peoplehood.


Of all the pieces of Jewish literature to appear in the past year, the one that makes the most sober reading is the Pew Study of American Jewish Life. This demographic report card has provoked a new round of communal self-flagellation. There is anxiety over intermarriage; worry over shrinkage in synagogue affiliation; alarm over the attenuation of American Jews’ attachment to Israel. Largely missing is any discussion of Jewish culture.

This may be in part the fault of the survey’s questionnaire, where the word “culture” or “cultural” does not appear except as a euphemism describing unaffiliated Jews who might otherwise be identified as “secular” or “ethnic.” What we do learn from the study is that half of American Jews claim to value, as essential to their Jewishness, the quality of intellectual curiosity and/or a good sense of humor. Half also know the letters of the Hebrew alphabet—but not much more than that. Obviously, none of this so much as begins to add up to a Jewish cultural identity in its classical sense, and little in the Pew Study seems even to entertain the possibility, so central to the vision of a hundred years ago, of a secular Jewishness immersed in a coherent, historically rooted world of sounds, ideas, rituals, emotions, texts, and affiliations.

Are American Jews, then, alienated from Jewish feelings? Do they lack Jewish identities? Not at all: they freely and openly profess such feelings, and appear quite comfortable with their Jewish identity. Rather, the content of that identity has itself shrunk to a solely internal realm of subjective experience and emotion, fortified by clichés and bits and pieces of an elementary cultural literacy.

Nor have the large-scale contemporary programs of Jewish culture addressed this problem. Instead, they may be said to have contributed to it. Their offerings, like those of the now-shuttered Makor, tend to pin the label “Jewish” on almost any expression of art or social behavior that might appeal, on grounds of hipness, to the constituencies they aspire to reach. These can range from a discussion in which a journalist or pundit who happens to be Jewish holds forth on public issues of possible interest to American Jews—as Americans—to, in the promotional words of one leading cultural center, “events feature[ing] cooking, art, dance, film, music, and assorted pop-culture happenings– all with a Jewish twist.” In the post-modern, post-ethnic, post-religious moment, almost anything, it seems, can count as Jewish culture. 

Is it any wonder that this big-tent approach finds relatively few takers? The gruel, too thin for those Jews who are actually hungry for the real thing even if they can’t put a name to it, is of equally little interest to those who can pick and choose among “assorted pop-cultural happenings” unburdened by any artificial Jewish imprimatur. If a point of pride for contemporary American Jewish cultural organizations is their commitment to the broadest possible definition of Jewish culture, this very eschewal of boundaries constitutes their greatest challenge. A broader, more inclusive, more “universal” Judaism, without even the most tenuous link to the traditional markers of Jewish identity, is a contradiction in terms and, culturally speaking, a prescription for sterility.


4. What’s Missing Today

Where, then, can one look for the real thing?

An ultimate boundary marker for an authentic Jewish culture is a Jewish language. In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth’s fictional alter ego declares giddily that American Jews have it “in their heads to be Jews in a way no one [has] ever dared to be a Jew in our three-thousand-year history: speaking and thinking American English, only American English, with all the apostasy that [is] bound to beget.” In this sense, the vast majority of American Jews are already deep into apostasy, and are paying the cultural price for it.

In Israel, by contrast, the rebirth of the Hebrew language has turned a polyglot immigrant society in the Middle East into the one place where the East European model of Jewish culture has succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. We tend to think of Israeli society as a modern political experiment grafted onto ancient religious foundations. But equally important is the cultural DNA of modern Israel. It is precisely the interplay between religion and secularism, nationhood and cosmopolitanism, that animates the greatest poetry, prose, music, art, and dance to emerge from Israeli society. The Hebrew language allows for this cultural ferment without the obsessive circling-around of questions of boundaries that so defines American Jewish culture.

Unfortunately, much of this Israeli creative output remains off-limits to monolingual American Jews. There is of course translation, but reading in translation, as Bialik wrote, is like kissing through a veil, and the same goes for creating in translation. Which only exacerbates the question of whether the “real thing” could ever happen in America, and what it might look like.  

A partial answer to that question was on tantalizing display this past February at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. There, just over a century after the fabled St. Petersburg concert of 1910, a reprise of sorts took place before a sellout audience of 2,000 as the piano virtuoso Evgeny Kissin presented a stunning program of late-19th- and early-20th-century Jewish music and poetry. Under the auspices of the Pro Musica Hebraica project—with which I have been involved for the past several years—the Russian Jewish Kissin, publicly embracing his own heritage, took his spellbound listeners on a revelatory tour of modern Jewish culture.

It mattered little that the poetry, in Yiddish (recited by Kissin himself with supertitles projected, opera-style, above the stage), was a century old. Or that most of the piano compositions were wholly unfamiliar to American ears, having languished in obscurity for a similar period of time. As the reviewers and critics would enthusiastically attest, the music and poetry of Jewish Eastern Europe lost none of their sophistication or affective force in the transmission from that time and place to ours. The impact was singular. For a few moments, the audience glimpsed a vision of cultural Judaism in its original raw power: secular, yet intimately grounded in the world of religion; universal, yet firmly in possession of its own national identity.

Like I. L. Peretz and Hayyim Nahman Bialik before him, Evgeny Kissin is no sentimentalist. The proof lay in the process by which the program’s selections were decided upon. For nearly four years, my colleagues and I sent him dozens upon dozens of musical compositions. Time and again, he replied swiftly in the negative. Even for the final program, he opted to play only five out of the six pieces in a dance suite by the Russian Jewish composer Alexander Krein; the first five had impressed him, the sixth not. A stringent master of artistic excellence, Kissin refused to compromise on quality simply for the sake of cultural patriotism, or to play music just by virtue of its paternity.

He was right. Art in service of identity is no guarantee of quality, and culture cannot be created by fiat or ordered up on demand by foundations and centers. By the same token, respect for the past and loyalty to tradition, both of which are preconditions of any culture worthy of the name, do not obligate us to surrender our critical faculties. These are lessons with particular applicability today, when the paucity and thinness of contemporary Jewish culture in America make so stark a contrast with the founding moments of modern Jewish culture in Eastern Europe and the gorgeous flowering of Jewish culture in contemporary Israel.

Of course, the performance and preservation of recognized masterpieces are one thing; new creation is another. The former are necessary for the latter, but not sufficient. At the very beginning of this essay, I recognized the proliferation of new art and music and literature by American Jews. At the end, even with all my reservations in mind, I recognize the possibility of a true Jewish cultural revival in this country. It could yet happen; it might take only the appearance on the scene of one or two geniuses to spark it into existence. (They may even be among us.) But the odds are against it.

Bialik took the idea for his poem on King David’s harp from a passage in the Talmud. The original reads:

David hung his harp above his bed. When midnight would arrive, the north wind would blow upon the harp. The strings would vibrate and produce music. David would immediately rise and begin studying Torah. He would continue his studies even as the first light of dawn appeared in the sky.

The ancient rabbis reimagined the biblical King David as a divinely motivated student of the law. For them, music roused the faithful to their service to God. For the Jews of Eastern Europe, by contrast, King David’s lost music inspired a secular rebirth of awakened peoplehood. Their entire project was built on the tension between a recovered past and an uncertain future. Perhaps that is why Bialik never actually finished writing his poem, “King David’s Tomb.” The ending is uncertain, but it remains open. The question for American Jews is whether a comparable vision can point to a rebirth of Jewish culture in our own day. If so, what is it?


  1. Culture and the Classroom by Michael Weingrad
    Programs of Jewish studies in colleges and universities have added greatly to the possibilities for Jewish self-understanding. But they offer no sure pathway to Jewish identity.
  2. A Death Greatly Exaggerated by Jonathan Rosen
    Despite reports to the contrary, American Jewish culture isn’t a “project” and it isn’t dead. Far from it.
  3. Hello, I Must Be Going by Abraham Socher
    How long can a culture sustain itself on rebellion against its predecessor?
  4. Jewish Culture and Its Discontents by James Loeffler
    Let me say it again: Jewish secular culture is too thin and open to support a real collective identity. So now what?
  5. The Death of Jewish Culture Revisited by Felix Posen and James Loeffler
    An exchange between the foremost philanthropic supporter of secular Jewish culture and the analyst of its decline.

More about: America, I.L. Peretz, James Loeffler, Jewish Culture, Jewish literature, S. An-sky, Zionism


Culture and the Classroom

Programs of Jewish studies in colleges and universities have added greatly to the possibilities for Jewish self-understanding. But they offer no sure pathway to Jewish identity.

The folklorist Zusman Kisselhof recording Yiddish songs in a shtetl in Kremenets, Ukraine, in 1912.
The folklorist Zusman Kisselhof recording Yiddish songs in a shtetl in Kremenets, Ukraine, in 1912.
May 11 2014
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University, and the editor and translator of Letters to America: Selected Poems of Reuven Ben-Yosef  (out now from Syracuse University Press). He is a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books, and he also writes at the website Investigations and Fantasies.


Reading James Loeffler’s masterful diagnosis of the failure of cultural Judaism, I was reminded of my first meeting, nine years ago, with the newly arrived director of an Orthodox educational center in Portland, Oregon. We were walking out of synagogue services together when he introduced himself by saying: “I hear we’re in the same line of business.” Without wanting to be rude, I felt I had to correct him. “No,” I said, “we’re not. You teach Torah. I teach Jewish studies.”

The difference between the two is an important part of the story Loeffler tells so cogently, and it sheds a light of its own on his claim that secular cultural programs, despite their often admirable achievements, are a shaky substitute for the “thick, expansive, and holistic identity” promised by the term “Jewish culture.” Scholarship, in the form of academic Jewish studies, has frequently been enlisted in attempts to build just such a modern Jewish identity. It was, as Loeffler notes, an important element in the portfolio of the now-defunct Foundation for Jewish Culture, an organization that funded my own university department quite generously. Even more directly, the Posen Foundation has sought to promote its own vision of a “thick, expansive, and holistic” secular Jewishness by funding courses in this area on American and Israeli college campuses. The fact that it froze its American initiatives a few years ago may simply indicate a shift to other means toward the same end, like the projected multivolume Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization; or it may be yet another sign, at least outside of Israel, of cultural Judaism’s poor return on investment.


Like cultural Judaism, its frequent partner, the academic study of Judaism also has a backstory, in this case going back to the emergence in Germany of Wissenschaft des Judentums, the modern “science” of Judaism. Throughout the 19th century, the fruits of this scholarship were enlisted in such non-academic endeavors as making the case for Jewish citizenship, justifying internal religious reform, and retrieving from the Jewish past certain elements (like national identity) that had become particularly useful or desirable in the conditions of the present.

Unlike in the case of cultural Judaism, however, there has always been a fundamental tension in Jewish studies between the scholar’s aspiration toward detachment and objectivity and the various public projects that scholarship has been asked to serve. Today, especially, academics are historically orientated, or try to be. In his oft-cited book, Zakhor, the late Yosef Haim Yerushalmi explains that whereas the historian assembles and tries to give order to mountains of facts, working to reveal the whole fabric of history and making few claims about how it should guide life today or why one strand should be valued more than another, the building of communal identity depends on selecting certain facts, endowing them with contemporary significance, and leaving aside or effacing others. I am not convinced that the academic pursuit is really as objective as claimed (more on this below), but in theory it certainly puts scholarship in frequent conflict with identity formation. I later remarked to that same Orthodox director, who became my closest friend in Portland, that at the university we engage less in keyruv (bringing close, the Hebrew term for Orthodox outreach to less affiliated Jews) than in rihuk (distancing).

Nevertheless, one can see why scholarship has indeed been a component of the American cultural initiatives surveyed by Loeffler. To promoters of such initiatives, it seemed that the robust presence of Jewish-studies programs and courses on college campuses would help attract young Jews and engage them in the study of their heritage during key impressionable years. Moreover, such programs would also benefit local Jewish communities, enriching their intellectual and cultural life. More recently, as colleges and universities have become the sites in American society most welcoming of anti-Israel propaganda and prejudice, some have also hoped that funding the study and teaching of accurate information about Israel would help provide a counterweight to hostile currents on campus.

None of these hopes was altogether unfounded. Since the 1960s, Jewish-studies programs have indeed played a positive and in some cases a galvanizing role in American Jewish life. Thus, for all of the seriousness with which I take the goal of creating in my classroom a neutral space where students of any background can undertake the dispassionate study of Judaism—a task made somewhat easier since most of the students in our state university are not Jewish—there are those who, in spite of my best efforts at rihuk, perversely insist on finding personal, even transformative meaning in their studies; some have even gone so far as to convert to Judaism, decidedly not a course requirement. In addition, our program is happy to engage the local Jewish community as well as the wider Portland population. For myself, I also see it as part of my educational mission to correct slander and misinformation about Israel whenever it manifests itself on campus.


Yet the fact remains that the discipline of Jewish studies is indeed no “pathway to Jewish identity” and no “ultimate outreach tool,” as Loeffler paraphrases the hopes of the more programmatic advocates of Jewish culture. While the work of scholars has added incalculably to the possibilities for Jewish self-understanding, its effects are produced mostly indirectly, requiring, to go back to Yerushalmi, the decision of the individual to move from indifferent history to committed memory.

And that is not all. The professional culture of Jewish studies today is marked by an increased wariness and even resentment of the notion that the field and its scholars have anything whatsoever to do with the aims and interests of Jewish communities or even individual Jews as Jews. Inside and outside the Association for Jewish Studies (AJS), the field’s largest professional body, recent years have witnessed debates on the appropriate relationship of Jewish-studies professors to local Jewish communities, Hillel and other campus organizations for Jewish student life, and even philanthropic donors to Jewish studies, not to mention their relationship to the cause of Israel advocacy or the issue of anti-Israel boycotts.

Some of these debates are genuinely thoughtful and reflective. Others betray distemper or panic at the thought that the academy’s vaunted disinterestedness and objectivity, in too many instances a thin cloak for its comfortably monopolistic Left-liberal culture, might become exposed to the bacillus of dissident ideas. Taken together, what all this suggests is that professors are rather less likely than musicians or artists to possess the key to what Loeffler holds out to be at least the theoretical possibility of an American Jewish cultural revival.


Finally, I’d adduce one more reason for skepticism with regard to outsized expectations for Jewish cultural initiatives. And that is culture itself. If scholarship has its built-in tension with communally-directed programs, so does art. Here, to Loeffler’s citations of I.L. Peretz, S. An-sky, and Hayyim Nahman Bialik, we might add the name of the great American scholar and literary critic Lionel Trilling (1905-1975).

In his 1961 essay “On the Teaching of Modern Literature,” Trilling asks what it means, practically and ethically, to include in the education of undergraduates the works of such transgressive modernist writers and thinkers as D.H. Lawrence and Friedrich Nietzsche, André Gide and Marcel Proust. On the one hand, Trilling observes, to domesticate these authors for purposes of classroom instruction amounts to falsifying the unmistakable import of their visions. (Satirizing what such a neutering process can entail, he offers an imaginary but entirely likely question on a final exam: “Compare Yeats, Gide, Lawrence, and Eliot in the use which they make of the theme of sexuality to criticize the deficiencies of modern culture. Support your statement by specific references to the work of each author. [Time: one hour.]”) Yet, on the other hand, seriously confronting the radicalism of these writers requires reckoning with the profoundly amoral, anti-social, and often antinomian force their work advocates and represents.

Going still further, Trilling describes “the chief intention of all modern literature [emphasis added]” as “losing oneself up to the point of self-destruction, or surrendering oneself to experience without regard to self-interest or conventional morality.” It is “freedom from society itself.” In sum, he writes, modern works of literature are less like static monuments of art than like “mobile and aggressive” war machines, and “one does not describe a quinquereme or a howitzer or a tank without estimating how much damage it can do.”

Of course, Trilling was talking about non-Jewish writers (with the partial exception of Proust). But it is not so great a leap to many of the Yiddish and Hebrew moderns. Despite the authors’ deep Jewish commitments, the literary works of Bialik, Peretz, An-sky and others howl with rage and despair, cry for release from social bonds and norms, even challenge the very notion of positive meaning in modern Jewish existence. It is true that, in doing so, these writers unleashed the kind of artistic energy that can indeed prove a source of new vitality, or at least creative destruction, and that in their own time contributed to genuine cultural renewal. One can therefore understand those who hope for the arousal of a similar cultural ferment today. But then, as Trilling might say, what would the grant application look like?


Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University, and the author of American Hebrew Literature: Writing Jewish National Identity in the United States. His essays and reviews have appeared in the Jewish Review of Books, Commentary, and other publications, and he also writes at the website Investigations and Fantasies

More about: James Loeffler, Jewish Culture, Jewish identity, Judaic Studies, Lionel Trilling


A Death Greatly Exaggerated

Despite reports to the contrary, American Jewish culture isn’t a “project” and it isn’t dead. Far from it.

<em>Fool's Gold, a band that sings in both Hebrew and English, performing at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles.</em> Courtesy Fool's Gold.
Fool's Gold, a band that sings in both Hebrew and English, performing at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Courtesy Fool's Gold.
Jonathan Rosen
May 14 2014

James Loeffler has written wonderfully about Jewish music, and he clearly cares about Judaism. But his notion of the death of Jewish culture seems as misguided as the belief that “Jewish culture” will save us.

Loeffler’s expectations are certainly lofty: he wants “a self-consciously modern, public culture, rooted in the unique civilization that gave it birth and formed its voice, and expressive of a thick, expansive, and holistic identity.” Kafka, who famously wrote in his diary, “What have I in common with Jews? I have hardly anything in common with myself,” would obviously be excluded, but so might King Solomon, who flirted with idolatry and who, in the works that tradition attributes to him, often seems divided against himself. Goodbye, Ecclesiastes.

Writers and artists don’t by themselves constitute “a culture”—they are like individual words that somebody else comes along and turns into a sentence and finds a grammar for, usually after they’re dead. But Loeffler does not really distinguish between individuals and institutions, and that gives his argument an abstract quality at odds not only with Judaism but, frankly, with human existence.

Thus, Loeffler pays American Jewish culture the perverse compliment of seeing it as part of a failed “project,” not as an accidental collection of scattershot, organic, or pragmatic creations of varying quality and depth produced for a multitude of reasons. Somehow, his focus on the “project of Jewish culture” carried me back to my undergraduate days, when I worked in the college dining hall; the manager would yell things like, “Rosen, go refill the Hi-C product.” Or, “You put in too much chocolate milk product.” I envied the non-working students for whom milk and Hi-C were still free elements, like air and water, even though our parents had in fact paid thousands of dollars for them, just as they had paid thousands of dollars for the liberal-arts product that passed for our education.

Like that dining-hall manager, Loeffler is not letting me enjoy my Hi-C. He is a scholar, and for him Jewish culture is “a project,” even if benighted American Jews wandering in and out of film festivals haven’t realized it yet. Neither have they realized that the project is dead. It turns out that American Jews are cultural zombies feeding on other peoples’ brains. And not even quality brains; the food is bad, and the portions are too small.


Culture is part of human experience, like language, and it exists whether we want it or not. Sometimes it turns out as we hope, sometimes it just turns out. Sometimes it gives rise to miracles. Theodor Herzl—a third-rate playwright who wrote a second-rate novel that helped produce a first-rate state—altered the course of history for religious and secular Jews alike, even though both groups derided him, often for good reason.

Zionism was not “culture” or “politics” or “religion” but a mysterious braid of all of them and something more. Judaism, like Walt Whitman, contains multitudes. It needed a playwright who bombed at the box office but, though profoundly ignorant of Judaism, became a dramaturge of Jewish history.

Loeffler mentions a handful of American Jewish institutions—chiefly Makor and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture—and makes them metonyms for all American Jewish cultural organizations. As if that were not confusing enough, I can’t tell if the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, which spent decades supporting the sort of academic Jewish studies Loeffler himself seems affiliated with, disappointed him because of its support for such programs or because it diminished its support for them when it dropped the “National” from its name.

Just as confusing for me, Loeffler appears to include the Los Angeles Skirball Cultural Center, which opened in 1996, as part of what is wrong with American Jewish culture, though he doesn’t explicitly say so, relying instead on the Center’s definition of its mission: “to explore the connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals.” It can hardly be the 4,000 years of Jewish heritage he objects to—so is it the linkage to American democratic ideals? But if so, why?

Might it not be possible for the Jewish notion that human beings are created in the image of a unitary God, and that the righteous of all the earth have a share in the world-to-come, to have found expression in the Founding Fathers’ assertion that “All men are created equal”? Might it not be possible that one of the reasons Jews feel so at home in America—in a way radically different from how Jews in Eastern Europe felt at their moment of greatest secular creativity—is that, theologically, Judaism helped create America? This is not the same as suggesting that Judaism is fulfilled by America, more like suggesting that America is an emanation of Judaism and might itself reciprocally illuminate aspects of Jewish culture.

I am likewise confused by Loeffler’s reference to Philip Roth:

In Operation Shylock, Philip Roth’s fictional alter ego declares giddily that American Jews have it “in their heads to be Jews in a way no one [has] ever dared to be a Jew in our three-thousand-year history: speaking and thinking American English, only American English, with all the apostasy that [is] bound to beget.” In this sense, the vast majority of American Jews are already deep into apostasy, and are paying the cultural price for it. 

What confuses me is that Loeffler seems to have found in Operation Shylock the perfect literary articulation of his own thesis—and yet, rather than praising Roth as an artist who has held up a mirror to the world Loeffler himself is writing about, he merely uses the quotation to damn further the very culture that has furnished him with a novelist’s literary formulation of his own observation.

I myself would not have chosen Roth as an emblem of Jewish American culture, but he is essentially the only living Jewish American, except for Stephen Spielberg, Loeffler mentions. He seems to find it easier to go back in time to discusses S. An-sky and Ahad Ha’am and I.L. Peretz, as if their pronouncements in Eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th century could by themselves illuminate contemporary Jewish culture in America. He seems to blame them for the failures of American Jewish culture while holding them up as exemplars of what American Jewish culture ought to be but is not.

There is a great gulf between the Eastern Europe of An-sky and the America of Philip Roth, and yet Loeffler steps lightly from one world to the other without discussing the Holocaust. Much has been written about the warping effect of our collective Holocaust obsession, but ignoring the Holocaust is even more warping.  It would be like discussing the history of the Diaspora without mentioning the destruction of the Second Temple, or like writing about the gospel of Matthew, aimed at Jewish Christians, without noting that it was written down after the loss of bricks-and-mortar Judaism. Even the sages of the Talmud wondered if perhaps the covenant had not been abrogated after the Temple fell—and they were the sages. Surely it is worth asking what effect the Holocaust, the greatest cataclysm in Jewish history in 2,000 years, might have had on American Jewish culture.

Then again, Loeffler speaks in his essay of the importance to culture of “religion”—mostly to suggest that this is another requisite that American Jews don’t have but should. But he never tells us what he means by religion, an especially significant omission since there are so many American Jews whose great-grandparents shucked tradition on arrival and who might like a reason or two for doing the hard labor of getting it back. Writers like An-sky and Peretz could draw on great, inherited savings accounts of Jewish tradition, funding their secular experiments with the interest accruing from other people’s committed lives.

In speaking of religion, Loeffler doesn’t speak of God. He doesn’t speak of the covenant, or of being chosen, or of a voice out of Sinai still reverberating somehow in daily life, or inhering in the soil and soul of modern Israel. “Religion” is just something Jewish culture needs, along with “peoplehood,” to get back on track. But what if, without God, religion is no different from culture? This might be worth exploring when you are preaching to those born so far outside of tradition that they have no memory, habit, or community to call on for help.


To all this loss and attenuation, Loeffler offers as his hopeful antidote a concert by the Russian Jewish pianist Evgeny Kissin, an extraordinary musician and a principled and outspoken artist who has taken a vocal stand against anti-Zionism by, among other things, becoming an Israeli citizen. Like Loeffler, Kissin is also an interpreter of Jewish culture, lately performing 19th- and early-20th-century Jewish concert music and reciting Yiddish poems before an audience of 2,000 in Washington, D.C. I have no doubt that Kissin’s concert was as electrifying as Loeffler claims, but for the reader—who cannot hear the music—this tribute to deceased composers and poets is little more than Kissin through a veil.

But that is perfectly all right with me. I’m not looking for a new “project” to answer the old one. I don’t actually think there was an old project guiding the cultural life of American Jews. Art can be bad all on its own. It can also be good. And if we stop hoping it will take the place of boring synagogues and self-defeating politics, it might even, at this late date, be great.


Jonathan Rosen, who created and edited the Nextbook/Schocken Jewish Encounters series, is the author of the novels Eve’s Apple and Joy Comes in the Morning and two works of non-fiction, The Talmud and the Internet and The Life of the Skies

More about: American Jewry, Fool's Gold, James Loeffler, Jewish Culture, Jewish music


Hello, I Must Be Going

James Loeffler’s essay, “The Death of Jewish Culture,” is a compelling tour de force, which is to say that it says something important and says it with style but also that, in the swoop and slash of its argument, it leaves out a fair amount.

<em>The Yiddish writer and folklorist S. An-sky in 1910. </em> Wikimedia.
The Yiddish writer and folklorist S. An-sky in 1910. Wikimedia.
Abraham Socher
May 21 2014

James Loeffler’s essay,The Death of Jewish Culture,” is a compelling tour de force, which is to say that it says something important and says it with style but also that, in the swoop and slash of its argument, it leaves out a fair amount. 

The occasion for Loeffler’s reflections is the demise over the last few years of several high-profile projects aimed at promoting Jewish culture to young (or at least youngish) artsy American Jewish hipsters. However, as Loeffler’s choice of presiding spirits— he quotes Ahad Ha’am, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, and  S. An-sky—shows, the Jewish culture he is really eulogizing is not only high and secular but distinctly Eastern European—and it has been gone for three-quarters of a century. The kind of secular culture he is interested in, he says, is

a self-consciously modern, public culture, rooted in the unique civilization that gave it birth and formed its voice, and expressive of a thick, expansive, holistic identity.

No one, not its programmers, not its funders, and certainly not Professor Loeffler, ever thought that Makor, the now-defunct New York Jewish “nightclub-cum-gallery” with which he begins, would anchor that kind of culture. Art and literature that express a “thick, expansive, holistic identity” take, if not a shtetl, at the very least a shared way of life: rituals, symbols, a vocabulary; a recognizable ethos and a common set of problems. In short, they require a distinctive, bounded culture, in the anthropological sense of the word. 

The whole philanthropic point of projects like Makor is to address the fact that young Jewish Americans are, first of all, Americans. In the absence of a strong religious identity, they are liable not only to like precisely the same novels, songs, and movies as their non-Jewish peers at Harvard, the University of Virginia, or Oberlin but also to date and marry those peers when they graduate and move to the Upper West Side. If, the thinking goes, they could become more interested in Jewish things, broadly and secularly construed, the latter eventuality—that is, assimilation and intermarriage—would be a little less likely. And if, in the process, one could foster the career of a brilliant musician or fund a quirky but watchable indie film, well, then, all the better. This may or may not be a good use of philanthropic dollars—it all depends on how much one likes “gleaming . . . postmodern sanctuaries” of culture and how highly one values the project of encouraging those with relatively thin Jewish identities to make them slightly thicker.

But Loeffler knows all of this. His real purpose, I think, is to remind us of what a truly secular Jewish culture once looked like, and the conditions under which it flourished. With regard to the latter, there seems to me to be a paradox, but more on that later.


When the great Yiddish writer and folklorist S. An-sky said that the “people of the shofar must become the people of the clarinet,” one wonders whether he realized quite how completely the shofar, and the meanings carried by its blasts, could disappear from Jewish consciousness, or quite how impossible it would be for a people to be defined by their devotion to clarinets (or culture). This is not to underestimate An-sky, who was no sentimentalist, but Loeffler’s use of his aphorism does call to mind two historical anecdotes that might be said to bracket the creation and demise of secular Ashkenazi culture.

Sometime in the 1780s, Rabbi Raphael Kohen, the chief rabbi of the Jewish “triple community” of Altona, Hamburg, and Wandsbeck, summoned Solomon Maimon to come see him. Maimon was a twenty-something talmudic genius, lapsed rabbi, and would-be philosopher who had taken up residence at a nearby liberal secondary school (Gymnasium) to study mathematics, science, classical languages, and European literature. In short, he was trying to get cultured—and to get away from a culture. Maimon tells the story of their confrontation in his classic Autobiography (here in the forthcoming re-translation of that work by Paul Reitter): 

We entered into a wide-ranging debate. . . . Because this method wasn’t getting him anywhere with me, he turned to sermonizing.  When it, too, failed to produce results, he worked himself up into a holy fervor, and he began to shout: Shofar!  Shofar! . . . While shouting, he pointed to a shofar that happened to be lying on the table, and he asked me: “Do you know what that is?”  I riposted audaciously: “Oh, sure; it’s a ram’s horn.”  These words made the rabbi tumble back into his chair.  He began to utter lamentations for my lost soul.  Leaving him to lament for as long as he wanted to, I said good-bye.  

It is audacious to reduce a shofar to “a ram’s horn” only when both the speaker and his audience know that sounds of the shofar were heard at Sinai, that the shofar was blown in the Temple, that it calls one to repentance on Rosh Hashanah, and that it is blown on the occasion of an excommunication (which may have been what Rabbi Kohen had in mind). And one can only exit in insouciant triumph—and then tell the story—if the rabbi and the religion he represents retain their power. 

Many of the great works of secular Jewish culture (of which Maimon’s Autobiography is an early instance) derive their energy from this heretical dynamic. They are not so much “rooted in the unique civilization” that gave birth to them as they are actively rebelling against it. Their voices were formed by this civilization, but their art—especially their distinctively Jewish art—often consists in raising those voices in protest (or irony). Secular poets like Bialik (or, later, Yehuda Amichai) were always just leaving. 

Then there are those who have already left. In 1938, the great jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw (formerly Arshawksy) and his band appeared on a radio show to play their hit tune “Nightmare,” which had a klezmerish feel. The virtuoso classical violinist Efrem Zimbalist, who had begun his career as a Russian Jewish prodigy at the turn of the century, was waiting in the wings as the next guest. Despite his disdain for jazz, Zimbalist picked up his violin and joined in unannounced, like an extra fiddler at a village wedding. 

Even if, as the critic Nat Hentoff once claimed, Shaw had a nigun in mind when he composed “Nightmare” (which makes one wonder at the title), and even if the sound of the notes plucked Zimbalist’s Ashkenazi heartstrings, this seems as good a moment as any to mark when the people of the shofar became the people of the clarinet and, just to that extent, stopped being a people in all but the most vestigial sense. Zimbalist and Shaw may have “bageled” each other as the band swung, but it didn’t mean a thing, or at least not very much. Give these guys a couple of Jewish Culture grants and some gushy profiles in the popular Jewish media, and it could almost have been the 21st century.

Solomon Maimon and Artie Shaw were both cool cats, but what makes Maimon a figure in the history of Jewish culture and Shaw a footnote in Jewish trivia—“who was Ava Gardner’s Jewish husband?”—is that Maimon couldn’t escape.

Of course, what killed An-sky’s European secular Jewish culture was not American-style acculturation, it was Nazi genocide, and it is impossible to say what would have happened to it (or to us) had history taken a different, gentler course. But therein lies the paradox to which I alluded earlier. There is, it seems to me, a real question—perhaps it is just the Jewish version of the classic modernist question—as to how long a culture can sustain itself on the rebellion against its predecessor. 

Loeffler’s artful essay begins with a Jewish concert in St. Petersburg in 1910 and ends with one in Washington, D.C just a few months ago—given by Moscow-born pianist Evgeny Kissin. Can American Jews create a distinctively secular Jewish culture? Loeffler holds out hope, albeit faint, that “one or two geniuses” might yet spark a renaissance.  Given his description of such a culture as necessarily “rooted in the unique civilization that gave it birth,” I am struck by another, somewhat paradoxical thought. This is that such geniuses may be most likely to emerge from the sort of present-day Orthodox worlds in which Ahad Ha’am, Bialik, and An-sky are decidedly not names with which to conjure—worlds, however, that these figures themselves would have easily recognized.


Abraham Socher edits the Jewish Review of Books and teaches Jewish Studies at Oberlin College.

More about: American Jewry, James Loeffler, Jewish Culture, S. An-sky, Secular Judaism


Jewish Culture and Its Discontents

Let me say it again: Jewish secular culture is too thin and open to support a real collective identity. So now what?

<em>A postcard featuring I.L. Peretz, one of the founders Yiddish culture, circa 1923.</em> Wikimedia.
A postcard featuring I.L. Peretz, one of the founders Yiddish culture, circa 1923. Wikimedia.
May 26 2014
About the author

James Loeffler, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and scholar-in-residence at Pro Musica Hebraica, is currently the Robert A. Savitt fellow at the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His “The Death of Jewish Culture” was the featured monthly essay in Mosaic for May 2014.

Let me begin by thanking Michael Weingrad, Jonathan Rosen, and Abraham Socher for their engaging reflections on my essay, “The Death of Jewish Culture.” I’ll address their specific comments before offering a brief suggestion about where to go from here.

Jonathan Rosen, to start with him, balks at my diagnosis of the ills of contemporary secular Jewish culture in America. He fears my definition of Jewish culture is too capricious, too programmatic, and too constrictive. He needn’t worry. No one is proposing to excommunicate Kafka or King Solomon, two casualties he names of my putative wrath. I wish we had more like them. But we don’t. And the reason is simple: Jewish cultural secularism is too thin and open-ended to support a collective identity divorced from religion and peoplehood. 

Menahem Mendl of Kotsk, the 19th-century hasidic anti-rebbe, taught: “Man is commanded regarding two things: not to deceive himself and not to imitate his fellow.” American Jews are guilty on both counts. We love being American, and we flatter ourselves that whatever we produce as Americans counts as equally valid expressions of Jewishness. How else can the likes of Woody Allen, J. D. Salinger, Judy Blume, Frank Gehry, Mel Brooks, Irving Berlin, and Bob Dylan be claimed as icons of modern Jewish culture?

These and others may be great American cultural figures. They may voice interesting, even attractive Jewish stories. They may fit a fascinating historical pattern whereby Jewish outsiders have reshaped the inner precincts of modern culture. But, standing outside the bounds of classical Jewish civilization, lacking any links to the languages, texts, and traditions that have defined the core of Jewish life throughout history, they provide precious little with which to fashion coherent Jewish lives of our own.  

Jonathan Rosen warns against the impulse to conscript culture into a Jewish service corps for the continuity crisis. Needless to say, I agree. That’s a recipe at once for bad art and for Judaism-lite. But it is precisely what has already happened over the past few decades. Institutions and individuals together have elevated culture into a freestanding alternative to religion and politics as a pathway to Jewish identity. Nor did that programmatic vision of Jewish culture emerge ex nihilo in post-1960s America. It has a specific history; it was borrowed, as I tried to show, from the experience of Jewish Eastern Europe; and this makes it only natural to judge it against that earlier experience and its achievements.


Fine, says Abe Socher, but that was then, this is now. And in between, as Socher justly reminds us, the Holocaust happened. Yes, in the middle of the last century, a 1,000-year-old Jewish world was destroyed. Yet the crisis of Jewish modernity began well before the Holocaust. It’s what brought many of our ancestors to these shores in the first place.

I agree with Socher that the philosopher Solomon Maimon forms part of Jewish cultural history in a way that the jazz artist Artie Shaw does not. But I do not think that is only because Shaw was born and bred in 20thcentury New York while Maimon had a talmudic upbringing in 18th-century Poland. The issues we face today are not new. The Jewish artists and thinkers of late-19th-century Russia felt Russian, too. The difference is that some of the most influential among them had a vision of reconciling these dual identities by tapping deep into the Jewish religious civilization out of which they emerged. 

Socher and Michael Weingrad are right to point out the paradox in this story: a viable Jewish secular culture depends on, and can only be defined in dialectical relation to, a religious Judaism against which to rebel. A hundred years ago, the progenitors of modern Jewish culture assumed that religion and secularism would continue to interact in a vigorous, reciprocal fashion. They did not anticipate that the world of tradition from which they had departed could vanish so quickly and decisively from the lives of the majority of Jews. 

Fortunately, rabbinic Judaism is still with us today. But there are no shortcuts into the tradition. A novel or film about religion cannot replace religious experience itself. Jewish pride (or disappointment) in Israel is no substitute for a Jewish politics. 

Nor can you historicize your way into the Jewish past. And here I welcome Weingrad’s cogent remarks about the field of academic Jewish studies. That field is a powerful, valuable intellectual enterprise. It can offer a complement to other forms of Jewish education. But it is not, nor can it constitute, the “faith of the fallen” (in the phrase of my late teacher, the historian Yosef Yerushalmi). The belief that an academic discipline will inculcate a strong sense of Jewish identity in young American Jews is as ill conceived as the belief in the magical power of Holocaust memory to inoculate the American Jewish community against assimilation.


What, then, can we do? We can start by moving beyond the Holocaust as the chief wellspring of the contemporary American Jewish imagination. Immensely creative as they are, American Jews make pathetically little use of the source material of the Jewish past. Is it not symptomatic that two of the most celebrated authors to emerge in this generation—Shalom Auslander and Nathan Englander—have both written novels inspired by the image of Anne Frank? The arresting hold of the Holocaust on the contemporary American Jewish imagination is one clear sign of its paucity. For this theme of vicarious suffering—along with its twin: endless, solipsistic reflections on one’s personal Jewish anxieties—consumes nearly the entirety of the American Jewish mind these days. 

It is a commonplace to note that, in reading the works of I. L. Peretz, or S. An-Sky, or Franz Kafka, one comes away with a sense of impending doom—almost as if they knew the Holocaust was coming. Of course, they did not. What they did know was that, already by World War I, European civilization had entered a perilous phase of catastrophe, with massive historical consequences for Jews everywhere. They also knew, or at least they hoped, that their ideas and their art might yet turn crisis into opportunity. The tearing down of the old world required the birth of new ways of being Jewish that linked past with future.

More than we realize, we are still living in their world. For all that the earthquakes of the Holocaust and the existence of the state of Israel have altered the terrain of Jewish history, we share a dilemma with the artists and intellectuals of a century ago. And so we would do well to heed their message. In my essay, I adduced some brilliantly premonitory words by Peretz on what was missing in the Yiddish literature of his own day. I can’t do better than to close with further counsel from the same peerless source:

If you have no God, then you look for idols; but they give no Torah. Then you can’t write, you only write about things. To write, to create, you need religion. Without it, you have no world-concept. . . . And if you have no world-concept you have no world, only detached scattered facts, unrelated manifestations and phenomena. You play with sand. That is child’s play. You have nothing with which to link the ages—today doesn’t emerge from yesterday, or tomorrow from today. . . . If you serve only yourself, you measure and weigh everything against yourself—there is nothing for you to strive toward. You have moods, but no character, desires but no will—no great love, no great hate; you flirt with life.

More about: American Jewry, Holocaust, James Loeffler, Jewish Culture, Secular Judaism


The Death of Jewish Culture Revisited

An exchange between the foremost philanthropic supporter of secular Jewish culture and the analyst of its decline.

<em>Lili Liana as Lea in the 1937 film version of S. An-sky's Yiddish play</em> The Dybbuk.
Lili Liana as Lea in the 1937 film version of S. An-sky's Yiddish play The Dybbuk.
July 16 2014
About the author

James Loeffler, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and scholar-in-residence at Pro Musica Hebraica, is currently the Robert A. Savitt fellow at the Mandel Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His “The Death of Jewish Culture” was the featured monthly essay in Mosaic for May 2014.

Felix Posen writes:

The title of James Loeffler’s essay, “The Death of Jewish Culture,” shocked me sufficiently to want to read not only the essay itself but also the three responses to it by Michael Weingrad (“Culture and the Classroom”), Jonathan Rosen (“A Death Greatly Exaggerated”), and Abraham Socher (“Hello, I Must Be Going”). As it turned out, and despite the harshly worded title, I was impressed by many of the points in all four entries. But I feel I must still criticize a fair amount of what I read.

One “death” cited by James Loeffler was that of Makor, a “nightclub-cum-gallery” that billed itself as a “secular Jewish arts-and-culture mecca for New York’s young hipsters.” Indeed, Makor did not last long, for myriad reasons. It was essentially a meeting place for young adults, in pleasant surroundings, but it had precious little connection to what are normally referred to as cultural events. My understanding is that its precipitous closure was due to reasons totally unconnected with Jewish culture in any form.

But the mere closure of a new and small center in New York City certainly doesn’t amount to the death of Jewish culture. Neither does the unfortunate closing of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, which provided much-needed funds for musicians, painters, dancers, and writers. Far from indicating the “death” of Jewish culture, this simply means there will be less money and opportunity for artists in the Jewish field, which is indeed a pity. 

Jewish culture itself, however, has been in existence and developing for more than 3,000 years. Of course, there have been major changes in terms of religiosity and secularity. Yet Jewish culture never died during the various periods of Jewish history. Even at the very height of Nazi murder in the ghettos and concentration camps of German-occupied Poland, Jewish cultural creativity (in terms of writing and music) continued secretly.


It so happens that my Foundation has undertaken the largest literary work of its kind, The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization (Yale University Press). This ten-volume set of anthologies, on which over 120 scholars have been laboring since 2003-2004, will include the most significant written cultural creations of the Jewish people—both religious and secular—from biblical times to the 21st century. Volume 10, covering the years 1973-2005, has already been released, and final drafts of three or four additional volumes will be complete by early next year. We expect that the entire series will be published within the next five years. 

The Posen Library will, among its other achievements, demonstrate the astonishing increase in Jewish cultural creativity over the centuries, particularly non-religious Jewish literary and artistic creativity during the modern, post-Enlightenment period. It will also demonstrate the great mobility of Jewish culture, commensurate in our own age with the rapid shift in Jewish population areas. At the time of my birth, Europe held the largest accumulation of Jews in the world. I spent my middle years in the United States, which had then become the center of the world’s Jewish population and intellectual activities. Now the hub has shifted again, and Israel holds the core of Jewish demography, and Jewish culture and creativity have moved accordingly. 

So, just in the course of my lifetime, the vigor of Jewish cultural life has shifted, along with the sheer numbers of Jews, from Europe to the United States and from the United States to Israel, which is now the major center of cultural creativity in the Jewish world. One can see a similar shift in schools and universities to a time when, undoubtedly, Israel will be—in some areas, it already is—the world center of Jewish educational activities. This is still hard for some Diaspora leaders to recognize and accept.


I believe Jewish culture continues to grow and flourish in Israel while simultaneously decreasing in many, if not most, Diaspora communities. If one seeks reasons for this, much of the answer is related to the status of Jewish education. According to the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey/American Jewish Identification Survey (ARIS/AJIS), the majority of American Jews considered themselves ”secular” or “somewhat secular.” These findings have been reconfirmed by the latest Pew study. That the majority of American Jews are no longer religious is not a value judgment but rather a simple demographic fact. 

What is now crucial is that appropriate educational opportunities be created for the children of this majority, to enable them to understand Judaism as a culture and not just as a religion. Israel has already acknowledged this reality and is teaching accordingly in the mamlakhti (public) school system, where 61 percent of school-age children are educated. One large American Jewish day school has now also started teaching Judaism as culture, with three teachers trained in Tel Aviv University’s “Ofakim” program. Other American schools are preparing to follow suit.

In his response to Loeffler’s essay, Michael Weingrad has summed up the issue both elegantly and in my opinion correctly. Teaching Judaism as culture at the college or university level is no more a means of soliciting Jews to become more Jewish than taking a class in French or Chinese culture and history is expected to convert a student to either of those nationalities. Judaism as culture can indeed be taught in as interesting and fascinating a manner as is any of the world’s great cultures, but what a student does with this knowledge is his or her business. Loeffler himself, also correctly in my opinion, states that Jewish studies is no “pathway to Jewish identity” and “no ultimate outreach tool.” As the late Yosef Haim Yerushalmi put the case, it is “up to the individual to move from indifferent history to committed memory.”


Now what? It behooves the Jewish (and non-Jewish) community to persuade universities to offer courses in Jewish culture, a subject no different from and every bit as worthy as any other major culture. Indeed, academic programs of just this kind, supported by the Posen Foundation, attracted over 50-percent enrollments of enthusiastic, non-Jewish students of all races and religions.

No: Jewish culture has not died. But, crucially and for the sake of its future thriving, we must invest in serious cultural—to repeat, not just religious—Jewish education and attract to it those who need it most: namely, the majority of the Jewish people, the secular and somewhat secular, as well as all others interested in learning about an enthralling and ancient civilization. 

Felix Posen is founder and president of the Posen Foundation, dedicated to the study of Judaism as culture.




James Loeffler writes:

Felix Posen is that rare philanthropist who not only supports the cause—secular Jewish culture—in which he believes but also genuinely innovates through his charitable giving. I myself have been a beneficiary of his largesse through directed grants from his foundation to the Jewish-studies program at my university. Thus I am pleased that he has seen fit to engage publicly with my essay. I am even happier to find that he agrees with much of my argument. To my pleasant surprise, he even confirms my view that the center of contemporary Jewish cultural renaissance has shifted to Israel. But I confess I cannot square his acknowledgement that secular Jewish culture in America is in a precipitous state of decline with his confident call to respond with a heavy dose of more of the same.

In my essay, I explained why contemporary Jewish cultural secularism cannot by itself sustain a viable Jewish identity, let alone provide a meaningful, overarching framework for an entire Jewish community. In comparing our current passion for culture with Jewish Eastern Europe a century ago, I concluded that we lack the two things necessary for secular Jewishness to function: an ongoing, reciprocal dialogue with religious tradition and a thick sense of Jewish peoplehood. To these I would now add a third, language, about which I will say more below. Absent these elements, all the literary fiction, film festivals, and endowed lectures in the world will do nothing to sustain Jewish life.

Felix Posen disputes my evidence. Jewish culture cannot be declared dead, he avers, since culture itself means something much greater than any one organization or project. Rather, he argues, Jewish culture is a 3,000-year-old body of literary and artistic expression. But just as he reads my definition too narrowly, I fear his is far too expansive.


Is Jewish culture the sum total of an endless stream of texts pouring forth from a people ever shifting in its languages and homelands? To imagine it this way is to ignore the fact that the very idea of culture—as well as the word itself—is not an ancient notion but a very new one. For roughly the first three millennia of its history, the Hebrew language did not possess the word “culture” in the modern sense of the term. When the ancient rabbis used the Hebrew equivalent, tarbut, they meant it primarily in the agricultural sense of breeding. There was no concept of art or literature as a stand-alone category of expression, independent of Jewish religious life. Jews might become heretics or they might enjoy pagan Greek tavern songs. They might produce their own folk dances, witticisms, and sacred (and not-so-sacred) texts. But they did not generalize this corpus of writing and art into a self-conscious expression of group identity or a standard of elite human achievement.

All this began to change in the Jewish encounter with European modernity in the late-18th century. Lacking a command of the intellectual and cultural riches of the outside world, Jews suddenly felt inadequate. It was not enough to hold fast to God’s Torah, the Jewish intellectuals of Enlightenment Berlin argued; one must also embrace torat ha’adam (secular humanist knowledge). In the 19th century, German Jews responded by elevating kultur and bildung (self-cultivation) to the highest human value.

For their part, the East European Jewish writers who entered the scene in the closing decades of the 19th century castigated their German cousins for their slavish devotion to becoming model Europeans at the cost of their Jewish national heritage and languages. But the truth is that these modern Yiddish and Hebrew writers also shared the same nagging feeling of inadequacy. When they spoke of creating tarbut or kultur or kultura, they, too, acknowledged that Jews lacked something necessary to function in the modern world. A people long accustomed to viewing themselves as more learned than their European Christian neighbors awoke in the 19th century to find themselves playing civilizational catch-up. Many came to think that the Jewish religion itself presented a parochial obstacle to human creativity and excellence.

As the historian Kenneth Moss demonstrates in Jewish Renaissance in the Russian Revolution, writers like Ahad Ha’am and Hayyim Nahman Bialik proposed culture as the means by which Jews, despite the deep political and religious fissures among them, might find both fulfillment as individuals and wholeness as a people. In fact, Moss reminds us, the challenge they faced was rooted precisely in this tension: how could culture’s promise of individual freedom—intellectual, artistic, and political—be reconciled with its vision of a shared national mission? Their solution came in the form of language. Writing in a Jewish language would allow poets, playwrights, and novelists a radical freedom of expression within the discrete bounds of a Jewish republic of letters. Further, the biblical and rabbinic traditions, which had left their indelible marks on Hebrew and Yiddish, ensured that a secular Jewish culture would remain dialectically linked to its religious antipode.


That solution, together with the achievement that has flowed from it, is on full display in modern Israel today. A secular culture succeeds in Israel through the revival of the Hebrew language and the persistence of religion and peoplehood. In an environment suffused with those elements, it is not hard to produce a viable Jewish secularism.

American Jews, however, possess fewer and fewer of those individual elements, let alone all of them as a package. For a while, dramatic historical events—mass immigration, the Holocaust, the birth of Israel—made up for some of the lack. As those events recede farther into the past, American Jews seeking to renew their communal sense of Jewishness will need to look beyond old traumas, new fears, and nostalgic memories.

Felix Posen suggests that if American Jews trend secular and eschew religion, an obvious strategy of compensation is to teach Judaism in secular terms: that is, as culture. But once you legitimize culture as the replacement for religious life, you only exacerbate the same trends that have eroded Jewish identity over the past decades. As the late-19th-century Eastern European thinkers and writers saw very clearly, built into the modern notion of culture are currents of individualism and introspection fundamentally at odds with Judaism’s claims to collective responsibility and historical destiny.

Since the time of Bialik and Ahad Ha’am, those currents have only strengthened. Absent the requisite structure, the mere acquisition of knowledge, as Felix Posen proposes, may (or may not) be a road to self-satisfaction. But it is no guarantee of a meaningful attachment to Jewish life.  


In closing, I want to turn from the question of how to define culture to the problematics of the term “secular.” As a college professor, I’ve more than once encountered thoughtful undergraduates who tell me they have no interest in joining our school’s Hillel because they are “secular.” When pressed to say what that means, they express doubts about or disbelief in God. At moments like that, I’m tempted to quote an Orthodox rabbi of my acquaintance who to similar objections once responded, “God? God is for goyim.”

A little crude, I admit, but dead on. The three-thousand-year tradition of Jewish thought, text, law, and ritual cannot be contained by modern Christian notions of faith and God. Even the term “religion,” as the scholar Leora Batnitzky has shown, owes more to German Protestant theological categories than it does to the reality of traditional Judaism. When American Jews speak of being secular or cultural Jews as opposed to religious, what they really reveal is the depths of their own ignorance about Jewishness. Instead of encouraging their reflexive tendency to think in those terms—that is, as just another monotheistic religion, or as just another global ethnic culture—we do better to refocus on what makes Judaism unique.

Jews did not survive 3,000 years because they loved literature and prized the written word. Nor was it mere cultural literacy that preserved Jewishness from disappearance into the neighboring societies, some welcoming and some hostile, that have always surrounded Jewish civilization. Jewish survival derived from the distinctive historical fusion of peoplehood, religious tradition, and language. In our own day, Jewish flourishing still requires the same. 


James Loeffler, associate professor of history at the University of Virginia, is a 2013-2014 Mellon Fellow at Georgetown University Law Center. He specializes in Jewish and European history and in the history of human rights, and is the author of The Most Musical Nation: Jews and Culture in the Late Russian Empire (Yale, 2010; paperback 2013).

More about: American Jewry, James Loeffler, Jewish Culture, Posen, Secular Judaism