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?
Lili Liana as Lea in the 1937 film version of S. An-sky's Yiddish play 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