Mosaic Magazine

Monthly Essay May 2014

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?

The Death of Jewish Culture
  

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?

Responses

  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.

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Comments

  • Phil Cohen

    It all depends upon what “culture” is. The Eastern European Jewish life that is lauded and envied in this piece was a world in which Yiddish was or nearly was the native language. This gave the contributors common ground that’s lost in America. James Loeffler may be right. All of the day schools, all of the religious schools, all the rabbinical schools, all the departments of Judaic Studies, all the Birthright travelers, all of the Jewish camps, the high school in Israel programs, the college students who study in Israel, Limmud, all of the (thousands of) books published in fiction, memoir, and scholarship, the Anglo-Jewish newspapers and magazines, the creativity in liturgical music, the growth in the academic interest in Yiddish, the work of all of the Federations, all of the JCC’s—can it be said that all of this energy and all of these participants fail to create even a leaky, imperfect totality of phenomena one can legitimately call culture?

    What they fail to produce culturally is Yiddish film, literature, poetry, etc. This is true and in its way lamentable. But to fail to look seriously at how all the things I mentioned above (and everything I didn’t mention above) reflect and promote something that I believe one wouldn’t have to work too hard to call “culture”, makes this article but a nice history of that aspect of Jewish culture Loeffler approves of.

  • David Zvi Kalman

    I’m very sorry to hear of the demise of your specific definition of Jewish culture. In the meantime, I’d suggest attending a SermonSlam—give your location, possibly the one in DC on May 13th?

  • Iconoclast18

    Loeffler is an elegant cultural literary historian. Regrettably he writes nothing of the politics and institutiional history of Jewish communal financial priorities of the past 40 years. At a time when the Jewish community raises more meney than ever before, support for cultural institutions represents the priorities of donors which has less to do with a larger cultural zeitgeist.

    Jewish cultural projects have always been funded in a context of the community’s internal politics. That’s why The Institute for Jewish Life was funded after the student sit-in at the 1969 CJFWF General Assembly. It died a quiet death within a decade mostly due to ennui.

    “Jewish music” and “Jewish art” are dubious terms and faulty indicators of cultural vitality since they are generally just imitative of the cultures in which Jews find themselves. Albeit literature less so. Jewish music festivals abound now more than ever. Still, it is a stretch to suggest that the 19th century Hebraists in Kiev impacted much more than their own circles. Hitler did more for the propagation of Hebrew than Bialik or Ben Yehudah could ever have imagined.

    Leoffler should assess the successful proliferation of Jewish studies in American universities. These programs and departments are a significant indicator of a thriving culture. Indeed, some writers posit a strong correlation between their successes and falling rabbinical school enrollments.

    Loeffler is part of a long tradition of critics lamenting how the future is a downward spiral. Kind of like the author of the Look magazine article of years ago who characterized Jews as “the ever-dying people.” As Mark Twain observed in a different context, the report of death is greatly exaggerated.

  • CurmudgeonNYC

    One of the best, and most promising initiatives can be found throughout the US already- Jewish Community Day Schools. Study after study has proven that it is these schools that help strengthen Jewish identity, establish strong Jewish literacy and produce the next generation of Jewish leaders.

  • Iconoclast18

    Loeffler is an elegant literary and cultural historian. Yet this essay has no sense of the politics of Jewish communal funders, which determines the priorities of allocations. It is inadequate to lament the passing of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture without explicating the changes in Jewish communal funding, the morphing of the old CJFWF into JFNA and the relegation of the former LCBC into various “pillars.” Indeed, the National Agencies commission is now relegated to a minor place. But all of this is at a time when the Jewish community in aggregate raises more money than ever before.

    The late Institute for Jewish Life was only established as a response to the student sit-in at the 1969 CJFWF General Assembly. The mission for its endowment was to fund replicable cultural and educational projects. It died quietly a decade later from ennui.

    Was Jewish culture so much more vibrant in the past than now? The Hebraists of Kiev impacted only a very small circle. Hitler did far more for the revival of Hebrew than Bialik or Ben-Yehuda could have ever imagined. And just what is Jewish about “Jewish music” and “Jewish art?” Perhaps content but certainly not style as most are derivative of the cultures in which they are created. Jewish artists by being Jewish do not ipso facto create “Jewish art.”

    Leoffler is dismissive of the proliferation of film and music festivals. At a time when brick-and-morter institutions are failing these communitarian and grass-roots activities are thriving. Might it be that JCC’s and other such institutions just aren’t meeting the needs of the folk they purport to serve?

    Loeffler would do well to address the incredible development of Jewish studies in the secular university. This is wissenschaften des Judentums writ large. Indeed, some writers have posited that the success of academic Jewish studies directly correlates to shrinking rabbinical school enrollments.

    Is Loeffler another backward-looking critic for whom the past is always richer and for whom the future is always a downward spiral? One is reminded of the Look Magazine article whose author categorized Jewry as an “every-dying people.” The point is that, as Mark Twain observed in a slightly different context, the reports of demise are greatly exaggerated.

    • Tzur

      On “Jewish Studies,” the modern English-world continuation of Wissenschaften des Judentums, see the scathing analysis of its agenda by Gershom Scholem himself, in his “The Science of Judaism — Then and Now,” translated by Michael Meyer in Scholem’s The Messianic Idea in Judaism, and Other Essays on Jewish Spirituality (1971). Very sadly, it is no reed to rely on for the Jewish future, but can be the very opposite (due to its secularist, anti-Rabbinic and assimilationist bias): it often can even amount to an intentional subversion of its subject just as Scholem argued, and as his own version of it ironically and powerfully demonstrated yet again. On this latter point, see the comments by me to the article by Yehudah Mirsky, “30 Years On,” at the Jewish Ideas Daily website (predecessor to Mosaic.com), for May 8, 2012, at http://www.jidaily.com/8a488.

  • israelp

    Bialik and Ahad Haam could use traditional sources because they learned them when they were young. If you grow up not knowing, you cannot aspire to that. And if your teaching generation is ignorant, woe unto those who hold by it.

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      Exactly. Part of the comedy in Sholom Aleichem’s Tevye was his pretension to learning he did not have. He would quote Pirkei Avos and claim it was Zohar, or quote Tehillim and claim it was Gemara. Sholom Aleichem’s audience recognized and chuckled at the character’s self-aggrandizement. They might not know the advanced sources he claimed to be citing, but they certainly were familiar with the basic sources that he was actually quoting.
      Unlike Sholom Aleichem’s readers, the authors of Fiddler on the Roof weren’t familiar with even those basic sources, so they missed the joke; they ridiculed their Tevye for quoting Jewish sources at all, not for misquoting them. And their audience was every bit as ignorant as the playwrights.

  • Eli Rubin

    To demand that Jewish culture be both secular and intimately grounded in religion, both universal and in firm possession of its own national identity, is to demand an unsustainable contradiction. Unless the author can explain how such a combination can be achieved, his vision must be rejected as a fabulous dream, like the proverbial elephant in the eye of a needle. Universal secular culture may sound pretty, but it makes no demands on anyone. Religious nationalism sounds too ugly for the modern ear to entertain it. But Judaism does have a national religious culture, that is to say, a religious nationalism that is tempered by a richly universal literary tradition. The key problem of modern times is that in cutting ourselves off from religion and nationalism we have torn down the entire framework within which our native literary culture was born and thrives.

    • Tzur

      The supposed antithesis between Jewish secular universalism and Jewish religious/national identity is a false one, since (quite contrary to the usual myths) the Jewish religion is much more universalistic than either of its daughter religions. It teaches that all humanity shares a Noahite Covenantal heritage that is part of every civilization, that righteous people therefore exist in every culture and religion and they are as such assured of salvation (without any necessity to convert to Judaism). The Noahite Covenant heritage will spur learned and righteous people in every civilization to adhere to this teaching and share it with others. Due to HaShem’s overflowing mercy, in consequence, it is taught that the vast majority of humanity will enjoy the World-to-Come (BT Sanhedrin 105a). Given its emphasis on historical heritage retained most explicitly by the learned and wise in each culture, we might call this type of universalism a “scribal universalism.”

      Furthermore, even Jewish national existence arises from a universalistic premise, that it was created to serve as a blessing to all peoples: see Gen. 12:1-3; 18:17-32 (showing that this universal premise enables Abraham to plead on behalf even of Sodom and Gomorrah); Isa. 42:6, and very many other passages. When finally established at Mt. Sinai, the Jewish vocation was to be “a kingdom of priests” (Exod. 19:6) serving a laity that was all humanity, and whose Temple will serve as “a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa. 56:7). This shows that from the start even the people Israel’s religious “national” identity was understood to serve universal ends and all humanity. That is why the Mosaic Torah begins with the account of Creation itself and of humanity’s first ancestors, and culminates with the Sinai revelation. This we might call a “priestly universalism.”

      And finally, in the End of Days, the messianic era, all humanity will purify its ways and serve God uprightly, not necessarily by becoming Jewish, but simply by living up to the Noahite Covenant and acknowledging Israel’s world-redemptive role in serving HaShem. This is the prophetic universalism so emphasized in our Scriptures. So there are three interlocking and interdependent forms of universalism in Judaism, giving a universal vision of humanity past, present and future.

      These ideas have sustained Judaism down through the ages, while the various cultures Jews have assimilated to and adapted to have come and gone. So there is a big difference between culture and Jewish religion and identity.

      • ahad_ha_amoratsim

        “(showing that this universal premise enables Abraham to plead on behalf even of Sodom and Gomorrah); ”
        Well said. I would add G*d’s sending Jonah to prophesy to Nineveh in order to save it from destruction.

  • Dave Mittman, PA, DFAAPA

    In America, we have a loose European Jewish culture. We did not bring it over as previous generations did. Our language is English, not Yiddish so we already have that in common. You are looking to the “good old days” when anti-Semitism kept us together, when our Grandparents were forced to leave their countries to find a better life. Now we are in a place where we have to learn to live as Jews and Americans who are generally loved (yes, it’s called intermarriage) and wanted as part of society. Maybe we have a religion but today our culture is American? No longer European and Yiddish so we have to put something more meaningful behind the word culture.

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      Intermarriage is suicide. Encouraging suicide is not a form of love.

      • Matt Moran

        thankfully most people don’t view the world as you do.

        • ahad_ha_amoratsim

          Yes, most people think that the survival of the Jewish people is a form of racism and sexism. They will destroy entire cities to save the endangered snail darter, but will tar and feather anyone who wants to keep Jews from becoming extinct.

          • Jerry S

            Sad, but oh so true.

        • ahad_ha_amoratsim

          Sadly, Matt Moran, most Jews who do not view intermarriage as suicide will be lost to the Jewish people within a generation or two. Immediately, if they intermarry. By assimilation in a generation or two, unless their kids or grandkids are fortunate enough to come into contact with people who will show them the worth of what their parents or grandparents so casually discarded.
          We will do our best to reach out to those who are not irretrievably lost. Thankfully, we will have some successes, with G*d’s help. We will mourn those who wh do intermarry, and, if the intermarried mother is Jewish, we will reach out to her children as well. We will feel sad for those we lose, we will miss the contributions they can make to our people, and we will try to do better.
          But we will always remember that they have lost more than we have, by trading a priceless heritage for a handful of empty promises and illusions.

          • Matt Moran

            your antiquated view of the world is simply sad. Why not focus on the value of people, regardless of their religion or culture. You view culture as a never changing fact, when in reality cultures change constantly. They grow, change, assimilate new ideas, and discard old ideas all the time. As someone who has Jewish relatives through marriage, I am happy to have them in the family, not because they are Jewish, but because they are good people. When people stop separating themselves based on their ancestry and view themselves as simply part of the human species, a lot of pain and strife will go away.
            I like how one commenter compared intermarriage to drug use. Do you view Jewish culture as somehow superior to others? If so, you are saying non-Jews are somehow less valuable or important, certainly ironic considering how the Jewish people have suffered throughout history because of same view from others.

          • Tzur

            It is a very common misconception that the reason that there is “a lot of pain and strife” in the world is because of cultural/social/ethnic/ideological/religious differences, and that we would all be better off having the same cultural/social/ethnic/ideological/religious views. Actually, the exact opposite is the case. All the most horrific strife and pain in the world in the modern period (and before) has come from the often brutal but futile attempt to force sameness on everyone, and obliterate differences. It is the Tower of Babel syndrome, and it is this more than anything else that is responsible for the splintering and hatreds between groups. Acceptance of differences is the way to peace, not obliteration of them. Everyone is different in some way or other, and this would even be true of clones, because actual circumstances always differ. Differences cannot be obliterated. Differences in fact are good, not bad. They enrich humanity vastly more than uniformity ever could. We therefore should try to preserve differences and respect diversity as such. See on this, R. Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference: How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (2003), a luminous book.

            Democracy itself is grounded on the respect for and recognition of different viewpoints, and the freedom to have them. If anything, democratic processes systematically emphasize differences at every level of society, give them formal recognition, and then work toward reconciliation between them, refusing to suppress them, thus preventing minor problems becoming major ones. See on this, Robert Dahl, Pluralist Democracy in the United States: Conflict and Consent (1967), a classic analysis. It is because of this that there have been no wars between liberal democracies in the past 200 years, and that civil strife is also very much less in democracies than in any other sort of political systems.

            As far as Jews are concerned, I would think that given the millenial history of non-Jewish attempts to wipe them out, decent people in the non-Jewish world should feel a moral obligation to help Jews preserve their communities and faith, and to maintain their difference, and not to promote the obliteration of Jewish difference through disappearance into the surrounding population.

        • ahad_ha_amoratsim

          OK, I peeked at your later comment that is awaiting moderation.

          “As someone who has Jewish relatives through marriage, I am happy to have them in the family, not because they are Jewish, but because they are good people.”
          Well, that’s certainly Christian of you. Or liberal of you. Or whatever.
          “When people stop separating themselves based on their ancestry and view themselves as simply part of the human species, a lot of pain and strife will go away. ”

          In other words, you think the world will be a better place when Jews stop being Jews. You are not the first to think this way. Many of those who did think this way, including the Persians in the time of Haman and the Greeks in the time of Antiochus, decided to solve the problem of our separate existence by exterminating us when we did not blend in to their satisfaction. Thank G*d, they did not succeed.

          ” Do you view Jewish culture as somehow superior to others? ”
          I certainly view it as something valuable and worth perpetuating, and disagree with your view that it is an impediment to human progress. By the way, why do I see this question as akin to asking someone whether they have stopped beating their wife, same sex partner, or transgendered significant other?

          “If so, you are saying non-Jews are somehow less valuable or important”

          No, I am not saying that. What an absurd accusation.

          “certainly ironic considering how the Jewish people have suffered throughout history because of same view from others.”

          Says the man who admits to wanting an end to Jewish culture, nationhood and religion, by means of intermarriage and assimilation.

        • ahad_ha_amoratsim

          Matt, you have made some assumptions about my beliefs, so let me put them on the table.

          The Torah tells us that G*d assigned a very specific task to the Jewish people, and told us that we are the only ones who can do it. He also gave us very specific instructions for how to accomplish that task, and these instructions apply to every second of our lives. We cannot opt out of that task or those instructions no matter how much we may want to — not one of us, and not one of the instructions. We can ignore those instructions, but we do so at our peril, and He has warned us that doing so amounts to self-destruction, and can bring destruction on the Jewish people as a whole R’L (that stands for May the Merciful One deliver us) .

          Part of our task is to be grateful for the special task we were given. This task does not make us better than non-Jews, but it does make us different and does give us a higher standard to live up to. And it is important to note that those higher standards are not for non-Jews to assess or infer, and not the higher standards that THEY might like to impose on us (like the lame-brained idea that some have that Israel should never act in self-defense unless, unlike every other nation on earth, it can guaranty that only combatants will be hurt); they are the standards that the Torah imposes, as given to us by G*d, extracted by our Sages and taught by their successors, today’s rabbis.

          You may not agree with these beliefs. Fine; you are not Jewish. Sadly, many Jews have not been taught these beliefs either, due to our long exile.

          You may regret that our task necessarily creates a degree of separation between Jews and non-Jews. Non-Jews can become Jews, at which point we can, with certain exceptions, marry them. But we cannot marry non-Jews, and we cannot become non-Jewish; we can only become Jews who R’L ignore G*d’s instructions. And believe me when I tell you that I fall very short in many, many of them.

          If these beliefs offend you or strike you as outmoded, you are in a long and distinguished line that includes Laban, Haman, Antiochus, Nero, Titus, Caligula, Napoleon, Voltaire, Marx and Kant, among many others. But those who hold those beliefs are the only segment of American Jewry who are experiencing growth rather than decline, and the ones most likely b’ezras Hashem (that means ‘with G*d’s help) to have Jewish grandchildren.

  • RonKean

    Culture is peripheral to Judaism. The religious community is growing. By religious I mean shomer shabbos, shomer kashrut et al. Other interests are the foam on top of the beer. Culture will not survive because it isn’t essence. It’s a sentimental attachment not a belief. Culture is fashion. It will pass.

    • Rebecca K.

      I do think that the enduring aspect of Jewish culture is our religious heritage. That’s what connects us to the past. But I don’t think that a person (and I say this as an Orthodox woman who borders on Hareidi) needs to commit to every aspect of Torah in order to “speak” the language of Torah and connect with other Jewish, past and present.

      • ahad_ha_amoratsim

        Well said. And we have to be ready to show the beauty of that heritage to our fellow Jews who were raised without it, in a way that is loving and non-judgmental, but that does not buy into the secularist fantasy that we can thrive as a people without Torah.

  • RAM500

    Don’t expect a shaky non-relationship with Torah to yield a Jewish culture with true value.

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      Well said. Even the agnostic Ahad Ha’am recognized this, at least subconsiously. His essay “The sacred and the profane” (which I have read in English only, more’s the pity) is an eye opener.

  • batiya

    “…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.”

    And this is exactly why so many American Jews seem alienated from Israel. Just by dint of being American, we’re screwed. Such snobbery is a big part of the reason for the chasm between the “haves” and “have-nots” in Jewish communities everywhere. If Judaism is designed to keep us somewhat separate from the rest of society, then those of us grew up outside of a Jewish culture deemed recognizable by Those Who Matter — or who can’t afford the price of admission — are shut out.

    What remains in the face of such unbridled snobbery is, in my opinion, to go rogue. Instead of trying to consume someone else’s idea of Jewish culture, create your own instead, and find like-minded others with whom to share and celebrate it. But be warned! The more Jews feel alienated by the “dominant paradigm”, the more they may choose to create a Jewish culture that has less and less to do with Israel, and more to do with redefining and localizing Jewish life in cities and towns throughout the American Jewish Diaspora.

  • abarafi

    What were Jews speaking when the Romans sacked the Temple and dispersed them? Aramaic? It certainly wasn’t Yiddish. Yiddish is what emerged when several generations of diaspora Jews combined whatever it was they spoke with the language of the Germanic lands they found themselves in. They had several hundreds of years to shape it and own it – but what emerged was not the root of Jewish culture – it was the root of Eastern European Jewish culture. That’s different than the Jewish culture that emerged in Spain, and the language that was spoken – Ladino. And, it was different still from the Jewish culture that emerged in Egypt, or Turkey. We are still grappling with what exactly it is that forms the tie that binds us. For Catholics, Protestants, even Muslims, the tie that binds is religion, not genetics. We call non-observant Catholics “lapsed Catholics.” We call non-observant Jews “Jews.” If it is not a common faith that binds us, what is it exactly? And, what is the gift that our Jewishness (whatever it is) brings to our non-Jewish neighbors?

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      Aramaic, of course, is no more Jewish in origin than Yiddish is. But Yiddish gave Jews a way to communicate among themselves and with themselves that embodied a particularly Jewish way of thinking, with idiom taken from Jewish life, religion and customs, and that set them apart from their gentile neighbors. The Yiddish words for headline font and for fine print — and even the word for toilet paper — are all taken from the siddur. The word for a routine event -”every Monday and Thursday” — is based on weekday morning services.
      What do we as American Jews have as a comparable unifying mode of expression that embodies our customs and religion, rather than gastronomy, self-loathing, or comedians?

    • Rebecca K.

      I’m thinking about your comment, and I think that this is just another reason that the heart of Jewish identity lies in knowledge of Torah and mitzvos, whether adhered to or not. Yiddish culture excludes a vast number of Jews — Mizrachim, Sephardim, Ethiopians, Tehmani, etc — but the Torah and mitzvos are shared by them all.

    • Jonathan

      “What were Jews speaking when the Romans sacked the Temple and dispersed them? Aramaic?”

      In Judea ? They spoke Hebrew.

      • alexschindler

        Wrong. Aramaic outside Hellenized areas which spoke Koine Greek. Hebrew as vernacular was largely a thing of the past by then. Bar Kokhba tried, unsuccessfully, to implement a Hebrew revolution, so we have records of the terrible spelling of his messengers.

      • Jonathan

        Sorry but you are wrong. Hebrew was the main language in Judea until at least the end of the second century, as the Mishnah itself is the best proof, but we have many others. The idea that Jews spoke only Aramaic and that Hebrew was “a thing of the past” has been debunked a long time ago.

  • ahad_ha_amoratsim

    Our city’s Jewish federation called a community-wide meeting to discuss the Pew study. When did they hold it? The Thursday night before Passover. The well-meaning and earnest lay leaders and executives of our Federation are so divorced from Jewish culture that they had no idea what an inconvenient date that would be for any Jew who actually observes Passover. Cleaning out the house, getting rid of chametz, cooking in advance for Yom Tov — these are things that the leadership has no concept that real people do.

  • The Incredible Sulk

    I am not Jewish but I see the ethnic communities I am drawn from dying and assimilating. It seems like an inexorable process. The parallels drawn in this article to the late 19th and early 20th centuries are flawed, I believe, because back then nationalism was part of the zeitgeist. This movement culminated in the terrible wars and atrocities of the 20th century. Now nationalism is something of a dirty word and cosmopolitanism is the zeitgeist today. Assimilation and inter-group marriage are celebrated by the dominant culture today, because they are seen as tools to break down barriers and hasten global equality, both for what groups remain and for all individuals. The sustenance of ancient group identities will be difficult, but I wish the Jewish people all the best.

  • halevi

    Jewish culture is thriving, but Jewish secular culture is dying. That’s because secular American Jews have been losing their identities, sadly, through non-observance, intermarriage, etc. It’s the observant communities that are growing and thriving all over the US.

    • Jerry S

      You hit the nail on its head! Or as they say in Yiddish: דא ליגט דער הונט באגראבן.

    • Olterigo

      You call a kiddush cup (and the rest of Jewish religious paraphernalia) stuck in Baroque look a “thriving” culture? Or the oil paintings of old rabbis, which look like a fake of the Polish (Jewish?) artist Szewczenko, who started painting before WW2?

      I’m glad that Orthodox Judaism exists, and I’ll give you that as a culture the Orthodox Jewish way of life goes on and exists and continues. But a “culture” in the sense that the article was talking about, a “high culture” current Orthodox Judaism does not produce.

  • longjourney

    Fascinating article and discussion. While I born a Christian, I am extremely interested in furthering the survival and strengthening of the Jewish culture and faith. In large measure, Judaism and Christianity face many of the same challenges. Ideally, what helps one should help the other. Basically, we have each found our own ways of worshiping God. If Judaism cannot survive in the modern world, I see no hope for Christianity either.

    I recently read “Renaissance: A Strategic Plan for Transforming Judaism” by Jim Stein and found this to be very excellent and thought provoking. Such thinking as presented in the book and in this article gives me hope our two Faiths’ challenges can be met.

  • ephraim_1

    What does it mean that all those forms of Jewish expression that essentially are rooted in the cultural modes of the non-Jewish host culture, and their proponents, disappear or are subsumed into the host culture. Historically most visibly, think of the Mendelsohns (not sure of the surname spelling). And yet ever emerging becomes the growth of classical religious rabbinic Jewish expression in all manner of form.

  • Misanthrope

    Jews have abandoned their culture because it is inconsistent with the leftist political ideology they support. You can’t maintain a culture founded on a religion when your politics abhors religion; nor can you support an identity founded on religion when your politics despises that identity.

    • Littleavi

      Excellent and insightful comment. The article is proof of the vacuousness of so-called Jewish culture. There never has been Jewish culture only Jewish religion. The attempt to rationalize Jewish life without the dictates of Judaism is what passes for Jewish culture. What a colossal waste of time to try to categorize, report on or discuss such nonsense.

  • Roberta Newman

    James Loeffler’s thought-provoking article mentions the Pew Study, which, as I recall, noted a category of those who defined themselves as “cultural Jews.” This has always seemed to me to be a slippery, euphemistic term. Could mean anything from eating bagels and cream cheese on Saturday night to enjoying documentaries on Jewish topics. But terms like “cultural Jews” and “peoplehood” always seem to me to be skirting the fact that what they really mean is that the Jews are a tribe. It’s all too clear that for the shapers of modern Jewish culture in the nineteenth century, the progenitors of Wissenschaft des Judentums in Western Europe/the maskilim of Eastern Europe, “tribe” would have been a dirty word, connoting non-modern, non-European, primitivism. That was the last thing they wanted to be seen as. But in reality, we are a tribe — bound together by bloodlines and sense of belonging to something smaller than nationhood and larger than family. We have a tribal religion, which is ours by birthright, whether we engage with it or not. Outsiders can become members of the tribe by virtue of certain tribal rituals…

    We get all misty-eyed about the tribal culture of Native Americans and other peoples seen as non-white, but we’re still afraid of the word “tribe” as applied to ourselves. We’re still afraid of not being white. Maybe we need to come to grips with what Jewish peoplehood really means before we can truly have a modern, Jewish secular culture. And also (rather under-emphasized in the article and comments), there’s got to be secular Jewish education on a larger and more thoughtful scale than there is now. You can’t draw from the wellspring of the Jewish past if you don’t even know it existed in the first place.

    • Tzur

      No, I would not term the Jewish people a “tribe” at all, any more than is Judaism and the Jewish heritage a “culture.” Both are determinedly secularistic rebrandings/misunderstandings of past Torah-centered realities. The “tribal” attribution is a purely symbolical terminology anyway, understood from the start above all in religious terms. It points only to our actually non-tribal kinship with each other through Abraham Avinu, and secondarily through the Sinai era’s nominally tribal groupings; there are no twelve tribes left, after all. We include all the races of humanity. Anyone visiting Israel will see that in the first five minutes. Conversion has been a fact of Jewish history since Abraham won converts to join him in his God-centered journey.

      The Twelve Tribes included numerous converts from the start (we read of some 318 young men “born in his [Abraham's] house” that came with him to rescue Lot from enemy armies: Gen. 14:14). The huge flocks and large number of shepherds and other members of the houses of the twelve sons of Jacob required a whole region of Egypt to be assigned to them, when they came down to that land (Gen. 47:5-6). The ancestors of the later Jewish people were not tribal nor genetically uniform even then. Moses himself married a Midianite woman, whose fervent convert membership in the Jewish people and mission, and eagerness to circumcise their children in the Abrahamic covenant, literally saved Moses’ own life and Exodus mission (Exod. 24: 24-26).

      The Exodus from Egypt included a considerable “mixed multitude” of other slaves seeking freedom, and free Egyptians seeking truth (Exod. 12:38; Num. 11:4); they all became full Jews at Mt. Sinai, and the commandments, the Torah states firmly in many places, applies equally to convert and native-born alike — indicating the significant number of converts even then. We intermarried with the Canaanites when we settled there, and although when the entire population was finally taken away captive into exile they were taken as “Jews,” the struggle from the generation of Joshua onwards to preserve God’s teachings caused literally centuries of strife and near abandonment of the Sinai covenant and Jewish identity and peoplehood as such. It may be that only exile saved us from complete disappearance, paradoxically enough. But in Exile we also won converts down through the ages, even of leaders of whole kingdoms, from the peoples we lived amongst.

      Our heritage is therefore not a “tribal” one (although DNA studies have proven that there remains a mainstream genetic inheritance from thousands of years ago). But it is typical of the present state of Jewish knowledge and identity that in lieu of a deeper understanding of what Judaism is, assimilated Jews are only left with an ethnic identity, and a rather thin one at that. It is as if they live still in Egyptian slavery, without knowledge of Sinai and before the Exodus. Such Jews even may attend synagogues as an “ethnic cultural” affirmation, and not for religious/spiritual purposes. Alas, what they have lost.

      • Roberta Newman

        If we’re not a tribe and primarily a religion, then why the need for conversion ceremonies? I never meant to suggest that Jews are genetically homogeneous. In fact, another theory I sometimes expound which pisses people off is that many of us are the descendants of people who joined the Jewish people well after most Jews left the land of Israel and that some of us are the descendants of pogromist rapists.
        Such is the beauty and elasticity of Jewish civilization that none of us who might have that lineage have been stigmatized. As long as our mothers are Jewish we are considered Jewish, members of the tribe, fully and completely.

        Many tribal cultures have rituals which allow outsiders to become members – so in this respect, Judaism is no different.

        An ultra-Orthodox Jew, let’s say, might consider me a “bad Jew” because I don’t observe some of the mitzvot, but he/she still considers me a Jew. Why? Because I belong to the Jewish people by birth.

        I do not understand why contemplating the idea of the Jewish people being a Jewish tribe is so threatening to the idea that the Jewish religion is central to the continuity of the Jewish people. Jewish tradition/religion is integral to Jewish tribal civilization. In the time and place we live in, it is possible to maintain a Jewish identity in a secular, cultural way, but that might not be enough in the future and those who regard Jewish religious practice as the bedrock for Jewish continuity may be right. But if that’s all they regard as Jewish culture, they’re missing out on a great deal and only getting (and passing on to their children) part of what Jewish heritage/identity is in its richest sense.

        • ahad_ha_amoratsim

          ‘An ultra-Orthodox Jew, let’s say, might consider me a “bad Jew” ‘

          Roberta although I deplore the awful term ‘ultra-Orthodox’, you have pointed out one of the delicious ironies about what makes someone Jewish.
          As you noted, any Orthodox Jew would consider you Jewish if you were born to a Jewish mother. Those who consider themselves Jewish but who say “It’s purely a religion, it’s not an ethnicity/tribe/people” don’t realize that by their own definition, they are reading themselves out of the Jewish people.
          Why? Because by rejecting the religious definition of what makes someone Jewish (being born to a Jewish mother or else converting, which requires acceptance of the entire Torah), they are announcing they disbelieve in the religion — which would make them non-Jewish according to their definition, but not according to the so-called Orthodox definition.

        • Tzur

          Roberta, precisely the fact that there are conversion ceremonies indicates that we are not a tribe. One cannot “convert” for example to being an Arab, or a Mongol, or an Aryan, etc. Tribal ethnicities are not something one can convert to, they are matters solely of birth. (Adoption or custodianship is not the same thing.) But one can convert to a religion, that is, publicly declare one’s acceptance of views of God, humanity, the purpose of life, and one’s glad, full and voluntary entry into the community that celebrates all this, indicating that what one is converting to is in fact a vision of the universe and of one’s own identity in it that is by its very nature trans-ethnic and non-tribal. We are a people and we are a religion, and the former ultimately depends upon the latter.

          Jewish peoplehood is unlike any other in the world, and that is why the standard definitions of ethnicity, people, “nation,” etc., have trouble accommodating it or accounting for it. We are the only people who were formally created as such by covenantal acceptance of a total vision of the universe and humanity’s purpose within it, the Sinai revelation: we therefore, whether we wish to or not, point by our very existence as a people to God and testify to Sinai. No other people in the world was created by a religion and via a specific formal public communal covenantal acceptance of this religion. Of course, individuals can repudiate this covenant but still remain simply by virtue of their birth residual members of the community and people. However, in Canaan, as in later ages, those who rejected the Sinai covenantal vision with its communal obligations joined in practice with the Baal-worshippers and ceased to be Jews, intermarrying with other Canaanites instead, while those Canaanites who accepted the Sinai covenant joined the “Jewish” people, the B’nai Yisrael. The determinate factor was the religion: it created the people and preserved it. The diverse and not always observant people called “Jews” at the time of Exile were scattered to the nations, which sifted and sieved them: only those who held fast to their religion remained Jews thereafter, all others disappearing into the nations around about them. Their descendants have been lost to Jewry.

          Other religions are different. The non-Torah-influenced religions have all emerged from an already existing people, and change with them, so we may call them folk religions. Hinduism today is radically different from Hinduism of the Vedic period, for example, but each expresses the regnant folk values equally well and so is “Hinduism.” Similarly for Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism, and so on. And the Torah-influenced religions of Christianity and Islam adapted the Torah perspective to their own folk cultures, making a new sect in the Graeco-Roman world that divorced itself from peoplehood, or that adapted the Torah perspective to pagan Arab culture that also ended up divorced partly from peoplehood too. So the folk was defined even in those daughter religions as prior to their religion, and became the legitimatisation of religious diversity.

          This is not true for Judaism, however, which created the Jewish people as such at Mt. Sinai, and which was formally and explicitly articulated as an everlasting covenant not folkish in nature nor subject to cancellation by folk practice. The prophets insisted on this non-folkish, God-derived and transcendental standard for Jewish identity, and the sages after them have done the same thing: the Torah covenant was the touchstone and measure for both prophets and sages. The religion thereby became the standard for enduring Jewish identity.

          In the modern period, we see that this remains true. Those Jews who have abandoned their Jewish religious roots may persist as folk Jews for a few generations, but in every modern society they have eventually disappeared into the surrounding population. Ethnicity simply does not supply the glue that ensures permanence.

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      To Afrocentrists we are white; to nativists we are not.

    • Olterigo

      Thank you, Roberta. Very nice to see a comment, with which I can say I agree in full. I actually can’t believe how many times I had to give a similar explanation to non-Jews (in US, not outside of it) that being Jewish is not just and only a religion. One of them was even a son of a Jewish man himself, but he just couldn’t wrap his head around that thought. (He was full of ideas about what a bad thing belonging to a “tribe” is.)

  • charles.hoffman.cpa

    We are assimilated; we are part of the mainstream of America. The chairman of the Fed has been Jewish for a full generation; the NBA is run by a Jewish guy who replaced another Jewish guy.

    The majority of Jews in the US went to fully integrated schools with a few hours of pre-bar mitzvah as their only connection to the printed Jewish word. Those who are observant and went to day schools and/or yeshivot have a culture all their own – Torah study. But with the exception of the true ultra-orthodox, even the observant and Torah-knowledgeable, formed most of their secular ties through the greater American sphere of influence. They follow professional sports, go to mainstream movies, and otherwise are as acculturated as Presbyterians and Hip-hop artists

  • ahad_ha_amoratsim

    Because Jewish is an ethnicity that has a religious component. One can join the ethnicity by accepting and being accepted into the religion. But the laws of the religion determine whether one is a member of the ethnic group, not the other way around.
    If you find that confusing, don’t despair. A lot of non-religious Jews don’t get it either.

  • ahad_ha_amoratsim

    I had difficulty trying to learn Torah on my own, too. There is a lot that is not obvious from the text itself, especially reading in translation. The key is finding a good teacher/study partner, who is well acquainted with the meforshim (often mistranslated as commentators), the midrash, and learning with him in a structured manner. It takes time and it takes effort. It also takes reminding yourself that Hebrew is an idiomatic language and that much of the text is meant to be read metaphorically or idiomaticly, not literally, while other parts are meant to be read literally, and that none of it can be properly understood without the Oral Torah. Without the tradition, there is no way to tell which is which.
    One reason that Hashem defies your logic is that you and I are finite creatures, whose source is the infinite Hashem. Only the finite, pagan non-gods are fully understandable. By definition, the finite cannot fully understand the Infinite. We can only understand as much of Him as he is willing to reveal to us.
    All of this, assuming you were born Jewish, makes you a thinking, questioning intelligent Jew who has not yet been fortunate enough to learn with a good teacher. If your town has a community kollel, or a branch of Aish HaTorah, or a Chabad, any of those would be an excellent place to start a fascinating journey that can take a lifetime.

  • eashtov

    And let’s not forget the primacy of the Hebrew language as a unique glue for non religious Jewishness in Israel that is all but totally absent everywhere else.

    Biv’racha,
    Jordan

  • Daniel Wiener

    I have to say that James Loeffler’s essay has a nostalgic and somewhat sad ring to it. Although I was Bar Mitzvahed and went to our Temple’s Hebrew school when I was young (over fifty years ago) I would certainly now be classified as a secularized, non-observant Jew who intermarried and passed on very little of the Jewish religion to my daughter. That does not stop me from appreciating Jewish culture, or the concern with assimilation which is deeply rooted in the long history of oppression of Jews.

    It is hard for Jews to give up their fears, when anti-semitism has been such a pervasive and recurring experience through much of human history. It has not disappeared even to this day in America, but by any objective standard it has become relatively inconsequential. I personally cannot think of any instance in which I have been discriminated against due to my religious heritage, and I believe this is the norm for the large majority of Jews in America.

    This is a very good thing, even if it has as its inevitable byproduct the erosion of a strong sense of Jewish identity and cultural cohesiveness. The world changes, and those who refuse to accept that fact are destined to be disappointed. We can, for example, regret the dying of the Yiddish language without feeling a necessity to resurrect it. Let’s just remember it for the good it contained, and move on.

    Does the integration of Jews into American society mean that Judaism itself will die out in this country? I’d guess not, but there are no guarantees. If Judaism survives, it will have to be because it offers enough intrinsic value to make itself desirable to those same Jews without detracting from the value of being accepted members of a secular world.

  • Jerry S

    Unless of course, you belong to one of the multiple Orthodox Jewish communities around the world.

    Hey, ever been to Brooklyn?

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      Which part? Flatbush (my wife’s favorite) is very different from Boro Park (my preference, and the only part where I’ve spent a Shabbos) which is different from Williamsburg (awesome to see store signs in Yiddish, even though ich red nisht Yiddish). Didn’t see much Yiddishkeit in Brooklyn Hts or Cobble Hill. Don’t know anything about the other neighborhoods.
      Have a gutten Shabbos.

  • louis_wheeler

    I was wondering if the decline in numbers of Reform Jews has an effect. Orthodox Jews are taking over because they have 3.5 children while Reform Jew have about one. The Jews in the arts seemed to come from Ashkenazim Jews who are marrying out the faith or failing to reproduce.

  • ahad_ha_amoratsim

    Matt, for some reason there was no reply button on your comment about my sad and antiquated views.

    “As someone who has Jewish relatives
    through marriage, I am happy to have them in the family, not because they are
    Jewish, but because they are good people.”

    Well, that’s certainly Christian of you. Or
    liberal of you. Or whatever.

    “When people stop separating
    themselves based on their ancestry and view themselves as simply part of the human species, a lot of pain and strife will go away. ”

    In other words, you think the world will be
    a better place when Jews stop being Jews. You are not the first to think this way. Many of those who did think this way, including the Persians in the time
    of Haman and the Greeks in the time of Antiochus, decided to solve the problem of our separate existence by exterminating us when we did not blend in to their satisfaction. Thank G*d, they did not succeed.

    ” Do you view Jewish culture as
    somehow superior to others? ”
    I certainly view it as something valuable and worth perpetuating, and disagree with your view that it is an impediment to human progress. By the way, why do I see this question as akin to asking someone whether they have stopped beating their wife, same sex partner, or transgendered significant other?

    “If so, you are saying non-Jews are
    somehow less valuable or important”
    No, I am not saying that. What an absurd
    accusation.

    “certainly ironic considering how the
    Jewish people have suffered throughout history because of same view from
    others.”
    It is certainly ironic to be subjected to lectures on by a man who says that the world will be a better place when Jewish culture, nationhood, identity and religion have been eliminated by means of intermarriage and
    assimilation.

  • KMontreal

    Not at all the first time in our history — everything you laud in America was present in modern Austro-Hungary and Germany until the rise of Nazism. We know how well that turned out — although it’s true that young Israeli artists currently flock to Berlin as much as NYC. The program of Yiddish culture was a Polish/Lithuanian/Russian phenomenon.

  • ahad_ha_amoratsim

    “A Jew who doesn’t believe in Judaism is just another Caucasian.” That’s a very non-Jewish way of looking at it. Apart from the fact that not all Jews are Caucasian.

    According to our Sages, a Jew who doesn’t believe in Judaism is still a Jew, although he may be subject to various penalities or disabilities until he comes around. In Tractate Shabbos, the Sages discuss the verse ‘Yisroel chet’ – Israel has sinned, and conclude that even when a Yisroel (a Jew) sins, he remains a Yisroel and does not stop being a Jew.

    Unlike Christianity, the Jewish people is more than just a ‘faith community.’ It’s more like citizenship than it is like church membership. You’re born into it whether you like it or not, you retain the obligations even if you try to resign, and someone who isn’t born into it can’t just decide to join without going through naturalization.

  • Olterigo

    And? Did you bring this to their attention some time beforehand?

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      In this case, no. In some earlier cases (e.g. scheduling a lunch meeting for chol ha moed succos, or serving food that they thought was kosher but is not, and had no hechsher), yes. One learns to pick one’s battles so as not to become persona further non grata.

      • Olterigo

        Gotcha. Sounds, then, like the leaders are not too interested in the community they were hired/elected/selected to serve.

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      I should add that there was not much time beforehand to bring it to their attention; the program was announced only a week or two in advance. By then, based on the response I got to the Sukkos issue, they would have said the publicity is out, the speaker has been scheduled, the room is booked, the Jewish paper has published the date, and it’s too late to change it.

      But surely they knew that it was the week before Passover.

      The scheduling was not the result of malice, but the result of being so out of touch with Jewish life that they had no inkling what the chosen date entailed and that the date would preclude or at least inconvenience those who do lead a Jewish life, but who form such a small part of the Federation’s constituency and budget that they can be safely neglected.

  • Olterigo

    Why would someone call themselves a Jew in that case? Because it is not the (religious) life of the community that is being rejected wholesale but only the notion of a Supreme Being of some sort.

    Do I reject the idea of the history of my people? No, it’s a fact that some of my more immediate ancestors were rich merchants, who haven’t spoken Yiddish for a few generations, who have come from “aristocratic” families, while others have come from a shtetl in the the backwoods of Ukraine and have spoken only Yiddish until they came to the big city. They have lived through the turmoil of the end of 19th and all of the 20th century. They have read the German and Russian maskilim, they sang Yiddish songs, they took part in the various streams of Jewish religious and secular thought of the last 2 centuries. And for the last 3 (and maybe even 4) generations they have been pretty secular. Without even the celebration of Passover and the synagogue.

    My Mother, a woman without any Jewish education, who believes that “one should have God inside” (and does not have to go to a synagogue and do “Jewish stuff”) even gave me advice that was straight out of the Tsavoe (the Ethical Will) of rabbi Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg (that’s 12th century; though she didn’t know where it came from and how old it was). Isn’t that culture?

    Besides, when people here speak of the secular Jews having left values, the reality is that within the Jewish community all Jewish movements (even the Orthodox Judaism) promote a very socialized and supportive kind of community life. It is the community that is at the end of the day responsible for the education of children, it is the community that is responsible for its homeless and hungry, sick and dead. It’s just that the majority of the secular Jews end up extending these ideas to our society as a whole. The values we are brought up with, in the end, stay with us until the end of our lives, whether or not we choose to pray to a specific instance of a supreme being.

  • Olterigo

    You mean the mandatory religious ghetto that Israel has (aka the rule of religious (Orthodox) Jews over the laws of marriage and divorce? Where non-religious Jews without cars can’t even take a bus on Saturday? Aka, the enforced Jewishness. No, we should not forget that. And yes, this sort of Jewishness is absent from most other communities.

    • ahad_ha_amoratsim

      I sense a bit of resentment toward those who have not abandoned Jewishness in favor of non-Jewish norms, practices and beliefs.

    • Dan_Simon

      Actually, my point stands irrespective of the degree to which Jewish law is or is not entwined with Israeli state law. In America, for instance, Christianity is strong and self-perpetuating by virtue of a Christian majority with a substantial minority of “serious” Christians–and despite the constitutionally enforced separation of church and state. The key factor is that even Americans descended from several generations of nominal, secular Christians are likely to see themselves as nominal, secular Christians, and are therefore most likely to turn to Christianity as “their” religion if the call of religious belief beckons. However, Americans descended from several generations of nominal, secular Jews are likely already nominal, secular Christians as a result of intermarriage. In Israel, on the other hand, the dynamic is reversed, and descendants of nominal, secular Jews will still see themselves as Jewish, and embrace observant Judaism–and the existing, vibrant observant Jewish community–if they find themselves inclined towards religious practice.

  • Ben Schachter

    Response to James Loeffler

    There is much that I agree with in James Loeffler’s eulogy for Jewish culture. The energetic hoped forresurrection of 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” is noteworthy. Loeffler laments the demise of Makor and The Foundation for Jewish Culture. For me, I shrugged. I live and work in Pittsburgh. “Out here” the Six Points Fellowship, workshops, readings, and performances are far away.

    Loeffler then discusses the influence various Yiddish writers had on the larger public. Today, who are the writers to whom people turn to hear words that speak to them and that speak for them?

    That, to me, defines great art. There will be a time when “Elite experiments and manifestos” are “greeted with enthusiasm…on the ground.”

    Yes, on the ground. Decentralized, eccentric, independent, Jewish culture…

    http://jewisharttheory.blogspot.com/2014/05/jewish-culture-is-dead-long-live-jewish.html

Responses

  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.

About the Author

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).

 

   

 

Makor, the secular Jewish nightclub and arts center that closed in 2006.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even as modernity threatened to tear apart traditional Eastern European Jewish life, it offered the promise of a new kind of collective rebirth in the form of culture.

 

 

 

S. An-sky in 1910. Courtesy Wikimedia.

 

 

 


A clip from the 1937 film version of S. Ansky's The Dybbuk.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The solution to assimilation was cultural renaissance through art and, for some, through the Hebrew language.

 

 

 

Hayyim Nahman Bialik in 1923. Courtesy Wikimedia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Across Eastern Europe, Jews established thousands of cultural organizations—orchestras, libraries, theaters, and more.

 

A poster for the Habimah theater troupe's 1926 production of "The Eternal Jew," a drama about the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem. From The Museum of Family History.

 

 

 

  

A postcard featuring I.L. Peretz, circa 1923. Courtesy Wikimedia.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For much of the 20th century, American Jews had other things on their minds than Jewish culture. But that changed in the 1960s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cover of Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan's landmark 1963 study Beyond the Melting Pot.

   

 

 

 

 

A sunset concert at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In this post-religious moment, almost anything, it seems, can count as Jewish culture.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Could the real thing happen in America? If it did, what would it look like?

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Russian Jewish piano virtuoso Evgeny Kissin.

 

 

From Kh’volt geven a baln visn
(It would be nice to know)
By Hayyim Nahman Bialik, read by Evgeny Kissin

It’d be nice to know
what my death will be like.
Will my soul expire
with a bitter moan?
Or will I spit it out
with bitter gall?
Perhaps it will leak out
in a tear of pearl
to tremble, shimmer
generations after me.

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