Who Says Jewish Culture is Dead

The project of Jewish culture is dead. – Dr. James Loeffler, Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and History at the University of Virginia

Whoa! That is quite the statement. How can that be?

Well, that was the thesis of Dr. James Loeffler’s recent essay, The Death of Jewish Culture, in Mosaic Magazine. It was both a shocking and thought provoking article. How could it be that Jewish culture was dead? So much of what I hear and read in Jewish life emphasizes the connecting aspects of cultural Judaism.

In Portland alone we have a successful Jewish film festival…beautiful klezmer music…a fantastic Jewish museum…multiple Jewish artists…spectacular Jewish theater…Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia…and let’s not forget Jewish delis. They are not just a part of the Jewish community, but of general Portland life, as well.

Loeffler points out, “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."

Michael Weingrad, Professor of Jewish Studies at Portland State University, wrote an interesting response to Loeffler’s essay focusing on Jewish studies efforts on college campuses to enhance Jewish culture. He reiterated the point that “secular cultural programs, despite their often admirable achievements, are a shaky substitute for the ‘thick, expansive, and holistic identity’ promised by the term ‘Jewish culture.’ Scholarship, in the form of academic Jewish studies, has frequently been enlisted in attempts to build just such a modern Jewish identity...The discipline of Jewish studies, however, is indeed no ‘pathway to Jewish identity’ and is no ‘ultimate outreach tool’.”

Culture is a part of the human experience. We must evaluate Jewish culture as it relates to the wider American culture in which it is immersed. For most, the depth and beauty of being an American in America leaves little lacking. The need for music, art, history, friendship, charity, etc. can all be satisfied by one’s American identity. For the first time perhaps in our history, we live in a place where we have full ownership not just as citizens, but as cultural participants.

One of our challenges is that we tend to pin the label “Jewish” on almost any expression of art or social behavior that might appeal to the constituencies they wish to reach. These can range from a discussion in which a noted personality who happens to be Jewish holds forth on issues of possible interest to American Jews -- as Americans -- to, in the promotional words of one 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.

So, maybe we are missing out on the opportunity to try and define what constitutes "Jewish culture."

Interestingly, the recent Pew Study of American Jewish Life does not use the words “culture” or “cultural” except as a euphemism describing unaffiliated Jews who might otherwise be identified as “secular” or “ethnic.” In fact, I always feel these studies incorrectly make “cultural” the antonym of “religious.”

Think of it this way…Judaism is not Christianity/Islam/Mormonism/etc. Secular Jewishness and religious Judaism are both relatively understandable concepts. But "Jewish culture?” Is it Seinfeld or Fiddler on the Roof? The songs of Neil Diamond or traditional cantorial liturgy? Paintings of Jewish themes or the abstract works of Mark Rothko? How about Jon Stewart or David Gregory from Meet the Press? Perhaps all of the above?

As Jenna Weissman Joselit, Chair of Judaic Studies at George Washington University said, “I am unsure if anyone can truly pin down the meaning of "Jewish culture," let alone what it includes or excludes. Jewish culture is such an open-ended term, I wonder whether the definition hangs on sensibility, subject matter or birthright. To put it another way, figuring out exactly what makes a song or a dance, a film or an artwork "Jewish" is not so simple. And that's just for starters. Equally daunting is the challenge of situating Jewish culture, of grounding it in a particular context, especially these days when everything's up for grabs. Where does one find it? On the street? In the synagogue? On Broadway? At college? A Jewish community center? At a museum? Online?”

Yes, yes and yes, again -- in all those places.

That is our opportunity -- to bring more “Jewish” to our people and our community in more ways and places. Jewish culture is not for me to define. It is for each one of us to define. If someone senses enhanced Jewishness or gains a greater sense of their Jewish self, why should we make any kind of judgment about whether it is considered Jewish culture or not?

So, in the end, I am not in agreement with Loeffler that Jewish culture is dead (look at all that Jewish Portland has to offer). I am far more motivated about how we can create a greater Jewish cultural and/or religious renaissance -- one that will revitalize Jewish identity and affiliation, particularly among the younger members of an increasingly diverse and secularized community. That is both our challenge and opportunity!

A quick update on Jewish Portland Tomorrow (JPT). Our consultant finished his work in early April. He visited Portland and shared his report with the JPT Committee and the Jewish Federation Board. Following those presentations, earlier this month, the reports were sent to the Presidents and Executive Directors of Federation’s partner agencies for their reactions and input. Meetings with those organizations will be concluded early next week and on Friday, May 30 we will release the final report to the entire Jewish community. I look forward to your thoughts and feedback.

Shabbat shalom.



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