The ‘Death’ of Jewish Culture

“Not so long ago,” notes James Loeffler in The Death of Jewish Culture, “Jewish culture seemed to flourish in America; but now all signs point in the opposite direction. What happened?”

That this should even be a concern, and that the idea of Jewish culture being a ‘project’, is itself quite revealing. Furthermore, there is the extent to which mainstream American culture (now dominated by Jewish culture-makers in media, publishing, and Hollywood) has been thoroughly Judaized, increasingly making ‘American culture’ a de facto ‘Jewish culture’. Reading this piece, imagine substituting “Jewish” with “German” or “Protestant” or “white”. Imagine how such a piece would be received by culture at large.

Of a Jewish cultural gathering in 1910 St. Petersburg:

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.

It is important to emphasize this point. To Jewish ethnocentrists who, like Loeffler, fret about the state of ‘Jewish culture’, a “greater threat than anti-Semitism” is… assimilation. Another interesting quote from An-sky:

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.

In Isaac Leybush Peretz (1852-1915), who Loeffler notes is “arguably the founding father of modern Yiddish literature”, we see the many incarnations of Jewish promotion of universalistic doctrines for gentiles (deracination; socialism; egalitarianism; etc.) while at the same time arguing that Jews, as the Chosen People, must preserve their particularism, heritage, and racial consciousness:

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.

Of the playwright Israel Zangwill (1864-1926), whom we can thank for the denotation of America as a “melting pot”, arguably the Jewish shaping of American culture that has had the most direct and lasting impact:

“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.

Loeffler notes how, for much of the 20th century, Jewish particularism waned (due to that dastardly assimilation!), “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 was a romance, we must realize, that white gentiles were not allowed to partake in, and still aren’t.

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.

Subsequent generations of American Jews began to assimilate more. Such assimilation often entails intermarriage to Gentiles, which is something Jewish ethnocentrists like Loeffler find rather troubling:

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.

Loeffler then discusses the much-discussed 2013 Pew study on Jews in America:

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…

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…

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.

That last sentence bears repeating. “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.” The point is valid and correct, and its validity ought to be logically extended to whites and Christians… but isn’t.

Towards the end of the piece, Loeffler discusses the possibilities of art deliberately designed to foster Jewish consciousness. I found one phrase striking:

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.

Now, as a subject matter, substitute Jewish with Christianity, Protestantism, or white Europeanism, and repeat the above truism that “respect for the past and loyalty to tradition” are “preconditions of any culture worthy of the name.”

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