The Case for Jewish Culture

Arts and culture can help renew Jewish communal life.

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Despite the American Jewish antipathy to or neglect of the value, The General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations has given platforms for scholars and artists to talk about the communal value of the arts, and communities are beginning to set up local cultural councils and plan community-wide cultural activities with the expressed intention of connecting the religious and the artistic.

The American Jewish community is only now beginning to acknowledge the unapologetically Jewish content of artists like Archie Rand who are transforming art and culture in Jewish and non-Jewish venues. Unlike previous generations, today's young artists can succeed in theater, dance, music, etc., with their Jewish sensibilities intact and positively asserted. Although there are still TV stars who play up their anxiety about Jewishness for laughs, an increasing number of well-known actors and other artists are addressing substantive Jewish issues in their work and/or lead strongly identified Jewish lives.

Apart from Rand, many other Jewish artists at the top of their field have taken this approach: playwright Tony Kushner, who begins "Angels in America" with a long midrash from a rabbi; rock star Peter Himmelman, with his references to God and tzitzit [fringes worn by observant Jews] flying out during concerts; composer/dramatist Liz Swados, who has brought biblical themes to stages around the country. The head of one of the most important Los Angeles theaters told me recently that he receives so many Jewish plays (and not just plays by Jews) that he could produce only Jewish works all year around and still fill the theater.

The flowering of Jewish Studies programs in recent years has created a cadre of professors knowledgeable about the role of arts and culture in Jewish history, and not afraid to talk about it at synagogues, federations, and elsewhere.

As Stanford University professor Arnold Eisen told the General Assembly in 1992, the challenge is to provoke the Jewish community, "which is very rationalist in its orientation and quite conservative in the way it reaches out to people" to realize that "people are more than words and that they are more than ideas. If we are serious about Jewish education, then we must realize that people are reached and reach other people through symbols, through images, through all sorts of media."

I am waiting for the day when I can send my kids (well-educated Jewishly, of course) to a college where they can choose between a class on Talmud, a class on Jewish history, and a class on klezmer music. And if they choose the class on klezmer first, abie gezunt!

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Dan Schifrin

Dan Schifrin is the former director of communications for the National Foundation of Jewish Culture.