Jewish America's Cultural Vitality

A response to Leon Wieseltier.

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Adventures in Yiddishland

As for Yiddish, things on that front are also far more complex than would appear at first blush. That storied lingua franca has become what cultural historian Jeffrey Shandler calls a "post-vernacular" language, whose multiple expressions he incisively analyzes in his recent book Adventures in Yiddishland (2008).

The subject of sustained study at the university level as well as a social bond, a wellspring of words, the stuff of material culture, Yiddish has assumed new forms in the New World. While it's true that the use of Yiddish in contemporary America is significantly different than what it once was, "it hasn't just died," Shandler insists.

On the contrary. Its post-vernacular expressions, which range from week-long Yiddish festivals and immersion courses like those sponsored by Yiddishkayt Los Angeles to advertisements for popular American products that make use of Yiddish--Absolut Tchotchke, anyone?--have, curiously enough, endowed the language with a new significance.

Wieseltier would have none of this. As far as he's concerned, Yiddish lies six feet under in modern America. That's because cultural literacy rather than creativity is his yardstick of communal vitality; what matters to him is the mastery of traditional sources, not the invention of new ones.

American Jewish Cultural Health

It's not that I disagree entirely with my good friend's dire assessment. I, too, have been known to throw up my hands in despair at those of my coreligionists who believe that Shabbat ends with breakfast on Saturday morning, or who privilege episodes of "Curb Your Enthusiasm" over a blatt of gemara, or whose torah is "Fiddler on the Roof." I, too, am not happy when fellow Jews can't distinguish between a midrash and the Mishneh Torah or when they prefer their encounters with Jewish history to be laced with sentimentality and weepiness rather than dispassionate analysis and scholarship.

curb your enthusiasm

Does Jewish culture go beyond
"Curb Your Enthusiasm?"

All the same, I'm not prepared to throw in the towel, not quite yet, or, for that matter, to sound the death knell. American Jewry, I strongly believe, contains many more indices of cultural health than Wieseltier is prepared to acknowledge.

Take, for example, the American Jewish community's reception of the Valmadonna Trust Library, the world's largest collection of Hebrew books, at Sotheby's in 2008. Boys with payos and boys without; women in sheitlakh and women in dreadlocks, frummer yidn and avowed secularists from across the country flooded the auction house, waiting in line, sometimes for hours at a stretch, to celebrate the Jewish book. In the galleries, whose white walls were lined floor to ceiling with one sample after another of manuscripts, incunabula, printed books, folios, broadsides, and other textual curiosities, people stood cheek by jowl, taking in the majesty, the sheer sweep, of it all.

The air in the room was palpable with excitement, even a touch giddy. The staff at Sotheby's, I was told, had never seen anything quite like this, nor had I. You couldn't help but be swept away by the sight of all those books and all those people in mutual embrace.

Skeptics might say that looking at Jewish books in glass cases only reinforces Wieseltier's argument, but they'd be missing the point. What was on display at Sotheby's was not just a treasure trove of rarieties but a community of people that had the intellectual wherewithal to appreciate--and celebrate--them.

But then, textual proficiency is surely not the only measure of the community's vitality--not in postmodern America, anyway. Adding visual culture to the mix makes for a pretty picture, indeed. From innumerable films on Jewish subjects and the one hundred film festivals that showcase them annually to arresting new forms of Jewish ritual expression like those on view at the Jewish Museum's 2009-10 exhibition "Reinventing Ritual," American Jewish life pulses with imagination, creativity, and energy.

Leon Wieseltier ought to take heart from all of this and rather than write an epitaph for American Jewry, he just might allow himself to breathe a little easier.

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Jenna Weissman Joselit

Jenna Weissman Joselit holds the Charles E. Smith Chair in Judaic Studies at the George Washington University. The author of the prize-winning book, The Wonders of America, she is also a monthly columnist for The Forward as well as a frequent contributor to the New Republic. Professor Weissman Joselit is currently at work on a book about America's relationship to the Ten Commandments.