Thursday, April 10, 2014

Jewish Cultural Manifesto -- Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday. Would you rather see something I wrote 9 years ago or would you like to see a picture of me playing cello on our senior year orchestra trip?

I thought so.

A Jewish Cultural Manifesto was one of the first things I ever published. It appeared in my first year as a columnist for Jewish Currents. However, it was already a number of years in the making.

If I were to write this today, I'd probably be slightly less self-righteous. But I wouldn't change too much. You can see, all the major themes of today are there in 2005. And interestingly, the Manifesto is my number one most cited, quoted and read piece. It's turned up in books, academic syllabi, and articles. So, it seems like a natural for recycling-- I mean, revisiting, today. 


A Jewish Cultural Manifesto
(Originally published in November 2005 in Jewish Currents)

I’m a busy woman with no time for nostalgia. My grandparents didn't have a shop on the Lower East Side, my great uncle didn't play in a swing band in the Catskills, and my parents never, ever threatened to disown me if I didn't  marry a Jewish man. Perhaps that¹s why I don¹t find Yiddish and Yiddish-American culture cute. So why the hell do I bother with it, if not out of sentiment or guilt?

Because to grow up Jewish in assimilated America is to absorb a world of cultural confusion. The Jewish history I learned moved pretty quickly from the ancient land of Israel to the modern state of Israel, with brief, terrifying stops between 1939 and 1945. As you can imagine, this creates a bit of an identity crisis in the average young Jew. Who wants to be a Yid at home and an ersatz Israeli at school? 

Not I.

The mainstream Jewish press and other Jewish institutions have spent the last fifty or so years nudging Yiddish culture into its grave, and like the man on the cart full of corpses in Monty Python¹s Holy Grail, no one can hear it screaming, ‘But I'm not dead yet!’

Even before I spoke one word of Yiddish, the language itself was talking to me, telling me that there was more to being a Jew than the empty signifiers, and emptier materialism, of the modern Jewish suburb.

Don¹t get me wrong, I have the greatest respect for all Jewish cultures: Iraqi, Syrian, Moroccan, Ethiopian, Algerian, what have you. I acknowledge that American Jewish culture has been dominated at times by Ashkenazi Jews, at the expense of other Jewish cultures. But it is an equal if not greater crime to see an Ashkenazocentric world view replaced with an á la carte approach to identity! Such an approach assumes that whatever we were in the past -beard-having, matse- ball fressing, shmate peddling ghetto Jews-  is not only over, but it¹s as if it never happened! No wonder we have a crisis! It¹s not too late to acknowledge the truth about ourselves and start repairing this psychotic split. I¹d like to start with six simple declarations:

1. Jewish culture belongs to Jews

Funny how you never really care about something until someone else wants it. Or takes it. At, the most comprehensive klezmer music site on the internet, you can find listings for klezmer bands all over the world, including twenty-seven in Germany alone. Among those twenty-seven, few Jews are to be found. At the Hackesche-Hof-Theater in Berlin, you can find someone performing ‘Jewishly’ almost any night of the year. And if you insist on that performer being Jewish, you can always check out Irith Gabriely, an Israeli woman living in Germany. This self-proclaimed Queen of Jewish Soul wears a black hat and tallis and sings khasidish songs for adoring German crowds.

You know how every resident of Alaska gets a check every year from oil revenue? Forget Holocaust reparations. I¹d like to see every Jew in the world get a piece of the exploitation of Jewish culture. It wouldn't be much, I admit; in fact, it would be infinitesimal. But all I want is the tiniest little symbolic recognition that we have something that they want.

The American Jewish attitude towards things like klezmer music has been indifferent at best, to hostile, at worst. Ask any musician who has worked full time in Jewish music in the last twenty years and he or she will tell you: the serious money and the serious respect were almost exclusively found in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. While American Jews wanted to believe that Yiddish and European Jewish music had disappeared in the night, the band played on, wherever they could.

2. Secular and observant are not parallel paths, they are points on a common path. 

Neither religious nor secular are immutable characteristics, and we all know someone who¹s gone both ways. Both sides view each other with so much suspicion, when in fact we each have much to learn from the other. You heard me. You think Hasidim are coming to the (secular) Yiddish theater for the acting? They¹re coming because they¹re starving for this kind of Jewish entertainment. And secularists, yeah, I¹m looking at you, too. I¹m well aware that religion is the opiate of the masses. I also know that Karl Marx didn't know bupkes about the Jewish religion. We all have a duty to know something about the core texts of our tradition and the languages in which they were written. Which brings me to my next point:

3. Jewish culture and religion are intertwined. 

Jewish philanthropists like Michael Steinhardt want to revive the non-Orthodox Jewish community by replacing ‘victimhood’ with ‘joy.’ (See his op-ed of February of this year in the Jerusalem Post.) I think we all know that you can read 'Europe' for victimhood and 'Israel' for joy. 

Didn't that attitude get us in this mess? Turn a shul into a temple, a khazn into a cantor and Jewish music into Debbie Friedman, well, you better lock the doors cuz the inmates will be breaking out. Witness our so-called youth crisis. American Jewish culture has turned Camembert into CheezWhiz: It is boring and every young Jew and Jewess knows it. Real Jewish Culture is the product of hundreds-- -- thousands of years of joy and pain; it¹s the expression of the realities of halokhe lived in a hostile world. It¹s the result of every Jew¹s struggle between tradition and modernity. Most importantly, Real Jewish Culture is our connection to those who came before us, and without access to it, well, that bagel in your hand is not a symbol of anything, just a bunch of empty calories masquerading as breakfast.

4. I am not an Israeli. 

About two thousand American Jews make aliyah every year. Out of a total Jewish population of 5,200,000, this comes out to about .04% of American Jews each year who will choose to live in Israel. I am an American and, like 99.96% of my fellow American Jews, I will never become an Israeli. I care deeply about the State of Israel, most of all because my fate is linked to that of every other Jew. But where does the spirit of klal yisroel end and the unquestioning acceptance of Zionism begin?

Open a magazine like Moment and you¹d think every Jew in America had already put down a security deposit on an apartment in Jerusalem. Moment bills itself as 'Jewish culture, politics, and religion.' Three of four stories on the October cover are Israel-related, with more inside. And this is the music issue. Now, I would understand if this were a newspaper for a small Jewish community somewhere in the world. I doubt that the Jewish community of Honduras has enough news to fill twelve issues of a monthly magazine. But we don¹t live in Honduras. We live in the other Jewish state, a country with a Jewish population roughly equal to that of the Jewish state. And let me tell you, we've got enough news here to fill up every single Jewish newspaper, magazine, newsletter, leaflet and 'zine.

5. Israeli culture is NOT Jewish culture. 

Obviously, Jews everywhere have a special interest in Israel. I don¹t deny that we are going to want, and need, news and other information about Israel that reflects that special interest. But what I need, as a Jew in the diaspora, is a vibrant Jewish culture that will nourish my life here, where I live, worship, and write contentious though charming columns.

Writers like Ahad Ha¹am thought that Israel would eventually function like a research and development lab for the diaspora. Real Jewish culture would finally develop and nourish the diaspora Jews, even as the diaspora would wither away. Yeah, that worked well. Can you name the last Israeli novel you read? The last Israeli band you listened to? As for religious matters, when the rest of the Jewish world sends its sons (and daughters) to yeshiva, they¹re just as likely to ship them off to Brooklyn as to Jerusalem.

The real problem with the unstated focus on Israel is that it takes our focus away from our lives, and problems, here in goles. This displacement of expectations shifts resources in a way that leaves Jewish culture here poorer, culturally, spiritually and communally. Our leaders will spend millions of dollars to send every Jewish kid to Israel but can¹t find the money to support scholarships for important youth programs like Klezkamp. I guarantee that the kids who discover Klezkamp and develop a Jewish identity through Jewish music, those kids are just as likely, if not more, to marry Jewish and be part of a Jewish community as the kids who go on Birthright. I know this from experience, visiting the Jewish state doesn't make you feel more Jewish, being part of a Jewish community makes you feel more Jewish.

6. Yiddish and Yiddish culture are not dead. 

Nor were they revived. They've been here the whole damn time, waiting patiently for you to remember to call, perhaps visit, perhaps remember where Yiddish is living. And if you can¹t remember where it is, assimilation is only partially to blame. The diminishment of Yiddish and European Jewish culture in general was a necessary part of Zionism. But see points 1-5, it¹s time to take back our culture and start living our lives in the most Jewish way possible, in the here and now.


  1. Just as timely as ever. There have been both encouraging and discouraging events in the last 9 years, from the dumbing down of the Folksbeine and the Arbeiter Ring to Yiddish Farm and the whole Ejdelman brothers projects. Which means we probably haven't lost too much ground. And it seems that the latest Pew report may have motivated more honest discussion about the failure of identity based Judaism and the need for more content. The challenge for those of us not in our 20's is not to give up now, not to take the easy path, the ready money. But it's sorely tempting. In my case, its not too hard because no one offers me money of any kind. But you know what I mean.

  2. Rokhl, if your piece was even slightly less self-righteous it probably wouldn't be "the most cited, quoted and read". You had to be heard and you did everything all right.

    Is there any connection between listening to The Clash and republishing of your bold manifesto?

  3. Sergiusz, I suspect you are correct. Being bold, even dogmatic, encourages more robust dialogue. And yes, the Clash is most definitely an inspiration. Always and forever ;-)

  4. Oh yes. I love them too!
    Sorry for mixing blog and twitter again Rokhl, but was your statement about supporting Liverpool a serious one?

  5. Entirely serious, insofar as Liverpool is the only team I know and support them and wish them well in all future endeavors.

  6. The other teams are unimportant. Your choice was perfect Rokhl. ;-)

  7. Your affirmation, and confirmation, is appreciated!

  8. I am so so happy this is on the internet again!