By LAURA YARES and SHARON AVNI
The most recent Pew Research Center’s report on American Judaism, “Jewish Americans in 2020,” found that although American Jews overall are not a highly religious group, they are highly engaged in Jewish cultural activities, including cooking Jewish food, visiting historical Jewish sites, reading Jewish literature, and watching television shows or movies about Jewish or Israeli themes. The Pew findings arguably bring us further along in the sociological project of mapping American Jewish life. However, they also highlight the need for research that delves more deeply into the world of Jewish culture. What is the nature of these Jewish engagements? How are they experienced? How do people conceptualize them in Jewish terms?
Examining Jewish cultural arts offers fruitful opportunities to investigate these questions. Cultural arts is a broad concept that encompasses the myriad ways human beings express themselves creatively. The broadest definition includes every conceivable expression of human culture, from languages to all productions of human effort (see Baldwin, Faulkner et al. 2006). So how can Jewish cultural arts be defined? In Jewish Studies, there is a lively debate over what constitutes “Jewish” artistic production. Must it be produced by Jews? What about Jewish content produced by non-Jewish creators? The nature of Jewish culture is that it’s difficult to describe, let alone define. To scholars, the ambiguity is axiomatic.
Even without a precise definition, however, exploring the production and reception of cultural arts offers an enticing window into the complex and nuanced ways that American Jews—observant and secular alike—construct their Jewish lives. For our part, we define Jewish cultural arts broadly, as any production—literature, history, spoken word, song, film, visual arts, etc.—that its creators identify as engaging with Jewish themes.
To date, demographic research on these kinds of productions has primarily framed Jewish cultural arts as a tool to entice secular American Jews into Jewish communal life (Kosmin, Goldstein et al. 1991, Aronson, Boxer et al. 2016, Sasson, Aronson et al. 2017). We find this framing of the cultural arts problematic on many levels. Like Phillips (2010), Kelman et al. (2017), and Gross (2021), we seek to complicate the idea that Jewish culture can be neatly separated from the world of Jewish religion.
Some recent work highlights how the cultural arts can help us to see the complex interrelationships between Jewish religion and Jewish culture in the lives of American Jews. Jodi Eichler-Levine (2020) has explored Jewish crafting and how it helps American Jewish women form community and build resilience. Crafting has long connected women to the synagogue (long before rabbinical schools admitted women, they claimed space on the bimah through the Torah covers they carefully embroidered). But it also helps women forge Jewish spaces outside the synagogue too. As Eichler-Levine observes, members of the Pomegranate Guild of Judaic Needlework gather in living rooms and at conventions in hotel ballrooms, sharing techniques for handcrafted items intended for Jewish ritual and cultural use. Eichler-Levine’s work shows how blurred the boundaries between Jewish religion and Jewish culture can be. In Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice (NYU, 2021), Rachel B. Gross argues that many secular and cultural Jewish practices could even be considered “religious” in a broad sense. Thus, eating at Jewish delis, participating in Jewish genealogy, or reading Jewish books can all be recategorized, eliminating the artificial boundary between religious and ethnic/cultural Judaism, and centering practice as a source of Jewish meaning making.
Our own research builds on these ethnographic approaches to understanding American Jewish life. Our current project, “Jewish Learning through Cultural Arts,” explores the creative, subtle, unpredictable ways people engage with Jewish cultural events and products. What do they learn? What do they experience? What do they come to understand? According to some Jewish educational scholarship, meaningful Jewish learning only occurs in formal, outcome-driven contexts. We offer a contradictory hypothesis: people have deep, meaningful, educational experiences during episodic encounters with cultural arts, including music festivals, book clubs, and museum visits. What’s more, when they engage with Jewish cultural arts the learning that happens isn’t only about Judaism and the Jewish community, but also about themselves.
In this project, we take a broad approach to theorizing Jewish learning. Focused on adult learners, this project utilizes a range of ethnographic research methods — including interviews, participant observation, and observational fieldwork—to explore how Jews learn about Judaism outside of formal classroom settings and during episodic, leisure time activities. Our commitment to interdisciplinarity is rooted in our own multi-disciplinary training—one of us is a scholar of Religious Studies, the other an applied linguist.
Like so many scholars, our original research plans were upended by the pandemic. In early 2020, we imagined an ethnographic examination of a community film or music festival. So much for that. However, in unexpected ways, the pandemic lockdowns proved fortuitous. First, we started hearing about Saturday Night Seder, a virtual event broadcast on YouTube. Held on April 11, 2020, the third night of Passover, it raised money for the CDC’s Covid-19 Emergency Response Fund. We acquired the transcript, conducted Zoom interviews with performers and creators, and collected Twitter and YouTube postings that captured viewers’ real-time experiences. Thus, we learned the importance of taking social media seriously as a form of Jewish cultural arts engagement. This led us to study a Facebook group called “Shtisel–Let’s Talk About it,” a lively online community (over 30,000 members) eager to discuss the Israeli television show Shtisel. Our digital fieldwork included scraping Facebook data, doing Zoom interviews with the group’s founders, and creating an audio diary app where over 300 people reacted to each episode of Shtisel’s third season.
We hope our research can reframe how scholars, educators, policy makers, and philanthropists think about Jewish cultural arts. We also hope that it can expand people’s concepts of Jewish learning beyond formal educational settings and prescriptive learning outcomes. As our research shows, learning can also happen episodically, in leisure time, through media that might look more like entertainment than education. Our work thus seeks to contribute to a growing body of literature that emphasizes that American Jews navigate Judaism and Jewishness in vibrant ways, across a range of settings, and not only by joining institutions that previous generations may have deemed essential to the preservation of American Jewish life.
Laura Yares, PhD. Assistant Professor, Jewish Studies
Department of Religious Studies, Michigan State University
Sharon Avni, PhD. Professor, Academic Literacy and Linguistics, BMCC, City University of New York (CUNY)
Aronson, J. K., M. Boxer, M. A. Brookner, C. Kadushin and L. Saxe (2016). 2015 Greater Boston Community Study. Waltham, MA:, Steinhardt Social Research Institute, Brandeis University.
Baldwin, J. R., S. L. Faulkner and M. L. Hecht (2006). A moving target: the illusive definition of culture. Redefining culture: perspectives across the disciplines. J. R. Baldwin, S. L. Faulkner, M. L. Hecht and S. L. Lindsley. Mahwah, N.J., Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: 3-26.
Kelman, A. Y., T. Belzer, I. Horwitz, Z. Hassenfeld and M. Williams (2017). “Traditional Judaism: The Conceptualization of Jewishness in the Lives of American Jewish Post-Boomers.” Jewish Social Studies 23(1): 134-167.
Kosmin, B., S. Goldstein, J. Waksberg, N. Lerer, A. Keysar and J. Scheckner (1991). Highlights of the CJF 1990 national population survey. New York, Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds.
Loeffler, J. (2014). “The death of Jewish culture.” Retrieved 13 September, 2018, from https://mosaicmagazine.com/essay/2014/05/the-death-of-jewish-culture/
Levin, G. (2010). “Jewish American Artists: whom does that include?” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 9(3): 421-430.
Philips, B. (2010). “Accounting for Jewish Secularism: Is a New Cultural Identity Emerging?” Contemporary Jewry 30(1): 63-85.
Sasson, T., J. K. Aronson, F. Chertok, C. Kadushin and L. J. C. J. Saxe (2017). “Millennial Children of Intermarriage: Religious Upbringing, Identification, and Behavior Among Children of Jewish and Non-Jewish Parents.” 37(1): 99-123.
Yares, L. and S. Avni (2021). ““Saturday Night Seder” and the Affordances of Cultural Arts during COVID-19.” Contemporary Jewry.