Getting to the Arts of the Matter


One of the most bounteous schedules of Jewish arts programming in recent memory is coming up. Does culture provide an entry point to more Jewish life, or all the content that consumers need to feel Jewish? 


The current explosion of Jewish cultural events in the region couldn’t have come at a more propitious time.

Over the next few weeks alone, the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival is offering a multitude of screenings; the Israeli JazzPhest is bringing many musicians to town; 4000 Miles, an intergenerational play with decidedly Jewish characters, continues its run at the Philadelphia Theatre Company; and Parade, about the Leo Frank case, gives its final performances at the Arden. Not to mention ongoing programs and exhibits at the National Museum of American Jewish History and the Rosenbach Museum and Library.

 Coming in the aftermath of the recent Pew Research Center’s study on American Jewry, the wide array of offerings coincides with a booming discussion about the relationship between cultural engagement and  Jewish identity and raises some important questions:

Does Jewish culture today provide an accessible entry point, particularly among young adults, into a more involved Jewish life, or does it provide its consumers with all they need to feel and identify as Jewish? And is that enough?

Among other data, the Pew study found that 62 percent of American Jews believe that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture, with just 15 percent of American Jews saying that it is mainly a matter of religion.

“I think the Pew study found out that we don’t know how to talk about how Jews are Jews,” said Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of American religious history and modern Jewish history at Temple University.

The long-accepted model that “one should be moving from a place of cultural involvement to a place of religious involvement or institutional involvement reflects a limited kind of view of what real Jewish identity is,” said Corwin Berman, the director of the
Feinstein Center for American Jewish History, which is on the Temple campus.

“A Jew can go to a film festival and participate in it and gain from it intellectually and spiritually — and that is in and of itself a critical Jewish experience.”

Not everyone sees it that way.

“As the Pew study showed, people are looking to express their Jewishness in many ways,” said Rabbi Lance Sussman, of Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. “Arts and culture can accommodate most individuals’ needs in terms of the sociology of the moment.”

But he sees the synagogue environment as an important place to make that happen.

Sussman said the study’s findings validate his congregation’s  2009 strategic plan, which made the arts a bigger component of synagogue life. It already had its on-site Jewish museum, Temple Judea Museum, created in 1984. But now, the synagogue has expanded its music program to include everything from Jewish sacred music to contemporary bands, and has begun working on a dance program as well.

There has also been a sharply increased dedication to visual arts, nowhere more exemplified than by the installation of retractable movie screens, projectors and a sound system into the sanctuary. “We live in a visual age, not in an age of reading,” Sussman said.

 Today, “when I give a sermon, it is illustrated. Last Friday night, as I was talking about the different aspects of the life of Maimonides, there were images to back it up — historical pictures and art as well.”

Warren Hoffman, the senior director of programming at the Gershman Y, which produces the PJFF, says that one of the main reasons that Jews, especially those of the millennial generation, gravitate toward cultural events as a way to embrace and nourish their Judaism, is because of that accessibility.

“Culture has an easier entry point than religion,” he asserted. “You don’t have to deal with Hebrew in a prayerbook or make any sort of commitment. You can go to an event and feel tied in to your background in a way that is very accessible.”

Hoffman pointed out that Jewish culture has been a crucial conduit for helping Jews in America feel more connected to their religion, community and heritage since the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“Look at what was happening in early Yiddish film and theater,” he said. “You would see people doing the blessings over the Shabbas candles, getting Bar Mitzvahed. Why? Because instead of people doing it themselves, they would go watch people do these things. The culture was substituting for the acts themselves.”

The increase in opportunities to experience Jewish culture “has expanded beyond the Jewish world itself,” he said.

Last year, the Idan Raichel Project was an Israeli music group playing at Rodeph Shalom, he noted. “Now the Project is considered to be world music, and they’re playing the Kimmel Center.”

Deborah Baer Mozes agrees that cultural immersion can be a powerful, lifelong gateway to Jewish identity.

“I don’t see a separation between being Jewish and Jewish culture,” said the founder and artistic director of the Jewish theater group, Theatre Ariel. “It is a key aspect to being Jewish. For some people, culture is the door, the opening” to a deeper involvement with Judaism, be it through religion or engaging with the community.

She also cited the Oct. 24 concert by the Idan Raichel Project. “There were 700 people engaged in this incredible Jewish experience. The audience at the concert, maybe 60 percent of them, were between the ages of 20 to 35. When you’re at that point in your life, you’re less likely to be in shul and more likely to be davening with Idan Raichel.”

Baer Mozes, who is also director of cultural affairs for the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia, said that even for her personally, a cultural event can be a religious experience. “To be honest,” she said, “there are times I have felt more connected to God when I was engaged with Jewish music or been in rehearsal with Theater Ariel than I do at times in shul.”

At Germantown Jewish Centre, the commitment to providing a wide range of cultural offerings to complement the congregation’s religious components is so strong that they have dedicated this year, 5774, to “Judaism and the Arts.”

“From when it was founded, GJC has had a very broad idea of what Jewish life would be and the kind of Jewish life it would foster, which is why it was called a center — it offers a really broad range of things, including arts and lectures,” said Adam Zeff, the congregation’s rabbi.

Offering so many different potential entry points gives people “different gateways to come to the community,” he added. “There has to be a way that people can engage in a substantive way with Jewish traditions through the arts, because there are people who are not going to come to the sanctuary on a Saturday morning for Shabbat services.”

For Hoffman, the most important role that arts and culture can play in the Jewish community is to get people off the couch and into the events. “There is a key word in the arts and culture world right now: experience. What people want right now, especially for the younger generation, are actual lived experiences. People are on Facebook, but at the end of the day, they still want these real connections.”

He referenced recent events at the Gershman Y to emphasize the importance of bringing the different elements of Judaism together in order to create experiences that maintain and increase the bonds between the individual and their community.

“We aren’t just showing a film at the festival — we are bringing in panelists to talk about the film. We did a seder focused on arts and culture, but we brought in Rabbi Eli Freedman from Rodeph Shalom to make the connections between what we were doing with poetry and dance and music with the liturgy. Jewish tradition and rituals needed to connect to the artistic tradition. I don’t think you need to sacrifice one for the other.”

For Zeff, it doesn’t matter whether you participate in the community solely through cultural events or if those events are the catalyst to a more spiritual or religious involvement with the community. The important thing is that you are engaged.

“What I want as a rabbi is for people to engage in a real substantive way — whatever that way is for them,” he said. “We have to honor that and not always see it as the means to another end.”


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