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What Is Jewish Culture?

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George Gershwin called it Americana. Virgil Thomson called it "gefilte variations," a snide allusion to gefilte fish, a traditional Jewish foodstuff. Both men were referring to "Porgy and Bess," which, once again, is enjoying a successful run on Broadway. By Gershwin's lights, his production, rooted in the sights and sounds of the South, was as American as could be. To Thomson, one of the most influential critics of his time, the whole thing was a Jewish enterprise, through and through.

For most of us in the audience, it matters not a whit whether Porgy and Bess bears an American, a Jewish or a mixed pedigree. We thrill to the strains of "Summertime," clap our hands in delight at "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin," and dab at our eyes when we hear "Bess, You is My Woman Now." For most of us, the opera's provenance -- the source of its angular rhythms and plush textures and grand aspirations -- is of little concern: Who cares? At best, it's a sideshow, a distraction, to what really matters: the production's emotional pull.

But maybe we're missing out on something if we don't reckon forthrightly with the tension between Gershwin's perspective and Thomson's. Maybe, we're missing out on the opportunity to define what constitutes "Jewish culture."

Judaism, we know about, more or less: It's not Christianity. Secular Jewishness is also a relatively familiar concept. We recognize it when we see it, especially in the movies and on television. But "Jewish culture"? What on earth is that? Is it "Porgy and Bess," as Thomson would have it? Or the Talmud? The hip-hop stylings of Matisyahu or the traditional cantorial liturgy of Yosele Rosenblatt? Paintings on velvet of dancing Hasidim? Or the abstract canvases of Mark Rothko? How about Larry David or "Fiddler on the Roof"?

You can have a field day trying to pin down the meaning of "Jewish culture," let alone inventory its contents. Jewish culture is so capacious, so fluid, so open-ended a term, one is left wondering whether the definition hangs on sensibility, subject matter or birthright. To put it another way, figuring out exactly what makes a song or a dance, a film or an artwork "Jewish" is not for the faint of heart. And that's just for starters. Equally daunting is the challenge of situating Jewish culture, of grounding it in a particular context, especially these days when everything's up for grabs. Where does one find it? On the street? In the synagogue? On Broadway? At college? The local Jewish community center? At a museum? Online?

Yes, yes and yes, again -- in all those places.

Some might argue that to highlight Jewish culture is to denigrate Judaism by rendering it an alternative, competing sphere of influence. Others might argue that a big tent approach to Jewish culture is a weakness rather than a strength, that it lacks discernment and discrimination. Surely, not every Rodgers and Hammerstein production is to be construed as an expression of Jewishness. Nor, for that matter, does every trinket from Israel. How, then, do we differentiate between what is and what isn't Jewish culture? A good question.

From my perspective, "Jewish culture" doesn't occupy one side of the ledger and "Judaism" another. On the contrary, they complete each other. As for formulating a neat and tidy definition of Jewish culture, I'm not sure I could come up with one. After all, I relish the juxtapositions of high and low, street and sanctuary, the age-old and the improvised, the opportunities for preservation as well as re-interpretation that are encompassed by the concept of Jewish culture.

So much so, in fact, that I've just launched a new MA program in Jewish Cultural Arts that does precisely that: puts front and center the ways in which music and dance, film and theatre, photography and painting loom large in, and shape, the Jewish encounter with modernity.
In the end, Gershwin and Thomson may resist any and all efforts at reconciliation. Still, it's not for want of trying. As both a rallying cry and as a point of departure, Jewish culture, to paraphrase Claude Levi Strauss, is good to think with.

Jenna Weissman Joselit is the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of History at The George Washington University, where she directs its forthcoming MA program in Jewish Cultural Arts. A longtime columnist at The Forward and the author, among other things, of 'The Wonders of America,' she blogs at www.fromunderthefigtree.com.