The Old/New Jewish Culture:
Queerness, Yiddish, and ReJEWvenation

Mordecai Drache

The small auditorium at the University of Toronto is packed. It's the pre-conference event for ReJEWvenation: The Futures of Jewish Culture, and dozens have all ready piled in to hear the talk by Professor David Roskies of the Jewish Theological Seminary entitled Yiddish Culture at Ground Zero.

“Ground Zero” means, for Roskies, 1943 -- both the moment when the Yiddish language and its culture were nearly wiped off the face of the earth, but at the same time experienced a kind of rebirth when at last “Yiddishland would be defined not by politics but by poets and writers.” This was also the year that certain messianic streams of Judaism predicting the coming of the messiah were proven false, and when pessimism and essentialism began to define Yiddish literature. At first, it's hard to understand why we're starting a conference on "the future of Jewish culture" by looking back sixty years. But as the names Chaim Grade, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yehoshua Perle, Rachel Auerbach and Zelig Kalmanovitch pour forth from his lips, Roskies' enthusiasm becomes infectious, and it begins to make sense.

The period before the holocaust in Eastern Europe was one in which Yiddish-speaking Jews were themselves caught in heated debate about the future of Jewry. Should they fight in the proletarian struggle against the bourgeoisie as Jews, and promote Yiddish as their own national language with the Bund, eschewing both religious Judaism and Zionism? Should they eschew their Jewish roots completely and join the larger communist movement? Or move to Palestine to build a Jewish state? These debates are often intricately woven into the plots of this literature, giving it a magnetic urgency and compelling the reader to join the debate on the page. Even at such a far remove, one can feel both the angst and exhilaration of Jews who are trying to find their place in the de-ghettoized twentieth century. As the conference continues, it becomes clear how little has changed.

ReJEWvenation was a conference held this past October on the current and future states of the “new Jewish culture.” It included academic panels, musical performances, an art exhibition, and plenty of presentations both by "new Jews" and the people who study them. (Indeed, this magazine was mentioned several times in various presentations.)

So what is “New Jewish Culture?” Obviously, the first question is what is meant by 'culture' in general. At the very least, the term has two meanings: on the one hand, it is the creation of media such as websites, poetry, literature, music, painting, drama, sculpture and digital arts. On the other, it is the everyday unwritten, understood codes and rules that define how individuals relate to each other. it’s best to draw a distinction between Jewish cultural products (the media mentioned above) and Jewish culture, as the everyday life and politics of the Jewish community. Thus the OED defines culture both as “The appreciation and understanding of literature, arts, music, etc…” and as “the customs and civilization of a particular people or group.”

New Jewish Culture encapsulates both these aspects, and, if the panelists are to believed, is in part a reaction to the established Jewish community institutions, which are either religiously conservative, such as the Orthodox rabbinate (which is tremendously influential in shaping Israeli society), or socially and politically conservative such as, for example, B’nai Brith. Like the secular Yiddish culture of pre-holocaust Eastern Europe, which was in part a reaction to the conservative and provincial nature of religious Jewish communities of the day, “New Jewish Culture” seeks new ways of being Jewish, which in 2005 means the creation of a more “hip” Judaism that is sexy, urban, de-ghettoized, queer-positive and treats the sexes and all religions equally-- often employing cultural media such as music, theatre, and digital or traditional visual arts. Some of the institutions one heard mentioned during the conference include this magazine, Heeb Magazine, JDub Records and Storah-Telling: Jewish Ritual Theater Revised.

Arguably, today's New Jewish Culture is thus a kind of extension or sequel to the “new Jewish culture” of a century ago as defined by Jewish socialists, communists and anarchists, as well as Yiddish writers, playwrights and poets. The difference between then and now, however, is that today the mainstream Jewish philanthropic agencies are hesitantly footing the bill. Ironically for supposedly independent cultural institutions, all the groups listed above receive, or in some cases began by receiving, funding from Jewish philanthropic organizations. Controversies have arisen due to differing viewpoints on social and political issues such as Zionism, or on the parameters of Jewish community, and Jewish-institutional spending on alternative culture is still miniscule. Still, the funds which do flow bespeak the almost desperate efforts to reach disaffected Jews who refuse to step foot in a synagogue.

Of course, the whole notion of a single “mainstream” or “normative” Jewish culture is itself a dubious one. Naive "anti-establishment" rhetoric suggests that it is monolithic, but in fact, that is far from the case. Canadian Jews are different from American Jews, for example. There are strong ethnic differences between Israelis and Russian Jews, and Mizrachim, Sephardim, and Ashkenazim. There are also cultural as well as religious differences between Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform Jews. Despite these differences, however, there are standards that supposedly apply across that spectrum, at least insofar as that spectrum is represented by "mainstream" Jewish organizations and media outlets: namely that its members fit into, or are expected to fit into, a mold of middle-class, Zionist, heterosexual two-parent families with children. At the very least, that’s what the Jewish community likes to present as its public image -- and it is this image which, perhaps, is most under attack.

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Image: From Helene Aylon, The Digital Liberation of G-d
Part of the ReJewvenation Command J art exhibition

December 2005

The Old/New Jewish Culture
Mordecai Drache

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From previous issues:

Out of Bounds
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Two Incidents at the Cafe Kamienica
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Sitting on an aeroplane, while Grandma Dies
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