By Seth Chalmer
I fear American Jewish culture may not survive Pandora and Spotify. How shall I explain?
I was once told that the first song to sell a million copies was ‘The Maple Leaf Rag,” by Scott Joplin, in 1897. Actually, this is a myth. “The Maple Leaf Rag” was popular but didn’t sell nearly a million copies. Moreover, another song sold two million copies six years earlier. It was “After the Ball,” by Charles K. Harris.
I only mention it in order to note that when people first bought “After the Ball” and “The Maple Leaf Rag,” what they were buying was sheet music. That’s mostly how you bought music, at the time. Sure, people went to concerts; they still do now, long after radio begat phonographs begat tapes begat CDs begat mp3s begat The Cloud. But music is a basic need, and people want it in their homes. So before radio brought orchestras into kitchens, the way you heard music at home was by playing it. Mom played “After the Ball” on the piano, and the family sang along. According to Jason Kerr Dobney of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in the nineteenth century learning to play musical instruments was “part of a well-rounded education; for girls, playing an instrument was more important than learning to read.” The piano was “a central component of domestic life,” and the guitar, banjo, harp, and concertina were also “extremely popular.” Not everyone played an instrument, but enough people played that the culture was saturated with musical literacy.
Our era is different. Like athletics and mechanical invention, music has professionalized. Musical ability has become vastly heightened among a tiny elite, while the “pretty-good” amateur is far more rare than a century ago. Music is as popular as ever, but music usually isn’t something we make now – it’s something we consume. Our creativity, such as it is, takes the form of curating playlists that perfectly express our personalities. The musical creativity of the average person has never been expressed in a shallower domain.
American Jewry swims in the same cultural sea as America more broadly, and when the water is poisoned, we get sick. Never has the Jewish people suffered such a widespread lack of capacity to create Jewish culture. No culture can long endure a sustained decay in creativity, and American Jewish culture – already facing rampant apathy and assimilation – may not survive it.
American Jewry’s cultural weakness has symptoms that are linguistic, artistic, and religious. And due to low Jewish literacy (both linguistic and conceptual), many of the best Jewish artists are uninterested in Jewish themes.
American Jews’ knowledge of Jewish languages is appallingly low, even compared with other Diaspora communities. Our ability to engage with either our cultural past or Israel in the present is accordingly hobbled. Traditionalists and rebels both like to debate whether we should uncritically celebrate our heritage and homeland or criticize and reinvent them, but the truth is that we can’t meaningfully do either if they are foreign to us.
Artistically, Jews are like other Americans: mostly passive consumers, with only a tiny cadre of artistic creators.
Religiously, American Jews likewise mirror the musicians: a lot of us get a little exposure as kids, but the mid-level hobbyists tend to drop out in adulthood, leaving a mass of non-contributors and a small, super-engaged core. (See the recent work of Steven M. Cohen on “The Shrinking Jewish Middle.”) Like Juilliard-trained pianists, Haredim dedicate themselves to the practice and performance of their art (religion) day and night, while the non-Orthodox are less and less likely to make religion any part of their lives.
How can we reverse this crisis of Jewish creative capacity?
Once we admit the nature of the problem, practical possibilities are myriad. Educationally, we can emphasize building skills, especially the arts and Hebrew, and make sure doing and creating get as much attention as knowing and caring. Communally, we can shift resources from supplying Jewish content to demanding Jewish content – rewarding creative exploration and building appealing and convenient venues for making Jewish art, not just at the highest levels among nationally-known artists but at the local level and, especially, among amateurs.
Finally, Jews must promote arts and humanities in the wider American community, not as a luxury but as a critical part of our national life. As long as we idolize STEM (or even STEAM, including the arts but neglecting the humanities) as the ideal and complete education, American Jews will continue to learn to devalue all that is cultural rather than material or technological, with grave consequences for both their Jewish and their American commitments. And as long as a song is something you stream but almost never something you play and sing, American Jewish culture – like the broader culture around it – will wither.
Seth Chalmer is a writer and Jewish communal professional in New York.
This article was orginally published in The Times of Israel (June 2016).