Culture, Media and the Jewish Future

It’s no accident that the words “communicate” and “community” come from the same root, which means “to share.” Culture, which grows from the collective experience of a group, needs to be communicated in order to become common property.

Strikingly, the most ancient media – oral traditions, the written word, song, dance, and images – are still the basis of art and creativity today. The main difference is that they are now radically more accessible, thanks to mechanical and electronic means from the printing press to the Internet. Beginning with Gutenberg it has been possible for a written or visual work to be widely and more easily disseminated, and Edison and Emile Berliner did the same for sound. Those were the first mass media.

Now that you can carry thousands of songs in your pocket or a thousand books in your briefcase, how does that change one’s relationship to minority cultures like those of Jewish communities? You might think it would be a boon because of the sheer quantity of what’s available. And in that sense we live in a golden age for Jewish culture, because of the once-unimaginable range that’s available on YouTube or iTunes or Amazon.

Of course it’s also a golden age for lots of cultures. Search for “Albanian folk dance” on YouTube, or “Hmong fiction” on Amazon, and you’ll find similar riches. The cultural choices available to an individual online, much like the options available to Europe’s Jews after Emancipation, make it possible to look beyond one’s own culture to more cosmopolitan alternatives. In the United States this is accelerated by the core social values of pluralism and diversity. One result is much weaker cultural ties among Jews.

Historically, media don’t replace culture. In fact, they usually build much wider interest in an art form by exposing it to new publics. It’s hard to imagine what sort of career Duke Ellington or Leonard Bernstein or Radiohead would have had without radio, television, recordings, and the Internet. Perhaps unexpectedly, access to performances via the media doesn’t keep audiences at home. On the contrary: it motivates them to go out and see the artists they’ve learned about through the media.

Part of the reason, of course, is that the live experience of music or theater or dance is more affecting than watching it on your computer. But just as important is the impulse to share the experience with others. Even seeing a rehearsal in an empty hall is very different from witnessing a performance together with a thousand people who share your enthusiasm.

Media will undoubtedly continue to be a key way to introduce consumers to arts and culture in the future. Jewish media and Jewish culture, however, are in a weak position to attract the interest of Jews today. Neither enjoys significant communal support compared to many other priorities. If nothing changes, future generations will soon lose their feeling for Jewish culture in the same way that recent generations of American Jews have lost their connection to Jewish languages. Their cultural curiosity will be drawn instead to Thai architecture and Peruvian cooking and African musics.

It’s not too late to reverse this trend. Culture has unique potential to fill a deep need for Jews who are alienated by traditional institutions, practices, and values. But it needs to be communicated, through media and live events, if it is going to build community. A serious national Jewish media strategy, coupled with a revitalized cultural infrastructure, could do wonders. All it takes is the resolve of a few decision-makers to invest in it.

Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, has worked in the arts and media for over 30 years. He lives in Jerusalem and can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.