From Deprecation to Appreciation: Celebrating Culture as a Form of Jewish Expression

Waiting for Godot cast, 14th St Y.

By Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein

When I was a congregational rabbi-educator, many congregants would tell me that they came to synagogue for reasons of family fealty or Jewish identity, but that worship “just didn’t do it for them.” Whether they be regular participants in social justice or hesed work, holiday celebrations, or book groups, they would largely avoid meeting my eye while telling me in a confessional tone, “Rabbi, I am a bad Jew: I don’t do, like, believe in, or practice theology.” 

This is not news.

The 2013 Pew Research Center Study of U.S. Jews coined a new term, “Jews of No Religion,” finding that 22 percent of Americans (and 33 percent of millennials) who identified as Jews indicated that they did not have a religion. In its 2018 study, Pew showed that of those Americans who identified their religion as Jewish, 28 percent are “solidly secular,” 17 percent are “religion resisters,” and 14 percent are “relaxed religious.”[1] Many people who attend a program at the 14th Street Y, of which I am the executive director, self-identify in the same ways as those that Pew calls “secular,” “resistant,” or “relaxed,” referring to themselves as “cultural Jews.”

Since the moniker “cultural Jew” is usually given to the least strongly identified Jews, we often scoff that a cultural Jew is simply a person who eats bagels. This actually discounts the thick, engaged, and rich culture that Jews have developed over millennia. The deprecation of Jewish cultural engagement and education is further complicated by the fact that the major organized movements of American Jewish life (Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox, etc.), and the bulk of our community’s resources support synagogues, which, by definition, are institutions focused on supporting and promoting Judaism as a religion.

How can we understand Jewish culture and support meaningful Jewish cultural education in our communities?

Culture is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group.” Whether herring and schnapps at kiddush club or mufleta at a Mimouna feast, the resonant tones of an oud or the rollicking of a fiddle, we can see how Jewish culture is shaped as much by the diasporic cultures in which we have lived as by the narrative, texts, and traditions passed down from our ancestors. The Jewish People have always developed relationships with our ancient texts and stories while living in a particular time and context. Out of that complex and variegated relationship, we have created Jewish culture that, in turn, becomes a part of our ongoing narrative. From ancient Israel until today, the Jewish People have created and in turn been shaped by a Jewish culture through dynamic engagement with our texts, narrative, traditions, and folkways.

Traditionally, the learning of text, narratives, and traditions takes place in environments that tacitly or implicitly hold expectations that learned or learning Jews will pray or participate in devotional religious practice. Many Jews, including Jewish artists and culture makers are turned off by or perceive themselves as unwelcome in religious houses of study. Our thick and rich culture can only be sustained by ensuring access to and provoking interest in our texts, narratives, and traditions among those who lead our culture.

For over 150 years, downtown Manhattan has been a vibrant international center for the development of Jewish culture. While the majority came from the Pale of Settlement in the late 19th and early 20th century, Jews of every diasporic community from India to Poland to Argentina, as well as Israel, have found their way to the neighborhoods of Manhattan below 34th Street. These neighborhoods have welcomed American artists and intellectuals for over a century, and among them are Jews who have made lasting marks on American Jewish culture.

The 14th Street Y, with a theater rather than a sanctuary at the heart of our building, has long served as a hub for the support and development of Jewish culture. As a Jewish community center that supports art and artists, we provide a comfortable place for these culture makers and “Jews of No Religion” to express and explore their Jewish identity.

Seeking to give these culture makers access to Jewish texts and narratives, the 14th Street Y developed a program called LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture, now in its 10th year. This year-long artist fellowship program, originally founded by Dr. Stephen Arnoff and directed by 14th Street Y Senior Director of Arts and Culture Ronit Muszkatblit, brings vocational artists together to study as fellows in our LABA: House of Study. Fellows are given space and support as they produce new artistic and cultural works and engage with our community. Over 100 artists of varied Jewish identities, working across a diverse range of visual, written, performing, and creative media, have participated in our secular beit midrash (house of study). Fellows study traditional Jewish texts monthly, which influence the works-in-progress they develop while in residence. Fellows present these works to large audiences in our LABAlive series of shows. 

For many of these artists, this first taste of traditional Jewish text study becomes the impetus for greater study and connection to Jewish text and narrative. This enriches the Jewish culture produced through their art. Yet, LABA’s strength as a cultural education program extends beyond the artist’s beit midrash.

Each LABAlive experience exhibits new Jewish cultural works to large audiences and engages them in Jewish text study as a part of the experience. As most artists are not Jewish educators, each LABA cohort includes a staff fellow and/or teaching artist who ensures that the Jewish texts studied and the works created in LABA impact our broader community. These teaching artists bring LABA texts, art, and process to our preschool, afterschool, adult programs, and summer camps.

The 14th Street Y has become a place where studying Jewish texts and producing new Jewish culture has cachet. As we provide access to Jewish learning and cultural expression with no expectations of religious observance, more unaffiliated Jews have sought us out. In the past three years, the 14th Street Y has engaged over 15,000 individuals in cultural Jewish programs and experiences. Along with LABA, we have begun exploring other forms of cultural education and engagement. In each program, like LABA, we seek to develop new ways of deepening the ownership, participation, access to learning, and agency of cultural Jews.

We recognize that American Jewish culture includes, but is not defined by, religious ritual and law-based observance. We neither judge the Jewish choices of those who choose to participate, nor seek to influence them toward more religious practices. We give primacy to artists, who are at the forefront of helping our culture to evolve, and encourage creative expression among all of our participants. We acknowledge and appreciate that cultural Judaism is enriched by Jews having knowledge and the ability to ground Jewish cultural development in our texts, narratives, and traditions. In these ways, we enrich Jewish culture while engaging many non-religious and “cultural” Jews in Jewish learning and community, giving them a venue for authentic Jewish expression.

Rabbi Shira Koch Epstein is the executive director of the 14th Street Y, part of the Educational Alliance in Lower Manhattan, and a faculty member of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Shira is also a graduate of the Leadership Institute for Congregational Educators, an institute conducted in partnership with the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS and the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). Shira also received rabbinic ordination from the HUC-JIR.

This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the Leadership Commons of The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS; reprinted with permission.