Jewish Arts and Their Audiences

Rabbi Irwin Kula, the mediagenic head of CLAL, inaugurated last week’s Schmooze conference on Jewish arts and culture with what he called a “thought experiment.” Bypassing a ritual obeisance to the current renaissance in Jewish culture and the importance of Jewish art and artists, he posed big-picture questions about both the medium and the message.

Decades ago, in his student days, Kula was struck by an offhand remark by Billy Crystal on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” Show. Carson had mentioned that he had gone hunting and Crystal retorted, “Hunting! Jews don’t hunt, we’re furriers.” With that joke, reflected Rabbi Kula, Crystal had taught more Americans about Jewish values than all the rabbis in the United States. He also pointed to movies like Barry Levinson’s “Liberty Heights” that likewise convey Jewish qualities to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences.

The lesson? People are more influenced by mass culture than by messages from religious “silos.” And to the extent that Jewish arts are used to defend the boundaries between what is Jewish and non-Jewish “we become border guards of the frontier.” Meanwhile Judaism, in Rabbi Kula’s view, is already “post-ethnic” and “borderless,” so we should “let down our guard and discover the richness of being human.”

He’s right that Jewish culture is usually treated as a niche within a niche, a subset of Jewish communal life rather than part of a cosmopolitan conversation. That’s inherently limiting as both a business model and in its reckoning of the power of Jewish creativity. Moreover, it’s out of step with the emerging identity of many American Jews as citizens of the world with a particular perspective rather than a separate people.

There’s no doubt about the popularity of organizations that express Jewish values in a universal context. Whether it’s promoting environmental awareness through Hazon, or providing relief to the needy through the America Jewish World Service, or fostering social justice through Uri l’Tzedek, enacting Jewish values in a universal framework is increasingly the model for American Jews. Walls are coming down in other ways too: Hillels now welcome non-Jewish students to join their Jewish friends at their programs.

Yet Jewish arts and culture events typically take place within the walls of Jewish institutions and are aimed at audiences of Jews. In a time when Israeli films are financed in France and Germany and screened all over the world, when books on Jewish themes are popular among general audiences, when Israeli musicians perform in trendy clubs and with prominent symphony orchestras, our communal arts organizations mostly program narrowly for a Jewish audience.

One reason is that funders may expect that their money will be used specifically for the benefit of the Jewish community, not for general audiences. Another is the recent trend of using culture as a way of reinforcing Jewish identity, especially among younger Jews. Whatever the reason, most communal arts presenters are missing the chance to reach a lot more people.

All this can change. The San Francisco JCC has already had remarkable success in attracting non-Jews to its cultural events by partnering with cultural organizations outside the Jewish community. The Rimon initiative of the Minneapolis Federation routinely coordinates its programming with Twin Cities cultural organizations. Jewish culture agencies in other cities can follow their example.

This sort of change doesn’t happen overnight, of course. It requires carefully managing expectations, restating goals, building new partnerships, and reaching out to multiple publics. But inertia is no alternative. It’s time to take advantage of the disappearing border between the Jewish community and American society and let Jewish art and Israeli culture be a brighter light to the nations.

Bob Goldfarb was a panelist at the Schmooze 2010 conference. He is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity and vice-president of Zeek Media, and lives in Jerusalem.