Jewish Peoplehood and the Biblical Landscape

[This essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.]

by Stephen Hazan Arnoff

Recently my family and I were in Rome for thirty-six hours on our way to Jerusalem. As we approached the Coliseum – a first time visit for us all – the core text was obvious, Bob Dylan’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece:”

Oh, the streets of Rome are filled with rubble
Ancient footprints are everywhere
You can almost think that you’re seein’ double
On a cold, dark night on the Spanish Stairs…
Oh, the hours I’ve spent inside the Coliseum
Dodging lions and wastin’ time
Oh, those mighty kings of the jungle, I could hardly stand to see ’em
Yes, it sure has been a long, hard climb…

While I am rock and roll obsessive, my academic training is in classical rabbinic text and culture. This means I have a lot of rabbinic texts and contexts under my belt. The portfolio of rabbinic teachings and stories specific to experiencing Rome and its cultural influence through Jewish eyes is large, colorful, and memorable. But while these stories may have outlined the cultural footsteps I humbly imagined walking in, musical references still filled my thoughts. Tom Waits came next:

No justice here, no liberty
No reason, no blame
There’s no cause to taint the sweetest taste of blood
And greetings from the nation
As we shake the hands of time
They’re taking their ovations
The vultures stay behind
In the colosseum, in the colosseum
In the colosseum tonight

And then there was Bruce Spingsteen’s “Wrecking Ball,” a song premiered on the eve of the demolition of the modern-day Coliseum of the Meadowlands, “where the blood is spilled, the arena’s filled, and giants played their games.”

My job for nearly fifteen years has been leading Jewish communal institutions. A big part of that job is making Jewish texts useful to people for whom they are otherwise not immediately accessible or important. There are many good ways to do that. One of them is blending personal meaning derived in general culture with the voices of tradition.

My own experience of gleaning meaning – whether in Jerusalem or Rome or, on most days, somewhere in between – is that traditional texts and feelings of belonging to the Jewish enterprise are made stronger when intertwined with contemporary cultural voices and perspectives. This includes hearing Jewish meaning in the most unexpected places and ways.

What is true of individual experience is true of experiencing Jewish Peoplehood on a communal level as well. Another beloved musical voice has parsed this idea.

In 1992 Leonard Cohen discussed with the Jewish Book Review a line from his song “The Future.” Asked to explain the words “I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible” Cohen said:

As I get older I feel less modest about taking these positions because I realize we are the ones who wrote the Bible and at our best we inhabit a biblical landscape, and this is where we should situate ourselves without apology. The biblical landscape is our urgent invitation and we have to be there. Otherwise, it’s really not worth saving or manifesting, or redeeming, or anything.

I have been thinking about this biblical landscape a great deal in context of Jewish communal work lately. Much of the conversation about Jewish peoplehood work is narrowed by being limited to the most obvious kinds of immersive Jewish experiences – Birthright Israel, day schools and residential camps, or membership in a synagogue. These points of connection and many others surely offer potential for deepening a sense of Jewish belonging and mutual responsibility.

But there is also a kind of cultural pluralism that offers paths to Jewish meaning. These paths navigate old tensions between Jerusalem and Rome as well as personal and communal urges. For people already immersed in personal and communal meaning “doing in Rome as the Romans do” – experiencing and shaping meaning through popular music like me, for example – this means thickening the peoplehood experience through connecting Jewish identity with the power of general culture, not by finding ways to shed or replace it.

In “Dear Diary” Leonard Cohen praises his own journal – the murmurings of his own heart, his own personal Rome and Jerusalem – as a transcendent sacred text in and of itself:

You are greater than the Bible
And the Conference of the Birds
And the Upanishads
All put together…

Dear Diary
I mean no disrespect
But you are more sublime
Than any Sacred Text

Sometimes just a list
Of my events
Is holier than the Bill of Rights
And more intense

The goal of a Jewish educator should not be to remain in the sublime, deeply personal experience Cohen describes, but to build upon it, recognizing that only by facilitating a community comprised of individuals of rich, meaningful experience will Jewish communities be compelling enough to want to join.

Navigating peoplehood requires a multidimensional, pluralistic map to the biblical landscape – Cohen’s poetic parsing of peoplehood. This is the place where meaning and connection emerge as personal and communal, ancient and contemporary, and belong to both Rome and Jerusalem. In educational terms, creating a map for Jewish experience with this kind of color, depth, and resonance is akin to painting a masterpiece.

Dr. Stephen Hazan Arnoff is Executive Director the 14th Street Y in New York City, home of LABA: A Laboratory for Jewish Culture, and a post-doctoral Tikvah Scholar at New York University.

JPeoplehood logoThis essay is from The Peoplehood Papers, volume 10 – Peoplehood in the Age of Pluralism – published by the Center for Jewish Peoplehood Education.