Peoplehood and Jewish Culture

After establishing a Jewish Peoplehood Hub last November, the Jewish Agency now has explicitly embraced the concept of Jewish Peoplehood as its top priority. The question is, just what does peoplehood mean? One answer comes from researcher Steven Cohen, who proposes that “you should be involved in your community, either religiously or socially. You should be engaged with other Jews doing things that are Jewish.”

That definition will not be meaningful to the many American Jews who see Jewishness as a personal decision, not a communal imperative. It’s becoming commonplace to say that ‘every Jew today is a Jew by choice,’ and in America it may largely be true. Identifying as Jewish in America often has little to do involvement or engagement. It’s a matter of personal identity, which can be religious but more often is a matter of ethnicity, sociology, common experience, and shared narrative. Intuitively we feel connected by our memories, the points of reference we intuitively understand, the stories we tell, the ways we express ourselves. In other words, what connects us is our multiple cultures.

Unlike intellectual appeals to a shared history or a guiding philosophy, culture can evoke passionate responses of recognition, concern, loyalty, and love. It’s a passion that is often missing from institutional experiences of Jewishness that center on abstract principles, historical facts, logical arguments, and rational conclusions. Culture is so powerful precisely because it affects us in nonrational, emotional, unexpected ways.

When expressed through the creative arts, culture becomes much more than a comfortable sense of familiarity or an indulgence in nostalgia. A painting or a song or a film can be felt and understood in a variety of ways. Each encounter with Jewish cultural expression can be an invitation to draw one’s own conclusions and make a personal response. That response itself represents a kind of engagement with the Jewish people.

Take a look at the new direction of Tel Aviv’s Bet Hatfutsot, formerly the Diaspora Museum. It’s no accident that it is now known as The Museum of the Jewish People, reflecting a deliberate decision to refocus its mission on peoplehood. A major exhibition which closed last month surveyed the evocative paintings of Czech-born Ludwig Blum (1891-1974), whose life and work in Israel represent an emblematic Jewish journey. A current exhibition, “With This Ring,” uses contemporary plastic art to explore the changes in wedding ceremonies in recent decades. And it invites members of the public to become part of the exhibition by submitting video clips of their own weddings. It’s hard to think of a better way to make Jews more aware of both our connections and our diversity, and to promote active involvement as well.

As the Jewish Agency formulates its plans for the future, it also should recognize the unparalleled power of culture to make individual Jews feel a strong, personal connection to one another. Jewish culture offers many pleasures, but it is much more than a form of entertainment. It’s the enduring expression of our lives as part the Jewish people.

Bob Goldfarb, a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, is the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity in Jerusalem and Los Angeles. He can be reached at bob [at] jewishcreativity [dot] org.