The Aesthetic Lives of Jewish Identity

By Judah M. Cohen

[This article is the eighth in Advancing Jewish Leadership: A Series on Jewish Context and Professional Practices. Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership is currently marking its 90th anniversary with the launch of the Center for Jewish Leadership. In this series, faculty, mentors, graduates, and staff of Spertus Institute’s graduate degree, certificate, and professional programs share valuable insights relevant to all those working for and with Jewish organizations.]

The Jewish communal world tends to tie discussions of “culture” with short- or long-term indicators of Jewish continuity. To wit: I regularly teach a three-day intensive course called “Aesthetics of Jewish Civilization” for Spertus Institute’s Master of Arts in Jewish Professional Studies program, and enjoy working with students actively engaged in the Jewish communal world. Without exception, these students have been thoughtful and passionate; they are comfortable consuming media, and many already know how to design multi-media programs for their respective Jewish demographics. Yet their conversations about culture almost inevitably begin by highlighting the arts’ instrumentality: including notions of how arts can be “used” to “engage the under-engaged” in “today’s immediate-gratification society” or a similar set of truisms.

During our time together, I challenge them to move beyond received preconceptions to explore how “cultural programming” actually reflects complicated, multilayered dialogues in their own organizations, in their interactions with artists, and among the Jewish populations they serve. I aim to open the parameters of the conversation in two ways. First, I urge students to describe what they see when they encounter a form of creative expression, rather than what they want to see (try it: it’s no easy feat, even for the most seasoned of us). And second, I try to introduce them to the ways that forms of communication (music, dance, food, art, language, even video games) develop their own internal reference systems to express value and history. Taken together, these approaches create a useful critical distance, moving students beyond a dependence on words, and away from expectations that can make Jewish communal conversation seem at times like an echo chamber.

By putting aesthetics – and here I mean more than just “the arts” or “culture” but rather all of the choices that we make to represent ourselves to the world – into this different framework, a new set of questions emerges about the nature of creation in Jewish life, and by extension Judaism itself. How do we determine what symbols, sounds, gestures, or images make something or someone “Jewish”? (And who makes that determination?) Why do we tend to assume that the current generation presents a greater challenge to Jewish continuity than any previous generation? Why do we try so hard to create “Jewish” museums, film festivals, concerts, or bedtime rituals in the hope of competing successfully with other pressures in people’s lives? Does the “unengaged” population, so frequently cited, even exist in the first place, or do we largely create them as a target for our efforts? And to what extent does the ageless feeling of intergenerational anxiety – desperately wanting the younger generation to occupy the world that we’ve created – affect our public actions, our definitions of “tradition,” and even our own sense of moral peril?

Closer attention to these questions – by analyzing modes of creative expression – suggests that cultural activity is a chaotic, capricious thing, never stopping to have its picture taken, always finding ways to surprise, elude, or rethink the assumptions we bring to it. Yet that elusive and multivalent nature makes it all the more relevant to our understanding of Judaism. Simply put, it’s not easy to harness “culture” to address a problem in Jewish continuity/assimilation/etc. Trying to improve Jewish affiliation rates through such effects as throwing music (or an entire media empire) at them, social-engineering a Friday night “experience,” or flooding the market with children’s books may be well intentioned and ultimately useful, but their “impact” is often frustratingly difficult to measure and understand.

Looking at these programs another way, however, shows that our clearest form of continuity may well be the never-ending efforts themselves to ensure the future of Judaism. These efforts reinforce networks of and encourage conversations between funders, communal leaders, artists, and scholars. By promoting and measuring wave after wave of the “new,” one generation’s connected beneficiaries eventually grow into the next generation of activists, allowing institutions to continue their efforts at maintaining relevance.

Understanding this dynamic is, to me, crucial to our view of day-to-day operations in the current Jewish communal world. And learning to “read” cultural works and actions as if they were documents – in their own terms – offer us an important window. David Biale, in his introduction to The Cultures of the Jews (2002), points out the extraordinary amount of information we can glean from a small, 15th-century Italian linen-closet keyholder (or coffanetto), showing through materials, linguistics, and images, the ongoing and often unexpected negotiations Italian Jews held with their surrounding societies – causing us to rethink the innovative ways in which they forged their identities. Go to a Chabad or Aish video, a Birthright campaign pamphlet, a 19th-century Mizrach (Western wall indicator), a religious service, a performance/exhibit by a Six Points Fellow, or the premiere of a completely new and unproven work, and you can see the same thing in a slightly different package, and with a much clearer context. Ask why this is happening in this particular way, and what forces aligned to give this moment in time and space its particular shape. Upon deeper reflection, in this framework, “Jewish” becomes a target rather than a destination, deeply articulated through a series of aesthetic choices and open to a multifaceted conversation with no guarantee of a conclusion. By looking at aesthetic choices from this critical distance – as a way to dialogue with Judaism rather than only as a tool for sustaining it – we can explore broader notions of Jewish dynamics, history, and identity. Taking this perspective offers greater challenge to our sense of religious/ethnic security, not to mention our desire to achieve measurable goals. But in its place, perhaps we can find a richer, wider ranging, and maybe even more realistic way to think about our own roles as vessels of Jewish values and ideals from one generation to the next.

Ultimately, then, we owe the “aesthetics of Judaism” attention as an entity unto itself, in all its glorious ambiguity, uncertainty, and creativity.

Judah Cohen is Lou and Sybil Mervis Professor of Jewish Culture at Indiana University and adjunct professor at Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. His book publications include “The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor: Musical Authority, Cultural Investment” (2009) and “Through the Sands of Time: A History of the Jewish Community of St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands” (2004).

Previous articles in this series include:

Series Introduction: Insights from the Field and the Classroom by Dr. Dean P. Bell
The Building Blocks of Jewish Education by Dr. Barry Chazan
Timeless Lessons of Mentoring by Ellen Spira Hattenbach
Why is this Degree Different? by Aaron B. Cohen
The Important Role of Newcomers to Jewish Communal Service by Brian Zimmerman
Professional Education Can Be a Game-Changer for Your Community by Michael B. Soberman
Prioritizing Learning by Karin Klein