Would the Last Jewish Artist Please Shut Out The Lights?
by Joey Baron
Since the beginning of the Boston Jewish Music Festival (BJMF) four years ago, I have heard endless conversations about the future of the Jewish community, about the importance of day schools and about Israel and about interfaith families. I have listened to countless talks about synagogue life, inclusiveness, young adult engagement and Jewish identity. But with all too few exceptions, I have not heard any great outcry about or advocacy for is the critical importance of Jewish art and culture, and the role it can play in all those other concerns.
In fact, while many have rambled on about Jewish vitality, we have watched as JDub, the Six Point NYC Fellowship, and, now, the Foundation for Jewish Culture all cease operating.
Let me be perfectly clear. Our community needs great rabbis and teachers, scholars and entrepreneurs. But we also need great poets and musicians. We need to support Israel politically and charitably. But we also need to experience the great artistic accomplishments in music, dance, and literature that are part of contemporary Jewish life there, here, and just about everywhere. Along with thriving religious and educational institutions, a vibrant cultural life is essential to a vibrant future for our community.
1. Culture Is For All, Not Just Young Adults
The discussions I’ve heard about Jewish culture seem to always focus on how the arts can reach young adults. While certain Jewish cultural events can attract large numbers of this highly desirable, often-unaffiliated audience, it’s so terribly shortsighted to focus exclusively on them. Such a perspective limits and even inhibits the vital role culture plays in our community. At the BJMF, to cite just one example, we have seen grandparents bring their grandchildren to Yiddish cabaret concerts. Such an experience can shape Jewish identity far beyond the music itself and be one of those cherished moments whose impact lasts a lifetime. But it doesn’t fit into the in-vogue-ish category of ‘young adult engagement.’ Jewish musicians may be fiddlers on shtetl roofs but they are also avant garde composers, Israeli rappers, European dj’s and more. We need diverse cultural programming to reach and inspire all segments of our community. A vibrant cultural scene makes our community – whether a city neighborhood or a religion – cool.
2. Supporting and Inspiring Artists
How can we continue to be the rich culture we are – or, at least, mean to be – without supporting our culture makers, our artists? Or is it that we are all for culture in general, but do not think specifically of Jewish culture? We need to inspire and reward artists who want to create art that celebrates their Jewishness. We need to give them gigs and exposure. We need to commission new artworks. Can we not find space for our artists to work and create? Why can’t temples with empty classrooms offer them to Jewish artists as studios/rehearsal spaces? In return for this space, artists could offer synagogues a performance, or mural or educational workshop.
A local Federation executive never misses an opportunity to ask about bringing Bob Dylan to Boston. For the money that would cost, let’s create local musician support groups that might foster the next Jewish songwriting star.
3. Viva La Culturally Jewish
So much effort is spent to get those who so proudly claim to be ‘culturally Jewish” to somehow be ‘more Jewish.’ Yet, what type of welcome are we offering if mainstream Jewish organizations deprecate their interests? If Jewish community institutions continue to offer only second-rate klezmer bands and clichéd cantorial concerts as their cultural attractions, we may as well put a sign on the door saying the culturally Jewish are not welcome here.
4. Our Competition is LiveNation, Not The JCC
If Jewish culture is going to succeed, it will need to do so on its own merits. When BJMF presents an Israeli rock band, our competition is all the other rock bands playing in town that night, not what is happening at the JCC. We want our cultural events to be judged by the same standards of excellence that are used to decide whether to buy a ticket to see a rock concert, a ballet, or a symphony. Such an approach raises the standard for what people expect from “Jewish culture’, a standard we need to meet if we are to thrive. The higher the quality of Jewish cultural events, the more likely we are to inspire more Jews (and non-Jews) by Jewish artistry.
5. A Mandate for our Future
Who is going to be the one to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to talented, dedicated artists who are creating powerful work by grappling with how to balance their Jewish musical roots with contemporary culture? By not offering them support, commission or performance opportunities, isn’t that, in effect, what we are doing? If we keep saying no to Jewish culture today, we are setting down a path of disappointment tomorrow.
Jewish artists and arts advocates have unique skills and a creative perspective that needs to be part of any serious discussion about our future. We need to be supported like any other professionals who contribute to our community. We need to be invited into those conversations and planning sessions where strategies, programs and priorities are developed. We will all be the better for it.
Joey Baron is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Boston Jewish Music Festival.