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Are the Arts Enough to Sustain Jewish Identity?

October 30, 2013
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Itai Kris Sextet will perform at Word Cafe Live.

It’s no joke that more American Jews believe that having a sense of humor is more important than observing Jewish law when rating what’s essential to their Jewish identity.

That’s become one of the most oft-quoted findings of the recent Pew Research Center survey of American Jews, an indicator of our collective disengagement from organized Jewish life and ritual, particularly among younger Jews.

While no one wants to diss Jewish humor — after all, comedy has been a staple of the Jewish condition for decades — that statistic is something we should all worry about.

As we explore in this week’s cover story, the questions — and debates — about the role of Jewish arts and culture (and humor) in shaping and sustaining our identity take on special resonance in the wake of the Pew report.

The debate also comes as our community is blessed with a multitude of cultural offerings this season, including two annual highlights — the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival and Israeli JazzPhest.

There is no doubt that throughout the millennia, Jewish culture helped shape us as a people and enriched our lives, even amid our darkest moments.

Where would we — or the world, for that matter — be without the legions of Jewish musicians, artists, writers and actors who have entertained, engaged and inspired us with their talent? As in so many fields, Jews have played an outsized role in all these areas.

Indeed, we boast a long tradition of Jews whose primary attachment to Jewish life was a cultural one. From the shtetls of Eastern Europe to the tenements of the Lower East Side, many of our ancestors developed a rich Jewish life centered almost exclusively on cultural communal gatherings, from the kitchen to the theater.

But with our communities having long since expanded beyond those narrow boundaries, we have to ask: Is identifying as a cultural Jew still enough?

By all means, let’s encourage and support artistic endeavors. A rousing Idan Raichel Project concert, the Hazon Festival, a standup comic at Helium — these cultural endeavors not only add meaning to our lives, they provide vibrant touchpoints for Jewish engagement.

But in today’s world of multiple identities and connections, we can’t pretend that Jewish culture is going to be enough to sustain us in the long run. As Warren Hoffman, a cultural historian who works at the Gershman Y, put it, Jewish tradition and rituals need to connect to the artistic tradition. But, he added, “I don’t think you need to sacrifice one for the other.”

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