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'The Art of Being Jewish'

July 17, 2008 By:
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An example of Ben Katchor's art

The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times, which has been edited by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Jonathan Karp, both respected academics, is an ambitious, wide-ranging collection of essays that displays all the advantages and a certain number of the defects of scholarly discourse these days (the publisher is University of Pennsylvania Press). The book's subject is not, as the title might lead you to believe, something along the lines of an academic self-help book, providing readers with pointers about how to up their quotient of Jewish identity. Rather, the word "art" means exactly what it says -- this will be an examination of the many ways that Jews in the modern age have utilized artistic expression to declare and maintain their Jewish identity, which in all but several rare cases in these pieces has been done in a purely secular manner.

 

Some of the titles of these essays seem forthright, uncomplicated: "Film and Vaudeville on New York's Lower East Side"; "The 'Wandering Jew' from Medieval Legend to Modern Metaphor"; "Was There Anything Particularly Jewish About 'the First Hebrew City?' "

 

Others have a somewhat more esoteric -- at times, mystifying -- ring to them, even for those who know something about the subjects at hand: "Re-Routing Roots: Zehava Ben's Journey Between Shuk and Suk"; "Diasporic Values in Contemporary Art: Kitaj, Katchor, Frenkel"; "A Modern Mitzvah-Space-Aesthetic: The Philosophy of Franz Rosenzweig."

 

In a number of these cases, you simply have to get past the title to discover that the essay is, in its particulars, fairly straightforward. And there are also moments in some of the pieces that bear uncomplicated monikers where the prose can turn suddenly unwieldy. But that's to be expected in such a compilation; for the most part, the editors have done their best to weed out overly intellectualized writing -- or, at the very least, not let it go on for too long.

 

The various pieces gathered here originated as part of research done at Penn's Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, located behind Independence Hall, over the course of the academic year 2000-01. "Modern Jewry and the Arts" was the overall title given to the 12-month tenure, a subject the scholars shared and dissected. As David Ruderman, the center's director, explains in his brief preface, "Art historians, ethnomusicologists, cultural historians and literary critics sat around one table, attempting to understand one another's vocabulary, methodologies and perspectives." And, according to the editors, the many interdisciplinary encounters that made up the year managed to set off intellectual sparks and spurred the scholars on to set their ideas on paper.

 

According to Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Karp, here are some of the questions and issues that arose over the course of many hours of thinking and discussion at the center. "What has been the role of artistic expression in Jewish self-definition? How have Jews used the arts in their individual and collective lives? What are the various styles of contemporary Jewishness?

 

" ... [T]his volume explores how the arts -- and the debates they engendered -- give sound, shape and dramatic form to such imaginings in all their local and historical specificity. Such considerations require a broader conception of what counts as art and greater attention to the organized contexts in which it is made, whether, as explored in this volume, the American or German or Russian art world, a culture industry such as the American or Israeli popular music business, or the everyday life of a local community in Philadelphia, Tel Aviv or Birobidzhan. Though several authors do focus on a single artist -- Mark Antokol'skii, Max Libermann, Ben Shahn, R.B. Kitaj, Ben Katchor, Vera Frenkel, Marcel Ophuls and Zehava Ben -- the book as a whole has the ambitious aim of identifying the aesthetic as a key conceptual category for treating modern Jewish history. This volume, then, is not simply about modern Jewry and the arts but about the art of being Jewish in modern times."

 

Some of that prose is a bit thick, and it does take energy and dedicated concentration to get through the editors' introductory remarks. In fact, it may just be too much for the general reader. But what I find so heartening about books like The Art of Being Jewish in Modern Times is that, though mainstream publishing, which used to be the lifeblood of such discussions, has abandoned this territory, academic publishing has stepped in to fill the void. In fact, it is the only place where you can find works that discuss such challenging writers like Franz Rosenzweig, Joseph Lewitan and some of the others already cited.

 

Take, for example, an essay with the somewhat fearsome title of "Of Maestros and Minstrels: American Jewish Composers Between Black Vernacular and European Art Music." In this piece, written by co-editor Karp, I found a discussion of one of my favorite subjects, the heyday of the Tin Pan Alley composers, plus an extended look at Marc Blitzstein as both critic and composer. A Philadelphia native, Blitzstein became famous in the 1930s as the composer of the so-called "labor opera," The Cradle Will Rock, which was first produced by the Federal Theater Project, and caused a furor at its famous premiere.

 

As Karp states in his opening sentence, his article is an attempt to describe "a contest, informal but nonetheless real, to create the definitively American musical masterpiece." This contest occurred, according to the scholar, "during the second and third decades of the 20th century, a period in which American Jews had begun to play an important role in American musical life."

 

Many other writers have tried to describe and analyze this contest, but Karp adds a little kick to the proceedings. He notes that the attempt to compose such a masterpiece "could not be disentangled from the era's racial conceptions."

 

"Since the late 19th century and particularly under the influence of the Czech composer Anton Dvorák ... a growing number of musicians and critics had acclaimed African American music as the nation's most authentic and vivid sound. Such praise of black music -- partly rooted in a romanticizing of black culture -- often went hand in hand with a prejudice whose effect was to deny African American musicians themselves an equal chance for success. The operative assumption was that blacks lacked a key qualification for victory: the capacity to handle classical and not merely vernacular musical approaches. In light of this imputed disability, the winning contestant, though not black, must be able to venture into -- and emerge intact from -- the world of black musical culture. He (a male gender was likewise assumed) must refine the 'primitive' genius of black folk music into a work of enduring classical value. He must straddle multiple worlds: black and white, American and European, high and low."

 

The ability of Jews to act as "mediators between different segments of non-Jewish society" -- Karp says this began when they were "middlemen" in Europe -- helped give Jews a "leg up" in the competition. The scholar then looks at how several composers -- George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Blitzstein -- handled the negotiation. His essay is an innovative way of looking at categories like classicism and jazz -- and where certain artists fit along the spectrum. With a handful of the other chapters, it reflects what's best in this stimulating gathering of essays.

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