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Wanted -- A North American Cultural Policy

July 21, 2011 By:
Stephen Hazan Arnoff and Steven M. Cohen
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JDub Digital recently released SHOTNEZ, the debut album of Shotnez, a new project from the founders of Balkan Beat Box.

 

JDub Records, the innovative nonprofit music endeavor that discovered Matisyahu and other artists, released 35 albums and brought 150,000 participants to concerts and events, announced recently that it would be closing after nine years of successful operation. The principal cause: inability to secure sufficient, ongoing philanthropic support.

The impending closure of one of the most promising start-ups in the Jewish ecosystem highlights a critical gap in the communal landscape -- the absence of what may be called a "Jewish cultural policy" in North America.

We have policy discourse in many domains: education, outreach, combating anti-Semitism, Israel advocacy, poverty, peoplehood and more.

Just a century ago, communal leaders addressed such issues as employment, health, English-language acquisition and citizenship. As needs changed, so did the policy discourse. But however extensive the current communal agenda may be, missing is culture, signifying a lack of Jewish cultural policy on many levels.

In the past decade, a cluster of loosely connected enterprises has been supported by family foundations, UJA-Federation of New York, the Foundation for Jewish Culture and others. These efforts have produced an array of impressive cultural practices, mostly grass roots, modular and low cost. They include anchors of local cultural engagement like Moishe House, as well as projects creating content and disseminating cultural innovation such as Storahtelling, Hazon and, prominently until now, JDub Records.

To these endeavors must be added many thousands of writers, poets, artists, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, dancers and other culture-makers, as well as the venues where they present their work -- from bookstores, museums and galleries, clubs and film festivals to the virtual landscape of YouTube and beyond. These constitute the critical elements in North America's "Jewish cultural ecology."

But to be a Jewish artist or cultural innovator in the community today often means serving small pockets of interest on the fringe or being drafted occasionally into preformed communal templates -- fundraisers, traditional celebrations or outreach programs -- where art is instrumental rather than generative, dogmatic rather than dynamic.

Sadly, with the economy in a continual state of flux, the arts often are the first programmatic cut made by organizations. JDub is no isolated occurrence.

There is a case for strategic investment in creative people, infrastructure and values. The benefits have been amply established for society as a whole.

The edgy environments that artists construct can function as powerful forces driving the wider society. The Jewish world desperately needs a lively margin for new ideas to influence and stimulate what many broadly see as an uninspiring Jewish community.

What do artists need and want? They seek peers in a creative community of work; inspiration in the form of dialogue, study and engagement to enrich the process of their work; deadlines and structure within which work can be accomplished; space for work to be created and presented; and a public forum for the wider community to relate to the experience.

The organized Jewish community lacks an articulated cultural policy to advocate for and sustain the creative potential embodied by this endeavor.

A Jewish cultural policy would ask three basic questions:

· What is the nature, extent, quality, value and impact of the cultural life? In short, why is Jewish culture important?

· What is the Jewish cultural life we would want to have?

· How do we move from the current reality to the ideal with effective strategies, resources and implementation?

Jewish communities should act to place a creative class of artists in core institutions, offering them space to gather, study, create, explore and present work within a communal context. At the same time, artists, thinkers and culture- makers should dialogue with institutional leaders and funders in mini-think tanks, tackling core issues of how to create a vibrant community.

A society without a respected creative class lacks the imagination to innovate and grow. The last decade has offered indications of a Jewish renaissance, as new forms of cultural work have emerged in conjunction with simultaneous advances in learning, new digital media, social justice and Jewish spiritual communities.

A Jewish cultural policy that smartly and strategically fosters Jewish cultural endeavors will ensure the recent gains in Jewish cultural life, with benefits on many levels -- cultural, spiritual, educational, political and much more. A real commitment to Jewish culture can preclude disheartening and wasteful reversals such as the fading of JDub.

Stephen Hazan Arnoff is executive director of the 14th Street Y in New York City. Steven M. Cohen is a research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

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