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Is the Popularity of Jewish Culture Sustainable?

NEW YORK, April 26, 2006 (JTA)--Heeb. Matisyahu. Guilt & Pleasure. Times are flush if you're a young, culturally minded Jew.

Indeed, the last few years have seen an explosion in artistic and cultural activity by and for Jews. Matisyahu, a Chasidic reggae singer, for example, has sold more than 500,000 albums. And Heeb, a Jewish magazine aimed at young hip Jews, has been the subject of much chatter and numerous articles in

"There's a mammoth market for this," said Roger Bennett, publisher of Guilt & Pleasure, which defines itself as "a magazine for Jews and the people who love them" and which sold out its first issue in November 2005.

With intermarriage rampant, synagogue membership among young Jews on the decline and a general sense that younger Jews are less connected to Judaism, Jewish communal leaders are on the lookout for ways to get the younger generation to connect and to engage in a conversation about Jewish identity, community and meaning.

Some of these young people, and, increasingly, some of their elders, say that the way to their hearts--and minds and pocketbooks--is through artistic and cultural exchange: Jewish music, books, movies and art.

But along with the explosion of Jewish arts come many questions. At its 2006 conference in Denver, the Jewish Funders Network offered several panels and discussions on the place of arts and culture in today's Jewish milieu. At the conference and beyond, Jewish thinkers are asking whether the arts should be viewed as a gateway to further Jewish involvement or are valuable as a destination in and of themselves.

The debate may be meaningless to a group of Jews dancing at a Matisyahu concert but it has practical applications in terms of funding for Jewish culture. Artistic endeavors cost money, and the people with the money tend not to be the same young people attracted to reggae music, even if it is being sung by a guy in a long beard and black hat.

"There is no easy way to quantify the value of art," Connie Wolf, director of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, said during one such panel at the gathering of Jewish foundations. "When it comes to art, there are always more questions than answers."

But others, while acknowledging culture's appeal, wonder whether such pursuits are likely to produce committed Jews or are apt to fizzle out.

"I think everything that we've learned in the last hundred years teaches us that the bonds of religion are actually much stronger than the bonds of culture," Jonathan Sarna, a professor at Brandeis University and a leading commentator on American Jewish history, said in an interview.

Still, Sarna believes that just as venture capital firms fund numerous startups knowing that only a few will succeed, some Jewish cultural initiatives--those that appear to be successful and cost-effective--ought to be funded by the Jewish community.


It is clear these cultural endeavors are popular. Ari Kelman, a research fellow at Hebrew Union College, has done two studies of contemporary Jewish culture in New York along with sociologist Steven M. Cohen. He discussed the findings at the funders conference.

"The numbers exceed anybody's expectations," he said "People are dying for it."

Young Jews, the studies found, are less and less interested in taking part in activities that are strictly Jewish. And while taking part in a Jewish cultural activity may not spur many to join a synagogue or give to their local federation, they may go to another cultural event.

"It gets them to do other Jewish stuff in this sphere," said Kelman, author of the forthcoming book, Station Identification: A Cultural History of Yiddish Radio. "If they go to a concert, they'll go to another concert--including people who have never been to one before."

Funders young and old are grappling with this new phenomenon.

"The generation that is older has to understand that engagement that looks different than the way they engaged is still engagement," said Danielle Durchslag, 25, of New York, a board member of the Nathan Cummings Foundation and a founding member of Grand Street, a network of twentysomethings who are involved in their family philanthropies.

As Jewish artistic expressions proliferate, many of these older funders--from wealthy individuals to family foundations to Jewish federations--are beginning to come around to the idea.

"It seems to me that our elders are at a point where they're beginning to listen to the message," Durchslag said, on the sidelines of the funders conference.

But Bennett, also senior vice president at the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, acknowledged the difficulties inherent in this new approach.

"For this to work," he said, more established donors "have to essentially support projects for which they are not the desired end users. It's a very hard emotional thing for a funder."

Richard Siegel, executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, said that convincing people to allocate their dollars to the arts has not been easy.

"There's tremendous resistance, as a general statement, to funding this sort of culture in Jewish life," he said. "But I'd say that there is also significant resistance for the support of culture in the broader American society. I don't necessarily think that we're a unique community in that regard."

"There's a sense that culture is entertainment and if it's entertainment, then those who are entertained should pay for it," Siegel added. "But culture is far more than entertainment. It's about education. It's a means of values transmission. It's a means of looking into the nature of the community in a new and open way."

Alisa Rubin Kurshan, vice president for strategic planning and organizational resources at UJA-Federation of New York, said her group has been funding cultural projects for years. She cites as examples an annual Jewish cultural festival in New York and a Jewish record label.

"We are, in fact, funding these culturally rich Jewish experiences because we understand that they lead to higher forms of Jewish engagement," she said. "We also have other strategies that try to reach the affiliated Jews that help them become more engaged and connected to Jewish life."

For Sarna, the long-term implications of approaching Jewish culture as a destination rather than a gateway to involvement are troubling.

"If it remains a destination, then I fear that we may find that many of these Jews deeply committed to secular, cultural Judaism may discover that their children and grandchildren are happy to view that culture as part of their ancestral background but will not see the same need to pass it on to their generational offspring," he said.

But for Jeffrey Solomon, president of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, all this represents an enormous opportunity.

"Gen. X and Gen. Y are extraordinarily self-confident; we have to present a self-confident Judaism," he said. "As we

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. A language of West Semitic origins, culturally considered to be the language of the Jewish people. Ancient or Classical Hebrew is the language of Jewish prayer or study. Modern Hebrew was developed in the late-19th and early 20th centuries as a revival language; today it is spoken by most Israelis.
Chanan Tigay

Chanan Tigay is a longtime journalist for publications ranging from Agence France-Presse to The Jerusalem Report to JTA. He received an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University, has recently completed a collection of short stories and is at work on a novel. He starred in the feature film Hitler's Strawberries by Academy Award-nominated director Gian-Luigi Polidoro and in the Off Broadway hit Grandma Sylvia's Funeral. He lives in Los Angeles and is at work on a television pilot. Apparently, he's not the only one in L.A. trying to break into T.V.

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