On The State of the Arts (Schmooze ’07 Jewish Culture Conference presentation)

Revised (Again) Notes for Panel on the State of the Jewish Arts
2nd Annual Sidney Krum Schmooze Festival

I want to try out something I’m not yet sure I believe in — at least for public consumption (but I wrote it from the heart so it’s at least privately true if not yet true for myself in this room of Jewish professionals). And I invite your rebuttal to this little rant; or maybe even a rebuke; or maybe even a spanking, if you’re so moved.

I run a successful Jewish Theater company. I’m thinking maybe it’s too Jewish. I’m calling for ecumenicizing of our Jewish Cultural Institutions.

And before I go further, let’s take the great Theodore Bikel up on his challenge. He tells not to “not be a Melting Pot, but a kaleidoscope;” part of a collection of ever-shifting particles and colors in a great, undulating mosaic of multiculutralism, where our particular cultural attributes are not diminished nor homogenized. Within the frame of our cultural institutions, let’s be that kaleidoscope where we contain both particularist and universalist particles. Let’s make room for the universal and the assimilationist ethic within our fierce preservation and celebration of our tachlis culture.

What’s our tachlis culture? “Tachlis” is Yiddish, filtered into Hebrew useage, which essentially means ”brass tacks; nitty-gritty; essentialized; extreme pragmatism” but I believe the Yiddish is derived originally from Hebrew root for “decide” — so that we can take “tachlis” to mean “decisive,” as in “critical,” as in “bedrock.” What’s at the root? What’s at the root of our religion?
Halacha. The laws.
Nothing airy-fairy about tachlis Judaism. Forget spirit. Forget faith. It’s what you do. We’re a pragmatic people. “Show me the mitzvah” came long before “Show me the money.” So if Jewish practice is about laws and deeds, what’s Jewish art about?
Well, it’s got nothing to do with religion, that’s for sure.
It’s about holding a mirror up to the Jewish people.
The mirror presents a portrait — a rendering of how we behave, how we live and die and suffer and cause pain to each other, to ourselves, to others, and how we celebrate, how we agitate, how we assimilate, how we fornicate — how we do it, basically, with the “it” being Live.

The official Jewish community, so alarmed by statistics of intermarriage, synagogue disaffiliation, and Jewish illiteracy should be told this: Don’t look to the Arts to help you and you alone. Don’t look to the Jewish Arts to save Our People; Look to the Jewish Arts Save Humanity. We’re not going to make more happy Jewish marriages. We should make more Meaningful Intermarriages. Don’t look to our Jewish cultural institutions to send Jews back to their history and thereby, to their traditions, and thereby to their local synagogues so they can rejoin as members. Instead, look to our Jewish cultural institutions to put people in touch with our tradition of Rebellion, Agnosticism, Secular Humanism, Philosophical Hereticism as well Social and Artistic Innovation. Jews have a history, not just of closing ranks, but of making the world a vastly more interesting place. Jews have a history of making room in their lives, in their minds, and in their hearts for others. Can’t we celebrate that as well?

We are worried about the wrong things. Yes, our community may be adrift, disengaged, underducated, and uninspired. But our Jewish institutions may not be doing enough to be worthy of inspiration. Our leading institutions have reacted to the modern moment by drawing an increasingly more narrow agenda, becoming single-interest-driven, less liberal, less humane; less mindful of being a Light Unto the United Nations and too concerned with how much and how many different people hate us. We should, rather, be concerned about how much people hate each other. And try to do something about that.

In short: We used to be a lot less myopic. And so too our cultural agenda – we used to be, as Theo Bikel noted in harkening back to his days on the frontlines of the civil rights movement, much more ready to put our Jewish song out there to serve a humanistic (and thereby, yes, self-interested) cause. Let us promote an Art that breeds Alliance.

In pushing ourselves and our theatrical repertoires and our festival line-ups and our funding bases to become much more ecumenical (which is to say “involving of other religions and committed to the friendly and healthy relations between such”), we call on ourselves not to inscribe ourselves inside some New Age Click or Youth Group Ghetto, but instead to Go Global. Let us not only dwell on the need for our Jewish Federations to give the Jewish Arts more money (though they should and they need to); let’s diversify our funding base and look for major support OUTSIDE the Jewish community. Let’s make sure our work is RELEVANT to the outside world as well as to the Jewish communuity. Good Jewish Art should be Good Public Art.

Let’s call not just for a Nextbook Jewish Culture, but for a New York Review of Books Jewish Culture – which is to say let’s give ourselves the license and the freedom to draw much more widely from the world and not funnel everything through such a rigorous Jewish lens. Let’s Get Engaged With the World Again, People! We of the Jewish community needn’t be All Jewish All The Time. Our choices should not be always subjected to the Litmus Test: “What’s Jewish about that?” Why not ask the more urgent, “What’s ILLUMINATING about that? For all of us? Including us Jews?”

Nowhere is it written that the Jews of this World should be a narrowly engaged group of people. We, the Jewish artists, must set the table and provide a menu that is full of bounty, expanding the consciousness and the horizons of our tribe. We belong to the world. That needs to be a vital part of our message.

(And guess what? More revisions may come… They should… It’s a faith in progress; an identity in motion; a people on the go; a culture on the run; but not defensive… Questioning, one of our better features…)