- VOLUME 10
- MY LIBRARY
Introduction to Volume 10
By Deborah Dash Moore and Nurith Gertz
Diversity, innovation, and expansion have characterized contemporary Jewish culture, while technological and social changes have encouraged an interpenetration of Jewish and non-Jewish cultures. Shifting cultural landscapes, together with the rapid growth of the field of Jewish studies, have stimulated reflections on what makes Jewish culture Jewish and what makes Jewish culture, culture.1 How can we recognize Jewish culture? Are there essential elements defining either “Jewish” or “culture”? Can we find distinctive, even unique features that identify Jewish culture? This anthology adopts a deliberately pluralist view of Jewish culture. It looks neither for essential elements of Jewishness nor for critical features of culture. It rejects a rigid checklist of criteria and eschews an essentialist approach to works. Instead, it proposes that Jews make culture and make it Jewish in various ways: through language, production, references, reception, uses, debates, and performances. The intersection of these features of language and references, uses and reception, performance and production, transforms cultural production by Jews into Jewish culture. The texts included in this anthology reflect a broad understanding of culture, including high and low, elite and popular, folk and mass. However, the anthology privileges creators, authors, and artists as makers of culture, even as it recognizes the importance of collaboration in cultural production and the significant role of audience responses in creating both culture and Jewishness. The collection samples an array of examples, chosen as representative, illuminating, unusual, intriguing, influential, or excellent. This composite portrait of Jewish culture in the last decades of the twentieth and the first years of the twenty-first century suggests its mutability, exuberance, diversity, and vigor. It situates Jewish cultural creativity during years of upheaval in Israel, Latin America, South Africa, and the Soviet Union, and years of relative stability in the United States, Europe, Canada, and Australia.
What constitutes Jewish culture? This volume deliberately casts a broad net that does not exclude more esoteric authors because it understands the fabric of Jewish culture as composed of interactions of the famous and influential with the more obscure or the merely popular. A work of Jewish culture is not necessarily visible on the surface, and identification involves interpretation and judgment. A work’s substance and style will matter, in addition to its reception and uses. For example, the incorporation of contemporary poetry into prayer books can transform personal poems without sacred resonances into a contribution to collective Jewish reflection. The anthology includes some authors and artists addressing Jewish issues, even though much of their work ignores Jewish topics. When a well-known author or artist who might be considered nominally Jewish in terms of personal involvement engages cultural questions of concern to other Jews, he or she helps to make that culture by participating in debates. This choice is not arbitrary since this is an anthology of Jewish civilization and culture, not of Judaism as culture. Although in the United States Judaism is generally used to refer to Jewish religion, the anthology specifies “Jewish religion” instead of “Judaism.” The dilemma of the contemporary period—that many works of Jewish culture bear few distinguishing Jewish marks—reflects an absence of consensus as well as the eclectic character of Jewish culture today and its interpenetration with many other cultures.2 Thus, the anthology seeks less to define what is Jewish than to suggest the breadth and depth of Jewish culture in the contemporary world.
The anthology begins with the year 1973 not only because of the date’s significance for Israel but also because that year marked the beginning of efforts to reexamine the primacy of contemporary Hebrew culture for the entire Jewish world. Tensions between center and periphery, Israel and Diaspora, surface in this anthology, reflecting political, religious, social, and cultural conflicts that extend beyond Zionist ideological debates. The United States, home of the largest Jewish community in the world, increasingly produced Jewish cultural alternatives to Israel evident in the preponderance of Israeli and American work that is anthologized. Nevertheless, the vigor of Israeli cultural creativity and the assertiveness of its scholarly community also register in this volume.
The Yom Kippur War of October 1973 provoked a collective trauma in Israel that challenged assumptions regarding the strength of Jewish culture that reverberated throughout the Jewish world. The war started with a surprise invasion of Egyptian forces into the Sinai Peninsula, which Israel had captured in the Six Day War of 1967. Although Israel recaptured the territory, the three-week war caused many casualties and shook Israel’s confidence in its leaders.3 The war can be seen as a significant dividing point, separating earlier understandings of Israeli identity from subsequent ones. The war both initiated and hastened previous processes of change whose ramifications registered in all segments of Israeli culture. No longer viewed as heroic as imagined in the years after the Six Day War, Jews assessed themselves again as victims. With the deconstruction of Israeli heroism, the Sabra, the native-born Israeli considered the opposite of the passive Diaspora Jew, lost his hegemony. In addition, these changes opened the way for recognition of such marginalized groups within Israeli society as immigrants (especially from North Africa) and Holocaust survivors. Other minorities, including religious Jews and Jewish women, also acquired increased influence. The war similarly facilitated acceptance of multiple definitions of Zionism.
By 1973, changes in the map of Jews living in communities in North Africa and the Middle East became increasingly evident. After centuries of life in North African and Middle Eastern countries, Mizrahi Jewish ethnic and religious identity lost its indigenous attributes as Jews from those regions dispersed among other Jewish societies. In most Islamic countries, including Algeria, Iraq, and Morocco, once-flourishing Jewish communities became remnants of their historic presences, leaving just Iran and Turkey with sizable numbers of Jews. A minor Jewish presence endured in Yemen, Egypt, and Tunisia. Emigration of Jews from these countries gradually stabilized. The majority moved to Israel, but enough settled elsewhere to produce other centers in France, Italy, England, the United States, Canada, and South America. Mizrahi immigrants struggled to shape a new identity in these places while maintaining ties with fellow immigrants in Israel. Their presence in Israel made them a majority of the Jewish population until the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s.
In the United States, the year 1973 marked the beginning of the end of Richard Nixon’s administration with the uncovering of the Watergate robberies and subsequent presidential cover-up. The decline of Nixon’s presidency symbolized the end of the turbulent 1960s, with its antiwar protests, counterculture, and civil rights militancy. For Jews, these political and cultural changes corresponded to a shift in focus toward new forms of Jewish creativity, initially nourished in the framework of protest and now increasingly supported by established Jewish organizations. Identity politics flourished in the United States as minority groups asserted their rights, including African Americans, Latinos, white ethnics, women, and gays and lesbians.4 Jews developed a wide range of their own identity politics focused on such issues as the centrality of Israel and Holocaust memory, the struggle for Soviet Jewry, and the dangers of intermarriage to Jewish survival. Indeed, multiplicity came to characterize American Jewish cultural identity, reflected in an explosion of first-person narratives that mediated and represented what it meant to be an American Jew.5
Most significantly, feminism took hold among American Jews, both those who were committed to the American movement and those who sought to stimulate change in Jewish society. In 1972 the first woman rabbi, Sally Priesand, received her rabbinical degree from Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary; two years later, Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, the first Reconstructionist woman rabbi, was ordained (the new Reconstructionist Rabbinical College had admitted its first woman candidate in 1969, one year after its founding). Activist young women in a consciousness-raising group called Ezrat Nashim brought demands for women’s equality to a meeting of Conservative rabbis in 1972 and the following year they helped to organize a diverse group of women for the first National Conference of Jewish Women, held in New York City.6 That summer, Response magazine published an issue devoted to women that included literary writing, new liturgies welcoming the birth of a baby girl, first efforts to craft a feminist Jewish theology, and early attempts to retrieve the history of Jewish women.7 All of these areas would become major arenas of Jewish creativity in the following decades and come to influence even Orthodox Jewish life as women gained learning and access to traditional Jewish texts.
In Europe, 1972 marked the initial year of a major increase in Russian Jewish emigration numbers under the rubric of family reunification. Most initially chose to settle in Israel; later in the decade the United States became a popular destination. In the United States, the movement to free Soviet Jewry encouraged and supported refuseniks who resisted Soviet oppression.8 In the process, these efforts raised the consciousness of young American Jews, making activism a part of their Jewish identity. Although in the 1970s only relatively small numbers of the more than two million Russian Jews were able to leave, their departure set a precedent that led to a mass emigration of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the late 1980s and after the collapse of the USSR in 1989.9 Most of the Jews who left in the 1970s came from sections of the Soviet Union that had been occupied as a result of World War II (e.g., Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia) as well as more traditional Jewish populations (e.g., Georgia). This immigration would bring Jews from the Soviet Union into conversation and debate with Israeli and American Jews on matters of style and substance. Jews from the former Soviet Union established their own cultural activities, especially in Israel where they made up a significant percentage of the entire population. In the United States, they rapidly learned English. Both responses to emigration enriched many aspects of Jewish culture. Emigration accompanied cultural and religious revival in the Soviet Union. Underground Hebrew classes, as well as religious and cultural seminars, attracted thousands of people, most of whom considered emigration. These forms of activity, however, were confined to large cities where it was easier to hide from police surveillance. In smaller places, synagogues often served as social clubs for mostly elderly congregants, offering them moral support and a sense of solidarity.
The arrival of Jews from North Africa in France soon made Mizrahi Jews a substantial part of the Jewish population. As a result, French Jewish culture began a process of expansion and diversification.10 Both the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics of 1972 and the 1973 war pushed French Jews toward support of Zionism and Israel, as did the turn toward terrorism by some radical French student political groups. Leading Jewish thinkers and activists began to reconsider their earlier radical left-wing philosophies. Eventually they propounded new theories of moral responsibility that drew upon traditional Jewish sources as well as the Holocaust.
In South America, political destabilization accelerated in 1973, marked by increasing violence against many members of the middle class, including Jews. Jewish university students, outspoken journalists, and prosperous families discovered their lives thrown into disarray and danger by military regimes. The process of “disappearing” people led to extensive loss of life, especially in Argentina, starting in 1976. In Chile, Salvador Allende was overthrown on 11 September 1973, ending hopes for a socialist government. Violent regimes battled guerrilla movements. Jewish communities, especially in large cities such as Buenos Aires, faced uncertainty and insecurity. This situation prompted increased immigration to Israel.11
Throughout most of the English-speaking world—in Great Britain, Canada, South Africa, and Australia—the year 1973 proved to be less significant in demarcating shifts in mentality, politics, or social trends. Continuities characterized these countries, although the growing agitation for separation of the province of Quebec from Canada provoked Jewish unease and stimulated many young Jews to leave Montreal for Toronto or the United States.12 Similarly, in South Africa, repressive policies of apartheid goaded Jewish emigration to Great Britain, the United States, and Israel, even as a worldwide movement to challenge apartheid took shape. Jews who remained in South Africa found themselves on both sides of the divide, as supporters of revolution and of the status quo.13
Beginning in 1973, Jewish culture increasingly followed paths charted initially by Yiddish literature in the preceding century. Ideas and traditions crossed boundaries of place and nation-states. Indeed, it would often be more appropriate to speak of transnational Jewish cultures, given the extensive migrations occurring during these decades. Heterogeneity characterized these cultures, with many competing narratives produced by diverse Jewish segments of societies. These coexisting narratives often clashed, producing counter narratives and efforts to marginalize groups with their stories. However, Jews living in Israel and the United States came to dominate Jewish culture in the final decades of the twentieth century. The voices of Jewish women acquired prominence and influence, contributing to the complexity of Jewish culture. Searches for identity and origins took on a new urgency in these years, stimulating alternative ways of thinking about history and the past. Gradual waning of the Israeli ideal of the new Hebrew man and some ideologies of nationalism and national power prompted a search for tradition as well as a new messianism. Turning toward the past forced many Jews to confront the Holocaust again and attempt to decipher its meanings and lessons for themselves as individuals and as a collectivity. Young Jews also participated in a wider pursuit of spirituality that animated many youth throughout the world.
Greater acceptance of Jews as individuals and declining antisemitism promoted active involvement by Jews in shaping American culture. Leading American writers, such as Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, were Jews and their Jewish characters represented Jews to other Americans. Jews participated not only as Americans but also as Jews, finding broad interest in Jewish life and religion among diverse Americans. In Israel, these trends found expression in an embrace of individualistic, universal themes that had started during the 1960s. Connections between Israeli and American literature tightened as Roth and Bellow, as well as Cynthia Ozick and Anne Roiphe, journeyed to Israel and Israeli writers, such as Amos Oz, A. B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, and Meir Shalev, joined the ranks of world literature through widespread translation of their work. At the same time, nationalism revived in Israel along with the Zionist ideology of settling the land, promoted by secular nationalists and religious groups imbued with messianic fervor to reclaim sacred territory.
However, Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and an inability of Israel and the Palestinians to come to an agreement also accompanied the rise of anti-Zionism, especially in Europe and South America. The passage of the “Zionism Is Racism” resolution in the United Nations in 1975 decisively influenced two decades of international politics. Simultaneously, a trend to deny the facts of the Holocaust gained adherents throughout the world. Seeking to discredit the State of Israel, the deniers pressed claims that the Holocaust did not occur and thus that Israel had no moral right to exist.14 Not until the 1990s did both efforts to attack Jews receive significant setbacks, the former when the United Nations rescinded its resolution and the latter in a failed libel case brought by British historian and Holocaust denier David Irving against American Jewish historian Deborah Lipstadt.15 These political changes served as a backdrop for the further decline of Yiddish as a lingua franca among Jews throughout the world—a decline due to the murder of millions of Yiddish speakers during the Holocaust—and its rise as a heritage language, an alternative to Hebrew and implicitly, to Zionism. Simultaneously, Israeli Jews began to articulate their own critique of Zionism.
Genres of Jewish creativity expanded in the late twentieth century, influenced by historical events and social changes. Film, an industry in which Jews had worked for decades, increasingly explored issues of importance to Jews and pictured Jews as characters. Children’s literature blossomed during these years, tackling themes that reached audiences of Jewish and non-Jewish children alike. Television’s expansion propelled popular culture across the globe and transformed millions into potential consumers. Jews adapted many of these new media, including Web sites, advertising, cartoons, and comics, not to mention collectibles, to express Jewish ideas and influence Jews. All became sites of Jewish creativity and imagination. Of course, many of these forms had existed in earlier eras, but now their profusion, mass production, and consumption marked the end of the twentieth century as a heyday of commercial Jewish culture.
Yet even as such new cultural forms appeared, traditional modes of Jewish creativity endured. Poetry and prose, religious writing and philosophy, as well as political and social thought served as vehicles of Jewish interpretation of life and its meanings. Music, long a genre of Jewish expression, expanded as it intersected with popular culture, folk culture, and technological culture. Performance and visual arts represented areas in which Jews experimented both with new genres as well as continued past practices. Such multiplicity of genres suggests expansive and heterogeneous Jewish cultures relatively unconstrained and open to various influences.
Jews have an exceptionally long history of production of poetry. In Israel, traditions of nonpolitical poetry have endured, for example, in the poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch, Yona Wallach, Nathan Zach, and Yehuda Amichai. However, Israeli poetry expressed novel perspectives more rapidly than other genres, responding to events and new moods in the country. Poets were among the first to react to the debacle of the Yom Kippur War with elegies. Illustrative of this response is Yehuda Amichai’s poem, “Seven Laments for the War-Dead” (1974), which focuses on a bereaved father who has lost his son. Amichai connects the personal tragedy of a son’s death in battle to the complicated history of the region. Poetry was also the first genre to register reactions to the first Lebanon War in 1982. If the Yom Kippur War deconstructed faith in Israel’s military power, the Lebanon war challenged faith in its moral integrity. Poets expressed a more widespread feeling of suspicion about the war’s necessity. An unprecedented wave of poetry contesting the war arose, sending shocks throughout Israeli culture that provoked responses. One of the most prominent expressions of this protest is Natan Zach’s poem “On the Wish to Be Precise” (1984), which sarcastically exposes debates about the exact number of bodies killed in the massacres perpetrated by Christian militias in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla. With the beginning of the first Intifada in 1987, yet another stream of protest poetry appeared, with poems such as “Stones” (1992) by Dahlia Ravikovitch. Both of these poets, who wrote protest poetry during the 1980s, expressly had distanced themselves from politics when they began their literary career during the 1950s.16
As Israeli society became more open to other voices, it began to listen to those of Holocaust survivors and of their children, the second generation. A growing audience heard the words of such poets as Dan Pagis. His famous short poem, “Written in Pencil in a Sealed Railroad Car” (1970), succeeds in connecting the biblical story of the first murder, the slaying of Abel by his brother Cain, to the murder of Jews by Germans in the Holocaust. Even when poets did not address immediate political events, they gave voice to significant social and cultural changes.
Along with memories of the Holocaust, other narratives also found expression in Israeli poetry. Poets sought to speak about tradition and plumbed it for meaning that would interpret contemporary society. Women increasingly were heard. They revolted against the male hegemony that had characterized earlier decades. Feminism appeared in Israel ten years after it had arisen in the United States; the delay reflected difficulties finding a place within a society where the military was so important and pervasive. Yet women boldly addressed issues of war and peace as well as themes of gender and transmission of culture. Most prominent among feminist poets, Yona Wallach pioneered in writing provocative poems that refused to conform to contemporary norms. Her “Tefillin” (Phylacteries; 1965), for example, deliberately mixes traditional Jewish symbols with sexuality, thus producing a highly provocative effect that some readers found offensive.
Poetry in the United States and other parts of the Jewish world less often took immediate events as a concern since poets wrote for more diffuse audiences. Although themes of war and peace pervade Jewish poetry, they often reflect apprehension about the enduring effects of trauma, especially the horrors of the Holocaust. Cognitive dissonance resulted when the German language was used to write about the murder of Jews; many were offended when the language of the murderers was employed to express the anguish and anger of the victims. By contrast, writing in Yiddish about the Holocaust invoked a measure of intimacy as well as collective grief. A poet such as Irena Klepfisz, whose poetic language juxtaposed Yiddish and English, produced a hybridity that reflected her diasporic experience: as a child of the Holocaust and a survivor, emigrant from Poland to the United States via several years in Sweden, she refused to blend her diverse experiences into a unified whole as earlier American Jewish writers had done. By contrast, a poet such as John Hollander recognized the inherent syncretism of just writing in an English shaped by the King James translation of the Old Testament. Yet at the same time poets understood that American Jewish culture itself emerged from the interstices and interactions of cultures that surrounded it. Indeed, Hollander’s poetics, like that of Allen Grossman, are deeply grounded in Judaic textuality.17 Editors of Jewish prayer books incorporated contemporary poems into sections of the liturgy, often to memorialize the dead, a tribute to their power to evoke Jewish feelings.
Writing in English, poets sought to connect their own immediate personal experiences with the Holocaust. For several American Jewish poets, such as Anthony Hecht, Kenneth Koch, Stanley Kunitz, and Howard Nemerov, military service provided an alternative encounter with the horrors of World War II. Nemerov’s poem “IFF” (1987), an abbreviation of the wartime “identification friend or foe,” meditates on Jews’ foes in the war and on the isolation Jews felt from their fellow soldiers even when they wore the same uniform.18
In the United States, where feminism flourished, poets struggled to reclaim a historical past and to imagine a tradition of Jewish women. Taking on the voices of those who had been silenced, poets articulated not only their personal feelings but also those with whom they identified, thus expanding the range of Jewish references. Some of the women remained nameless, defined only by their role as mothers, grandmothers, or daughters. Others possessed names that recalled simultaneously betrayal and heroism. Yet even as the poet Adrienne Rich claimed the executed Ethel Rosenberg as a feminist icon, she also questioned her own desires and efforts to pursue radical politics. Jewish history resisted feminists as they struggled to refashion it. Rich was not alone in bringing her politics to her poetry. Marilyn Hacker’s “Morning News” (2002) protests the unrelenting presence of war, at a distance for American Jews but no less disturbing.
The transfer of political power in Israel in 1977 to the Likud Party led by Menachem Begin released ethnic antagonisms that had been suppressed, especially the anger of Mizrahi Jews against the long-standing Ashkenazi establishment. These feelings bubbled up to the surface, finding expression in poems that sought connection to long dormant ethnic roots. With a change of elites came a change of a sense of place. Development towns replaced kibbutzim as sites of cultural imagination. Nostalgic poems about transit camps reclaimed those experiences and reformulated them as part of Israeli culture. For example, Ronny Someck’s poem, “The Poverty Line” (1996), uses the socioeconomic expression denoting poverty as a metaphor to characterize images of the camp for new immigrants in which he grew up, and Shimon Adaf evokes in “Sderot” (1997) mixed feelings about the development town in which he was raised.
The years following the Yom Kippur War enhanced two complementary directions in Israeli fiction. On the one hand, nostalgic traditions that had emerged after the Six Day War continued to flourish. In these novels, authors reconstructed childhood experiences growing up in Israel, as Amos Oz does in The Hill of Evil Counsel (1976). Here the maturation of the individual overlaps with and strengthens the development of the nation. In this way the individual is linked to the national narrative. Chaim Be’er’s Feathers (1998) blends religious with Zionist nostalgia by evoking the childhood of an Orthodox boy. By contrast, apocalyptic novels delineated a horrifying future that deconstructed the Zionist narrative, changing it from a story moving from destruction to redemption to one that returns to destruction. The Road to Ein Harod by Amos Kenan (1984) exemplifies this trend, presenting a terrifying vision of Israeli society torn by internal wars. The kibbutz, Ein Harod, a site of nostalgia, remains the last bastion of a utopian vision. Many other novels do not imagine an apocalypse but in revisiting the past they portray a disintegrating world. Thus they undercut nostalgic fiction by subverting the world of youth and, by extension, the nation.19
As with poetry, opening Israeli society to alternative points of view stimulated the writing of fiction that explored the diasporic world and its Jewish traditions. Both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi writers turned back to their respective pasts and summoned them into contemporary consciousness. These new approaches returned to the Diaspora and, by extension, to Zionist roots. The transfer of political power in 1977 and the first war in Lebanon enhanced a process of shattering the stability of Israeli identity and produced a more pluralistic canon. Instead of one recognizing just center and community, prose writers initiated a search for other options to stabilize identity.20 Multiple identities embraced Holocaust survivors, non-Hebrew speakers, non-Jews, Mizrahi immigrants, and women as part of Israeli literary culture. This pluralism enabled acceptance of Palestinian Hebrew-language writers such as Anton Shammas and Said Kashua as Israeli Hebrew popular writers. It also allowed non-Hebrew speakers who wrote in Yiddish, including Yossl Birstein, to be accepted in translation. Holocaust survivors in See Under: LOVE by David Grossman (1986) reveal that Israeli memories are shaped by Diaspora consciousness, not just by Zionist ideology. Mizrahi protagonists appeared in diverse novels, including those written by Ashkenazi authors. Ethnic novels no longer only referred to Mizrahi Jews but also expanded to include stories of German Jews. In the most recent period, identity categories have become so fluid that it is difficult to apply any labels to characters. As writers have turned away from politics, they have come to focus on the family, bringing their writing closer to that of Diaspora Jewish novelists.
Immigration has often occupied center stage for Jewish writers in English. It has served as a major vehicle to explore Jewish questions of identity and transmission of culture. The liminal experience of immigrants, their movement from one world to another, their location within worlds both Jewish and gentile, and the struggle of individuals to negotiate transitions have engaged writers’ imaginations. These years saw the death of several major American Jewish writers, most notably Bernard Malamud (1986) and Saul Bellow (2005), whose work drew upon immigrant experiences of marginality and transformation. This changing of the guard led some to predict “the end of the American Jewish novel.” But reports of its death were premature, as younger generations of Jewish writers in English appeared whose work imagined Jewish identity severed from immigration but connected to religious sources. Russian Jewish immigration contributed significantly to this revival, as did the writings of native-born American Jews. Together they have amplified and complicated a debate regarding Jewish American identity in part by making it the subject of their literature.
Jewishness came to lodge at intersections, within interactions. It has appeared through dialogue and consciousness. The explosion of memoir writing among American Jews has informed literary representations of identity. Both individual and collective have been understood as composed of multiple identifications that disrupt an earlier narrative of assimilation and Americanization. Writers from an Ashkenazi background replaced metaphors of exile with those of homeland and have specifically challenged Israel’s claim to be a home for American Jews. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral (1997) on the one hand affirmed at-homeness while his Operation Shylock (1993) used American tropes of self-invention to characterize Israel’s possibilities. Yet Roth always managed to write novels that spoke simultaneously to American and Jewish audiences. Writers drawing upon Sephardi backgrounds described multiple layers of identities through time and space. There was no homeland for André Aciman in the past, present, or future. In his account of three generations of family life in Alexandria, Out of Egypt (1994), there is only a constant sense of simultaneous displacements. His Jew was an outsider, a hidden condition, a palimpsest of past identities that included Christian conversos and Arab “others.”21
Increasingly accessible memories of the Holocaust influenced American writers’ choices in language and imagery. Holocaust memoirs and fiction blended genres of Jewish and American writing, intersecting with such themes as memory, sexuality, family, and ritual. Many fiction writers, unlike the memoir authors, chose not to recreate experiences of the Shoah but rather to deal with the world of survivors. Another cluster of writers, including Melvin Bukiet and Thane Rosenbaum, wrote what might be considered Holocaust-inflected fiction that resonated with consciousness of the Holocaust, but these writers approached it indirectly. Their task, Emily Budick has argued, in part seemed to be to craft a Jewish American literary tradition distinct from other American and ethnic writing as well as Jewish literature written in other languages.22 A spectrum of writers, ranging from elite to popular, shared common concerns though they wrote in different styles for diverse audiences. Family sagas and detective fiction, for example, often explored similar Jewish themes despite their varied forms. Women writers particularly embedded reverberations of the Holocaust in stories also marked by feminism and civil rights politics.
Religious Jews appeared as characters in all forms of prose, from historical novels to mysteries. Unlike earlier, often negative images of Orthodox Jews, these portraits were diverse, complicated, and at times humorous. In fact, a new era of Jewish American writing appeared that explored religious issues, traditional texts, and theological questions. Such writers as Tova Reich, Rebecca Goldstein, and Nathan Englander explored tensions between secularism and Jewish religious traditionalism. Their writing, like that of Allegra Goodman in Kaaterskill Falls (1998), lacked much of the angst associated with earlier generations’ Jewish American fiction. Characters that people narratives of the 1990s appear comfortable with traditional Jewish life even if they push against its restrictions.23
Although feminism swept across the world, it registered first in the United States and most forcefully in prose. Jewish women writers attacked negative stereotypes of Jewish women, including the overbearing Jewish mother and the self-indulgent Jewish daughter, often nicknamed the Jewish American Princess (JAP). Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying (1973) represents an early example that achieved celebrity and helped to redefine popular fiction through its heroine who flaunts her sexuality, expresses her professional aspirations, and questions women’s roles in marriage as wife and mother. Yet Jewish writers also contested the celebration of a new Jewish womanhood. Prose fiction often included explorations of gendered relationships and exploitation of children by parents within the hothouse of the Jewish family. Sexuality itself became a subject of Jewish writing.
Writers in South America shared some common themes with Jewish writers in the United States, including an interest in immigration and acculturation and the impact of the Holocaust experienced from a distance. But they also participated in the turn to magical realism that swept the continent. Issues of Jewish identity in multicultural societies such as Brazil and Argentina registered in debates about defining Jewish writing when it did not directly reference Jewish traditions or themes. Since the late 1970s, controversy has raged over the degree to which Clarice Lispector, a Brazilian novelist and short-story writer, could be considered a Jewish writer. Some have suggested that a position of “outsiders within” characterizes Jewish alterity in Latin America, a profoundly Catholic world but also one that is multiethnic and multiracial.24
Since 1973, Jewish writers have been fixtures in Latin American literature, achieving previously unimagined recognition and acceptance. Experiences of living as a religious and cultural minority in predominantly Catholic societies achieved centrality in their work. The children and grandchildren of Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe to Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, and other countries have produced a plethora of prose fiction in addition to memoirs, plays, and poetry. In Argentina, the country with the largest concentration of Jews in the southern hemisphere, the trauma of the terrorist bombings—first of the Israeli Embassy in 1992 and then of the Jewish Community Center, known as AMIA, in 1994, which killed more than eighty people—amplified their voices. Despite the pressures of these traumatic events, contemporary affairs did not preoccupy Argentinean Jewish authors. Instead, the leitmotif unifying them has been a search for memory in a landscape where Jewish culture doesn’t always fit comfortably. Other important topics for Latin American Jewish writers include Zionism and a connection with the State of Israel, as well as issues of political repression, the Holocaust, exile, and loyalty to a homeland, a language, and a shared past. In Mexico, a quartet of women writers has written about Sephardi life, mysticism, and conversos in the colonial period. The scholar and writer Ilan Stavans has helped to internationalize Jewish–Latin American writing, drawing connections across previously firm boundaries. Indeed, thanks in part to a vibrant cadre of Jewish–Latin American writers not just in Argentina and Mexico but also in Brazil, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela, the region’s Jewish culture is perceived to be less monolithic, more heterogeneous, and even more elastic than it appeared to be after World War II.
The year 1992 marked the five-hundredth anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula. Worldwide attention to the event helped to raise Jewish consciousness regarding the significance of Sephardi and Mizrahi identity. Hegemonic Ashkenazi influence, the result of massive immigration from the Pale of Settlement to North America at the end of the nineteenth century and in the first third of the twentieth, began to crumble. The dawn of the age of multiculturalism in the United States, and the maturity of the Mizrahi community in France, Turkey, England, Greece, Canada, and Latin America, have made space for an array of new Sephardi voices whose progenitors were not seen immediately after the Yom Kippur War. In such major Western languages as English, Spanish, French, and Portuguese, novelists and memoir writers have published books exploring continuities with Spanish Jewry. Danilo Kis in the former Yugoslavia has used a Borgesian style to deal with communism’s legacy in his country; Morris Farhi has collected interrelated stories about, among other topics, the Holocaust in Turkey; Edmond Jabès has produced in French a literature of mystical reflection; Ruth Knafo Setton has written a novel in English about Jews in Moroccan history; and A. B. Yehoshua has used fiction to meditate on the Sephardi and Mizrahi genealogical trees and the way they insert themselves in contemporary Israeli society. For years Sephardi literature was considered tangential to Jewish culture. But the new trend has left a deep mark and in so doing, has renewed a global Jewish identity.25
Issues of oppression dominated Jewish fiction in countries with histories of persecution and racism such as Germany and South Africa. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the apartheid government in 1990, Jewish writers increasingly felt compelled to explore questions of memory and responsibility in their past and their relationship to Jewishness. In these fictions, repressed emotions returned to haunt protagonists years after the events occurred. Both Elfriede Jelinek and Nadine Gordimer wrote novels that brought acclaim to their countries and inspired their countrymen to see these authors as representative literary figures, not as Jewish writers.
Displacement and persecution, long a staple of Jewish family sagas, now appeared typical of an entire generation. The life story of survivors of atrocities, of oppression and persecution, resonated beyond Jewish boundaries. Jewish writing reemerged as a constitutive element of European culture as the reality of Europe as both a space and a concept took shape through the political and economic changes wrought through the European Union.26
Whereas Jewish themes in literature and art were not officially prohibited in the Soviet Union, state-controlled publishers, editors, theater directors, and art curators certainly did not welcome these topics. Each work that dared to challenge that unspoken taboo was received with great interest. The Moscow Yiddish monthly magazine Sovietish heymland (Soviet Homeland) turned militantly anti-Israel, following the general ideological trend in these years. Although some of its best contributors emigrated or died, as did many of its readers, it published valuable works of fiction, poetry, and scholarship until it folded in 1996.27 The liberalization of Soviet ideological policy under Gorbachev softened its hard-line communist and anti-Zionist stand and the magazine began to address such previously forbidden issues as the persecution of Jewish culture under Stalin, noncommunist Yiddish culture abroad, Jewish religious practices, and Jewish history. The editor in chief, Aron Vergelis, offered the pages of his magazine to young contributors and tried to promote Yiddish culture in Russian.
The new policy of Perestroika lifted many ideological barriers, including the “Jewish” one. Jewish history, religion, antisemitism, and emigration became popular themes that could attract more readers and foreign sponsors. The first Russian Jewish magazine, Vestnik evreiskoi kul’tury (Herald of Jewish Culture; 1989–1991), was launched in Riga with a circulation of 60,000 copies but closed down when Latvia became independent. Mainstream Russian media and the publishing industry demonstrated considerable interest in various aspects of Jewish culture, introducing a wide Russian audience to works by Israeli, American, and Russian Jewish authors. In Israel, Russian immigrants produced a lively and multifaceted Russian culture. Two Israeli Russian authors, Dina Rubina and Igor Guberman, achieved renown across the entire Russian Jewish Diaspora as well as in Russia, where their works are on best-seller lists.
The postmodern emphasis on subjectivity stimulated a turn to memoir writing among Jews throughout the world. Interest in the experience of minorities fueled a willingness of many writers to write in the first person. Often their work transgressed boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, politics and autobiography. This new style of collage was read as expressive not only of individual subjectivity but also of collective experience. Yet personal truths were often imagined and shaped by literary demands. The hunger for such accounts produced occasional spectacular frauds, such as the false memoir by Binjamin Wilkomirski (1996) on experiences of a childhood survivor of the Holocaust. Other writers in diverse languages specifically adopted the voices of their parents, writing their memoirs through an imagined intimacy. The poet Marjorie Agosín, in A Cross and a Star (1995) for example, wrote about growing up in Chile through the perspectives of her mother and father. It is as if the individual story is incomplete and can be known only through other family members. Such concerns increasingly characterized Israeli writers as well, who sought through memoir to know their parents’ past. Amos Oz’s Tale of Love and Darkness (2002) preeminently exemplifies this trend. The “second generation,” the children of survivors, also wrote accounts in their own and in their parents’ voices as a means to connect to that past.
Among English-speaking Jews throughout the world, political and personal writing, especially in the form of memoirs, experienced a boom. Sometimes the intersection of the personal and political brought extended power to first-person accounts. Although feminism initially argued that the personal was political, Jewish writing in English included points of view ranging from neo-Conservative through radical lesbian. At times, Jewish versions of universal experiences, including coming of age, migration, dislocation, and death, spoke to broad audiences who sought ways, in specific accounts, to understand contemporary society. At other times Jewish experiences of extreme suffering, as in Holocaust memoirs, tried to make the inaccessible understandable. Among the latter, Nechama Tec’s Dry Tears (1982) introduced a new form of survivor account of an entire Polish Jewish family that successfully hid from the Nazis during the war years. Similarly, Ruth Klüger’s Still Alive (1992) complicated the account of survival in its stark portrait of mother–daughter conflict.
Since the 1970s, children’s literature has experienced a tremendous boom. Publishers have flocked to publish books catering to children of all ages, from picture books for young children who cannot read, to storybooks for school-age children, to an entire new genre of young adult volumes. Jewish themes, usually biblical or holiday-based or historical, focusing on immigration or the Holocaust, attracted audiences beyond Jews in the United States. Popular Jewish children’s books not only won awards but also introduced young Americans to Jewish characters and Jewish ethical issues. Translations of classic American stories into Yiddish, as well as translations of Hebrew books into English, brokered cross-cultural exchange.
In Israel, publishing policy, even of the publishing houses of the labor parties, reflected a commercial basis in its broadest sense. Books were chosen for publication either because they were believed to be valuable, or saleable, or both. Hebrew children’s literature included both popular and high literature. The range of topics covered by children’s literature expanded greatly, responding to increasing commercialization and intersection with both European and American children’s literatures. Instead of an earlier, almost exclusive focus on realistic fiction about the history of the Jewish people and Israeli history and life, a door opened to themes from the private sphere that had previously been shunned, such as first love, friendship, parent–child relations, children’s adventures, death in war, death of family members, divorce, and family crisis in general. However, when describing the group or community, books concentrated on a child’s point of view, her fears and desires.
The phenomenon of crossover, blurring distinctions between popular and elite modes of culture, flourished in music, another genre with a rich and extensive Jewish history. In the United States, Jewish music became a growth industry, with more than 2,000 recordings available and some 250 new releases each year. Within Israel, cosmopolitan trends and Mizrahi songs conquered rock and popular music alongside a strong continuing practice of gathering to sing typical Israeli songs. Naomi Shemer’s songs, among others, served as variations on a national anthem, uniting diverse Israelis. Many poems drawn from Israeli literature were set to music as lyrics to popular songs. Although “the cultural power of popular music,” notes Motti Regev, resides less in its lyrics than in its “overall sonic” power, transformations of poems into song lyrics reached a wide audience. A number of Israeli singers who succeeded in Europe and the United States, such as Chava
In the United States, klezmer moved to the top of popular Jewish music charts, viewed by many in the music industry as a category of world music. The rediscovery and reinvention of klezmer drew sustenance from its position as a representative expression of Ashkenazi Yiddish culture and perceptions that it dissented from Zionism, reclaiming an elusive Diaspora consciousness. Enthusiasm for klezmer and its success in the 1990s stimulated the growth of alternative Jewish musics; it inspired singers and musicians of Ladino music to seek to emulate klezmer. In Europe, klezmer catalyzed many non-Jewish musicians to adopt the style, and large klezmer festivals flourished there. Israeli singers occasionally conquered the continent through victories in Eurovision competitions.
As recognizably and identifiably Jewish music attracted attention and crowds, secular popular artists reciprocated, referencing their own Jewish identity in their music with increasing frequency. John Zorn, who began his career as a member of the Lounge Lizards, turned to new Jewish music as a composer, performer, and producer, even developing an alternative site in downtown Manhattan for concerts. At the end of the twentieth century, rap music, often produced by Jews, attracted Jewish performers. The creation of new Jewish labels, such as Zorn’s Tzadik and Aaron Bisman and Jacob Harris’s JDub, promoted forms of fusion including jazz, hip-hop, reggae, and New Wave klezmer.28 Similarly, growing awareness of the appeal of Jewish music not only stimulated such Jewish popular artists as Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Mandy Patinkin to record Jewish songs but also led to the Milken project to produce a fifty-CD set of
Crossover possibilities appeared as well in synagogue compositions that employed techniques associated with folk, popular, rock, and classical modes. Men and women affiliated with all forms of Jewish religious life—Orthodox, Hasidic, renewal, Reform, and Conservative—participated in making Jewish music. Sometimes singers and composers discovered audiences in concert halls and on stage and then were adopted by congregations. At other times, the reverse occurred. Feminism made its mark in hazzanut as women entered the ranks of cantors. Debbie Friedman’s extensive output of songs reached more than Reform congregations, their original intended audience. Through summer camps and such innovations as the Women’s Seder, her music traveled throughout the United States. Hasidic music similarly went mainstream through recordings, especially of the popular Shlomo Carlebach. He moved liturgical music out of the synagogue and
Major Jewish composers, such as Leonard Bernstein, incorporated Jewish themes into classical pieces, as the Yvarekhekha within his Concerto for Orchestra (1986). But he also wrote a Requiem as well as a Kaddish, exploring both Christian and Jewish modes of musical expression to memorialize the dead. Among a generation of composers associated with minimalism, Steve Reich consistently explored issues that related to his Jewish identity, from echoes of the Holocaust in his Different Trains (1989), to an explicit setting of psalms, Tehillim (1981), to the shared heritage of Muslims and Jews, The Cave (1993), the latter in collaboration with his wife, Beryl Korot, a video artist. His music embraced not only Western-style classical composition but also vernacular and non-Western harmonies and rhythms. From Argentina, Osvaldo Golijov moved to Israel and then to the
Rock music proved particularly amenable to national variations. Although developed and marketed around the globe by the United States, as Nissim Calderon observes in The Second Day: Rock-Texts and Poetry in Israel 1985–2006, wherever indigenous performers adopted it, they modified its attributes. The rocker created a persona, someone who wrote both lyrics and music, as well as performed them. In Israel after the first Lebanon War, rock provided a vehicle to emphasize individualism and criticism of government policies. Rock also expressed a plurality of cultures within Israel, with bands blending Moroccan and Russian, or Middle Eastern and Ethiopian music. Recently many religious elements have been incorporated into it. In the United States, Orthodox rock bands have attracted substantial crowds, bringing a kind of kosher popular music to young people. In France, with a wave of religious revival, rock stars have used their music to proclaim their
As was the case with rock music, movies extended their reach around the globe. Increasingly, the United States has dominated motion picture production. But in the years since 1973 Jewish directors have used film as a potent agent of self-expression, including autobiography. They have engaged such issues as identity, commenting on Jewish–non-Jewish relations and the process of forming collective memory. In addition, they have explored the value of tradition in a rapidly changing contemporary society and relationships of Jews with other ethnic and minority groups. Digital technology, which has allowed for low-budget productions, has encouraged more first-person documentaries. In these movies, filmmakers have seized the opportunity to examine personal histories, thus enhancing the creation of many alternative Jewish memories. Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business (1996) exemplifies this trend. Its tough confrontation between father and son dramatically
Starting in the late 1960s, a cluster of Jewish filmmakers, including Woody Allen, Paul Mazursky, Barry Levinson, Mel Brooks, Sidney Lumet, and Steven Spielberg, emerged on the scene with movies that featured semi-autobiographical issues. Questions of faith, identity, social acceptance, and occasionally childhood experiences appeared on screen, often inflected by nostalgia. Jewishness served as a prism to reflect upon universal concerns, illuminating both. Filmmakers deftly identified Jewish attributes with American settings, melding American and Jewish. Comedy particularly provided a vehicle to portray inner insecurities of Jews as well as to lampoon and mock non-Jewish culture. Jewish filmmakers became more assertive about their identity and the social position of Jews in the United States. Among the films that marked this trend was Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were (1974). That movie dramatized a love story between a Jewish radical woman from
Films have been instrumental in establishing the central place of the Holocaust in popular consciousness. In the United States, from the TV mini-series Holocaust (1979) to Schindler’s List (1993), movies have brought the experience of Jewish suffering to the screen in terms that have awakened each generation to its moral dilemmas. These American movies attempted to reconstruct the events of the mass murder of European Jews using melodrama and often succeeded in awakening a new generation to the reality of the Holocaust. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Holocaust also was a dominant subject in the Academy Awards for best documentary, ensuring that its historical dimensions received wide recognition. These documentaries featured such subjects as hidden children (e.g., Anne Frank), and the Nazi official Klaus Barbie who sent thousands to their deaths. In addition, films on the Shoah regularly won the prize for best foreign
Israeli cinema responded to the Shoah largely by focusing on survivors. In the years after 1973, Israeli films moved away from previous portraits of survivors that had emphasized their need to adapt and change to resemble Sabras. Instead, movies imagined the Israeli–survivor encounter as one requiring the former to come to terms with survivors and to recognize the Jewishness that both shared. Amos Gitai’s Kedma (2002) is perhaps the best example. The film looks at a critical moment in Israeli history—the arrival of Holocaust survivors in 1948 at the birth of the state—but focuses on their interaction with Palestinians who are fleeing their homes. Thus the movie portrays tensions of displacement and homelessness rather than any theme of triumphant return and rebirth. Documentary testimonies of Holocaust survivors played a significant role in keeping the memory of the Shoah alive in Israel.30
Dealing with Holocaust survivors represented only one aspect of opening up film to diverse stories. Among the new subjects were Orthodox Jews, often portrayed sympathetically even as movies revealed the complexity of their lives. Unlike literature, cinema largely started to present an alternative narrative to Zionist history only in the years after the first Lebanon War. Films substituted Mizrahi men and women, Ashkenazi women, Arab men, homosexuals, and anti-heroes for the Sabra male protagonist hero. Similarly, movies portrayed stories of Israeli minorities, exploring their situation. But in many cases these films did not give voice to the perspectives of the minorities, instead expressing the point of view of their often left-wing directors. In the 1990s, documentaries appeared that discovered the voice of minorities, followed by feature films that let them speak in and on their own terms. Simultaneously, feature films have veered away from politics, preferring to dramatize
Interest in and recognition of Jewish visual culture accelerated in the years following 1973. As the number of Jewish museums increased, so did exhibitions on Jewish artists and on visual representations of Jewish themes. In the United States, Europe, and Israel, Jewish visual culture occupied expanding spaces of popular consciousness. Landmark exhibitions drew crowds eager to understand and appreciate Jewish artists, representations of Jews in art, and Jewish visuality. These exhibits often strove to summarize Jewish experience, such as The Jewish Experience in Art (The Jewish Museum in New York; 1984), which focused on the Holocaust and immigration. Some exhibits even interrogated the possibility of Jewish art, such as the 1996 American exhibit Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities (The Jewish Museum in New York). The question of whether it was possible to make Jewish art and what that art consisted of
Yet despite these worldwide trends, local interests often influenced artists. Thus feminism exerted more impact in the United States than in Israel, while politics engaged artists more often in Israel than in Europe. Profound events in Israel rarely registered in the art of non-Israeli artists; similarly, Israeli artists rarely responded to global events, such as the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the attack on the World Trade Towers on September 11, 2001. Throughout the world, Jewish ritual practice and canonical texts, however, inspired artists. A form of visual midrash developed that commented upon and interpreted Jewish religion from contemporary perspectives. For example, Helène Aylon’s The Liberation of G-d (1990–96) takes the text of Torah to present places on multiple parchment pages where words denigrate women or where women are silenced. She then hangs these pages on the walls.
Israeli art can be viewed through the prism of a handful of key exhibits in the 1980s, 1990s, and early years of the twenty-first century that used political questions as their organizing principles. However, this approach diminishes the significance of abstract nonfigurative art, a genre that continued in Israel. Several exhibits challenged accepted concepts of Israeli culture. One dealt with wandering, thus questioning the centrality of territory. Another explored labor, contrasting idealized images of Hebrew workers with those of contemporary foreign employees. Yet a third explored the rise and fall of the kibbutz ideal, while a fourth demythologized the Sabra image and orientalism, so central to Israeli art in the pre-state decades. Similarly, an exhibit on the image of leaders followed changes of leadership in Israel. Lastly, an exhibit on women portrayed a new consciousness of body, sexuality, and women’s identity. Even the centrality of the second commandment not to make
In the Diaspora, other questions confronted Jewish artists, most especially over the definition of what made the work of Jewish artists Jewish. Thus Jewish visual art outside the State of Israel tends to depend more on certain common themes as unifying principles. These include an ever-present consciousness of the Holocaust, the significance of home and homelessness, as well as contemporary personal visions of Jewish identity as individual and collective. The painter R. B. Kitaj went so far as to publish a Diaspora manifesto, and then to publish a second one articulating how his work, and conceivably the work of other Jewish Diaspora artists, engaged fundamental elements of Jewish existence. Biblical themes also inspired artists, especially in Latin America. In a field with large numbers of Jews, such as photography, representations of Jewishness often focused on the family as a locus of Jewish identity. Thus Nan Goldin’s portraits of herself embed Jewishness in the highly
In architecture. a new aesthetic of conspicuous consumption emerged in Israel in the latter decades of the twentieth century. This accompanied a trend of postmodernism in both public and private building. At the same time, greater appreciation for old buildings and their historic significance took hold, leading to preservation efforts. The recognition of Tel Aviv by the United Nations as the “White City” for its modernist architecture encouraged a new consciousness toward the Jewish built environment. National parks expressed awareness of the significance of landscape in Jewish culture and its past meanings, especially in connection with the Bible and Jewish history. In some cases, this interest led to a judaizing of the landscape and erasure of experiences of other peoples who also dwelled in the land.
Outside Israel, Jewish architects most often dealt with Jewish themes through memorials to the Holocaust. Several major Holocaust museums were constructed, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum designed by James Ingo Freed in Washington, D.C. (1993), and the Jewish Museum designed by Daniel Libeskind in Berlin (2001). Whether constructing museums or monuments, Jewish architects sought to inscribe memory on the landscape of countries such as Germany that had perpetrated the murder of Jews. In the United States, which during World War II played contradictory roles in relation to rescuing Jews from persecution, memorials often focused on themes of suffering and evil. Ironically, synagogues, the most explicitly Jewish building, often were not built and designed by Jewish architects in this period except in Israel, although Jewish architects in the United States accepted commissions to design arks or sculpture for synagogue interiors. The Lubavitch Hasidic outreach
Performance art, including theater, dance, and other forms of expressive staged behavior, gave Jews opportunities to portray varied dimensions of Jewish personas. Jewish performers translated Jewishness into a variety of domains, paying attention to speech and gesture, as well as to issues of identity politics common to other creative fields. As in the realm of visual art, performance art responded to local concerns, reflecting an intimacy between performer and audience. Still, certain issues transcended the local and allowed Jewish performers to take their shows on the road, crossing oceans and languages.
Dance traveled most easily since it was less dependent on words, and attained particular significance as a Jewish art form in the United States and Israel. In modern dance, Jewish performers and choreographers interpreted prayer and passion, suffering and transformation, extending the language of Jewish creativity to include movement. Building upon the work of earlier dancers, contemporary Jewish performers incorporated dance into the realm of drama, telling stories through mixtures of music and gesture. They also explored the classical Jewish questions of seeking and searching, drawing upon a common vocabulary of movement pioneered by such figures as Jerome Robbins and Anna Sokolow. Certain themes above others attracted American Jewish choreographers. Both Sokolow and Meredith Monk, for example, composed pieces on the theme of Ellis Island, invoking the immigrant transit station as a metaphor for American Jewishness. Robbins, in Dybbuk (1974)
Such politicization characterized many theater performances in Israel throughout the decades, accompanied by an intensive focus on the trauma of the Holocaust and internal conflict between Jews and Palestinians. Yehoshua Sobol’s Ghetto (1984) reconstructed the attempt to create a theater in the Vilna ghetto based upon diaries that had survived the war. It played to packed houses throughout Israel. Dramatists also drew up an indictment of the older generation that had led the country into the Yom Kippur War. Most famously, Sobol’s The Night of the Twentieth (1976) sought to settle accounts. Set in 1920, the play exposes debates of young pioneers trying to decide whether to redeem humanity or fulfill the Zionist dream. In the theater, the issue of the Holocaust was integrated into a questioning of Israeli society. “Charlie KaCharlie” by Danny Horowitz (1978) connects an Arab character resembling a scarecrow, a Nazi
The relationship of Jews and Arabs dominated issues explored in Israeli theater. Dramatists used Arab characters as a tool to criticize Israeli policy toward Palestinians. This trend began with an adaptation of A. B. Yehoshua’s The Lover (1977). By the 1990s, most of the theatrical repertoire focused on the Arab question in Israeli society spurred by the first war in Lebanon and the first Intifada. More than one hundred plays dealt directly or indirectly with the Arab–Israeli conflict. Large numbers of Israelis attended these performances. The desire of the playwrights to seek the end of the conflict is reflected in portrayals of Arabs in a positive light. Yet darker elements lurk beneath the surface. The tendency for these plays to end on an unhappy note undercut optimistic hopes for peace. Like many movies, the plays reflected desires for a peaceful solution to endemic conflict but concluded with the impossibility of such a solution. These
Feminist consciousness and activism, especially in relation to sexual harassment, violence against women, and inequality, filtered into Israeli theater and contributed to the ways in which women were depicted. Beginning in the early 1980s, women tried to combat stereotypes. Among their strategies were their attempts to rewrite women’s roles in Jewish and Israeli myths. Women’s theater created an opposition to mainstream male writing with the latter’s well-developed stage, sophisticated scenery, and elaborate plots. Women substituted episodic forms and “poor theater,” using bare stages, inadequate lighting, minimal props, and simple costumes.
In the early 1970s, Mizrahi characters in the theater, as in Israeli film, were presented largely as stereotypes. But this changed in subsequent decades. While Mizrahi figures in film and theater usually appeared in love stories, in film these relationships had happy endings while in the theater they were doomed. Mizrahi playwrights tended to portray experiences drawn from their own lives. The Scapegoat (1983), an adaptation of a novel by Eli Amir, is an autobiographical story of the crisis of immigration of a Mizrahi boy in Israeli society. Following the creation of the Shas political party that linked Mizrahi culture with Jewish religion in politics, many plays also included religious Mizrahi characters. By the turn of the century new minorities, especially Russian and Ethiopian immigrants, appeared in theater and film. Russian immigrants initiated the Gesher theater, originally presenting plays in Russian but quickly turning to Hebrew even
Theater dealing with Jewish issues in English rarely resembled Israeli drama. Such playwrights as Wendy Wasserstein, Neil Simon, and Tony Kushner often used pointed comedy to depict Jewish characters. Their work explored universal themes of women’s inequality, family demands, homosexuality, oppression, and the nature of evil. Other playwrights, such as Arthur Miller, tackled the moral complexities of the Holocaust, framing its questions in terms of individual responsibility rather than collective norms. In these plays, family occupied center stage, its dramas and tensions representing larger social issues and concerns. Several Jewish playwrights also dealt with the relationships of Jews and African Americans. Conflicts between two minorities of unequal class position generated both humor and drama. Alfred Uhry’s Driving Miss Daisy (1987) brought to the stage the southern Jewish experience, considered exotic by many American Jews. British
“Alongside long-established modes of Jewish cultural practices,” as Jeffrey Shandler has observed, “another Jewish way of life centered on an extensive array of popular culture has flourished in the past decades. This includes engagement with mass media (advertising, design, comics, cartoons, radio and television), leisure activities (sports, games, attending museums, comedy clubs), and the aesthetics of daily life (cooking, fashion, collecting curios, surfing the Internet).” These phenomena, neither as adventitious nor trivial, “irrelevant or even inimical to the essence of Jewish life” in the twentieth century, should not be dismissed. As Shandler, an eminent scholar of popular culture, has argued, “not only have these forms of popular expression become some of the most commonly practiced and widely known examples of Jewish culture, but they also constitute fundamentally new ways of realizing Jewishness individually and communally. In addition,
In Israel, popular culture burgeoned in the 1970s as the new journalism was imported from the United States. Such subjects as health, leisure time, and cooking, as well as the experiences of the “person in the street,” received attention in print and on radio. Talk radio spread these popular forms to television, especially after a second national channel was added. With multichannel TV, American programs flooded the Israeli market and the collective experience ceased to be specifically Israeli and Jewish and became more global and pluralist. Significantly, global programming included a number of American Jews who produced, starred in, and directed television shows. Among these were such figures as the comic Jerry Seinfeld. Instead of one source of entertainment and information, there were multiple sources and many choices; instead of one version of Jewishness identified as Israeli, diverse expressions of Jewishness—including many created in the United States—appeared.
In the last decade of the century, leisure culture expanded exponentially in Israel. Coffee houses, for example, became ubiquitous; shopping malls blossomed; and clubs acquired popularity as did nature parks and sports. Both the Americanization and diversity of Israeli culture were evident in food trends, which can be described as reflecting a cultural fusion, a type of melting pot blending all of the ethnic groups’ tastes. As Oz Almog describes it, Israelis produced and consumed a version of cuisine that combines “sushi with pita.” Symbolically, those ethnic groups whose food is not generally eaten, such as Ethiopians, remain marginalized from Israeli society.
Humor and stand-up comedy formed a central component of Israeli culture, which moved from clubs to television and back to clubs. Israeli comedy borrowed a style from such American figures as Seinfeld, focusing on small problems of existence and drawing on personal foibles to entertain. To this mix Israelis added a mockery of political correctness. This reflected a rejection of the type of serious political theater and art characteristic of an older generation. The young generation revealed multiple tendencies. Some revolted against the nationalist ideologies and preoccupations of their parents; others renewed commitments to nationalism. Some related more to global trends than to specifically Israeli issues, while others placed Israeli Jewish and religious concerns at the center of their existence. Their multiple perspectives reverberated at the turn of the century in literature and movies.
The heart of popular culture could be found in the United States, where endless variations of forms of entertainment multiplied with each new technological invention. In the last decades of the twentieth century not only television and radio, older vehicles of popular culture, but also Web sites and cartoons, sports and clothing, lent themselves to Jewish uses. Although rabbis might bemoan versions of “gastronomic Judaism,” scholars have increasingly recognized that food shapes identity. Despite difficulties in defining what constituted Jewish food, thoughtful writers of cookbooks pointed to the significance of migration in shaping Jewish culinary traditions as Jews carried local recipes with them into new environments. A product of history and geography, Jewish food generally is divided into Ashkenazi and Sephardi practices. Food, as cookbook writer Matthew Goodman observes, “carries the past within it, is in fact a kind of repository of a
At the turn of the century a new celebration of a Jewish embrace of popular culture emerged as young Jews looked back with affection at the conspicuous consumption of their teenage years. The lavish bar and bat mitzvah parties, so typical of American Jews growing up in the suburbs, now stimulated nostalgia for the excess of Jewishness they expressed. This appeal of popular cultural excess provided a path of legitimization for a younger generation. Bar Mitzvah Disco: The Music May Have Stopped but the Party’s Never Over captured the spirit of a generation in 2005 as The Jewish Catalog did in 1973. Jointly edited and composed of contributions by diverse individuals, both volumes fêted fresh perspectives often deemed outrageous but also typical of an era. The burgeoning Internet offered multiple opportunities for Jewish expression from Web sites that featured a daf yomi, a page of Talmud to
The explosion of Jewish popular culture reflects an experience of at-homeness in America’s public sphere. The act of inventorying Jewish celebrities, an enduring pastime among American Jews, became a form of ethnic affirmation as did television shows devoted to Christmas that pictured the ambivalences of Jewish characters during the holiday. Religious Jews increasingly adapted forms of American popular culture for their own uses. Thus Kosherland®, a Jewish board game, draws upon the model of a popular American children’s game. Orthodox Jewish boys could trade “Rebbe” cards. Such practices helped to Americanize the world of Orthodoxy even as they provided means to distinguish among different types of observant Jews.35
Television brought many types of Jewish characters to the small screen. Viewers met Jews in serious documentaries on the Jewish experience, such as Abba Eban’s Civilization and the Jews (1984), as well as in dramas, including the influential miniseries, Holocaust (1979). However, for daily fare, situation comedies involving Jews drew the largest audiences, especially by the 1990s. Initially these shows presented men involved with gentile women; later, Jewish women, for example in The Nanny, Will and Grace, and Friends, were prominent characters. However Seinfeld conquered the media above all, fabricating a comic world “derived from the persona that a star-comedian had developed on the stand-up stage,” as David Marc has noted.36 Initially
Tourism linked Israeli and world Jewish practices. Within Israel, increased leisure time led to more visits to national parks, where people were exposed to diverse historical and biblical sites as well as to nature reserves. For Jews living outside Israel, the entire country became a tourist destination. In the 1990s such American philanthropists as Michael Steinhardt harnessed the emotional impact of visiting Israel to further Jewish identification; he established Taglit Birthright, offering free ten-day trips to young Jews. Trips to Israel were promoted not only by philanthropists but also by social scientists, who connected Israel with a vibrant Jewish consciousness and called the country a force for Jewish continuity. The March of the Living dramatized the Zionist saga, taking teenagers first to visit the death camps in Poland and then to visit Israel, site of the Jewish people’s rebirth. Israeli youth also participated in the March of the Living; it enhanced their
Among the central intellectual debates in Israel have been those between the new and old historians on the subject of the Zionist narrative, between secular and religious philosophers on the meaning of the Holocaust and Jewish identity and history, and between nationalists and cosmopolitans on the significance of the land of Israel. The protagonists and topics in these debates often overlap. Despite the vigorous character of argumentation, there are no uniform divisions. Rather, these debates contribute to the pluralist character of Israeli Jewish culture.
In the beginning of the 1970s, a generation of historians emerged who analyzed the gap between myth and reality, between images and social processes. Academic thinkers such as Anita Shapira suggested complexities where the Zionist common narrative had previously been more uniformly shaped by the Labor movement. By the late 1980s, scholars such as Benny Morris and Uri Ram boldly portrayed Zionism as a movement constructed on the ruins of another people. Other historians condemned the military character of Israeli society and depicted Israeli culture as a tool of oppression of Mizrahi Jews and Palestinians. Consciousness of the suffering of Mizrahi Jews enhanced tendencies to perceive the subjective and constructed character of narratives. Mizrahi historians and intellectuals particularly expressed such views. Other cultural critics such as Nissim Calderon and Gadi Taub criticized Israeli society but also spoke about common denominators of Israeli
Critical perspectives on the Israeli state and society came to the fore during the last three decades of the twentieth century and moved from Israel gradually throughout the Jewish world. Columnists satirized current events and reporters did not shy away from controversial incidents in the Occupied Territories and in Israel. Social commentators, politicians, and scholars revisited and challenged conventional historical and social narratives such as those that valorized the Sabra, the justice of Israeli wars, and even the Bar Kochba revolt. At the same time, prominent intellectuals on the right propounded the importance of the land of Israel for Jews, its sacredness, and the long-standing Jewish connection with the land.
In France, revolutionary Maoist sentiments, which had been prevalent among French Jewish political thinkers in the 1970s, gave way to increasing attention to Jewish religion and Israel in the 1990s. There were multiple causes for these changes. Mass migrations of North African Jews to France doubled France’s Jewish population during this time. Attacks on Israel by French leaders, the increasing presence of Muslims in France, and the growing diversity of French society as a whole opened spaces for Jewish intellectuals who sought to define what it meant to be a Jew. Writings of Bernard-Henri Lévy, André Glucksmann, and Alain Finkielkraut considered the position of Jews as both insiders and outsiders within French society and, more broadly, as transnational agents of communication between many nations and societies. Intellectuals also drew upon Jewish sources to reflect upon philosophical issues, as Emmanuel Levinas did in his “confessional” writings on Talmud. Jacques Derrida, in
Jewish studies matured in the American academy in these years, bringing with it an expansion of historical scholarship on many areas of Jewish history, from such relatively new topics as American Jews to traditional ones as medieval Jews. American Jewish history particularly saw a large increase in scholarly publications in the 1990s. Irving Howe’s influential volume World of Our Fathers, published in 1976, marked the beginnings of an expansion of interest in Jewish immigration to the United States and the history of American Jews. It was not, as its author anticipated, its final word. Similarly, the 1978 publication of Barbara Myerhoff’s Number Our Days, a pioneering ethnographic study of elderly Jews in Venice, California, inspired young scholars to turn to the social sciences in subsequent decades. Both Howe’s history of Jewish immigration to the Lower East Side and Myerhoff’s ethnographic account of Jewish
Similar trends in Europe began in the 1980s, though practitioners of Jewish studies included many more non-Jews than in the United States. Interest in European Jewish studies often reflected desires to reclaim aspects of national history that had been erased from contemporary consciousness through the exclusion of Jews. Such studies thus served to complicate established narratives as well as to respond to increasing appreciation of Europe as a cultural community.
In Europe, Israel, and the United States, the Holocaust increasingly figured as a subject of scholarship that drew the attention of historians, literary scholars, cultural critics, philosophers, religious thinkers, and psychologists. The publication of The War against the Jews by Lucy Dawidowicz in 1975, while not the first history of the Holocaust, helped through its popularity to launch an expanded era of Holocaust studies, with contributions from scholars across a broad spectrum. Every few years another new piece of scholarship, by Jewish and non-Jewish writers, ignited fresh discussion. Among the more controversial were Robert Jay Lifton’s The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide, which appeared in 1986, and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, which was published in 1996. Other scholars, such as Yehuda
In decades characterized by extraordinary global religious ferment, feminism and women’s demands to be considered full-fledged Jews with equal responsibilities and opportunities to men produced the most significant changes in Jewish religious practices and beliefs. The impact of women’s desires for equality registered in theology, new rituals for girls (including widespread adoption of bat mitzvah among all religious streams), feminist midrash, and the rise of women as rabbis, cantors, and legal experts. All areas of Jewish religious life experienced change, including Orthodoxy. Jewish religious life at the start of the twenty-first century looked significantly different throughout the Diaspora due to the presence of women in public Jewish institutions. Yet parallel to feminism and the more liberal religious movements, conservative tendencies exerted widespread influence, encouraging a turn toward Jewish fundamentalism, part of a worldwide
Jews in the United States took the lead in initiating change in Jewish religion. Drawing upon the open framework of American society and its congenial marketplace of religion that accompanied its commitment to separation of church and state, Jews adopted increasingly diverse forms of practice. New religious movements flourished. On the one hand, the Jewish renewal movement drew upon innovations introduced by the Havurah movement of small, intimate, informal congregational groups and forms of neo-Hasidic spirituality. On the other hand, Chabad Hasidism adopted technological innovations to reach masses of Jews through video and television and sent shluchim (messengers) to university campuses and cities around the globe, adapting practices that resembled Mormon missionary techniques. Other religious movements became institutionalized, including Reconstructionist Judaism and Humanistic Judaism, the latter founded by Rabbi Sherwin Wine. The hallmarks of
In Israel, social and political structures supported diverse forms of Orthodox Judaism, underwriting an expansion of a network of yeshivas as well as growth of Hasidic and Haredi groups. Although Mizrahi spirituality also flourished with the continued power of local rabbis such as the Baba Sali, the political party of Shas assumed many aspects of religious authority, including supporting religious schools. The growth and entrenchment of Orthodoxy within Israel appeared in its intellectual, religious, and political expression on subjects confronting all Israelis. Enlarged education of women within Orthodox institutions stimulated a turn to writing literature on the part of some that attracted an audience of both religious and nonobservant Israelis.
Non-Orthodox religious diversity faced a difficult struggle to gain legitimacy within a framework of a state-supported Jewish religion. In the 1980s, the Conservative (Masorti) and Reform movements struggled to be accepted. Both liberal groups established branches of their rabbinical seminaries in Israel and both required rabbinical students to spend a year in Israel. Yet the non-Orthodox branches did not succeed in gaining formal recognition within Israel. Challenges to the rabbinical establishment on occasion came not only from the non-Orthodox, but also from Gush Emunim (Band of the Faithful), those Jews inspired to settle in the territories as sacred land. Right-wing religious rabbis issued mandates (piskei halakhah) that forbade Jews to withdraw from the 1967 Israeli borders. They increasingly drew on messianic terminology and recruited coreligionists in their militant efforts. Additional tensions appeared in the
In the late 1990s, several organizations appeared in Israel that sought to establish a dialogue between religious and secular Jews through journals, conferences, and schools. These stressed humanistic values. Fearing a Kulturkampf between religious and secular Jews, Tzav Piyyus (Call to Reconciliation) championed peace. However, in terms of practice, Jews of Mizrahi background often considered themselves traditional (masorati), which served to bridge a deeper divide between ideologically religious and secular Israelis. A small number of Orthodox Jews moved away from religion toward secularism, while some secular Jews rediscovered religion. This exchange between two cultures also found expression through the incorporation of traditional texts into popular and politicized forms, such as Chava Alberstein’s “Had Gadya” and Yair Rosenbloom’s “U’netane Tokef.”
The multiplicity of religious creativity became evident also in religious writing, the publication of new prayer books, including gender-neutral ones in English, and the extraordinary number of Haggadot produced each year. Hundreds were published in the United States alone in each decade. The Haggadah became a vehicle for interpretation of Judaism as a liberation movement, as a secular expression of freedom, as personal, political, and psychological. In the late 1990s Israeli Haggadot included secular texts emphasizing universal, humanistic values expressed in the Jewish tradition. In the United States, each of the three major Jewish religious streams adopted their own Humash (Readings of Torah and Haftorah) for Sabbath services.
Jews increasingly participated in trends toward wearing one’s faith on one’s sleeve, literally. Even nonreligious messages were conveyed in this manner. Types of kippot (yarmulkes) and their location on one’s head came to symbolize religious and political positions. Conversely, kippot were also used to broadcast personal secular interests, such as a favorite sport or sports team. Among collectibles and games this fusion of secular interests and ritual objects acquired new forms of popularity. Given Hanukah’s widespread observance in the United States, menorahs were reinterpreted by artists and commercial producers seeking to appeal to children. Thus imaginative silver menorahs shared space with football- or train-shaped menorahs on the shelves of stores and in Jewish homes.
Jewish mysticism, especially Kabbalah, acquired extraordinary popularity and reached across religious boundaries to attract a wide range of spiritual seekers due to a potent mix of American openness toward religious experimentation and Jewish spiritual leaders’ success in making accessible what had been esoteric. The embrace of Kabbalah by such film and music stars associated with Hollywood as Madonna transformed its rituals and theology as guidebooks to Jewish mystical practices proliferated. An outpouring of advertising and outreach in the United States, in part to combat rising numbers of intermarriages, drew all sorts of people to Judaism. Chabad pioneered in establishing outposts throughout the world in the 1960s but their numbers continued to multiply in the final decades of the century, even after the death of their rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who named no heir to lead the dynasty. Jewish mysticism also drew strength from the popularity of New Age religions and
Secular Jews also expanded their reach and range, seeking to institutionalize their forms of Judaism through synagogue networks and schools, as well as publications. Philanthropy continued to be an important component of Jewish identity in the Diaspora and increasingly found supporters within Israel, including among newly wealthy Russian Jewish immigrants.
As this introduction suggests, Jewish culture has flourished in many expressive forms during the last decades of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first century. Multiple perspectives coexist within the different languages of Jewish culture, especially Hebrew and English. Indeed, this very multiplicity characterizes the period as a distinct one in Jewish history. Some would contend that contemporary Jewish culture is rebellious and internally confrontational. Many works bear few distinguishing Jewish marks because Jews have often contributed as individuals to the cultures and societies of which they are a part. Instead, these universal works participate in a type of dialogue with more explicit Jewish texts, sometimes sharing common sensibilities and tensions, and other times standing in opposition. The opening of opportunities for Jewish expression to Jews from all backgrounds and the corresponding expansion of genres of Jewish creativity signify an
This introduction was written in collaboration with Oz Almog, Ilan Avisar, Ruth Eshel, Michal Friedman, Hannan Hever, Yoram Kirsh, Mark Kligman, Mikhail Krutikov, Anita Norich, Gideon Ofrat, Riv-Ellen Prell, Motti Regev, Haim Sa’adon, Anita Shapira, Ilan Stavans, Dan Urian, Ron Weidberg, and Benny Zifer.
8. Myrna Shinbaum, “Mobilizing America: The National Conference on Soviet Jewry,” in A Second Exodus: The American Movement to Free Soviet Jews, ed. Murray Friedman and Albert D. Chernin (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 1999), 161–68; Henry L. Feingold, “Silent No More”: Saving the Jews of Russia, the American Effort, 1967–1989 (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 2007).
9. Zvi Gitelman, “Soviet Jews: Creating a Cause and a Movement,” in A Second Exodus: The American Movement to Free Soviet Jews, ed. Murray Friedman and Albert D. Chernin (Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 1999), 72–81.
16. Hannan Hever and Moshe Ron, Veen tikhlah likeravot ulehereg: shirah politit bemilhemet Levanon [Fighting and Killing without End: Political Poetry in the War of Lebanon]; see also David Fishelov, “Shira matgrut magmut bshirat shanut 80” [Challenging Poetry: Israeli Poetry of the 80’s], Achshav/Now 67–68 (2002): 174–91; Achshav/Now 69–70 (2005): 146–69.
17. Shira Wolosky, “On Contemporary Literary Theory and Jewish American Poetics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, ed. Michael P. Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 250–68.
19. Yigal Schwartz, Mah she-ro’im mi-kan: sugyot ba-historyografyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘Ivrit ha-hadashah [What Can We See from Here: Topics in the Historiography of New Hebrew Literature] (Tel Aviv: Or Yehuda and Dvir, 2005).
20. Hannan Hever, Sifrut she-nikhtevet mi-kan: kitsur ha-sifrut ha-Yisr’elit [Literature That Is Written from Here: A Short Version of Israeli Literature] (Tel Aviv: Yediot Aharonot, Sifre Hemed, 1999).
21. “Identity Matters: Contemporary Jewish American Writing,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, ed. Michael P. Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 269–84.
22. Emily Miller Budick, “The Holocaust in the Jewish American Literary Imagination,” in The Cambridge Companion to Jewish American Literature, ed. Michael P. Kramer and Hana Wirth-Nesher (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 212–30.
33. Jeffrey Shandler, “American Jewish Popular Culture,” in From Haven to Home: 350 Years of Jewish Life in America, ed. Michael Grunberger (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress/George Braziller, 2004), 194–211, quotation on p. 195.
38. Yehuda Shenhav, The Arab Jews: A Post-colonial Reading of Nationalism, Religion, and Ethnicity (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2006); Yossi Yona and Yehuda Shenhav, Rav tarbutiyut mahi?: ‘al ha-politikah shel ha-shonut be-Yisra’el [What Is Multiculturalism: On the Politics of Difference in Israel] (Tel Aviv: Babel, 2005).
39. Thomas Nolden, “À la recherche du Judaïsme perdu: Contemporary Jewish Writing in France,” in Contemporary Jewish Writing in Europe: A Guide, ed. Vivian Liska and Thomas Nolden (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), 118–38.