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Jewish, Secular, and Popular

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Jewish, Secular, and Popular

By Ted Merwin

When was secular Jewish culture born in the United States? The short answer: later than most people think. While the seeds of secular Jewish culture were sown on the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the 20th century, Yiddish culture, in addition to being sealed off from the rest of American society, was essentially backward-looking. Built on nostalgia for the Old Country and its ways, it never freed itself from its European past.
Only in the period between the two world wars, when Jews began to join the mainstream of American society, could a viable, vigorous, non-religious Judaism finally begin to flower. When Jews became, in the words of historian Deborah Dash Moore, “at home in America,” could they be proudly Jewish and proudly American at the same time. The children of Jewish immigrants, in flight from their parents’ religion and traditional ways, sought to meld their American-ness and their Jewishness, to re-invent what it meant to be Jewish by shedding many of the stereotypes that had made Jews seem unfit for full participation in American society.
They did so, largely, through popular culture. Through English-language comic strips, popular song, vaudeville, theater and film—Jews remade their image in American society, and in so doing changed the ways in which they saw themselves as well. In other words, Jews developed a secular identity both in and through Jewish culture, through the very process of dramatizing their detachment from religious orthodoxy.
Not incidentally, the representations and images of Jews in popular entertainment reflected the patterns of New York Jewish life. In the 1920s, Jews made up more than a quarter of the overall population of New York City, and New York Jews still comprised about half of all the Jews in America. With the burst of prosperity that followed the First World War, they were also highly mobile, and their very social and economic mobility mirrored the flexibility of eye- and body-movement that was the hallmark of so many Jewish celebrities including Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, George Jessel, Al Jolson, and Sophie Tucker.
Their movement was threefold: Jews moved out of the Lower East Side, and into the newer Jewish neighborhoods in Harlem, the Bronx, and Brooklyn. They moved from the lower class into the lower middle class. And they moved away, in conceptual terms, from religious observance—no longer attending synagogue on a regular basis, keeping kosher, or even celebrating many Jewish festivals. A national audience followed these seismic shifts in Jewish life; they became essential themes of much of the popular culture of the day.
Yet even as Jews increased their visibility and developed non-religious forms of attachment to their heritage, they still lived mainly in the company of other Jews. In their memoirs of growing up in the Bronx and Brooklyn respectively, Kate Simon and Alfred Kazin both recall that they and their friends looked forward to going to the movies every Saturday. Saturday was set apart as a day of joy and recreation, and even as an occasion for group cohesion, but no longer in a religious sense.
The cinema (in addition, one must add, to the delicatessen) had indeed replaced the synagogue as the locus of Jewish life. As Kazin remembered, “On my right hand the ‘Stadium’ movie house—the sanctuary every Saturday afternoon of my childhood, the great dark place of all my dream life. On my left the little wooden synagogue… That poor worn synagogue could never in my affections compete with that movie house, whose very lounge looked and smelled to me like an Oriental temple.” At a time when Jews were still freeing themselves from exotic, “Oriental” associations, it was the world of silent film that took on mythic, larger-than-life dimensions in the popular imagination.
But in addition to consuming popular culture with their popcorn and soda, Jews also helped to create it. By the early years of the 20th century, historians have estimated, close to half of the entertainment business in New York was already in Jewish hands. Nevertheless, Jews were depicted on stage and screen in this early period as fiendish, money-hungry, clumsy villains. It was only in the 1920s that a large cadre of Jewish producers, actors, writers, and directors could begin to alter the portrayals of their own group, making them lifelike and sympathetic.
Dozens of Broadway plays and Hollywood films focused on Jewish families as they worked out—or failed to work out—conflicts between the generations, faced issues over intermarriage and relations with other ethnic groups, and explored the cost of ambition and personal success in pulling the individual away from the community.
Some of these plays and films incorporated Jewish ritual and references to Jewish religion, but the mezuzah was likely to be on the wrong side of the doorpost and the food not quite kosher. Religion was seen as outdated; the future lay with a Jewishness that could adapt itself to the times, creating new bonds between Jews not based on the performance of Jewish ritual.
Furthermore, the barriers between Jews and non-Jews were perceived as increasingly permeable. As Jews became more secular, non-Jews became more attracted to aspects of Jewish culture that now, freed from their religious baggage, seemed more available and accessible. The appetite of non-Jews for Jewish culture strengthened it, helping to support everything from Jewish food to Jewish film.
The changing depiction of Jewish life on stage and screen reinforced the movement of the Jewish audience in its growing embrace of secularization. We often take our cues from popular culture in terms of how to act and even how to think. The message that Jews received from popular culture was that the freedom and opportunity offered by America was one that left it to the individual to define his or her identity.
It has been often remarked that religious commitment tends to wane as an individual prospers economically. As Jews embarked on their legendary rise in America, most continued to define themselves in secular terms, by virtue of an ethnic identity rooted in culture rather than religion.  By the mid-20th century, a new generation of Jewish performers had taken center stage (or center screen)—Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Phil Silvers, to name just a few—all of whom continued in the footsteps of the Jewish entertainers of the 1920s, who had shown the country that you could celebrate and satirize your roots at the same time, and through this process of self-reflection, create a whole new form of Jewish identity.

Ted Merwin is the author of In Their Own Image: New York Jews in Jazz Age Popular Culture (Rutgers University Press, 2006). He is a part-time Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of The Milton B. Asbell Center for Jewish Life at Dickinson College.
The Explosion of Jewish Culture in an Age of Mass Media

By Deborah Dash Moore

In an era of rapid media expansion, when the concepts of “culture” and “Jewish” are both routinely challenged, it can be hard to decide what to include—and exclude—from an anthology of contemporary Jewish culture.
Take the question of food. Yes, there are laws of kashrut to observe, but, as Mathew Goodman notes, if we were to limit ourselves to foods produced by Jews throughout history “the menu would be a very short one indeed, scarcely sufficient for a single meal.” So, what happens if we “head in the opposite direction and declare Jewish food simply to be ‘food made by Jews’?" Goodman rejects that alternative as well: it would be too broad (it would include, after all, all those attracted to bacon and other pork products as a compulsive counterprejudice). Where does that leave us?
These were the types of riddles that Nurith Gertz and I wrestled with as editors of Volume X of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization. What lessons did we take from contemplating food? To avoid seeking Jewish essences or even internal similarities; to steer clear of Jewish religious prescriptions as sufficient explanations for culture; to resist accepting everything Jews do as part of Jewish culture; to reject style as an adequate alternative for cultural distinctiveness; and to not worry if much of what Jews produce resembles what non-Jews are also creating. Instead, we should pay attention to history and memory, to changing contexts and responses, as we try to identify Jewish cultural expressions in diverse new media.
Yet even with these guidelines, it is no easy task to decide what to include and what to exclude. Bringing to our discussions perspectives shaped by our different disciplines and geographies, we eventually agreed to contend that Jews make culture and make it Jewish in various ways. Our list includes language, production, references, reception, uses, debates, and performances. Such a relatively long list allowed us to pay attention to contexts and responses, history and memory, as well as more formalist dimensions of culture. We saw that the intersection of these features of language and references, uses and reception, performance and production, transformed cultural production by Jews into Jewish culture. We had to pay attention not only to the works themselves but also to the ways people, especially Jews, responded to these works.
We ended up with an anthology reflecting a broad understanding of culture that included high and low, elite and popular, folk and mass. Undoubtedly, we have missed many possibilities and another two editors would have made different choices. We do not shrink, however, from our commitment to feminism and desire to include women as well as men in our anthology. In addition, various exigencies that come from dealing either with living artists or recalcitrant estates will also shape the final product. (Not everyone, as one might imagine, wants to be included in a volume on Jewish civilization and culture.)
Our 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.
The dilemma of our 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. Thus the anthology seeks less to define what is Jewish than to suggest the breadth and depth of Jewish culture in the contemporary world. This means that 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 these debates, even if such authors and artists usually ignore Jewish topics.
So where did we end up? We took a number of well-established genres, such as that of literature, and expanded them. We recognized the explosion of titles in children's literature in this period and its growing significance as a means of transmitting and transforming Jewish culture. We also took cognizance of the flourishing of memoir writing among Jews. The first-person-singular account has occupied increasing space in Jewish cultural imagination, whether written by relatively unknown individuals or by famous men and women. In part this reflected the rise of feminism and its attitudes toward the personal; in part it demonstrated how much Jews were influenced by trends sweeping through contemporary Western culture; and in part it responded to the growth of social history and interest in experiences of ordinary women and men, a trend abetted by technology (tape recorders) and oral history interviews. Themes treated by Jews reached audiences of Jews and non-Jews alike.
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. 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. In an era of crossover, of mixing of styles and genres, of blending secular and sacred, popular and profound, elite and commercial, personal and political, the opportunities for Jewish expression have arguably never been greater.
Moreover, the corresponding expansion of genres of Jewish creativity signify an increasing blossoming of a democratic Jewish culture, responsive to the religious, social, or political life of the past.
Deborah Dash Moore is Professor of History at the University of Michigan and Director of the Jean and Samuel Frankel Center for Judaic Studies. An historian of American Jews, she focuses on the twentieth-century experience. She is the author of a trilogy titled At Home in America: Second Generation New York Jews (Columbia, 1981); GI Jews: How World War II Changed a Generation (Harvard, 2004); and To the Golden Cities: Pursuing the American Jewish Dream in Miami and L.A. (The Free Press, 1994). Together with Paula Hyman she edited Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (Routledge, 1997).
The Explosion of Jewish Culture in an Age of Mass Media” is adapted from a paper of the same name, originally presented by the author at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in August 2009. It was adapted with permission of the author.
A Public Course for Interdisciplinary Dialogue

By Sven-Erik Rose

When the Posen Foundation initiated its Grant Program in 2000, its aim was to support the development and teaching of interdisciplinary courses in Jewish secularization and Jewish history. The Posen Lectures in Modern Jewish Culture are part of that project.
The Posen Lectures spotlight the most current and engaging scholarship in Jewish secularization and Judaism as a culture. Held at Miami University of Ohio, esteemed scholars have shared the fruits of their research with the Oxford, OH community since 2008. In past years, speakers have included Naomi Seidman (Graduate Theological Seminary), Mark Raider (University of Cincinnati), Gabriella Safran (Stanford University), and Tony Michels (University of Wisconsin, Madison). In the coming year, the Posen Lectures will continue to offer a lectures at the cutting-edge of secular Jewish scholarship, including Anna Shternshis on Jewish counter-culture in the Soviet Union; Ethan Katz on Jewish/Muslim relations during the heyday of Parisian cafe culture; and Rachel Rubinstein on the making of Jewish American and Native American identities.
In spring 2008 I introduced an experimental format for the core Posen course at Miami University (Ohio), "Secular Jewish Culture from the Enlightenment to Zionism." The heart of the pedagogical experiment was to integrate the course with a six-part public lecture series (“Miami Posen Lectures in Modern Jewish Culture”). The lecture series, featuring internationally renowned scholars, was open to all—from entire other classes to any interested individuals in the Miami or surrounding community. Since inevitable time conflicts would make it impossible for many students to attend lectures outside of class time, I scheduled each lecture during a regular class meeting. The course met twice weekly for seventy-five minutes, which was perfect for a lecture followed by a Q & A period. On lecture days, my class was joined by a wider public, and frequently by one or more entire other classes. Miami’s interdisciplinary core course has listings in History, French, German, and Russian, and the lecture series spanned a wide range of fields and disciplines. Scholars whom we brought to campus the first year were Eran Kaplan, Julie Klein, Mark Raider, Naomi Seidman, and Lilliane Weissberg. The course structure provided students with a unique opportunity to familiarize themselves with the field of contemporary Jewish Studies through the prism of prominent scholars presenting their research. It also created numerous bridges and fostered conversation across the Humanities at Miami University and in the greater Oxford, Ohio community.
By inviting dynamic speakers and opening the lecture series to all, Miami’s Posen Project took up a position at a vital intersection of pedagogy and scholarly inquiry in the Humanities at Miami. Students and colleagues who never gave a thought to what Jewish Studies was, or what possible interest they could have in the field, took notice. For example, two different professors from Miami’s superb philosophy department brought their entire class to a Posen lecture. An introductory class taught by Pascal Massie visited Julie Klein’s Spinoza lecture, and a seminar on political philosophy taught by Emily Zakin attended a lecture I gave on the early Marx and “the Jewish Question.” A French Honors seminar on “the Natural and the Unnatural” taught by Claire Goldstein also attended Klein’s lecture (they were interested in Spinoza’s critique of prophesy and miracles), and Madelyn Detloff brought her Women's Studies/ English seminar on queer theory to Naomi Seidman's talk on secularization and sexuality in modern Jewish literature, and assigned work by Seidman in the seminar. Of course, whether another class can attend en masse is largely an accident of scheduling. Even when they could not bring a class, faculty from French, German, History, Italian, and Political Science attended, and encouraged their students to attend, Posen lectures. The series also drew some people from the Oxford and Cincinnati communities. Through initial contact with the “public course,” faculty and students were exposed to conversations taking place in Jewish Studies as a discipline, and the enthusiastic dialogues these talks inspired continued across Miami’s campus.
One might imagine that a course designed to dovetail with a lecture series by visiting speakers could limit how much the course, compared to a traditional survey, could cover. I did not find this to be the case. Even with a steady diet of outside speakers, the vast majority of classes remain “normal” classes, and I had ample time to study with my students a wide range of topics beyond those dealt with in lectures. And since each lecture examined a key aspect of secular Jewish culture, the tasks of preparing my students to be a competent audience for the lectures, and guiding them through our core survey, converged seamlessly. Yet, even as the course provided students with a wide survey, it had a decidedly different feel. Consistently, there was genuine excitement about preparing for the next speaker so that we would be able to understand and dialogue with his or her work.
The format productively narrows the gap between scholarship and teaching. Close exposure to inspired, active scholarship encourages students to engage energetically and daringly with the material. The scholars students see “doing” Jewish Studies are not custodians of canonical wisdom, but rather intellectual risk-takers actively trying to figure things out and rethink received ideas in light of current theoretical debates and methodological innovations. Intellectual energy is contagious, and each lecture inspired students in their own open-ended exploration of Jewish history and culture. In this way, the passion, care, curiosity—even the informed confusion—of active scholarship can authorize students’ own intellectual adventure.
All the speakers met with students more informally after class over lunch or coffee. Each student was required to write up a reaction to one lecture, to be shared with the entire class and the speaker; and most speakers were so generous as even to email the class a brief follow up in light of these student reactions. Students found themselves consistently engaged and challenged in positive and productive ways, and rated the course extremely highly.
When the “public course” was offered again in spring 2010, it engendered similar excitement, engagement, and cross-disciplinary dialogue. Ronald Schechter (College of William and Mary) kicked off the series with a lecture on the French Revolution and the Jews; Gabriella Safran (Stanford University) presented work on S. An-sky's The Dybbuk in its rich historical context(s); Tony Michels (University of Wisconsin, Madison) spoke on Chaim Zhitlovsky and the invention of yidishe kultur; Michael Meyer (Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati) explored the intricate relationships between religion secularity in the German-Jewish tradition of academic study of Jewish culture (Wissenschaft des Judentums); and Yaron Peleg (George Washington University), finally, took us through the politics of the male Jewish body as it figured in early Zionist literature.
There is already a great deal of excitement among my Miami colleagues working across the Humanities about the emerging spring 2011 Posen lectures, which will once again feature a stellar interdisciplinary lineup: Anna Shternshis (University of Toronto), Abigail Gillman (Boston University), Ethan Katz (University of Cincinnati), Todd Hasak-Lowy (University of Florida Gainesville), and Rachel Rubinstein (Hampshire College). As in the past, the lectures by these innovative scholars are sure to be invigorating intellectual events, and to create dynamic interdisciplinary pedagogical opportunities.
Sven-Erik Rose is Assistant Professor of French and Italian at Miami University of Ohio. He has taught a range of courses on Jewish literature and cultural history in Germany and France from the Enlightenment to the present. He is currently working on a book with the tentative title “Discourses of Jewish Subjectivity in Germany 1789-1848.”
The Anthological Imagination and the Posen Method

By David Roskies

As literary genres go, the anthology achieves a wonderful balance between showing and telling—but telling is what it really does. Because the anthologizer decides who’s in and who’s out, where to begin and end, every anthology is a narrative, and every narrative is fraught with meaning: aesthetic, ideological, political. When your job as anthologizer is to pick and choose, your natural desire is to distinguish between major and minor players—to play favorites. But the Posen Method—which I practiced as co-editor, with Samuel Kassow, of Volume IX of The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization—cuts in the opposite direction.
Not only is there a mandate to give each Jewry its due, but the many voices that comprise each narrative need to be given equal time. The Posen Method, in short, stands on the three principles: 1) Inclusivity, 2) Equality, 3) Polyphony. Our mandate was to be all-inclusive; to cast our net as wide as possible; to embrace all forms and modes of Jewish self-expression in all languages, everywhere. And our mission was to apply the method to an era seemingly bracketed by catastrophe: 1939-1973.
Which is how we, the Advisory Board of Volume IX, found ourselves at the Thistle Hotel in London in the summer of 2003. In our period, the Jews had been reimagined as the most hated people on earth: universally feared, pitied, and blamed. They had faced total annihilation at one end (1939) and near-disaster at the other (1973).
Our challenge, working within this fraught and narrow time-frame, was to rewrite the chapter of the Jewish century called: "Catastrophe." Accordingly to received wisdom, Jewish life and creativity had come to a standstill between 1939 and 1943. Yet as we went around the room on that August afternoon, it became clear that this had been a period of intense innovation and reassessment. Anthologies, manifestos, and symposia were all the rage. Moreover, Jewish creativity in the occupied war zone was extremely varied and voluminous.
By looking at all genres in all languages, by mixing and matching secular and religious forms of self-expression, it was clear that a new map and periodization of modern Jewish culture would begin to take shape. This was the Eureka Moment: It would be possible—under ideal laboratory conditions such as these—to put Jewish culture back together again.

But the story-line did not easily fall into place. The flow of data was much stronger than the banks to contain it. Eventually, however, the bold outline of a story in 6 chapters did emerge, a master narrative of radical displacement, division and new diasporas. Not one, but two civilizations were utterly uprooted in our period: The Jews of Europe and the Jews in Arab lands. Even as everything was ending, however, everything was starting over. The challenge of political sovereignty in Israel and the self-empowerment of American Jewry were unprecedented phenomena. Although the foundations of each had been laid earlier, it was in our period that the dramatic, epoch-making story of Israel and American Jewry took shape.

Geography, in our story, was destiny. Where a Jew lived, on what side of the great divide, was absolutely determinative. When our story began, the world was divided into the Free Zone and the Jew-Zone. The Free Zone covered all-to-half of the USSR, the United Kingdom, the Americas, and parts of the Middle East. The Jew-Zone, a new term of art, signified that swatch of the globe where Jewish existence was outlawed, then obliterated. When our story ended, the Iron Curtain was showing signs of wear and tear, but only a few crazies were willing to defy it. In 1943, people dreamed of an undivided postwar Europe. In 1973, Europe undivided seemed utterly messianic. With such a complicated story to tell, so unlike any Jewish narrative either before or after, we decided to open each of the six chapters in our volume with a contemporary map, as an aide mémoire, as the GPS of Jewish collective memory.
While gathering material for Volume IX, one of our most reliable sources was, curiously, other anthologies. There were so many, in fact, that we, the editors of Volume IX, had to pick and choose. Poor Joseph L. Baron, who specialized in apologetic anthologies, collecting every good thing that the gentiles ever wrote or said about the Jews, did not make the cut. By contrast, the four landmark anthologies and miscellanies that appeared in the Yishuv in 1943 alone—Knesset, Taf-shin-giml, Luah Ha'aretz and Basa'ar—yielded a wealth of material in poetry and prose, politics and thought.
Ultimately, hewing to the Posen Method meant resituating each text or extract in a new, contiguous setting and continuous narrative. The result, after much painstaking work, was stunning: an imagined community, debating society, yeshiva shel ma’alah—only this time open to men and women, adolescents and adults, free thinkers and pietists, rebels and revolutionaries, alienated and ultra-assimilated. A reimagined polity, in other words, acting in a plot of the anthologizer’s invention.
The Anthological Imagination and the Posen Method” is adapted from a paper of the same name, originally presented by the author at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem in August 2009. It was adapted with permission from the author.
David Roskies is the Sol and Evelyn Henkind Chair in Yiddish Literature and Culture and Professor of Jewish Literature at The Jewish Theological Seminary. He is the author of Night Words: A Midrash on the Holocaust; A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling; Yiddishlands: A Memoir, and other award-winning works. He is co-founder of Prooftexts: A Journal of Jewish Literary History.

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