Consumers and Producers: Rethinking the Jewish Cultural Renaissance

November 1, 2006
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Stephen Hazan Arnoff and Saul Kaiserman

November is National Jewish Book Month in North America. The dedication of communal time and space to provide intensive exposure for Jewish literature — along with art expos, music festivals, film series, and other clusters of Jewish cultural exhibitions — is indicative of the continuing renaissance of Jewish culture in North America. Jewish Book Month in particular provides a useful lens for witnessing the benefits of this cultural renaissance as well as considering how to build upon and perhaps redirect its energy, creativity, and aspirations.

A typical Jewish book fair presents the full range of Jewish belief and practice: original and translated traditional texts, fiction, history, cookbooks, children’s books, sex and relationship and travel guides, and much more. Jewish Book Month marks the power of experts — and self-proclaimed experts — to deliver Jewish products to a willing and eager readership. This impetus is good for authors, publishers, host institutions, libraries, and the Jewish press. In so many ways, it is just plain good for Jews. And yet, the Jewish book fair, like so many of the offerings that constitute the current cultural renaissance, emphasizes a uni-directional process of cultural experience. Rather than being an exchange or dialogue, this format reinforces a notion that Jewish culture is driven by experts — elites with loud voices. Jewish Book Month is launched in the weeks before Chanukah, and participants primarily play the role of consumers. As much as they may make good use of the products they purchase, their role is essentially passive.

If the first step in the current expansion of the Jewish cultural landscape has been establishing modes for producing and delivering the work of culture makers to engaged consumers, the next step is expanding the nature of Jewish cultural production so that a much fuller range of the community is empowered to build a richer and more vibrant Jewish world. This initiative requires a shift in thinking from a service model — in which Jewish culture is “provided” by a host institution to a target population — to a co-production model, where the role of the institution is to provide opportunities for participants to collaborate in the development of cultural experiences and content.

Like educational programs that are increasingly moving from the model of frontal education (which places the learner in a passive role and assumes that he or she will benefit from the expertise of teachers) toward an active-learning approach (which encourages exploration, experimentation, and problem solving), cultural programs should utilize workshops, think tanks, and chevrutot to create environments in which every participant contributes as a producer and consumer of learning and culture.

Working examples of cultural co-production already exist in the Jewish world, often initiated by people in their 20s and 30s. Consider Limmud, the highly successful volunteerdriven British learning community that is anchored by a week-long event supporting fluid boundaries between learners and presenters — a model that has inspired offshoots in North America and other parts of the world. The “ritual theater” groupStorahtelling fuses art, drama, music, prayer, and study to allow worshipers to experience the weekly Torah portion through the interplay of the telling of traditional and personal stories. Scores of grassroots study and prayer groups are sprouting up around the country (some, in fact, have persisted for 40 years).

Wikis and blogs offer examples of the impact of open source technology on culture- making. There are already hundreds if not thousands of Jewish blogs, such as Jewschool. com, in which discussions are by definition a dialogue between authors and contributing readers. Many people are drawn by the click of a mouse to post book reviews on and other formerly strictly consumerist resources that have become meeting places allowing the ideas of non-experts to become a part of public intellectual discourse. The dynamic interplay of researching and writing of Wikipedia entries on Jewish history, holidays, and virtually every other aspect of Jewish life has enabled high school students to debate with academics about the accuracy — and neutrality — of how experts see the world.

Creating environments that blur the boundaries between culture consumers and culture producers will further invigorate the Jewish cultural renaissance and deepen meaningful Jewish connections across the demographic spectrum. Envision writing groups to supplement reading groups hosted by libraries and synagogues, or aspiring teenage artists working alongside (and being mentored by) professionals at the next Jewish art expo or film festival. Imagine seniors and their grandchildren employing home publishing tools and computer software to craft the videos and texts of their memoirs for the generations that will come after them.

We are profoundly grateful for the expertise of professionals: authors, artists, playwrights, painters, filmmakers, and musicians — not to mention rabbis, cantors, and educators — who produce Jewish content that inspires, teaches, and challenges us. We deeply value the role of experts as the facilitators of cultural renewal, guiding cultural neophytes toward meaningful creative experience and expression. Still, we call for the Jewish community to broaden the current Jewish cultural renaissance and support cultural models that will grant opportunities to a much wider range of the population to participate actively in shaping the cultural fabric of Jewish life — as producers as well as consumers.

One of Judaism’s more compelling metaphors is the teaching that we are created in the image of the Divine. If the Divine spirit represents the model for the boundlessness of humankind’s creative spirit, then we should all be empowered to seek our own world-making creative sparks.

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Stephen Hazan Arnoff and Saul Kaiserman are Jerusalem Fellows at the Mandel Leadership Institute in Israel. Previously, Stephen was Director of the Artists Networks and Programming at the Makor/Steinhardt Center of the 92nd Street Y and Saul was Director of Education at Central Synagogue in New York. Stephen is Managing Editor of Zeek: A Jewish Journal of Thought and Culture (

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