The Bright River of Jewish Culture

February 1, 2005
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Daniel Schifrin

I RECENTLY SAW an extraordinary piece of theater at San Francisco’s innovative Traveling Jewish Theatre called The Bright River . It is a partial retelling of Dante’s Inferno , but informed by a kabbalistic rather than Christian context, and driven by on-stage musicians playing a combination of jazz and hip-hop. The piece was strange and inspiring, shifting back and forth between Jewish and non-Jewish literary and musical styles. Its theme was an ancient Jewish interpretation of the universal problem of evil.

The evening’s audience — young, hip, and mostly Jewish — was electrified, and I could easily imagine many of them picking up a book on Jewish mysticism or buying a Jewish hip-hop album. But I could also picture a group of Jewish communal professionals (of which I am one) hopelessly befuddled by the delirious mixing of Jewish and non-Jewish, wondering whether this was a performance they could responsibly recommend to their lay leaders.

The promise of Jewish vitality just might be located in the space between the incitement of a group of young people at an independent theater, curious about a complex artistic experience, and a Jewish community structure obsessed with affiliation and metrics. A broad renaissance in Jewish life can only be sustained by bridging that gap through a strategic engagement with — and increased funding of — Jewish art and culture.

American Jews live in a fluid society where people move often, marry across ethnic and religious lines, and are often more impressed with the new and practical than with the traditional. In such a situation, Jewish communities should give people experiences that move them, not a series of ideas intended to educate them.

Art and culture is, preeminently, where emotions, the blurring of boundaries, and innovation converge. It is also where the negative feelings many associate with tradition or even family can be transformed into something fresh and new. In the case of The Bright River , for instance, several dozen people were introduced to some of the most complex ideas of Jewish mysticism in the most relaxing and inspiring way possible. This doesn’t mean that theatre should replace Jewish education, but given the conversations I overheard, the performance certainly planted seeds for further Jewish learning.

According to numerous national and Jewish population studies, a majority of Jews feel more connected to Jewish “culture” than religion, history, or Israel. In the San Francisco area where intermarriage is high and institutional affiliation fluid, nontraditional Jewish institutions like the Traveling Jewish Theatre, San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and the Jewish Music Festival find especially fertile ground. For many Bay Area Jews, the two weeks of the Jewish Film Festival are their High Holidays, including more than a few moments of transcendence. The organized Jewish community fully supports the festival’s aims, and no wonder — tens of thousands of people flock to scores of movies in several locations.

Supporting Jewish cultural organizations, or offering to do joint programming with them, is an excellent way for traditional institutions like Jewish federations or synagogues to connect with those who are otherwise Jewishly unconnected. Another approach is to support Jewish cultural programming in non-Jewish institutions — the approach of Nextbook, which offers high-quality lectures and facilitated book discussions in public libraries in several major cities. The jury is still out in terms of whether this particular tactic will work over the long-run, but it is the correct strategy to connect with Jews where they are: at libraries, concert halls, independent bookstores, opera houses, and theaters.

Organizations like Avoda Arts, which combines text study and the creation of ritual objects, Nextbook, Traveling Jewish Theatre, local Jewish film festivals, and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, where I work, are attempting to lay down a highway between the lands of Jewish life and cultural creation, where there now exists only a dirt road.

In the most profound way, Jewish history is a record of our engagements with our texts — and our texts owe their genius to blazingly creative minds embraced by the established Jewish community. When our best artists and wisest community leaders engage each other in a sacred conversation, the future of Jewish life always looks that much brighter.

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Daniel Schifrin is Director of Literary Programs at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, and has written the Culture View column for New York Jewish Week for ten years. He has just finished his first novel.

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