9/5/04

What Jewish culture is: a modest proposal

There have been a number of posts on this blog about Jewish culture -- it's high time we try to define it. (Yet another topic that's relevant in the run-up to Arrival Day 2004.)

0.1. Jews are those who define themselves as such.

0.2. Culture encompasses any product meant to inform, entertain, inspire, horrify, etc.

1.0. Jewish culture is culture produced by a Jew or meant predominantly for Jews.

Corollary 1. Not everything created by those of Jewish parentage, or those who others recognize as Jewish, is necessarily Jewish culture.

Corollary 2. Not everything created in a Jewish millieu, or in a Jewish state, is necessarily Jewish culture. For example, not every cultural product of the State of Israel is Jewish merely by virtue of being Israeli.

Corollary 3. Not everything that meets the criteria above for Jewish culture is necessarily Jewish themed, or concerns itself mainly with traditionally Jewish topics.

I don't mean to say that this is the best or even the only plausible definition of Jewish culture. Heck, people might prefer not to define it at all, since (I'm guessing) that might tamper with its indefinable whatness. Me, though, I think it's more helpful to try to stake out our positions on the issue. For example, the definition I suggest here is reasonably conservative, and possibly helpful, when treating 19th and 20th century cultural products: musical compositions, novels, poetry, political treatises, music-hall banter, and the like. Many of these can be traced to individuals, who in turn generally possess some sort of self-identity, Jewish or no. This definition fails when we ask, say, whether CNN is Jewish.

Perhaps I can rephrase. I'm trying to understand what it means when we talk about American Jewish culture. One popular route is to say that all American culture, since it has benefited so substantively from the Jews, is in some sense Jewish. I say, yes, but in a way that's so broad as to be rather unhelpful. Another is to say that Jewish culture necessarily involves Jewish languages or traditionally Jewish themes (Jewish religious texts, halachah, etc.). But I find this too narrow. To take a non-American example, many readers find Kafka to be "intuitively" Jewish (even if they have at best a foggy notion of his own ethnic allegiances).

This definition is not primarily meant to say who's in or who's out, but to help me draw comparisons and contrasts between similar sorts of cultural creations.

Postscript: I corrected a couple of egregious stylistic and factual errors on the basis of some helpful comments.

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