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Jewish Journal

The end of culture?

by David N. Myers

October 3, 2013 | 1:19 pm

The recent news that the New York-based Foundation for Jewish Culture will go out of business next year after more than a half century of activity sends an ominous message to all those concerned with the vitality of Jewish culture. 

Over the course of its history, the foundation, formerly known as the National Foundation for Jewish Culture, has been the most important organization in American Jewish life devoted to promoting Jewish arts and letters. It has provided key financial support for generations of graduate students in Jewish studies (myself included), contributing in its own way to the explosive growth of that field over the past four decades. It has also funded a wide array of Jewish artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers throughout its existence. For example, its Six Points Fellowship, currently based in Los Angeles, has been a major incubator of emerging artists. 

The foundation’s core mission rests on “the belief that creative expression is essential to Jewish community, identity, and our understanding of the world.” Most recently, it initiated the creation of the American Academy in Jerusalem, which hosts distinguished artists, architects and planners for 10 weeks in order to fortify that city’s role “as a vibrant, pluralistic center of arts and culture.” In all of these activities, the foundation has maintained high standards of evaluation and oversight in its support of the arts and scholarship. And Elise Bernhardt, its president and CEO, has been one of the most articulate and vocal spokespersons on behalf of the centrality of culture in our Jewish lives in this country. 

Ironically enough, the organization is in decent financial shape, at least in the short term. The decision to close down its operations and seek new homes for its programs results from an analysis of longer-term trends. Simply put, culture is increasingly deemed a luxury, even a burdensome luxury. Funding sources have diminished dramatically, including a precipitous drop in funding for the foundation from the national alliance of Jewish Federations. Princeton ethicist Peter Singer offered up a philosophical defense of this trend in a recent New York Times essay, “Good Charity, Bad Charity.” In his piece, Singer presented a cost-benefit analysis that suggested that donating money to the eradication of illness is worthwhile, whereas contributing to cultural and artistic institutions is not. The first half of his thesis is unassailably correct. Who would object to the urgency of contributing money to the eradication of disease or poverty? His latter proposition is far more dubious and shortsighted. For is not culture, in all its manifold expressions, the very fabric of our existence as humans? What gives life meaning if not the aesthetic pleasures, intellectual stimulation and moral urgency induced by different forms of culture?

The answers to these questions were unmistakably clear to a wide swath of Jews in one of the most fertile periods in modern Jewish history, which stretched from 1897 to 1933. We might call this era the golden age of Jewish nationalism. During this period, hundreds of thousands of Jews came to understand themselves as constituting a nation, like other nations. This did not mean, in the first instance, that they aspired to political sovereignty. Rather, what made Jews a nation — like other national groups in this period — was the shared desire to preserve and sustain a distinctive group culture. 

Chief among the cultural nationalists of this turn-of-the-century period were Zionists such as Ahad Ha-am, the great Hebrew essayist for whom culture, especially in the Hebrew language, was the connective tissue of Jewish national life over the ages. They also included Diasporists like Simon Dubnow or Chaim Zhitlovsky, who believed that Jewish national culture, particularly in the Yiddish language, can and should be rooted (and protected) in the venues in which the Jewish masses already lived. It is no surprise that leading institutions bore the name and mission of culture, as in the Yiddish Kultur Lige (Culture League), the Hebrew Tarbut (Culture) school system or the Jüdischer Kulturband, which provided a healthy dose of cultural sustenance to German Jews after 1933. Culture was not merely the treasured property of the nation, it was its very essence. 

And the production of culture was not merely the work of the collective. It was also a defining act for a long stream of distinguished Jewish individuals in modern times. There is, of course, the (un)holy trinity of Marx, Freud and Einstein. But of more direct relation to Jewish culture are great painters, novelists and thinkers — think of Franz Kafka, Max Liebermann, Martin Buber, Marc Chagall, Hannah Arendt, Shmuel Yosef Agnon, R.B. Kitaj, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick, Amos Oz, Michael Chabon and Nicole Krauss. Each of them has contributed a strand to the rich, polychromatic mosaic of modern Jewish culture. 

But are we the last link in the chain of that great cultural transmission? Does the demise of the Foundation for Jewish Culture signal the end of a remarkable century or so of frenetically creative Jewish cultural energy? One would like to think not. One would also like to think that American Jewry, with its demographic diversity and philanthropic heft, would be able and willing to recognize the virtue of culture in our collective lives. 

In recent days, the Pew Research Center released a study showing soaring rates of assimilation, particularly manifested in alienation from the Jewish religion. Culture is not the panacea to all our problems, but it does represent a vital lifeline, offering sustenance to all — religious, non-religious, young, old, big city, small town. As the venerable foundation prepares to shutter its doors, the challenge now falls upon the Jews of this country to make clear that culture — specifically Jewish culture — is neither superfluous nor exclusive, but rather essential nourishment for all of our souls.


David N. Myers teaches Jewish history and is the Robert N. Burr Chair of the UCLA History Department.

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