Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

Or maybe it’s cultural

Some people describe themselves as “cultural Jews” or “only cultural Jews.” This is meant to indicate that they are not at all religious, but participate in Jewish life to some extent and consider themselves part of the Jewish community. (There are also those who participate – not necessarily intentionally – in Jewish life but don’t identify with the Jewish community. Years ago Martin Marcus wrote that if you come from New York City, you are Yiddish [Jewish] even if you are Goyish [not Jewish], but if you come from Montana, you are Goyish even if you are Yiddish.)

Self-designation as a “cultural Jew” does not always include a commitment to Jewish expression in the arts. It could mean as little as eating bagels or (now that everyone eats bagels) knishes.

This is possible because, although Judaism is generally thought of as a religion, Jews are an ethnic group – to be clear, an ethnic group defined in part by religion. There are not very many cases where religion and ethnicity overlap to this extent. For example, many Irish people are Catholic, but not all Irish people are Catholic, nor are all Catholics Irish.

Nevertheless, it is hard to define Jewish art as Jewish ethnic art, because it has to include many different ethnic traditions, most of which are not exclusively Jewish. For example, there is a style of decoration of ceramic ritual objects that is described as Armenian-Jewish, but I’m not sure that it differs markedly from Armenian-Christian ceramic decoration.

Armenian Kiddush Cup

Armenian Kiddush Cup

Thus, many of the characteristics of Russian-Jewish art are characteristics of Russian art, those of Italian Jewish art are those of Italian art, and so forth. It’s much the same as with food: typical Jewish foods are everyday foods of regions where Jews have lived, only modified as necessary to make them kosher. Because so many of the characteristics of Jewish art are shared with other art from the same period and region, it is very hard to identify art as Jewish unless it contains references that are specfically Jewish, and that often means religious references even though there is no real reason that Jewish art has to be religious art.

On the other hand, many “cultural Jews” are strongly devoted to the arts in general, that is, to high culture. But this is also true of many religious Jews – in larger cities, is is almost a commonplace that many of those who attend temple on Friday nights attend the symphony orchestra – “religiously” – on Saturday nights.

One comment on “Or maybe it’s cultural

  1. Connie Sullivan-Blum
    January 5, 2009

    Thanks (again) for this thoughtful post. I have an inordinate amount of time thinking about identity. It seems to me an individual’s identity is multiple or perhaps one has identities rather than an identity. We are gendered (is this the primary identity – the most significant binary?), we are “raced,” (which is not the same thing as ethnicity but is related to ethnicity), we are given an ethnicity, we sometimes have a religious identity (sometimes given -even when it’s rejected, sometimes chosen, sometimes both). We identify with nationalities – again not the same thing as ethnicity but similar. We have sexualities that are sometimes consciously chosen identities but always fundamental. We have family identities and classes. We are complicated creatures.

    It also seems to me that those identities compete. Depending on situations, they rise and fall in their salience. I experience my sexual identity most keenly when in a religious setting or (similarly) with my family of origin. I experience my “whiteness” most vividly when I am with people who are not-white. I experience my gender identity when in the company of men – or my gender non-conformity when in the company of some women.

    Perhaps nothing impacts as directly on art than identity. In the discipline of folk arts, identity is the defining concern. This is art as preservation of tradition. But, art does not necessarily preserve identity, or conform to expectations. Art often resists it or redefines it or twists it somehow.

    Thank god. Because one thing that is discussed less often is the fact that identity can be stifling and art the great liberator.

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This entry was posted on December 29, 2008 by .
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