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