Jews in North America are fortunate in many ways, but not enough people appreciate our good fortune. Too many are finding the dross while ignoring the nuggets.
First, the dross. We should quit bemoaning the decline in synagogue membership, high rates of intermarriage and our aging population. Instead, we should exploit more vigorously our success in conveying the nuggets of Jewish culture by way of education courses in synagogues, community centers and other organizations. Pittsburgh is a sparkling example of this precious trend — Jewish cultural offerings here are abundant, educational and attractive.
I’m guessing there are many like me who like being Jewish. I am a devotee of Jewish culture. As Mordecai Kaplan wrote, Judaism is a civilization, not merely a religion. I grew up in secular Yiddishkeit — an environment rich in literature, language, song, history, theater, politics — all focused on being a Jew and a human being. In Yiddish, the concept is “Id un mentsh.” Despite the socialist-communist Montreal milieu of my immigrant parents, I learned to value the broad spectrum of Jewish identity. I continue to seek ways to live a Jewish life. My main vehicles are through Congregation Dor Hadash and a rich menu of offerings in the broader Jewish community.
What is Jewish culture? It is a treasure trove of many things: religion and languages such as Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino, as well as the vernacular, so that English is now a major medium for Jewish life. Culture also includes literature, media, movies, art, customs, attitudes, values, history, music, dance, education, humor, food.
It’s encouraging that Jewish culture is evolving and flourishing. A recent 92nd Street Y program titled “What is Jewish Culture?” conveyed the broad scope of interests described by Amos Oz, Fania Oz-Salzburger, James E. Young, Deborah Dash Moore and Daniel Libeskind, A columnist of the Forward newspaper — Jay Michaelson — referring to current innovative forms of Judaism, recently wrote “A thousand Jewish flowers are blooming already, even if they look like weeds to some who run the greenhouses.”
In Pittsburgh, with approximately 40,000 to 50,000 Jews, there are vivid examples of the vital role played by synagogues in providing courses, lectures, concerts, book reviews and discussions. Ironically, going beyond their religious mission, shuls complement offerings by our Jewish Community Centers, the Agency for Jewish Learning, the Kollel and other educational institutions. In fact, in our region, many organizations, religious and secular, often cooperate to co-sponsor events.
In the past few years, Congregation Dor Hadash, a small Pittsburgh Reconstructionist shul, has offered courses on Jewish short fiction, Jewish ethics, Yiddish classical literature in English, Yiddish songs, Israeli novels and Russian Jewry. History courses have been especially popular, such as history of Zionism, Jews in the Ottoman Empire and Jews in Spain. Instructors are local
experts, out-of-town guests and shul members with academic expertise and personal interests who present courses and lectures. I have benefitted personally from those courses as well as from offerings by Pittsburgh congregations, such as the Book of Psalms (Temple Sinai), the writings of Cynthia Ozick (Rodef Shalom Congregation) and Jewish topics offered by Carnegie Mellon University’s Osher program.
Co-sponsored events by several organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, have made it possible to bring in presenters of international stature like Fraydl Freidenreich (immigrant Yiddish culture), Jonathan Sarna (sociology of modern Jewry) and David Krakauer (klezmer clarinetist). A weekly reading of The Jewish Chronicle reveals the rich array of upcoming cultural offerings ranging from JFilm, the Omer Institute lectures, the Yiddish Conference and “The Dybbuk” opera.
Whither Jewish culture? Encouraging signs in North America are evident in the proliferation of university Jewish studies programs, the widespread appeal of klezmer music, camps for children and adults, innovative art forms and exhibits, Jewish music performances, film festivals, and the success of the Yiddish Book Center in preserving materials.
We live in a flourishing golden age of Jewish culture. The golden offerings in our region need to be polished, mounted and made to sparkle even more. Because, if we do so, we can hope to attract secular Jews of any age who do not affiliate with any Jewish entity. The dross will fade as the gold starts to gleam.
(Sarah Angrist is a member of Congregation Dor Hadash and a retired sociologist.)