Questions of Culture


What constitutes Jewish culture? What is Jewish literature? Jewish history? Jewish art? Jewish photography? Jewish architecture? What makes Barnett Newman, or Philip Guston, or Mark Rothko a Jewish artist? Do Newman’s meditations on martyrdom constitute “Jewishness” in his work? Do Guston’s reflections on identity and catastrophe make him a “Jewish artist?” Is Rothko’s iconoclastic insistence on the abstract color field after the Holocaust a gesture toward the second commandment prohibition of images, and if so, does that give him a Jewish sensibility?

Is William Klein a Jewish photographer? Or Weegee (né Arthur Feelig), or Robert Capa (né Andreas Friedmann), or Brassai (né Gyula Halasz)? Aside from its cheekiness, what are we to make of William Klein’s mischievous remark that “there are two kinds of photography—Jewish photography and goyish photography. If you look at modern photography you find, on the one hand, the Weegees, the Diane Arbuses, the Robert Franks—funky photographers. And then you have people who go out in the woods. Ansel Adams, Weston. It’s like black and white jazz.” Are William Klein’s own photographs Jewish in their narrative, story-telling movement, figure to figure? Or are these Jewish photographers because, in the words of Max Kozloff, they are “restless, voracious; they give the impression of being always in transit yet never arriving.” Did Jews invent “street photography, as Kozloff argues, or was this really an aesthetic common to all immigrants, in any land, seeing the street through new eyes?

And now for the benefit of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists everywhere, I ask whether there is such a thing as Jewish architecture. Think of Frank Gehry (né Frank Owen Goldberg), Richard Meier, Peter Eisenman, Daniel Libeskind, and Santiago Calatrava, James Ingo Freed, Moshe Safdie, A.M. Stern. What are we to make of Gehry’s suggestion that the undulating steel forms for which he is so famous are inspired by the live carp his grandmother kept in a bathtub before turning it into gefilte fish? I’ve been asked often if Jewish architects were somehow predisposed toward articulating the memory of catastrophe in their work, in order to explain how Libeskind, Calatrava, and now Michael Arad (designer of the memorial at Ground Zero) have become the architects of record downtown. I’ve usually answered that I see no direct references to Jewish catastrophe in their designs, but that the forms of post-war architecture itself have surely been inflected by an entire generation’s knowledge of the Holocaust.

For the purposes of the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization, of which I am the editor-in-chief, the expressions of Jewish culture will include, among hundreds of chronologically, geographically, generically, linguistically, and thematically organized entries:  primary historical, philosophical, religious, legal, literary, exegetical, political, folkloristic, and aesthetic tracts, documents, and artifacts.  All volumes will be richly illustrated with images of illuminated manuscripts, architecture, religious objects, folk art, design, drawings, paintings, sculpture, photography, film, and other arts, high and low, including music and theater, from ancient to present times.

While we may not be looking only for that which was regarded as new and innovative in its time (two very modern selection criteria), we can also do this.  All toward collecting what has been historically regarded, even previously codified and anthologized as Jewish culture, in its time and in our own.  The Editorial Board also recognized that even the over-arching principle of inclusivity will necessarily be limited by a 1,000 page volume-length.  With this in mind, Volume Editors are encouraged to ensure that the “best,” the “ordinary (or normative),” and the “unusual” all be fairly represented, with as wide a range of geographic areas, genres, and types of Jews as possible (in the words of Jonathan Sarna).  For our purposes, the entries of this anthology may also include texts produced by Jews but not always with explicit Jewish content. Such texts warrant inclusion if they have been received by the Jewish world as Jewish texts, codified and responded to as Jewish texts. This means that there may also be instances of culture produced by non-Jews for Jewish purposes (such as illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, synagogue architecture, and headstone reliefs).

The Volume Editors’ job here is to research all that has been regarded as representative of Jewish culture over time.  Whether a particular editor believes Soutine or Pissarro made Jewish art, or Kafka wrote Jewish parables, or Heine wrote Jewish poetry, or Freud or the Marx brothers or Al Jolson or any of the hundreds of others added to Jewish culture may be less important here than what the Jewish cultural worlds of museums, libraries, and other institutional and scholarly arbiters of culture have already decided over time in their exhibitions, archives, and anthologies.  Here the question of whether Jews who run from Judaism express a particularly modern Jewish dilemma may emerge, leading perhaps to thematic categories like “Non-Jewish Jews” and “Marginal Jews,” when no other category will work.

Indeed, this issue of “what is a Jewish text” is clearly also one that arises most prominently in the modern eras of emancipation, assimilation, and national self-definition and may be less pressing in the ancient to medieval times.  This said, of course, discussions around Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” reveal fundamental problems in determining the “Jewishness” of some ancient texts, as well.  Yehuda Bauer is insistent, for example, that [the Sermon on the Mount] is so similar to a Jewish text that it is absolutely clear to [him] that this was a Jew speaking to Jews” and would have to be included, even if the original words were subsequently Christianized in the context of their redaction as part of the New Testament and depleted of Jewish meaning.  The question of what the original words and text might also have been also adds to the discussion.  Volume Editors will be asked to address some of the most difficult selections in their Introductions in order to clarify where possible how selections of seemingly marginal texts were made.