Modern Encounters


What is modern about “modern Jewish culture”? Is it secularism? Is it the way that Jews shuffle their Jewish identity inside other identities? Or is it, rather, the sense of belonging that Jews now feel to their home countries?

Actually, the answer may be “none-of-the-above.” (All of the above, as it happens, were present in various pre-modern eras.) The fact is, for centuries, no one bothered to define Jewish culture. It was, quite simply, the culture produced by the Jews. Not so in modernity: Jews may have helped create modern physics, but we wouldn’t call that science “Jewish.” Nor would we call movies part of Jewish culture despite the large number of Jews in Hollywood. Only in modern times, where Jews contribute to the majority cultures without their Jewish identities playing an explicit role in doing so, does the question of definitions even come up.

If an expansive definition of modern Jewish culture seems too broad, let us try, instead, a more limited one. We can start by saying that Jewish culture is grounded in Jewish sources. This is true of literary, religious, and popular Jewish culture—but it then begs the question of what exactly counts as a “Jewish source.” Surely a religious definition is too limiting: Jewish culture is much broader than religion today. And indeed, modern Jewish identities have relied on both the rejection of the traditional, turning heretics into heroes, and the transvaluation of traditional texts, so that new translations of the Bible reflected radically modern sensibilities. Both are expressions of the modern.

We might also add another criterion to the list: Jewish culture expresses the modern Jewish experience.  Often, it draws on the historical tradition of the Jews; frequently, it results from confrontations with the non-Jewish worlds in which Jews became immersed. For example, American Jewish culture involved repeated translations of the Yiddish culture that Jews brought with them from Eastern Europe into an American idiom. Yet the American case suggests that the world in which Jews found themselves was also a world they made: Jews shaped American culture in the twentieth century as much as it shaped them. Similarly, in Europe, both Western and Eastern, the migration of Jews to the cities transformed both the Jews and their urban cultures.

There is yet another side to modern Jewish cultures that we often ignore when we focus on Western and Central Europe or North America. The process of emancipation and modernization was extraordinarily uneven throughout the Jewish world. If the French and American revolutions conferred equal citizenship on their Jews, the same was not the case elsewhere. The Jews of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy had to wait until the second half of the 19th century for emancipation. The Jews of Eastern Europe were second-class citizens until a cauldron of war, revolution, and the overthrow of the czar brought about equal citizenship. The Jews of the Muslim world remained second-class citizens in most places under Ottoman rule. For each of these communities, the differing pace of political emancipation was reflected in different patterns of cultural change.

So we return to the question of modern Jewish culture. A single, all-encompassing definition may be elusive, but several things are clear. Today, we can no longer speak of Jewish culture in the singular; instead, we speak of cultures. That’s partly a result of historical trends—some cultural traditions evolved, while others atrophied and died— and partly a result of emigrations and immersion in other cultures. In the twentieth century, substantial numbers of North African Jews relocated to France and elsewhere, bringing their cultures with them. The largest concentration came to the new state of Israel, where “mainstream” Zionist culture was largely an Ashkenazic creation. After several waves of immigration added new populations, the new state was much more culturally diverse than its founders were willing to admit, and the confrontation with this unexpected reality became a major challenge to the very concept of a monolithic mainstream.

While culture can never break entirely free of its traditional moorings, the evolution and synthesis of various traditions have given Jewish identity a multiplicity of new expressions. Modern Jewish cultures are the amalgamation of numerous elements of Jewish life that have developed over time, grounded in Jewish texts, historical developments, and cultural confrontations; out of that fabric is woven the modern Jewish experience.