Do We Care About New Jewish Culture?

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This year’s Jewish Book Week had an unusually ambitious opening: a performance of a new, specially commissioned, composition. Written by composer Jocelyn Pook, and commissioned by the Jewish Music Institute it drew upon texts and drawings from children in Terezin. It featured Klezmer luminary Lorin Sklamberg, who came to London especially for the performance. Another recent new work was JW3’s recent Listen We’re Family – a commissioned piece of verbatim theatre created out of interviews with a diverse range of British Jews on identity, religion and relationships. It’s really encouraging to see British Jewish institutions doing this – commissioning new works of art based around Jewish themes. The reason, though, that these events are memorable, is because they are extremely rare. Most of Jewish Book Week events rely on already published authors promoting their work, and most of JW3’s programming relies on guest artists that already have a polished product. The same is largely true with the LJCC and the Jewish Film Festival (with the honourable exception of the the Pears Short Film Fund). The Jewish Quarterly-Wingate prize (being awarded once again at JBW) is similarly an award for already existing work. Limmud hosts a range of new Jewish art – but because they never pay anyone the emphasis is again on pre-existing acts with a product to promote, usually international ones for whom the flights to London act as some kind of recompense. It is of course possible for artists and performers creating art around Jewish themes to make a living – but they must generally take all the risk of creating the work themselves and if they do get paid for performing/exhibiting, the fee is unlikely to cover the time they spent creating it. Being an artist creating largely Jewish work, generally, with a few exceptions, leads to extremely low earnings. They can, of course, join the scrum of other artists seeking commissioning funds from the Arts Council and other funding bodies, and that’s what most Jewish artists do. But in this case, the work commissioned will need to appeal to the widest possible audience – there is unlikely to be room for subtle connections and references to the canon of Jewish thought and textuality, outside those references that have passed into mainstream of British culture.

The British Jewish community, as a whole, is extremely wealthy and has a well developed culture of giving to communal causes, through synagogue membership and through donations to Jewish charities. At present though, the vast majority of it is spent on a) paying rabbis b) giving money to Israel including funding Israel programmes c) and providing care for the elderly. These illustrate differing priorities and different visions of Jewishness. An understanding of Judaism as essentially a religion will prioritise the funding of synagogues and rabbis. A Zionist understanding will suggest that the diaspora should channel it’s resources to Israel, encourage the young to go there, and make sure that those who are too old to do so should be well looked after. But what about those of of us that don’t frame Jewishness in either of those two paradigms? What If, say we took a paradigm of a quasi-national community, at home wherever it resides, but with distinctive languages and culture. That’s probably close to how many Jews see themselves, even if they wouldn’t exactly articulate it that way. If that was our understanding, we’d probably put a great deal more resources in to high quality hebrew and yiddish teaching, but also investing and renewing our cultural heritage. We’d commission new works of visual art, music, poetry and theatre that drew on Jewish experience and culture but rethought  for our time and place. And we’d invest and nurture artists, giving them pride of place as the people best placed to explore and express our collective identity.

Are current Jewish organisations ready for such a shift? Absolutely not. But if enough of us see it as an attractive vision we can start to make it a reality.

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