The Charles and Andrea Bronfman foundation is sponsoring a contest to find the next great Jewish Idea. The prize is a visiting professorship at Brandeis university to write up the idea. What a great Jewish idea! No doubt it was inspired, in part, by the discouraging results of a survey conducted by the same foundation, which showed that American Jewish youth are not very interested in Judaism or Israel. Only with a few days left for the contest deadline, the entries are disappointing, according to reports.
In complex and sophisticated language, Charles Bronfman explained the problem this way:
It got all screwed up.
A profound analysis. He went on to say:
"I happen to have a high regard for [the younger] generation, but our institutions have great difficulty in coming to grips with a generation so totally different from any generation that came before. All of a sudden you have a custom-oriented generation where being Jewish is one of seven or eight affiliations."
It is not clear what he means by this buzz phrase. Belonging to the Animal Lovers is an affiliation, and belonging to the Sierra Club or the Lawyers' Guild or the AMA is an "affiliation." Being Jewish is supposed to have to do with "identity," which is a deeper thing. Everybody, including all Jews, always had numerous "affiliations" and loyalties, at least in the last 200 years: Jew, socialist, Russian or German or Pole or Egyptian or Iraq or American or Englishman, family member, university professor, pacifist, humanist, etc. He hasn't really defined the problem. He was closer the first time: "It got all screwed up."
Judaism in the Diaspora has a number of problems that don't relate to "affiliation." Most of them have not changed in about 200 years. The central problem is the one caused by the enlightenment and the creation of secular society. For 2000 years, the Jewish people had been held together in the Diaspora by a unique set of customs and societal institutions, and a small set of books that defined Judaism. Rabbinical Judaism had been the center of Jewish national life as well as Jewish religious life. This made it possible to remain a culturally differentiated people, even without a land. The Jews paid a price for this separation - as a separate people they were always suspect, and as a people without a land and a national defense organization they were vulnerable.
The enlightenment changed all that in a brief time. Jews could no longer hold together the organizational and cultural framework based on ghetto life, centered on the synagogue and led by rabbis. There had to be some unifying idea to replace religion and some organization to replace the synagogue. So the next Jewish idea must be both an idea and an idea or ideas about the organization to propagate the idea.
At the same time, with the rise of nationalism, it was no longer possible, at least in most of Europe, to remain a people apart within another society. Not possible, and not desirable. There were other, more attractive "affiliations" that began to take priority over going to synagogue - whether it was the Animal Lovers, Socialism or the country club, to which one was admitted after so much travail. How do we create a relevant framework, and how do we attract people to that framework?? Zionism was the obvious answer in part, but Zionism only really "works" for those who come to live in Israel. What changed in recent times, follow World War II, especially in the United States, is that it became so easy to stop being Jewish. To gather "affiliations" like country club memberships that had nothing to do with Judaism and pulled in a different direction, and perhaps to meet a mate who was not Jewish and raise children who were neither Jewish nor non-Jewish in a society where it really didn't matter that much any more. At the same time, a lot of surrounding society adopted a lot of the trappings of Jewish culture: bagels and lox, borscht-belt comedy, Kaballah, and even Zionism.
Zionism is not enough even for Israelis, Israel probably cannot be the only source of Jewish culture. Zionism is a political movement that produced a national cultural revival. But what would be the unique, nation-specific content of that culture? Hebrew culture is a wonderful miracle, but it is relevant mostly to those of us who speak Hebrew. In 2000 years of exile, Judaism had become centered on religion, while Jews had gone off in other directions, to absorb the best of European science, culture and philosophy and also to generate a good deal of it. It is asking a good deal of the tiny country of Israel to produce a succession of Israeli Albert Einsteins, George Gershwins, Benjamin Disraelis, Isaiah Berlins and Baruch Espinozas.
For the masses, there must be popular Jewish culture as well. There must be some way to provide entertainment for people who want to have a good time while transmitting the message of Jewish culture and Jewish continuity. We have Jewish comedians and musicians, but they belong to everyone. You don't have to be Jewish to like Jerry Seinfeld. His comedy themes are universal.
One contest suggestion that was held up to ridicule was to produce a "Jewish Braveheart" film. No doubt, this was not what the contest sponsors had in mind. But think about it, is it really such a bad idea? Who ever heard of Wallace before they watched Braveheart? We have had in fact, a Jewish Braveheart - a popular epic centered around the Jews. It is called The Bible. An all-time best seller, filled with Jewish Bravehearts from Moses and Jephtah and Samson to Judah Maccabee. It was a great success, but bears retelling. All Christians know who Jesus Christ was, but Mel Gibson's Passion, repugnant to many Jews, was effective in rekindling interest in Christian culture and Christian faith.
A people's real source of culture is always the mass culture, the folk culture which becomes the inspiration and the background and the dialog of novels, the melodies of symphonies and the themes philosophies. We have other Braveheart stories. Everyone agrees that the movie Exodus was grade "A" "Schmaltz," but it taught a lot of people a great deal about the creation of Israel that they would never have known otherwise, and it projected a positive image of Judaism and Israel. Perhaps the professorship should not go to someone who will produce a Jewish Braveheart, but perhaps someone should be thinking of how to use stimulate mass culture and folk culture that is based on themes related to Judaism and Israel, and that can be used as a vehicle for passing on information and creating identification. It might be a profitable and useful way to spend two years at Brandeis.
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Replies: 3 Comments
Indeed, the Maccabees are part of the Apocrypha, but "My Glorious Brothers" would make a great movie. In fact, Mel Gibson wanted to make that movie but apparently was discouraged from doing so.
And yes, the Bar-Kochba revolt would make a great movie as well, though one was already done about Masada.
Moderator, Thursday, November 22nd
Nice point. I think that the Book of Samuel would supply us with several blockbuster films. It is a perennial favorite with my kids. By the way, since we are talking about the JEWISH Bible, it should be noted that Judah Maccabee didn't quite make it into that venerable edition.
Shel Bassel, Thursday, November 22nd
My vote for a Jewish Braveheart is to film the novel "Son of a Star" by Andrew Meisels. It is the story of Simon Bar-Kochba, who led the revolt against the Romans that ended at Massada.
Georges Kaufman, Thursday, November 22nd
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