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A Delicate Balance: Jewish Aesthetics and Art


Does Jewish Art Really Exist in the Diaspora

Israel has always been accused of relative self-centeredness regarding its relations with the Diaspora. One of the primary reasons for this attitude-a reason which is less and less convincing with every passing day-is that there is no real Jewish artistic production in the Diaspora, everything that occurs there is a mere reflection of what happens in Israel. In order to better understand this polemic, Judith Grosgold analyzes the basic underlying question: just what do we mean precisely by "Jewish culture"?

Jewish literature and science must be specifically related to aspects of Jewish existence…..they should not include such trifles as love poems, or discoveries which can benefit humanity as a whole. This is what the turn-of-the-century Jewish philosopher Ahad Ha'am opined; since the quest for identity has always characterized Jewish intellectual creation, the possible answers which this search has uncovered have always been ever-more complex. The question of identity is always surrounded by a mass of misconceptions and intertwining relations: religion-secularism, Jewish essence-thought, Israel-Diaspora, to name but a few. In many situations the contemplation of identity has shockingly empirical consequences, for example, in Israel, an individual who has converted to Judaism according to Conservative practice is not recognized as a Jew by the Supreme Rabbinate and cannot be married in a Jewish ceremony-since there are no civil weddings in the Jewish state, the consequences are pretty harsh for that same person. In other cases the issue of identity became a purely intellectual exercise: how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? The question of Jewish culture is intrinsically related to issues of Jewish identity and hence it awaits the definitive definition of the same….if there is indeed any definitive answer to be heard.

The definition of Jewish art in its widest sense, including all cultural and intellectual production, is a relevant one not only for Jewish performers of all sorts, but for Jewish communities in the Diaspora who are committed to the quest for self-expression. It is never too difficult to attribute a work of art to a particular ethnicity. A French writer, whatever his subject, forms an integral component of the French cultural panorama, and is included within its matrix; in much the same sense, no real debate has ever raged regarding what constitutes Christian art, as all and sundry examples of it are united under the rubric of a single thematic. But Jewish artistic and cultural creation are, in contrast, much harder to categorize; and the paradox lies, ironically, at the heart of the Jewish tendency to constantly question the issue of identity itself. And as cultural production is no isolated intellectual exercise, but one of the major aspects of collective being, it occupies a central position in the existence of the Jewish people.


All obstacles related to self-definition are alleviated when a Jewish artist chooses a theme of Jewish import. The difficulties arise when a Jewish artist chooses a theme of general interest beyond the confines of the Jewish community. Florinda Goldberg of the Department of Latin American Studies at Hebrew University , poses the question: is there a specifically Jewish style of artistic creation? If we try to determine the characteristics of Jewish style on a purely theoretical plane, notes Goldberg, we will encounter little success, better to do this on a case-by-case, empirical basis. Ahad Ha'am had insisted that Jewish religion was but one element of a larger Jewish cultural "whole", which might lead us to surmise that any piece of art created by a Jew is, in fact, "Jewish art." But there are many Jewish artists who do not desire to be classified within those parameters. Ms. Goldberg provides us with a model which enables us to comprehend the complexity of the matter: let us analyze, on an individual basis, those facets which share a common Jewish cultural thread: imagination, style, language, vision, experience, etc. The amount of individual variation is as bewildering as it is inspiring.

And vis-a-vis the Diaspora, the issue becomes even more abstract-there are many Jewish artists whose productions are considered part of the national patrimony of their countries of origin far more than they are viewed as belonging to the Jewish people; and every Jewish Diaspora artist partakes of his own Jewish roots and those of his birthplace: the Jewish artist is a virtual kaleidoscope of cultural influences.


This literally double expression of the artistic script which the creator follows, be it Jewish-American, Jewish-Argentine or whatever, is itself the inevitable consequence of the Diaspora, and its qualities were thrown into even sharper relief with the creation of the State of Israel.

The Jew had always been obliged to define identity according to internal and external factors, community and country-now Jewish self-definition had to confront the phenomenon of a reborn nationalist framework, with its own, Israeli, artistic production.

Ahad Ha'am, the Zionist visionary who died long before the rebirth of Israel, believed that the Jewish nation could be revitalized solely on the hope of fomenting a new Jewish cultural center in the land of Israel. This center, Ha'am sustained, would constitute a sort of cultural and educational epicenter for all the surrounding, far-flung Jewish communities. The Jewish merchant, product of the Diaspora, labors on the verge of extinction, gradually absorbed by the vicissitudes of non-Jewish society. There should be a guiding line bringing together the Biblical esthetic and the modern Jew….within the geographical limits of Israel. And this will, in turn, strengthen the unbreakable bond between Israel and the communities of the Diaspora. But the fact of the matter is that, as it turned out, each one of these communities desires to maintain its own individuality rather than submerge itself in the Israeli ethos, and its cultural output is a clear indication of its desire to maintain its individuality.

In the Israeli context, then, we discover another duality: that of "Jewish art" and that of "Israeli art". The most outstanding example is in modern Israeli literature: since it is written in Hebrew, it is a link between the Jewish past and the national-political reality of the contemporary Middle East.

The polemic surrounding Jewish art and culture is increasing daily….Garland Publishing has recently brought forth and excellent study Latin American Jewish writers by Darrell Lockhardt. The task of the critic remains the definition of the parameters of these constantly fluctuating art-forms which comprise the mosaic of Jewish aesthetics.

And I would happily agree with the thinker Berdichevsky, who, taking a leaf from the book of Ahad Ha'am, believed that Jewish art can and should approach Humanity and Nature…it need not only be "patently Jewish" to be classified as Jewish art.

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