To my understanding the primary thesis of Rabbi Sid Schwarz’s chapter was that the American Jewish community is in the process of massive ideological and demographical transition. This transition is affecting individual Jews as well as many institutional pillars of the community such as synagogues and federations, both of which appear to be losing numbers in the form of both involved people and invested resources. This trend towards disaffiliation and disinterest is, according to Rabbi Schwarz and numerous polls, particularly evident in younger American Jews, specifically Gen X’rs and Millennials.
Furthermore, the chapter identifies three main sociological developments that are contributing to this dynamic: the complex politics and public persona of the State of Israel, the “end of ethnic Jewry”, and numerous trends in American society that indicate a general distancing of young people from their inherited religious upbringing.
Running counter to this general decline in the relevance and effectiveness of “establishment” religious structures, the chapter highlights a handful of grassroots efforts that have been successful at capturing people’s imaginations and hearts during these times of communal disintegration and cultural transformation. This brings us to a sub-theme of the chapter’s thesis, which is that there are interesting and impactful things happening in the Jewish world, but they are not necessarily going through the old institutional channels; and, furthermore, if these bold new projects were given the proper funding and support from the establishment, these innovative efforts might very well hold the keys to unlocking the next Jewish American renaissance or revival.
The chapter then identifies four main worlds or realms wherein these innovations are most often occurring and offers a kind of communal diagnosis, suggesting that these four areas are in fact the pressure points that need to be massaged in order to get the shefa flowing through the body of Am Yisrael again. Those four areas are: chochma/wisdom/learning; tzedek/justice/activism; kehilla/community/organizing; kedusha/spiritual/experience.
I find this thesis to be fairly accurate and insightful, particularly the identification of the four realms of general interest and activity that seem to attract the most interest from the disaffected demographic as well as match up most closely with the general trends in American society. I have many things to say about the finer points in each section of the chapter but for the purposes of this response, and out of respect for brevity, I will confine myself to sharing just a bit about my own work as it relates to Sid’s thesis, as requested in the prompt.
First off I am an artist. I am a musician and a poet. I produce work for both Jewish and general audiences. My creative work in the Jewish world predominantly revolves around animating and interpreting Jewish narratives, symbols, and spiritual teachings through the affective and imaginative mediums of music and poetry. Additionally, a major aspect of my work is the expression of my own individual experience of wrestling with Jewish identity, teaching and practice. In this sense I am attempting to introduce a degree of drama and existential urgency into Jewish cultural discourse through my art.
Trying to pin down one world which encompasses my work is difficult. In many ways I feel like much of my creative work falls in the world of chochma/wisdom, as it presents and re-presents a wide spectrum of Jewish texts and teachings through a creative medium. But, I would venture to say that my creative work also resonates in the worlds of kehilla/community and kedusha/spirituality in that my concerts or classes bring groups of people together in order to have an aesthetic experience oriented towards elevating consciousness and opening hearts. As many in the more secular world know (as do the Hasidim), music, dance and ecstatic expression (i.e. art) have the power to transform a group experience from something mundane into something magical.
But, as you have asked me to consider, I do feel that my work pushes me to think beyond these four worlds in order to pose the question: what is the value of art or creativity within this brave new Jewish world? When I look at the four areas you have suggested from an archetypal personnel perspective I can identify the classic Jewish superheroes of teacher/rabbi; activist/prophet; organizer/macher; and shaman/priest. Maybe I have been brought too far into the borders of Yaphet, but from my perspective I am moved to ask: what about artists/scribes? What about beauty? What about imagination? What role might they/we play in this renaissance?
Certainly, as I have detailed above, art and creativity can play a role in any of the four worlds; that is, it can be an effective bridesmaid for learning, activism, community gathering and spiritual experience. But does art ever get a chance to take center stage in this production? Does art/craft/creativity have value in and of itself in this revived Jewish culture? And furthermore, do artists have anything to contribute to this renaissance other than helping to “get the message out?” Is there cognitive benefit or cultural worth in the practice, process, production, and presentation of creative works? And finally, is there any identifiable value for the community that receives and responds to such creative works? I believe so.
If pressed to offer a Hebrew title for this proposed fifth world I would perhaps suggest briah/creation, as art is the channeling and crafting of our creative impulse; or possibly dimyon/imagination, as art is the cultivation and exercise of the human imagination, the wellspring of vision, dreams and inspiration; or possibly even la’asot/to make, as it says in the Torah that we were “created to make” and all art (i.e., new creation) depends on our active input to bring vision into being.
It is my feeling that creativity and imagination are integral aspects of any cultural renaissance that seeks to engage consciousness and inspire collective identity and action. As the famous Jewish anarchist, Emma Goldman once quipped: “A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having.”
Eden Pearlstein is a multi-disciplinary musician, author and educator. Eden records and performs his own material as a solo artist under the moniker, ePRHYME, and “plays well with others” in various collaborative projects including Darshan (a mystical Jewish music and poetry project with Shir Yaakov and Basya Schechter). Eden’s educational work mostly revolves around the intersection between the creative process and philosophical teachings, spiritual practices, and ritual arts of Judaism, both ancient and contemporary.