Why Jewish Culture Matters

This post was sparked by preparation for a June 4, 2017 concert by the Maxwell Street Klezmer Band hosted by Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation.
Click here for more information or to sign up to attend.

When some people hear “cultural Judaism” or “cultural Jews,” they think of bagels and lox and that’s about it. The truth is that a connection with Jewish culture can be much deeper and richer, and often more meaningful, than a food choice or, for that matter, a tenuous religiosity.

Take the example of klezmer music, a particular style of Jewish music that began in Eastern Europe (you can read more on its origins in the late Middle Ages at the Yivo Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe). The title comes from two Hebrew terms, kley [tools/vessels] and zemer [melody], but as is often the case when phrases migrated from Hebrew to Yiddish, klezmer means much more than “instruments.” Its particular combination of wailing and exuberance, energy and pathos, many instruments playing at once is sometimes seen as emblematic of the Jewish condition: suffering and celebration, with many voices and experiences jumbled together.

Earlier examples of secular Jewish identities were often rooted in Jewish culture. Yiddish theater in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was both initiated and served secularized Jews who wanted to express their cultural Jewish identity beyond the synagogue through music, acting, and dancing. This creativity also expressed their philosophical and political commitments to social justice and human welfare in this life. The Jewish labor union movement, Yiddishist social and educational organizations, even the labor Zionism Farband (which emphasized both Yiddish and Hebrew), all found a voice in Jewish cultural creativity, which also served to bind the organizations’ members together – if you sing and dance together, you can work and march and live together too.

The revival of klezmer music in America in the last generation has many origins: a reconnection with the culture of “the old country” that parents and grandparents were leaving behind; the rise of multiculturalism; musicians seeks a bridge between Jazz and their Jewish roots; Jewish integration into American society, which left many exploring how to live the secular lifestyle they enjoyed while feeling the pleasure and power of Jewish heritage. For Secular and Humanistic Jews in particular, Klezmer emphasizes what we share with other Jews regardless of ideology or denomination, and it access the spirit, joy and energy of our people and shared ancestors, captured through song and dance. Klezmer also demonstrates that Jewish life is wider than studying Torah or observing commandments, more than re-enacting tradition; our Judaism is also creating anew with the same instruments, with our own voices and initiative.

Klezmer is not just Jewish music; klezmer is human music in a Jewish key. It has influenced American music and culture, just as it was influenced by the American setting. That Jewish experience of suffering and celebration also defines the human condition, and just about every band plays some Jewish musical touchstones like Hava Nagila, from oompah to mariachi. Our Jewish culture is a particular expression of what it means to be human, and finding pleasure and meaning in our particular roots is particularly human.

If we know where we come from, who can tell where we may go?

 

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