Sunday, September 26, 2010

Creating Jewish culture and community from the street up

It's a tradition at my synagogue that on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, before Minchah and the reading of Jonah, we hear a guest speaker. We've had many very interesting people come over the years, often connected to the synagogue, but sometimes not. Jewish artists and filmmakers, scholars and activists, invited to speak on a relevant topic. It rarely fails to inspire and enlighten and this year was no exception. The recently appointed Executive Director of Montreal's Federation CJA, Andres Spekoiny provided an overview of the challenges and prospects for worldwide Jewry. A portrait of contemporary Jews was sketched and their relationship to current community structures and services. Spekoiny spoke of most North American communities having been built on a 19th century notion of identity. He proposed that the evolution of contemporary Jewish identities, particularly among the current and next generation of young Jews, demands that modern communities must adjust. For generations, (arguably since the 60s) the Jewish community has been split and Jewish identity defined as an either/or proposition, you were either for or against Israel, either religious or secular etc. The one unifying principle of Jewish identity for the last half century has been the responsibility to maintain some semblance of Jewish identity in order to deny Hitler a posthumous victory. But this, Spekoiny pointed out, is a negative identity. It does not characterize living Jewishly as worthy of embrace on its value and merits as a life-enriching, meaningful endeavour. Our rabbi told the famous story about Rabbi Carlbach and the times he went to speak to a class. He would ask the students, What are you? One student would say, I'm a Muslim. Another, I'm a Catholic. Another, I'm a Protestant. Another, I'm a Hindu. And one student would say, I'm a human being. This student, Carlbach would say, he knew was the Jew. Judaism, Andres Spekoiny said, taught humanity what it meant to be a human being. And yet we have failed to draw the connection for our youth. The radicals to the left and right have defined the public face of Judaism. What has been missing is a middle ground. Young Jews, he said, do not respond to the top down approach of earlier times. Their identities do not fall under overarching categories ie. Zionist or Liberal or Conservative or Socialist or feminist or religious or secular. There is no longer an 'ism' that guides all aspects of their life. Rather the orientation and dynamic of today's generation is increasingly bottom up. Young Jews have a wider self-definition and pick and choose the way they define themselves as Jews, culturally, politically, socially and religiously. The burgeoning social media has had a tremendous impact and will continue to do so. What we see is a greater potential for grassroots movements and the creation of micro-communities. The question is how will the established community respond and nurture the demands of the next generation. One thing that has always been certain: Young Jews are smart, creative and curious. Not only are they rejecting the standard framework, but they are also starting to take ownership of their direction as Jews in earnest. The exciting aspect of the changes taking place is that there is still a healthy appetite for Jewish culture and spiritual practice. New forms of expression are springing up all over North America, both online and on the street. We've seen the renaissance of Jewish fiction with writers like JS Foer, Nicole Krauss, Sam Lipsyte, Nathan Englander, Gary Shteyngart, David Bezmozgis. New websites like Heeb, Jewcy and Zeek. Exciting new musical artists like Matisyahu and Montreal's own So-Called and Jewgrass performer Adam Stotland (the inset picture above is taken from his new album entitled 'Ma'agal', meaning circle). Our city has just had our first ever Jewish Music Festival. Montreal has also seen the creation of a number of new groups that cater to younger, unaffiliated Jews such as the Ghetto Shul and the Mile-End Havura. On this blog I have linked to Shtetl on the Shortwave, a bi-monthy radio show on CKUT 90.3 FM hosted by Tamara Kramer, which has a brand new website. Even if you can't tune in to Tamara's show live, be sure to download the podcast. There's no telling where things are headed, but it seems that the community, by offering to fund and support these initiatives, appears to be finally getting the message.

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