A Letter from London - The thin and the thick of European Jewish cultural renewal
By Antony Lerman | 18/02/2010
Thinness in Western culture is highly prized, but not when it comes to culture itself. The physical lightness of being is an aspiration of practical worthiness—obesity kills. But it is also freighted with moral significance. Thin implies inner goodness. The toned body is an ethical reproach to the fat. This kind of judgmentalism soon tips over into body fascism. Conform to the ideal type or be ostracised.
For transnational or diasporic peoples working to achieve cultural renewal after a collective trauma or attrition caused by the successful assimilatory embrace of the host culture, thin is a pejorative term. Lasting renewal must be fat: rich in the knowledge of the ‘canon’, values, history, religion, tradition. Thin culture, based on a light association with film, popular literature, second hand knowledge acquired through museums and exhibitions is often damned as inadequate in ensuring continuity. Even worse, it is seen as a fatal moral collapse too. Dilution that will lead to even more fatal destruction.
This kind of judgmentalism has dogged efforts to revive Jewish culture in Europe since the late 1980s. A favourite target of opprobrium is the Krakow Jewish cultural festival and what is seen as the ersatz Jewish culture of Jewish-themed restaurants and cafes that have grown with it in the restored Jewish area of Kazimiersz. When the festival began it was criticised for being organized by non-Jews, and having mostly non-Jewish performers playing to non-Jews. Over the years the authentic Jewish component has radically increased in quantity and depth and still the same brickbats are thrown.
I know too many people who see the Krakow festival as emblematic, in a negative sense, of the renewal of Jewish culture in Europe. Most of them either recoil, whether overtly or covertly, at the idea that Jewish life in Europe can thrive once again, or they judge everything on the basis of religiosity and demography. But if they looked more closely they would see a far more complex and multifaceted picture.
The truth is that such terms as fat or thin culture are hopelessly inadequate when discussing Jewish cultural renewal in Europe. What relevance do they have, for example, for Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Stockholm, which is dedicated to the renewal of European Jewish culture? Now going into its 10th year, Paideia takes 25 students from across Europe and even beyond, educated already to university level or above, and radically transforms their level of Jewish literacy through a year of intensive study of Jewish texts using the chevruta method. There are many more applicants than places available. The quality of the students is incredibly high. The courses range from Torah to film, medieval philosophy to project management skills. The results, in terms of equipping young people with the knowledge and understanding of Jewish culture so that they can significantly enrich Jewish life in Europe, are outstanding.
Is Stockholm the place you would automatically think of as a site of thick Jewish culture? Is such an institute sustainable in a small Jewish community? Interesting questions perhaps, but meanwhile, it’s the strengthening of the diversity of Jewish culture which benefits.
Look also at a new initiative from the European Association for Jewish Culture. Called Judaica Europeana, it’s a European Commission-funded project which aims to facilitate access to a critical quantity of European Jewish cultural heritage at the level of the cultural object. It will digitise 10,500 photos, 1,500 postcards and 7,150 recordings as well as several million pages from books, newspapers, archives and press clippings. The digitised content will be available at Europeana.eu. A consortium of 13 Jewish institutions—11 in Europe and 2 in Israel—are working together to supply the material for the project.
Is this thin culture because it’s internet-based? Will its universal availability dilute its Jewish significance? Just to ask these questions is almost to own up to an ignorance of the significance of the internet today for the transmission of Jewish culture across the range of Jewish denominations and cultural initiatives.
Even the smallest Jewish artefact can open up a Jewish cultural pathway. No longer need there be rigid hurdles between what is and is not considered culturally meaningful. Debating whether the Jewish culture being renewed in Europe is thick or thin is a sterile exercise.
Antony Lerman is the former Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research in London